It came as a surprise to, well, no one when rain plagued both the Camping World Truck and Sprint Cup Series races over the weekend at Pocono, a track that has about as much luck with weather issues as Jeremy Mayfield has with drug tests.
It also came as a surprise to no one that Iowa Speedway once again put on the best show of the weekend, producing a finish that no one saw coming and won’t soon be forgotten. Kudos to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for growing a backbone and driving with that aggressive fire-in-the-belly attitude we all knew he had in him! Now if only Carl Edwards hadn’t re-signed with Roush Fenway Racing…
Hot tempers, cooler temperatures, and tons of bent sheet metal aside, let’s take a look at the drivers with (and without) momentum heading out of Pocono and into the twists and turns that make up Watkins Glen.
*Brad Keselowski* – While unconfirmed, rumors are circulating throughout the garage area that several drivers are considering inflicting injuries upon their ankles, knees, or feet in response to the success of competitors who have had recent success with similar injuries.
Alright, in all seriousness, Keselowski deserves all the praise he gets. After a test session at Road Atlanta went horribly wrong, sending Keselowski’s No. 2 Dodge into the “wall” (if you could even call it that) at triple-digit speeds, he was left with a fractured left ankle and in a significant amount of pain in the days leading up to the race. Yet with only a couple of days to recover, Keselowski toughed it out, fought through it and won his second race of the season on one of the toughest and longest racetracks on the circuit. I’d like to see Mr. Golden Tate even attempt that feat.
This win was no fuel mileage or rain-shortened race, either. While he admitted the nearly two hour break for weather helped his ankle, Keselowski drove his butt off and earned that race win fair and square.
Now with two races tallied into his win column, all he needs to do in order maintain his Chase wild card is to continue doing exactly what he has been doing: running up front.
*Jimmie Johnson* – This “slump” talk with Johnson is getting old. For some reason, there are those who seem to be under the impression that because the No. 48 team is having pit crew/communication/performance issues that they are no longer championship material and we should look to other drivers to grab hold of the trophy come Homestead.
Have we forgotten the last, oh I don’t know, five freaking _YEARS_?! Not a season has gone by since Johnson won his first championship in which the media, fans, and even competitors at some point during the season turned their backs on this team because they were having “problems.”
Let’s address these so-called issues the team is having, the most noticeable being the pit crew issues. Ask any Johnson fan what the biggest obstacle has been for the team this season, and they’ll probably tell you the pit crew hasn’t lived up to expectations. A competitive game of musical chairs has been played with that team all year, but it’s seemed to do more harm than good which leads into the next concern. Crew chief Chad Knaus and Johnson have gotten into some rather entertaining hissy fits over the scanner this year, with each of them rotating their roles as the screamer and the soother. When communication falls apart, the performance of the team goes down the drain to the point where no one sees them as a legitimate threat anymore.
First off, we saw how pit crew problems were dealt with last season and I guarantee that Knaus will make it work when the championship battle starts getting hairy. The same can be said for the communication between the two. Sometimes the two of them are just going to disagree, but what makes this team great is the trust that exists between the two and I guarantee both of them will get along swimmingly once the Chase starts if they aren’t already. Finally, there are no performance issues with this team. Period. Yes, I am well aware they only have one win this season, but they have 8 top 5 finishes this year, including three in the last four races. Throw in the fact he’s second in points in one of the most competitive seasons to date, and you might see why I can’t take this “slump” talk seriously.
Bottom line: Johnson is _going_ to be a contender in the Chase, and will more than likely win the championship. In fact, the little tiff between he and Kurt Busch in the closing laps of the race is exactly the type of mentality Johnson is going to exhibit come Chase time.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my soapbox rant of the week. Let’s move on to the next section shall we?
*Honorable Mention:* Before we move on, *Ryan Newman* deserves recognition for remaining a strong dark horse contender in the last few races, finishing in the top 5 in three of the last four events. We haven’t seen the last of this Hoosier native just yet.
*Jeff Gordon* – Aside from his win in Phoenix, the beginning of the 2011 season for Gordon was a disaster. Top 10 results were a rarity for the No. 24 team and early season performance showed no signs of Gordon having any say in the Sprint Cup Series championship whatsoever. The pairing of Alan Gustafson and Gordon looked to be a failure, and everyone turned away to instead watch his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon’s old crew chief Steve Letarte begin what looked to be the start of a successful team.
Oh how the tides have turned. Earnhardt has gone from a seemingly secure Chase spot to just barely hanging on, while Gordon is comfortably inside the Chase with a 50 point cushion between him and 11th-place Denny Hamlin. Gordon could blow an engine on the first lap of the race while Hamlin goes on to win and he’d still be in. Talk about breathing room!
*Reed Sorenson* – Following a spectacular finish at Iowa Speedway over the weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give at least one Nationwide Series driver a shout-out, but maybe not the one you’d expect.
