The Frontstretch: Johnson's Struggles Have Created Power Vacuum In Sprint Cup Standings by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday May 26, 2010

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Johnson's Struggles Have Created Power Vacuum In Sprint Cup Standings

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday May 26, 2010

 

The last few weeks have been quite unkind to Jimmie Johnson. First, he and teammate Jeff Gordon were disappointed with each other, then the “other” Four-Time said he was pissed to the point Rick Hendrick had to get involved and play the role of U.N. Peacekeeper. Then, the No. 48 was the dominant force at Dover a couple of weeks ago, blowing by everything in sight, including the timing traps on pit road that cost him a penalty and the race win. And during last Saturday night’s All-Star Race, it appeared that he was heading towards his third All-Star Race win, once again allowing the Lowe’s team to reference Charlotte Motor Speedway as “our house” – until he lost control coming off of Turn 4 in the final segment that paid a million dollars to win.

Safe to say, Jimmie and the employee-owners of Lowe’s were not stoked about that one.

What they might also be nonplussed over is that there appears to be a bit of a power vacuum developing in the Sprint Cup Series. Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team has set the benchmark in NASCAR’s top division since 2006, but right now, there appears to be no shortage of challengers to the throne as evidenced by the current glut amongst the top 12 in the point standings, with only 203 points separating Johnson in fifth from Martin Truex, Jr. in 12th.

With that in mind, the Coca-Cola 600 marks the 1/3 mark of the season, and is an appropriate time to take stock of things and set the field for the upcoming all-important Summer Stretch that will define the Chase for the Championship come September. Who’s in the best position to take Johnson down? Let’s look …

Shell may be leaving at the end of the season, but the reconciliation between Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress could be just the right combination to dethrone Johnson.

1. Kevin Harvick Fresh off his first win in over three years (and people bag on Junior?), Harvick and Richard Childress have apparently mended whatever fences had fallen apart, and have recommitted themselves for several years to come. With potential sponsors rumored as either UPS or The King of Beers, the No. 29 is leading a resurgent RCR atop the points standings.

2. Kyle Busch (-69) Denny Hamlin may have coined a rallying cry with “All we do is win,” but Busch threw down the gauntlet with “Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin,” following Saturday night’s All-Star Race incident between the two teammates. Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers are clearly in sync, and Busch is showing the signs of the dominance that he displayed in 2008 when he first joined Joe Gibbs Racing, coupled with a newfound maturity and leadership that has been absent in seasons past. To quote Vince Vaughn from the movie Swingers, “You grows up and you grows up!” As long as the No. 18 doesn’t “blows up,” he could make the Summer Stretch an agonizing one for the competition.

3. Matt Kenseth (-126) Who? Oh yeah, that guy; the one who captured the 2003 championship and scored two-thirds of Ford’s wins in 2009 – all two of them. No longer wandering around aimlessly like Moses and company through the desert, new crew chief Todd Parrott has appeared as a cloud to the Roush Fenway faithful, and the No. 17 team is performing and acting as the Killer Bees of the DeWalt days. Kenseth is as steady and consistent as they come, and a glance down the schedule the next few months reveals the big horsepower honkers – Michigan, Pocono, Indianapolis, and Atlanta – which should bode well for the new Ford FR9 engine. Team owner Jack Roush is fond of waxing poetic of the ebbs and flow of racing, and this rising tide looks to lift all the boats that sail under the Blue Oval banner.

4. Denny Hamlin (-150) It makes you wonder what kind of surgery was performed on Denny Hamlin’s knee, because he has been going, as my Dad likes to say, “Like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest!” Safe to say, the contest has been pretty one-sided as of late, with the No. 11 knocking out a series-leading three wins, tied with defending champion Johnson in that department. No longer a one-trick pony on flat tracks, DH has become the designated hitter on the high-banks as well. Rick Hendrick conceded that Joe Gibbs Racing may have indeed eclipsed his team – and this guy is a big reason for that. If all they do is win, Pocono, Loudon, and Indianapolis might be foregone conclusions if past performance is any indication.

