The Frontstretch: What Might Have Been For Hamlin, What Never Was For Mears, And What Will Never Be For Johnson by Danny Peters -- Tuesday October 27, 2009

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What Might Have Been For Hamlin, What Never Was For Mears, And What Will Never Be For Johnson

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday October 27, 2009


The last time we raced at Martinsville, it was the sixth race of a then nascent 2009 season. Hope still sprung eternal back then: Four-time champion Jeff Gordon led the points by some 89 markers; Stewart-Haas Racing was still a fledgling operation of which not much was expected, and Mark Martin had just recorded back-to-back top 10s after two 40th place runs and another 31st place effort in the first five races, whereas Kevin Harvick — who has suffered through the sort of year not even his worst enemy would wish on him — was in 10th place in the standings.

But fast forward some seven months to last Sunday’s return to the track in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and there’s really three words that sum up where we are right now: Jimmie flipping Johnson. As of today, Jimmie has a 118-point lead over evergreen HMS teammate Mark Martin, and he’s well on his way to an unprecedented fourth straight crown. At least, though, he didn’t make it four for six this past weekend, and that’s where I’ll start today:


A hometown win restored some luster to Denny Hamlin’s season, but after a pair of horrendous finishes at Auto Club Speedway (driver error) and Charlotte (engine expiration), taking the checkers at the famed old paper clip was just the tonic a struggling No. 11 team needed. Of course, it’s a case of far too little, far too late as the team of the senior Joe Gibbs racer sits a huge 350 some points out of first place, and the only way Hamlin can make that up is if he kidnaps Chad Knaus for the next month. So with another chance at the title slipping by the wayside, the only thing left to do for the driver of the FedEx Camry is to go out and challenge for wins — and that’s exactly what he did at Martinsville, a track he knows oh so very well from his late model days. Hamlin was the in-race reporter for the afternoon, and he made a telling comment earlier in the broadcast about how once a driver figures out a feel for a track and turns some fast laps, that “feel” (or technically setup, if you prefer) is much easier to find next time. Clearly, Hamlin found that feel Sunday, leading the last 138 laps on his way to a Virginia double (he also won the Richmond race back in September.)

Tony Stewart has had a solid Chase with a win at Kansas, but solid isn’t good enough when competing against Jimmie Johnson.


After an unexpected and brilliant regular season, the Chase has not been particularly kind to Tony Stewart (his win at Kansas notwithstanding.) It’s not that Stewart has raced poorly, especially when you consider he has an average finish of 8.5 and a worst run of 14th in the six Chase races to date, but he still sits some 192 points of the Champion-elect Jimmie Johnson and barring a calamity for the No. 48 (which, let’s not forget, could still happen this weekend on the high banks at ‘Dega) the sport’s newest owner/driver looks like he’ll have to settle with a top 5 overall finish. Now, I’d imagine if you went back and asked Tony if that would be a successful season before the green flag at the Daytona 500, he’d have taken it in a nanosecond. But given how well and how consistently he ran over the first 26 races (and the fact that he still retains an 85-point lead in the “traditional” standings) you can’t help but wonder if at some point this winter, Smoke might just sit down and wonder what could have been in 2009. That being said, it’s onward and upward for the fledgling Stewart-Haas team as we look toward 2010.


This past week, a local Alabama medicine man by the name of Robert Thrower conducted an ancient ceremony, using a bowl filled with tobacco, red cedar, everlasting (rabbit tobacco) and wild sage at the 2.66-mile long circuit, the intention of which was to restore balance to the land surrounding the famed superspeedway, which, as you probably know, has a well-earned reputation for being cursed. Given the litany of disasters and freak occurrences that have surrounded the track, and those who race on the unforgiving hard banks, it is to be hoped that the ceremony does indeed restore some much needed equilibrium as this Sunday’s race, more than perhaps any other race in the brief history of the Chase, could be a game changer for both the champion elect and its presumptive challengers. Curse or not, Talladega should be compelling viewing, and that’s fantastic given the paucity of quality in so many races this year.


