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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2 to Go: 5 Points to Ponder Ahead of the Off-Weekend

With the last of four off-weekends for the Sprint Cup Series ahead of us this weekend, here are five points to ponder ahead of the stretch run of 12 races in 12 weeks.

Just How Good is Marcos Ambrose Going to Get?

Following a tremendous third place finish at Thunder Valley, Ambrose played the humility card with great aplomb in the post-race interview; talking in “pseudo-incredulous” terms about how he was shocked that someone like him could be racing (and holding his own) with the legends of the sport. Now modesty isn’t typically a trait you associate with Australian sport stars – and I must pause and laugh heartily at the Aussie cricket team who just lost the “Ashes” test series to England this past weekend; but in the case of Ambrose the whole “aww shucks, I’m just happy to be here” routine is going to get old quick.

Running in just his first full season at NASCAR’s top echelon, Ambrose sits 17th in the points (ahead of luminaries of the sport such as Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.), collecting four top fives and three further top 10s in 24 attempts so far. Granted, two of those top fives came at the road courses, but finishing sixth at Talladega and then third at Bristol shows Ambrose is moving inexorably in the right direction. Signed through 2010 at JTG Daugherty Racing (who have a partnership with Michael Waltrip Racing), watch for Ambrose to make a real charge for the Chase next year provided he can improve on the intermediate circuits, which have been his Achilles heel at this nascent stage of his Sprint Cup career.

Is Denny Hamlin a Dark Horse for the Championship?

In the last couple weeks we’ve seen a different side to Hamlin, and for fans of the fifth year Chesterfield, Va. native, it couldn’t come soon enough. The way he “reuted” The Franchise out of the way at Pocono en route to an emotional victory spoke volumes about a driver who is tired of being a bridesmaid. More impressively, after a disastrous effort in qualifying – he spun out on the first lap – and an early cut tire, Hamlin drove steadily through the field all the way to a fifth-place finish; a result that barring catastrophe should lock him into the Chase for a fourth straight year.

A popular pre-season pick to drop out of the elite field of 12, Hamlin has outrun his much vaunted teammate Kyle Busch, and has lived up to his billing as the senior man at Joe Gibbs Racing. Headed into the Chase in 2008, Hamlin’s confidence was soaring but a couple of bad early races (38th at Dover, 39th at Talladega) nixed his title chances before they begun.

In 2009, it might just be a different story for the wheelman of the No. 11 FedEx Camry.

Did Biffle and Newman Save Their Seasons at Thunder Valley?

As any serious fan of Sprint Cup knows, it’s all about the Chase these days (regardless of what you think of the points mechanism) and two Chase contenders, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman, did their hopes of making the field a power of good with excellent runs at Bristol Motor Speedway. After just one top 10 in the previous eight races, Newman took to the high banks knowing a good finish was imperative and he scored just that with a sixth-place run. His 84-point cushion over 13th place driver Kyle Busch should stand up, barring a pair of horrible races. For Newman, who mystified most when he made the transition to SHR, making the Chase will be a huge victory – regardless of where he finally finishes.

Biffle, meanwhile, has seemingly been on the bubble all year. But three top fives, including a fourth-place run Saturday night, gives him a 75-point cushion headed into the final two races before the cutoff. He’s not locked in yet by any stretch of the imagination, but a pair of solid top-15 finishes should get it done. It’s fair to say that every race in the long season is important, but as we get down to the wire, the positive effects of a strong run at this late stage are hugely magnified, and both Biffle and Newman will no doubt feel good leaving Tennessee this past weekend.

Second-Rate Equipment for Stewart-Haas Racing?

When we got things underway at Daytona, no “knowledgeable” expert was tipping either Tony Stewart or Newman to make the Chase. A few short weeks into the season, it seemed the conventional wisdom couldn’t have been more wrong. Then came the rumor that come Chase time HMS weren’t going to give their “best equipment” to Stewart-Haas Racing. I have to admit I took this at face value initially, but over time it has begun to perplex me.

Firstly, if this is indeed going to be the case, wouldn’t SHR have mitigated against this possibility by keeping the chassis and engines that have run well so far this year? Secondly, how exactly do you get worse equipment? Does Mr. Hendrick and Co. suddenly start giving their satellite team engines that would struggle to power a Morris Minor? Unlikely. In short, even if this is the case (in whatever form that takes), I can’t believe that the likes of Bobby Hutchens, Darian Grubb and others haven’t already come up with a plan to circumvent this eventuality. Like Stewart “having no chance of making the Chase,” this might just be a story that withers on the vine early in the 2009 Chase. Smoke and his team have beaten the odds (and then some) all year. I don’t see that changing.

Chase Parity Despite the Perceived Hendrick Dominance?

And speaking of the Chase, did you notice that we might have some real and genuine parity based on the likely composition of the final field of 12? Last year the four “big” teams dominated, with Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress each placing three apiece in the big dance. This year, we could have up to eight different teams represented – RFR, SHR, JGR, HMS, Penske Racing, EGR, RPM and possibly Red Bull Racing if Brian Vickers can get it done. Yes, Hendrick looks to be the team to beat, but the likes of Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne are showing that you don’t have to share a roof with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and the ageless Mark Martin to have a shot at winning it all. That’s gotta be good, right?

That’s it for me this week. Enjoy your weekend off. Tick off some of the points on your “honey-do” lists, enjoy the late summer sunshine, see some friends, etc., because once we take the green at Atlanta there won’t be a pause until Thanksgiving.

And those, gentle readers, for those who love watching ugly cars go super fast are good, good times.