6. Jeff Gordon (-163) It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for a guy that is sixth in points and has already amassed over $2 million in earnings this year, but Gordon has gotten the short end of the stick more often than not in 2010. There really is no reason that he hasn’t won at least three races this year, save for some seriously horrendous luck. He is as focused and fired up as ever, and his much-maligned crew chief, Steve Letarte, who often serves as the emotional punching bag for so many No. 24 fans, has re-dedicated himself physically and mentally for this season as well. Both driver and crew chief are on top of their game, and with 82 career victories, it’s hard to find a track that’s bad for the original Four-Time. Add in some team-building exercises and s’mores parties with their shopmates, and Gordon might seal up the Drive for Five before JJ does.

7. Greg Biffle (-187) Yeah, I kind of forgot he was this high in the standings, too. Like General Hummel in The Rock, Biffle has achieved his position through poise and audacity, to which he now intends to add resolve. With that, he should probably try to mix in some top 5s, as he has only a pair thus far this season, and of his eight top 10s, four of those have been just that – 10th. Combined with three finishes of 22nd, Biffle is consistent, if anything, and manages to stay out of trouble, keeping the No. 16 3M Ford out of harm’s way. With his stealthy demeanor on the track, he might want to swap numbers with Carl Edwards, because the Biff is about as close to former Roush driver Jeff Burton as you’re going to get. Except for maybe Jeff Burton himself.

8. Jeff Burton (-199) Oh hi, Jeff. After throwing away a sure win at Darlington by running over the air hose … or after the tire guy didn’t toss the gun over the hood … or the jack guy didn’t wait to be told to drop it … Burton put his team on notice: get your heads in the game or we aren’t going to contend. Respond they did, with a second-place finish the following week at Dover to right the ship. The Coca-Cola 600 is a race that plays perfectly into the hands of a veteran like Burton; an endurance event that can turn into a gas-mileage affair or a last-lap shootout that means preserving your equipment until it’s go time. To wit, Burton has two 600 wins to his credit, in 1999 and 2001. The Mayor of NASCAR has long since flown under the radar, but is beginning to show up as more than just a blip in recent weeks, and may be carpet bombing the field by the time summer rolls around.

9. Kurt Busch (-237) I have this recurring image in my head of Busch chucking a bottle (not of the Miller Lite Vortex variety) into the cockpit of his Penske Dodge Charger back at Bristol after being one-upped by the No. 48 team. Busch and crew chief Steve Addington may have tipped their hand a bit Saturday night at Charlotte, displaying serious speed that virtually nobody came close to matching – this, after mashing their monster Mopar into the Turn 4 wall on more than one occasion. There is a reason why they’ve been painting their wheels that hideous yellow of late – probably to hide the wall scars. No matter, the Blue Deuce will likely put a hurtin’ on ‘em this weekend, where upon exiting the car in Victory Lane, Kurt will give their winning car another unfortunate nickname. Kurt, if you’re reading this, you’ve got time to think of a really good one. Please.

10. Carl Edwards (-281) That Subway commercial where he lifts his car up looking for his sandy is beginning to get about as annoying as the DirecTV commercial with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. whipping donuts at Richmond a few years ago – just not to the degree of the Pizza Hut commercial several years back where there was a divine light emitting from their cardboard box. But I digress. A quick look at Edwards’ finishes reminds me of a guy trying to kickstart a recalcitrant two-stroke Kawasaki. Solid top 10s are followed by middling finishes in the teens, or an accident – either involving or not involving sailing Brad Keselowski into the cheap seats. Some extra oats between the fenders courtesy of the new Roush Yates FR9 powerplant could help Mr. Edwards position the No. 99 for a chance at a title run.

Though the media has all but kicked Mark Martin out of his ride at Hendrick Motorsports, he’s closer to the points leader at this point this season than he was last year.

11. Mark Martin (-293) What a difference a year makes. At this time in 2009, Mark Martin had two wins and signed on for two additional full-time seasons, while the media at large was singing his praises, suggesting that he was finally in reach of a championship that has eluded him for well over two decades. Enter 2010, where the No. 5 has stumbled at tracks that produced convincing victories just a year ago, and with the announcement of Kasey Kahne joining HMS in 2012, the press can’t get Martin out of the car quick enough for whatever reason, regardless of how often he insists that he will be back in it next year. The drop in performance has left many scratching their heads. Is it the new spoiler? Have other teams simply caught up? Has collaborating with the No. 88 team become more of a boat anchor than a benefit? The All-Star Race showed that the No. 5 should be fast at Charlotte, and Martin fans can take heart; he is actually one point closer to first place this year than he was at this time in 2009.

