The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Earnhardt's Milestone, A Champ And A Rookie by Danny Peters -- Tuesday October 15, 2013

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ONE: Talladega Looms Large


It is the track, Talladega, that will write the story for the Chasers this upcoming weekend.

By design, every race in the ten event Chase is crucial; separating the serious contenders from the would-be pretenders. But no race looms larger than Talladega Superspeedway this Sunday afternoon.

At the half way point in the 2013 Chase for the Cup, the 200-MPH, 500-mile race can destroy championship hopes in an instant, and at the same time it can breathe life into those still on the periphery: Kevin Harvick (3rd, -29 points), Jeff Gordon (4th, -36 points) and Kyle Busch (5th, -37 points) in particular. If points leader Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson (2nd – 4 points) both have terrible afternoons, even more so.

Avoiding the big one is, as you all know, the key so expect a variety of strategies to play out among the drivers still in contention for this season’s title. Some will prefer to race at the front; others will opt for riding around in the rear until the last 50 scheduled miles. Given Johnson’s prowess on restrictor plate tracks this year – sweeping the Daytona races and finishing fifth at Talladega earlier this season – expect him to be a factor which may just push the issue for his fellow protagonists from the get-go.

One way or another, it should be fascinating to watch and unquestionably, this is a pivotal race in the Chase.

TWO: 500 Up for Junior

Saturday night’s race was a career milestone for Dale Earnhardt Jr. In his 500th start, Junior finished a ho-hum lap down 15th place. It certainly wasn’t the finish he wanted; having run strongly leading 19 laps in the early going. His winless streak now stands at 50 races.

Five of Junior’s 19 career victories have come at Talladega Superspeedway, but the last of the wins there came all the way back in 2004 in the third last race of the first year of the Chase.

A perennial favorite and a perennial contender on restrictor plate tracks, Earnhardt Jr. will certainly be in the mix on Sunday afternoon. Now 66 points behind Matt Kenseth, a sixth win at the track his father loved won’t propel Junior back into title contention, but it would provide a much needed shot of morale for the most popular driver in the sport, and his vociferous fan base.

THREE: Big Win for Brad

Don’t underestimate the importance of the first victory of the season for Brad Keselowski. 2013 has been a tough year for the defending champ. He’s had no wins up until Saturday night, not to mention becoming the first defending champion to miss the Chase since Tony Stewart in 2006.

“This is a very good team. All season long we’ve had the speed,” said Keselowski post-race. “We’ve had what we need to be a championship team. We just haven’t put them all together… All the pieces haven’t come together on the nights that count, and they for the most part did tonight.”

So a return to Victory Lane, his tenth career victory and first in 38 races, was just what the doctor ordered. When he missed the Chase, Keselowski promised he’d do everything he could to win and headed into a track where he won his first Cup race.

Oh, and don’t be shocked if the 2013 champion goes back to back. This might not have been the year Keselowski scripted but there’s still time to add a little late season sheen and get ready to bounce back strong in 2014.

FOUR: Kyle Larson’s Cup Debut

In his first race at the top echelon of NASCAR, Kyle Larson finished with a DNF and a 37th place effort in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. But stats alone don’t tell the story of what was a solid introduction to Cup racing for the 21-year old phenom. Larson started 21st but ran in the top-15 for much of the night until his engine dropped a cylinder with 83 laps to run.

“He did a really nice job, and it’s unfortunate we couldn’t finish the race, but that’s racing,” crew chief Larry Elledge said. “I think he’s a pro. You’re going to hear a lot of him in the future. I think he’s definitely going to be parked way over there on the other side of the garage, maybe giving Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the guys some fits in the future.”

In 2014, Larson will get plenty more opportunities to do just that, taking over the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevy on a full-time basis from IndyCar bound Juan Pablo Montoya.

“I just had a lot of fun racing those guys,” Larson said post-race. “I had a few good restarts, I thought. Got close to the top 10, and I felt like I could hang with those guys.”

Don’t be surprised to see more of the same next season. This kid’s for real.

FIVE: IndyCar Season Finale

This Saturday night sees the finale of the 2013 IndyCar Series with a 500-mile contest at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Ca. Two-time champion and native New Zealander Scott Dixon holds a 25-point lead over his nearest rival Helio Castroneves, after an excellent weekend at the double header in Houston on October 5th and 6th.

Dixon won the first race on Saturday and finished second to Will Power (his second win of the year) in Sunday’s contest. Castroneves, meanwhile, having led the championship the entire way, entered the weekend with a 49-point lead and had an absolute nightmare of a weekend finishing 18th and 23rd, turning a healthy points lead into a difficult deficit.

The good news for the Brazilian is that he ran very well in the test session at ACS a few weeks back. He’ll need all his veteran wiles and likely a dollop of good fortune to stop Dixon picking up his third Series championship.

Regardless of who ultimately picks up the championship crown, the race should certainly be a fun one to watch.

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kb
10/15/2013 03:54 PM
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Well, should be interesting with Nascar shooting it’s mouth off about drivers “giving 100%” all the time. What are they going to do with Talladega? I am sure Nascar’s favorite team will get a pass, then all others will have a separate yardstick measurement of performance. Silly stuff this Nascar and their decisions.

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