The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday July 5, 2011
There’s nothing like some on-track fourth of July fireworks to mix things up, and Saturday night’s slugfest on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway were no exception. In the course of not one, but two green-white-checkered finishes we were treated to a typically insane finish to a plate event; it’s a level of excitement we’ve come to first expect, then appreciate whether racing in Florida or at the big, bad track in Alabama.
But now, it’s time to settle in as the unpredictability of plates gives way to the grind of a summer playoff push. This weekend’s race also marks the midway point of the season, so as the chaos of Daytona dies down, with nine races to go until the Chase starts let’s delve into nine observations about the season so far, starting with this Saturday night’s race in Kentucky and running through who the title favorite appears to be at this point:
Kentucky’s Sprint Cup Debut
After hosting 11 Truck races and 10 Nationwide events (not to mention 11 IndyCar shows, too) Kentucky Speedway will finally get a shot at the “big time” of Sprint Cup competition. And within the context of a NASCAR schedule that doesn’t change all that much, it’s a big deal for the track that has been yearning to host a Sprint Cup race since it opened in 2000. With the lawsuit now in the rear-view, the 1.5-mile tri-oval with 14 degrees of banking should produce some exciting racing this weekend (the track is hosting a tripleheader) and the stands will be a sellout, 107,000 seats packed full to witness another slice of the sport’s glorious history. That’s nothing but good news for the series, especially considering their struggles with attendance in recent years.
Time For Joey Logano To Start Delivering
One driver who will be relishing a visit to Kentucky will be Joey Logano, who has won the last three straight Nationwide races there. After struggling through much of the season, a sixth-place run at Sonoma and a third-place finish at Daytona seems to have the youngster back on track at just the right time. Adding another Nationwide victory Friday, Logano is back inside the top 20 in Sprint Cup points and looks to have some positive momentum at last. A win this weekend, especially for a driver with just four top 10s on the season could be just what the doctor ordered to officially keep his ride safe at Joe Gibbs Racing.
MORE: How Joey Logano’s Future Could Be On The Line This Weekend
Redemption For Ragan
I’ll admit I’ve made a few jokes at David Ragan’s expense – not least after the debacle of the Daytona 500 but I have to say I was delighted to see him drive his way to Victory Lane last Saturday night. For a driver whose Sprint Cup future was literally in the balance (rumors are swirling about UPS being interested in Clint Bowyer) this night was a victory that might just have saved the Unadilla, Ga. resident’s top echelon NASCAR career. Ragan, now in the Wild Card position for the Chase could very well make the playoffs for the first time, making it harder for his sponsor to justify bolting somewhere else.
Junior Is Relevant, But Needs Some Positive Momentum
And while Daytona was positive for Ragan, the resident plate race guru Dale Earnhardt Junior was far from impressed after Chad Knaus’ seemingly inexplicable decision to pit so late, leaving Junior bereft of a drafting partner and a ho-hum 19th place finish. Coupled with his 41st-place disaster at Sonoma and a 21st-place effort at Michigan, it’s been a poor couple of weeks for Junior who has started to slip down the standings. Whilst he’s still in the Chase, and he’s certainly relevant this year, Junior needs to be careful his strong start doesn’t fizzle out into disappointment and lost opportunity.
EGR Has Had A Poor Season… But Hope Is Not Lost
And while I’m on the subject of disappointments, it’s not been a great year for EGR. Jamie McMurray is mired in 27th place in the standings with just two top 10s on the year and Juan Pablo Montoya is about as popular as a British T-Shirt in a fourth of July celebration. That said, the irascible Colombian is 14th in the standings and still with a great shot of making the Chase if he can finally pick up the long-awaited victory at Indianapolis (remember, he’s been the best car by a country mile these past two years at the famous old venue). If the wheelman of the No. 42 could also snag a back-to-back victory at Watkins Glen, a season of frustration just might have the silver lining of a Chase berth.
The Wild Card Is A Huge, Well, Wild Card
With the new rules around the 11th and 12th-place Chase qualifiers, one win could be absolutely huge – a fact not lost on Brad Keselowski (who still needs to claw his way into the top 20) or David Ragan, now, who sits 17th in the points. Given the number of first-time and unexpected winners this year we might see a new and hitherto unexpected driver pick up a wild card spot and that’s something that will keep things bubbling over nicely these next couple months, that’s for sure. Don’t forget, if the season ended today wily old veterans Tony Stewart (12th) and Greg Biffle (13th) would not be a part of the postseason; still winless, these drivers will have to ramp it up and steal a victory, maybe two just like these other current “young gun” wild cards to have a chance.
The Chase Is Shaping Up Nicely
And since I’m talking Chase, it’s fair to say this year’s Chase might be even more competitive than ever before. Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch all appear primed for sustained title tilts and don’t rule out Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin just yet, either. In short: we could see the best ever postseason, with a good two-thirds of the field capable of taking home the trophy. Or at least that’s a working theory…
Because The Title Still Goes Through Five-Time
It’s easy to get caught up in the pre-Chase hype (and I’m as guilty of it as any NASCAR journalist) but the truth is the title still goes through the five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson. Sure, the pit crew experiment hasn’t really paid dividends so far – despite extensive training on Saturdays with Turner Motorsports to get better – but this program is one that has proved, time and again, they can get it done when it counts. Yes, the No. 48 has not appeared as dominant as in years past, but if I was a betting man, my money would still be firmly on the champ to win an unprecedented (and frankly, given the level and intensity of the competition) a staggering sixth title in a row.
2011 Has Been Fun To Watch
So far, after a few years of up-and-down competition 2011 has certainly been an entertaining one for NASCAR. With unexpected winners (Ragan, Smith, Bayne), close finishes, some good rivalries and the new wild card wrinkle, a season that could have been a watershed moment for the sport in terms of overall popularity has proved to be both compelling and exciting in the eyes of this observer. Long may it continue, starting this Saturday night in the heartland of America with Kentucky’s Sprint Cup debut.
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