In the past few seasons, it didn’t take but a few Chase races to pick at least one driver (cough, Jimmie Johnson, cough) as the championship favorite. Those with the most consistency, speed, and a few numbers in the win column would immediately bring all eyes upon them as the season came to a close.
But now that we’re three races into the 2011 Chase, a clear difference has emerged: the championship picture has yet to get any clearer. Teams like the No. 48, who struggled in the first two races did well in Dover, and those who started out the Chase on a hot streak — Tony Stewart, for instance — finished poorly or faced an uphill battle throughout the race. Between the Chase and the other two national series championships, there are plenty of NASCAR drivers to keep an eye on and an infinite number of statistics to sort through, without any clear answer as to who will come out on top.
Still, momentum and consistency are two key words in this sport, and with a smoking calculator in hand, let’s sort through the drivers who have (or don’t have) momentum heading into next weekend at Kansas Speedway.
*Kurt Busch* – While it’s younger brother Kyle who has garnered a majority of the attention across all three series, Kurt is shaping up to be a true championship contender and a major threat to Johnson’s throne. His win last weekend in Dover bumped him up to fourth in the standings (he’s tied with Tony Stewart for third, but Stewart receives the tiebreaker) and is now only nine points out of the lead.
The victory was a great way to recover from an otherwise forgettable day at Loudon, where a long race resulted in a 22nd-place run and a ninth-place spot in points. However, that’s Busch’s only result outside of the top 10 in the last five races, as opposed to Johnson who has two such finishes.
What’s interesting about Busch is his continued claim that he’s in Johnson’s head. Unprompted, he referred to Jimmie Johnson as his “archnemesis” in his post-race press conference while Johnson never even mentioned Busch until he was asked.
I understand Busch’s desire to be the driver that dethrones the current champ, but it’s rather annoying to listen to someone try to inflate his own ego while trash talking. Don’t get me wrong, I know this happens all across the sports world and it can be a blast to listen to. However, to steal a quote from Rihanna, Busch needs to shut up and drive. While Johnson is 13 points out of the lead, a deficit that will be challenging but not insurmountable, he is only four behind Busch. So whether Busch likes it or not, he is still going to have to face some huge challenges from Johnson, and Busch is definitely _not_ in Johnson’s head. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite.
Bottom line, Busch needs to stop worrying about Johnson and focus on his own driving. In the end it will be his results column, not soundbites, which determine his season. The sooner he figures that out, the better things will be for him and his team.
*Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* – Every week, Stenhouse adds to his lead, moving another step closer to his first NASCAR national series championship in the Nationwide Series. It’s a title which would be extra special, considering it’s the first season under the new points format in that division.
As if that’s enough motivation itself, Stenhouse is racing with one other goal in mind: a Sprint Cup Series ride. Rumors have put Stenhouse as driving either part- or full-time with Wood Brothers Racing next season — possibly splitting the ride with teammate Trevor Bayne — or replacing one of his Roush Fenway Racing teammates in the Sprint Cup Series (most likely David Ragan).
Wherever he might end up, it’s looking like Stenhouse’s impressive run in the Nationwide Series has earned him a potential Sprint Cup Series ride in 2012, an opportunity that may not have come so fast had his name not been at the top of the standings all season. Even though drivers like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Brad Keselowski have continued to dominate in the series, Stenhouse has been in the top 3 in points almost all season due to the “one series only” rule. Two wins has helped his credibility, but it’s really easy to fall under the radar in this sport, and I can’t help but think that might have happened to Stenhouse without the added incentive of being the point leader.
Whatever good things come Stenhouse’s way in 2012, he deserves it. Very few drivers have gone up against Sprint Cup Series veterans this year and succeeded, so Stenhouse has rightfully earned that spot at the top.
*Honorable Mention:* *Austin Dillon* may not have won Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series race, but he came extremely close. His runner-up against Ron Hornaday was his third consecutive top-two finish, which is enough to earn him the points lead. However, he’d better not get too comfortable, as second-place James Buescher is only three points behind him.
*Kyle Busch* – Eventually, Busch is going to start the Chase off right and finally contend for his first Sprint Cup Series championship, but 2011 is not going to be that year. A sixth-place run at Dover was his first top-10 finish in the first three Chase events, after coming home 22nd in Chicago and a ho-hum 11th at Loudon.
Busch started out the Chase tied with Kevin Harvick for the lead due to his four victories, an advantage that most seemed to think he could use — if he finished well enough for it to matter. That hasn’t happened, of course and now Busch is eighth in points and 15 markers out of the lead.
Busch hasn’t been running poorly. He just hasn’t been championship material, and that makes a huge difference. While I admire his efforts to focus on the big picture and run fewer Nationwide and Truck Series races, I’m not sure he’ll continue that effort if he doesn’t see enough of a change in performance to justify it. So those of you who enjoy seeing a Cup-free Nationwide Series field, well, you might want to start cheering for Busch on the Cup side.
