The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday November 1, 2011
Once again, the venerable old paperclip of a track nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains gave us an absolute gem of a race. After the fiasco that plate racing has become last weekend at Talladega, it was just great to get back to the true roots of the sport and see how racing should be – short track style. It just doesn’t go out of fashion, gentle readers! Now, just three races remain before we crown our first new champion since what seems like the 1970s and then, it’s the interminable, frigid winter break before engines rev up once again at the start of Speedweeks in February.
But while Carl Edwards and Stewart fight for that title, Martinsville’s mayhem was a reminder that for many, the “frigid winter” can’t come soon enough. So with the 2011 season in the final stages, here are six drivers who are probably already looking forward to getting back on the track next year:
I believe George Bush, Jr. was still the president when Kahne signed his contract to drive for Rick Hendrick: it does seem that long ago. And after essentially a lost year at Red Bull Racing (6 top 5’s and 12 top 10’s) you can be sure that Kahne is absolutely itching to get into primo equipment. Well, that’s exactly what the number 5 car will be next year. With his longtime head wrench Kenny Francis coming with, expect the No. 5 car to have a great year in 2012 — probably right from the get-go. Anything less than a spot in the Chase will be a disappointment, and don’t expect the pressures of this promotion to get to Kahne, either. The kid might not look old enough for an actual driving license, but he sure knows how to get the best from his car.
After winning three massive races in 2010 (Daytona 500, The Brickyard and the Charlotte Chase race), McMurray has faded back into the pack and then some in 2011. With just two top 5’s (Indianapolis 4th, Bristol Night race 5th), two additional top-10 runs and an average finish of 22.2, this has not been the year McMurray was hoping for as he built on a successful – but non-Chase making – 2010 season. In fact, such has been his mediocrity, several weeks of racing passed this year without him so much as the No. 1 car getting a mention. Sunday afternoon’s tiff with Brian Vickers, who right now must be the least popular driver in the garage after hitting everything but the pace car (sorry for the clichéd line), ended up with McMurray exacting some of the most ineffectual revenge I’ve ever seen. Kind of summed up the year for Jamie, right? Roll on, 2012, he’s no doubt thinking…
I’m not ashamed to say I tipped Joey Logano to make the Chase this year. Coming off a second full year at the top echelon of NASCAR racing which included seven top 5’s — four in the final ten races — and 16 top 10’s, Logano looked ready to (ahem) muscle his way into Chase contention and start living up to all the early hype that surrounded his arrival into the Cup Series. Sadly, for Logano, it’s as if this season never really began. Four top 5’s and six top 10’s in great equipment, not to mention the nous and support of one of the savviest crew chiefs in the entire garage is just not good enough. Given the way his season has gone, Logano should consider himself fortunate Carl Edwards decided to stay at Roush Fenway Racing rather than picking up the offer from JGR. Logano is just 21 years of age, so there is time for him to bounce back – just not as much as there was before. One more subpar season at the Cup level could see Sliced Bread getting kicked out of a ride.
Poor Biff – it’s really not been much of a season, has it? Statistically speaking – barring a late run of great results – 2011 will be Biffle’s worst season in his nine years as a full-time Cup driver. What makes this one even more head-scratching is the form of his teammates, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, both of whom have challenged all season long. A crew chief swap – Matt Puccia replaced Greg Erwin – at the midpoint of the season played a factor in his inconsistency, but even the biggest Biffle fan would struggle to take anything positive out of a year where fuel follies, pit road problems and handling woes have created inconsistency. All that being said, Biffle is fully sponsored for 2012 (remember, Matt Kenseth has no funding) which is a huge plus in a NASCAR world where money is running scarce. So he will no doubt hope that 2011 was an aberration, hanging on to his support and that 2012 will see normal service resumed.
In the interests of full disclosure, I really like David Reutimann. He’s not my chosen “favorite” driver but I always hope he runs well and that’s something he definitively has not done this year. Like Biffle, Reutimann is set for his worst ever full season – by the numbers – with just a second-place effort at Kentucky and a ninth-place run at Charlotte in May the only top-10 runs he’s had all year. In addition, Reutimann has led a paltry eight laps – seven of which came at Kentucky, and has just sixteen lead-lap finishes in 33 starts. In short, it’s been a year to forget for an operation that took a clear step back in 2011. Still, with perennial Chase contender Clint Bowyer joining the MWR operation, it’s not all bad news. ““We’re adding cars and sponsors, and a lot of teams haven’t been as fortunate,” said Reutimann. “It should help on the competition side, and it never hurts to have teammates out there.” For Reut’s sake, let’s hope he’s right and that he can parlay this off-track optimism into a solid on-track 2012 and at the least, a run at the Chase field.
There are many words you can use to describe Denny Hamlin’s season and with the exception of the lone win at Michigan, most of them would be extremely bad. Simply put, Hamlin has suffered through a calamitous year (by his own very high standards; after all, it’s all relative). After such a strong performance in 2010, running with – and above – the champion Johnson all the way to the final race, 2011 was always likely to be a letdown year. And so it’s proved. Still, Hamlin will probably finish tenth and get to speak at the banquet, which will be little more than scant consolation but more than three-quarters of the drivers in the starting field each week will get to accomplish. It’s been ugly, sure, but expect Hamlin to bounce back strong in 2012, regardless of any possible changes at JGR. He’s just too good a wheelman not to bounce back.
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