Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday October 6, 2010
So we’re three races deep into the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and everybody is prattling on how this year marks the closest field ever and a Chase like none other. Yes, the points are close. However, last year at this time the standings were pretty similar, featuring seven drivers within about 100 points. I still maintain that it takes until Charlotte to get a sense of how the final five races will shake out. Talladega, of course, is the game-changer where you just might find yourself holding the winning Powerball ticket in the S.O.L. lottery.
But after the first trio of tracks in the Chase, I do believe some trends are emerging, and I think despite the closeness of the points, the true title contenders have already revealed their hand.
Who’s Out: Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth
With John Middlebrook’s upholding of the appeal committee’s decision regarding Bowyer and RCR’s 150-point fine stemming from their No. 33 Chevrolet not passing tear-down inspection at NASCAR’s R&D Center, Bowyer’s midseason rally to make the Chase is now for naught. Although he won the first event at Loudon, the penalty he received ultimately provided him with what amounted to a 40th-place finish. Dover was equally disastrous, with a wall encounter relegating him to 25th in the final rundown, while hope for a rebound at his home track in Kansas only yielded a lackluster 15th-place effort.
Meanwhile, the team which all season had the fastest cars to not win races finally got it together just in time for it to all unravel, fall apart, and completely implode under their own weight.
Matt Kenseth and the No. 17 former Killer Bees (what are they now, the Bad Ass Barneys?) are a different story. Kenseth is on his third crew chief in less than a year, achieving his Chase credentials primarily on the strength of consistent early-season runs with long-since departed head wrench Todd Parrott. Roush Fenway mainstay Jimmy Fennig has helmed the ship since June, with Kenseth scoring his first top 10 since Bristol in August last weekend at Kansas. Kenseth was slow out of the gate, however, finishing 23rd at Loudon and 18th at Dover.
While a top-10 at Kansas is good, it is likely a case of too little, too late. The No. 17 team has not been in a position to win since Martinsville in March, and there has been little to suggest that will change anytime soon.
Just Don’t See It Happening: Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle
Kind of a coincidental paring for two of these drivers. It was at the end of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte that we saw the normally reserved and mellow Burton cussing out Busch for running into the side of him during the final laps of the race. Jeff’s parting shot to Shrub was to “Use your head!” Unfortunately, the younger Busch has been consistently using his mouth – and bumper – making more enemies than friends on the track. The incident that likely will prove his undoing, a retaliatory shot from David Reutimann, will be one he will not overcome, and one that could have been prevented about a month ago.
Had Busch not made the disparaging remarks in his winner’s press conference at Bristol in August about the line Reutimann was running – one being run while suffering from food poisoning – perhaps the No. 00 would have not slammed the No. 18 into the backstretch wall last Sunday. That might be the one freebie that Busch gets. And with Martinsville and Talladega being back-to-back on the schedule, I’d rather have one in my pocket to spend between those two.
Burton sits 101 points out of first, and while he has been traditionally labeled, “The Guy Who Will Top 10 You To Death” – something that would seem to work pretty well for a 10-week playoff (or raceoff, whatever …), that’s not going to work when Jimmie Johnson is back to the form that has seen him win four straight Sprint Cups. Moreover, it really doesn’t work when you trade a top 5 for a 15th courtesy of an unnecessary fuel-mileage gamble, as the No. 31 team did at Loudon. A runner-up finish at Dover was good medicine, indeed, and another top 10 was in play until the final stint in Kansas, when either a bad set of tires or a failed bump stop saw him retreat to the rear, barely managing a top-20 run.
It’s likely going to be a tough year for incumbents across the nation this November, and “The Mayor” looks like he’s in trouble, too.
Greg Biffle may have won this Sunday at Kansas and scored a $100,000 winner’s bonus from Ford, but the first two races dug a deep rut that the No. 16 team may not be able to pull out from. Biffle has excelled on low-banked speedways this year; Indy, Pocono, and now Kansas. Look for a strong run at Auto Club Speedway, the sister track to Michigan International Speedway where he ran fourth in August. But Biffle’s cars have had a history of being streaky this year – a pair of bullets followed by a squib.
The lack of consistency and feast for famine with the No. 16 means that he may win another race – or even two – but a title is unlikely.
