Did You Notice? Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have won Pocono’s August race within the last three years? Both need to recapture this magic while slipping ever closer to the “Chase bubble” the last few weeks. Gordon, 42nd at Indianapolis, hasn’t had a top-five finish since Kansas in May. In his final season, it seems inconceivable he’ll miss the playoffs, but recent results are making that possibility too close for comfort.
Gordon, who now is heading to each track for the final time in his career just doesn’t have the speed of his Hendrick Motorsports counterparts. You wonder, when considering the final seasons of other famous drivers there if the team is already preparing for Chase Elliott’s arrival in 2016. Consider these stats….
2004 – Terry Labonte
No top fives, six top 10s, 26th in points, semi-retired to make way for Kyle Busch
2007 – Kyle Busch
One win, fifth in points, replaced by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2011 – Mark Martin
Two top fives, 22nd in points, replaced by Kahne
In each of those cases, the driver move was expected for months (and in Kahne’s case, years beforehand). With change coming, you can imagine that makes it difficult inside the No. 24 shop as they navigate the impending transition to Elliott. The further Gordon slips away from the title Chase, human nature begins to look naturally toward the future and what’s in store come 2016 and beyond.
I’m not saying this team isn’t giving 110%. Quite the contrary; Gordon wants to go out on a high note in his final season full-time in the sport. But as we’ve seen across all disciplines, star athletes pulling the John Elway routine and going out on top is near impossible. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have clashed at times in recent months but again, there’s limited chance for improvement. You won’t make a change internally at this point in Gordon’s career because Gustafson will likely be an excellent pairing for Elliott. Why disrupt a team that you want to hand to a rookie almost turnkey?
As for Kahne, bad luck has popped up in four straight finishes of 19th or worse. It’s the same type of awful luck that seemed to dog the driver of the No. 5 car during the duration of his time with Hendrick. What’s somewhat of a concern for Kahne is the next six races are not exactly his best as of late. 13th at Pocono in June, he won the pole at Michigan but faded to 15th the following week. NASCAR’s new aero package there makes that race a complete unknown. In between comes Watkins Glen, a track where Kahne was 12th last year (he’s not really known as a road racer). Bristol? Kahne crashed in the spring and finished a disappointing 37th. Nowhere in there is the type of signature top-five run that puts him up front, earns a win and cements that Chase bid. Atlanta, one of Kahne’s best tracks has been replaced by Darlington now Labor Day weekend so he also doesn’t have that signature intermediate to save him.
The good news for both Kahne and Gordon? Aric Almirola and Paul Menard don’t exactly inspire fear in terms of challengers to their Chase positions. But any DNF or poor performance in this system comes with grave consequences. Both need to be careful and their long-term performance should they make the Chase is currently in doubt.
Did You Notice? Kyle Busch is going for his fourth consecutive win Sunday? Should he do it, he joins Jimmie Johnson as the only other driver to pull that streak off during the Chase era. Johnson, who won four straight during the 2007 Chase went on to win the championship that year.
Prior to Johnson, Gordon won four straight during his 1998 championship season. Gordon, who captured a total of 13 victories this year won the title going away; it wasn’t even close.
Can Busch match those streaks? Pocono’s a place where he’s never won in 21 career starts. Statistically, it’s one of his worst-performing tracks, where he only has four career top-five finishes. Personally, the push Busch is on reminds me of Harry Gant, who won four straight back in 1991 in a quest to run down Dale Earnhardt for the title. Gant never got there, too far behind based on a midseason slump, but made each race in the streak thrilling to watch. I do wonder if Busch is “peaking too soon” – remember, he still remains winless at the Chase tracks of Martinsville and all-important Homestead.
That makes Pocono an all-important test. The three places Busch has won: Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis are tracks where he’s expected to perform well. Pocono, for all intents and purposes is not. Win there, crown that four-race streak (and with Watkins Glen up next, there’s a good shot for Busch to make it five) and the No. 18 team is suddenly looking like it’s an unstoppable force. We’ve got a long way to go yet until Homestead in November but who would have guessed in March we’d be talking about Busch in this position….
Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off…
- Toyota President of Racing Development David Wilson seemed lukewarm on Michael Waltrip Racing for 2016 and beyond. “Whatever they decide to do,” he told NASCAR.com Tuesday, “We certainly wish nothing but the best for them.” That doesn’t sound like a manufacturer willing to move mountains in order to keep MWR in the fold. But if Toyota is looking for more teams in their arsenal, why let MWR leave? If they gain Furniture Row Racing and lose MWR, that’s a net loss of one car. So much for expansion…. I don’t get what their plans are.
- Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle have combined to lead just nine laps all season for Roush Fenway Racing. Could you have ever imagined this championship race team falling so far under the radar?
- Along those same lines Menard is currently in the Chase despite registering only one lap led. Could you imagine Menard making it multiple rounds with that track record? That would be more controversial than Ryan Newman last season.