Well, here we are. It’s August and the Chase is just about on our doorstep. Nobody can stop talking about two people, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. I suppose it’s all well and good, but right now there are a few other noteworthy individuals currently in the top 12 who we should not completely ignore.
With no particular scientific approach to this, I thought I’d scribble down my impressions on those teams that are presently in the Chase, and perhaps a few thoughts on those that are making a last minute charge.
Currently sitting in 12th, teetering between contender and oblivion, is the steadfast Matt Kenseth in the No. 17. He certainly started the season with a bang, winning Daytona and California back-to-back, but since then we’ve gotten little more than a tepid pop. With his longtime sponsor, DeWalt, leaving at the end of the season, it’s clear he’s not managing to wow the people that matter. Whether the quiet driver holds on to his spot in the playoffs is of little concern to me, as I don’t see even Roush’s premiere team holding up the Cup at the end of the season.
In 11th, we’ve got The Kid. Returning to the ring full-time this season, Mark Martin in the No. 5 has won over all the fans he had, and then made new ones. With four victories under his belt so far this year, and a smile as wide as the Mississippi River, I hope he decides to stick around for a few years longer. Martin has proven that this is not just a young man’s sport… the fire for winning lies deeper than that. Will he make it in the Chase? I’ll put positive thought to work and say, Yes!
Top 10: Greg Biffle. On silent feet, the No. 16 has managed to scrap together enough top 10s and top fives to edge into the fight for the Cup. Wins have eluded the team, however. Is it Biffle that’s falling behind? No, the driver has suffered only one race-ending wreck this year and one engine failure. The car has finished on the lead lap in all other races, except Chicagoland. He needs a bit more engine and a tad more luck. Where’s a leprechaun when you need one?
Mr. Newman, the No. 2 team in the brand-spankin’ new Stewart-Haas stable this season lies in ninth. Except, he’s not looking like any start-up driver. In the No. 39, I’ve seen Ryan Newman pull off the kind of moves I spotted in his rookie season. Perhaps the synergy works for Newman at SHR in a way that Penske didn’t. Whatever the reason – I don’t see Newman gathering up a Cup this year, but I’m thinking they’re building the kind of team that could result in one in another year or two. First, he needs to lead more laps. Enough of this mid-pack, coming home clean business. It’s time to throw some of that ingrained caution to the wind and fight for a few wins. In the Chase? Yes. No questions.
Driving the red Budweiser-mobile this year, Kasey Kahne in the newly integrated Richard Petty Motorsports, is looking at the Cup. Of the teams in the bottom half of the top 12, the No. 9 is the one in which I have the least confidence. Maybe I missed the Petty blue PR reports, but this merger hasn’t resulted in better cars, just fewer of them. Kasey’s on-track talent can’t keep a team together and I’ve seen him shake in his shoes a few times. That’s not a statistical impression, just what I think. Don’t count on Kahne to be on stage in September.
In seventh, we have Juan Pablo Montoya. See, this is where I get in trouble. I just plain like the guy. The No. 42’s new “Make it in the Chase” mantra has disappointed me, a bit. I really like to see JPM get a little crazy when he smells victory. However, the play-it-safe mode has resulted in better finishes. In the last eight races, he’s finished 12th or better, including the Indy disappointment. Perhaps the new leash they’ve got on their driver will propel this team to victory lane this year, and definitely into the Chase.
Sitting in front of the Colombian, we have Cousin Carl Edwards in his No. 99 Ford. The most theatrical of the Roush racers, Edwards hasn’t managed a single backflip this season. Consistency will see the Aflac machine into the Chase, but they haven’t had the kind of exciting year a champion requires.
Have you noticed? I haven’t mentioned a winner of the Cup, yet. That’s sad. Makes you wonder why we did the Chase, if the same guys at the top of the running in August are likely to win in November… just saying.
Fifth! Denny Hamlin has taken over the moniker of lead Gibbs driver this season, after Stewart handed the wheel of the No. 20 over to rookie Joey Logano. That No. 11 can almost always be found near the front of the pack, proving Hamlin’s opening seasons were no joke. IF, and that’s a big if, the teams in front of Denny stumble, he has a good chance of grasping that Cup in Homestead. Hamlin is always consistent and just aggressive enough to take advantage of opportunities. He’s still a young gun, and youth can steal the breath away from more seasoned veterans. In the Chase? Yep.
In fourth, my God, can you believe it? I honestly thought Penske was a done deal, until now. Kurt Busch in the blue deuce is bringing it home. You probably would believe the vitriol I used to spew about this elder brother, but I almost like him now. At the very least, he is reminding us that he is a champion. I admit, that almost every week, I still marvel at the presence of the No. 2 hanging with the leaders. OK, maybe there is a new power plant for the Dodge, but it takes more than a car to sit among the stars. Once the points are reset, he will give Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Stewart a run for the money.
Gordon. I’m still hurting from that wreck on Monday. And, unfortunately, that is the reason I don’t believe in Cup No. 5 for the No. 24 team. Gremlins have been chasing the aging and aching Gordon this year. I’m seriously beginning to wonder how many more seasons his body can take the abuse.
And then we have the big fight… Stewart vs. Johnson. Oh boy, folks. This will be a no-holds-barred, 10-round, knockdown brawl. Stewart, flying high with his self-assured success this season and Johnson bringing the No. 48 playoff specialists to the field, are it. Neither of these veterans are likely to stumble, unless the track jumps up and bites them.
Well, that’s who’s in. Now, who is looking in?
Kyle Busch… I think if he continues to struggle, it will be just as well. We could then ignore him for the end of the season.
Brian Vickers… He needs to take lessons from Montoya. His frustration translates onto the track, and that won’t get him into the Chase.
Clint Bowyer… he got shafted this spring when he lost his No. 07 points, and has had a heck of time regaining lost momentum from last year. He finally seems to be going in the right direction. I can only hope he manages some sterling finishes over next few weeks, unseating some other unlucky soul.
Well, that’s my take on the Race to the Chase. How will this shake out? Only the racing gods know for sure… I’m just a spectator waiting to watch it unfold. See you at the track.