NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: On the Cusp of the 2010 Season

ONE: Does Joe Gibbs Racing have a title contender in its stable?

It’s a fairly safe assumption that Joe Gibbs Racing will place at least two cars in the Chase this year, if not all three. Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 car was on fire from the summer on last season (when he wasn’t shooting himself in the foot), Kyle Busch is Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano has gotten the growing pains out of the way.

All three JGR drivers will likely win races this year.

Making the Chase is one thing, though; winning it is something completely different. When one takes a look at JGR’s driver stable, the obstacles that kept two of the team’s cars out of the Chase entirely, and Hamlin from challenging for the Cup in 2009, are still there. Logano, as improved as he is, is still a second-year driver that, for all his steps forward, has not proven able to string consistent finishes together – last season, he scored back-to-back top 10s only once.

As for the heavy hitters at JGR, the widely held consensus last season was that Busch’s overwhelming focus on winning a Nationwide Series championship distracted him from dedicating sufficient time to his No. 18 Cup car. Ultimately, that lack of focus kept him from capitalizing on a late-summer Bristol win to secure a Chase berth, a disappointment that ultimately cost crew chief Steve Addington his job. Now, while JGR made the right move to put its foot down to try and keep Busch from running another full Nationwide schedule this year, Kyle has a new toy to play with… his own Kyle Busch Motorsports truck team. Think that ownership isn’t a distraction?

Exhibit A: Kevin Harvick. Exhibit B: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kyle’s reduced Nationwide schedule is going to mean nothing in terms of increased focus on the Cup effort if his truck team becomes to him what KHI has become to Harvick. Tackling ownership is commendable, but it’s not conducive to scoring a Cup title, either.

And then there’s Hamlin, the only driver other than Jimmie Johnson even remotely being considered to score the 2010 Cup title. When the dust settled on the 2009 season, Hamlin had only himself to blame for falling short. Before a couple of blown engines put the final nail in the No. 11 team’s coffin, Hamlin finished outside the top 20 in two of the first four Chase races; 22nd at Dover the day after getting into a heated altercation with Brad Keselowski over a Nationwide Series race, and a 37th-place finish at Fontana after wrecking himself. As I wrote back in September, Hamlin’s biggest problem has been controlling his emotions and attitude… and if this offseason is any indication, his mindset has not changed. For a 20-something driver to be upset that NASCAR doesn’t show him the same deference and consideration as Jeff Gordon, it proves to me he is nowhere near ready to handle the challenge of pursuing racing’s biggest title.

To quote Jack Nicholson from The Departed, “No one gives it to you. You have to take it.” Hamlin, and Busch for that matter, don’t seem to have figured this out yet. And until they do, they won’t be winning any Cup titles.

TWO: Did Front Row Motorsports grow too fast?

Front Row Motorsports has gone in the course of one offseason from a single-car team which scraped its way into the Top 35 to a three-car operation with Ford manufacturer-backing in 2010. There’s plenty of tools in place for them to be successful, whether it be manufacturer support that the journeyman organization has never had before, or having veteran driver Travis Kvapil reunited with teammate David Gilliland, the same driver pairing that helped turned Yates Racing’s performance around in 2008.

But the fact remains that this small team is taking what was a part-time, start-and-park operation full-time, essentially creating a third team out of thin air. Even the sport’s strongest teams have found expansion to be taxing… just ask Richard Childress Racing – and Front Row is adding two cars, not just one. Not only that, but despite all their resources going towards their No. 34 car last season, that team still was the very last one to make the Top-35 cutoff. Let’s also not forget that one of the cars is being driven by Kevin Conway, who while proving to be an adept marketing partner has made only 25 career Nationwide Series starts. With the economy still in shambles, money talks, and it’s clear Conway made the jump to the Cup ranks thanks to his sponsor dollars.

THREE: Will Martin Truex Jr. turn the NAPA team around?

Martin Truex Jr. was a great hire by Michael Waltrip Racing, and he’ll have the former No. 55 (now No. 56) team running up front consistently… in 2011. While David Reutimann and even Marcos Ambrose led a major step forward for MWR last season, Truex is stepping in to take over a team that, with Michael Waltrip behind the wheel, has consistently lagged behind the organization’s other cars since they first took to the track in 2007. Whatever form of a notebook that team has developed is probably not going to be of much help to Truex and new crew chief Pat Tryson, meaning that the upcoming campaign will have to focus more on building said notebook than going guns blazing for a Chase berth.

Still don’t believe me? It took Jeff Burton time to come in and get RCR turned around after he took over a No. 30 team that had essentially been driven by committee in 2004. Keselowski proved unable to be an instant quick fix for the No. 12 team last season after David Stremme only magnified that team’s struggles. When coming into a team like Waltrip’s that’s been stuck for a while, a turnaround takes time. Truex will have that time, though, and MWR will reap the rewards next year.

FOUR: The hottest seat in NASCAR belongs to?

Surprisingly, it’s David Ragan. It’s no secret that Roush Fenway Racing and UPS both did not sign Ragan, despite having groomed Gong Show winner Todd Kluever to replace Mark Martin in the No. 6 car, to finish 27th in points without even sniffing victory lane. And now, with Richard Petty Motorsports joining the Ford ranks, the blue oval brigade has one of its former prospects back in the stable….

Kasey Kahne.

Kahne’s in a contract year, and while he hasn’t ruled out staying with RPM, he didn’t commit to it either when questioned during the Media Tour. Ford’s already lost Kahne once (and weren’t too happy about in 2004). If Ragan falters again this season, they won’t make the same mistake twice – leaving Kahne a prime candidate to take over the No. 6.

FIVE: Is Jimmie Johnson’s name already engraved on the 2010 Sprint Cup?

It might as well be. The only folks out there convinced that Jimmie Johnson just can’t string five in a row together are… Johnson fans. Guess they’ve taken a page from Chad Knaus’s book… “Oh, it’s not over yet, anything can happen.”

Face it, none of the arguments against Johnson winning it all again hold water. The midseason change to a spoiler isn’t going to derail the No. 48 team… has any change in the rules or cars ever caught the them off guard? Johnson becoming a father isn’t going to derail the No. 48 team… because that baby isn’t going to be sleeping at Knaus’s house. As long as Knaus is on his game, even a sleep-deprived Johnson will be next to impossible to stop. And as for the drivers competing against the No. 48 team, just look at the contenders. Hamlin’s not ready – just read above. Martin couldn’t knock Johnson off last year, despite having first choice of everything in the Hendrick garages. Stewart led the points almost all year, until it counted (according to the Chase, anyway).

That means the Drive For Five is alive at Hendrick… it’s just the car Jeff Gordon owns instead of drives.

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