The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions: Title Battle Or Final Audition? NASCAR Phoenix Storylines by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday November 8, 2013

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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…

Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have been swapping wins and points lead throughout the whole Chase but will Phoenix be a stumbling block for both of them?

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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11/08/2013 08:00 AM

Another week and another “Will Jr. win?” LOL.

Waiting for Jr. to win is like waiting for Obamacare to work.

Just think…if those stupid penalties that Nascar gave to Kenseth had stuck, this season would be over already.

Kevin in SoCal
11/08/2013 01:16 PM

LoL @ JP. I agree!!

How come the first Phoenix race is called “spring” when it happens in February/March when its still winter? How come the Bristol night race is called “fall” when its the middle of summer?

11/08/2013 01:30 PM

Boy the writing in this column really rates a big “who cares?” as far as content.

Matt Stallknecht
11/08/2013 02:18 PM

Ouch. Big criticism from GinaV24 today. May I ask what you thought I missed in terms of content? Because I’m pretty well certain that I hit all of the major storylines this week.

Gina, I’ve read your comments in the past, and I am well aware of the fact that you are not exactly a big proponent of the Chase, but the reality is that the Chase title battle is a huge deal to a lot of people and is undoubtedly the lead story this week. The quality of racing is a big deal to a lot of people as well, so I’m puzzled that you gave a “who cares?” to that too.

A resurgent Dale Earnhardt Jr. is always a story, whether you like the man or not. And given that the #51 car is the only quality 2014 ride still available, I think that’s a pretty major story too.

So given these points, Gina, you’ll have to fill me in on what you think I missed.

11/08/2013 03:42 PM

burton? labonte? puh-leeez
neither have exactly done anything to help their current organizations improve in the last 5 or so years except help bring in some sponsor dollars.

i’m not taking away from past accomplshments but when i see a long in the tooth driver (or a punk ass rich kid with or without the right family connections) potentially taking a spot from some a fresh blooded deserving driver… well. that just gets me.
it’s not as if they are racing for their livelihood as much as it is for pride at this point.

heh. is jr due for a win? i agree, the way he’s been running one might think so, but chad or kenseth will have to be off their game a bit.

will earo be a factor? yes, a big one. this is the gen 6 car after all. i agree with a fellow poster who asked if nascar was going to refund the fine to denny… seems to me they prolly should.

11/08/2013 07:06 PM

The new baby giraffe at the Toronto Zoo is named Mstari. Is her last name Debris?

11/08/2013 10:28 PM

OK, Matt, here’s why I wrote my comment. You say this season has been “largely memorable”. Really? Not the racing that I’ve been watching. I can agree with bizarre, but memorable, no. Most races have been the same old, same old that they’ve been for the last several years – follow the leader parades or dominated by one or two drivers w/o much passing or side by side racing – regardless of what NASCAR tries to sell the fans with their loop data stats. Most of those lead changes have occurred during pit stops, not passes for the lead on the track. Some of the races I went to in person were so snoozeworthy that if I could have found a place to lay down, I would have.

Is the 10 race trophy wide open? C’mon, its been between Johnson & Kenseth from the get go. Barring them running like 3 legged goats, everyone else was a long shot, so it comes down to them. Again, I’m sure they are both nice guys, but neither of them are interesting personalities. The commercials with Kenseth as a robot, well, he and Johnson together are about as exciting as watching paint dry. You’re right, I don’t like the chase, I’ve never made a secret of that and although Brian France may not realize it, I’m not the ONLY fan who feels like that. I think is a stupid way to determine the champion. France instituted it because the TV networks wanted it and he thought it would capture the interest of the “casual” fan that he was so anxious to cultivate. He got casual fans all right , mostly by turning off the hard core fans to the point that they don’t devote nearly the time to the sport as they used to do. I can tell you I am one of those. I used to watch EVERY minute of NASCAR programming I could find but IMO, it is no longer interesting enough to warrant that level of time.

“Will aero be a factor”? is there some reason to think it won’t be? Since the Gen6 car is on the track and gee unless NASCAR made some huge change or Goodyear has brought a magic tire, the car that gets out in the lead will probably stay there – even at a flat track like Phoenix.

The Dale Jr point? He’s had a really good season and I know his fans are really happy. That’s great, it’s always more fun when your favorite is doing well. I have nothing against him as a driver, but let’s face it, as JP also pointed out – another “will Jr win” as a burning question? It’s been done.

Lastly, one week from the end of the season. Thank heavens! I read an article about NASCAR considering changes for the 2014 season to “help the racing”. Fans have heard this same song over and over again. The ability of NASCAR’s current management for being able to make effective change has been abysmal. They are going to have to prove it to me by showing me passing & side by side racing ON the track – and by more than just the 48 car.

Did this answer your question?

11/09/2013 12:22 AM

I have been watching since I was a youngster many decades ago. The Sr. Frances would hate The Chase, as 90% of diehard fans do. How in the love of Mary can you crown a champ based on 10 races? Then the hype to deal with, Gordon gets another drama filled gift to be in The Chase, he has a few good races and “he is contention” after a horrible season. Who in their right mind think that is correct? As for Jr. that hype will continue, I have nothing against him, he is the most likable out of the HMS stable, but lets face reality, its keeping a name alive, not so much loving HIM. Sad, people grasp at straws, Dale Sr. is gone and it seems people can’t let it go, and Brian France or Rick is not about to disappoint. Again, nothing against Jr. its his fans that are most annoying. I feel that Jr. has a great gift and burden to bear.

11/09/2013 09:12 AM

I see absolutely no proplem with the content of this article and i have been around this sport for a very long time. With that said I believe JJ winning number six will have a devastating effect on Sprint Cup racing. He is an awesome driver and Chad is on his game (still say he is very creative with the rules and gets away with it)However he is the nost benign vanilla driver in racing . Fans like character in whatever form and JJ is just plain boring. Burton and Labonte please move on , let the fans have great memories of your success and not like DW embarrassing himself at the end of his career.