The Frontstretch: A Trio of Favorites: Why This Chase Is Not As Close As You're Being Told by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday September 15, 2010

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A Trio of Favorites: Why This Chase Is Not As Close As You're Being Told

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday September 15, 2010

 

The mantra from many in the media and some of the drivers themselves is that 2010 is the most closely matched Chase field to date, meaning picking a champion this early is next to impossible. The consensus is that there is not a clear advantage to be had by any driver headed into the final 10 races, and no one team has showed enough performance or consistency to stake their claim to this year’s Sprint Cup title.

I, however, am of the other opinion; this year’s Chase will not be nearly as close as some would have you believe.

Of the 12 teams that have qualified for the playoff, there are but a handful of drivers that stand a chance of competing down to the wire. In fact, this year’s Chase will look quite familiar if you’ve been following NASCAR the last 10 weeks, and not just glancing at the final box scores.

With Denny Hamlin’s series-leading sixth win Saturday in the Air Guard 400, the Joe Gibbs Racing pilot starts the postseason with a 10-point lead on four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson. Want to know who the two leading contenders for the Cup are this year? Look no further than this duo.

Hamlin had stumbled in the weeks just prior to Loudon, experiencing engine failure while leading during the first half of the Atlanta event after suffering when electrical gremlins reared their ugly head in Bristol. What should buoy Hamlin and the No. 11 team, though, are past performances at the tracks in the Chase and their dominance of banked downforce tracks in 2010. Wins at Texas and Michigan (June), coupled with top 5s at Atlanta and Michigan (August) bode well for similar locales that make up the bulk of the Chase slate. California, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead are high-speed, big-horsepower, banked ovals – the type that the No. 11 team used to earn their No. 1 Chase seeding.

With the other half of the schedule comprised of Martinsville (Hamlin won there in the spring), Dover (fourth), and Talladega (fourth), that leaves really only two question marks for this team: Phoenix, where Hamlin finished 30th earlier this season while driving with a surgically repaired knee, and New Hampshire, where he ran to a lackluster 14th-place effort. No worries on the first one – Hamlin hasn’t finished worse than sixth at Phoenix since 2007 if you throw out the last race, and he’s traditionally solid as nails on any flat track. Speaking of flat tracks, how about Loudon? Hamlin finished second last fall at the Magic Mile and won in a photo finish over Jeff Gordon in 2007.

Suffice it to say, Hamlin and his Mike Ford-led No. 11 JGR bunch are leading the points for a reason – and are looking to add to their “all we do is win” mantra over the next 10 weeks.

But wait; there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Or should I say the 4,800-pound gorilla? With big eyebrows. And a Sonny Crockett beard.

No matter what Denny Hamlin has done in 2010, Jimmie Johnson and team are in the exact same position that they have been the last four times they’ve won the Cup title.

Jimmie Johnson and his Lowe’s team have set the standard for playoff perfection since 2006. Many have cheered enthusiastically at the struggles (read: disappointing final finishes) over the course of the last few months, citing these chinks in the armor as evidence that they will soon be dethroned as Sprint Cup champions. Well, take heart NASCAR Nation … because it ain’t going to happen. After all, it isn’t as if Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have suffered the same performance problems as their teammates on the opposite end of the building at Hendrick Motorsports.

Stat dorks can rejoice by looking at the last 10 races by Johnson and Co.: one win, two thirds, and a pole. The poor finishes during this stretch are nothing more than an anomaly. He got wrecked while running well at Watkins Glen, and had just led his 175th lap at Bristol before getting turned by Juan Pablo Montoya. Johnson led 92 and 96 laps, respectively, at Chicago and Pocono, and you can pretty much throw out Daytona since everybody except the jet blower truck got tore up that night.

So what does it all mean for the championship duo of Knaus and Johnson? Simple: Now it’s go time. Everybody has his or her share of bad luck during the season, and this bunch seems to get it out of the way early. And did I mention his last win before he went on this much ballyhooed 10-race – ahem – “slump” just so happened to be at the kickoff Chase track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway?

So what about the other Chase contenders? They will look stout early, as the first couple of races are great tracks for virtually every driver in the top 12. Loudon is favorable to Bowyer, Hamlin, and Kurt Busch, while Dover has always favored virtually anything Roush-powered or driven by Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart. By the time the Series gets to the halfway point at Charlotte, however, I believe the championship picture will become much more clear.

