In late August, summer is in its last glorious days in many parts of the county; cooler weather has already begun to creep in and the once balmy evenings carry just the tiniest taste of autumn’s chill. But with just two races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the NASCAR season is heating up.
The final three months of the season are the most intense. Drivers, teams and fans are caught up in the urgency that builds as the late summer heat fades-urgency to earn an edge in the Chase, urgency to make the Chase, urgency to find some magic or hold onto a ride when it’s clear the Chase is an unreachable goal.
In short (and, given the nature of the sport, in a rather unfortunate cliché) it’s crunch time.
Everyone feels the heat of the Chase. Teams firmly in the top 12 are already working feverishly to find the edge that might yield a season championship. Teams still within reach pull out all the stops to get in. Teams on the outside jockey to salvage their season, to find momentum for next year, to woo a sponsor. But amid all the hoopla, there are five drivers who need to shine in the closing laps of 2010 more than any of the others.
Their reasons and motivation are vastly different. Three will make the Chase and vie for the title. Two will look in from the outside; one from a great distance. One has the title of champion. Three have been contenders, but haven’t been at the top of the mountain. One is trying to hang onto his ride. One is loved and four know the sting of fans’ ire as much as the comfort of the cheers. Two race for a juggernaut team; one fell from that team’s grace. One is racing to return a team to former greatness. One races for a team still building its identity and legacy.
All have one thing in common: a desperate need to distinguish themselves in the final third of the season. They are five who must find something deep inside, must overcome their obstacles. In short, they all have something to prove.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick will likely enter the Chase third or fourth in points barring a pair of wins at Atlanta and Richmond. But he’s also led the points for much of the year. After missing the Chase altogether in 2009 and finishing a dismal 19th in points last year, this in itself can be considered a major accomplishment for Harvick. But this year, it’s also not enough. Harvick has made three of six Chase fields, an inconsistency that is a microcosm of his career. Harvick fluctuates between a menace in the points standings to being a nonfactor, sometimes within the same season.
And that simply has to stop.
Harvick, once the 25-year-old phenom with the unenviable task of piloting Dale Earnhardt’s team after the seven-time champion’s untimely death in the 2001 Daytona 500, is now a 35-year-old who has often verged on greatness of his own-but never quite found it. Oh, he has had success; he has wins in all three national touring series, many of those in his own equipment in an era where the winning owner-driver has all but slid off the collective radar. He’s grown up, gone from the kid who tried too hard to be like Earnhardt to being a better, smarter racer who understands the business of racing.
But Harvick isn’t getting any younger, and this year is the best shot he’s had at a title in his career-he must capitalize. No team has shown it can hang onto a hot streak, and that gives this Chase the possibility of being a game of consistency rather than sustained brilliance. Should that play out, Harvick has to be the title favorite-his average finish of 8.8 this year is superb, and nearly four full spots over his previous season best of 12.2. He’s just always there. But should the Chase turn into a battle of victories, Harvick must step his game up a notch, and he hasn’t shown a hot streak like that. As of now, he’s probably the title favorite, but that also means it’s his to lose.
Kyle Busch: Busch has proven he can win races at a torrid pace… in NASCAR’s minor leagues. Like Harvick, he has wins in all three national touring series. He has a Nationwide title and has won at every type of track on the circuit. He’s only 25 years old. But Busch also has a big mouth and a less-than stellar attitude, and that coupled with his ability in the Nationwide and Truck series means that sooner rather than later, Busch needs to put his money where his mouth is.
The biggest knock on Busch is his apparent lack of focus on his Cup team, and there have been times when he followed up a stellar Nationwide or truck race with a less-than inspired Cup run, making the critics wonder how badly he really wants to be at the top of the most elite series rather than being at the top in a series where it’s much easier to be there. That’s a stigma that Busch needs to put behind him, that while he’s out winning in the development series hand over fist, he’s been an also-ran in Cup. That’s not a good perception.
Busch is enjoying a solid Cup season, but he’ll have to be more than solid in the Chase. For Busch, that’s not as easy as it might be. Busch can be impatient in his drive for glory, and he does have a tendency to be less than willing to give and take with mid-pack cars. The problem with this is that he may be making enemies with nothing to lose-something a title contender can’t afford. Busch has the talent to make it to the top, but he needs to prove he also has the maturity.
