Is Infineon Raceway NASCAR’s new Bristol? It seems like an outrageous comparison on paper, a 1.99-mile road course typically more lamb than lion. But try telling that to a handful of crews on Monday, busy working overtime while drowning in a sea of broken pieces and red ink. Not only was just about every car torn up like they’d been running at a half-mile, but we’ve got more drivers stomping mad in one weekend than we’ve seen in some of the past few seasons in NASCAR combined. All we’re missing is Scott Speed having a public tiff with Old Kyle Busch on Twitter, and I think the entire Sprint Cup garage might be ready to film a Real Housewives – type season of their own.
So what can we learn from 110 laps of playing the feud? They say only the strong survive, but in this case strong gets replaced with strongarm. Poor Martin Truex Jr. had it right, as the bullies finished their races up front while leaving a whole lot of frayed tempers and frustrated victims in their wake. Will we see a case of “what goes around, comes around” at New Hampshire? It’s the perfect track to play the payback game, especially for a long list of drivers whose Chase bids were suddenly cooled by someone’s back bumper.
For now, though, they stay on the wrong side of our Hot/Not list, scratching their heads over losing 50 or 100 points to Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a road course. If that’s not deflating to your season, I’m not sure what is… but I digress.
Let’s get started….
Kasey Kahne – For most of 2010, the lone hot topic surrounding Kahne is where he’ll be driving next year. Lame ducks don’t usually have much to quack about, but suddenly in the midst of rumor mill chaos he’s stolen the AFLAC duck and started spreading those wings for NASCAR’s summer stretch. Armed with back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time all season, an Infineon pole and fourth-place result suddenly has his Richard Petty Motorsports team talking Chase. Is it possible? Don’t look now, but he sits just 151 points behind 12th-place Carl Edwards with intermediates Chicagoland, Atlanta and a return trip to Michigan lying ahead. I still think it’s unlikely, but it’s within the realm of possibility, which is more than you could say for this team a month ago. If I were Kahne, I’d also keep feeding his team those Budweisers filled with this crazy rumor he’s actually going to stay there one more year until Hendrick’s “ready” for him. Who knows where that one came from, but that’s about as likely as you continuing to live with your ex-girlfriend after she’s started dating that millionaire down the street.
Jimmie Johnson – Oh… my… God. It’s all over; forget a fifth championship, Johnson might not even make the Chase. He only just won his first ever road-course race, but that’s because Marcos Ambrose lost his mind and stopped his car on a hill. Those 316 laps led the last five weeks, three top-six finishes and typical “let someone else steal the limelight when it doesn’t really count” frame of mind show he’s slipping faster than post-Thanksgiving Tiger Woods. I don’t even know why he’s even going to show up next week at Loudon. Excuse me, I need to write 5,000 articles about how it’s not going to be his year. Signed… A Whole Bunch Of People Who Counted Their Chickens Looooooong Before They Hatched.
MAKING OTHERS HOT UNDER THE COLLAR
Jeff Gordon – Are we sure Gordon didn’t think there was a rule change on Sunday? Like, maybe five bonus points for turning someone and another five for causing a DNF? That type of Demolition Derby performance is something we don’t often see from anyone, let alone a four-time champ who also doubles as one of the sport’s best drivers ever. For now, Gordon’s still riding the wave of back-to-back top-five finishes, putting him fifth in points and just 192 out of the lead. But to me, the bigger number is that 267-point gap ahead of 13th, because you better believe a payback-related DNF is coming. You don’t piss off that many guys and get away unscathed; it may be New Hampshire, it may be Bristol, but there’s a spinout headed the No. 24’s way sometime soon.
Honorable Mention: Danica Patrick returns to NASCAR mentions (and it’s only Monday), Kevin Harvick (two top-fives in three races, 140-point lead in the standings, a whole lot of firesuit in the family t-shirts), road-course ringers (Boris Said eighth, Jan Magnussen 12th), Tom Logano (screaming from home during the Juan Pablo Montoya – Joey Logano incident, I’m sure)
Greg Biffle – Yeah, the Blue Oval crowd is nowhere close to where they want to be yet. But while the Biff hasn’t led a lap since Talladega, he’s persevered through a season built on working through adversity. A pit-road speeding penalty should have ruined his day at Infineon, but strong strategy and solid driving left him seventh – the third top-10 finish in five races for the No. 16 Ford. That leaves him ninth in points with more Biffle-friendly tracks in Loudon and Chicago ahead, providing hope the Fusions will hang around long enough to make some noise come September.
