The Frontstretch: Five Things To Look For In The Final Five Races Of 2009 by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday October 20, 2009

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Five Things To Look For In The Final Five Races Of 2009

The Yellow Stripe · Thomas Bowles · Tuesday October 20, 2009


As an editor, you’ve got to have all sorts of column ideas in your back pocket in case someone calls out sick. And sure enough, Danny Peters (who usually fills this space on Tuesdays) got a little case of the flu before he could scribble down his thoughts by deadline.

So that leaves me with a nice idea that I get to knock off my list now before it’s too late. You see, what I was thinking was that with five races left, the championship’s a non-issue while plenty of fans are looking at a certain organization 1-2-3 in points and going, “Why should we watch? That’s not my favorite team.” But there’s still plenty of other things to focus on before this year is out — yes, even ones that have nothing to do with the championship. (Promise!) Here are five big reasons to stay tuned over the final five races (assuming you’re not a Hendrick fan):

1. Can last year’s win leader keep from getting shut out in 2009?

This victory celebration from Carl Edwards at Homestead last November is the site of his last Cup victory, as the driver is winless through 31 starts so far in 2009.

It’s hard to believe Carl Edwards went from nine victories just one year ago, including wins in two of the last three races, to a goose egg in that column in 2009. Last weekend was the low point for the No. 99 team this year, with a car so ill-handling it was three laps down before the engine blew to give them a “mercy killing” (as Edwards called it) en route to a 39th place finish. That leaves him 336 points out with five races left, the second straight year this race has officially killed his title hopes (remember the mechanical failure last Fall?) as the AFLAC team is now forced to focus on 2010.

But despite falling short on the biggest goal, no one wants to end a season winless – which gives Ford’s number one driver something to race for. And now that the pressure’s off, the preseason favorite to challenge Jimmie Johnson will likely go for a more aggressive strategy on the track in taking his chances to get to Victory Lane. With nothing to lose and a decent package for both Texas and Homestead, two races where he’s the defending champ, don’t be surprised if Edwards puts his car in precarious situations (see: 2008 Kansas, last lap) in order to pull a repeat.

While we’re on this topic, there’s a handful of other great drivers who have failed to win a race this year: Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., along with Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya (each of whom haven’t won since ’07). Pulling one off this late could help salvage seasons that, in many cases, fell well below expectations. Expect some aggressiveness by these drivers combined with interesting strategy to try and steal one before the year is out.

2. Will Kyle Busch “settle a few scores” with no titles on the line?

With a serious bout of pneumonia the past two weeks combined with trying to seal up the Nationwide Series title, Kyle Busch’s push to play spoiler in this Chase has taken a back seat. But let’s not forget last month’s quote by Denny Hamlin when asked how his teammate was expected to handle the last ten races of the season:

“I think he has some scores to settle with some guys – that I don’t think he’ll be too shy about doing now.”

Many fans passed that off as manufactured drama, especially when Busch has barely made a peep in Cup since the playoffs began in New Hampshire (one top 5, no laps led in five starts).

But the second half of the Chase should prove a different story. We’re coming up on two “short” tracks in Phoenix and Martinsville this weekend where drivers can pull the payback card, all the while knowing they’re not causing serious injury or a ten-car wreck in the process. Busch is also no longer in the position of helping Hamlin win the title, with his teammate 11th in points and now only focused on Victory Lane the rest of the way. Add in the usual Kyle temper (if you washed his mouth out with soap every time he swore on the radio at Charlotte, you’d need about 10 bars) and we’re clearly setting up for some late-race excitement down the stretch.

3. Is Talladega primed for another gargantuan upset?

Lost in the midst of Carl Edwards’ last lap flip at Talladega was the car that actually drove by him to Victory Lane. James Finch’s No. 09 car, driven by Brad Keselowski, ended a two-decade long odyssey of being a Cup Series underdog with its first ever victory on the sport’s top level. Considering the team has so little funding, it’s start-and-parked for half the races this season, it proved an incredible upset along with the first win by a single-car team since Darlington in March, 2003.

That race had more than its fair share of underdog performances, with Scott Speed (5th), Paul Menard (13th), and Joe Nemechek (14th) among those scoring their season-best finishes in that race. All of them will be back for a second go-round along with Keselowski, each with a chance to finish up front as restrictor plates help even out the haves from the have nots. That’s why the Spring race was also the last time we saw all 43 cars who qualified attempt to run the distance, a welcome change in the start and park era we’ll likely see again this November. Add in the potential for the big wreck that knocks Johnson back towards his closest championship challengers, and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for an unpredictable race worth watching.

