The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions: Junior's Chances, Jimmie-Time and Changes for Biffle and Bodine by Mike Lovecchio -- Thursday July 14, 2011

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ONE: Could Dale Earnhardt Jr. really fall out of the Chase?

Though he seemed like a lock merely weeks ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suddenly seems vulnerable to falling out of the top 10 – and without a win on the season – out of the Chase. With eight races remaining, Earnhardt is just 21 points ahead of Tony Stewart and the 11th position, and most importantly with the new wildcard format, he has three drivers outside of the top 10 with one win this season. What’s alarming for Junior Nation, critics, and Earnhardt himself, is that a mere four races ago he sat third and was considered a lock for the final ten race Chase. Finishes of 21st, 41st, 19th and 30th have erased any cushion he has now, and it’s getting down to crunch time. But looking closer at the standings, Earnhardt – while not as safe as before – still has a great chance of making the Chase.

I’ve heard several columnists say that there are too many guys waiting to pounce on guys like Earnhardt who are struggling at the wrong time…but who? Even if Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin jump the No. 88 in points and Junior falls to 10th, Tony Stewart (currently 11th), Juan Montoya (13th) and Greg Biffle (14th) have flaws in their own right. Stewart has two less top 5s and top 10s than Earnhardt and hasn’t scored a top 10 in three races, Montoya has been wildly inconsistent, and Biffle is making a crew chief swap beginning at New Hampshire. That leaves, by my count, one driver that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to worry about if he were to fall out of the top 10 – Clint Bowyer. But even Bowyer – a driver who was in the Chase two races ago – has back to back finishes outside of the top 35 and is giving up 34 points to Earnhardt going to a track that he has a chance to make up some ground at.

Bowyer has three consecutive top 10s and a win at this very event one year ago in New Hampshire, but even if he makes up ground this weekend, he has to consistently run well to catch the No. 88 before the Chase starts.

Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to success at Loudon, and with the Chase starting to loom in the mirror the time is now for the No. 48 squad to catch fire.

TWO: Does Sunday mark the start of Jimmie time?

You bet it does. Jimmie Johnson has been surprisingly quiet this season, but when you look at his one win, six top 5s and 11 top 10s you get the feeling he’s just lying in the bushes waiting to strike. You know it’s going to come sooner or later, and what better track to start at than the speedway that hosts the Chase opener? A track that he won at last year, a track that he has just two finishes outside of the top 10 in his last 10 starts, and a track he averages better than a 10th place finish. Johnson doesn’t need to win again until the Chase to be considered a favorite – I think that consecutive titles streak deserves at least that much – but he may tack a win or two on just for the heck of it. I’m not saying that Johnson and Chad Knaus have been sandbagging, but I do think they have the Chase tracks figured out, and New Hampshire is near the top of that list.

THREE: What can we make of the Todd Bodine seat swap in the Truck Series?

It’s more of a merger than a seat swap, but after 2010 Truck Series champion Todd Bodine appeared to be set to miss this weekend’s race at Iowa, a collaborative effort between Bodine’s current team – Germain Racing – and Randy Moss Motorsports has allowed Bodine to race this weekend, and reportedly for the remainder of the season. The logistics are still being sorted out, but it appears the team will use Germain trucks stickered with the No. 5 RMM decals. The odd man out of the deal is Travis Kvapil, who is left without a ride. This just goes to show the fragility of sponsors and subsequent driver careers in the lower national tiers of NASCAR. When the defending champion is left to scramble for a ride on any given weekend, it waves red flags – and this isn’t the first time.

As a Frontstretch report stated earlier this week with Ricky Carmichael looking to move to Nationwide in 2012 with Monster Energy, it’s further proof that a driver’s future in this sport is tied to a sponsor, not talent. That’s not meant to be a knock on Carmichael by any means, but we’ve seen in the past that with the right sponsor behind you, the seas will open up and lead straight to the Cup level.

FOUR: Will a crew chief swap be a shot in the arm for Greg Biffle?

Greg Biffle is teetering on the brink of Chase elimination, but that’s not preventing the Roush Fenway organization from making a last ditch attempt to light a fire under the No. 16. With just one top 5 on the season, it will likely be wins in the final eight races that give the team any shot of making the Chase cutoff, and for that they have turned to Matt Puccia. Puccia replaces Greg Erwin and comes from the R&D side of the team, but he does have crew chief experience in the Truck and Nationwide Series. While we don’t know right now whether it’s a positive move for the team, it’s alarming to turn to a crew chief with no Cup experience when it’s all on the line. The move has worked before with RFR, however, and sometimes a team simply needs change to move forward. It was an interesting decision, but it will take some time to see if it works.

Contact Mike Lovecchio

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Spencer
07/15/2011 10:23 AM
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1. yes because if you look at years past, Jr was always better at the begining of the season,but falls off rapidly in the second half (last year he went from in the chase after the Firecracker 400 and look at where he ended up), and Tony usually gets hot around midseason and stays hot till the chase.

2 Should, but i feel like he’s lost something to make it 6 now.

SHOEMAN
07/15/2011 10:26 AM
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I don’t think it was such a smart more to replace Robbie Reiser on the #17 team. Thanks to the talent Matt has, he is once again a winning driver.

Michael in SoCal
07/15/2011 11:16 AM
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Uh, NHMS doesn’t host the first Chase race anymore, although it does host the 2nd Chase race. The first race of the Chase is at cookie-crapper, er, cutter Chicagoland Speedway.

MikeGH
07/15/2011 02:57 PM
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Was it last year when nascar said “no more changes for a while”?

Or was it 2 yrs ago? Or was it 3 yrs ago? Or was it……

So submit your entries now…what changes will nascar make for next year?

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