Normally, following an event at Auto Club Speedway you would tune in here to read me rail and rant about how the racing sucked, nobody was there, and how wheeling stock cars in Southern California makes about as much sense as moving an NFL team there again.
Instead, a late-race battle between some of the sport’s biggest heavyweights changes the storyline entirely. In fact, you could make an argument that each of the emerging favorites to contend for this year’s 2011 Cup title ran inside the top 10 for most of Sunday. Who are they, what makes them stand out, and why will each maintain their position close to the top of the points mountain? Scale the next few paragraphs with me to discover the answers for who’s going to barge into championship contention the second this year’s Chase begins in September.
*Carl Edwards* – AKA the Great Blue (Oval) Hope. Edwards realistically could have four wins so far this season, snagging two if he only laid the wood to the Wood Brothers’ Trevor Bayne at Daytona or Kyle Busch’s back bumper at Bristol. Edwards and the Bob Osborne-led No. 99 Roush Fenway team have been on a roll since late last season, and with just one Ford driver in the top 8 in points have almost singlehandedly led the charge for an entire manufacturer on America’s grandest stage. Looking at the races ahead and those within the summer stretch, there really isn’t a weak link anywhere for him, with the exception of perhaps the road courses, Indy, and Talladega. That last one, to his credit has been more bad luck than anything else; it’s the result of late-race and last-lap wrecks that have sent the “duck car” spinning, flipping, flying, and flopping into the fence.
Gilbert Gottfried might have gotten bounced as the voice of the AFLAC Duck a couple of weeks ago following jokes he made regarding the disasters in Japan (note the “Now Hiring” decal on the back of the No. 99) but Edwards also isn’t going anywhere soon. Well, at least until the season is over. I’m guessing Roush Fenway Racing will re-sign their championship caliber driver, though, the one who is the best threat to prevent Jimmie Johnson from inching within one crown of The King and The Intimidator.
*Kyle Busch* – One question: Where is Kyle Busch and what have they done with him?! The poster child for petulant behavior is nowhere to be found, while a softer-spoken, cool, calm, and collected veteran has emerged early in the going this year. A disappointing Daytona 500 that saw him spinning early after having one of the faster cars all of Speedweeks was followed up with Busch bested by Jeff Gordon at Phoenix with only eight laps left. Things didn’t get much better for his Las Vegas homecoming, with a now commonplace JGR engine eruption resulting in a 38th-place finish and a points hole to dig out of.
That didn’t take long. Kyle notched his now-requisite Bristol sweep two weeks ago, although again at California, he saw a race he dominated and seemingly had in the bag ended in another unheroic headlight-decals-sucked-off-with-single-digit-laps-remaining disappointment.
After the Auto Club 400, Busch radioed his crew and apologized for not closing the deal. Really? The fact that he led 75% of the race in a backup car, making do after wrecking the primary on his up-to-speed lap during the first practice session Friday was a minor miracle of its own. Absent was the sardonic sarcasm, impromptu flipping off of officials, drivers, or the ripping out of a mic cord upon exiting the M&M’s Camry. He took his loss like a man, swallowed down third and is ready to move on to Martinsville.
Does that mean the mercurial one has finally matured at long last? Time will tell as the season wears on, but for the time being the strongest and most stable Toyota team appears to be the one that was once its most volatile.
*Tony Stewart* – Speaking of reformed hotheads, there appears to be some activity surrounding Mount St. Smoke – and for good reason. The Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet has been stout out of the starting blocks this season only to uncharacteristically throw away what should have been several wins. 233 laps led so far in 2011 has generated limited success; he’s got just one top-5 finish and a trio of top 10s in five starts. Las Vegas was a heartbreaker, for sure, but a similar situation surrounding pit strategy felled the No. 14 at Auto Club Speedway in California, relegating him to an unspectacular 13th-place finish. The box score doesn’t tell the whole story, as Stewart was in position to challenge for the win and had a car clearly capable of denying Busch, Johnson, and ultimately Harvick of the victory – but when it came down to “go” time, Stewart was mired back in traffic, swallowed up in the mass of cars that had pitted following the final caution on lap 187. After driving back to the hauler, he denied a television interview from Dick Berggren, walking into his hauler without so much as a peep to the press. (FOX might have wanted to send his buddy Matt Yocum at that time to get a word with him as they did after Las Vegas, but in this episode, Dr. Dick got the shaft.)
