The Frontstretch: Five Points To Ponder: Whittling Down The Field And The Season by Danny Peters -- Tuesday November 5, 2013

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Five Points To Ponder: Whittling Down The Field And The Season

Danny Peters · Tuesday November 5, 2013


ONE: And Then There Were Two

After an utterly dominant victory at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson now holds a seven point lead in the title race over closest challenger Matt Kenseth with just two races to go. Kevin Harvick is a distant 40 points in arrears in third place, while Kyle Busch sits fourth some 52 points back.

Barring a ridiculous set of circumstances, the title battle is now down to the driver whose 2003 championship prompted the Chase format and the driver who has absolutely owned the Chase since.

There are some who are all ready to crown Johnson, but with a slender advantage and two full races left to run, there’s no reason to get too hasty. Remember, folks, this time last year Jimmie Johnson left Texas with a seven point lead and ended up finishing third, some 40 points behind the champion Brad Keselowski.

To be fair, it’s completely appropriate that it has come down to Johnson vs. Kenseth because they have been, with 13 total wins and numerous top-5’s and top-10’s, the class of the field in 2013. Two to go and it’s all to play for. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how it turns out over the next two weeks.

TWO: And There There Were Two: Nationwide Edition

A careful twist of Fate will determine which driver will take home the trophy in the Nationwide Series: Austin Dillon or Sam Hornish Jr.

At the Nationwide Series level, Austin Dillon leads Sam Hornish Jr. by a narrow six point margin with Regan Smith 54 points off the pace in third position.

Statistically speaking, the two drivers are almost impossible to separate. Dillon has 12 top-5’s, 21 top-10’s, 557 laps led and an average finish of 8.9 while Hornish Jr. has 15 top-5’s, 23 top-10’s, 566 laps led and a 9.2 average finish. The only real divider is that Hornish Jr. has the one win at Las Vegas in race number three of the year. As you might expect, then, their results at Phoenix International Raceway in the second race of the year were also close: Dillon finished sixth with Hornish one place and one point behind him in seventh.

Just as with the Cup level, I’m figuring this battle goes all the way down to the final laps at Miami-Homestead. It’s an intriguing battle race between a veteran who found life at the Cup level tough and struggled through a couple of partial seasons and an up and coming young charger. The battle that has lasted all season, regardless of the Cup drivers who hoover up all of the race wins, has two thrilling rounds to go. As with Cup, it should be compelling to watch.

THREE: And Then There Was One: Camping World Trucks Edition

It’s not a battle between two hard-to-separate drivers at the Camping World Truck Series Level. In fact, with two races remaining it’s very much Matt Crafton’s championship to lose. Holding a commanding 46 point lead over second place James Buescher with Ty Dillon one marker back (-47 pts) in third place, Crafton needs to do what he’s done all season to close out the championship namely pick up two top-10’s.

All told, Crafton has 18 top-10 finishes in 20 races and in the other two, he finished 11th (Las Vegas) and 17th (Martinsville) respectively. If he can keep the nose of his truck clean over the next two weekends, that should wrap up a maiden championship after 14 years and 314 races running at this level. In fact, depending on results this weekend at Phoenix, the party could start early. But Crafton has been around too long and seen too much to let those thoughts invade his head, I’m sure.

For a driver who notes, “Pretty much from first grade on that’s all I’ve ever known and all I’ve ever wanted to be is a racecar driver,” a championship after years of trying would seem so fitting.

FOUR: Fireworks at Phoenix

It’s off to the desert for a crucial triple header and the penultimate race weekend for the 2013 NASCAR season. I say this every year, but the end of the season always seems to come round quickly. Phoenix International Raceway is a one-mile, low banked D-shaped oval that first appeared on the NASCAR schedule all the way back in 1988 and has remained on the calendar ever since. That inaugural Cup race was won by the much loved Alan Kulwicki. When PIR was built in 1964 it was originally intended as the Western home of open wheel racing. It was repaved and reconfigured following the first race in 2011.

This race at the Cup level last year saw Jeff Gordon retaliate against Clint Bowyer, leading to a quite magnificent run from Bowyer and a mass crew brawl.

As Dale Jarrett puts it so aptly in the commentary, “That’s having at it right there.”

I doubt we’ll see those sorts of fireworks this time round, but it’s a good reminder how serious the competition gets and how quickly things can change.

FIVE: Second Again for Earnhardt Jr.

And finally this week, Sunday’s second place finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the fifth time this season NASCAR’s most popular driver has finished in the first loser position. It was also the third time in the last six Chase races. Now, the knock on Junior is that he can’t win in the best equipment certainly compared to his stable-mate at Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson. But you also can’t win if you don’t put yourself into a position to do so and in the last few weeks we’ve seen Junior do just that.

Don’t rule him out for a win this weekend, at a track where he’s won twice – albeit in 2003 and 2004. In fact, if you discount his 35th place finish in the first Chase race, Junior has had a pretty solid playoffs finishing 6th, 2nd, 8th, 15th, 2nd, 8th and 2nd in the last seven races as his partnership with crew chief Stevie Letarte grows and solidifies each and every week.

“When we first started working together, we were trying to put together top 15s,” Earnhardt said. “Then top 10s. Then top fives. Then it got to where we could lead the points and stay in the top five in points. Now here we are just right under the ceiling of breaking through.”

Enjoy the penultimate race weekend, all.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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11/05/2013 08:12 AM

Raise your hand if you thought JR. going to Hendrick would bring more wins and a championship for him.

I would love to see Bowyer catch Gordon before Gordon hides in his wagon this year. That would be fun.

11/05/2013 12:24 PM

Crafton and Thorsport have been one of only a few teams that have made a true home in the Truck series, and there are every season putting in 100%. Couldn’t think of anyone more deserving. ESPECIALLY since he’ll probably win the championship with CONSISTENCY, the way you’re SUPPOSED to win championships, without a stupid playoff.

11/05/2013 12:27 PM

Ah, the reminder of the hypocrisy of Nascar although the JG lovers will defend. Jeff Gordon screwed with “The Chase” last year in Phoenix, no doubt about it. No outrage for what Wonderboy did a small fine and he was cleared. He altered points intentionally by doing what he did to Bowyer. How is it different that Richmond? Oh I am sure some apologist will school me in the error of my thinking. Last year that was just part of “boys have at it, racing”..and all the good words we use. This year according to the pitchfork crowd a mortal sin was put upon poor Jeff, and Nascar/HMS playing God made it right. Oh the hypocrites. Go get him Clint!!!

11/05/2013 01:17 PM

Spoken like a true conspiracy theorist, kb just gotta love it.

Carl D.
11/05/2013 02:45 PM

Apples & oranges, kb. When Gordon wrecked Bowyer last year, there was no intent to affect who made the chase or even the outcome of it by using a third party. There were two drivers involved, and one of those drivers felt he needed to dish out some payback for a perceived wrong. Maybe Gordon should have been penalized for wrecking Bowyer; I’m pretty sure we beat that horse damn near to death in Frontstretch last November. Still, no way was the Gordon/Bowyer incident last year even remotely similar to Spin-gate this season.

BTW, I’m no JG lover and I pull against all HMS teams every race. I pull for Penske drivers Keselowski & Logano, and Jamie Mac because the wife likes him.

11/05/2013 03:11 PM

That you for your thoughts, got the outcome I expected. But you can rationalize it all you want, it was interference what Jeffy did, dress it up all you want, justify it all you want..he maligned the race during the Chase and under a black flag and took out other competitors as well. I don’t see the difference. Some things are really black and white, whether you like the driver or not.

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