NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Underdogs Shine In Kansas… And Beyond

Matt Kenseth is taking the “lame” out of “lame duck” by winning two races in the Chase in his final season with his current Sprint Cup Series team. It’s impressive, to say the least, and completely unexpected from my point of view.

My reaction to Kenseth’s success, however, is nothing compared with my reaction when I saw Aric Almirola take the lead and keep it during the first chunk of the race. Almirola? Really?!

Or Menard, when he started 14th and somehow found his way up to the top five and maintained it.

And how about Regan Smith? He gets thrown to the wolves when Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets thrown out and he makes the most of the situation.

Underdogs are hard to come by in the land of the Chase. The focus is on the championship contenders, and rightfully so. They’ve earned that much. But in the wake of the excitement of the end of the season, the dark horse runners and nice surprises often get swept under the rug.

Almirola and Smith, in particular, have something to lose. Almirola has not yet re-signed with Richard Petty Motorsports for next season, though the team did re-sign with Ford. Though Kansas certainly didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to, crashing two different times after leading 69 laps and ultimately finishing 29th, Almirola turned some head and raised some eyebrows. Honestly, how can you _not_ smile when you see the famed 43 out front?

RPM has generally expressed a desire to keep Almirola and he hasn’t shown much interest in leaving. There aren’t currently any good rides available and no driver actually wants to go back down a series unless absolutely necessary.

For Almirola, a performance like Sunday likely means a re-signing with the team and a more secure future in the Sprint Cup Series.

But does it mean he will be competitive from here on out? Honestly, it probably doesn’t. Almirola isn’t going to win at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, or Homestead. Most likely, we’ll see one of the championship contenders in Victory Lane in most, if not all, of those races. However, the knowledge and experience that Almirola and his team brought back from Kansas will be crucial and every driver has that one racetrack where they excel every time they race there. For Almirola, that might just be Kansas and the tracks that are most similar.

For Smith, on the other hand, it means that every other major team is giving him a second look. As hard as it was to adjust my thinking to “Regan Smith” from “Dale Jr.” every time I looked at the No. 88 car, it was surprising to me how well he was able to do in that car. Smith was running well before the engine let go in Charlotte, and he finished seventh after running in the top 10 for a majority of the race.


Regan Smith, sitting in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the No. 88 car, stayed in the top 10 for most of the race and finished in 7th place.

After this week, Smith takes over Busch’s old ride (who took over Smith’s) at Phoenix Racing in the No. 51 car. Obviously, there is a huge gap between Hendrick Motorsports equipment and Phoenix Racing, and Smith is nowhere near committed to that team for 2013 nor are they committed to him. Smith needed a ride, and James Finch needed a driver. He was available.

Now with this chance to showcase what he can _really_ do given the right equipment, Smith has more than likely caught the attention of some major team owners. This is true for Rick Hendrick more than anyone.

Actually, it is true for another team owner as well: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt’s Nationwide Series team, Junior Motorsports, has expressed interest in Smith for 2013 and, honestly, I can’t think of a better place for him. As great as it would be for Smith to stay in the Cup Series, there really aren’t any quality rides available, and sponsorship is already hard to come by. New rides just aren’t going to show up.

Although sponsorship isn’t necessarily any easier to find in the Nationwide Series, Junior Motorsports has a great relationship with several businesses and just having the Earnhardt name behind it automatically gives them an advantage when it comes to obtaining funding. Additionally, having the Cup affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports will ensure that Smith has the kind of equipment he was racing in Kansas.

I’ve felt for a long time that Smith would be better suited in the Nationwide Series. It’s something I call the “Elliott Sadler effect.” Sadler was mediocre at best in the Sprint Cup Series until he moved to the Nationwide Series and was able to get a quality ride. Now he’s contending for wins every week and is in line to win the championship if all goes well. I bet that Smith would be right up there with him given the right opportunity!

Finally, Menard is somebody I’ve been hard on in the past. I’m not the only one. Having the funding built in from his father’s company gives pretty much everyone the license they want to bring up “Daddy’s money.” Honestly, it’s probably pretty accurate that Menard wouldn’t ever touch the Sprint Cup Series without the money behind him.

If we were honest with ourselves, though, we’d take the same opportunity. We’d be stupid not to! Anyone who says they’d decline family money in order to work their way up the ranks the “right” way are lying. If you are told, “Follow your dream, and don’t worry about the money,” you take it!

In Kansas, Menard made the most of it. Running in both the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series, both teams seemed to find something that put Menard in the top five in both races, and had him actually leading the most laps in the Nationwide Series race. The last time Menard even led a lap in either series was back in Michigan in August.

When I asked him what the difference was, this was the answer he gave me:

“This year we’ve lacked speed overall week-to-week. Last year we qualified really well, had a lot of good speed, but very inconsistent results. This year, RCR as a whole has kind of lacked speed. We found some things in the last month or two that’s helped us pick up just overall speed. Then our consistency this year we’ve had, even though we haven’t been fast, we’ve been more consistent. This is just one of the weekend where we put it all together.”

So basically it was a surprise to him, too, but you take what you can get. As with Almirola, I don’t expect this trend to continue. And, like Smith, I think he’d do a much better job running in the Nationwide Series full-time. That’s not going to happen as long as Menard’s keeps providing the funding needed to run in Cup, but I don’t think he’ll ever be consistently competitive in that series.

You always hear a driver is only as good as his equipment. All three of these guys make a case for that. Menard, one of the drivers most known for his money rather than his finishes, can run with the best of them when the setup is right. Smith apparently is good enough to be with Hendrick Motorsports, something that I didn’t expect. Almirola is apparently a hidden gem.

I’m admittedly a hard person to impress, but all three had me double- and triple-checking my stat sheets and NASCAR scoring to make sure I was looking at the right driver. Somehow, Kansas Speedway has become a wild card track where the previously-ignored drivers come out of the woodwork. It was refreshing to see some new faces at the top of the scoring pylon, and I can’t help but hope a similar trend continues.

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