Danny Peters · Tuesday September 28, 2010
Two down, eight to go. Like it or not, the Chase for the Sprint Cup is now in full swing and whilst, for a second straight time this year, the race at the home of Miles the Monster wasn’t exactly, well… monstrous, a number of key themes still emerged, one that might just define exactly who will hoist the sterling silver trophy come the checkered flag at Homestead in less than two months. As we stand, headed to Kansas for race number three of ten this Sunday afternoon, seven drivers are within 83 markers of points leader Denny Hamlin, who just about emerged unscathed from what could have been a disastrous weekend through much of his own making. But we’ll get to his salvageable Sunday in a minute; instead, let’s start with the man who is, without question, the biggest threat of them all:
ONE: Ominous Signs as the Drive for Five Heats Up…
Maximum Points Day. They’re three words that are all but guaranteed to strike fear into the Chase combatants, especially when they’re pertaining to another dominant Double J performance. Sunday at Dover marked his 53rd win in 319 races – a remarkable clip in this age of increased competition, along with his NASCAR best 19th Chase victory in just 62 career playoff starts. That’s an astonishing winning percentage of 30.6 in the postseason, compared to a rate of 17% for all his races combined – not too shabby in its own right.
So Sunday’s trip to the Monster Mile was always likely to be a good day for the champion, who’s now won three of the last four Dover races, led 1,622 career laps there, and hasn’t finished lower than 16th since 2004. Denny Hamlin said after the checkers what every one of his rivals was thinking heading in, admitting Sunday night he not just anticipated but expected to lose ground to the No. 48. But don’t expect this team to leave the Monster Mile and be a one-hit wonder. Here’s the bad news for the rest of the field: The Champ’s pretty good at Kansas (8 starts, 1 win, 6 top-10’s, average finish of 10.2) and he’s practically unbeatable at Auto Club Speedway (15 starts, 5 wins [4 of the last 6 races], average finish of 5.5). With the way Johnson rattles off victories, don’t be surprised to see him dominate the next two weeks, especially considering the level of focus we saw from both him, Chad Knaus, and everyone surrounding the program this weekend. While other drivers stole the limelight, this team calmly went about its business, letting distractions fall elsewhere while beating their challengers into submission.
Considering the 57-point chunk he took out of the points in just one race, that type of performance from Johnson every week is a sobering thought. So for all the much-vaunted “closer than ever” Chase conversations there have been, it could be all over much quicker than we think. Scary stuff for the rest of the field, that’s for sure.
TWO: A Solid top-10 End to a Chaotic Weekend for Denny Hamlin
Whatever happens to Denny Hamlin this season, the simple truth is he’s had a really good year. He overcame an ACL surgery on his knee that I can say firsthand is all kinds of terrible, and he lived up to his “preseason favorite not named Johnson” billing by winning six of the 26 regular season races and starting the Chase atop the points.
But this weekend’s snafu, following comments about Bowyer and RCR, was just completely unnecessary. It was a mess entirely of his own making, and despite gaining some credit for saying what he thinks, the fact was Hamlin should have left it well alone. Distractions can wreck a driver’s Chase chances just like that, and the fifth-year veteran should remember that the next time he sits in front of a bank of microphones.
Despite it all, you do have to give the man credit; he got through his statistically worst track with the points lead intact and a terrific (for him at Dover) ninth-place finish. It’s just a shame that performance was tempered by the emergence of a rival (Harvick) and some unwanted press that could come back to bite him down the stretch. Two races in, there’s no doubt this No. 11 team is for real, but they need to be careful from here on out. A repeat of the shenanigans we saw this past weekend will likely cost Hamlin big time.
THREE: Who’s Done Already?
In the last month or so, rumors are that NASCAR has been floating a few format-related playoff trial balloons for 2011. The plan is, apparently, to introduce a system which includes more drivers in the initial Chase field, and then eliminates the lowest-ranked participants at specific points throughout the playoffs itself. While the idea has merit, I can’t help but feel that it’s unnecessary, and here’s why: Drivers will eliminate themselves from contention without any assistance. Take Clint Bowyer, for example. If his points deduction stands up (and does anyone honestly think the decision will be reversed?) he is, for all intents and purposes, done at 235 points behind. And he’s not the only one. Kenseth at 165 points back is another; although far from mathematically eliminated, you have to feel he isn’t making a sustained run at the title. Tony Stewart, down 162 markers, and Greg Biffle, 140 points back, are also in big trouble after showing little if any signs of life at the Monster Mile. Expect by the time we roll out of Auto Club Speedway, then, post-race number four, at least half the field will be all but eliminated from realistic contention if these patterns continue.
FOUR: “Quiet” Kyle Right in the Mix…
There’s always a lot of white noise around Kyle Busch. But here’s the thing, folks; if you’re looking for a dark horse, he might very well be the man. Let’s review his recent form: He picked up the win (and the triple) at Thunder Valley, then ran fifth at Atlanta and second at Richmond behind his teammate Denny Hamlin to wrap up the regular season. Then, last weekend, he finished a respectable ninth, and on Sunday he followed that up with a sixth-place finish at the Monster Mile. 2010 marks the fourth time in five years Kyle has made the Chase — he missed out last year by a measly eight points to Brian Vickers -– but this might just be the first time he has the knowledge, the speed, the maturity, the experience, and the crew to get it done. That “total package” has already paid major dividends, just the second time he’s been within 100 points after race two (the other was in 2007, when he was halfway out the door at Hendrick, headed to Gibbs and never considered a serious contender). Even more importantly, it’s a Kyle Busch who has learned how to run a “bad” (and that’s a relative term) car to a solid finish in 2010, with Dover the latest example: a bout with the outside wall left him fading but resilient in fighting for sixth. Whereas in years past, he might have spontaneously combusted and fired a string of expletives across his radio, this year you just get the sense that he has found a streak, albeit a smallish one, of maturity that can serve him extremely well paired with new crew chief Dave Rogers. Don’t forget, either, that the last time he made the Chase (after an eight-win, points leading regular season) he had his worst playoff performance of the four, finishing 34th and then dead last in the first two races to put himself in an insurmountable hole. Considering 2010 is already about a million times more rosy, you better watch him.
FIVE: Tough Luck, But Reasons to be Cheerful for A.J. Allmendinger
It’s all about the Chase at the moment, so it was good to see a non-Chaser get up on the wheel and lead some laps at Dover. And just to underline how solid a performance it was from A.J. Allmendinger, he led 100 more laps (143 in total) than he had throughout his entire 107-race career at the Sprint Cup level up to that point. It was a watershed moment for the King, as well, whose No. 43 car hadn’t led that many laps in one race since Bobby Hamilton paced the field for 331 at Martinsville all the way back in September, 1996. As he noted post-race, “No wonder Jimmie is smiling so much. It’s actually a lot of fun to lead.” Unfortunately for A.J., an early pit stop on Lap 172, thanks to a deflating tire, paired with an ill-timed caution saw him slip out of contention. It took the final 200 laps or so just for him to work his way back on the lead lap and climb up to 10th, hampered by long green-flag stretches which made it near-impossible to earn back a large chunk of his track position.
On another day, it could have been different, but Sunday’s strong performance gave A.J. a little teaser of what it’s like to run up front consistently. I, for one, hope to see that more often from the likable wheelman of the “winningest” number in NASCAR history.
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