Thomas Bowles · Tuesday October 12, 2010
It may not be rainy season over in Cali, but Hurricane Jimmie blew through the Ontario flatlands Sunday night. The Santa Ana winds kicked up, leaving debris in the perfect places to harm potential challengers while putting a halo of protection over the No. 48 team we haven’t seen since oh, about last Chase. Causing severe damage to the No. 16, No. 99, No. 18, and No. 17 cars, there’s no need to call out the insurance adjusters: these championship houses are damaged beyond repair.
It just goes to show that even the best Fontana races come with the downside of the same old story in the end. But contrary to popular coverage perception, Johnson isn’t the only driver in the field of 43 throwing heavyweight punches and peaking at the right time. A quick look around who’s Hot and Not in NASCAR country reveals plenty more men hoping that one day they will ascend to Jimmie’s throne. So let’s take a look at them:
Jimmie Johnson: After a first, second and third the last three weeks, NASCAR Nation is moaning “Here we go again” as no “Have at it, boys,” poor pit stops, or championship “challenges” from Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick have stopped the freight train marked No. 48. The big question everyone’s asking now is whether this Drive For Five is already signed, sealed, delivered, and sitting in the Homestead trophy room with Johnson’s name on it.
Well, let’s consider this much: if Johnson repeats his win at Charlotte and second-place finish at Martinsville from last Fall, while Hamlin runs 10th (his average at the two Chase intermediates) and wins in those two races, the deficit between them grows to about 73 points entering Talladega. Is that something he can overcome? Only if Hamlin simply consults those local tribal leaders to finally break the curse… of everyone else but the guy in the Lowe’s car whose sponsor helped fund our casino. And you thought recovering from knee surgery was hard…
Tony Stewart: Where there’s Smoke, there’s fire, not an extra gallon of gas. That’s the new term we learned during a sorry New Hampshire Sunday in which the No. 14 car crawled like a snail to the checkered flag, a 94-point swing that will likely prove the difference following a win and fourth-place finish to leave them a top-5 contender in the Chase. Sure, Fontana’s furious ending crossed another “0-fer” track off this legend’s list; Las Vegas and Darlington remain the only places the two-time champ hasn’t stepped foot in Victory Lane. But for anyone hoping a miracle championship comeback in the offing, I present to you the following finishes from Stewart’s five last Charlotte races: 18th, 11th, 19th, 13th, 15th. You fill-in another double digit number, and you can kiss those title hopes goodbye in perfect time for another No. 48 romp at the Chase’s halfway mark.
Ryan Newman: Stewart-Haas’ second car has spent weeks praying for a second chance that never comes. It’s like Groundhog Day every Sunday for the No. 39, putting together a top-11 finish (they have seven straight) while being told each time Clint Bowyer’s penalty came at New Hampshire, not Richmond, and it’s all a waste of time because he’s not in the Chase. What a shame, considering in the “Newman” 2010 postseason he’d be sitting firmly within the top-5 in points, a difference of millions – far more than a $100,000 fine for Bowyer – when you look at that final points payout. But it would be foolish for this year’s likely 13th-place point man to get complacent when there’s still plenty of room to improve. Interestingly enough, despite the streak this 2010 race winner has just one more lap led (31) this season than races run, an ugly stat they’d like to change with a non-Chaser steal in some Victory Lane down the stretch.
Honorable Mention: Jeff Gordon (riding the coattails of the No. 48 with four straight top-11 finishes – what else is new?); More talk about Brett Favre’s anatomy than most ever wanted to hear about any athlete – ever; Random witnesses coming forward and corroborating a story about Brian France trying to take Jeremy Mayfield “down” while drunk (see blackflagbzf.com for more); severe thunderstorms and 75 degree weather in the middle of the Northeast – in Fall (first freeze? What’s that?)
Mark Martin: For months, some have wondered whether the now 51-year-old Martin is over the hill and joining Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the world of perennial Hendrick underachievers. Psych! Guess this AARP member had us all fooled; for the second week, a decent setup got underneath his No. 5 car, he led 41 laps and threatened to run away with the race until Monsieur Debris reminded him gently NASCAR said it was his turn not to win. Even still, those experimental setups and equipment that have led to not one, but two back-to-front starts the last two weeks still resulted in top-15 comebacks filled with hope, now paired with a sixth in Sunday’s Fontana finale that has them healing wounds. Fans are praying that his Salute to I’m on Social Security Soon Tour in 2011 will actually be filled with substance, not style, and at this point I think we’re right on track to see that starting at Daytona this February.