12. Martin Truex, Jr. (-334) Michael Waltrip has to be wondering why his flagship car wasn’t running like this the last few years he was driving it. While the 2004 and ’05 Nationwide Series champion no doubt has had some influence over the performance of the NAPA Toyota, so has new MWR crew chief Pat Tryson. Few war wagon generals are as motivational on the radio as Tryson, and his quiet confidence off the air has helped guide his teams to Chase appearances in all but one year since its inception in 2004. Some early-season teething problems have worked themselves out, and now the No. 56 can be expected to be around the top 10 every week. But that’s not all; how about winning that pole at Dover and just about catching Kurt in the All-Star Race after racing their way in through the Showdown? They may not know how to get to the moon, but to make it to the Chase, these guys both know what to do.

Keep in mind, all of this in contingent upon the No. 48 team folding and falling flat on their collective face. The chances of this happening are about as likely as Alice In Chains offering to have me to fill in on vocals for a few dates this year, even though I can totally nail “Would?” at a karaoke bar. With three wins already this year, and another couple that slipped away, this is a team that prepares during the summer months for the big show in the fall. If these contenders wish not to look like pretenders, they had better make hay while the summer sun is shining in the months ahead.

Otherwise, the only sucking sound to be heard will be that of the other 11 competitors left in their wake yet again.

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DansMom
05/26/2010 09:54 AM
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Vito,

Take it from a long-time fan like myself. Jimmie has a tendancy to come on strong during the Chase – when it matters. To draw a correlation to one of my posts earlier in the week – Just as you can’t win a 100 lap race on laps 1-99, you can’t win a championship before the Chase begins (but you can lose it – again, see Kyle Busch).

Let’s check Jimmie Johnson’s place in the standings at the All Star Break for the past 4 years, all of which he won the year-end Champtionship:

2009: 4th
2008: 6th
2007: 2nd
2006: 1st

And just as a side note – 2006 was Jimmie’s smallest margin of victory for a championship – 56 points.

Early season points leads do not translate into championships.

vito, have you been feeling well lately?

Margarrita Chicken
05/26/2010 10:11 AM
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I just hope Vito hasn’t taken a page Matt McLaughlin’s book and write inaccurate articles. I thought Matt was giving up on Nascar?

Managing Editor
05/26/2010 11:04 AM
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Vito,

I tried to leave your demo tape with Alice in Chains on Sunday but they wouldn’t bite! They’re coming back in September, you’ll have to up your game between now and then.

Julia
05/26/2010 12:12 PM
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I would not say Jimmie is struggling at all. Far from it as matter of fact. He is just having some bad luck for a change. Nothing more then that. For the past 4-5 years, all Jimmie has known is perfect luck all the time. Everything has always fallen his way for 4-5 years straight. This is the 1st time in many years, he is not having that perfect luck. He is finally experiencing what every other driver on the circuit already has: Bad luck more then once a year. He is just not used to having bad luck, and neither is the media. That’s the only reason it looks like he is struggling, but he is not. The law of averages may have finally caught up with him. I kind of hope so, I am sick to death of one driver dominating race after race, year after year. I just wonder if Jimmie finally has an off season, how he will react to it. I hope it’s with as much class as his teammates Jeff and Jr have shown in simalar times.

Kevin
05/26/2010 12:49 PM
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The wrecks may have made things look worse than they really are, but Jimmie has had some recent struggles as well. Take Richmond, where he was never overly competitive and “only” finished 10th. Then at Darlington…yes, he was taken out in a freak accident with Allmendinger, but what many people forget is that he was running back around 25th at the time. He hadn’t had much to brag about all evening and had already hit the wall once on his own.

Of course, he has since dominated the race at Dover, but the other 42 drivers have learned something very critical: Jimmie no longer appears to be invincible, and that knowledge may be just enough to push some of those other teams into contention for this championship.

Jim Baker
05/26/2010 05:27 PM
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Kenseth has 3 championships by now if he is driving for Chad Knaus at Hendrick. I’m just saying.

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