Team orders and tandem racing? What is this, Talladega? Oh wait…
You would think that it was an unusual weekend in Talladega the way people are reacting to the racing. On the contrary, it was business as usual at the track known as the crapshoot of the Chase. And whether it’s your cup of tea or not, Sunday’s race may have had a big effect on this year’s championship hunt. Then again, Martinsville could completely reverse any damage done, but I guess that’s the reason we tune in every week. Is it not?
With the Nationwide Series off, the Camping World Truck Series drivers had their moment in the spotlight on Saturday afternoon, with the 2.66 mile track also putting a dent in their championship battle, too. Between the two series, there was more hooking up than last call at the bar on Friday night and it made for some interesting pairs, with the most unusual being Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch on Saturday. Yes, I’m serious.
Between the beating, banging, and shoving going on over the weekend were two fierce battles for the championship and several drivers trying to maintain a points position or make up for lost ground. Some succeeded while others fell short, so let’s begin by looking at the drivers who have showed up in the results column the last few weeks.
*Clint Bowyer* – Following a rather tumultuous weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer was probably one of the few drivers who was happy to be racing in Talladega. Prior to Sunday’s event, Bowyer had finished in the top 2 the last two events at the track, and was the defending champion of the October race in ‘Dega. Not to mention that Bowyer is leaving his current team of Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season, and wants to end the year on a high note.
Well that’s exactly what he has done. After pushing teammate Burton out to an insurmountable lead on a green-white-checkered finish on Sunday, Bowyer made a move to the inside in the tri-oval and beat Burton to the line by 0.018 sec. It was an exciting finish, to say the least.
However, Charlotte aside, Bowyer has been performing very well considering that he’s a lame duck driver. He has three top 10 finishes in the last four races and four in the last six and probably would have at least one more victory if he had saved just one more gallon of fuel in Loudon. But you know the saying about ifs and buts, and Bowyer’s results are just short of Chase material. Even so, regardless of the plans Richard Childress has for the future, I can’t help but think the team will be sad to see Bowyer go. And that Michael Waltrip Racing is salivating at the potential for next season.
*Ron Hornaday, Jr.* – Even though Bowyer’s statistics are impressive, they pale in comparison to Hornaday’s recent string of victories. Hornaday has been consistent through most of the season, but just recently began laying down numbers that even Jimmie Johnson is beginning to envy.
The 53-year-old’s streak of top-10 results goes back six races, and three of those ended up in Victory Lane. That’s right, Hornaday has won half of the races over the past six events and finished in the top 5 in five of those.
This recent hot streak has put Hornaday right in the mix of this season’s championship battle, as he stands only 16 points out of the lead with three races left this year. The likes of the more inexperienced Austin Dillon, James Buescher, and Johnny Sauter had better watch their backs—and rearview mirrors—if they want to maintain their spot in the standings because Hornaday is on a mission.
A mission for his job. As you watch Hornaday close out the year, keep in mind that he currently has no ride for next season. So not only is he racing for a championship, he’s racing for a ride and, more importantly, a sponsor. How’s that for motivation?
*Honorable Mention:* Speaking of *James Buescher*, he’s on a hot streak all his own. In fact, he’s been on this hot streak all season. Aside from a DNQ at Phoenix—a stumbling block that Buescher had no trouble recovering from—Buescher has finished in the top 10 in all but three races this season. Looking at those numbers, it’s no wonder Buescher is only three points out of the lead and right in the mix of this year’s title hunt.
*Kasey Kahne* – Whatever Kahne and his team have hit upon recently, it goes without saying that it has worked well for them. Kahne hasn’t finished outside of the top 5 in the last four races, though surprisingly they have led only four laps (all at Talladega).
When you look at that kind of consistency, it’s not hard to understand why Hendrick Motorsports tabbed Kahne as their driver for when Mark Martin leaves the organization at the end of the season. Yes Kahne has shown his worth in the past, winning six races during the 2006 season, but struggled last year with Richard Petty Motorsports and until recently hasn’t done that well with Red Bull Racing either.
Still, there is no denying Rick Hendrick has an eye for talent considering that he has nine championships between two of his star drivers, including the last five. The fact that Kahne has done as well as he has with a rather mediocre organization speaks volumes, and Hendrick looks like a genius right now. Regardless of his string of top 5 runs, though, I bet Kahne is frothing at the mouth at the prospect of finally racing for NASCAR’s current dominant force.
*Tony Stewart* – Stewart has had a rollercoaster of a Chase this year, winning the first two races of the 10-race playoff only to follow those up with two finishes outside the top 10. He then followed _those_ up with two top 10 results, and has somehow kept himself within reach of the points lead (-19 points).
