The Frontstretch: Three Teams on The Verge of Victory and Utter Panic by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday April 13, 2011

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Three Teams on The Verge of Victory and Utter Panic

Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday April 13, 2011

 

The 2011 season remains a crapshoot as to who is in and who is out as far as qualifying for the title Chase. That all takes on more of a sense of importance this weekend as the motorsports version of the Alabama State Lottery is held at Talladega on Sunday. Choose wisely, and you can find yourself eking out a win by a bumper at the stripe. Drive around minding your own business, and you may find yourself in a junkyard full of $300,000 apiece stock cars.

There is never any rhyme or reason to the mayhem that awaits the field of 43 at Talladega, nor is there rhyme or reason for this trio below. These three drivers are all weekly contenders, find themselves at different places in the point standings, yet are strangely similar in their collective underachievement thus far, walking a tightrope for one reason or another of breaking through and winning races… or breaking down big time and fumbling away championship seasons.

Kurt Busch

If you ever have an opportunity to tune into some scanner chatter at a race, do yourself a favor. Just dial up No. 22, and leave it. What follows is a mix between a 1930’s radio show, and a Don Rickles bit, at speeds approaching 200 mph. The pattern that follows is pretty much set in stone by now: Kurt offers pep talk to team while rolling off pit road and getting ready to take green flag. Feedback as to the car’s handling is offered prior to first pit stop. Following the first adjustments, not much has improved – if anything, a new handling ill has been unearthed. After about 20 laps, the sparks start to fly.

Both figuratively and literally.

Kurt Busch started off the season strong at Daytona, but he’s quickly turning to meltdown mode as the team struggles to be competitive each week.

Take, for instance, last Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway. As has often been the case this year, the car started off strong. Following the first round of pit stops, the jeers started coming from the driver’s seat. Words such as “pathetic” were used – and have become commonplace. Busch then lamented, “I am tired of working this hard… I mean, every single race I have to drive it over my head.” Busch restarted in the lead on lap 120 and led for four laps. Less than 30 laps later, he had slipped outside of the top 10, then brushed the wall with the right rear of his Dodge. “Well… I just stuck the right rear in the fence…” was his admission over the airwaves. Crew chief Steve Addington then radioed to the spotter to check the damage.

Busch intercepted that one and quipped, “It can’t be any worse than this setup is…” Later on, he mentioned he had a nice vibration he was feeling in the car. Addington asked him if it felt like a wheel stud gone bad. Busch’s reply: “It feels like we suck!”

Like I said – entertaining, if anything.

For a season that started out relatively strong at Daytona, the No. 22 Dodge – one of three regularly appearing Chargers in the field – has been a top-10 car, if just barely. The car often starts off stout, and then gradually gets worse; Busch has to overcompensate to keep it up front, and then hits something with it. This pattern has been perpetuating itself for a few seasons now, as has been the case with Dodge teams for the last several years, for that matter – they seem to walk a knife edge of being either bang-on and checking out, or all over the place and into the wall.

Some may criticize Busch, saying he is the reason the car ends up scrapped up and into the wall. Then again, considering the consistent struggles of his teammates the last few seasons, Busch may be the real reason Penske – and Dodge – is competitive at all to begin with.

Denny Hamlin

Wow. Didn’t see this one coming. Last year’s championship Cinderella story that saw the No. 11 FedEx Camry return to pumpkin form on lap 25 of the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway has yet to show any semblance of the speed that propelled them to seven wins in 2010 – and made them the odds-on favorite to bring home the hardware in 2011. One top-10 finish, three lead-lap finishes, and one DNF in the first seven races is hardly title-contending material. Even Martinsville couldn’t shake the bad juju, with poor fuel mileage – even by short track standards – and a performance by his pit crew that Hamlin said, “stunk,” eventually leading to a new front tire changer on the team a week later at Texas.

After a dream season in 2010, Denny Hamlin has spent much if not all of 2011 searching for answers.

It is a marked turnaround for Hamlin and the No. 11 team – and not in a good way. Even in years past, when Hamlin has blown up his knee playing basketball, getting cut on early in the season, or tearing his hand off grab-assing around the transporters, he has managed to put at least a few solid runs together to muster some momentum. His last four finishes? 39th, 33rd, 15th and 12th. Yeah, that kind of stinks.

What doesn’t stink is the potential that awaits. If the fuel mileage would improve a bit, pit road shortcomings are resolved, and engines don’t blow up anymore Hamlin could well get on a roll and make up the ground he has lost so early in the season. Only six drivers have led more laps than Hamlin this year – and three of them have wins. In fact, just two other drivers have led more laps and not won a race, those being Clint Bowyer and…

Tony Stewart

Video footage of Tony Stewart post-race are starting to look suspiciously like Kyle Busch post-race disappointments from a couple of years ago, minus the radio cord ripping: driving back to the truck, parking the car, exiting, waving off reporters, exasperated at yet another opportunity at victory vanishing into vapor. This week, it was just that – fuel vapors – as the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet ran out of gas on the last lap. He may have made it if not for having to stop and accelerate again up to speed after incurring a speeding penalty, which sent him to pit road twice in the final 57 laps. Stewart took the blame on the radio, saying, “Sorry, I ****ed us again, boys.”

This admission came after colliding early on with Dave Blaney on pit road, crinkling the right front fender of his race car and requiring extra stops to slap on big pieces of black Bare-Bond.

Two races earlier in Fontana, it looked like Smoke was going to be a part of the final fray between Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick with eight laps to go, but with four fresh tires and a chassis adjustment, his car inexplicably went backwards. Stewart could do nothing more than chuck his gloves on the dashboard, declining comment as he retreated inside the team trailer. After falling from third to 13th in less than ten laps, his response was impressively muted.

The box score for Las Vegas will show that Carl Edwards won the race by 1.246 seconds, but it was Stewart who led 163 of 267 laps. A penalty for snagging an air hose on the quarterpanel exiting the pits got Stewart off tire sequence for the final stops, squandering a lead and a win. The Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 now sits 10th in points, but is the best 10th-place car in recent NASCAR memory.

Earlier this season, when the new points system was announced it was Stewart who was among the supporters, stating how it would be easier to figure out how many points you were behind and what you needed to make up. Unfortunately, it also makes it easier to see those you lost, and where you would be had things not slipped away in the last 30 laps of a race.

This weekend could prove pivotal for each of these three drivers. Busch is in a better position than Hamlin or Stewart, yet the perpetual meltdown that occurs between the green flag and checkered flag is cause for concern and team cohesion. Hamlin’s focus should be just to finish in one piece; a top 10 at this point would likely feel like a win – regardless of the “second sucks” mantra that most racers parrot, the proverbial “good points day” is a welcome relief when you’re mired 20th in points seven races deep. Tony Stewart needs something good to happen to him in the final 50 laps of a race this year, and Talladega just might be the place. He’s as savvy a plate track driver as there is, and his SHR Chevrolets this year seem to be outperforming the Hendrick Motorsports entries from which they share some DNA.

Then again, with the way things have been going for these three, riding around half-a-lap down all day might not be such a bad idea. If some nut steals the pace car there again or that semi truck waving Old Glory makes its way onto the track, you can pretty much guess who it would hit at this point.

After all, it is Talladega.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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