Thomas Bowles · Wednesday September 25, 2013
Did You Notice?… The biggest storyline surrounding this year’s Chase, on the racetrack is… no surprises? As we sit, the three men sitting on top of NASCAR’s playoff, pulling ahead of fourth-place Carl Edwards by as much as 36 points are the ones who have run up front all year. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson have won 15 of 28 races, dominating the regular season while backing that up with two straight top-5 finishes apiece to start the Chase.
How rare is it for everything to go “according to the script?” (Too soon?) Turns out the answer is quite awhile. You have to cycle back to 2007, when Tony Stewart was racing with Joe Gibbs for the last time no “Cinderellas” appeared. Back then, you had Jeff Gordon out in front, by just two points over Stewart while Jimmie Johnson sat four behind. The three favorites going in, who combined to win 19 of 36 races established themselves at the front of the pack.
How did that year’s playoff play out? Not good in terms of an upset story. Gordon and Johnson wound up running away with the Chase, swapping the lead back and forth until Johnson snuck out in front down the stretch. By the end of the season, they were a whopping 346 points in front of third-place Clint Bowyer – nearly 90 points under the current championship system. Stewart dropped back, finishing sixth but one favorite’s failure wasn’t enough to stop the other two.
It all adds up to a sobering reality for this year’s title Chase. NASCAR, desperately would like some other storylines to come to the forefront after “Spingate.” But it’s bound to be the two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kenseth and Busch slugging it out like ’07 with Jimmie Johnson toe-to-toe with them every step of the way. In other words… what we could have predicted back in April.
What was Brian France saying about the excitement of this playoff system? Or did he already take a nap?
Did You Notice?… All of a sudden, NASCAR’s Silly Season is spinning out of control. With NAPA unsure they’ll stay in the sport, where they’re headed will likely dictate everyone’s next move. But the current trend we’re seeing, with open rides still possible for 2014 is a shift back towards the “young guns.” During the past few years, older drivers like Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff Burton found homes in an era where there wasn’t enough talent coming through the ranks.
Now? They’re all headed straight towards potential retirement. Even Burton, who’s had a better year than his results might indicate has struggled to remain on the short list for Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 car – perhaps the best fully-funded ride still available. Despite the backing of car owner Richard Childress, who sends engine and chassis support to that single-car effort they’re focused on hiring a younger driver, like Ryan Blaney or snapping up Martin Truex, Jr. if the NAPA sponsorship dissipates. Sam Hornish, Jr., the potential Nationwide Series champion would even slot in before Burton gets a second look.
The same goes with Labonte, although his track record at 49 hardly merits much. This season, he’s yet to score a top-10 finish with single-car team JTG-Daugherty; AJ Allmendinger, by comparison has one already in six starts. Recovering from broken ribs, nine years removed from a victory and thirteen from his 2000 Cup championship it might be time for the Texan to consider scaling back. And as for Martin? You’d have to think these final eight races with Stewart-Haas will be his last. Now 54, he hasn’t run top 5 since February’s Daytona 500, holds an average finish of 20.0 – his worst in a decade – and sits rideless for 2014. With no top-tier opportunities available, especially for someone who wants to run part-time Salute To You IX may finally be the one that sticks.
The upside of these aging drivers riding into the sunset is there’s finally room for new talent in the series. When you add Juan Pablo Montoya’s departure, from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to open-wheel there’s four quality seats that could well be filled by rookies. Blaney, according to several is a lead candidate for the No. 78 ride; Austin Dillon, in a way takes over Burton’s slot by moving up with RCR; Kyle Larson takes over the No. 42 at Earnhardt Ganassi; and now, with Allmendinger moving to the No. 47 his old No. 51 ride could get filled by Justin Allgaier. For a series that’s struggled to develop young blood (last three Rookie of the Years: Kevin Conway, Andy Lally, Josh Wise) these guys are going to be welcomed with open arms.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
- So much for NASCAR switching up the schedule. Rumors ran wild last week with everything from a Labor Day date for Darlington to a road course being added into the Chase. Instead? So many tracks have announced their 2014 dates, in preparation for NASCAR’s full schedule reveal we already know not much is changing. Ooooo …. Texas moves to a Sunday in April to accommodate another sport (the NCAA Final Four). That’s a move ready to send shockwaves through the sport, right?
- A lot of people were surprised EGR kept Jamie McMurray over Juan Pablo Montoya. Don’t be. McMurray’s fifth-place finish was the best of the non-Chase contenders at Loudon; right now, he’s 15th in points and could have easily made the Chase without some mechanical failures early in the year. Montoya is not oval proven; McMurray? He’s got six wins to his credit. Plus, he’s got the better temperament to mentor young, up-and-coming Kyle Larson next season.
- For those looking for different faces up front, this weekend at Dover don’t hold your breath. It’s Jimmie Johnson’s best track, a place he should have won going away in June if not for a controversial call on a late restart. And who led the most laps that day? Oh, that’s right… Kyle Busch. Yeah, don’t expect much although this track was where Toyota experienced some of their notorious engine failures early in the year. Matt Kenseth was among those who headed home early… in theory, it’s a big test although I think Chicagoland was as well. The Camrys held up well there.
- There’s buzz surrounding a Monday test, post-Charlotte that should get NASCAR fans hyped about 2014. Sources have said a new chassis package is being tested; while in the early phases, its motive is to get rid of the dreaded “aero push” on intermediates. Yes, we’ve heard this before, especially with the debut of the Gen-6 but scuttlebutt is they’ve made some real progress. We’ll see.
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