NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Bad Breaks, NASCAR’s Wild Card Contenders And Ratings 101

*Did You Notice?* … How one bad break, however small can change the course of a race team forever? The latest example comes in the form of an ugly Divorce Court, crew chief Pat Tryson having the rug pulled out from under him Tuesday after Michael Waltrip Racing grew concerned about their underperforming premier driver, Martin Truex, Jr. Perhaps the quietest, most mild-mannered Cup driver on the circuit the New Jersey native had been agitated in recent weeks, launching into an angry tirade over his pit crew at Richmond after a penalty during a green-flag pit stop cost the team a top-5 finish. Two replacements came within a week, but the damage was done; inconsistency has remained the theme for the No. 56 Toyota ever since.

Still, a closer look reminds us that the Tryson-Truex duo spent the first part of their tenure together turning heads… until an unfortunate incident at Infineon last June. It was there that Jeff Gordon spun out Truex, taking a possible winning car and throwing it deep into traffic where it would later become an innocent victim of a multi-car wreck. The NAPA driver blew his lid back then, insinuating disrespect on Gordon’s part while vowing on-track revenge that never truly came to fruition. The crux of the issue, according to the driver was he wasn’t being showcased any on-track respect despite being one of the cleaner, easy-to-race-with drivers on the Cup circuit.

But no amount of off-track bluster could erase the ugly truth for his team: the season for the No. 56 was effectively over. 93 points behind the Chase heading into Infineon, Truex left 157 points back and never really recovered the rest of the year. Every time there was a chance, the occasional gem of a car at Dover (Sept.) and the season finale at Homestead got wrecked by mechanical and tire issues, respectively to leave the team’s confidence in tatters. The snowball effect grew into self-inflicted 2011 mistakes, pit crew problems combined with hard-luck issues like a stuck throttle at Martinsville that’s kept this program from realizing its true potential.

So what if Gordon had kept off of Truex’s bumper that day, allowing the No. 56 to coast into a top-5 finish? They would have closed to within 34 points of the Chase, rubber-stamped themselves as a bona fide contender with ten races left in the regular season and avoided the three-ring circus drama of the NASCAR Media posing 20 Questions. Undoubtedly, it would have been MWR’s best shot at making the postseason and given Tryson the opportunity to make history as the only head wrench to lead three different teams into the Chase.

*Did You Notice?* … Heading into the second half of this “regular” season, more drivers towards the middle and back of the pack are taking risks? Whether it be fuel mileage or tire strategy, drivers like Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith have put themselves in position to capitalize on unlikely wins that could vault them into the playoffs through a Wild Card slot.

But as the year progresses, trust me: they won’t be alone. Here are five other drivers whose difficult seasons could hinge on that all-important trip to Victory Lane; otherwise, the Chase is a virtual impossibility.

*Kasey Kahne.* Now that his sponsor’s been announced at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne’s officially a lame duck at Red Bull and can experiment with both setups and speed alike. Keep in mind the No. 4 team nearly pulled the upset at the Coca-Cola 600, and once we get to more intermediate tracks this month – Kahne’s strong suit – this team should be in position to succeeed.

*Jeff Gordon.* Yeah, yeah he already has one win at Phoenix this season. But other than that, the Rainbow Warrior had endured a nightmare while riding the roller coaster with crew chief Alan Gustafson. A strong showing at Kansas reminded us that at random moments, the No. 24 can and will be unstoppable. But can Gustafson turn the ship around more consistently?

*David Reutimann.* Yeah, I know things look bleak over at MWR, especially in light of Martin Truex, Jr.’s crew chief getting the boot. But keep this in mind about Reutimann, who’s just 23rd in points on the heels of one top-5 finish: he’s won a race each year for the last two seasons coming out of nowhere. Michigan is a possibility here, along with New Hampshire or even Atlanta Labor Day Weekend.

*Juan Pablo Montoya.* Certainly, the way Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has been running it’s easy to forget this Colombian sits 15th in points. What makes him the intriguing choice is his road course expertise; sweeping Infineon and Watkins Glen would make him a shoe-in.

*Marcos Ambrose.* It’s another driver who’s a wild card, but while most are waiting for the Australian to win on a road course I’m picking oval first. After all, he was knocking on the door down in Charlotte…

*Did You Notice?* … Quick hits before taking off:

– I don’t want to be Debbie Downer; clearly, any type of audience increase you can point to this season is great for the sport. But when you hear numbers like FOX’s nine percent increase in NASCAR viewership this season, well, be sure to recognize how much they’re playing with the numbers. That’s for total _audience_ viewership (the millions supposedly in front of the television), not actual Nielsen ratings points. In fact, those numbers for metered markets remained flat (0% increase) from year-to-year, while the final rating of 5.0 overall was still a tick lower than the 2009 broadcasting numbers. Keep in mind, too, that the majority of gains this season came from two races, Daytona and Las Vegas, who didn’t have to deal with the gargantuan distractions of a giant pothole and U.S. vs. Canada hockey, respectively.

– Carl Edwards is now the point leader by a wide margin, leaving three months to prepare for the Chase and use the experience needed to battle Jimmie Johnson for a championship. But here’s the problem: there’s still no contract for 2012 and beyond. Wouldn’t it be better to do the deal now, getting negotiations out of the way so they’re not impacting any sort of playoff focus?

– I have never heard of a more appropriate name for a race than Pocono’s 5-Hour Energy 500. Maybe they’ll give out free samples to fans around the halfway point?

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