Jimmie Johnson: The four-time defending champion has had a miserable summer. His best finish since winning at Loudon is 10th, and he’s been outraced by the likes of Elliott Sadler and Marcos Ambrose. Good drivers, but not championship-caliber ones. He’s also finished 20th or worse five times in that stretch, well below and dragging down his career average finish. His average finish this year is nearly five spots below even his lowest championship year. In short, he doesn’t even look like a contender.
It’s odd to think of one of the most decorated drivers of this generation as having to prove himself, but Johnson needs to do just that this fall. He’s ninth in points right now, and purists will say that unless he would erase that deficit in real points without the benefit of the Chase reset, that he doesn’t deserve to contend for the title at all.
What Johnson has on his side is a Chase record that is nothing short of spectacular. His team also historically has a summer slump as they prepare for the title run, though it’s never been as dismal as this one. If Johnson and his team aren’t yet showing their hand, he could go back to making the Chase his personal playground and win an unprecedented fifth straight title. But if they don’t have much in reserve, Johnson could also be looking at his worst points finish ever. He needs to show that he can figure out the spoiler-era CoT and his team needs to prove that they can overcome adversity like they once could. Otherwise, Johnson’s season is likely to end on a disappointing note. As defending champ the last thing Johnson needs is to go out with the whimper he’s looking to make of late.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: While not mathematically eliminated from contention, realistically, Earnhardt is going to miss the Chase again. Here is a driver who needs to find some magic. He’ll be 36 in October and apparently no closer to a Cup title than he was a decade ago. But NASCAR’s perpetual Most Popular Driver doesn’t need to think about winning the Cup-he simply needs to think about winning.
To that end, missing the Chase may work to Earnhardt’s advantage. He doesn’t have to worry about points racing, only winning. Checkers or wreckers. He doesn’t need to make enemies of Chase contenders, but he needs to show a little of the old fire, the controlled aggression that has made him an 18-time Cup winner. And without having to worry about points, he can do that.
But Earnhardt hasn’t shown that fire, that desire to win, to prove himself, to uphold the Earnhardt name in the record books. Don’t believe for a second that it’s gone, but it’s become a few tenuous embers instead of an inferno. Earnhardt probably has more pressure on him than any other two drivers combined, pressure from media, from fans, from himself. If he can channel that, can find a way to prove the naysayers wrong, he can set up a turnaround that could see him a contender for wins once again. But it needs to happen now.
Scott Speed: Speed is the darling of his team ownership, but it’s a team in transition. At the moment there are three drivers and two cars, and Speed the owners’ darling could still be Speed the casualty of the business if he doesn’t give a compelling reason for Team Red Bull to expand to a third team for Kasey Kahne in 2011. Kahne is a marquee name, and the still-growing Red Bull team can use the star power. They made the Chase a year ago with Brian Vickers, proving that the equipment is up to par with the best. Vickers’s ride is safe as he’ll return at Daytona after nearly a year off due to blood clots and subsequent heart surgery-replacing Vickers after he announced his medical clearance would be a PR disaster, with good reason.
If the equipment is up to par, then it’s clearly Speed who hasn’t been, running consistently in the middle or back of the pack and not making a lot of friends. He ran off Vickers’s hand-picked fill-in driver after a run-in of mutual fault, which didn’t make him look like much of a team player, and despite his brash predictions of how easy NASCAR would be after he came to the Cup Series from Formula 1, he hasn’t performed well enough for that to be overlooked.
Speed needs to put together a hot streak and quick if he’s to convince the powers that be to field a third team instead of simply filling his seat with multiple Cup winner Kahne. Even if his ride goes away, Speed can’t afford much less than a stellar fall to beat out the considerable competition for a ride next year. In a nutshell, while the focus is on the drivers gunning for a title, Speed needs to gun for simply a job.
Crunch time is here, and everyone wants to win, to build momentum for next year, to survive this year. But for some drivers, the need to prove themselves is even greater. For these five drivers, a shining close to the season isn’t a plus, it’s a necessity. The time is now. And they have to make it happen.