Thomas Bowles · Tuesday October 5, 2010
There’s seven weeks left on the Sprint Cup slate, but heading into this Tuesday the NASCAR storylines remain dominated by the number three. Three strikes and you’re out for Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Clint Bowyer, all of whom are 127 points or more behind points leader Jimmie Johnson already in the championship Chase. Bowyer himself, driver of the number double three, is about to be penalized a third time after a last-ditch appeal for 150 points, $150,000 in fines, and some dignity gets denied by the Stock Car Racing Commission Chief Approval – er, Appellate Officer John Middlebrook.
Three is also the number of the sport’s hottest prospect, Austin Dillon, who is busy prepping for a third win of a remarkable rookie season at Martinsville next weekend. But he’s not the only freshman worth watching as of late; what other surprising youngster is moving up the ladder of potential talent? Here’s a hint: he’s one of three drivers fighting for two spots at one of the sport’s top-level teams.
Well, they say to write in the rule of 3s, and we’re already on to the third paragraph. Guess it’s time to stop playing around and delve into the meat and potatoes of Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR…
MELTING PEOPLE WHO DARE TO TOUCH HIS HAND
Jimmie Johnson: For those who’d like to keep believing the Chase is wide open, I have two options: close your eyes and skip this paragraph. Everyone else, take a deep breath, don’t cry, and check out the numbers J.J. put up for the next three races last season: Fontana, Charlotte, and Martinsville massacres otherwise known as the “Johnson Drives The Stake In Your Heart Tour.” Runs of first, first, and second left him 118 points up on Mark Martin and easily able to withstand a possible Talladega tragedy that never happened, cakewalking to a fourth straight title without so much as breaking a sweat those final four weeks.
Fast forward to 2010, following a second-place Kansas finish where the Lowe’s Chevy packed a real punch down the stretch, clicking on all cylinders top to bottom while Johnson took over the point lead again. There’s no reason to believe this well-oiled machine can’t repeat their recent history, meaning even if Denny Hamlin averages a fifth during that stretch he’ll start Talladega well over 100 points behind his rival. Sure, this Chase is the closest in recent history, but that logic (which I believe in) is based on the No. 48 having a bad day at some point. If he doesn’t, well … NASCAR may need to come up with an elimination format eliminating Jimmie for fans to come back and watch.
Honorable Mention: Satan, Judge Doom, The Wicked Witch of the West … all of whom the majority of NASCAR fans prefer to win the title over Johnson at this point
Jeff Gordon: In layman’s terms, the man who gave our new point leader his near race-winning setup could be shooting himself in the foot. But then, you remember Gordon is the half-car owner on Johnson’s Chevy, making it mutually beneficial for a “rival” to triumph in the latest chapter for how Modern NASCAR Is All (rhymes with Clucked) Up. I’d say Gordon’s a master at swallowing his pride, but a look at the bank account tells you he’s got millions of reasons to give up some cliff notes, keep the mouth shut and play dutiful apprentice to the Hendrick team’s new star.
At least Gordon’s recent performance himself gives reason to believe in a consolation prize, runs of sixth, 11th, and fifth more than I expected from an outfit limping badly into the playoffs. I guess the Rainbow Warrior still knows how to get it together come crunch time; yet judging by how his one-time “rivalry” with Jimmie has turned all sugary sweet, the will to fight has apparently been subtly removed from his DNA.
Paul Menard: Ladies and gentlemen, please hide your children. What I’m about to tell you will either make them scream in horror, shake their heads in disbelief, or leave them begging for you to make a multi-million corporation so you can single-handedly support their semi-talented racing career for a decade. Ready?
Paul Menard nearly won a Sprint Cup race.
Sure, the final stat sheet said eighth place, but it was a sluggish pit stop that stole a near-certain runner-up finish from the No. 98. And if a final caution had waved with about 40 to go, who knows what would have happened? It was clear his Ford was setting sail in clean air, just like this suddenly fledgling Cup career on the heels of back-to-back top-10 finishes. For Carl Edwards, we yawn and move on; here, we send Paul to Vegas, throw a ticker-tape parade and hope he can pull a repeat in 2011. Seriously, his strengthening intermediate resume has to be pleasing to soon-to-be owner Richard Childress, still struggling on 1.5-mile tracks and ready to welcome any and every helping hand he can get.
