Clint Bowyer did everything right in the first three races of the Chase. He kept his car clean and drove to top 10s in all three events, and with that he was within striking distance of the leaders. Then Talladega happened.
Even though he was running toward the front of the pack, Bowyer received heavy damage in the last-lap melee and was scored in 23rd. Bowyer was knocked 40 points back of Brad Keselowski, and it seemed that his Chase was over through no fault of his own. Then Charlotte happened.
Bowyer did win on fuel strategy at Charlotte, but he was only in that position because of how well he had run all night. Fans might forget this, but Bowyer was on the same strategy as the No. 11 and No. 48 teams, and he beat them both. It was Bowyer’s third victory of the season with Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer’s old team Richard Childress Racing (see cold) is yet to score a win in 2012.
Who would have thought?
The consistency of Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson has been chronicled, but did you know that *Clint Bowyer* has nine top 10s in his last 11 starts? A mechanical failure at Atlanta and a crash at Talladega are the only hiccups in that stretch.
The road ahead doesn’t look bad for the No. 15 team, either. Bowyer heads to his home track of Kansas this week, where he has always performed well and then to Martinsville, where he would have won had Jeff Gordon not turned back into him after green-white-checkered wreck in turn 1 in the spring race. Expect Bowyer to stick around until Homestead.
For the second straight week, *Denny Hamlin’s* team played the strategy game right and was rewarded. Hamlin hung in the back and avoided heavy damage in the big wreck at Talladega, but his 14th-place finish proved to be better than what most of the Chasers ended up with. On Saturday, the No. 11 team played it conservative again and saved enough fuel on the final stint to finish second to Bowyer.
With Brad Keselowski’s troubles, Hamlin closed to within 15 points of the lead, and within seven points of Jimmie Johnson, who may be his biggest worry.
Can *Kyle Busch* take Kevin Harvick’s spot in the Chase? Is it too late to make a switch? Busch has raced at a high level since his cars stopped consistently falling apart. If it wasn’t for a mechanical issue at New Hampshire, Busch could be looking at top 10s in all five Chase races.
Busch led 48 laps at New Hampshire before getting overtaken by Hamlin and his supercar, and then Busch dominated Dover with 302 laps led. He didn’t do much leading at Talladega and Charlotte, but posted finishes of third and fifth. Don’t be surprised is he wins at least one race before the year is out and breaks up the Chase party.
*Jimmie Johnson* doesn’t consider himself to be a very good fuel-mileage racer, but he did a nice job of saving gas at Charlotte and it landed him third. I guess it is hard to run out when you drive 30 miles per hour for the last 20 laps. With that performance, Johnson’s Chase is running perfectly as scheduled. He suffered a small setback at Talladega (17th), but this team expected that. In the other four races, he hasn’t finished worse than fourth. After Saturday, he is only seven points back of the lead.
Teams aren’t supposed to be performing at their best when the driver is on his way out. Race weekends should be filled with uncomfortable moments, Kurt-Busch-like tirades and the newest parts from Toyota Racing Development (which we know are probably are going to break, but since you’re leaving it’s worth a shot). This doesn’t seem to be happening with *Joey Logano* and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano has performed better in the last five races, than most of the drivers qualified for the Chase. The soon-to-be Penske Racing driver drove to his fourth top 10 (ninth) in five races at Charlotte. On Saturday, he crushed the competition again in the Nationwide Series. The only people that might be feuding in the No. 20 camp are Joe and J.D. Gibbs, who have to be kicking themselves over letting Logano go.
*Tony Stewart* went to tracks his team didn’t perform particularly well at in the first race of the season, and came back and dominated the second time around. That was 2011, and right now it seems like a long time ago. Last year, it seemed like Stewart could just solve all of his team’s problems with the snap of his fingers. This Chase hasn’t gone that way.
Smoke qualified 32nd at Charlotte, and despite some early damage, finished 13th. After the infamous wreck at Talladega (22nd) and a less-than-spectacular showing at Dover (20th), Stewart couldn’t afford another poor performance, and that is exactly what he had. Stewart is now 50 points back of the lead and isn’t going to win back-to-back titles.
*Marcos Ambrose* is close to signing an extension with Ford. Both sides better get the deal done soon before somebody changes their mind. Ambrose was one of the hottest drivers in the series in the races leading up the Chase. He won Watkins Glen and was fifth at Michigan and Bristol. Once the Chase started, the No. 9 team took a turn for the worse. The Ford program hasn’t exactly sparkled since the Chase began, but Ambrose’s performances have dropped off a cliff. He has a best finish of 18th and was 24th or worse in each of the other four races. Those are more like Aric Almirola numbers.
*Richard Childress Racing*, as an organization, has combined for as many top 10s as David Ragan has since the Chase began — one. Jeff Burton brought that home by crossing the line 10th at Talladega. The Childress drivers of Burton, Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick have been missing something all season, and with five races to go in the season, it doesn’t seem like their teams are getting any closer to figuring it out.
Menard crushed the outside wall at Charlotte, and ended up 27th, his third straight finish outside the top 20.
*Kevin Harvick* had a typical run for 2012, and drove to 16th. In the five Chase races, Harvick has been 12th, 11th, 13th, 11th and 16th. Sound like a guy worthy of competing for a championship? It’s what he has been doing all year, though. Harvick has finished between 11th and 16th 16 times this season.
He is the only Chase driver yet to crack the top 10, and subtract out Dale Earnhardt Jr. — whom I wish a speedy recovery — and Harvick is the only Chaser that hasn’t placed in the top 5. The No. 29 team was out of the championship picture before the playoffs started, but if they don’t turn things around they may set a new low mark for a team in the Chase.
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