The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Predicting NASCAR's Short-Term Future by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 23, 2013

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Did You Notice? ... Predicting NASCAR's Short-Term Future

Thomas Bowles · Wednesday October 23, 2013


Did You Notice?… There are still five drivers with Cup wins in 2012 who have been shut out of Victory Lane this season? With two non-Chasers winning the last two weeks, turning the spotlight away from the championship a bit, it’s certainly possible these shutout streaks can be busted, too. Let’s take a look at each driver and gauge his chances during the final four races…

Jeff Gordon
2012 Victories: Pocono – August, Homestead
Best 2013 Finish: 2nd, Twice
Best Chance Left: Martinsville. For Gordon, this year’s Chase has been like playing with house money at the casino. It’s nothing to lose, everything to gain for a team that wasn’t even in the postseason until 48 hours before the first race at Chicagoland. The team has responded to that carefree philosophy, putting Gordon fifth in points and within longshot distance of the championship with four races left. That’s why Martinsville is so key for Operation No. 24: Title With An Asterisk. Seven career wins there leave him one behind teammate Jimmie Johnson for the active lead at that facility. He was third in the Spring, seventh last Fall (with 92 laps led) and 14th in the Spring of 2012. But who could forget that fateful finish, now almost 18 months old, where contact with Clint Bowyer cost them both a shot at the victory? It’s clear Ol’ Four-Time has this place figured out, and if he’s ever going to put pressure on Johnson this Sunday, in Victory Lane is the only hope.
Odds: 4/1.

If Four-Time is going to grab a win in 2013, his best chance is this weekend in Martinsville.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
2012 Victory: Michigan – June
Best 2013 Finish: 2nd, four times
Best Chance Left: Phoenix. While Earnhardt has had great cars at Martinsville, in recent years the one-mile oval in the desert is where he’s been most successful. In 22 career starts, he’s won twice there while collecting a respectable nine top-10 finishes. This Spring, he led 47 laps and appeared to be a contender, down the stretch only to fall victim to pit strategy in what became a track position race. His team is on a hot streak, surging to sixth in points after an awful Chase start at Chicagoland (blown engine) and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them cash in on that momentum over the next four weeks. For NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, the time is now.
Odds: 10/1.

Clint Bowyer
2012 Victories: Sonoma, Richmond – September, Charlotte – October
Best 2013 Finish: 2nd, Twice
Best Chance Left: Martinsville. Bowyer, like rival Gordon, has been knocking on the door for years at NASCAR’s shortest track. Second in the Spring, fifth last Fall, and in contention before that fateful 2012 Spring wreck, he’s made his presence felt in southern Virginia. Can he step up and cash in? It’s one of the only places you’d expect the No. 15 Toyota to contend in a year where Michael Waltrip Racing has been a small step behind on intermediates. And oh, did I mention that whole “Spingate” thing? The team has been seemingly out of the limelight ever since, not scoring a finish better than ninth during the Chase. So if it doesn’t happen Sunday… it probably won’t happen, period.
Odds: 20/1.

Denny Hamlin
2012 Victories: Phoenix – February, Kansas – April, Bristol – August, Atlanta, Loudon – September
Best 2013 Finish: 2nd, Darlington
Best Chance Left: Martinsville. Can you see why Sunday’s short track race will be one of the most exciting of the year? Hamlin’s got a history at one of his hometown speedways, earning four victories there since the Spring of 2008 while leading 986 laps during that stretch. Building momentum for 2014 as of late, he earned a top-10 finish at Charlotte, his first in three months, and will be crucial to the success of Chasers Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. It’s Hamlin’s setup they’ll likely build right off of, meaning Joe Gibbs Racing knows that No. 11 car has to enter the weekend a strong performer. It’s their only hope to keep the other two, notoriously weak at the short track within striking distance of Johnson ahead of them.

So if it doesn’t happen there? I’d say forget it, with Hamlin not running strong enough elsewhere to hit Victory Lane. Despite four career wins at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead it’s hard for me to see it considering some of the R&D setups they’re running. A driver’s talent can overcome that at a place like Martinsville, where handling is key. Otherwise…
Odds: 25/1.

Marcos Ambrose
2012 Victory: Watkins Glen
Best 2013 Finish: 6th, Michigan – August
Best Chance Left: Homestead. It’s a longshot, at best, for Ambrose anywhere as the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has yet to win on an oval track. But in the season finale last November, he qualified on the front row, led 14 laps and finished a respectable 13th. Maybe the magic will roll over with NASCAR’s new, Gen-6 chassis? With so many title contenders potentially tiptoeing around, maybe that opens the door for an unheralded name to steal one right under their noses.
Odds: 100/1.

Did You Notice?… What past history tells us about the 2013 Chase? Most are labeling Jimmie Johnson a heavy favorite with four races left. On paper, there’s a logical argument there that goes beyond “he’s a five-time champion” or “he’s got all the momentum.” Let’s look at the past nine editions, revealing how the final four races panned out

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Kurt Busch
Series Champion: Kurt Busch

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Tony Stewart
Series Champion: Tony Stewart

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Matt Kenseth
Series Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Jeff Gordon
Series Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Jimmie Johnson
Series Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Jimmie Johnson
Series Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Jimmie Johnson
Series Champion: Jimmie Johnson

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Carl Edwards
Series Champion: Tony Stewart

Point Leader With 4 Races Left: Brad Keselowski
Series Champion: Brad Keselowski

A point leader has been overtaken just three times, the last in 2011, which gives the challengers a 33 percent chance to unseat Johnson. But let’s look closer in each instance. In ’06, ’07, and ’11 you had a driver with major momentum charging hard from behind. Kenseth, who has been playing defense three straight weeks with a car that might turn hard right into the wall if you touch it with a feather, has major handling issues. He’s not exactly burning the midnight oil to catch Johnson and Martinsville is one of his worst tracks statistically.

That tilts the odds even further in favor of Johnson. But how about recent history? I took the Spring race finishes for each of the top 5 drivers in points at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix. Then, I added their result from the 2012 season finale, at Homestead to get a “mock point standings” and see who’s got the best chance of being champ. Here’s what I discovered…

2013 Projected Point Standings – Based On Most Recent Finishes At Final Four Tracks
1) Johnson
2) Kyle Busch -13
3) Kenseth -15
4) Harvick -35
5) Gordon -42

As you can see, Kenseth would lose second to Kyle Busch while Jimmie Johnson coasts home unscathed. And that’s with a finish outside the top 30, at Homestead, included once Johnson’s part breakage sent him behind the wall and handed the title to rival Brad Keselowski.

With those kind of numbers, it’s perfectly clear why the No. 48 team remains in front. I expect them to remain the heavy favorite, love ‘em or hate ‘em and win a sixth championship. Mastering this Chase is just what this team is trained to do.

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Bill B
10/23/2013 08:56 AM

Well, at least now I don’t have to watch the last four races. Thanks for letting me know how the movie ends.

Carl D.
10/23/2013 09:15 AM

I agree that Johnson more than likely has this year’s trophy already in the bag. I hate to say it, but it seems to me that Matt Kenseth has let the pressure get to him a little bit. The “Hamlin Choke” must be contagious over at JGR.

10/23/2013 02:22 PM

Bill, yeah, this column really is a downer if you’re not a 48 fan, isn’t it?

Here’s hoping for a Gordon win at Martinsville. I really don’t want Johnson to win there again or Hamlin or Bowyer.

10/23/2013 08:12 PM

Another title for Johnson will cause further erosion in people from the sport!!….just sayin…..

10/27/2013 10:56 AM

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Contact Tom Bowles

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