4. Will the Richard Petty Motorsports team switch to Ford? And if so, will that be enough of a boost to give the Blue Oval their first win since February if Edwards doesn’t pull through?

As I said yesterday, trying to find out what’s going on with the RPM-Yates merger is like trying to find a needle in a haystack blindfolded. Nobody knows what the heck is happening, with people fearful they’ll get anything from a pink slip to an order to switch shops at any moment.

So for that type of drama to surround the No. 9 team and Kasey Kahne to still pull through (with three top 10 finishes in the Chase) is nothing short of amazing. But now, things are about to get about ten times more confusing, with the entire team rumored to be running Fords as soon as Talladega in November.

Can this organization keep things together in the face of such utter confusion? If they do, it might be the key to ending one of the biggest Blue Oval slumps in history should Edwards, Greg Biffle, or Matt Kenseth fall short over the last five races. With Ford in their worst slump since a 34-race winless streak in 1982-83 (they would match that record if they finish the season without a victory) it’s gotten to the point they’ll take any type of help they can get — and with Kahne being an intermediate specialist, he’s a talent that could pay immediate dividends for races like Texas and Homestead this November. Adding him to the roster (someone they sued for breach of contract five years ago, by the way) is a dramatic play to pull out all the stops before the season is out.

5. Will last-minute drives by those desperate for rides in 2010 be enough to get them one over Bobby Labonte?

With the type of season Labonte’s had (one top 5 finish in 31 races) it’s no surprise he needed a little vacation to get away from it all. But what raises your eyebrows is the company he’s with while hunting in New Mexico this week: Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick.

Considering the availability of the No. 07 car for next season, it’s not hard to put the pieces together that Labonte could be negotiating for a ride at Richard Childress Racing. But that’s not the only team after his services, as both TRG Motorsports and Earnhardt Ganassi (late entry) are trying to get the 2000 champ on their roster despite just six top 10s in the last three years of Cup competition.

But with only a handful of rides available and sponsorship to go around for maybe two of those cars, that means these final few races are even more critical for free agents David Stremme, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, and Reed Sorenson. Making a name for themselves with a top 5 finish or even an upset win is the only way they’re going to make a splash and have owners turn in their direction over the former champ. So far, Mears is the only one making a serious splash, with five straight finishes of 17th or better to push him up to 18th in points. Can the other drivers follow suit? As the season winds down, they’ll have no choice … and you know what they say about desperate drivers doing desperate things.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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10/20/2009 07:54 AM

Hopefully, Edwards will never win another race and we won’t have to put up with another stupid back flip. And when his sponsor finally realises that he’s nothing but a total jerk, as Brad Keseloski proved at Talladega, they will bail. Looks good, not only on his no-talent self, but also on his jerk-head car owner. Maybe by the end of next year, Edwards, and hopefully the entire Roush camp, will be gone from NASCAR for good!

The Turnip!
10/20/2009 08:03 AM

Well Tom, one thing you can’t do!

And that’s make lemonade out of a lemon!

There’s not enough sweetener in the world to make this lemon taste good!

And since you have my attention, once again I must state this whole “chase” thing is so STUPID!

How can you have twelve (12) drivers “make the playoff’s”, but then race in a pack of 43 cars?

How can a “chumpionship contender”, in position #1 thru #12, end up in 33rd place? Or 43rd, or 23rd, or 15th?

I guess I am stupid!


Isn’t Brain Farce really the STUPID one?

And not us “EX-FANS”?

Michael in SoCal
10/20/2009 11:16 AM

Not quite sure how Edwards became Ford’s # 1 driver. When you have Kenseth and Biffle in Fords, and Kasey Kahne soon to be in one (or so we’ve been told), putting Edwards as # 1 might be a little premature. I don’t dislike Edwards, although his roid rage incidents make liking him difficult, but I wouldn’t annoint him the patron saint of Ford yet. Sure, he won 9 races last year, but that was then and this is now.

10/20/2009 12:23 PM

Hey Michael in SoCal, I don’t see it either. Even though they are both as big losers as idiot Carl, how can Ford be so dumb putting any faith in Roush, let alone that moron Edwards! As for your comment about Edwards and his constant Roid-Rage, how in this world could he have passed NASCAR’s drug test, unless Roush paid off the people doing the test, which I wouldn’t put past the jerk! And yes, I hate Edwards! I hate his guts! Please! Please! Please, NASCAR! Lie if you have to, but ban Edwards from the sport for drug use! Please!

