With the All-Star Race next up on our plate, it’s time to stop, take a breather and reflect on the first third of the Sprint Cup season. A two-week “home race” in Charlotte is always a good time for teams to rest up, readjust their strategy for the long haul and make any necessary changes needed to be successful over the long-term. Will there be any major shifts this time around? Let’s play a little Fact or Fiction and prognosticate.
*FACT: A crew chief change would do both Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano some good*
Joey Logano seems to get Dover and making breakfast confused; every time that guy drives the Monster Mile, he flips around like buttermilk pancakes on the grill. Saturday’s accident, a Nationwide Series “almost” win-turned-disaster was followed by a Sunday spin that leaves Logano’s Cup season a lost cause: one top-10 finish, two laps led, three finishes outside the top 25 and a disastrous 27th in points heading into Charlotte. At 90 points outside the top-10 cutoff with fifteen regular season races remaining, barring a miracle or some sort of unforeseen summer winning streak the No. 20 team can start planning for 2012.
Across the way, Denny Hamlin’s team is also reeling; despite rising to 13th in points, he’s shown little to no push to run up front with yet another self-inflicted mistake (pit road speeding) costing him a top-10 finish Sunday. So it’s no surprise that, despite mounting denials the the “crew chief swap” possibility is sticking around; Mike Mulhern suggested on his “Twitter feed”:http:www.twitter.com/mikemulhern/ Sunday, through the voices of fans new blood could be good for both Hamlin and Logano. On the radio, it’s clear Zippy is frustrated, yelling like crazy at his people post-spinout in a way you don’t often see the veteran flustered. And Hamlin? He sounds resigned to his fate on the radio, armed with the knowledge that no matter how much he denies it in public a 2011 post-Chase hangover exists.
Still, even with all the horrible finishes Hamlin remains within striking distance of a Chase spot; he’s 24 points outside the top 10 and is a win, maybe two away from replacing the disappointment with a guaranteed spot. So with two Pocono dates left on the horizon, plus other tracks (Michigan, Loudon) where the No. 11 has won, what do they have to lose by making a change? At the current pace, it doesn’t _feel_ like the FedEx car is a Chase team, someone that can rally even though they’re technically still in the running; wouldn’t a chemistry jolt adjust that feeling?
Carl Edwards, through his post-Chase hangover in 2009 nearly lost Bob Osborne in the fallout. Together, they learned how to be a better pairing; but can the same be said for Hamlin and Ford? After ’07, Gordon was never the same with Steve Letarte and has a new head wrench now, switching along with Mark Martin (’09 Chase hangover). JGR can ride this out, hoping this duo gets it together but how long is it worth waiting for? And if your youngest, brightest future talent that was predicted to be better than _anyone_ is struggling… is betting on Hamlin’s current combination, ignoring the No. 20 problem worth it in the long run?
I say no.
*FICTION: Leaving Past Champions Out Of The All-Star Race Is Good For The Sport*
Much of the focus on the All-Star Showdown this week is on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. having to race his way in. Big whoop. For me, the bigger problem I have with this year’s All-Star field revolves around excluding the man with a title Earnhardt can’t counter: 2000 Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte.
When you’re talking Earnhardt, folks, let’s not be foolish; no way, barring an ugly wreck NASCAR’s biggest race runs without its most popular star. If Earnhardt doesn’t finish inside the top 2, the Fan Vote will take care of the rest in placing this man inside the All-Star Race for all eternity (and to be fair, this year his inclusion is certainly justified. See my colleague “Danny Peters’”:https://frontstretch.com/dpeters/34000/ column for more this morning). But I doubt we’ll say the same for Labonte, having a decent year in the single-car No. 47 Toyota but not armed with the type of speed to finish top-2. In all reality, he’ll be a fourth, fifth-place runner at best, fading quietly into the background as some of the younger stars have their time in the spotlight.
So why lock him into the main event? For me, the All-Star Race is all about honoring the sport’s legendary stars regardless of if their present stats justify inclusion. Did you know that under the current rules, Darrell Waltrip the driver would have run his last All-Star Race in 1995, five years before retirement? Or that Richard Petty would have been shut out starting in 1989, three years before hanging it up? How ludicrous does that sound? In a race for the fans, where NASCAR can make up any rules it wants there’s got to be a place for the short list of former champs still competing. Did Cal Ripken suddenly stop going to All-Star games when he got older? How about Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA? I’m not saying Bobby Labonte is that popular, but his statistics and contribution to the sport deserve him earning a spot as long he still runs full-time. Would NASCAR do the same to Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, or some of the other champs as they age? I just don’t think so, which is why this rule needs to be changed now to avoid future controversy – and present snubs.
*FACT: Jeff Burton’s Problems Will Correct Themselves Over Time*
Another face showing up in the Showdown is veteran Jeff Burton, not only winless but without a top-10 finish so far in 2011. It’s been an ugly year for him despite signing a contract extension, so far behind in points (25th, -70 from 10th place) that even the most optimistic observers have given up on the playoffs for him.
But unlike other teams, while more sponsorship could be needed for 2012 the car’s biggest primary, Caterpillar remains secure along with Burton’s new long-term deal. That allows this team time to now get its act together and despite not having the finishes to show for it, the No. 31 Chevy is close to ending the slump; Burton was top-5 and one of the fastest cars at Dover before four-tire pit strategy left him 11th. Charlotte now represents perfect timing; it’s the last place he won (October, 2008) and the first of three similar intermediate tracks in four weeks. Considering the recent success of teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer combined with the downturn of Paul Menard (remember how hard it is for RCR to keep four teams strong?) the odds are now much better than a month ago for Burton to pick it up. Don’t expect the Chase, though; the odds are just too long…
*FICTION: Tony Stewart Will Miss The Chase*
Sunday saw Smoke stewing in the driver’s seat at Dover, ill handling and faulty fuel leading to the former champ doing the one thing he’s been keeping in check lately: losing his cool. Here’s an exchange from Stewart to crew chief Darian Grubb, made after the race’s midpoint when the No. 14 car was already multiple laps down to the leader:
“I don’t know what to ask for [on the next pit stop]. I got no ****ing confidence right now.”
There were a couple of swear words that followed, a ripple in what’s typically an excellent relationship with crew chief Darian Grubb as Smoke wound up 29th, a woeful six laps off the pace. Such struggles caused Twitter to catch fire with concerns, expert after expert wondering aloud, “For SHR to make the Chase, they’re going to have to find extra speed?”
Huh? Have people been watching the sport over the last month? Right now, SHR has two teams in the Chase – driver/owner Stewart and Ryan Newman – while posting two top-10 finishes the last two races. Sure, the laps led haven’t been there but consider where Stewart was this time last year; 18th in points, one less top-10 finish and Newman running like a dead weight anchor alongside. Considering the summer is Stewart’s time to shine – this driver has won more than 75% of his career races after June 1st – and he’s learned to tweak the team towards a strategy of peaking at the right time for the Chase, not in early Spring I think it’s ludicrous to say one bad race will a season make. The Prelude for the Dream may sap his attention the next few weeks, for sure but by the time the big races come around in July, August, September and beyond this driver/car combination will be in contention.
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