After a 7th place finish at Charlotte, the announcers made the point during Sunday’s race broadcast that there was much excitement swirling around the No. 07 team. Well, color me confused, but I don’t really get it. Just look in the dictionary for a definition of NASCAR mediocrity, and you’ll see a picture of Casey Mears. In 248 races he’s won once (and that was a fuel mileage gamble,) had 11 further top 5s and another 45 top 10 runs. And he’s led just 389 of the 68,927 laps he’s run at Sprint Cup level. For those of you of a mathematical persuasion, that’s 0.006% (and I’m rounding up). It’s not like he hasn’t had the equipment, either (just look how well Martin has run in the No. 5 car). Yes, it’s fair to say the whole RCR team has pushed water up a hill all season long, and Mears is already on his third new crew chief of the season, but the truth is he has never consistently proved he can be anything but an also-ran at the Sprint Cup level. His erstwhile sponsor Jack Daniels, who will exit the sport at the end of the season, seems to agree. I’m not saying that is all Mears’ fault… but at some point, his talent has gotta be a factor. One final point: If Casey didn’t have such a famous last name, would he be even remotely near top-level Cup equipment? I think not.


I always feel a twinge of guilt when I lay into the No. 48, but I’ve read too many articles recently from Johnson apologists telling me I should be enjoying and lauding the efforts of the back-to-back-to-back Champ and how his dominance is not boring. Well, I’m sorry… but it is. I’m generally very optimistic toward our beloved sport, but the soul-crushing dominance of double J is not, repeat not, going to attract new fans. In fact, it’s going to do the opposite. In a sport where winning is a rare commodity, Johnson has made it look scary easy, and that just isn’t good. I don’t doubt his brilliance or the evil genius of Chad Knaus, it just makes me want to turn off the television every time Johnson takes the lead — and I can bet you that’s what thousands did on Sunday before Hamlin wrested the lead away and drove off for his second victory at Martinsville. Given the parlous state of NASCAR this year, the last thing we need is Johnson snoozing his way to the title. If he wins, well, he does deserve it. But the sad thing is outside of the family, friends, and fans of the 48 no one else is going to be watching, and it’s only going to hurt the long-term prognosis for a sport that is already lurching from one crisis to the next.

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10/27/2009 07:08 AM

Thank you for the article. While, I like you, think JJ probably deserves this Championship…I also, like you, am bored to tears with the racing. Is this JJ’s fault? If it were Junior (whom I’m not a big fan of) or Stewart or Gordon..or even Kyle winning for the 4th would probably be more exciting…. Sorry..but there is just something ho hum about JJ..and…there’s that old saying…“be careful what you wish for you just might get it” and to me that is what has happened with Chad Knaus. He continued to “push the envelope” and was caught on the wrong side of NASCAR with fines and penalties..and for alot of fans that will always overshadow his accomplishments. I will watch Dega this weekend…it’s always an exciting race..but doubt I will do much more then channel surfing for the final races. Also..speaking of Stewart..there was always a question of will Hendrick still give Stewart Haas the same quality engines when the Chase started…a few weeks before the Chase it seemed the cars just didn’t have the power they once had..they don’t seem to get off the line as quick as they once were…. don’t know..just wondering did Hendrick “up” their Chase chances by giving Stewart Haas the “second tier” engines?????

10/27/2009 09:32 AM

LOL,It’s NOT Jimmie Johnson’s fault,He did not come up with the hare brained chase idea.NASCAR did that to themselves.That said,GO Jimmie!!

10/27/2009 10:20 AM

I bet (hope) that Nascar reevaluates it’s current Chase points format and changes it to:

1. points awarded to only to the Chase contenders finishing in the top ten of a Chase race, e.g.

01 = 10
02 = 8
03 = 7
04 = 6
05 = 5
04 = 4
03 = 3
02 = 2
01 = 1

If, say everybody’s favorite dominator Jimmy Johnson wins and Montoya finshes 5th, and Hamlin finishes 11th, then Johnson gets 10 points, Montoya gets 5, and hamlin gets zero. If the next week only Montoya finishes in the Chase points (say 2nd) then he gets points and nobody else does.

It would tighten the points, make drivers try to race and finish high and wouldn’t put anyone out of the Chase until deep into the ending races.

2. Allow a “Bounty” for non-Chasers for racers who win races, extra money and other incentives, say something like a guaranteed starting sport for the next season. Which leads me to:

3. Allow only race winners and the top ten (twelve) in the Chase be guaranteed spots for the next year races, and…

4. Revamp the points system so that only points go to the top twenty finishes in any one race (with the finishers from 20th on back getting the same points from 21st through 30th, then the next group gets the minimum points.

And in the Chase races you could always do an inverted start, putting all the Chasers at the back of the field with the leader starting dead last, etc.

Make it interesting, y’know?

Carl D.
10/27/2009 11:04 AM

It’s not Jimmie’s bland personality or Chad’s rep as a cheater that makes the 48 team’s dominance so unbearable for me, it’s the fact that big money is essentially determining the championship. When how well a driver does on the track is totally the result of how much money his car owner has to spend, it makes it difficult to care about a team’s accomplishments. And I’d feel the same way if any of the Roush drivers were going for a fourth straight championship.

