The Frontstretch: Who's Hot/Who's Not in NASCAR: Kansas/Martinsville Edition by Brett Poirier -- Monday October 22, 2012

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Who's Hot/Who's Not in NASCAR: Kansas/Martinsville Edition

Brett Poirier · Monday October 22, 2012

 

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There are moments that define championship teams and Jimmie Johnson’s crew had one of them on Sunday at Kansas. Johnson seemingly drove himself out of Cup contention when he got loose trying to race his way through the pack and backed his No. 48 hard into the outside wall.

The wreck mirrored what happened to Johnson at Charlotte in 2011 in many ways. The impact wasn’t as great this time around, but it was a similar situation where the five-time champion jumped on the gas too quickly while looking to the inside of another car. At the time, the repercussions seemed the same — he appeared to be eliminated from the hunt for the big trophy.

Except, this time around he wasn’t.

Through a series of pit stops, Johnson’s team not only made gradual improvements on the car, but also kept Johnson on the lead lap while doing massive repairs on the Lowe’s Chevrolet’s rear end. Brad Keselowski couldn’t believe it when he saw Johnson’s car after the work and neither could Rick Hendrick.

“I have never in my 30 years of racing seen anyone perform that kind of surgery and not lose a lap,” the car owner said afterward, giving kudos to crew chief Chad Knaus for some of the best handiwork of his career.

Not only did Johnson remain on the lead lap, for the remainder of the race but he drove up to ninth place — with tape holding the back-end of his car together and with a splitter that not only seemed crooked, but to be rattling around. He also didn’t lose a point in the championship to Keselowski, who finished eighth. In the end, Johnson was the one who wrecked, but Keselowski had to be the one thinking about missed opportunities, and the No. 48 team left with their defining moment to be played out at the banquet in Las Vegas.

It wasn’t just a kickass performance by the pit crew that got the No. 48 a top-10 finish; Lady Luck also played a hand in putting Johnson in the HOT seat this week.

HOT

Jimmie Johnson took his golden horseshoe back on Sunday. Johnson’s team made a tremendous effort to repair the No. 48 after Johnson’s accident, but they got some help, too from the same track that bit them. If Bobby Labonte didn’t back the No. 47 into the wall on the ensuing restart, allowing Johnson to come back in the pits again, I’m not sure Johnson would’ve had the car to climb back to the top 10. Each of the caution periods after Johnson’s accident allowed his crew to make his car that much better.

What could’ve been a disaster ended with the five-time champion scoring his fifth top 10 in six Chase races. Now, Johnson heads to Martinsville where he has won four times in eight postseason starts. That leaves Keselowski as the driver playing defense.

With all of the cameras focused on Johnson, Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer might just steal the title. If he does, don’t ask where he came from. Heading into the race at Kansas, Bowyer was tabbed as the driver on the “bubble,” the guy barely hanging on to a shot to win the championship.

In the race, Bowyer ran in the top five or right outside of it for the whole event, while Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin each ran into issues. Keselowski and Hamlin each lacked handling capable of running with Bowyer, and Johnson, well, he wrecked himself. For the second straight race, that meant Bowyer cut his deficit. Who is really hanging on here? Bowyer’s Chase finishes outside of Talladega are 10th, fourth, ninth, first and sixth. If you ask me, Denny Hamlin is in more danger of dropping out of the title hunt than Bowyer.

WARM

Matt Kenseth didn’t get the memo on Sprint Cup breakups. Kenseth was doing everything right before Talladega. His finishes dropped off a cliff once the playoffs started and he was destined to be the other driver not on stage at the banquet not named Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

That’s the way these things tend to go at the end of seasons, when teams and drivers are splitting, but as the Chase progresses, the No. 17 team has surprisingly turned it around. Kenseth led the most laps at Kansas and drove to his second victory in three races. He’s not going to win the title, but with Texas and Homestead still left on the schedule, he might go to Victory Lane again.