Ironic, isn’t it, that the one car company who thought they were so good not taking any bail-out from the Government, and they can’t do anything in NASCAR. G.M. gets the bail-out and dominates! That was money well spent on Hendrick Motorsports by G.M.!!

10/20/2009 12:33 PM

The way teams are merging, how many teams will be left next year? What next? Hendricks-Stewart. Oh, I forgot. That’s a team already. I still comment, but only as a venting place to state why I no longer watch races. Seems like nas$car would be worrying about how fast long time fans are leaving. But Brain Fart and the elite team (no s here) don’t seem to get the fact that competetive balance actually helps the sport. Geeeez!!

10/20/2009 02:11 PM

Mike, you sound more ignorant with each comment.

Joe W.
10/20/2009 02:19 PM

Mike, you are an idiot!!!!!!!!!!!!! How did Kesolowski wrecking Carl prove that Carl is a jerk? He handled that situation well. All you Kyle Busch lovers think it is great when that whinney little punk gets mad,(Look in the article above for proof), but if Carl gets mad he is on steroids just because he happens to be in shape? You people are so ignorant sometimes. Jack Roush has not paid anyone off, if he had Mark Martin would have won two or three championships while with Roush. You really don’t think before you type, do you? I get sick of the constant bashing of Roush and Ford by the same people who bitched about the government bailouts in the 1st place! So now Ford sucks because they didn’t take government money?! Damn you guys talk out of both sides of your mouth. You should be in politics! Good Day.

10/20/2009 03:15 PM

If Ford is counting on Richard Petty Motorsports to get themselves in the win column , its gonna be a long season . Thats got to one of the worst teams in the garage area . And i don’t see any improvement coming soon .
Kyle got out of the family business just in time . He probably noticed it starting to circle the drain .

Michael in SoCal
10/20/2009 03:59 PM

Just to clarify my comment – the roidrage incident I was referring to was Carl’s fake punch on Kenseth last season. And he probably wasn’t on steroids, but he did need to control his emotions better in that specific incident, in my opinion. But there is no doubting that Edwards is in top shape. Isn’t there one race a year he rides his bicycle to? That’s impressive. He’s a good driver no doubt, but I think Kenseth & Biffle were getting the short end of the stick by calling Edwards “Ford’s number one driver”.

Joe W.
10/20/2009 04:19 PM

Micheal in SoCal, I understand your point about Kenseth and Biffle. I respect them a great deal. I was not really calling you out. It is Mike and his constant bashing that I have a problem with. I enjoy your insight and posts on here most of the time. At times you are a voice of reason in the insanity that is Mike and Turnip/Douglas.

10/20/2009 04:37 PM

Jeez, got to take another swipe at Kyle do we?

Who the hell is he gonna take out? It should be Denny and Kurt who should pay back Jimmie. It was at the last martinsville race where Jimmie put the bumper to Denny.

I trust Kurt for paybacks but Denny is a wimp and a diva. But I sure would like to see Jimmie go into the wall at about 25 laps in. HARD.

10/20/2009 04:59 PM

Mike, your hatred toward Jack Roush and Carl Edwards is way over the top. Your comment about Brad Keselowski showing what a jerk Edwards is, is out of line. If that race had of been 10 years ago, and the car in front was black with the number 3 on it, keselowski would have been shoved right off the track, yellow line rule or no yellow line rule. Carl is having an off year, no doubt. What the problem is is anyone’s guess. Every driver can have an off season, even a Hendrick driver. Look at Junior, who seems to be getting the short end of the stick! What will you do when Carl wins his next race? As for your comment about G.M. vs Ford and the bail-out, if one cent of what G.M. was given went to Hendrick, then I would be screaming at my Member of Parliament (Opps! Wrong country!), I mean my Congressman/Congresswoman) to demand every cent back NOW! And about the roidrage, if you think NASCAR hasn’t tested Edwards, you are wrong! Being a driver for jack Roush would instantly put Edwards under the microscope. And if anyone would be guilty of paying off NASCAR, it certainly isn’t Jack Roush! But I wouldn’t put such a move passed your favorite team owner! I’m willing to bet they test Edwards regularly, just to appease people like you. Thinking of expressing rage, how often does Kyle get tested? And about Kasey and Richard Petty, I personally would love to see a Petty Ford in Victory Lane with either Kasey or A.J. behind the wheel. You know, it’s people like you that have turned me off this sport. And by the way Mike, I’m a Carl Edwards fan! Get a life!

Michael in SoCal
10/21/2009 11:19 AM

Joe W – no worries.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
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