*FACT: Texas Is Make Or Break For Denny Hamlin*
In NASCAR’s Chase system, superstars find themselves with an almost automatic free pass. Considering the length of the regular season (26 races), it’s easy to bounce back from a slump when you’re just six, seven, even eight events into the grind. Add in a rather forgiving number of postseason entrants – 12 of 30 legit full-timers will make it, or about 40 percent of those eligible in 2011 – and putting yourself in a crisis situation means just about everything has to go wrong.
Yet that’s where we find Denny Hamlin this Tuesday, a start so rocky that even the typical fix-all – Martinsville Speedway – couldn’t straighten out the landscape. After three straight wins at the .526-mile oval, bad luck and worse pit stops left Hamlin 12th at the checkered flag, easily his worst finish at his hometown track in _five years._ During the race, sniping between he and crew chief Mike Ford centered around a faulty crew, surprising since the team is one year removed from winning the Charlotte Pit Crew Challenge on All-Star Race Weekend. But by the end of the race, front tire changer Jonathan Sherman was replaced by Joey Logano’s, a move that still wasn’t enough to keep the frustration boiling over into Hamlin’s post-race comments. “We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us, I guess,” he said. “I don’t know. Things like that, it’s pretty tough, especially mid-season. You’ve got chemistry and stuff that you’ve got to deal with, but at this point you either work with what you’ve got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job.”
What a difference a year makes, as this time 12 months ago Hamlin and his crew bonded after the driver returned from ACL surgery in less than two weeks, gutting it out at Phoenix in what became the springboard for this team’s run at the championship. Now? A bad run at Texas has me ready to write Hamlin off for 2011. Here’s why: at 19th in points, he’s already 36 behind the final Chase spot in the top 10; another bad run leaves him 40+ points behind one-quarter of the way into the regular season. Already, there’s five drivers in good position to lock down a spot ahead of him: Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and the Busch brothers likely have the experience and the headstart to keep their place solidly inside the top 10. That leaves five points positions available, with Hamlin forced to jump over a list of six drivers who have made the Chase in the last two years: Juan Pablo Montoya, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin (in his final year competing for a title), Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Clint Bowyer. And we haven’t even mentioned the wild card, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who looks in better shape than he’s been since oh, about 2008.
The bigger problem for me, though, isn’t the deficit: it’s the shape of Hamlin’s team itself. Clearly, the chemistry isn’t there nor is the relationship completely rebuilt between Hamlin and Mike Ford, still awkward on the radio after last fall’s championship-ending debacle. Hamlin’s organization, Joe Gibbs Racing also has a moving target of an engine problem, is recovering from a January dyno fire and has another car, the No. 20 of Joey Logano running even worse (27th in owner points after Martinsville). Not exactly an organization that’s firing on all cylinders… right?
Of course, if Hamlin wins or top 5s it at Texas this whole discussion is a moot point; he swept both races at the 1.5-mile oval last year. But snagging an 11th or worse Saturday night? That makes the hangover from last season’s second-place finish in points a reality, the prospect of needing the Chase “wild card” spot with wins down the stretch a serious possibility.
*FICTION: Kyle Busch Owes Dale Earnhardt, Jr. One*
After the race Sunday, Dale Jr. was clearly worried about his late-race contact with Busch to take the lead, so much so he walked up to his rival to outright apologize. But Busch brushed off any ill feelings right away.
“I was holding him up,” he claimed to the press. “I sucked, so it was good for him. He took the lead and no harm, no foul.”
So there you have it; Earnhardt’s guilt was unnecessary. And just because the two have had contact before doesn’t mean they’ll tangle down the road. If anything, considering Earnhardt got the short end of the stick in their Richmond wreck from May 2008 at worst Sunday’s contact should bring this duo back to even. I’d be shocked, considering both having solid seasons that they’d mess around further.
*FACT: Martinsville Is NASCAR’s Top Short Track*
For years, Bristol held the mantle of best attendance and most competitive short track. No one could hold a candle to its August night race; like clockwork, they produced the type of finishes _ESPN 30 For 30_ could have done a documentary on.
But now, in the midst of Bristol’s controversial reconstruction Martinsville has stolen their claim to fame. Consider this fact: the last three races at the paperclip have produced an average of 10.7 leaders and 26.3 lead changes, including a record 31 on Sunday. Bristol, by comparison, averaged just 8.3 leaders and 20.3 lead changes, respectively with each event featuring a driver who led more than 50% of the race.
In comparison, no one at Martinsville has led more than 172 laps, the races from start to finish filled with more parity than Thunder Valley. On Sunday, you had six drivers each take the point for more than 30 circuits apiece, and here’s the kicker: none of them won. Add in the old school beating and banging we get at the paperclip – a far cry from Bristol’s new intermediate track on steroids – and you’ve got yourself a new short track King in rural Virginia… until ISC decides to repave it.
*FICTION: NASCAR Needs To Throw A Caution For Every Flat Tire*
There’s a lot of discussion this week about consistency on yellow flags, especially after Dave Blaney was penalized two laps for stopping on track after a flat.
“We’ve got three freaking dollars, trying to race, doing what we’re doing,” said Blaney’s owner, Tommy Baldwin on the radio. “And that’s just the way they are?”
Well, just when you stop on the track. Later on in the race, cars driven by underdogs (Michael McDowell) and star drivers (Brad Keselowski) had similar problems, limping slowly to the pits but the yellow flags just weren’t thrown.
In Blaney’s case, it’s hard to find an argument for no penalty. In fact, the two-lap call was consistent with a similar one two years ago: remember Denny Hamlin’s flat tire-turned-dead stop after leading at Richmond? NASCAR’s point here is drivers shouldn’t be rewarded for intentionally causing a caution when there’s a reasonable chance they can make an effort to get towards pit road for repairs. It’s not like Blaney hit the wall, and we’re not driving at Talladega, either; opportunities exist to _try_ and sneak into the pits at a safe speed. That’s why we have spotters; if you don’t make the effort, what’s the point in having them? Could you imagine if someone just stopped on track for no reason when they needed a break? That’s why there’s justification needed for caution flags.
And if fans are arguing over throwing too many cautions for debris, they can’t have it both ways. Not every flat should be yellow flag worthy; there needs to be a balance between safety and sanity. On Sunday, officials reinforced that there must be a _need_ for a caution rather than throwing one just for the hell of it. That’s a good thing.
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