NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Hamlin the Hunted, Pastrana/Patrick Peril & to the Aggressor Go the Spoils

ONE: I Was Wrong About Denny Hamlin

Fresh off what was admittedly an incredible performance at Martinsville in the spring that landed him a grandfather clock, I penned a column that Denny Hamlin – as impressive as his effort was the race prior to having knee surgery – had effectively ended his year by deciding to undergo such an invasive procedure midseason.

To say Hamlin proved me wrong with his performance was an understatement. Only two races into his post-surgery run, he won at Texas. And despite having an injury that medical experts and writers alike concluded should have left the No. 11 team looking to 2011 as their next shot at a Cup title, the preseason favorite to unseat Jimmie Johnson now sits 400 miles from doing just that.

Posting eight wins, seven of which came after ACL reconstruction, is impressive enough. But doing it and mounting such a serious challenge for the Cup is nothing short of miraculous. There’s no groundbreaking analysis here; that post-Martinsville column that I pronounced the No. 11 team’s season dead was about the most incorrect prediction that I’ve ever published. And, win or lose Sunday, Hamlin’s had one hell of a 2010.

TWO: The Hunter Struggles As the Hunted

The entirety of 2010 has seen Hamlin as the hunter, not the hunted. Until he took the points lead at Texas last weekend, Hamlin was running down prey in Johnson that no driver has managed to outrun since 2005. But as the leader, the No. 11 team suddenly was in a situation that for all their talk and hopes, had never been in before. They had to play defense.

That role hardly seemed to suit this group. Granted, the on-track performance was there. Hamlin’s Toyota sliced and diced through the field early to get to the front, and from there led the most laps. But when push came to shove at race’s end, Hamlin and team left the gamble and a shot at the win on the table to play it safe, take a splash-and-go and settle for a conservative 12th-place finish. Meanwhile, Johnson and Co. turned a good day into a great one, gambling on their fuel mileage to stay on track and score a top-five finish that saw them cut their points deficit in half heading into Homestead.

Hamlin was visibly upset after the race, punching his dashboard in the car and violently hurling a water bottle after exiting his machine. For once, his emotional outburst was in fact the correct response. He knew full well how big an opportunity his team missed to put the No. 48 team down for good.

That’s the reality of being the points leader. The fact that Johnson has won four consecutive Chases is all the more monumental in that his No. 48 team has so effectively played defense year after year. But for the No. 11 team, it seems like on Sunday, after all the hard work paid off at Texas, after finally rising to the top this late in the game, that it was actually at Phoenix where the team finally comprehended just how big the task they were undertaking really is.

There was more than frustration evident in Hamlin and his team at Phoenix after the race was over. There was fear, and well-founded fear, that their opportunity to pull off this championship took a major hit in the desert. Hamlin and Co. are right to be confident in having a leg up on the No. 48 team at Homestead… but Johnson proved even when trailing, he’s not forgotten how to go on offense. The No. 11 team missed with a haymaker on Sunday… and now must spend this entire week covering up. The momentum has swung back to the No. 48, even if the points lead hasn’t… yet.

THREE: Travis Pastrana Setting Himself Up for Failure… Like So Many Before Him

Granted, there is far from a long list of X-gamers that have tried to make it big in NASCAR, but there’s nothing to see here short of another novelty product that’s going to produce plenty of marketing dollars and ESPN hype… but no results on the racetrack.

Just like Danica Patrick, Travis Pastrana brings a legion of fans and a new presence that could go a long way towards enhancing NASCAR’s image and enticing a new crowd to taking in big-time stock car racing. But, just like with Danica, there’s absolutely no patience here, no plan to develop as a driver. Rather, the idea is to jump into a part-time Nationwide Series schedule and learn this whole stock car thing as it happens. Meaning that no matter the sponsors coming in, no matter the TV coverage, the performance isn’t going to be there.

Look at Danica as an example. Has she gotten better since the start of the season? Absolutely. But NASCAR’s next big thing can’t be any driver, man or woman, whose best effort is a finish outside the top 20. Unlike Patrick, Pastrana doesn’t even have all of his racing experience on four wheels.

Now granted, the purpose of moving to NASCAR may well be to do more marketing, make some money, score some TV time and treat it as a side gig. If so, Pastrana’s going to be in for a very successful 2011 no matter how he runs. But by treating racers like Pastrana as marketing tools instead of aspiring stock car drivers, the teams and the sport are robbing them of any real chance for a long-term future within NASCAR. That’s not good for the teams, and more importantly it’s not good for a sport that’s struggling to come up with any sort of driver development these days.

Figures like Patrick and Pastrana wanting to try stock car racing is a very good thing. But for them to have a lasting positive impact on the sport, they need to perform. The long list of drivers that have tried simple immersion in upper level stock car racing that have failed goes on forever, from Dario Franchitti to Sam Hornish Jr. to Jacques Villeneuve. All of them had considerably more accomplished racing resumes than either Patrick or Pastrana.

It’s a shame that for all his accolades, so little attention is being paid to Ricky Carmichael‘s continued development as a stock car driver. Unlike the figures being discussed here, he went from motocross to a late model before tackling the big time. As a result, he’s gone from a daisy-fresh rookie to four wheels to a legitimate top-15 fixture in the Truck Series. Seat time works. Teams, and even NASCAR, would do well to incentivize drivers with such potential and fanbases to take their time making it into the sport instead of pursuing a sugar-pill high.

Because finishing worse than 20th every week doesn’t build fanbases… unless the name is Earnhardt.

FOUR: The Closest Chase Ever Yields NASCAR… Nothing?

Yes, the 15-point gap between Hamlin and Johnson heading into Homestead is the closest gap between one-two in all of the Chases that have been run. Yes, for the first time since 2005 Johnson is not leading the points heading into Homestead. Yes, for the first time since 2004 Brian France’s inbred love child is actually spawning a title chase that could realistically come down to the season’s final lap.

Shame that’s not translating into any measurable benefits for NASCAR. Attendance at Phoenix was down 16% from last season. The purse was down nearly $150,000, and barring some sort of unexpected miracle, the ratings for Phoenix will mark the ninth consecutive Chase race that didn’t meet the mark it set in 2009.

Just as a points chase that is close solely because of an officiating reset with 10 races to go in the season doesn’t seem to be doing anything for race fans, it’s not doing anything for NASCAR’s bottom line, either.

Tell me again why we’re stuck with this joke of a points system?

FIVE: To the Aggressor Goes the Spoils

Just like Sunday’s Cup race features three drivers all within striking distance of the series title, last month saw the ARCA Racing Series championship come down to three drivers in the final race. And there’s a lesson to be learned there. Because on that day at Rockingham back in October, Patrick Sheltra raced for the win, points lead be damned… and took home the crown even after Craig Goess mounted an impressive late-race charge. Meanwhile, third-place driver Tom Hessert III had a top-15 day, that, while solid, proved too little to mount a serious challenge for the big prize, a season full of consistency notwithstanding.

It seems to be a very apt metaphor for the upcoming Cup battle about to hit south Florida… or, as Bruton Smith coined it, “north Cuba.” Because at 46 points back, Kevin Harvick is looking to be an also-ran when this Chase is said and done – a season of top 10s and the points lead coming up short.

That leaves the final fight to be Johnson vs. Hamlin in a 400-mile game of chicken.

If Phoenix meant anything, one team already flinched.

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