Why? Only once since 2004 have two of the top three drivers after Charlotte not finished in the top three in the final point standings.

That leaves Johnson and Hamlin in the driver’s seat, watching from above as the rest of the challengers begin to falter. While Kevin Harvick’s turnaround from a year ago is remarkable, to say the least, I see him as this season’s Stewart of 2009; regular season consistency and notching a Chase win, but not quite enough to make it stick for 10 straight weeks. Jeff Burton runs well, but hasn’t really been in a position to win a race since the first half of the season, while the third RCR driver, Clint Bowyer, was sweating out the final few weeks simply because he seems to be a magnet for late-race bad luck (i.e., both Daytona races this year).

The Busch brothers will remain the enigma that they have been since each came to the Sprint Cup Series. The biggest battle for Kurt is that he is the lone Penske and Dodge team in the Chase. It would benefit him greatly this time of year to have another competitive car or two to lean on, or garner some added support from his manufacturer. However, as has been the case all year long, Kurt is the Lone Ranger for the Mopar camp. Younger brother Kyle has come on in recent weeks, albeit at tracks that bare little resemblance to those in the Chase. The No. 18 machines prepared by crew chief Dave Rogers can be as mercurial as the individual piloting them, though, and cannot match the consistency of their No. 11 stallmates.

With the Roush Fenway trio of Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards having been thrust back into relevancy by way of some help from their pseudo-teammates at Richard Petty Motorsports, Ford makes up a quarter of this year’s Chase field. But will they be able to build on their momentum of recent weeks? Biffle’s August win at Pocono was both timely and inspirational for the entire organization – Ford’s first win in over a year and a half, and one that was on the heels of team owner Jack Roush narrowly escaping death in another aerial accident. Edwards hasn’t won, but scored eight top 10s in the last nine races, with the other being a 12th-place effort. Kenseth made it on the strength of not wrecking and nothing breaking; however, top-15 finishes are not going to mean much after about the third race at Kansas.

So what is the final prognosis from Professor Pugliese?

Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards will win, place, and show for the 2010 Sprint Cup, with seven wins divided among these three. Will it go down to the last race to determine Johnson’s unholy fifth consecutive title? Sure, but only due to a mathematical possibility should he not start, or finish 38th or worse in Homestead.

So while the top 12 are separated now by a whopping 60 points, don’t believe the hype; the Chase is not going to be the Rocky vs. Apollo saga between the Dirty Dozen, but rather between the two teams that have put up the wins come crunch time in 2010, along with a third on the rebound and riding a wave of momentum as it crests into the playoffs at Loudon this Sunday.

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
FREE FRONTSTRETCH NEWSLETTER! SENT RIGHT TO YOUR EMAIL INBOX! CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP
Did You Notice? Bad Times In NASCAR’s Big Apple, The Cost Of Brand Exclusivity And Chase Cinderella: 2010
Beyond The Cockpit: Kenny Wallace Worries About The Future Of Nationwide Independents
Mirror Driving: Final Grades On The Nationwide CoT, Chase Surprises, And ‘Favorites’
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Richmond
Top Ten Reasons People With No Sense Of Humor Write In And Complain About These Lists
Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Richmond, September 2010
Carey And Coffey: That Ever-Changing Chase Feeling

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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PBFred
09/15/2010 04:16 AM
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I just have to question why the Ford teams, aka, Roush Fenway, haven’t been running the new FR9 engine all year. It produces more torque and has a lower center of gravity.

I have a feeling that this engine might be too good, and that they have purposely not used it in order to save it for the Chase… before NASCAR caught on to how good it is.

I hope I am wrong though. I really want to see an RCR guy win it all, especially Burton.

But Vito, I think you are wrong about Hamlin. It appears more like he was on a hot streak early in the year and isn’t going to be consistent during the Chase. It seems like when these guys are injured, they tend to be more focused. As soon as his knee got better, the more inconsistent he was.

I also think JJ’s problems appeared when he had his kid. Having a kid really changes friendship dynamics, and Knaus said during HBO’s preseason special about the 48, that JJ is his only friend. So I think a kid has thrown a wrench in the mix there. Granted, I believe the duo will get their act together and be the team to beat, now that the Chase has begun.