Honorable Mention: People ripping the Chase format (is everyone even defending it anymore?), Both sides making up what happened behind the closed doors of a NASCAR appeal (Childress says, NASCAR says, the expert says … will we ever really know?), Ryan Newman (sixth straight top-11 finish, sixth straight race without a penalty … a stark contrast for the 13th-place point man compared to 12th-place Chase contender Clint Bowyer)
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: Honestly, the only time I ever thought I’d mention Stenhouse’s name on this site was referring to a warm beach he’d be heading to following an unceremonious release. But after destroying all of Roush Fenway’s fleet to the point he could open a Wal-Mart filled with scrap metal, this former ARCA title contender has made a remarkable comeback in NASCAR’s version of AAA. The Nationwide Series rookie point leader – yes, that is not a misprint – has nine top-15 finishes in his last dozen starts, along with zero DNFs – a stark contrast from the one and five, respectively, he posted during his first 12. That should be enough to leapfrog Colin Braun in the Survivor: Roush Fenway sweepstakes where other finalist Trevor Bayne has already bought roses and formed an alliance with owner Jack Roush; I’m guessing he’s not the one going anywhere?
Kevin Harvick: Considering the chaos surrounding the Richard Childress Racing organization as of late, it’s a minor miracle the No. 29’s still survived to put itself in position to contend for a title. Two top-5 runs in three races remind me of how he built a 228-point cushion over Jeff Gordon in the fantasy world where the regular season point standings actually mean something. Too bad we live in reality, though, and the cold, hard truth of it all is that 35-point deficit will be too much to overcome unless he gives the No. 48 car a love tap and/or a run for his money come Sunday.
Honorable Mention: Managerial firings in baseball (how many will we see in NASCAR this November?); Greg Biffle (one out-of-nowhere win puts him in the throes of championship contention; for awhile, he’ll stay there); Carl Edwards (Shall we say the King of Consistency but the Prince Who Can’t Find His Way To Victory Lane)
Juan Pablo Montoya: While teammate Jamie McMurray has been exhibiting the type of progress Earnhardt Ganassi would like to see, this Colombian appears headed for some sort of early hibernation. Runs of 16th, 14th, and 29th is a far cry from the menacing roadblock I thought this underrated driver would pose for Chase contenders. Is he struggling with the idea that this Fall, there’s no Target on his back? Perhaps. Who knows … this one’s incredibly confusing.
Marcos Ambrose: Looks like that road course momentum only lasts for so long. Runs of 30th, 20th, and 24th these last three weeks push him back to the early season puzzling performances that caused a departure from JTG effective at Homestead this November. Is the acrimony inside the Aussie’s camp enough to derail their program even further before it’s all said and done?
Honorable Mention: Joe Gibbs Racing (no cars inside the top-10 at an intermediate – troubling sign considering four of the seven tracks left to go); David Reutimann knocking Kyle Busch out of contention (I don’t care what side you’re on; it was just cool to see!); Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (as we like to nickname it in this business, SSDD – come on, you can figure that one out)
Kasey Kahne: Kahne’s pole-winning run ended unceremoniously with a bout to the outside wall on Sunday. That 37th-place ending was his fifth consecutive finish outside the top-10, the No. 9 falling apart in the homestretch while a 2011 revamping looms. To win, you must first finish … and I’m sure Kahne can’t wait for this year to finally end, Red Bull Racing sitting there waiting with open arms.
Landon Cassill: The young puppet for start-and-park rides to fill their spot, Cassill in gaining some valuable on-track experience but not cashing in. Runs of 42nd and 43rd the last two weeks are an awful reminder of a young driver’s terrible choices: Sit on the sidelines, waiting for the phone call that never comes or finding some place, some way to race for just a few laps before pulling in. What a sad state of affairs for NASCAR in 2010…
Honorable Mention: Trying too hard, then falling flat on your face when you fail – at fantasy football; start-and-parkers (now averaging about five to six per Cup race); giving someone the finger during an NFL game ($40,000 fine – at least NASCAR’s not the only one vigorously punishing out-of-control physical gestures)
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