Holding On – Just Barely: Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick
If you want a memorable sound bite or some salty radio traffic, it’s hard to top these three hotheads. Get them out of the heat of the battle, and you’d be hard pressed to find three more articulate, measured, and composed individuals. That warrior spirit, though, has conspired to cost them some valuable ground early on in the Chase, and it may prove costly when it’s all said and done.
There is really no way Tony Stewart should not be leading the Sprint Cup standings right now. Not to rub it in, because I’m sure Smoke already realizes that. After radioing to his crew that, “I could give a **** less about fuel mileage right now” during the closing laps at Loudon, Stewart threw away a win and nearly 100 points in the process. A speeding penalty at Dover that left him two laps down and unable to rebound siphoned off at least another 30 – which marries up nicely with the 127 points in arrears he currently finds himself.
I think Smoke’s learned his lesson going forward, and if there is one driver that builds momentum quickly and exponentially, it has traditionally been Tony Stewart.
Remember when The Tasmanian Devil was (regrettably) a prominent fixture in NASCAR promotions about a decade ago? I could have sworn he had taken over the controls of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge in the first two Chase races. Kurt Busch went Berserker at New Hampshire, spinning out and spouting off – though Steve Addington and company were able to help him salvage a 13th-place run. Fourth at Dover was a minor Mopar miracle, following a speeding penalty in the final timing section into his pit box. Kansas saw Busch taking it easy and not getting over aggressive, resulting in a sane, if pedestrian, 13th-place run. So not exactly a stellar start, but there are some very attractive tracks coming up for the flagship Penske team, including Charlotte, where he dominated this past May.
Should Busch and the No. 2 Penske team rally to win from 70 points back, it truly will be a team effort. They are the only Penske car in the Chase – as well as the only Dodge team that is consistently in the top 10 … or top 20, for that matter.
After leading the points nearly all of the regular season, winning three races and sitting third in the standings, I’m still not sold on the No. 29 team as a championship contender. They run well often, but enough to consistently beat the No. 48 and No. 11?
Granted, similar feelings have cost me a fantasy football championship or two, but with the four-week suspension of crew chief and car chief on their No. 33 teammate Clint Bowyer’s machine, there has to be some sort of ripple effect through the RCR organization. Sure, there can be all kinds of talk about focus and keeping your eye on the prize, but the dominoes of decline seem to be making their way down towards Harvick: first Bowyer, with his fine and tough luck at Dover, then Burton at Kansas with late-race handling demons.
Harvick’s best bet to gain some ground will be at Talladega, where he won in April, and Martinsville, where he led 57 laps before going behind the wall with a failed rear gear.
In It To Win It: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards
Yeah, I know, big surprise here. Jimmie Johnson, really? Way to go out on a limb there. About the only thing that looks out of place right now with the four-time champ is his lettuce. A win and a second, plus a fearlessness to go three-wide on a flat one-mile track should serve as evidence of who everybody else is going to have to beat; and do so by winning races, not just racking up top 10s.
Denny Hamlin has been the one driver to display the ability to match wins, as well as composure, throughout the year. From early season knee surgery to taking an active leadership role among the drivers at JGR, Hamlin has positioned himself well to apply what he’s learned from failed past-Chase bids.
Jeff Gordon, meanwhile, is beginning to assert himself with the top-5 consistency that saw him look to challenge his former protégé to once again become the top dog at HMS. The No. 24 is still missing just a little bit of whatever it is the No. 48 has, but then again, so are 41 other teams in the series.
Of this bunch, the one that I believe stands the best to come out of nowhere is Carl Edwards. He’s made more headlines this year from his run-ins with Brad Keselowski than he has with Sprint Cup results, but I have a feeling that is about to change in the coming weeks. Some of Edwards’ best tracks are coming up, the No. 99 has consistently been the best Ford team the last couple of months, and this bunch is longing for a win. Really bad. As in, they haven’t won in nearly two years.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the 2008 season saw this team win nine races, including three of the last four. Edwards has six Chase victories on his resume, and number seven is just around the corner. One other little fun fact about the 2008 campaign that saw Edwards miss the Cup by 69 points: under the old points system, he would have won the title by 16.
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