The Frontstretch: Two To Go: Five Points To Ponder Ahead Of The Off-Weekend by Danny Peters -- Tuesday August 25, 2009

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Two To Go: Five Points To Ponder Ahead Of The Off-Weekend

Danny Peters · Tuesday August 25, 2009


With the last of four off-weekends for the Sprint Cup Series ahead of us this weekend, here are five points to ponder ahead of the stretch run of 12 races in 12 weeks.

Just How Good is Marcos Ambrose Going to Get?

Following a tremendous third place finish at Thunder Valley, Ambrose played the humility card with great aplomb in the post race interview; talking in “pseudo-incredulous” terms about how he was shocked that someone like him could be racing (and holding his own) with the legends of the sport. Now modesty isn’t typically a trait you associate with Australian sport stars – and I must pause and laugh heartily at the Aussie cricket team who just lost the “Ashes” test series to England this past weekend; but in the case of Ambrose the whole “aww shucks, I’m just happy to be here” routine is going to get old quick.

Marcos Ambrose was playing with the big boys all night log at Bristol, and chances are that’ll be the norm before too much longer.

Running in just his first full season at NASCAR’s top echelon, Ambrose sits 17th in the points (ahead of luminaries of the sport such as Harvick and Dale Junior), collecting four top 5s and three further top 10s in 24 attempts so far. Granted, two of those top 5s came at the road courses, but finishing sixth at Talladega and then third at Bristol shows Ambrose is moving inexorably in the right direction. Signed through 2010 at JTG Daugherty Racing (who have a partnership with Michael Waltrip Racing), watch for Ambrose to make a real charge for the Chase next year provided he can improve on the intermediate circuits, which have been his Achilles heel at this nascent stage of his Sprint Cup career.

Is Denny Hamlin a Dark Horse for the Championship?

In the last couple weeks we’ve seen a different side to Denny Hamlin, and for fans of the fifth year Chesterfield, Virginia native, it couldn’t come soon enough. The way he “reuted” The Franchise out of the way at Pocono en route to an emotional victory spoke volumes about a driver who is tired of being a bridesmaid. More impressively, after a disastrous effort in qualifying – he spun out on the first lap – and an early cut tire, Hamlin drove steadily through the field all the way to a fifth place finish; a result that barring catastrophe should lock him into the Chase for a fourth straight year.

A popular pre-season pick to drop out of the elite field of 12, Hamlin has outrun his much vaunted teammate Kyle Busch, and has lived up to his billing as the senior man at Joe Gibbs Racing. Headed into the Chase in 2008, Hamlin’s confidence was soaring but a couple of bad early races (38th at Dover, 39th at Talladega) nixed his title chances before they begun.

In 2009, it might just be a different story for the wheelman of the No. 11 FedEx Camry.

Did Biffle and Newman Save Their Seasons at Thunder Valley?

As any serious fan of Sprint Cup knows, it’s all about the Chase these days (regardless of what you think of the points mechanism) and two Chase contenders, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman, did their hopes of making the field a power of good with excellent runs at Bristol Motor Speedway. After just one top 10 in the previous eight races, Newman took to the high banks knowing a good finish was imperative and he scored just that with a sixth place run. His 84-point cushion over 13th place driver Kyle Busch should stand up, barring a pair of horrible races. For Newman, who mystified most when he made the transition to SHR, making the Chase will be a huge victory – regardless of where he finally finishes.

Greg Biffle, meanwhile, has seemingly been on the bubble all year. But three top 5s, including a fourth place run Saturday night, gives him a 75-point cushion headed into the final two races before the cutoff. He’s not locked in yet by any stretch of the imagination, but a pair of solid top 15 finishes should get it done. It’s fair to say that every race in the long season is important, but as we get down to the wire, the positive effects of a strong run at this late stage are hugely magnified, and both Biffle and Newman will no doubt feel good leaving Tennessee this past weekend.

Second Rate Equipment for Stewart-Haas Racing?

When we got things underway at Daytona, no “knowledgeable” expert was tipping either Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman to make the Chase. A few short weeks into the season, it seemed the conventional wisdom couldn’t have been more wrong. Then came the rumor that come Chase time HMS weren’t going to give their “best equipment” to Stewart-Haas Racing. I have to admit I took this at face value initially, but over time it has begun to perplex me.

Firstly, if this is indeed going to be the case, wouldn’t SHR have mitigated against this possibility by keeping the chassis and engines that have run well so far this year? Secondly, how exactly do you get worse equipment? Does Mr. Hendrick and Co. suddenly start giving their satellite team engines that would struggle to power a Morris Minor? Unlikely. In short, even if this is the case (in whatever form that takes), I can’t believe that the likes of Bobby Hutchens, Darian Grubb and others haven’t already come up with a plan to circumvent this eventuality. Like Stewart “having no chance of making the Chase,” this might just be a story that withers on the vine early in the 2009 Chase. Smoke and his team have beaten the odds (and then some) all year. I don’t see that changing.

Chase Parity Despite the Perceived Hendrick Dominance?

And speaking of the Chase, did you notice that we might have some real and genuine parity based on the likely composition of the final field of 12? Last year the four “big” teams dominated, with Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress each placing three apiece in the big dance. This year, we could have up to eight different teams represented – RFR, SHR, JGR, HMS, Penske Racing, EGR, RPM, and possibly Red Bull Racing if Brian Vickers can get it done. Yes, Hendrick looks to be the team to beat, but the likes of Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne are showing that you don’t have to share a roof with Jeff, Jimmie and the ageless Mark Martin to have a shot at winning it all. That’s gotta be good, right?

