Coming off of Dover, the latest buzz continued to center around the budding Kyle Busch – Carl Edwards rivalry – and rightfully so. Finishing 1-2 on Sunday (with Busch on top) proved rather appropriate considering both drivers’ perch on top of the Sprint Cup wins ladder – halfway through the regular season, they’ve combined to capture seven of 13 trophies so far in 2008.
But underneath the hoopla surrounding those two hard chargers, there’s plenty of other drivers still gunning for the biggest trophy of all. With a points format that resets the top 12 drivers to virtually identical stats for the final 10 races, we’ve learned through experience you need to merely put yourself in position to succeed in the regular season – not necessarily dominate it.
With that in mind, there’ve been several drivers who’ve been bounced around by the critics for disappointing seasons; but as their Sunday performances reminded us, two former champions in particular make two great examples that perception is often different from reality. When 12 drivers make the playoffs, most everybody in that group will experience a “down” portion to their season – but the key is to show enough strength to be up at the right time.
Right now, the following two drivers are doing that… despite what you may think:
Perception No. 1: Jeff Gordon is struggling.
Reality: He’s in decent shape.
As Busch mowed through the competition on Sunday, just six drivers were on the lead lap at Dover by the finish – but one of those was the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. In his sponsor’s backyard, Gordon came through with a fifth-place run in which the car never ran up front, but remained solidly in contention throughout the afternoon.
“We were real solid,” claimed Gordon after his run. “We tried to fine-tune, but it was a distant fifth… a good fifth.”
“I’m really happy with the way this car and this team performed this weekend, but we’ve still got some work to do.”
What Gordon failed to say was that a large portion of the work has already been done. The last four weeks, he’s come through with three consecutive top-five finishes in points-paying Cup races, the first time that’s happened since last October. That’s caused a rise to sixth in points, where he sits 404 points behind of Busch but a [fairly] comfortable 130 ahead of 13th-place David Ragan.
More importantly, we’re heading into a stretch that was Gordon’s bread and butter last year. In a stretch from Dover in June through Watkins Glen in August, he came up with 10 consecutive top-10 finishes to solidify his place on top the Cup standings by nearly 350 points. A win at Pocono was a highlight of that span – in fact, Gordon’s fuel mileage gamble in that one makes him the defending champ of the race we’ll travel to this Sunday. Although I wouldn’t expect him to win, another top-five finish would allow him to pad his hold on second in that category this season; yep, only Kyle Busch (nine) has more top fives than Gordon’s six.
Sure, Gordon supporters have got to be concerned about the zero in the win column, and the fact he’s led 211 laps – far off the number of 674 he set in 2007. But if there’s one thing this man learned last year, it’s not how you start but how you finish in the Chase that counts; and it won’t necessarily do him or his team any favors to dominate March and April.
Once you keep in mind the fact Gordon’s already scored three DNFs this season – two more than his entire total in 2007 – you can see why it appears that crew chief Steve LeTarte has actually stepped up and done an excellent job of weathering the storm. So, while I was admittedly among those concerned at one point, this latest stretch has proved that Gordon will be there when it really matters this fall.
Perception No. 2: Matt Kenseth won’t make the Chase.
Reality: He’s in far better shape than the last year he slumped this badly.
It’s true that this time a month ago, Kenseth appeared to be toast. Looking like a clear-cut No. 4 in the Roush Fenway stable behind Edwards, Greg Biffle and a surprising Ragan, there were even quiet whispers the 2003 champ would look to get out of his contract.
But most of the damage to the No. 17 came while Roush Fenway GM Robbie Reiser was helping tend to a six-race suspension of Bob Osborne from Edwards’ No. 99. Since his ability to refocus on all five programs has returned, Kenseth has responded with three consecutive runs of ninth or better, marking his highest degree of consistency since ending last season with five consecutive top fives.
“We’re definitely making progress,” Kenseth said. “We’re moving the right way here lately and have been getting some good runs put together.”
Those solid finishes have been timed with a bit of good luck, something in which Kenseth lost for a good portion of March and April. A second-place run at Las Vegas was wiped out in a late-race crash with Gordon, and some bad camber settings led to a second wreck at Talladega. Still, a realistic Kenseth understands a four-leaf clover isn’t a total cure-all.
“You can’t blame everything on bad luck,” he said Sunday. “We’ve all made mistakes as a group. We’ve just been off a little bit. I don’t think you can blame everything on luck, but I feel we’ve been operating more as a team.”
Of course, that last comment could be perceived as a direct reference to new crew chief Chip Bolin, whose chemistry with Kenseth developed slower than expected. But as a longtime member of this team, Bolin knows the No. 17 has put their backs to the wall before – and come out with flying colors. Back in 2005, Kenseth was a distant 22nd in points halfway through the regular season, with just two top-10 finishes – far behind the seven he’s already collected. In that year, he even fell as far as 24th in points after the June race at Pocono – 320 behind 10th-place Tony Stewart – before making his move back into Chase contention.
This time around, the hole is far smaller. 16th in points, Kenseth is just 95 behind 12th place Kasey Kahne, a deficit that could easily be made up in the Roush-friendly confines of Pocono and Michigan these next two weeks. And then… as we’ve seen in past years, anything can happen should Kenseth hold on to the top 12.
Considering the past history of both these former champs, it’d be surprising if neither was on the verge of making an impact come September. So, while all the focus remains on both Busch and Edwards, just remember there are plenty of other drivers who shouldn’t be counted out.