NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Jimmie Johnson’s Struggles Have Created Power Vacuum in Sprint Cup Standings

The last few weeks have been quite unkind to Jimmie Johnson. First, he and teammate Jeff Gordon were disappointed with each other, then the “other” Four-Time said he was pissed to the point Rick Hendrick had to get involved and play the role of U.N. peacekeeper. Then, the No. 48 was the dominant force at Dover a couple of weeks ago, blowing by everything in sight, including the timing traps on pit road that cost him a penalty and the race win. And during last Saturday night’s All-Star Race, it appeared that he was heading towards his third All-Star Race win, once again allowing the Lowe’s team to reference Charlotte Motor Speedway as “our house” – until he lost control coming off turn 4 in the final segment that paid $1 million to win.

Safe to say, Jimmie and the employee-owners of Lowe’s were not stoked about that one.

What they might also be nonplussed over is that there appears to be a bit of a power vacuum developing in the Sprint Cup Series. Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team has set the benchmark in NASCAR’s top division since 2006, but right now, there appears to be no shortage of challengers to the throne as evidenced by the current glut amongst the top 12 in the points standings, with only 203 points separating Johnson in fifth from Martin Truex Jr. in 12th.

With that in mind, the Coca-Cola 600 marks the 1/3-mark of the season, and is an appropriate time to take stock of things and set the field for the upcoming all-important summer stretch that will define the Chase for the Championship come September. Who’s in the best position to take Johnson down? Let’s look….

1. Kevin Harvick Fresh off his first win in over three years (and people bag on Junior?), Harvick and Richard Childress have apparently mended whatever fences had fallen apart and have recommitted themselves for several years to come. With potential sponsors rumored as either UPS or The King of Beers, the No. 29 is leading a resurgent RCR atop the points standings.

2. Kyle Busch (-69) Denny Hamlin may have coined a rallying cry with “All we do is win,” but Busch threw down the gauntlet with “Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin,” following Saturday night’s All-Star Race incident between the two teammates. Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers are clearly in sync, and Busch is showing the signs of the dominance that he displayed in 2008 when he first joined Joe Gibbs Racing, coupled with a newfound maturity and leadership that has been absent in seasons past. To quote Vince Vaughn from the movie Swingers, “You grows up and you grows up!” As long as the No. 18 doesn’t “blows up,” he could make the summer stretch an agonizing one for the competition.

3. Matt Kenseth (-126) Who? Oh yeah, that guy; the one who captured the 2003 championship and scored two-thirds of Ford’s wins in 2009 – all two of them. No longer wandering around aimlessly like Moses and company through the desert, new crew chief Todd Parrott has appeared as a cloud to the Roush Fenway faithful, and the No. 17 team is performing and acting as the Killer Bees of the DeWalt days. Kenseth is as steady and consistent as they come, and a glance down the schedule the next few months reveals the big horsepower honkers – Michigan, Pocono, Indianapolis and Atlanta – which should bode well for the new Ford FR9 engine. Team owner Jack Roush is fond of waxing poetic of the ebbs and flow of racing, and this rising tide looks to lift all the boats that sail under the Blue Oval banner.

4. Denny Hamlin (-150) It makes you wonder what kind of surgery was performed on Hamlin’s knee, because he has been going, as my Dad likes to say, “Like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest!” Safe to say, the contest has been pretty one-sided as of late, with the No. 11 knocking out a series-leading three wins, tied with defending champion Johnson in that department. No longer a one-trick pony on flat tracks, DH has become the designated hitter on the high banks as well. Rick Hendrick conceded that JGR may have indeed eclipsed his team – and this guy is a big reason for that. If all they do is win, Pocono, Loudon and Indianapolis might be foregone conclusions if past performance is any indication.

6. Jeff Gordon (-163) It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for a guy that is sixth in points and has already amassed over $2 million in earnings this year, but Gordon has gotten the short end of the stick more often than not in 2010. There really is no reason that he hasn’t won at least three races this year, save for some seriously horrendous luck. He is as focused and fired up as ever, and his much-maligned crew chief, Steve Letarte, who often serves as the emotional punching bag for so many No. 24 fans, has re-dedicated himself physically and mentally for this season as well. Both driver and crew chief are on top of their game, and with 82 career victories, it’s hard to find a track that’s bad for the original Four-Time. Add in some team-building exercises and s’mores parties with their shop-mates, and Gordon might seal up the Drive for Five before JJ does.

7. Greg Biffle (-187) Yeah, I kind of forgot he was this high in the standings, too. Like General Hummel in The Rock, Biffle has achieved his position through poise and audacity, to which he now intends to add resolve. With that, he should probably try to mix in some top fives, as he has only a pair thus far this season, and of his eight top 10s, four of those have been just that – 10th. Combined with three finishes of 22nd, Biffle is consistent, if anything, and manages to stay out of trouble, keeping the No. 16 3M Ford out of harm’s way. With his stealthy demeanor on the track, he might want to swap numbers with Carl Edwards, because the Biff is about as close to former Roush driver Jeff Burton as you’re going to get. Except for maybe Burton himself.