Sorenson may not have won Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race, but he received a nice paycheck from Nationwide insurance anyway. For the third season, Nationwide is hosting a four-race Dash 4 Cash program, in which the highest finisher of four eligible drivers of each race wins a $100,000 bonus for their efforts. As you have probably heard, Sorenson was the one cashing that check following Iowa, finishing 6th in the U.S. Cellular 250 for his 15th top 10 in 22 starts this year.
Sorenson has had plenty to smile about this season, never falling any lower than fifth in points and holding the points lead following six races. He is currently second in points, 12 back from leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
*Honorable Mention:* *Kenny Wallace* continues to earn some impressive statistics this season with RAB Racing, earning his 10th top 10 run last weekend in Iowa and maintaining an average finish of 14th. His tweets, however, remain indecipherable.
*Martin Truex Jr.* – It’s pretty sad when the most Truex is known for anymore is lip-syncing to an overused yet somehow still hilarious NAPA jingle during a commercial break. Truex’s chances of making the Chase are basically zero, as he is outside of the top 20 in points with only 6 top 10s all year and even a win would do him little good at this point. Not that I think he has a chance at winning a race this season, but with as many different winners we’ve seen in 2011, I guess anything is possible.
It might be corny, but does NAPA Know How to make Truex go faster? Because the folks over at Michael Waltrip Racing apparently need some help in that department since his average finish all year is 19th.
*Mark Martin* – The only reason Martin isn’t in the “Cold” section is because he’s managed to finish in the top 15 the last couple weeks, an accomplishment that shouldn’t be difficult for a 40-time winner at the Cup level, yet which has alluded him for most of the season. As I’ve said before, Martin is on his way out the door at Hendrick Motorsports, and no one really seems to notice he is there anymore. Jimmie Johnson is contending for a sixth championship, Jeff Gordon is having a great season, and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on a resurgence until recently.
It’s not impossible for Martin to make the Chase, as he sits 15th in points and could sneak into Victory Lane and grab a wild card spot like so many others have this season. However, he’d be an irrelevant addition to what is supposed to be a 12-driver field of the most competitive teams all season and, if you haven’t caught on, he hasn’t been competitive at all.
Did I mention Martin has Earnhardt’s team from last season, crew chief Lance McGrew included? Need I say more?
*Honorable Mention:* Where is *Kevin Harvick*, the driver who won three races at the beginning of the season and ran with Jimmie Johnson in 2010 right up until Homestead? 5th in points with no top 10s in the last four races, that’s where.
*Regan Smith* – One of the many Cinderella stories of 2011, Smith came to play at Darlington Raceway back in May where he won his first career race in a fuel mileage gamble that paid off with his first career win.
Like always, NASCAR Nation jumped to conclusions and assumed this would be the beginning of a breakout season for Smith, using the wild card spots in the Chase as reason to believe we might witness an underdog make a run at the championship.
Unfortunately for Smith, those expectations never made it past Victory Lane at Darlington. The victory was a lone bright spot on a consistently inconsistent season, and Smith never even sniffed the top 20 in points. It was but a blip on the horizon, never to be reached.
While Smith sits quietly at 26th in points, NASCAR Nation has since moved on to the Cinderella seasons of Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard. But hey, it sure was fun while it lasted!
*Jamie McMurray* – It’s amazing how much can change over the course of one year. On Monday, it was announced that McMurray had been chosen for the second quarter NMPA Speedway Motorsports Spirit Award. According to the NMPA website, “The NMPA Speedway Motorsports Award is designed to recognize character and achievement in the face of adversity, sportsmanship and contributions to motorsports. Each year, quarterly winners are selected, and an overall winner is selected by a vote of the NMPA membership.”
My first thought was, “Why? What has McMurray done lately?” Of course, McMurray was selected for his involvement in the rescue efforts of his hometown of Joplin, Missouri following the devastation caused by an F-5 tornado, a recognition that was rightly earned. It can be easy to get lost in the fame and fortune that NASCAR brings, and McMurray was right to remember where he came from and do what he could to help out.
However, I was nonetheless shocked when I realized how little we have seen of McMurray this year. Last season was a dream year for the No. 1 driver, when he won three of the biggest races all season and was just shy of making the Chase. There was little doubt that McMurray would be a Chase contender in 2011.
McMurray was very easily forgotten, though, after Trevor Bayne outdid McMurray’s emotional win Daytona 500 win, instead making history and causing a media frenzy the likes of which NASCAR hadn’t seen for a while outside of Danica Mania.
Following the Daytona 500, McMurray was 17th in points, the first and last time he would see the top 20 in points this season. McMurray has only finished in the top 10 three times all season and has averaged a 22nd placing all year. The once thought surefire Chase contender won’t even have a shot at a wild card spot this year. What a difference a year makes.
*Honorable Mention:* *David Gilliland* has been in the top 35 in points all year, but hasn’t done much aside from a couple of top 10 finishes even with Taco Bell on board as a sponsor for a majority of the season.
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