Justin Allgaier: We see it in racing all the time. After a blazing start, you’re lulled into a sense of complacency, comforted by job security and a season that’s good, just not great enough to contend for either a title or Victory Lane. Slowly but surely, you drop into an Office Space mentality, filing those TPS Reports and going through the motions knowing you have both money and time on your side to take it slow. Then, all of a sudden, you get the call. Maybe the sponsor’s not coming back, maybe a famous driver needs your spot, or maybe it’s a little bit of both, but the words sting like a pack of killer bees or Lindsay Lohan telling you yes, she did do drugs in your bathroom uninvited. Suddenly, you’re springing into action, calling your friends, your mom, your co-workers, cops, anyone you can get your hands on for a new opportunity to save a career that only recently had been given lifetime immunity.
In the process, pure adrenaline drives you inside the race car, turning terrible finishes into talented potential in a heartbeat. After all, you don’t get a new ride by running 30th, right? That, in a nutshell, is a glimpse into the life of Mr. Allgaier, the likable kid with the Sprint-destroyed sponsor whose streak of six straight top-15 finishes poses as all-too-perfect timing after a Penske breakup-to-be. Can he land elsewhere in Nationwide? You’d have to think the answer’s yes, right? If the highest finishing regular in the standings can’t land somewhere for 2011, well you’d have to think the Series as a whole is doomed.
Honorable Mention: Clint Bowyer with his new crew and car chief (one second-place finish + one untimely “debris” caution = you don’t need your car sent back to R & D to be targeted); the baseball playoffs (making NASCAR ratings look like mush in comparison); Trevor Bayne being the next rookie to make it up to Cup (think he’ll do better than Kevin Conway?); Kyle Busch setting Nationwide Series records (12 wins, no Sprint Cup trophy… again)
Roush Fenway Racing: Well, that was an ugly way to end a championship Chase. A track that was once the twin sister of Ford’s best track, Michigan, turned all Real Housewives of Fontana at the wrong time. Man, what Roush would have given for one of those seven victories here instead of three ugly part failures for Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth. It’s like picking the wrong door on Let’s Make a Deal where all you end up with is an ugly sheep. I’d say there was a consolation prize, but when you’re slapped in the face and told, “Not ‘till next season!” even David Ragan taking out former Roush friend-turned-enemy Kurt Busch won’t let anyone crack a smile. Turns out the six months of being behind on development eventually will come back to bite the Blue Oval crowd after all … a bad relationship can’t ever be fixed in two months, can it?
Jeff Burton: Perhaps a bigger surprise than Bowyer losing his appeal is the sluggish performance of RCR’s third title “contender.” Looks like Burton and Co. are borrowing a page out of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s book, peaking at the wrong time before falling through the field following the last round of stops as if instead of adjusting the track bar a crewman reached behind the racks and pulled out a spark plug. 18th, then 23rd after a runner-up finish at Dover launched the No. 31 briefly into the spotlight? Either Childress made a choice between Burton and Harvick, or there’s just not enough good mojo to go around in that smarting three-car organization right now.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Francis coming over to Team Red Bull – now, will both sides officially mail it in at RPM?; Fontana ever getting a second date again (unlikely … but did you see that crowd?); Danica Patrick (a whole bunch of cheers followed by one big “awwwww” at the end); a sinkhole in Charlotte (if only that thing could swallow up the Chase, it would serve its purpose)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: A 16th-place finish in most circles would be considered acceptable. But when your teammates run 1st, 3rd, 9th and arguably have the three fastest cars in the race that result becomes just a tad bit more glaring. Junior’s now armed with just one top-5 finish in the last dozen races, is in jeopardy of falling outside the top-20 in Sprint Cup points and is getting so frustrated inside the car, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick would be getting on the radio yelling to the man, “Calm down!” I see only one answer to this mess, as does everyone else if Earnhardt is to stay in the seat… “Calling Tony Eury, Sr. please. Tony Eury, Sr., to the Hendrick shop floor — where millions in a suitcase is waiting for you.”
Kevin Conway: The Extenze Racing product may have a problem extending his career if there’s no No. 7 car to jump in this February. After a month of starting-and-parking, this rookie started running the distance but still hasn’t posted a top-30 finish for one of racing’s last independents standing squarely on his last legs. That’s allowed the No. 38 of Front Row Motorsports to come within 25 points of knocking this car outside the top 35, posing a problem for a freshman that often ends each session the slowest driver in the starting field. Will the sponsor wind up backing Gordon when they see the writing on the wall? Or will they step out of the sport altogether, leaving marketer and the driver/owner he rode out on sitting there watching their Sprint Cup dreams slip away.
Honorable Mention: PRISM Motorsports (Mike Bliss DNQ’d, Jason Leffler ran last, now their engine is an R & D Center relic for Charlotte); Landon Cassill (will he ever run a full race again?); Latitude 43 Motorsports (currently making the DNQ a way of life – 3-for-4 with Patrick Carpentier and Jeff Green); NASCAR Appeals process (perhaps the biggest knockout punch received during the whole Childress-Hamlin-Harvick-Bowyer-half the garage brouhaha)
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