NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fact Or Fiction: A Chase Replacement, Grading a Cup Debut And Ragan, Don’t Be Fooled

_Hard to believe, but the 2011 version of NASCAR’s Chase is already one month old. (And yes, in case you’re wondering the Kansas race that happened while you were asleep DOES count.) So far, we’re seeing the closest points battle in postseason history, with eight drivers sitting 20 points from the lead but it’s still early yet. Can the ten-race playoff stay that competitive through Homestead? And what other storylines are being ignored in the midst of all this playoff attention? Play a little Fact or Fiction to drift into NASCAR’s future while getting caught up on the news._

*FACT: David Ragan Needs To Look For A New Ride*

For some people, this one’s a no brainer as Ragan’s been on the hot seat for the better part of two years. For a time, that Daytona victory in July, his first in Cup seemed to tip the scales back in favor of the Georgian but it’s sponsorship, more than anything else that’ll likely leave him out in the cold. With UPS switching to the No. 99, pulling a limited schedule and Matt Kenseth still sitting sponsorless at the No. 17 there’s going to be financial cutbacks at Roush – and Ragan appears to be the first casualty.

Unfortunately, while delivering some encouraging performances this season Ragan’s upside appears limited compared to Roush Fenway prospects Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Trevor Bayne. Bayne, already a Daytona 500 winner can sit part-time in the Wood Brothers seat while Stenhouse could drive Nationwide as Jack Roush waits patiently for the current NASCAR sponsor crisis to end (if it ever does). That duo leaves him options to expand in 2013 at a moment’s notice, and with the No. 6 car not exactly setting the world on fire with a postseason bid it’s enough to make both Ragan and his crew fairly expendable.

So what are the chances Ragan winds up back at Roush at all in 2012? Sadly, I think we’re down to 25 percent… and it’s decreasing.

*FICTION: This Chase Will Be The Closest In History*

Sure, the stats seem all sexy when you say them: eight different drivers sit 20 points back or less from the championship lead 40% of the way through NASCAR’s postseason. Consider that Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards have all led the standings already – and note that Jimmie Johnson isn’t even on the list yet. Add no clear, dominating figure into the mix and it’s easy for some to see this race staying “wide open” all the way through Homestead.

Not this time. Why? Because the Chase has consistently, albeit rather quietly knocked out one driver at a time over its first four weeks. Denny Hamlin? Done after an ugly gas tank/handling day at Chicagoland. Ryan Newman? Finished after winning the pole only to flatten his tire under green at New Hampshire. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Do the words “sway bar” mean anything to you? Jeff Gordon? Needs a new engine and a new start after mechanical failure tore apart his Kansas effort.

If that pattern remains intact, we’ll head to Homestead with only three drivers within serious striking distance of the lead – exactly what we had one year ago. But wait! There’s Talladega, the equivalent of Russian Roulette where one driver can sneak out ahead of a bunch of wrecked cars and take control. Plus (and considering the overload of stories in that direction, I think you need no reminder) Jimmie Johnson is back in town, just four points behind Edwards for Chase supremacy and armed with a postseason start so strong, he should be in front by 10-11 points if not for self-inflicted mistakes.

So yeah, keep drinkin’ the Kool-Aid about how this will automatically end up the closest Chase ever. It may the the most _unpredictable_ postseason in history, but that’s a different story; the forecast may produce an epilogue that leaves the title a mere formality heading to Miami.

*FACT: Clint Bowyer, Not Denny Hamlin Would Have Made A Better Chase Selection*

It sounds improbable, really that a driver bolting for another ride in 2012 would have put some pressure on his rivals this postseason. But Bowyer, who lost out on an opportunity through NASCAR’s new wild card system would have been a far better entrant than Denny Hamlin. Through four races, he would sit just 29 points behind Carl Edwards and who knows? After a strong first race, maybe his No. 33 team would have played it a little safer at New Hampshire, salvaged a top-5 finish by saving fuel and sat within ten points of the top spot heading to Charlotte.

It’s amazing how a “lame duck” program, laden with crew members at Richard Childress Racing facing pink slips this November can put the distractions aside like they have. Things are going so well, relaxed even in the wake of Bowyer’s long-known pending departure to Michael Waltrip Racing they could even be a spoiler to win a race. That’s a testament to their character… and, well, yet another reason Bowyer and Childress should have kept their marriage intact.

*FACT: Austin Dillon’s Cup Debut Was A Success*

Yes, Richard Childress’ grandson made waves this weekend by simply qualifying for his Cup debut at Kansas. Driving the No. 98 Chevrolet, he ran the car to a 26th-place finish, two laps off the pace which is far better than Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, who both never made it to the end of their first Cup event. Keeping the car in one piece, at least until medium-sized contact with Joey Logano in a green-white-checkered finish that rumpled the fenders on both machines, learning was the focus for Dillon on the type of intermediate track he’ll race on more than any other in his Cup career.

At the same time, this rookie through no fault of his own was involved in controversy, trying to push Kevin Harvick under caution (a perfectly legal move, by the way) before NASCAR pulled their patented “slap on the wrist, please don’t do that” request in-race while criticism rained down from media, fans, and casual observers like a pack of coyotes. The howl is so strong, in fact NASCAR may look at changing the rule for pushing a car at any time in the wake of these fuel mileage finishes gone overboard – leaving Dillon the center of much-needed attention while searching for sponsorship.

So, let’s review: ran relatively decent in the race, brought the car home in one piece and kept publicity and video exposure of the No. 98 car front and center for days afterward? That sounds like a decent start to me.

*Connect with Tom!*
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