Danny Peters · Tuesday September 17, 2013
ONE: Back to Business
There cannot have been many weeks in the long and illustrious history of NASCAR like the last one.
We had two drivers (Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon) added to the final Chase field, including a thirteenth (Gordon) in a twelve-berth system and one (Martin Truex Jr.) removed completely; oodles of controversy, a social media meltdown, and a new re-start rule just for good measure.
Plenty of folk have been wondering aloud – voluminously and vociferously – as to exactly what this all means for the sport both in the short and long-term with grave and severe prognoses abounding.
On the one hand, you get that entirely. It’s not been what you’d call a banner week with NASCAR opened up to all kinds of ridicule and questions about integrity. At the same time the sport has weathered considerable hullaballoos in the past and it will do again despite all of the rancor and rage. So, what next?
That’s really quite simple. What we need to do now is to get back to the business of running the final quarter of the season and crowning a 2013 Cup champion. If there’s one thing I feel that NASCAR has always been good at, it’s recognizing the historical legacy of the sport while constantly looking to move forward. And that’s exactly what needs to happen now. Everyone needs to shift focus to the final nine races of what is shaping up to be a compelling title battle.
Like I said in the title: It’s time to get back to business.
TWO: One Bad Race Can Wreck Your Title Tilt
The nature of the Chase points system means that a bad race can absolutely destroy your chances for a title far more effectively than running three great races in a row. Jeff Gordon is a case in point.
In 2012, Gordon opened up the Chase with a dismal 35th place finish, some 47 markers off the pace. In the next three races he finished third, second and second and although it moved him up six positions in the overall standings he still sat some 42 points off the pace and to all intents and purposes out of it.
While it’s not impossible to overcome a bad start, Chase history has shown it to be extremely unlikely. Jimmie Johnson opened his 2006 Chase with a 39th place finish and bounced back to win the Championship—but that was on the strength of a win and four straight second place efforts in races five through nine.
So, there is still hope for both Joey Logano (-52 points) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-53 points) but it’s a glimmer at best and for the first time Chaser and the sport’s favorite son, pretty much only a win will do in race two.
Three: Montoya to IndyCar with Penske
After what can best be described as an underwhelming seven years in NASCAR; news broke in August that Juan Pablo Montoya would not be returning to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2014. It was not a particularly surprising announcement given Montoya’s struggles in stock car racing (just two wins and 24 top-5’s in 244 races to date.) Especially with hot-shot youngster Kyle Larson poised and ready in the wings.
Montoya will join champion elect Helio Castroneves and Australian sensation Will Power in what will be a formidable trio in 2014 for Penske Racing.
“I have had the opportunity to drive for some of the best racing teams in the world and I have always admired Roger Penske and his organization,” said Montoya. “I consider it an honor to be offered the opportunity to drive for Team Penske.”
The return to open-wheel racing for Montoya is an interesting one not least given his choice of team. The Colombian native won a CART Championship in 1999, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and a combined eleven races in just 41 attempts for Chip Ganassi, with whom he has raced since he left Formula One in 2006.
The Captain was understandably delighted, noting, “We look forward to building on his successes together and we believe he will be a great addition to Team Penske.”
Given the quality of equipment he’ll be piloting each week, don’t be surprised to see Montoya proving to be just that. I’m expecting him to run well and win often.
FOUR: Is Hamlin in the Chase?
After all the switching up of Chase participants some Twitter humorists pondered whether or not all this meant Denny Hamlin was back in the Chase. Sadly, this wasn’t the case for the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry who has struggled through a horrible season – easily his worst in his nine year, 22-win, 282-race career.
This time last year immediately following a disappointing 16th place finish in the Chase opener, Hamlin tweeted, “This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”
Win he did, leading 193 of the 300 scheduled laps at Loudon. Exiting his car after taking the checkers, Hamlin simulated the Babe Ruth called (home run) shot to the delight of the crowd. Now, a year on from that win and his last victory to date, there was no such bold social media proclamation from Hamlin who finished 33rd after his engine went sour. Meanwhile, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates finished 1-2.
Plenty of folks thought Hamlin should just get out of the car and have his ailing back tended to, but the Chesterfield, Va., native refused and his effort is worth noting. That being said, no one will be happier to see the back of 2013 than Hamlin.
FIVE: Next Up: Loudon
Next up is the second and final trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2013. This will be Cup race number 38 at the 1.058-mile long oval and it is very much a pivotal race for some (if not all) the Chase participants.
Just nine races ago, Brian Vickers won a popular victory; the first for a part-time driver since Trevor Bayne’s miraculous win in the 2011 Daytona 500. But the event itself was something of a snoozer with just three on-track passes for the lead that didn’t occur on a re-start. Sure, there was some action back in the pack but once Vickers had established the lead on the final restart he essentially drove away from the field to the win.
The race was also notable for the appearance of the legendary Morgan Shepherd who became the oldest driver (by five years) at 71 years and 9 months young to start a Sprint Cup race. Morgan finished 41st, in the 515th race of a Cup career that began all the way back in 1970.
Before I finish: Back in July Kurt Busch was the driver to beat, pacing the field for some 102 laps. He might be a good Fantasy pick this week.
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