NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Daytona Destruction Slices & Dices Chase Field – Who Will Be In & Who Will Be Out Come September?

Last Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona could very well prove to be lynch pin in the 2009 Sprint Cup season for several drivers. For all of the talk about how Bristol is a wildcard leading up to the Chase, or how Talladega is unpredictable and could single handedly determine the champion, Daytona did all it could to shake up and out, those on the cusp of making – or missing the Chase for the Championship.

Heading into the race, there were nine drivers within 100 points of each other from sixth-place Denny Hamlin, through David Reutimann in 14th. In between those two bookends were drivers Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne. Of those listed, only half of them have wins, with Hamlin, Biffle, Montoya and Newman still searching for their first win of 2009.

Kenseth has been an up and down story all year, coming out of the gate strong with wins in the Daytona 500 and the following week at California, but then stumbled for the next few months – he only has had but a pair of top fives since that win at California back in February. The drivers with the most wins – Busch and Martin – were perilously close to falling out of the top 12 and therefore out of championship contention before the race even started. With NASCAR’s new seeding system for the Chase, the driver with the most wins is in first place, with a 10-point bonus added for each win they have.

It would look silly enough if the winner of the biggest race of the year (followed by the most miserable) was not a title contender, let alone the two winningest drivers were to miss qualifying for the championship run. Particularly with Busch and Martin, where you have two great stories to follow, with two men who couldn’t possibly be more different than the other. Busch – the man against the world; loud, brash, outspoken, and dare we say…just a touch obnoxious? Martin – the low-key workhorse, lured out of his part-time job to compete again full-time, and making the most of it at 50 years of age, gearing up for yet another run at the trophy that has eluded him for so many years. For a system that was supposed to put emphasis on winning, it continues to still be about consistency and avoiding bad luck. Needless to say, the two drivers with the most wins up until this point have not had much of it.

So what horrors did each of these nine drivers have visited upon them? Were some able to do their part to solidify their championship chances? It depends on what driver you were following.

Hamlin was able to avoid disaster with his third-place finish in what has been somewhat of a hard luck season – until you realize he’s had three top fives in the last four races. Kind of hard to feel sorry for him in that regard. Kenseth who this week welcomed daughter Kaitlyn as the newest member of the team finished eighth, narrowly missing Busch in that last lap sheet metal shredder. That honor was left to Kahne, as he got a face full of Ford 9” center section, relegating him to a 15th-place finish right behind (no pun intended) Busch in 14th. After executing a text book slingshot maneuver between turns 3 and 4 coming to the white flag, Busch’s block on Smoke didn’t work as well as he had hoped and will be YouTube fodder for years to come.

In the midst of all of the mayhem (and not a yellow flag in sight), Biffle went sliding through the grass in 18th, and Newman had an equally uninspired 20th-place effort – however he did lead a lap and made up nine spots in the final 10 laps. Reutimann had a solid run going until he was walloped on the backstretch in a 13-car incident on lap 78.

Martin was the first to be involved in a self-inflicted incident on lap 13 when his No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet picked up a nasty push coming off turn 2, which placed him directly against Kenseth’s bumper. It was a strange twist of fate – unfortunate at that – for when his former protégé spun out at Infineon, it was Martin whom he collected as his car lurched forward out of the smoke. This time, Martin and Kenseth met again on the track by bizarre coincidence. As he went sliding down the superstretch, he was grazed by the driver who has earned his Chase-qualifying spot so far on the basis of consistency, Montoya. JPM escaped with minimal damage and brought his No. 42 Target Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing home in ninth place – just behind Kenseth.

So how to the standings look after that cavalcade of destruction?

The names are same, except Martin has now dropped out of the top 12, sitting 65 points out. Kahne is now in the final transfer position, and is less than 100 points out of seventh. While that sounds impressive, he is also less than 100 points out of 15th, where Jeff Burton currently resides, with teammate Clint Bowyer only 30 points behind. The difference between fifth and ninth place is just 102 points; but any one of those names could find themselves on the outside looking in with one blown engine, flat tire or a pit-road penalty that sends them to the back of the line, with the advent of the double-file restarts (SHOOTOUT STYLE!… sorry, had to say it). That rule alone could make Bristol relevant again in regards to The Chase since it’s repaving effectively ended the wreck fest that would normally result from one-lane racing.

So how might things look come Chase time?

While Montoya’s run has been admirable, he hasn’t really been that fast or challenged for wins. Who knows what make of car Kahne will be showing up with in the coming weeks, due to Chrysler’s bankruptcy and Dodge’s inability to fund or supply Richard Petty Motorsports with cash or parts. My wild stab in the dark guess as to how things will play out this summer, and look following race No. 26 at Richmond?

1. Tony Stewart +40
2. Kyle Busch +40
3. Mark Martin +30
4. Jimmie Johnson +30
5. Matt Kenseth +20
6. Jeff Gordon +20
7. Kurt Busch +10
8. Denny Hamlin +10
9. David Reutimann +10
10. Ryan Newman + 10
11. Carl Edwards
12. Jeff Burton

Hamlin’s luck has turned and he is gaining momentum and consistency, and is bound to win a race soon – and Pocono is just around the corner, a track where he has two Sprint Cup Series wins so far in his brief career. It would be almost inconceivable to me if Newman did not contend for a win, and what a story it would be if he could win in his home state of Indiana at the Brickyard 400. Gordon probably has another win in him here over the next few weeks, and bad back or not, he’s still a good bet on a road course. Edwards might not get a win before the Chase begins, but he is consistently the fastest Roush Fenway car, and he doesn’t make many mistakes or mental errors. Burton has qualified for the Chase the last three seasons, and while RCR might not be fielding the fastest things on the track right now, he is a master of getting the most out of his equipment and keeping his nose clean and out of trouble.

And that might just be the key for those in the back end of the Chase standings – not beating yourself.

Unfortunately, I think that will be the undoing of the No. 42 team of Montoya and the No. 9 of Kahne. Montoya’s history is a bit erratic and there is too much uncertainty surrounding Kahne and what might be going on behind the scenes at RPM to guarantee him a spot in the top 12. That would then clear the way for the Franchise – Reutimann – and Michael Waltrip Racing’s first ever appearance in the Sprint Cup title fight.

All of this is of course arbitrary speculation and hearsay. The points are so close between ninth and 15th, that there could be even more movement in and out of the top 12 before it’s all said and done. Whatever happens, after the mayhem that took place at Daytona on Saturday night, there may be more than one team who looks back at Daytona shaking there heads saying, “We really didn’t need that.” Moreover there will be more than one team looking back and saying, “Better you than me!”

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