It’s hard to refer to a two-time champion as a dark horse, but I think that would effectively describe Stewart’s situation. The fact that he’s struggled so much with consistency could come back to bite him in Homestead and, while 19 points isn’t insurmountable, it will be hard to gain points on either Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth considering they’ve been the very model of it.
However, “Smoke” is still very much a part of this championship hunt, and if he can knock out a few more top 5 and top 10 results in the next four races, he can go from dark horse to champion.
*Honorable Mention:* *Denny Hamlin* has finally hit his stride—kind of. He finished in the top 10 the last two races, but needed them to recover from four consecutive finishes outside the top 15. You won’t see Hamlin atop the standings at the end of the season, and he’s admitted the team is focused on testing for next year. With that said, it would do them well to finish the year out strong, since that spot on the stage in Vegas for the top 10 drivers is still on the line.
*David Reutimann* – Putting Reutimann in this section anymore might seem redundant, but now there is a storyline behind it as Reutimann and his teammate Martin Truex, Jr. might be seeing penalties on Tuesday. Last Friday, NASCAR confiscated the windshields of Reutimann, Truex, and MWR-affiliated JTG Daughtery Racing’s Bobby Labonte for unapproved modifications and said that penalties would be coming this week.
This would be an appropriate case of adding insult to injury, since any advantage that it could have given them would have done little good. Reutimann hasn’t finished inside the top 10 since the July race at Kentucky, which happens to be one of only two such results this season.
Heck, I can’t blame the team for trying new things and seeing the most they could get out of their car, but it’s so unlike MWR cars to get caught cheating! (Please note sarcasm.)
*Joey Coulter* – Coulter has had somewhat of an up and down year this season, with 10 top 10s in 22 races this year in the Truck series, but has struggled with consistency lately. His last top 10 run came seven races ago in Bristol, with his highest finish since then coming at Loudon in 11th.
Look, I know Coulter is only a rookie and these finishes are to be expected. However, I can’t help but wonder what he’s doing at Richard Childress Racing in the first place. With grandson Austin Dillon moving up to the Nationwide Series next season and his brother Ty moving to the Camping World Truck Series, it’s pretty obvious that Richard Childress has big plans for both of them. In fact, while it’s unconfirmed, that’s considered to be a big reason as to why Clint Bowyer was all but forced out of the organization.
So where does that leave room for Coulter? His results in his rookie season nowhere near match the success Austin saw in his debut year, and Ty put such a spanking on the ARCA field that he was in a league of his own all season. While Coulter is expected to drive for the organization next year, he can only get so far before he’ll most likely have to seek a ride elsewhere. Even if that’s a few years down the road, RCR will have no use for the 21-year-old driver once both Ty and Austin have worked their way up the NASCAR ladder.
*Honorable Mention:* While two-time World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion *Josh Richards* is still serving as a development driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports and has only competed in seven races, his performance is still lacking in what is arguably the best team in the Camping World Truck series. To his credit, he did earn his highest career result of 13th at Talladega this past weekend, which is four spots higher than his previous best at Bristol. Still, how long does Busch (and his sponsors) wait before they decide he isn’t worth the investment?
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* – Sometime this season Earnhardt was running well enough to make the Chase and convince his loyal legion of follower that he was “back.” Somewhere along the way he secured himself a Chase spot and was competitive enough to contend for victories.
This time is not that time. By some miracle Earnhardt was able to make the Chase, and after that the magic ended. Earnhardt finished third in the Chase-opening race at Chicago and has since taken a freefall through the standings that saw him fall from fifth to ninth over the course of six weeks.
However, even though Earnhardt only has two top 10s in the last 12 races, it could be worse.
*Jeff Gordon* – Heading into the Chase, many of us thought that Gordon would be Johnson’s biggest threat to the championship this year, and I’m not sure we could have been more wrong. Instead, after six races, Gordon is currently 10th in the standings, 82 points out of the lead after starting third in thanks to his three pre-chase victories.
In fact, it’s hard to find someone—let alone a Chase driver—who has struggled more than Gordon. Since the Chase started, Gordon has finished outside of the top 20 five times, with Loudon acting as the only bright spot to Gordon’s championship hopes. Even the crapshoot of Talladega didn’t pan out well for Gordon after Trevor Bayne dumped him as a drafting partner in favor of fellow Ford driver Matt Kenseth.
Heck, even biggest disappointment of the year Hamlin is finishing in the top 10 lately. Gordon desperately needs a fresh start, and he only has to hang in there for four more weeks.
*Honorable Mention:* Still fighting for his ride, *David Ragan* can’t catch a break. A 28th-place run at Talladega was his worst finish since the Chase started, though that’s not saying much since he has only one top 10 run in the last six events anyway. It goes without saying, but I think it’s time for this Georgia native to start searching for a new home next year.
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