*Kevin Harvick* – Like Busch, Harvick started the Chase with four victories and 12 bonus points to his credit. Unlike Busch, though, Harvick has been able to maintain that position, although he still has to share it with Carl Edwards.
Harvick’s position tells us exactly how the first three races have been just downright strange this year since, as mentioned previously, no one driver has emerged as the title favorite and only a select few have been running poorly enough to be dismissed as a threat. Harvick hasn’t exactly been up front and contending through the first three events, either, nor has he been all that consistent with finishes of second, 12th, and 10th in the results column.
But he’s still leading the points. Harvick and Edwards’s closest competitor is Tony Stewart in third, nine points out of the lead and I honestly cannot point to one of them and say they are the favorite. If last year is telling us anything, the top 3 after the third race in the Chase will remain the same after Homestead, but 2011 hasn’t exactly panned out like other seasons have.
Nor is that a bad thing, so sit back and enjoy the show!
*Honorable Mention:* Nationwide Series championship contender *Reed Sorenson* has done a solid job rebounding from a tough few weeks, as he has crossed the finish line no worse than 10th in the last three events. While the championship is realistically out of his grasp, an additional victory or two before 2011 comes to a close is certainly not out of the question.
*Brian Vickers* – Considering that Vickers is more worried about his future than his current season, the last three weeks really haven’t been all that bad for him. Vickers has been in the top 15 the last three races and both he and teammate Kasey Kahne have seen a small increase in performance. That’s a good thing, since Red Bull Racing is still seeking outside investors, and rumors have put Jacques Villeneuve out there as a person of interest.
Regardless, Vickers deserves credit for keeping his head in the game and bringing home a clean race car with an acceptable finish more often than not, even with his future in question. Let’s just hope that, for his sake, all of the hard work pays off and he’s not left without a ride once the green flag falls on 2012.
*Paul Menard* – Menard was just one below top-20 finish away from being dumped in the “cold” section, but he’s picked up the pace a little bit recently. Though certainly not competitive by any stretch of the imagination — a surprising turn of events after his strong start to the season — Menard has been in the top 20 the last three races and kept the No. 27 car off the wrecker.
Yet with this mediocre-going-on-poor performance, Menard still has a ride with Richard Childress Racing. Meanwhile, Bowyer, who is the best non-Chaser to date and might have even been in the Chase without the added distraction known as his contract, is probably moving on from the organization.
It’s disheartening to see how little talent plays a part in this sport anymore, though I’m sure there is more to this RCR/Bowyer breakup than meets the eye. Still, it’s hard to make sense of it all, and it’s hard to accept people like Menard in the industry when there are arguably more talented drivers waiting for a chance. But, to his credit, he does have a victory this year in the storied Brickyard 400, no less. Too bad it made no difference to the rest of his season but, unlike Bowyer, Menard’s win column no longer has a goose egg.
*Honorable Mention:* I really shouldn’t have to put a Chase driver in this spot, but *Denny Hamlin* has more than earned it. While Brad Keselowski has done very well with his wild card position, Hamlin hasn’t led one lap or finished any higher than 18th in the first three Chase races after getting in by virtue of his one win at Michigan this year. At this point, I’m pretty sure 13th-place Clint Bowyer would be more of a factor for this title than Hamlin, but no one ever said this sport was fair.
*Greg Biffle* – And the “shoot yourself in the foot” award goes TO!
While it’s unlikely Biffle would have won Sunday’s race at Dover, he had the speed to finish somewhere in the top 5. Instead, Biffle wound up 27th after crashing on the frontstretch following a late-race restart. At this point in the season for non-Chaser Biffle, wins are all that matter, so it was unfortunate to see his day go from solid to substandard after one wiggle on the restart.
Instead, Biffle finished outside of the top 20 for the second time in three weeks, and his performance seems to have remained stagnant even after the replacement of crew chief Greg Erwin with that of Matt Puccia.
On the bright side, the final seven races will make for some great test sessions for the No. 16 team…
*Martin Truex, Jr.* – Truex was heading into Sunday’s event with optimism after winning his first pole of the season at the site of his first and only Sprint Cup Series victory at his home track. That optimism quickly changed to survival mode, though, after he lost a lap to the leaders not long after the beginning of the race. Truex never really regained the lap, and eventually lost all hope in the form of a cut tire.
Truex has struggled through most of this season, with only eight top 10s and 148 total laps led, missing out on an opportunity to redeem himself after starting up front. Not that anyone was surprised, of course, but it was a missed opportunity nonetheless.
*Honorable Mention:* *Bobby Labonte* and JTG Daugherty Racing really need some help in the speed department, since the former champion hasn’t seen the top 10 since the July Loudon race. Daugherty has said the organization might be opening its own race shop instead of operating out of Michael Waltrip Racing, but will continue to receive support from the organization. I don’t know how much good that will do, but right now the team does little more than log laps on a weekly basis.
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