Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway will mark the midway point of the 2012 Chase, so since we’re at the serious end of the season I’m going to dive right in with this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder.
*ONE: Another “Pathetic” Season*
Lost amidst the last lap chaos and carnage was a hard luck finish for Jamie McMurray. Having run upfront most of the afternoon, McMurray spun out through the grass with six to go, wrecked his car and wound up with a dismal 34th place finish.
It was, in many ways, a microcosm of a horribly disappointing 2012 season for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. In 60 Sprint Cup starts, McMurray and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya have zero wins, zero top-5s and a paltry five top-10 finishes between them. On the preseason media tour, team owner Chip Ganassi described his team’s 2011 performance as pathetic. 2012 has been even worse, not to mention the recent loss of Bass Pro Shops as a primary sponsor for McMurray. Tony Stewart might very well be a better brand fit, but this was unquestionably a bitter blow to a team in need of a boost.
Despite the difficult season EGR President Steve Lauletta remains optimistic. “We feel like we’re on the right track. The increases in performance are coming.”
Six races remain for Montoya and McMurray to make something positive happen in 2012. On the evidence of the last ten months and 30 races, those performance increases can’t come soon enough.
*TWO: The Not So Fabulous Four*
Just six races remain on the 2012 schedule and four of those will be held at mile-and-a-half tracks. The phrase “cookie cutter track” does not have a fond place in NASCAR lexicon and an even less fond place in the hearts of most of NASCAR Nation. Yes, Texas and Charlotte tend to produce better cookie cutter racing than most, but Kansas has been a repeated snooze fest of a track. Homestead traditionally has championship implications alleviating the tedium. But the fact remains these four tracks most fans probably wouldn’t pick for the ten “most important” races of the season.
The two rays of hope are races 33 and 35 at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway respectively. I’ve long believed there’s nothing a trip to Martinsville can’t fix for NASCAR, but by the time we get there the Chase will be over for all but a couple of drivers. Longer term, NASCAR must look at shaking up the tracks in the Chase. The variety will only aid the competition, but with next year’s Chase featuring the same ten tracks as this year, it’s a change that isn’t happening any time soon. Shame.
*THREE: The Captain’s Brightest Hope*
In the last 14 races Brad Keselowski has an incredible record: three wins – including two in the Chase already, five top-5s, 13 top-10s and just one subpar finish (30th at Bristol). The escape he had on that final lap at Talladega, rallying to a seventh place finish was the sort of result (and good fortune) you associate with a champion. Padding his championship lead to 14 points over Jimmie Johnson, 23 on Denny Hamlin and a comfortable 36 markers ahead of Kasey Kahne, Keselowski is primed, poised and more than capable of picking up a Cup championship in just his third full season on the Sprint Cup circuit. Just for the record, on that front, of the most recent champions, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart all won their first (or only) titles in their fourth full season of competition. Old Five-time took until his fifth full year.
The question now becomes how will Keselowski handle the sharp end of the season pressure? You’d suspect he will be just fine, especially with Paul Wolfe atop the crew chief war wagon and the harmonious relationship they have, but will it be a factor to watch as the races tick down? Even if it becomes one, team owner Roger Penske has never won a NASCAR Cup title. Keselowski is without question his brightest hope and chance yet.
*FOUR: An Incandescent Earnhardt Jr. Was No Surprise*
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s post race comments left no one in any doubt as to his viewpoint on restrictor plate racing.
“If this is what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it. I will just put it to you like that. If this is how we raced every week I would find another job,” said Junior.
But beneath his boiling frustration the bigger picture point was that his 2012 championship chances were over, almost before they begun: his solid 26-race regular season eviscerated in just four playoff races. Coming into the Chase, Junior certainly had a shot for a title, but the smart money for champion was admittedly elsewhere. Junior’s average finish after 30 races is 10.3. Only Greg Biffle (10.1) can better that number. Both drivers are essentially already eliminated. Such is the nature of this Chase points system that stringently punishes an errant poor finish.
The Chase is already the race within the race in the final ten weeks, so let’s make it even more so. Score the Chase contestants only amongst each other and ignore the non-Chase field. That way a bad finish would be significantly less punitive and we’d have more drivers in the picture late into the Chase. And who’s going to argue with that?
*FIVE: Kahne Needs a Win in the Only Night Race in the Chase*
Finally, this Saturday night we head to NASCAR’s hometown for a 500-mile duel under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Marking the halfway point in the Chase, this is a pivotal race in the title aspirations and dreams of Kasey Kahne in particular. Sitting some 36 points behind points leader Brad Keselowski, Kahne is on the verge of Chase extinction, returning to a track where he won his first race as a Hendrick Motorsports driver – the Coke 600 in May. Statistically speaking Charlotte is Kahne’s best track. He has four wins in 16 attempts, seven top-5s, nine top-10s, and 807 laps led; 96 of which came during the first race at Charlotte this season. He needs to more of the same this weekend, because nothing less than a sweep of the hometown races in 2012 will do this Saturday night.