The media eliminated Kasey Kahne from the championship a couple of weeks ago. They somehow decided that the driver who was 28 points out of the lead entering the race (Bowyer) was the bubble driver, while it’s Kahne (35 points out) who might as well start thinking about next year. But the math doesn’t add up, especially after Kahne posted his third top five of the Chase on Sunday and cut his deficit to 30 points.

Kahne also performs very well at the tracks left on the schedule. In the spring at Martinsville, Kahne ran in the top five all race before blowing an engine. We might want to throw him back into the discussion… maybe.

COOL

Denny Hamlin is that kid you want to believe in because of all the potential he shows, but you’re hesitant to do so because occasionally he lets you down. He’s the kid that gets an “A” on his math test, but then later on in the day is caught smoking cigarettes behind the school. Hamlin’s season has been full of highs and lows and the Chase has been no different.

He knocks your socks off at New Hampshire, dominates the field and has you thinking there’s no way this guy doesn’t win the championship this year. Yet for every race like New Hampshire, there is one like Kansas where he’s either off the pace, or plays the strategy game wrong and his finish suffers. Hamlin was first at New Hampshire, second at Charlotte and eighth at Dover, but he was 16th at Chicago, 14th at Talladega and 13th at Kansas. Which Hamlin will show up at Martinsville, and will he please show up for the rest of the Chase? Should we call his mom?

Jeff Gordon’s been similar to Hamlin in many ways; both have struggled to find consistency this season. After Gordon’s stuck throttle at Chicago opened the Chase (35th), he reeled off finishes of third, second and second and it seemed the four-time champion might climb back into contention. But the No. 24 team said, “No thanks.” Gordon ran poorly all last Saturday night, slumping to 18th at Charlotte and then finished one spot behind his wounded teammate at Kansas (10th). There won’t be any fifth championship this year.

COLD

I heard a quote this week from a member of the No. 29 team, saying something along the lines of, “We’ve run better than our finishes would indicate.” Well, I’m here to break the news — no, you haven’t.

Kevin Harvick placed 11th on Sunday, which is his 17th finish between 11th and 16th place this season, if you are counting at home. He is the only Chaser yet to score a top 10 in the Chase, and if Harvick doesn’t capitalize at one of his best tracks this weekend — he won the spring race in 2011 at Martinsville — he may not crack the top 10 in any of the Chase events remaining.

Greg Biffle finally started building some momentum after a fourth-place finish at Charlotte. His momentum crashed hard in the fourth turn Sunday at Kansas. Biffle ended up 27th, his fourth finish outside of the top 10 in the six Chase races. Harvick may not crack the top 10, but he hardly ever wrecks and that is why Biffle is the guy currently sitting 11th in the standings.

It’s difficult to crack the cold section when you only make four starts a year, and it’s considered a good run if you finish 28th, six laps down, yet Danica Patrick has done it anyway. Patrick didn’t earn anyone’s respect in the Sprint Cup garage on Sunday when she attempted to wreck Landon Cassill, but instead — in the worst save in NASCAR history — destroyed her own car.

If she wants to start a beef with Cassill, whatever, but the execution from the initial tap to the attempted save was horrendous. I guess she didn’t notice how loose everyone was all race with all of the drivers spinning on their own, and that’s why she decided she had to make a right turn into Cassill, spinning herself in the process. As Cassill said on the radio afterward, the No. 1 rule of wrecking someone else is making sure you don’t wreck yourself. Epic fail.

Contact Brett Poirier

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Michael in SoCal
10/23/2012 10:49 AM
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Danica’s attempted wreck of Landon Cassill was way below Busch league. There’s no way she’s ready for a full Cup season next year. Tony’s going to be building a lot of cars for her.

DMan
10/23/2012 01:05 PM
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How about Regan Smith. He deserves at least an honorable mention in the “HOT” column. He went from 20-something to 10th in 60 laps before the engine blew 2 weeks ago and last week brought home a top-10. All done with an unfamiliar team, crew chief and car!