Danny Peters · Monday August 27, 2012
Just two races remain before we hit the Chase cut off point for 2012 and the elite field of a dozen is set. With a trip to the high banked, high speed Atlanta Motor Speedway and a second visit scheduled to that gem of a three-quarter mile short track – Richmond International Raceway – we’re sure to see a fair proportion of hijinks as we navigate the final two races of NASCAR’s regular season. But before we look ahead, in this latest edition of Five Points to Ponder, I want to give a nod to Saturday night’s spectacular at Bristol.
ONE: The Thunder is back at NASCAR’s Coliseum
For many a year Bristol—and particularly the night race—was the race to see on the arduous NASCAR schedule. Some likened a ticket at Thunder Valley to being harder to snag than the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. That was perhaps a small slice of hyperbole, but what was indisputable is that for over 50 races the 160,000 half-mile bullring sold every ticket there was to be had.
Then came the 2007 repave which relegated Bristol from being a “must see, can’t miss” race to just another stop on the circuit. As the crowds dwindled to barely half the advertised attendance, Bruton Smith realized something had to change. So change things he did. Saturday night might not have seen an exact return to the much beloved pre-2007 repave, but after the frankly tepid races we’ve seen in the past few years it was a hugely welcome change — unless perhaps you’re a Brad Keselowski fan.
The win for Denny Hamlin was number 20 for the driver and a record 200th victory for the famed No. 11 car, two ahead of the iconic No. 43 machine. As impressive as the win was for the Virginia native, the milestone number for the eleven machine is really quite something.
TWO: Smoke vs. Kenseth
It was the helmet toss heard around the world, making headlines as far away as Australia and very much NASCAR’s signature moment of the season. If only Danica had done likewise rather than lamely waving a finger at Regan Smith (wow, I’m sure that shook Regan up something awful.)
Stewart’s post-race comments certainly made for interesting reading. “We weren’t that great of a race car. But we were definitely faster than that after that restart,” said Stewart. “I checked-up twice to not run over him (Kenseth) and I learned my lesson there; I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now ‘til the end of the year, every chance I’ve got.”
It’s ironic that for a guy like Kenseth, who some label as a vanilla type of driver, he sure does prompt some controversy. His 2003 championship, they say, led to the introduction of the Chase and now the on-track action (looked like one of them racing deals to this observer) might just have repercussions deep into this Chase. With Kenseth’s 2013 home potentially being announced at Atlanta, this is certainly not the way he hoped to make headlines. Watch this space; there’s plenty more to come.
And while I’m talking about wild things…
THREE: Wildness in the Wild Card
We still have much to decide as far as the final two wild card chase berths go. Kasey Kahne (11th place, -16 points, two wins) looks to be in pole position for one of the spots, but the second spot is very much still up for grabs. Stewart’s three wins mean he would be guaranteed a spot should he continue his precipitous slide down the rankings. But assuming he can run well enough these next two weeks, a whole slew of others could yet claim that spot.
Edwards is still in with a chance as are the other one-race win drivers in the top 20 (but outside the top 10) namely: Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. And even wilder, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard or Jeff Burton (who round out the top 20) could win two in a row and snag the unlikeliest of wild cards. Point being, there’s still everything to play for and expect some of the names above to take huge risks these next two weeks and that will have implications up and down the field.
FOUR: Edwards Needs a Win Like No One’s Business
Poor old Cousin Carl—we can’t really call him Concrete Carl anymore given his record on those surfaces of late—as that elusive win slipped away from him once again on Saturday night. Yes, he was gambling on old tires and fuel, but we’ve seen that work out well enough before for others. Not so for Edwards who has just two top-5 finishes all year (he had 19 in 2011), eleven top-10’s and one pole.
New crew chief Chad Norris hasn’t fared much better than the previous long-time incumbent of head wrench duties on the No. 99 Ford Fusion since he took over at Indianapolis. All the signs currently point to Carl missing the Chase unless something miraculous happens these next two weeks. As Tony Stewart showed in the Chase in 2011, that can happen but Smoke is a super rare breed. Looking on the bright side, Carl has still made over $3.5 million on the year and he has had two wins at Atlanta (including a thrilling first victory in 2005.)
Landing that wild card spot could happen, but even if it does and somehow Edwards makes the Chase, his current form would suggest he’s only there to make up the numbers.
FIVE: Next up, Hot-Lanta
I still can’t quite believe a race date was taken away from Atlanta Motor Speedway. I mean, sure, the crowds weren’t what they were, but the action on the track was for the most part still absolutely compelling. In a sure sign that those in power value things differently than the fans (and that’s much to their detriment as we’ve seen elsewhere) the second date was shifted to a generic cookie cutter track that probably paid more, had a casino, a better private airport and was closer to the home of some executive. More’s the pity I say.
This weekend’s upcoming event will be the 105th race at the venerable mile and a half circuit, a tradition that spans an impressive 52 years. The legendary Fireball Roberts won the first race. Expect to see more of the sort of action this weekend that has rightfully made Atlanta one of the most intense and thrilling race tracks on the NASCAR circuit.
And that’s my time this week. Enjoy the race folks.
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