NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fact Or Fiction Four-Pack: Which Crew Chief Change Has Become A Chase “Wild Card”

*FACT OR FICTION*

20 races down, six races left in a buildup to a love-hate Chase filled with building drama over who’s going to be in it. For those that can’t stand the playoff, well, they could care less about who the final few spots will be but there’s no questioning the fact it’s the most “wide open” race in years. Anyone from eleventh-place Denny Hamlin to 21st-place Brad Keselowski could sneak in under the right circumstances, winning opening a door that would have been closed by their inconsistency under the “old” system. Add in Sprint’s Summer Showdown contest, giving each August winner a chance at $1 million come Atlanta Labor Day weekend and suddenly races at Pocono, Watkins Glen, and Michigan have an added element of intrigue they’ve been missing for years.

Now, if we could only get these guys passing we might just have a stock car series again… small steps, small steps. Alright, on to this week’s main event … a little Fact or Fiction to whet your appetite for the not-so-Dog Days of summer ahead.

*FACT: Juan Pablo Montoya’s Chase Chances Have Disappeared*

Armed with a new crew chief last week, Indy became an early, crucial test for Juan Pablo Montoya and company over at the No. 42 car. Ditching Brian Pattie for Jim Pohlman, on the eve of heading to one of Montoya’s most successful racetracks – he should have won the Brickyard in each of the last two years – was a risky move that would clearly sink or swim the driver’s fading Chase chances.

You can’t blame owner Chip Ganassi for rolling the dice; with his other team car, run by Jamie McMurray steering itself straight down into the sewer Montoya remained his only hope to make the postseason. But this throw on the craps table? Snake eyes, pure and simple. Qualifying seventh, Montoya was a solid top-5 contender but never a dominant force up front; after leading 202 of the last 320 laps run at Indianapolis, he failed to lead even one. Such a disappointment, don’t you think, especially with teammate McMurray becoming a top-5 car that contended for the win, and led laps, late in the going? As for Montoya, once again a poor pit call late, just two tires with slightly less than 30 laps to go under green left him too far behind, stuck in traffic and unable to find the speed capable of fighting back.

Winding up 28th, the disaster puts the final nail in Earnhardt Ganassi’s coffin for 2011. Having slid to 20th in the standings, Montoya is left with only one real shot at victory on the schedule – Watkins Glen – and even then would be too far back in points from race winners David Ragan and Paul Menard to have a realistic shot at overtaking them. That means just two years removed from challenging Jimmie Johnson for the series title, Montoya’s a gaudy 0 for 2 on returning to the postseason – one reason his name keeps popping up in the free agent merry-go-round that occurs should Carl Edwards decide to jump ship at Roush Fenway.

At least for Jim Pohlman, there’s a silver lining to this mess; he gets to prove himself as crew chief without the glare of the media following every move. But if Act I is any indication, this duo has a long way to go before impressing anyone…

*FICTION: Trevor Bayne Has A Lock On A 2012 Cup Ride*

Speaking of the free agent carousel, one youngster looking with anxious eyes is none other than this year’s surprise 2011 Daytona 500 winner. Trevor Bayne started out the year with a bang, but as we head towards the fall there’s one disturbing problem: no one’s actually listening in the boardroom. Still without full-time sponsorship next season, Bayne’s relegated to a waiting game and looking to see if Edwards opens up a spot at the No. 99; otherwise, he’ll have to convince Jack Roush to run a full-time Nationwide effort out of his own pocket, again as there may be zero openings left to slip into.

But even if Edwards does leave – or David Ragan, for that matter – this one-hit wonder getting the nod is far from a lock. Teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has flat out whooped Bayne in the Nationwide Series; he’s got a win and nine top 5s, compared to zero victories at eight top 10s for his counterpart and could easily romp to the series title entering the stretch run. It was Stenhouse, not Bayne who posted a best finish in a Wood Brothers car post-Daytona – 11th in the Coca-Cola 600, pulling a one-race fill-in for his ailing friend – and has a fan base large enough to appease popularity concerns by potential sponsors.

No wonder why in an interview with “Frontstretch”: a few weeks ago, Bayne didn’t seem all that forthcoming about 2012. He’s been through this before, ultimately released at Michael Waltrip Racing following a lack of sponsorship and wouldn’t you know it? The nightmare is beginning to feel real all over again.

*FACT: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Should Be Scared Of … Greg Biffle?*

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a mixed bag at Indy. He gained ground on 11th in points (check), but ran a mediocre 16th in the race (uncheck). There were times Steve Letarte got the No. 88 out front, building confidence in the form of positive track position (check); but then, after the race, Earnhardt’s quotes made him sound like the moody, cantankerous Eeyore we’ve seen emerge at Hendrick in 2009 and 2010 (uncheck). Where does it all leave this program? 19 points ahead of 11th-place Denny Hamlin heading to Pocono; it’s a track also labeled as the Hamlin Personal Playground 500. A win by the No. 11, combined with the No. 88 struggling to 20th could leave him kicked out of the top 10 in points by week’s end.

Will it happen? Not necessarily; Hamlin’s having some mood swing / handling problems of his own over in Fed Ex Toyota-land. But the guy Earnhardt needs to start watching, believe it or not is a man paired with another one of those crew chief swaps, Greg Biffle. The Biffle / Matt Puccia combo quietly steered its way to seventh at Indy, gaining nine points on Junior while setting up momentum for a race at Pocono where The Biff remains the defending champ. A win there, or even a top-5 finish and a 46-point gap from him to Dale Jr. suddenly becomes a lot more manageable than it may seem. Watkins Glen and Michigan are tracks where Roush Fenway has had a high level of success; and while Bristol’s a crapshoot, the right luck at the right time could give the No. 16 car four solid, consistent finishes inside the top 10. Assuming Biffle chops another nine points per race off Junior’s lead each week, that would cut the deficit to 10 heading into Atlanta… enough to put pressure on a Juuuuu-nyor that’s publicly feeling it.

*FICTION: Robby Gordon’s Team Will Survive Into 2012*

After a last-place finish in Sunday’s Brickyard 400, Robby Gordon’s on-again, off-again team is very decidedly off. Falling outside the top 35, he’s pulling a start-and-park second car to keep the cash flow going and often resorts to parking the No. 7 car itself due to lack of funding. Now having to qualify on speed, an extra hurdle unlikely to change with TRG’s Andy Lally developing it’s possible this car could fail to qualify for several races down the stretch. And with the car’s team owner only paying oh, about 50% attention what little sponsorship is left? The future looks bleak as the focus for RGM slowly shifts.

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