I will make one prediction though… Bowyer will win one of these next 10 races. If it wasn’t for late race bad luck, the guy would have been in the top 5 in points all year. I think he is one of the most underrated drivers, and overall, one of the best personalities the sport has. He’s like a very happy Dale Jr. :)

Don Mei
09/15/2010 12:23 PM
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Who will win the chase is the answer to a question that many of us really dont care about. Sad

Michael
09/15/2010 12:28 PM
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Or …… cutesy statistics and anecdotes aside , the champion could be the team with the most powerfull engines ( RCR ) , or the best driver on all types of circuits ( Tony Stewart ) or the most agressive ( Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch ) or the best pit crew ( SHR and Lowes ) or , since we know that all twelve teams are fast and capable of winning , the champion will probably be the driver with the least amount of bad luck .

jerseygirl
09/15/2010 01:12 PM
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Unfortunately, it will probably be Johnson again this year. That means that listening to ESPN slobber all over the 48 again and my interest in NASCAR racing will slide even further down the tube.

The chase is a waste. Its all manufactured excitement but then again, that’s what watching NASCAR has become. Bored now

Doug In Washington (State)
09/15/2010 04:07 PM
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I was looking at my own personal predictions before the season began, and there are some surprises.

I had Johnson down for a 5th straight, with Stewart 2nd, Hamlin 3rd, and Edwards 4th. So not bad there, all of those are in the Chase. But I had Martin 5th, Logano 9th, and Newman 10th, and those 3 missed the chase. I had Harvick 22nd, Burton 20th, and Biffle 14th- I did not expect RCR to rebound, and expected Harvick to be treading water a year before going to SHR. I did place Bowyer in 12th, though.

I still stand by my top 4, but I’d switch Stewart and Hamlin in the 2-3 mark.

But I hope I’m wrong.

Carl D.
09/15/2010 04:14 PM
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I’m with you on Johnson winning his 5th, but I think Kyle Busch has a better chance than Edwards. I’m not buying PBFred’s contention that the FR9 engine is so good that the Ford teams are holding back. Roush teams have ZERO wins this year. Yes, they’ve gotten better, but the Joe Gibbs teams have more wins than any other owner. I keep reading that Kyle is still too immature to win the championship… well, if that’s true, will someone explain to me how Darrell Waltrip managed to win three of them?

By the way, I don’t like Kyle Busch, but I still think he’s a legitimate threat.

Kevin in SoCal
09/15/2010 05:58 PM
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Carl, Greg Biffle won at Pocono, so Roush has won more than ZERO races this year. :)

PBFred
09/16/2010 12:37 AM
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Carl D., no explanation has been given as to why the FR9 engine has only been used a handful of times.

Considering it supposedly produces more torque, while still being in the same HP range, and has a lower center of gravity, it seems rather weird as to why they haven’t been running it every week.

If they were worried about reliability, there is only one way to test that… use it.

But from what I have heard, all 3 of the Roush guys in the Chase plan to run them for the rest of the year.

At the very least, you have to question why they used the engines this way. It’s not like Roush Fenway is an underfunded owner and can’t afford to buy new engines.

To top it off, Biffle’s win was with the FR9 engine, and this is what he had to say about the win.

“This was mostly engine,” Biffle said of the new Ford FR9 engine. “This answers all the questions about Ford.”

So I really might be right on the money about this. I hope not, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Carl D.
09/16/2010 10:10 AM
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Sorry, I forgot about Biffle’s win at Pocono. I do think the FR9 makes the Roush teams more competitive, but I’m going to have to see immediate results from Edwards in the chase in order to believe he’s a contender.

Steve
09/16/2010 01:34 PM
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I don’t think Kyle will win the championship. Until he reduces what’s on his plate with running truck teams and boosting his ego in the NW series, he will then be a threat. Not until though. ESPN will slobber all over JJ and Kyle though so not sure how much I will watch.

Seeing how inconsistent Kyle has been during the season, he’s not high on my list.

JJ has to be the favorite. He hasn’t raced on a Chase track since Loudon in June so they have fallen off because of their lack of focus on non plate tracks. He will fire it up again this weekend.

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