Matt Stallknecht · Friday November 8, 2013
It’s hard to believe we are only a week away from the end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, but indeed, here we are. Bizarre, unusual, wild, unpredictable…such words are apt to describe what has been a largely memorable year. That, fourth word, “unpredictable,” would also be apt to describe the aura surrounding the race this upcoming weekend in Phoenix. Jimmie Johnson has a slim 7 point advantage over Matt Kenseth, and neither driver appears to be showing any signs of backing down. It’s anyone’s guess as to which of the two is actually going to take home the title two weeks from now in Homestead, but I’ll make an attempt to formulate some sense of what could happen this weekend anyway. Scroll down a bit to see that attempt in full…
1. Is this title battle really wide-open?
By most accounts, the 2013 title battle has not disappointed. Unless you are an incredibly jaded fan, it’s hard to find fault with the slugfest that Johnson and Kenseth have been engaged in for the past 8 weeks. One week, Kenseth is on top, the next week Johnson is on top, and the two continue to just battle back and forth. Entering this weekend, Johnson happens to be the one arriving to the garage with a smidgen more of momentum.
That can and probably will change this weekend in Phoenix. Both drivers have been so-so at best on the new Phoenix surface. Neither driver is in the top 7 in terms of overall points scored in post-repave Phoenix races. Of course, one should never discount the power of momentum, and each team has it right now in spades, meaning that it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see both drivers outdo their usual standard for performance on the post-repave Phoenix circuit.
As for who will come out on top, it’s truly a toss-up. Kenseth has been better on flat tracks in 2013, Johnson has been better on flat tracks before 2013. It’s a wash. This title battle is still wide-open, and much like last week, its simply going to come down to which team wants it more and makes the least amount of mistakes. For now, I’m calling Kenseth by a few positions on the racetrack, leading to a head to head showdown in Homestead for all the marbles.
2. Will aero be a factor again?
The spring race at Phoenix this year was a bit of a strange one. It was the first non-restrictor plate race with the Gen 6 car, and teams were still in the process of learning what the car needed to be effective on the race track. The “newness” of the Gen 6 car, combined with an especially conservative (read: rock friggin’ hard) tire from Goodyear, and what resulted was especially tough passing conditions.
So tough was it to pass in the spring, that Denny Hamlin unleashed a passive-aggressive shot at the Gen 6 car after the race that landed him a nice five figure fine the next week in Las Vegas. Given that the series is headed to a track with such previous passing troubles, there is obviously great trepidation that such issues will arise again. Luckily however, those concerns are overblown, and I can tell you why.
First off, Goodyear is bringing a different left-side tire compound this week that promises to be softer and more racing-friendly based on results from a tire test conducted a few weeks ago. In addition, the teams have come a very long way since the spring in terms of making the Gen 6 cars drive and pass effectively on flat tracks, meaning that passing ought to be much easier to come by on Sunday.
All told, passing won’t be especially easy (it never is in this era of NASCAR), but fans should expect greatly increased levels of passing and a decreased exhibition of aero disturbances compared to what was seen in the spring.
3. Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. due for a win?
One of the more interesting stories to follow thus far in the 2013 Chase has been the surprising level of competitiveness seen out of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team. Junior has registered 3 top 2 finishes and 6 top 10s during the 2013 Chase- by far his best Chase performance with Hendrick Motorsports and perhaps his best Chase since his title-run in 2004. By all accounts, Junior finally seems to have exorcised the demons that plagued him during the COT-era, and his recent performance is indicative of a driver that is competitive once again.
The one lingering issue that Junior has yet to correct, however, is his inability to close. Junior has had three opportunities to win races in the past 8 races, and he (and his team) has failed to capitalize. If Junior wants to reach the next level of competitiveness, he and his team absolutely need to figure out how to close races.
This weekend in Phoenix ought to be a good opportunity for the No. 88 team to work on their skills as closers. Junior was one of the fastest men in the field during the spring race and soldiered home to a 5th place finish. He and his team have nothing to lose at this point, so they can be expected to go for broke.
Look for Junior to be competitive once again on Sunday. If he’s in a position to “seal the deal” once again and fails to do so, it ought to serve as a wake up call for the No. 88 team as a sign of something to work on for 2014.
4. Is this Justin Allgaier’s final shot to prove his worth?
As we speak, Harry Scott and Co. are busy renovating the once cash-strapped Phoenix Racing outfit into a Chase-level organization. It won’t happen overnight, but given enough time, Phoenix Racing (which, mark my words, will be renamed at some point in the near future to fit into the Turner-Scott portfolio) has the clout to eventually be a Chase-contending organization. Harry Scott has deep pockets, solid sponsorship, and good engineering at his disposal. The only part of the equation missing for 2014 is a driver.
Common sense would say that Justin Allgaier is the most likely candidate to take the keys of the No. 51 car full-time in 2014. Brandt appears ready to step up and go Cup racing, and Allgaier is plenty ready to make the transition. The problem, however, is that he doesn’t seem to have the ride locked up just yet. Indeed, the rumor mill has been filled with wild rumors as of late as to who could possibly fill the seat in 2014, with names like Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and other veteran-types scrambling to take over what looks to be the last semi-quality available ride left open.
Allgaier has performed admirably in his two Cup starts thus far, but it seems as though he may need to deliver one more convincing run to satisfy team principals that he is indeed the man for the job. He’ll get one more opportunity to prove his worth this weekend in Phoenix. It shall be interesting to see if he can make a case for himself, as his future in the Cup Series could rest on his ability to step up his game this Sunday.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 AdvoCare 500:
You know the drill. Kenseth and Johnson are the title contenders with all of the momentum in the world. They will be going for broke, and either driver would be an excellent pick to win.
1. 20-Matt Kenseth
2. 48-Jimmie Johnson
3. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
4. 11-Denny Hamlin
5. 2-Brad Keselowski
6. 99-Carl Edwards
7. 56-Martin Truex Jr.
8. 29-Kevin Harvick
9. 5-Kasey Kahne
10. 14-Mark Martin
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