As we prepare for racing’s semi-annual version of Russian Roulette (Talladega), it’s always nice to take a quick look back before we see whose lives are going to be battered by the Big One. Don’t believe me? Just remember last year. Jeff Gordon came to ‘Dega 98 points in front of Jimmie Johnson and seemingly on another planet compared to everyone else. But an untimely tap by Matt Kenseth on lap 7 started a multi-car wreck that eliminated a quarter of the field. When the smoke cleared, Gordon’s Chevy was headed to the junkyard, his season never quite the same the rest of the way.
At least the man made the Chase. Clint Bowyer – sixth in points, and on the verge of tying Herman Beam’s 84-race streak of no DNFs – got clobbered in the midst of that mess. He finished the race by crawling across the line, but little did we know his Chase chances were already dead meat. The DNF streak ended at Darlington a few weeks later, short of the record, and the next time we saw him inside the top 10 was Michigan in mid-June.
That’s the beauty of ‘Dega: it’s a game-changer, destroying as many dreams as it creates. So relish these Hot/Not capsules while you can, because chances are on Monday we’ll be dealing with a drastically different playing field to choose from.
Denny Hamlin: I’d say Hamlin is sizzling, but his ACL is already fragile enough; no need to cook and have it break into a million pieces again. God, if I knew the mere prospect of knee surgery (and its resulting aftermath) would win me two of three races, over $750,000, and a spot back in the pantheon of “Those Who Can Actually See Jimmie Johnson’s Car On The Same Straightaway,” I’d be falling on the basketball court right now.
So give Hamlin his credit where credit is due. It’s a feel-good story the likes of which only makes Casey Mears upset (and even he’s not all that angry. I think most of us would take a two-week paycheck for doing nothing any day!).
Greg Biffle: Sure, he’s part of a program that hasn’t won a race at an unrestricted track since Tiger Woods was a saint and Joey Logano was on the verge of being canned, not celebrated. It was February of 2009, to be exact, at Fontana; but hey, I can’t use Johnson every week and ever so quietly, Biffle is putting up the type of numbers that earn you the championship under this point system.
Wins? Don’t be silly. Nah, Willis, I’m talking ‘bout top-10 finishes. The Biff has more than any other (seven in eight races, in fact) leaving him third in points and within striking distance of Johnson. Sure, that ugly winless streak of 52 races isn’t pretty, but that 179-point cushion on 13th certainly is! And as history’s proven, the earlier you get a grasp on the Chase bid the more you can throw away the regular season to use as a test session for when it really counts. These guys know how to wear that Chase Cinderella crown (2008, anyone?) so don’t count them out.
Johnson: On the verge of a lifetime achievement award for this category. When you’re only eight races into 2010 that means trouble for your competition.
Kyle Busch in the Nationwide Series: Five straight wins at Texas? Leading the Nationwide points standings? Someone should call this kid up to the major leagues. Oh, wait….
Mark Martin: As a guy who’s had his share of depressing moments, I’m sure Martin has swapped stories with the tortoise about how it’s not always the fastest car that wins the race. And while Martin hasn’t gone to victory lane the past two weeks, stealing sixth and fourth-place finishes with oh, about 20th-place cars has to make him feel good. Too bad he’s heading to the one track (Talladega) that always seems to kick him in the gut. Did you know… the last time Martin finished a spring race there, his “future replacement” (Kasey Kahne) hadn’t, either? That’s ‘cause the kid was a rookie back in 2004… he hadn’t even had a chance to race there yet.
So if I were Martin, I think it’s high time to change strategy. Since it’s worked so well as of late… fall a lap off the pace, never hold on to the lead draft only to take the “wave around” twice after two Big Ones at the finish. Walk away with 10th, a big smile on your face, and flash the women those abs on the way out! That’ll shed the Charlie Brown image for good….