Juan Pablo Montoya – Eighth, 13th and 10th the last three weeks leaves Montoya thinking the Chase might be possible again. It’s just every time he starts to tease us, mechanical or wreck-related issues have him cracking at the drop of a hat. His season reminds me of the old Greek God Sisyphus; every time he’d roll the ball up the hill, he’d get near the top, slip, and watch it slide all the way back down to the bottom.
I will say this much, though; bonus points for freaking out Gordon. When you’re divebombing a guy like that into making mistakes, you know you’re someone who’s respected on the racetrack. Or is that feared? I guess either one is just fine.
Honorable Mention: Earnhardt Jr. (back-to-back top-11 finishes… but let’s walk before we run here), Shaq racing Junior on live television (would be better if Shaq wasn’t a shadow of his former self), AJ Allmendinger (five straight top 15s), New Hampshire losing its race date (upped 20-25% in recent weeks after “policegate”)
Clint Bowyer – I keep flashing back to one moment that could have changed the course of Bowyer’s season. Back at Pocono, he was sitting there in contention to win until Harvick pulled a three-wide move, knocked him back in traffic and left Bowyer screaming on the radio. A few laps later, he hit the wall, dropped to ninth at the finish and hasn’t been the same since. He wrecked in Michigan practice, had to go to a backup and wound up 22nd; then, at Infineon he got involved in not one, but two wrecks not of his making en route to 31st. You just wonder how things would be different if that zero had got knocked out of the win column; and honestly, that could wind up the difference between him making and missing this year’s Chase.
Brad Keselowski – At one point, it appeared Kes was moving in a slow but steady direction upwards with the No. 12. But four straight top-20 runs have been replaced with 21st, 27th and 35th the last three weeks, wiping out any momentum gained from coasting to the Nationwide Series title. Infineon was definitely the low point, his Dodge switching back and forth from becoming the pinball and the flipper. Not only did his car look like it came straight from the junkyard by the checkered flag, but he seemed to have collected more enemies from the Cup garage in the process (his lead in that category is already all but insurmountable). It’s one thing to have people mad at you when you’re running fifth… but 35th? That’s not so good.
Honorable Mention: Infineon weather (picture perfect compared to the East coast), Joe Gibbs Racing on road courses (can Tony Stewart come teach?), the wave-around (which gave Bobby Labonte a 23rd-place finish… after he was two laps down. How do you make up two laps on a road course? That’s a little ridiculous)
Martin Truex Jr. – The New Jersey native should spend all week watching a few Jersey Shore episodes on how to fight back when challenged. But even Snooki couldn’t keep him from getting outsnookered by Gordon, who probably cut the cord on his Chase hopes the second his back bumper hit the No. 56. What a shame for a guy who’d never finished in the top five at Infineon, clearly biding his time with what looked like a third-place car. Now, the cold reality hits, as no top-10 finishes the last six weeks combined with a playoff deficit of 157 points leaves the team fighting to save what once was the comeback season of the year.
Max Papis – It’s been tough sledding for a sophomore who’s getting a hard-knock education on Sprint Cup ovals. But Infineon and Watkins Glen are two bright spots every year on his schedule, the places you’d expect his No. 13 GEICO Toyota to be a fixture inside the top 10. The fact he never so much as sniffed it after qualifying 29th, then got involved in a wreck that left him dead last doesn’t seem to indicate he’s making progress behind the wheel. How much longer will the gecko tolerate no TV time? For the lovable Italian, a pink slip may come at the end of the season if he’s not careful.
Honorable Mention: North Korean soccer (giving up a touchdown), the Ambrose–Frank Kerr Monday meeting (“You said what?” “You did what?” “Don’t talk to me… no, YOU don’t talk to me…”), Toyota’s sponsafier campaign (which Michael Waltrip failed to qualify), Dave Blaney (even when he can run the distance… the car won’t comply)