That’s it for me this week. Enjoy your weekend off. Tick off some of the points on your “honey-do” lists, enjoy the late summer sunshine, see some friends, etc., because once we take the green at Atlanta there won’t be a pause until Thanksgiving.

And those, gentle readers, for those who love watching ugly cars go super fast are good, good times.

Contact Danny Peters

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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Carl D.
08/25/2009 08:00 AM

If Denny Hamlin wins the Cup championship, he needs to dedicate it to the drivers whose cars he ran over and into the wall to get there.

The fact that Juan Pablo and Carl Edwards are solidly in the chase without even one victory while Kyle Busch sits outside the top 12 with four wins embarrassing for the sport. Nascar needs to reward race winners with more points. Not only would it add some credibility to the chase, it would improve the racing.

08/25/2009 08:45 AM

Unless NASCAR awarded about 250 bonus points for each win, or stopped giving points to anyone below the top ten, adding more bonus points for winning would not improve the racing. Only a handful of cars have a shot at winning on any weekend, and no amount of guts or ‘digging deep’ is going to change that. Appreciate the sport for what it is, and how many interesting levels of points we have. To me, victory lane is the most boring part of the race.

Dans Mom
08/25/2009 09:54 AM

NASCARs Chase is based loosely upon our nations most popular sport. The NFL. And NASCAR’s regular season has become about the same thing, making the playoffs.

Each year in the NFL teams lock up playoff spots early by winning their division handly and having nothing left to play for but “Home-Field Avantage”. Since NASCAR has no such advantage, they have awarded 10 bonus points for wins. Its not that drivers don’t race for wins if they have the oppourtunity or NFL plays the like, but there has to be an incentive for those who spank the competition mightily.

As for drivers such as JPM and Cousin Carl who have no “wins” an will still make the playoffs. Every year in the NFL teams will finish with 10 or 11 wins, lose their division and miss the “wild car” spot only for the 8-8 Denver Broncos to win the AWFUL AFC West and make it in the show.

Additionally, look at NFL teams that lock their spot in the playoffs 2-3 weeks out. How often do you see Payton Manning or another star, sitting out all or most of a season closer to rest up for the playoffs? This is why most Fantasy Football playoffs end on week 16, not 17. Save it for when it counts. You can’t win the championship in week 23.

So what if some people points race untill the chase? Let’s not forget the wild card 2007 NY Giants knocking off the then undefeated Patriots. (or THE PLAY). The points system is laid out from the beggining of the season, no matter how you get in, you’re in! Then it’s up to you to win it from there.

Let’s just grab a spot on the couch an watch Jimmie Johnson make the field look the the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s! FOUR IN A ROW BABY!

Joe W.
08/25/2009 12:03 PM

Carl D. You could not be more wrong on your point about the chase. Consistancy still counts in Nascar, even with the chase. You can not win a championship by winning half the races and finishing last the other half. I only wish Juan or Carl were running second Saturday night instead of Mark Martin. They would have won the race. I love Mark but sometimes he is just not aggressive enough and if he really thinks Kyle Busch would race him or anyone else clean he is sadly mistaken.

08/25/2009 01:31 PM

There is nothing more meaningless than the Chase . Why ? Because no championship in any sport i’m aware of manipulates the outcome of every individual event leading to the championship the way Nascar does . There is a lot of merit in the idea of simply awarding the championship every year to the driver , the car owner , and the manufacturer who wins the most races .
The idiotic second rate equipment for SHR idea was dreamed up by good old Tom Bowles . Sounded dumb then , sounds just as dumb now . SHR has the better drivers , their shop and race day personel are every bit as good as Hendrick . And you’re right , SHR already has the winning cars from earlier in the year . No , the only “ second rate “ products that SHR will receive are bogus set-up info and altered test info . A person like Knaus with an often demonstrated total lack of integrity would stoop to anything .

Carl D.
08/25/2009 02:23 PM

I didn’t mean to imply consistency shouldn’t count in winning the championship. I do, however, think consistency has more impact on who makes the chase than winning does, and I don’t think that’s good for the sport. I could see a guy with a win or two and no DNF’s getting the nod over a guy who has 4 wins but also 4 DNF’s, but for a driver with NO wins to get into the chase over a guy with 4 wins seems wrong to me. Hell, even in the old pre-chase system, consistency could get you farther than race wins. The difference was that in those days, you weren’t eliminated from making a run for the championship with 10 races left to go in the season.

Joe W.
08/25/2009 03:06 PM

True Carl, but in the old days Kyle Busch is so far behind that he would have no chance of catching Tony Stewart for the championship anyway. That would be fine with me. Consistancy is what makes a Nascar Champion. That is one of the things that distiguishes it from stick and ball sports. I like that part of the system. I liked it better with no chase.

08/25/2009 06:44 PM

I have to say that I am a very infrequent NASCAR viewer, but know the sport fairly well for a layman. When I first got into it I picked the Raisin Man (as Mr. Peters calls Mark Martin) and could honestly not be happier with that decision than I am this week.

I may sound un-American here, but there’s nothing wrong with finishing in second place. I personally find it refreshing to see a man who SO BELIEVES in his principles that he is willing to let a young hothead like KB win a race he clearly could have taken the checkers in by doing the RIGHT thing instead of the thing that would lead to the best result for HIM.

Who knows…maybe this helps Kyle settle down by realizing that he will reap what he sows (and as many readers point out, the DNFs you can collect from the revenge hits on short tracks can take their toll on championship aspirations) and he starts racing a bit cleaner.

Regardless, my main point is that Mark deserves all the praise he’s gotten in the mainstream media for playing it the right way.

GO 5!!!!!

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