10/27/2009 11:16 AM

Hey, JJ: How about this for a thought—do away with the stupid chase, and let standard points system determine the championship. It worked for years.

10/27/2009 12:14 PM

Great article! I believe there is more to it then just Jimmie’s bland, Ho-hum personality. It’s also the fact he had not had a single stretch of bad luck since he has been in the sport. All drivers have had months or a season long stretch of mediocrity, or bad luck. Jimmie has never had that. All he has experenced his entire career, is amazing luck and top of the heap running race cars. He has had bad races in a season, but they are far apart and very rare. He has never had to deal with an off season, or a run of bad luck, so he is Ho-hum and boring talking about his career and himself. Maybe he is that way, because he has never had to deal with bad luck. If he could just experince some of the same bad luck his teammatea Dale Jr, or Jeff always seem to have, I’m sure his personality would change.

10/27/2009 01:01 PM

I’m so sick of effin’ jimmmie johnson and so is everyone else!!!!!! Hopefully, he goes straight into the wall on the first lap this sunday!

10/27/2009 01:19 PM

I agree with carl d. The gap between the rich and the poor has gotten to the point where you know whose going to be in the top ten and whose going to be out to lunch. Money talks. It might as well be called the Hendricks cup. When I switch to the race (which is not very often nowdays) and see Johnson in front of a follow the leader parade, I switch back to what I was watching. Football. Also in football the other 20 teams are not on the field. Same with other sports. How many start and park teams will there be next year. nas$car will be lucky to have enough cars to fill the field. I’ve really tried to stay interested this year, but I, like a lot of other long time fans, have started to turn away. Also, I’m tired of beating a dead horse and also, like a lot of other long time fans, seeing nothing change. Just a few knee-jerk reactions. I’m just sad and tired for the sport.

10/27/2009 01:31 PM

One last thing. Don’t the empty seats at the races every week-end tell nas$crap anything? Something has to change and soon. And if that means starting another racing league, so be it. Like maybe a stock car racing series.

Chris R
10/27/2009 02:17 PM

You know, I’m not a fan of the 48 bunch. You have to admit though that they have done a good job of exploiting the chase format. I don’t really think it’s that they are so much better than the other teams, just that they’ve put in a lot of time concentrating on the chase races. I’m not really sure what the cure should be. The guys on the 48 team have just put the effort in where it needs to be for the final 10 races. Sure it’s boring. I also find it annoying to see the 48 finish so good every week. It won’t last, and we can take comfort in that. The proof is right there at Hendrick. Remember how annoyed a lot of fans got in the 90’s when Jeff Gordon was winning so often? I guess it’s just Johnsons turn to annoy the fans.

10/27/2009 05:57 PM

Not only does Jimmie winning turn off people, but chevy winning 2/3rds of the races so often also turns off people.

10/27/2009 09:21 PM

I applaud Chad and JJ for finding the winning formula with the new system. Maybe another reason for the lack of interest in Johnson winning his ‘4th straight title’ is that many of the fans who have been watching Nascar for more than 5 years just don’t believe that winning 4 titles because of a 10 race playoff is as compelling as having to do so over an entire season. Definitely not the same, thus not really ‘beating’ Cale Yarborough’s record. Not even close.

10/27/2009 09:45 PM

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, JJ’s Chumpionships are as legit as a steroid fueled home run record. Do the same without Knaus and maybe I’ll become a believer, but I doubt I have to worry about that.

J Mead
10/27/2009 10:50 PM

Hendrick should put Jr. in the 48 and JJ in the 88 and see if Jr can drive for Knaus and crew. Yes, I know it will never happen but a champ 4 years in a row is bad for the sport.

11/02/2009 09:39 PM

i think midasmicah hit the nail on the head. ive also just tried to stay interested this year, but the racing has become too predictable, and the NFL is alot better now by leaps and bounds. i figured the talladega race might be an exception with it being restrictor plate and what not, but no, they managed to screw that up too, and the giants’ lopsided win over the eagles even made my eyes wider than the race did. that COT needs a list of problems a mile long fixed fast, because the safety is about all it has going for it. i guarantee all those empty seats arent just because of the economy, its because something is missing from the racing. its really sad when watching 40-17 final score NFL games proves to be better than a race, i never imagined id feel that way because it wasnt like this a few years ago; nascar was always better. but not anymore.

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