8. Jeff Burton (-199) Oh hi, Jeff. After throwing away a sure win at Darlington by running over the air hose… or after the tire guy didn’t toss the gun over the hood… or the jack guy didn’t wait to be told to drop it… Burton put his team on notice: get your heads in the game or we aren’t going to contend. Respond they did, with a second-place finish the following week at Dover to right the ship. The Coca-Cola 600 is a race that plays perfectly into the hands of a veteran like Burton; an endurance event that can turn into a gas-mileage affair or a last-lap shootout that means preserving your equipment until it’s go time. To wit, Burton has two 600 wins to his credit, in 1999 and 2001. The Mayor of NASCAR has long since flown under the radar, but is beginning to show up as more than just a blip in recent weeks and may be carpet bombing the field by the time summer rolls around.

9. Kurt Busch (-237) I have this recurring image in my head of Busch chucking a bottle (not of the Miller Lite Vortex variety) into the cockpit of his Penske Dodge Charger back at Bristol after being one-upped by the No. 48 team. Busch and crew chief Steve Addington may have tipped their hand a bit Saturday night at Charlotte, displaying serious speed that virtually nobody came close to matching – this, after mashing their monster Mopar into the turn 4 wall on more than one occasion. There is a reason why they’ve been painting their wheels that hideous yellow of late – probably to hide the wall scars. No matter, the Blue Deuce will likely put a hurtin’ on ‘em this weekend, where upon exiting the car in victory lane, Kurt will give their winning car another unfortunate nickname. Kurt, if you’re reading this, you’ve got time to think of a really good one. Please.

10. Carl Edwards (-281) That Subway commercial where he lifts his car up looking for his sandy is beginning to get about as annoying as the DirecTV commercial with Dale Earnhardt Jr. whipping donuts at Richmond a few years ago – just not to the degree of the Pizza Hut commercial several years back where there was a divine light emitting from their cardboard box. But I digress. A quick look at Edwards’s finishes reminds me of a guy trying to kickstart a recalcitrant two-stroke Kawasaki. Solid top 10s are followed by middling finishes in the teens, or an accident – either involving or not involving sailing Brad Keselowski into the cheap seats. Some extra oats between the fenders courtesy of the new Roush Yates FR9 powerplant could help Mr. Edwards position the No. 99 for a chance at a title run.

11. Mark Martin (-293) What a difference a year makes. At this time in 2009, Martin had two wins and signed on for two additional full-time seasons, while the media at large was singing his praises, suggesting that he was finally in reach of a championship that has eluded him for well over two decades. Enter 2010, where the No. 5 has stumbled at tracks that produced convincing victories just a year ago, and with the announcement of Kasey Kahne joining HMS in 2012, the press can’t get Martin out of the car quick enough for whatever reason, regardless of how often he insists that he will be back in it next year. The drop in performance has left many scratching their heads. Is it the new spoiler? Have other teams simply caught up? Has collaborating with the No. 88 team become more of a boat anchor than a benefit? The All-Star Race showed that the No. 5 should be fast at Charlotte, and Martin fans can take heart; he is actually one point closer to first place this year than he was at this time in 2009.

12. Martin Truex Jr. (-334) Michael Waltrip has to be wondering why his flagship car wasn’t running like this the last few years he was driving it. While the 2004 and ’05 Nationwide Series champion no doubt has had some influence over the performance of the NAPA Toyota, so has new MWR crew chief Pat Tryson. Few war wagon generals are as motivational on the radio as Tryson, and his quiet confidence off the air has helped guide his teams to Chase appearances in all but one year since its inception in 2004. Some early-season teething problems have worked themselves out, and now the No. 56 can be expected to be around the top 10 every week. But that’s not all; how about winning that pole at Dover and just about catching Kurt in the All-Star Race after racing their way in through the Showdown? They may not know how to get to the moon, but to make it to the Chase, these guys both know what to do.

Keep in mind, all of this in contingent upon the No. 48 team folding and falling flat on their collective face. The chances of this happening are about as likely as Alice In Chains offering to have me to fill in on vocals for a few dates this year, even though I can totally nail “Would?” at a karaoke bar. With three wins already this year, and another couple that slipped away, this is a team that prepares during the summer months for the big show in the fall. If these contenders wish not to look like pretenders, they had better make hay while the summer sun is shining in the months ahead.

Otherwise, the only sucking sound to be heard will be that of the other 11 competitors left in their wake yet again.

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