Danny Peters · Tuesday October 12, 2010
By the time they throw the checkers next Saturday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway, we’ll be halfway through the Chase. While the point standings are not as snug as they were exiting Kansas, there are still as many as five drivers with a fighting chance and judging from what we’ve seen so far, there are plenty of shenanigans still to be had over the next six weeks. But before we start thinking too far ahead, let’s recap what we saw this past Sunday at Auto Club Speedway:
ONE: What a Race That Was
As far as swan songs go — in this case, Sunday was Auto Club Speedway’s last Chase race — that was quite the 200-lap, 400-mile slugfest at a circuit that is oft and much maligned. I always like to use the estimable Matt McLaughlin, who writes the superb race recaps for this site, as a guide to the quality of the race. His take? Four “beers” out of a maximum of six, which by his, at times, severe standards is a hugely positive rating. I’d even go one further and give the race five out of a possible six, as genuinely I was on the edge of my couch for much of the afternoon watching all the three and four-wide action. Yes, the width of the track surface enables this kind of driving in a way that other tracks don’t, but wasn’t it great to see the boys very genuinely “have at it?” Credit where credit is due, as they say, because that was an unexpectedly excellent and absorbing race.
TWO: Hamlin Holds Serve
It has been a solid, if unspectacular, first four races for Denny Hamlin who has recorded finishes of second (Loudon); ninth (Dover); 12th (Kansas) and now an eighth-place run at Fontana. Hamlin qualified 34th, his worst starting spot of the entire year, then fell to the back of the field following a transmission change. In other years, it’s the type of adversity that would have left Hamlin curled up and headed to a mid-pack finish, but he charged hard right from the off, made up the spots, and had the race ended under a long green-flag run he might very well have finished much higher than eighth. Some 36 points back from Johnson, Hamlin is very much still in this title tilt and with good tracks ahead for the Chesterfield, Va. native.
“All in all, it’s a decent day. Can’t be too disappointed with it, especially from where we started,” said Hamlin post-race.
If he can continue to keep a cool head, he’ll certainly have something for Johnson in the stretch run. One note of caution, though: Charlotte last year was the beginning of the end for his championship chances after an expired engine.
THREE: Horrible Day for Roush Fenway Racing
After a tough start to the year, Roush Fenway Racing looked to be on an upswing following the Biff’s win at Kansas last weekend. On Sunday, however, it was anything but as once again momentum in Cup racing proved to be nothing more than an eight-letter word.
For Greg Biffle, aiming to become the only driver to win a Championship at the Truck (2000), Nationwide (2002), and Cup level, it was a horribly frustrating premature end, not just in the race (Biffle finished 41st after his engine expired on lap 40) but also for his season. Now some 215 points back from the Jimmie-bot, Biff needs the sort of miracle not seen since biblical times and that’s just not going to happen. It wasn’t much better for Carl Edwards, who finished 35th, some 13 laps off the pace, after a string of issues with his Aflac Fusion that can all be tied to some sort of faulty distributor. At 162 points back, his season also looks all but done and dusted. The third member of the RFR Chase trio, Matt Kenseth, led 29 laps and ran up front until late-race engine issues saw him drop back through the field like the proverbial stone. He finished 30th, the final car on the lead lap and one of four Roush Fenway cars to experience trouble (David Ragan also wrecked Kurt Busch down the stretch). At 241 points behind, Kenseth, like his fellow Roush Fenway Racers, is another who saw his chances at a second title cooked in the California sun.
FOUR: Will the Fuel Gamble at Loudon be Smoke’s Downfall?
In the first race of the 2010 Chase, Tony Stewart (and team) gambled on fuel mileage in the hope of starting out the playoffs with a maximum points day. Coming to the white flag, it was looking peachy with Smoke set to eke out the result he so desired. As you know, it wasn’t to be, and Stewart coasted home 24th, handing the win to Bowyer in a 94-point swing that could prove costly in the end. For even after getting buoyed by his win at Auto Club Speedway, the sophomore owner/driver is still some 107 points out of first place and you can’t help but feel when it’s all said and done, rolling the dice in race number one might just be a key reason Stewart fails to win a third Championship. Of course, with the two-time title winner anything really is still possible, and with Smoke out of all the drivers on the circuit that truly is the case.
But I’m just not sure Jimmie J is going to slip up that much over the last six races; as it is, Stewart has already gained some 55 points on the No. 48. How many more points will Johnson give up? Coupled with that, he needs to be all but perfect and that’s not easy: not easy at all.
FIVE: It’s Great to See the Old Man Look So Racy
Poor Mark Martin. The fates just don’t seem to be conspiring for him at all this year. After such an amazing five-win, 2009 season the man I affectionately call “The Raisin” has struggled through a trying year. So, it was fantastic to see him lead 41 laps (he’s led 101 total all year after 805 led in 2009) and contend for the win Sunday before fading a bit during the final 100 miles or so. His eventual sixth-place finish was his best since a fifth-place effort at Charlotte in race number 13 in late May. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, a Championship for Mark Martin would be the best story in the sport. It really would! Even if we’d have to listen to the so-called talking heads tell us it’s ridiculous a man into his sixth decade can win a title. It’s not going to happen this year, as we all know, but hope springs eternal for next year and if only for just a little while, it sure was good to see the No. 5 car drive to the front of the field and pace the pack.
And finally, I can’t end without mentioning the man, the myth, and the legend — David Hasselhoff — who sang the anthem before the Nationwide race with tremendous gusto. I’ll still always think of him as ’80’s TV star Michael Knight in the “so bad it’s good” show, Knight Rider, so to see him belt out the Star Spangled Banner certainly brought a smile to my face.
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