*Did You Notice?…* Hendrick Motorsports isn’t running as bad as everybody says? Yes, Jeff Gordon is running like somewhere, someone is sticking pins in a voodoo doll wearing a tiny AARP firesuit. Yes, for the first month Kasey Kahne thought the best way to fit in as the “new guy” was run into walls. And of course, any Jimmie Johnson slump of more than ten races is labeled “instant crisis” by the “casual media” whose NASCAR knowledge extends to little more than the No. 48, Petty, and a guy they once called the Intimidator.
But what Saturday night’s win revealed was something NASCAR insiders knew all along; for about the last month, Hendrick has been clicking on all cylinders – and then some. Sure, they only have one win through the first eleven races but that stat can be deceiving for two reasons. One: it’s the regular season, one that the No. 48 typically uses as a test session for the races that really count. Fifth, in many cases, can be as good as first if they gain the right information for the Fall. Two: Hendrick has been running up front consistently throughout 2012. Check out the stats for laps led heading into the All-Star Break:
*Laps Led: 2012 Season*
*Hendrick Motorsports:* 970
*Per-Car Average:* 242.5
*Roush Fenway Racing:* 681
*Per-Car Average:* 227
*Penske Racing:* 349
*Per-Car Average:* 174.5
*Stewart-Haas Racing:* 326
*Per-Car Average:* 163
*Michael Waltrip Racing:* 486
*Per-Car Average:* 162
*Joe Gibbs Racing:* 458
*Per-Car Average:* 152.7
*Richard Childress Racing:* 173
*Per-Car Average:* 57.7
Hendrick’s dominance in laps led also trickles down to individual drivers: Johnson (502) and Gordon (338) are tops on the circuit, respectively, in this category. Johnson is also tied with Hendrick’s Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the lead in top-10 finishes (8); Earnhardt is tied with Matt Kenseth as the only drivers to complete every lap.
Get the picture? HMS dominance also trickles down to wins by chassis: they have four, leaving them comfortably in front of rivals Joe Gibbs Racing (3), Penske (2) and Roush Fenway (2). The only place where they’ve struggled is the points, more to poor luck ending races than anything else: Kahne is 16th and Gordon 24th because of those untimely DNFs. But for Gordon, Kahne offers hope: five straight top-10 finishes by the No. 5 car, after ditching the ugly monkey on their back, shot them up all the way from 32nd to 16th in points. Right now, they’re arguably one of the hottest teams on the circuit and a win would put them in easy position to claim the “wild card.”
Perhaps the most dangerous team, though, heading into the break has to be Johnson and the No. 48. The driver’s winless “slump,” paired with a disappointing 2011 Chase, came along with crew chief Chad Knaus’ inability to comprehend the value of track position. Time and again, they’d charge up front early only to make the wrong pit call late, putting them in traffic where the car struggled to handle. Finally, on Saturday night Knaus understood the value of staying out, choosing for Johnson to save fuel while it was Martin Truex, Jr. taking four tires, falling back and paying the price. In an age where strategy means as much as speed, learning on the pit box is half the battle and if Knaus has the mojo back – watch out.
*Did You Notice?…* Too many drivers are in the All-Star Race? Just stop and think about this one for a second. Typically, in the Major League Baseball All-Star Game we’ll have the best 10 percent of players competing. In the NBA? That number’s more like 7 percent. Now compare it to the bloated All-Star Race field, where a grand total of 23 drivers will make the cut. That’s 66 percent, a number so high we might as well let everybody in at this point.
People have been talking for years about a way to make the race better. Well how about an elimination format? With such a bloated number, you can do a 20-lap segment, green laps only where only the top 15 make the cut. Then, you have a 20-lapper where the final number gets reduced to eight. Those cars, and those cars only wind up in a 10-lap Shootout for all the marbles. It makes the event shorter, reduces the “test session” mentality for those who can’t win and increases the aggression that’s been missing in this race for years.
By the way, wondering why people aren’t buying into Dale Earnhardt, Jr. yet? In a field where _57 percent,_ of those 35 full-time drivers have already made the cut, the No. 88 can’t find its way on the list. Junior will likely make it through the Fan Vote, and last I checked, that doesn’t score you any points toward Victory Lane or the big trophy at Homestead this November.
*Did You Notice?…* Which drivers are in position to pull a surprise? Remember, heading into the All-Star Race last year Brad Keselowski was a virtual unknown, outside the top 20 in points and off everyone’s radar screen for the Chase. Who’s in the best position to play sleeper this year? Here’s three:
*Marcos Ambrose:* Yes, the Tasmanian earned just his first top-10 finish of the season Saturday night in Darlington. But to do so, he came from two laps down, then passed half of the 21 lead-lap cars in a furious final 50 laps to bust out of his slump. Always a threat to win at Infineon and Watkins Glen, it would be no surprise for this team to sweep both and, at 18th in the standings that leaves Ambrose a true “wild card” contender. The RPM organization has struggled this season, but Ford’s renaissance with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth shows you the speeds in those Fusions are readily achievable.
*A.J. Allmendinger:* Penske’s second car has been finishing like a second class citizen with the winless ‘Dinger at the wheel. But it’s not like the driver hasn’t flashed potential; he has one pole, 99 laps led and a handful of top-5 starts that haven’t panned out. One of these days, if they keep qualifying up front the No. 22 is going to stop going backwards. If a strong run at Dover up ahead, one of this driver’s best tracks can rebuild confidence a Chase bid is still a possibility. And an upset victory? That’ll start a trend. Remember, once Keselowski got over the hump at Penske, the wins came in bunches and the No. 2 Dodge has already won twice this year.
*Jeff Gordon:* See above. Gordon has run far better this season than his finishes indicate; in almost every case, circumstances outside his control victimized the No. 24 team when they were running inside the top 10. This team heated up last summer, has a driver whose career has been defined by winning in bunches and still sits only 22 points outside the top 20. Considering the four-time champ has missed the Chase only once, during a similar hard-luck season of 2005 it’s hard to count him out.
*Did You Notice?…* Some quick hits before we take off…
– Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, and Brandon McReynolds were among several NASCAR personalities taking part in a celebrity softball game in Camden, NJ Tuesday. The teams were composed of local media, drivers, and the staffs of the two local Sprint Cup tracks – Dover and Pocono – as a PR stunt to help advertise the upcoming 400-mile race at the Monster Mile. Edwards showed his athleticism, making several spectacular plays in the field but his Team Dover ultimately lost to Team Pocono, 9-8 once some “ringers” (I.E. – true baseball players) were brought in during the Bottom of the 5th inning.
McReynolds, who threw out the first pitch was the driver smiling the brightest after his first career ARCA victory at Talladega. The 20-year-old said Turner Motorsports is hoping to put him in some Truck races later this season, although no official schedule has been announced.
– Richard Childress Racing: three cars, three top-5 finishes in 33 total races this season. Enough said?
– Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing: two cars, two top-10 finishes in 22 total races, eight laps led. Changes coming?
– People are wondering why Danica Patrick isn’t running the All-Star Race Saturday night. Simple: she’s got a race in Iowa the following day. It’s not like she hasn’t run at Charlotte before, and with a “locked in” spot for the Coca-Cola 600 there’s no reason why she won’t be fine for next weekend. Unfortunately for her, Darlington in the Cup car couldn’t get much worse; GoDaddy.com commercials are racier than Danica Patrick right now.