Race Weekend Central

Amidst Chase Chaos, Championship Hopefuls Fall Short of Expectations

To say this season has been full of surprises would be an understatement, as we’ve seen several new winners, exciting finishes, and unexpected contenders. Heading into 2011, no one expected to see the type of diversity and excitement that has played such a huge role this season, even with NASCAR’s changes to the points system. In fact, a lot of NASCAR Nation was prepared to again hand the championship trophy to Jimmie Johnson before the green flag even flew in Daytona.

The start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup has been full of surprises, too, between Tony Stewart’s postseason hot streak and the season’s biggest underdog Brad Keselowski beating out drivers Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson in the standings.

Along with those shockers, however, have come disappointments and faulty predictions for the ten-race playoffs. Aside from the well-documented downfall of Johnson, there are several Chase drivers who were expected to perform and contend for this championship and have failed to do so.

While arguments can be made for every title-contending driver, let’s take a look at a few of the Chase’s biggest shortfalls and how they got there.

Jeff Gordon came into the Chase as an early favorite to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, but that’s not the case anymore with just three races remaining.

*Jeff Gordon* – Gordon has had an up-and-down year in 2011, starting out the season with only three top 10s in the first 12 races (one of which was a victory), only to follow up the next 13 events leading up to the Chase with only three results _outside_ the top 10 – including two victories.

Those three wins in the regular season seeded Gordon third in the standings after the points reset in Richmond, and anyone looking at his results leading up to the ten-race shootout saw a growing amount of momentum and a chance to even himself out with teammate Johnson by scoring a fifth Sprint Cup Series title.

Unfortunately for Gordon, the momentum came to a screeching halt beginning with the first event in Chicago after the 40-year-old driver ran out of gas in the rained-out Monday race. In the next six events, Gordon would finish in the top 15 only three times, with the remaining three ending outside the top 20.

However, much of Gordon’s poor performance in the Chase can be traced back to bad luck. In Kansas, he had an engine failure with just a few laps remaining. In Charlotte, he was caught up in a chain reaction crash late in the going that resulted in a 21st-place finish. In Talladega, a controversial move by Trevor Bayne to ditch Gordon and work with Matt Kenseth on the final lap almost put him outside the top 30.

Needless to say, it’s been a series of unfortunate events for this driver, and he’ll have to wait until 2012 to try again for that fifth title.

Look on the bright side, Gordon fans! At least Johnson isn’t raising the stakes to six titles this season!

*Kyle Busch* – Eventually, Shrub is going to shake off the postseason heebie-jeebies and contend for his first Sprint Cup Series title.

However, 2011 will not be that year. Like Gordon, Busch had several victories heading into the Chase (four) but a mixture of bad luck and poor performance has knocked him from points leader to seventh, 57 points behind, with three races remaining.

The first four events started out slow, with Busch winding up outside the top 10 in three of them. The team struggled with handling issues through the first half and suffered for it in points.

However, the driver of the No. 18 has recently shown signs of his former self, leading triple digit laps in two of the last three events even if the finishes don’t show it. While he was able to capitalize and snag a runner-up position in Charlotte, leading 111 circuits, Martinsville didn’t go as well. Busch spent 126 laps up front, contending for victory before contact with Matt Kenseth severely damaged the No. 18 machine. While trying to repair damage to the car on pit road, Busch pulled out to try and stay on the lead lap before all the lugnuts had been tightened on his left front tire and it rolled off the car at the exit to the pits. Talk about adding insult to injury!

With that said, Busch may not have enough time to make up 57 points for this title, but he may be able to steal a victory or two before 2011 comes to a close.

*Kurt Busch* – “I mentioned in Hot / Not yesterday”:https://frontstretch.com/sdreyer/36184/ that I wasn’t surprised to see Busch running so poorly at this point in the season, but based upon preseason predictions and comments from the elder Busch himself, I was in the minority.

The thing is, you hear team owners, drivers, and crew chiefs talking all the time about how big a role team cohesiveness plays in the success of a race team. In fact, no one exemplifies this statement better than the No. 48 group, as they’ve finally fallen on their face the very year they started making changes to their roster. Tensions were high, and anyone listening to the scanner conversations between Johnson and Chad Knaus could hear it. Now, it will take nothing short of a miracle for Johnson to even get back in this thing.

What does all this chemistry have to do with Busch? Well, tune to the No. 22’s scanner this weekend in Texas and you’ll probably find out rather quickly what I’m talking about. Anytime the car wiggles, twitches, or isn’t leading the field by several seconds (and even that’s an exception sometimes), Busch is typically screaming over the radio about how terrible the car / team / pit crew / engine is. Heck, sometimes it’s all of those!

Steve Addington has said in the past that Busch’s tirades don’t bother him, but Addington is also a human being and I can’t imagine it doesn’t exasperate him at times. Rumors were even circulating that Addington would be jumping ship at the end of the season, though he outright denied them. However, nobody was surprised and there were some even hoping he would leave, that he’d learned his lesson to never again work with a driver by the last name of “Busch.”

In Busch’s defense, they do have a win this Chase, but that was one of only two top 10s. His best finish aside from those two is 13th (at Kansas and Charlotte), which obviously isn’t championship material. Unlike Gordon and younger brother Kyle, though, the only time you can refer to Busch’s results as “bad luck” was in Talladega. The rest, Busch just didn’t have the speed to keep up with the competition and is now eighth in points, 58 markers back with three races remaining.

If I were Busch, I’d be at the shop every day working with the team and building some better relationships from here on out. Even if he does go to the shop often, he needs to let off on the criticism because the constant whining hasn’t proven to be a good strategy. And I guarantee you… it never will.

“Contact Summer Dreyer”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/28526/

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