Tony Stewart came into this year slimmed down and ready to contend for the Sprint Cup, having made “The Chase” as an owner/driver the two years he has had that title. He also had some lingering legal issues following fisticuffs experienced Down Under in an offseason incident at a Sprint Car race in Sydney, Australia. So while he has been remarkably tame the last two seasons, it just might take a classic Tony Stewart “ground zero” detonation and Burger King binge to right the ship before it sails on his championship hopes – and wins surrendered – for 2011.
*Kevin Harvick* – When TNT takes over TV telecasts for a few weeks this summer, they may want to refrain from the deluge of sanctimonious DRAMA commercials – you know, the ones that deem Kyra Sedgwick is _The Closer_ – because after this Sunday’s race, that title may now in fact belong to Kevin Harvick. His last lap pass of Jimmie Johnson was reminiscent of his final lap charges that saw him eke out a Daytona 500 win in 2007 and a Bud Shootout win in 2010 in similar fashion.
The fact that Kevin Harvick is where he is today – or as far as he got last season – is remarkable to say the least. Hard to believe, but it hasn’t even been a full year since the accepted theory, since disproved was that Harvick was on his way out at RCR. Feuding with the owner and cussing out the crew had become commonplace; so while calling him a cancer would probably be a bit harsh, corrosive would have also been entirely accurate. Sponsor Shell/Pennzoil jumped ship, and in the midst of an economy that isn’t big on shelling out millions for racecar stickers it appeared that KHI might be coming to Cup out of necessity. Just goes to show you that in NASCAR or Wonderland, up is down, black is white, and whatever bunny hole you happen to trip and fall down might just end up paying large dividends.
Harvick is hard on his crew and demands results; however, he has proven this year that when the team does their part, he does his, and not just when making last corner passes for wins. Two weeks ago at Bristol, he rebounded from a spin late in the going to rally for a sixth-place finish. It’s performances like those that win championships, folks – and are admittedly reminiscent of the driver he replaced 10 years ago.
*Jimmie Johnson* – I know, what a genius; I’m really walking along the razor’s edge with this one. Truth be told, though this team is still the one to beat and I don’t trust what we’ve seen from Johnson and Chad Knaus any more than what’s been seen of Moammar Gadhafi lately. Which, by the way who do you think he looks like more: Former Steelers Safety Rod Woodson with a wig, or Gene Simmons after a three-day bender and no make up?
But I digress. It isn’t often that Jimmie Johnson loses one to Jimmy John’s coming off the final corner, but he did just that on Sunday, as Johnson wiggled through Turn Four and wasn’t able to hold off Harvick heading to the line. Don’t be fooled by the disappointing finish, though; the No. 48 team has led 186 laps so far this year, becoming the highest finishing Hendrick car on two occasions – the last two. Much has been made that they have been experimenting with setups, trying to maximize the car’s speed towards the end of the race as the Chase, not chasing the point lead is their highest regular season priority. That didn’t quite play out at Auto Club on Sunday, but with this bunch, who knows what’s the truth and what is smoke and mirrors, right?
The good news for them is they are far and away the best group in house at Hendrick Motorsports. The line traditionally is “everybody has the same stuff” at Hendrick, but the last few weeks have revealed the No. 48 clearly still has a little something extra somewhere – or a few places – that the others don’t. That makes sense, since they haven’t lost a Championship since the final race of the 2005 season and deserve to have the owner give it all he’s got. They haven’t hit their stride yet, and I don’t see them losing anything from a year ago.
I get it, people rolling your eyes; it’s way too soon to start obsessing over championship-related matters. But keep in mind there are some definite trends and indicators of who the key players are this season. Sure, other drivers and teams will make a statement over the next 31 races, but these five are going to be the ones writing the book. Five of the top 6 in the race results also translates to five of the top 10 in the points standings. You should get to know them now; after all, you will be reading about each of them all season long.
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