As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves closer to the 26th race at Richmond in September, the Chase for the Championship became a little more clear on Sunday. As Carl Edwards outlasted Kyle Busch over the final three laps following a late-race restart, the 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway helped serve notice as to who the Big Three are in NASCAR for the 2008 title bout. These three drivers and teams have been the standard bearers for performance this year, and all seem to be peaking right about the same time as the tension ratchets up a notch.
Using that term to describe the trio of teams who will likely decide the champion ship is a bit ironic, as this past weekend’s event was run essentially in the backyard of the Big Three automakers – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Each team pilots one of the four makes that competes in the series – though in fourth place globally, I can be excused for subbing another make for Chrysler – as there is but the one lonely Mopar of Kasey Kahne clinging desperately to the top 12, a blown engine this weekend tightening the vice a little bit more on the No. 9 team.
The Big Three I am referring to are the three teams that have been a force to be reckoned with over the last 23 races:
Kyle Busch So far this season Busch has won eight times in his Toyota Camry, and if things had gone his way more than they have already, he would have probably won 11. The stats are both telling and compelling, and his performance is reminiscent of two drivers with whom he was once teamed: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Recall back to 1998, when Gordon tied Richard Petty’s modern-era record (1972-present) of 13 wins in a season. He could do no wrong, and was just about the only car not labeled Taurus or Grand Prix that could win on downforce tracks that season. He didn’t always have the fastest car, but the No. 24 team still found ways to win rather than beat themselves. I see the same quality in the No. 18 team this season. With eight wins to date and a 222-point lead over second place, Busch’s team has enough breathing room to start experimenting during races and running some unproven combinations in preparation for the Chase. Not resting on their laurels, they are taking a page out of the Johnson/Chad Knaus book from 2007.
While they didn’t lie down during the summer months last season, the No. 48 team was not their dominant selves either during this time last year. While Busch has continued his pace of averaging a win nearly every four races, crew chief Steve Addington and company have taken advantage of their lead and tried some new things to find that little something extra they’ll need for the last 10 races.
Yes, the driver has had a lot to do with the success and resurgence of what once was the flagship car of the Joe Gibbs Racing stables; however, you cannot discredit the combined efforts of Toyota Racing Development’s vast engineering resources coupled with JGR’s existing chassis expertise, and its engine development group headed by Mark Cronquist. The result has been wins at restrictor-plate tracks, intermediate tracks, short tracks, a road-course sweep… you name it. When it’s go time following Richmond, that 200-plus point lead is going to be down to less than 100, and Busch will have to repeat his early season dominance to secure a title that he would have had all but wrapped up under the old points system.
Edwards For a guy who has won five races to date, the No. 99 Roush Fenway team has been the Rodney Dangerfield of NASCAR: not getting a whole lot of respect and lost in the shadow of Busch and his No. 18 bunch. If anything, the most attention Edwards’s team has garnered up until now was for an oil-tank reservoir lid penalty – and for tugging on fenders – back in March at Las Vegas. With his win on Sunday, Edwards narrowed the prospective Chase standings lead of Busch to 40 points (Edwards was docked 10 Chase bonus points following his Las Vegas infraction). That’s rather minuscule when you consider how dominant Busch’s stats have been – although the tide has turned in recent weeks. A photo finish determined the winner at Daytona in July between he and Busch, and Edwards won Sunday by beating Busch out of the pits and holding him off on the track, a testament to team as well as driver. Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne may raise the status of bickering on the radio to “get-a-room-you-two” levels, but that kind of openness of communication has positioned them to mount the most serious charge so far to the No. 18 team.
What’s more, Edwards represents the only serious Ford competition on the track this season, as his teammates have been mired in mediocrity for most of 2008. Greg Biffle has shown flashes of greatness only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, while David Ragan continues to improve and is knocking on the door to Chase contention – but isn’t there yet. Matt Kenseth has been slow in getting on the same page with new crew chief Chip Bolin, and Jamie McMurray often seems as if he is operating in a long-lost Roush shop somewhere in Livonia. While it is likely that Biffle and Kenseth will make it into the Chase, the Blue Oval faithful and their hopes most likely rest with Edwards and his Roush Fenway Ford Fusion.
Johnson Currently sitting 300 points in arrears, Johnson’s Hendrick Chevrolet had been conspicuously absent for most of this season – before the Brickyard 400, that is. The first win for the No. 48 team was back in April at Phoenix, using brilliant strategy of essentially coasting around the last five laps at something just greater than highway speeds; in contrast, their Indy triumph was the result of a combination of both execution and plain dumb luck. Should Johnson break through and go Cale Yarborough – winning a third consecutive Sprint Cup this season – these two races will stand out as microcosms of this organization’s performance and how it has become the racing dynasty of the new millennium.
Much like last season, the Lowe’s team is running fast when it needs to, setting up for the money races beginning at New Hampshire in September when the real fight begins. Last year at this time, Johnson had notched three wins and had a rough summer stretch that had many believing that perhaps Knaus and Johnson were slipping – and that teammate Gordon would score his fifth title.
That was hardly the case. The No. 48 went on a tear, winning a record-tying four consecutive races, and held off Gordon to win its second title in a row.
If there is one thing that I have learned not to do over the last six years, it’s count out the No. 48 team. Unless that car is a crumpled pile sitting on a rollback with the rear wing perched atop the roof – or is billowing smoke and divesting itself of expensive reciprocating engine bits – it is the car to beat. For most of 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team has been consistently the top performing car for Hendrick Motorsports. While getting Junior up to speed may have been HMS’s top priority, Johnson and Knaus have quietly worked their way up to third place in the standings, and would have had a much better finish if not for contact with Travis Kvapil at the end of Sunday’s event.
To me, this is still the team to beat for the championship and always has been. Busch and Edwards may be the drivers winning the races and getting most of the press, but if history repeats itself as we have always been told, Johnson is the guy that the No. 18 and 99 are going to be chasing in about a month.
Of course, once the Chase begins, all of this will be thrown out the window. Much like when a new president takes office, the renewed hope and optimism among those involved is buoyed by the opportunity to start over with a clean slate. Recall back to 2007 when Clint Bowyer won the first Chase race at New Hampshire. Suddenly, he was in the hunt and considered a legitimate threat to win what was then the Nextel Cup. While he would end the season in third place – a whopping 346 points behind eventual winner Johnson – I don’t foresee that happening this year. Not with this group.
However, just like 2007, I do see a familiar look atop the points standings come November in Homestead, Fla. It’s one we’ve seen before and, much like the paint scheme of the Lowe’s Impala, its silver lining will leave the rest of the competition looking decidedly black and blue.