It looks like NASCAR has caught a case of flat-track fever. With stops in New Hampshire, Indianapolis, and Pocono all bunched together, Cup’s top flat-track talent has another chance to shine as the Chase closes in.
This week, Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the proverbial meat in the flat-track sandwich – served as the stage for stock car racing’s finest. The series’ most historic oval put on a familiar show, with an Indiana boy stealing the show for a record fifth time in 21 tries.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not pays homage to one of the sport’s all-time greats and lays the foundation for what to expect in a return to the Pocono Mountains.
Jeff Gordon should totally be rocking out on his newly acquired Gibson Les Paul Standard guitar (ahh the spoils of victory) right now because he has more Indianapolis Motor Speedway wins than anyone else does. With five – after turning back the clock in the Brickyard 400 Sunday – he has achieved more there than racing greats A.J. Foyt, Michael Schumacher, or even Jimmie Johnson.
Owner Rick Hendrick might need some Trident Gum after this one; he’s kissed the bricks nine times. No wonder Gordon’s son Leo didn’t go in for a smooch, those are some rubber-lathered bricks!
What’s better than winning Indy and having a make-out session for the whole world to see? Some drivers would say nothing, but for Gordon, chasing a fifth Sprint Cup Series title has to be up there. Two victories make that goal even more of a realization. Gordon locked himself into the playoffs assuming he attempts to qualify for the remaining events.
First, he’ll have a chance to add a few more in the win column and boost that grand total to well over 90. Gordon finished at the next stop, Pocono Raceway, in June, and has travelled to Victory Lane there six times.
Denny Hamlin cannot compete with that figure, but his four Pocono wins are still more than most other drivers can lay claim to. Hamlin also couldn’t compete with Gordon at the Brickyard on a one vs. one basis, but Darian Grubb’s unique fuel strategy almost made that mismatch irrelevant, almost (and I’m still not sure if that Toyota was legal). Hamlin was a few drops of Sonoco short of turning a one-of-a-kind take on the hallowed grounds into a spot in the history books, but still finished third.
It made for a good show anyway.
Those guys have incredible statistics at Pocono, but who else should be given their fair due? Dale Earnhardt, Jr. deserves a little respect; after all, he did win there earlier this season. There’s also Brad Keselowski, or the driver not named Junior who had a serious shot of winning that day. Everything pointed towards a bad Brad kind of celebration: the gap between the No. 2 and the No. 88, their speed differentials, and the amount of laps remaining, but in the end, Danica Patrick got in the way.
If the situation arises again, Keselowski will need to exercise more synchronicity with Patrick to avoid another Talladega-style lapse in focus. If the worst does happen, Keselowski has shown that he can still be competitive with damage. Look at what he did at Indy. Minor contact between Keselowski and Kyle Busch on pit road caused a noticeable quarter-panel flare – creating extra drag at one of NASCAR’s most aero-dependent tracks – that cost the deuce a lap to repair. Keselowski crept back into attack mode and managed a 12th despite the time lost.
Ultimately, Roger Penske came up short in another attempt to break out of his NSCS funk at Indianapolis. He watched as Chevrolet’s again out-muscled Ford, but Keselowski and Joey Logano stayed true to form, with Keselowski’s strong efforts in practice and qualifying and Logano’s fifth showing that success is possible at the series’ flat, long venues.
There are also several dark-horse candidates. Kyle Larson certainly isn’t one anymore, so there’s no point in talking about him. OK, maybe there is a point: Larson is downright elite on flat tracks, there’s no other way of putting it.
With a seventh at the Brickyard, Larson has now amassed a remarkable fifth-place average finish on flat circuits (IMS, NHMS, and Pocono) this season. That mark ties him with Hamlin and Keselowski for tops in the series in that category.
Severe, easily recognizable damage didn’t prevent Larson from being a showstopper at neighboring Eldora Speedway on Wednesday night, nor did a brush up with Rowdy prevent Keselowski from rallying Sunday. Paul Menard couldn’t say the same.
When Menard and Juan Pablo Montoya got together on Lap 30, Menard’s No. 27 shot towards the Turn 3 wall. A slide-ways maneuver kept Menard from pancaking against the SAFER barrier, but it left his Chevrolet with a left-rear tire rub and right-rear flat tire. Worse, repairs made under green flag conditions (if only he’d lost control completely) put him 43rd for a brief time, before finishing 34th.
For Menard, that whole “career year” thing doesn’t mean very much right now. It doesn’t include a win and is beginning to resemble his previous campaigns over the last half decade. In that time, Menard has developed a reputation as a choke artist. Time on the desirable side of the Chase bubble entering the summer is nothing new for the veteran; neither is the predicament that he finds himself in now: behind rookies Larson and Austin Dillon, as well as Kasey Kahne, 16th in the standings and currently not in a position to make the playoffs.
Carl Edwards, on the other hand, won’t have to worry about making the Chase – possessing an identical scenario to Gordon – but his recent results raise doubts about his ability to make it past the first few elimination stages.
Edwards’ 15th at Indy comes as part of an eight-race stretch with only one top-10 finish (being his win at Sonoma). Finishing ability isn’t the only alarming figure that stands out over that span. Edwards hasn’t led a lap on an oval in over two months and hasn’t qualified better than 13th (again, outside of Sonoma) since Charlotte in May.
Edwards’ downturn is a reflection of Roush Fenway Racing as a whole. At the time of his Sonoma victory – the first of its kind – RFR appeared poised for a rebound, but it never materialized. Instead, even at their best, RFR drivers seem to be borderline top 15 finishers.
On flat tracks, Chase perennial Greg Biffle has fared only slightly better than Edwards has. Finishes of 16th, 15th and 13th illustrate the lack of explosiveness exhibited by RFR during the second half of the season and they don’t bode will for Biffle at Pocono.
Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is averaging a 16th-place finish at those venues and remains a non-factor for wins on a weekly basis.
It’s no wonder that Edwards was smiling when ESPN reporters asked him to comment on the decision to part ways with RFR at the end of the 2014 season – a decision that belongs wholly to him. The organization is losing its premier driver in Edwards, who most notably finished runner up to Tony Stewart for the 2011 championship.
Owner Jack Roush seemed to exhibit the opposite demeanor when given his take on the weekend’s announcement, and it’s hard to blame him. Edwards’ replacement, Trevor Bayne, is a huge step down, both from a production and celebrity perspective. Edwards is one of the Ford’s focal spokespersons and a choice talent in comparison to Bayne, whose crowning, and only major accomplishment is his Daytona 500 win.
RFR has become a feeder organization for other top talent grabbers. It parted ways with Matt Kenseth after 2012 and will inevitably lose Edwards, too. Long gone are the days when Biffle, Kurt Busch, Edwards, Kenseth, and Mark Martin comprised Cup’s most lethal lineup. Things are getting ugly in Roushkateer land.