Going into Saturday’s “The Word Bank is in the Title Sponsorship Name Too Much” 500, the Chase points were the tightest in the format’s six-season history. But leaving Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the seemingly bulletproof No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson now has the biggest lead of any driver through five Chase races. Talladega was supposed to be the biggest difference maker, but “The Beast of the Southeast” in Charlotte helped drive apart some of the leaders at the top of the standings. Just like what usually happens at LMS (and at its sister track in Atlanta), some oft-struggling teams found a chance to bask in the evening spotlight by running in the top 10 or 15, leaving the Chasers to beg for scraps at the back of the field. Honestly, there aren’t many truly HOT teams this week (considering the Hendrick Motorsports dominance especially abounding in these playoffs), but the WARM and COLD teams are easier to categorize.
HOT: Johnson – Back-to-back wins, three wins in the Chase, top 10s (at least) in all five playoff races, gaining 100 points on teammate Mark Martin since the Chase started, and five career wins (including the last two races) at Martinsville. The list goes on and on… with the bad luck that struck the fast cars of Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya, Johnson’s closest competitors in the Chase, the championship is now the No. 48 team’s to lose. They’re so far ahead at this point, they could afford to press the cruise control button… but don’t expect them to. As Tom Bowles pointed out in Sunday’s Frontstretch Newsletter, this team shows up first, works the hardest, has a driver that makes both the right moves and gives the right feedback, and a crew chief that knows the right calls to make. If Johnson leaves Talladega unscathed, he may settle a bit and play in conservation mode – but conservation mode for the Lowe’s team is leading only the second-most laps. Good luck, rest of the field….
HOT: Jeff Gordon – After leading late at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Gordon fell short of scoring either his second win or his Martin-ish ninth runner-up finish this season, falling to fourth by the checkered flag. Gordon has proven a lot in the Chase since a sluggish 15th-place New Hampshire finish, reeling off four straight top 10s and three top fives. He has had great success at Martinsville, like Johnson, but has 135 points to make up in five races. In other words, if he wins every race for the rest of the Chase and leads the most laps while Johnson averages a finish of fourth (which he more than likely will do), Johnson still wins the Cup. Gordon has never won at Homestead, by the way, another knock against his fading championship hopes.
HOT: No one else – Nope. I’m not slacking off here. The two or three other drivers that have consistently had fast enough race cars to drive into this category had tougher times Saturday night than those rebellious teenagers at Ridgemont High. Martin and Montoya had top-five racecars that experienced damage on the same restart, midway through the race. Martin’s damage was minor enough for him to tip-toe to a 17th-place run, while Montoya’s twice damaged and missing right-rear quarterpanel repairs relegated him to a dismal 35th. Tony Stewart has avoided bad luck in his No. 14; however, he’s not regained his summer magic, as his 13th-place run on Saturday showed us while rivals Gordon and Johnson ran up front. But his former teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing is worst of all in this category. Denny Hamlin has had fast enough FedEx Toyotas to keep his hat in the points ring, but lost his head behind the wheel in Cali (and wrecked), then on the radio in Charlotte after a blown motor. His title hopes are now all but squashed. Some of these drivers will contend for the HOT category next week, but this honor remains a twosome, in my book, for the first time this season.
WARM: Joey Logano – After becoming an honorary member of the Flipmode Squad (that’s a shout-out to any remaining Busta Rhymes fans) in Dover three weeks ago, Logano rebounded from early problems to finish fifth Saturday night. The rookie has shown flashes of brilliance this year, besides his rain-shortened pit-strategy win at New Hampshire. Scoring solid finishes at Sprint Cup legendary staples like Lowe’s, Darlington and Talladega, Logano has proven that he is versatile enough to be taken seriously. Here’s another thought: who would have thought that the inexperienced trio of Logano, David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose would be ahead of more seasoned drivers like Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. in points this late in the season? While Hendrick dominance has been heavily criticized, parity in the middle of the point standings does exist after all. Logano and Ambrose, each in their first full Sprint Cup seasons, may not benefit from much CoT testing, but they have the teams and engineering behind them to outrun others they should not be at this point in their careers. I wish I could offer a pick for the 2010 Rookie of the Year (as Logano easily has this year’s battle locked up), but no one has entered. (Let’s summon 2006’s least known rookie, Brent Sherman, to take a stab at it).
WARM: Casey Mears – When Jeff Burton was commenting on Harvick’s assumed post-2010 departure from RCR, he mentioned only himself and teammate Clint Bowyer were adapting and moving forward. Was this an accidental slip-up, indicating that Mears almost certainly will not be back with the No. 07 team next season? Childress’s quotes about that soon-to-be-unsponsored team’s future were widely reported this weekend, and Childress seemed open to keeping Mears in the car. Sponsorship, of course, will dictate both the driver of the team and team’s future existence, but Mears has used the last few races as a good audition for sponsors and potentially different race teams. Mears ran seventh Saturday night and has finished five times in the top 20 (and four times in the top 15) during the Chase. These finishes are not head-turning and likely are not enough by themselves to pull the Jack Daniel’s team off the rocks, but Mears, at least, is not running up RC’s sheetmetal bill.
