The big question for Brian Vickers is: where does he go from here? He has done an admirable job filling in for Mark Martin in the No. 55 for select races, but Martin is signed with Michael Waltrip Racing for the lion’s share of the 2013 schedule as well, and Vickers deserves a ride before 2014. Vickers is a proven commodity with two Sprint Cup wins and a Nationwide Series title… and yet, his name hasn’t been heard in the mix for a ride. MWR has been reportedly looking at a fourth team for Vickers; but as of yet, that’s merely a possibility. He’s as good as some of the drivers whose names are being bandied around… and why his name isn’t among them might be the biggest question of Silly Season.
Although Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski were making the last lap at Watkins Glen one for the ages, another driver was quietly posting his team’s second top-five run of the year. Sam Hornish Jr. followed up his third-place finish in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday with a fifth-place run on Sunday. But the numbers don’t tell the whole tale. Because Hornish has an open wheel background, it’s often assumed that he has extensive road-course experience. But he doesn’t; Hornish’s three IZOD IndyCar Series titles came when the series ran almost exclusively on oval tracks. Hornish had just 11 road-course starts under his belt when he made the move to NASCAR.
While Clint Bowyer was holding off all comers for the win, his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates were having a strong race of their own, solidly in the top 10. Although Martin Truex Jr. got caught in a late-race traffic jam that forced him off the road and into 22nd place after leading 15 laps early on, it was Brian Vickers who really shined in just his third Cup race of 2012. Vickers drove his way through the field from a 21st-place starting spot, inserting himself into the top 10 and then the top five, muscling past Jimmie Johnson in the late laps to take home a fourth-place finish.
NASCAR opened the drivers’ meeting to race fans at Las Vegas, and while it gave those fans a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes, many drivers think NASCAR took this one one step too far. The intent of the meeting – to go over safety information or rules updates for the upcoming race, to give a few necessary warnings, and for teams to air any questions they have has become more of a media circus in recent years, where more time is spent on introducing celebrities in attendance than on making sure the teams understand their race procedures. Is it time to return to the days when only drivers and crew chiefs are privy to the meeting?
Kasey Kahne elected to pit early for his final stop. Meanwhile, Carl Edwards was leading the race but ran up on his old buddy Brad Keselowski, who was trying not to get lapped (and perhaps sending some subtle payback Edwards’ way.) By the time the No. 99 abandoned the effort to pass the No. 2, Edwards had given up too much time to Kahne.
Looking for a 2012 Chase darkhorse pick? One driver making a case for consideration in recent weeks is AJ Allmendinger. Allmendinger qualified on the outside pole at Phoenix and kept it in the top 10 all day long, finishing a solid sixth and making a case for himself as a Chase hopeful for next year. Allmendinger has just one top-five finish in 2011, but he has a career-high 10 top 10s and has appeared several times to be knocking on the door of a first victory. His 16th-place points ranking is also a career high, and he could grab one more spot on the charts (he sits just three points behind 15th-place Greg Biffle) before he’s done. Not bad for a guy who was almost out of a job this time last year.
Talk about a gamble. When the caution flew with 41 to go, Chad Knaus left leader Johnson on the racetrack… while almost every car on the lead lap pitted. Four tires had proven to be the key to gaining and keeping track position, so the call was a roll of the dice at best… and in the end, it cost Johnson the win by a car length. Did the poor pit work by the No. 48 crew for much of the year cause a lack of trust that they could keep Johnson in the lead if they pitted? Whatever the reasoning is, it’s the second time in two weeks that Knaus’s decisions have cost Johnson, coming on the heels of a decision to keep Johnson at the back of the field at Talladega. That choice, which some have forgotten in light of his comments on the radio ultimately cost the No. 48 team any chance they had at a sixth straight title.
Employing strategy similar to the Penske Racing cars, David Gilliland had to scratch and claw for his 12th-place result at Infineon. Gilliland ran in the top 10 much of the afternoon and held off stiff challenges from Juan Pablo Montoya and others to score a commendable top-15 effort. This track has been good to Gilliland in the past, with a second-place finish back in 2008. With a solid effort today, he gives his Front Row Motorsports team a bit of breathing room in the Top-35 owner points battle.
Nothing about racing is easy, but Dover can really throw teams and drivers for a loop. Toss into that mix one of the most difficult pit-road entrances on the circuit and it makes for an interesting day. Both David Ragan and Andy Lally had trouble navigating the sharp turn off turn 3, spinning out right at the top of pit road. Ragan didn’t hit anything, but was lucky he wasn’t hit by Jamie McMurray as McMurray made his own approach to pit road during a round of green-flag stops. They don’t call it “The Monster Mile” for nothing.
OK, I understand that pit-road rules are made mostly for the safety of crewmen who don’t have a roll cage to protect them, but was it really necessary to penalize Matt Kenseth for missing the commitment line when he blew a tire? It seemed like overkill to me; after all, Kenseth was already handicapped by the tire, and the penalty added insult to injury. It wasn’t a situation Kenseth had control over, which sets the incident apart from speeding or even from trying to fake out other competitors and missing the line.