The Frontstretch: Fact Or Fiction: Cup's Next First-Time Winner, Make Or Break Moments, Tire Trials by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday October 4, 2011

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From budding driver talent to bumbling ownership comments, there’s no shortage of storylines to talk about in NASCAR this week. So sit back, relax and enjoy this extra-large edition of Fact or Fiction, tackling every prediction from A.J. Allmendinger, to Goodyear’s “test” and even one driver’s season in particular that’s turned “make or break” heading to Kansas.

Making a late surge for 13th in the Sprint Cup standings, A.J. Allmendinger appears primed and ready to succeed as the series’ next first-time winner.

FACT: A.J. Allmendinger Will Be Sprint Cup’s Next First-Time Winner

Typically, the battle for “Best of the Rest” in the Chase becomes nothing more than a booby prize for some disenchanted veteran who missed the cut. Tony Stewart in ’06, Kyle Busch in ’09, Mark Martin last year… it’s a pattern of well-known names, familiar visitors to Victory Lane and drivers for which an accomplishment of 13th in a field of 43 full-timers means little if anything to them.

But this year, sneaking under the radar of an ultracompetitive playoff is one of the sport’s feel-good stories. For A.J. Allmendinger, that 13th position in points would be a career best, part of a renaissance for Richard Petty Motorsports after nearly closing their doors just one year earlier. And despite roller coaster races, a crew chief change (Mike Shiplett for Greg Erwin in July) plus the disadvantage of being a two-car, “B”-team designation to Roush Fenway Racing Mr. Allmendinger is right there, on the cusp of breaking through that barrier. A seventh-place Dover effort, charging from 43rd after Denny Hamlin nearly knocked him into the wall on Lap 5 left the Californian just two points behind Clint Bowyer heading into Kansas. And if that contact hadn’t happened, resulting in the save of the year on a track that’s about as forgiving as the Devil this team and driver would have put themselves in position to win.

Instead, they left disappointed, Allmendinger lamenting in his post-race remarks the car was “this close” on speed and handling. Not to worry, A.J.; as far as I’m concerned, that trip to Victory Lane could happen sometime within the next seven weeks. The ‘Dinger was fifth at Charlotte this Spring, one of the 1.5-mile ovals left on the schedule and was a surprising ninth at Phoenix pre-repave. Considering a non-Chaser tends to win at least once over the course of the final ten races, why not push your chips straight toward the hot hand?

Of course, there’s a chance Allmendinger whiffs, carrying that goose egg in the victory column over to 2012. But of the remaining winless drivers on the circuit, who’s better positioned to score one first? David Gilliland? Dave Blaney? Andy Lally? Yeah, I didn’t think you had a better choice. Unless a rookie comes out of nowhere, like Austin Dillon this Sunday at Kansas it’s not a question of if, but when Allmendinger becomes the next budding Sprint Cup star to make his mark on Victory Lane.

FICTION: Goodyear Extension Happened At The Right Time

For most of NASCAR’s latest contract with Goodyear, signed before the full-time CoT era drivers have complained of a mismatch between the tires and their race cars. For every Atlanta this Fall, it seems there’s about five Dovers in the Spring where rubber buildup, or lack thereof helps contribute to a culture where passing is becoming a luxury rather than an automatic.

Among the more notable incidents, as embarrassing as they were difficult to race under: Las Vegas, March 2008. Indianapolis, July 2008. Daytona 500 Speedweeks, February 2009. Dover, May 2011. Virtually every third to fourth race at a 1.5-mile intermediate. Need we go on? Surely, Goodyear has put on some fantastic events but in the name of safety, as a result of their mistakes they’ve erred on the side of conservatism to the point rock hard compounds lead to little dropoff over the course of a green-flag run. It’s problematic, attacked with an inconsistent solution by the tire company and has led to a constant stream of criticism from the media as several, single-file parade races have led to boredom and calls for major change.

Apparently, NASCAR wasn’t listening. The five-year extension with Goodyear, keeping them as the exclusive tire provider of the sport through 2017 provides curious timing in this year where improvement has been limited at best. Certainly, these types of contracts are negotiated well in advance but a vote of confidence? Now? With no hard evidence to show Goodyear is making a dent in their CoT setups? Wouldn’t you at least give it nine more months to wait out any other possible disasters?

Of course, the possibility exists no other supplier would even be interested in signing with the stock car organization. But you had 14 months! Wouldn’t you even try to make overtures to someone else? That’s good for Goodyear, but bad for business as NASCAR’s financial actions give little impetus to the tire and rubber company to “shape up.” If they’re cashing the check, with little threats surrounding them it can often cause a company to get lazy with improvements. Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen here; heck, let’s hope this organization can get a handle on any type of tire-CoT combination before its replacement comes around in 2013.