Kurt Busch: Busch’s season has more ups and downs than the Superman coaster at Six Flags. Good thing he’s sponsored by Miller Lite, because after four top-10 finishes combined with four of 23rd or worse who wouldn’t want a beer to drown their sorrows? But with a new sponsor deal (Shell/Pennzoil) combined with the most laps led of any driver for 2010 (462), I’d like to look at Busch as a man with the glass half full. It’s just going to get a different beer inside it after the next seven months….
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Third top-10 finish of the year, combined with 46 laps led, bumped him up to seventh in points and induced a beard-shaving maneuver for ‘Dega. Great way to cut back drag for that untimely wreck you can’t avoid.
Martin Truex Jr.: Two top-10 finishes in three weeks? That’s the type of stuff that’ll land him in NAPA’s Know-How Hall of Fame already.
Kevin Harvick: Once upon a time, Mr. Harvick was our points leader, and all seemed happy and healthy again at Richard Childress Racing. But then, a part broke on a rain-delayed Monday at Martinsville, and the No. 29 car has yet to visit the top five since. In between, Harvick’s seen his 2011 backup plan (Stewart-Haas Racing) get stolen by Kahne, then the rug pulled out from under him with Shell’s impending departure. Yes, fourth in points is still a nice place to be. But what did we say about Bowyer at the top of this column? There’s still a long way to go, and the next three weeks will be a tough test to see how well Harvick and Co. are really handling adversity.
Jeff Burton: In that same Martinsville race, Burton appeared to be on the verge of winning until running over something and cutting a tire with 10 laps left. He hasn’t so much as sniffed the top 10 at the finish since, hitting the wall at Texas with a car that was capable of going for the win. How rare is it that when Burton “puts himself in position to win,” he takes himself out of it? Even so, he needs to stop asking for mulligans ASAP, because with a long list of distractions unveiled at RCR this week, it’s all he’ll be able to do to keep the team focused. And what about Caterpillar? Will they be back for 2011 and beyond? The No. 31 could be a team to watch going forward.
Bill Elliott: Finishes so far with the Wood Brothers this year: 27th, 16th, 25th. That’s a C- effort from a team expected to step it up a notch in its second season of limited schedule status.
Marcos Ambrose: Yeah, I know; three top 20s in his last three races has him on the verge of righting the ship. But no top-10 finishes in eight races this year? I’m sorry, Chase sleeper, I’m not buying it. We all expected more.
Paul Menard: It was fun while it lasted, right? Sadly, every racing Cinderella has that awkward moment where the clock strikes midnight. Menard’s took his kicking and screaming Monday, driving a top-10 car at Texas and threatening for an even better finish at one point. So, the racing Gods had to turn around and shove the No. 98 flat inside a multi-car wreck to get the job done to make that pumpkin sprout up. 29th plus 35th = drop to 18th in points = about right. I hope you enjoyed his press conferences inside the media center, because that’s the last we’ll likely see of him until the “Where will Menard go with RPM folding” story begins to unfold in the summer.
Brian Vickers: I don’t know what Team Red Bull did with their knockout intermediate track setup… but the guy who lost those notes better find them soon. Vickers has just one top 10 in four intermediate starts this year, teaming with some troubling stats (no top fives, just five laps led) that have his No. 83 team threatening to fall behind even the No. 82 of Scott Speed. Add in back-to-back finishes outside the top 35, and it’s clear he needs the type of red-letter day at ‘Dega that earned him his first win in the Cup Series back in 2006.
David Reutimann: Calling the TRD engine department. TRD, are you there… three engine DNFs in just eight races have Michael Waltrip Racing on the verge of using jet fuel again. Hey, anything to make them finish…
Tommy Baldwin Racing: So, let’s get this straight. Baldwin fires Mike Bliss, who then turns around and takes a ride with a start-and-park team (No. 09). Baldwin then promotes his start-and-park guy (Johnny Sauter) to try and get his car in the show the next two races. Except he’s knocked out by the very guy that’s fired (Bliss) who goes on to park and rob a starting spot of a team that’s running the distance.
What’s the moral of this story? Start-and-park sucks if you’re the underdog. Don’t do it! ‘Cause occasionally, karma will come back to bite you.