WARM: Matt Kenseth – The No. 17 team is still searching for consistency, but Kenseth came out of nowhere to be a legitimate checkered flag contender Saturday night, leading 45 laps and scoring his best finish (second) since winning the February California race. According to several reports, Kenseth was running a “next generation” Roush Fenway chassis. If this is what we all have to look forward to on the 1.5-mile tracks from RFR, then those in the Hendrick armada better watch their backs. But if we were talking Star Trek and Kenseth’s car was “The Next Generation,” then Greg Biffle and David Ragan’s chassis were the original Star Trek series (they finished where most Roush teams have finished this year – 16th and 20th, respectively), while Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards must have been driving “Deep Space Nine” cars (they were horribly off the pace and in a deep hole the entire race, finishing 33rd and 39th).
COLD: Denny Hamlin – He got a halfway Honorable Mention in the HOT category, but really belongs on this side of the tracks this week. Hamlin had a great racecar Saturday, leading 54 laps and staying firmly in the top five, but the No. 11 Toyota broke a valve and the motor died a quick death. Already primed to take a huge hit in the points, Hamlin’s engine failure caused him to fall harder, as there was only one start-and-park team (the No. 87 Joe Nemechek Toyota) that had made the race and DNF’d. As a result, Hamlin’s awful 42nd-place run leaves him 372 markers out of the lead. He has lost almost 300 points to leader Johnson in the last two races as his title hopes quickly went up in smoke.
COLD: Sam Hornish Jr. – He has more than earned the nickname “Slidin’.” Hornish’s squirrelly No. 77 Dodge brought out the first two cautions Saturday night (like he did early in the Atlanta race last month) and sustained enough damage to go behind the wall for repairs. That meant after finishing the last two races in 18th and 12th, he could only muster 40th at Lowe’s, a track that had been good to him in the recent past. Hornish has scored more decent finishes than anyone expected of him this year, but has failed to score more than three straight top 20s all season. Clearly, the extremely successful Indy driver still has many more stock car adjustments to make before being considered successful. We can only hope that someone has explained this to Danica Patrick….
COLD: McMurray – In the 11 races since he learned that Crown Royal would be leaving the No. 26 Ford in favor of Kenseth’s No. 17 team (thus, ensuring the No. 26 would be the soon-to-be-severed fifth Roush Fenway car), McMurray has run miserable, scoring zero top 10s and only three top 20s. McMurray’s confidence has to be even deeper in the crapper, too, after sources close to the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team have said he is no longer being considered for the Bass Pro Shops Chevy next season. Does McMurray pack up shop and go back to the Nationwide Series? Does he accept a less secure ride with TRG Motorsports (who may be switching to Dodge – which McMurray used to be a mainstay for at Chip Ganassi Racing)? Or does he bring funding to RCR’s No. 07 team? This will be a rocky offseason for the eighth-year driver whose Cup future is now clearly in question.
Here are this week’s HOT and NOT issues:
HOT: The debate over the Hall of Fame picks – Fortunately, at least three of the first five picks in NASCAR’s inaugural Hall of Fame class were fairly uncontroversial – Bill France, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt deserve their places in the upper echelon of the sport’s history for many different reasons. Bill France Jr. and Junior Johnson also were healthy picks, though holding off on France Jr. and replacing him with David Pearson may have been more appropriate. The best part of the Hall of Fame picks debate, though, is that historical NASCAR figures that are rarely discussed by new fans of the sport got thrown into the NASCAR media lexicon these past few weeks, likely prompting at least a fraction of the sport’s fanbase to learn more on names like Pearson, Yarborough and even Raymond Parks.
NOT: “Gentlemen, start your enigmas.” – On Saturday night, I had the opportunity to host the racing radio show I am on (and the executive producer for) weekly, The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta. Toward the end of the show, I saw a pre-race quartet voice the command to start the engines – and half of this group made me sick. The Hall of Fame inductees were the Grand Marshals for the race, but three of the class were dead, so stand-ins were deployed. In place of Bill France Sr. and Jr. was current NASCAR head Brian France, one of the most beleaguered sports leaders in the U.S. The other was Teresa Earnhardt, the highly unpopular widow of The Intimidator.
I personally would not feel great about any living France standing in place of the others, but couldn’t Lesa France Kennedy have stood in, too, at least? Something. Brian has inherited a lot and the last thing he needs in his trust is two Hall of Fame parking spaces, even if this was symbolic. And regarding Earnhardt, wouldn’t having Taylor Nicole, Kerry or even (somehow) Dale Jr. as the honorary starter be a better option than the woman whose coldness toward her stepson and utter obsession with her own bottom led to the downfall of the once-mighty DEI? This is yet another deterrent to die-hard fans pining to find reasons to still simply like the sport they once loved.
That covers this week’s picks and issues. The Martinsville paperclip now lies on the horizon this week for those trying to catch Johnson – but they’ll have their work cut out for them. Turn here next Tuesday to see who enters Talladega with time on their side in terms of the title… and those who have too little time on their hands. And if you play fantasy racing, be sure and check out my shot turn at Frontstretch’s Fantasy Racing column, out on SI.com this Friday.
Listen to Doug on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with host Captain Herb Emory on Saturday, from 2-4 p.m, live from The Moonshine Festival in Dawsonville, on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug and David Chandler co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader, Saturday’s from 10-11 a.m. on racefanradio.com and 1240 ESPN Radio in Gainesville, Ga.