FICTION: Steve Wallace Is Ready For Cup

Hey, I didn’t say it. In an interview with Scene Daily’s Bob Pockrass, Rusty Wallace gushed that his son could be a top-20 runner in Sprint Cup if given the right opportunity.

“Believe it or not, I think [Steven] is in pretty decent shape to get in a Cup car and run in the top 20 with fair ease,” he said. “From what I see week after week watching from our [ESPN] pit studio.”

Man, that must be some good LSD Rusty is taking because the acid trip he’s on differs greatly from the Nationwide Series reality for son Stephen. Since entering the sport’s second-tier division in 2004, Wallace has a total of six – count ‘em, six! – top-5 finishes in 186 career starts. For those counting at home, that’s a top-5 result a little over 3.2 percent of the time, or about once every 33 Nationwide events. Right now, he sits eighth in points but has led just six laps on the season; in fact, Wallace has led just 57 laps his entire career. Sounds like a man who’s clearly outgrown his current racing environment… right?

I understand Rusty’s point of view; of course, you’re going to market your son in an era where sponsors are hard to come by. But Sprint Cup? Really? That’s a stretch if I ever saw one right now.

FACT: Kansas Is Make Or Break For… Kyle Busch

A lot of people will spend this week claiming “do or die” for several Chase competitors. But while drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Ryan Newman, and Denny Hamlin are already on the ropes there’s another veteran threatening to join them this Monday: Kyle Busch.

Busch’s Chase took a nasty turn, you might remember at this race last year when David Reutimann’s revenge played out in public. Spinning out the No. 18, at his own peril cost the Toyota rival a solid finish but also left Busch slumping home 21st, the first car one lap down and all but waving the white flag on a rapidly fading title bid. Once again, in 2011 Busch’s postseason has seen some similar cracks in the armor; the top seed has yet to even finish inside the top 5 with three races complete. Sound familiar? It’s a pattern that’s clearly inside Busch’s head, whether admitting it or not in public and a fourth such disaster, unless it’s a sixth-place finish will leave him shivering out in the cold, on the playoff bench. Considering rivals, like Johnson and Edwards have inched ahead there’s little to no hope of contending with another poor finish… so it’s simple. Busch simply can’t afford one.

That could make Sunday’s race exciting based on this scenario alone.

FICTION: The Phoenix Test Will Have A Major Impact On The 2011 Chase

Certainly, the 48 Hours Of Phoenix Practice, held today and tomorrow will do much in revealing just how competitive November’s pavement will be. For fuel injection junkies, the 2012 improvements will be experimented with so who succeeds without breaking will also become a major subplot to watch.

But as for the Chase? Expect little, if any impact on how the field of 12 will shake out. Even for those who struggle during practice, there’s an additional two days upon arrival to the desert this November to shake out your setup. And as a flat, one-mile track Phoenix bears little if any resemblance to any other oval left on the schedule. Drivers who succeed here may be ready to rumble at, say New Hampshire next July but that setup certainly isn’t going to help them down the stretch at Homestead.

So yeah, cross your fingers and hope for a test filled with side-by-side experimentation. Other than that… don’t take those end-of-day times to heart. Things have a way of changing between now and November…

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Kevin in SoCal
10/04/2011 03:06 PM
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If Goodyear already did the tire test for Phoenix, why is NASCAR having the drivers test there this week, instead of the week of the race? Seems like a whole lot of extra travel, money, and time to me. They could show up on Wednesday and Thursday of that race’s week and test to save some time and money.

Bill S.
10/06/2011 10:37 AM
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It is pure fiction that any one race is DO OR DIE for ANY of the top 9 in points in the Chase. You and the FS faithful certainly hope it is a DIE situation for Kyle Busch, but he does not have to win the race, he does not even need a top 5 or top 10. In case you boys and girls at FS haven’t noticed, top fives and top tens get NO points premium in the new points system. Winning does, but the two drivers who have won Chase races so far are not even leading the points. It is, and always has been, all about consistency. And a best finish of sixth and average of 13 after three races puts Kyle is no better or worse position than any of the rest of the top nine, because the 19 points separating first from ninth-place Jeff Gordon can disappear in a heartbeat.

One year, a statistically-minded individual figured that finishing last on the lead lap in every race would have been good enough to win the championship. That was pre-Chase, but the principle still remains in place – avoiding disaster is more important than displaying brilliance in the effort to win the Cup.

Wishful thinking will not keep Kyle or Jimmie or anyone else you despise from prevailing this year – or any year.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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