Brett Poirier · Monday October 1, 2012
How perfect was Sunday’s ending for Dodge? The company announced over the summer that it wouldn’t back Cup Series teams in 2013, although they left the door open for a future return. Well, the manufacturer may be leaving the sport, but Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing are making sure the automaker goes out in style.
At Dover, Keselowski was going to finish fourth or fifth at best, but because of the great fuel mileage he gets — an advantage he’s had all season — Keselowski drove around the cars conserving fuel in his Dodge and drove to a second victory in three races in the Chase. Now, the rest of the garage is asking, “How do we get one of these Dodge engines?”
Even if Keselowski falls short in his quest for a championship, what a way for his manufacturer to leave — with everyone wanting more. At this point, even owner Roger Penske himself might be rethinking a move to the Blue Oval in 2013. Keselowski (five) has more wins this season than all of Ford’s current drivers combined (four), and while the Penske Dodges are making good power and getting excellent fuel mileage, the Fords lack that mileage and seem sluggish as of late.
The stat line tells the story of why Brad Keselowski is the hottest driver in Sprint Cup, with three wins, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s in the last 13 races. The No. 2 team finds a different way to get it done each week, but they continue to come up clutch. At Chicago, Keselowski out-dueled Johnson in the final stint and drove to a win. At New Hampshire, Paul Wolfe made a two-tire call late in the race when everyone was taking four to give Keselowski track position he held on to (sixth). At Dover, Wolfe put a setup in Keselowski’s car that could keep him toward the front and the No. 2 once again won the fuel strategy game.
Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are stealing the headlines, but Jimmie Johnson is tied for his best start ever in the Chase. Johnson also started with three consecutive top 5s in 2008 and he ran away with the title. To sum up his Chase so far: Johnson led the most laps at Chicago before Keselowski took the lead late, finished second to Hamlin at New Hampshire and was in line for a win if fuel strategy didn’t come into play at Dover.
Johnson will have to overcome his biggest hurdle, though this weekend at Talladega. He’s had about as much luck at superspeedways as Kyle Busch has had anywhere else, wrecking in all three restrictor plate events. The No. 48 has yet to finish a superspeedway race this season, and 0-for-4 would put a wrench in those plans for title number six.
Denny Hamlin wasn’t all that pleased with coming home eighth on Sunday after running in the top three for most of the race. However, it could have been worse. For example, Tony Stewart, who entered in a similar spot in the standings, finished three laps down in 20th and saw title hopes potentially evaporate. Hamlin saw the Monster Mile as his weakness in the final 10 races. If eighth is going to be his result, registered at his worst track, the rest of the garage is in trouble.
Much like Hamlin, Clint Bowyer didn’t get the finish he deserved because of a late-race pit stop for fuel. Bowyer still came through with his eighth top 10 in the last nine races, though to continue his first-year success driving the No. 15 Toyota. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has shown speed at every type of track, and has also shown that he isn’t afraid of big moments. While half of the Chase field essentially drove themselves out of contention Sunday, Bowyer kept himself in the hunt. He is only 25 points out the lead, and statistically no one is better at bringing home solid finishes at Talladega (3.4 average finish in his last five starts there).
I blasted Joey Logano for his poor performance (30th) at Richmond with a shot in the Chase on the line. I expected Logano, who is in a “lame-duck” situation much like Matt Kenseth, to run more like Kenseth and collapse down the final stretch. Instead, he’s performed more like a driver worthy of being in the Chase. Logano (10th) scored his third consecutive top-10 result on Sunday. How rare is that? It is only the second time he’s put together three straight top 10s since joining Gibbs at the Cup level. And for his efforts, he’ll be shown the door at the end of the season… what a great effort by a team that knows they won’t stay together in 2013.
On paper, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s numbers aren’t all that bad so far in the Chase. Eighth, 13th and 11th would be respectable results in the regular season, but when you look at the drivers he is up against in the playoffs, those finishes just aren’t good enough.
Junior is already 39 points out of the lead, and he isn’t capable of reeling off a number of victories to climb back in it. Not on his current Michael Waltrip-like streak of winning one of what seems like 700 races, anyway. If he doesn’t win the race at Talladega while several of the top Chasers run into problems, Junior’s championship hopes are over.
Something has happened in the Ford camp that has negatively affected all of the teams involved. No one has paid the price more than Greg Biffle, who was Ford’s one real shot at a title this season. Stick in a fork in him, he’s done. Finishes of 13th, 18th and 16th might be respectable for BK Racing, but they aren’t winning Cup titles anytime soon – RFR should be. It hasn’t just been Biffle that has fallen off, though. Matt Kenseth is running worse than ever and Marcos Ambrose, who had top 5s in three of the four races heading into the Chase, has been off the pace since. Get it together, Ford.
Dating back to Watkins Glen in 2011, Kyle Busch has led the most laps in seven races, including 302 at Dover on Sunday. Busch combined for 829 laps led in those events… and doesn’t have a single win to show for it.
Busch had a car capable of winning for a second straight week at Dover. An engine problem did him in at New Hampshire and it was fuel mileage that cost him this time around. After a miserable summer, the No. 18 team has shown some strength this fall. However, the season might have changed, but it is clear Busch’s luck hasn’t.
I eliminated Matt Kenseth from Chase contention before it even started. As I wrote last week, the odds were just stacked against him being in a lame-duck situation. Now that he is 72 points out of the lead after three races, it should be pretty clear to everyone else that his championship run is over, too.
Kenseth had two career victories at Dover and finishes of first, fifth and third at the 1-mile track heading into Sunday. On Sunday, he was 35th. He showed about as much speed in practice as Danica Patrick and ran poorly in the race before crashing. The No. 17 team could do no wrong in the regular season, but have fallen apart like one of Kyle Busch’s motors in the playoffs.
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