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Smack: Busch brothers on top but can they stay?

March 03, 2011, , NASCAR.com

As surprise drivers find the top, debate turns to Busch brothers staying on top

1. A.J. Allmendinger is fourth in points, Bobby Labonte is seventh, and David Gilliland is 10th. Which of these surprise drivers can stay near the top of the standings the longest?

David Caraviello: Labonte is proving once again that the dude can wheel just about anything, and that No. 47 team has shown hints of promise the last two years with Marcos Ambrose. Gilliland is as underrated as they come. But I've got to go with Allmendinger here, because the first two races this season are just an extension of how he finished last year, when he showed that he could very well step up as RPM's flagship guy.

Dave Rodman: Hmm, didn't we Smack about this about one year ago? Paul Menard was in the mix then, and gosh darn -- he's right there again but with RCR. But we're talking a different trio. And as much faith as I have in all of them -- you gotta like A.J. Allmendinger, who's been on the verge of a real breakout for a good bit now, and 2011 could be it.

Jarrod Breeze: I like Allmendinger to remain competitive, although he surely won't keep that high standing for too long. He has steadily improved the past couple of years, and with RPM in a more steady situation with two cars, more attention can be used to keep him going at a surprising rate. Although it is nice to see Labonte up there -- kind of a shame the way he's gone the past few years.

David Caraviello: There goes Dave, smacking us back to reality. Yes, we all know the odds of any of these guys hanging in the top 12 longer than another few weeks are rather distant. Especially when you look at all the Chase-caliber drivers like Brian Vickers and Jeff Burton buried in the standings right now. At some point, you have to think things are going to reverse themselves. But hey, let these guys enjoy it while they can.

Jarrod Breeze: Uh oh, looks like we are all in agreement here. That is scary. Allmendinger's the smart pick, Labonte's the sentimental one. And sorry, but time is ticking on Gilliland.

Dave Rodman: If we see the Bobby Labonte again, that would be the treat of the season -- even given the Kyle Busch we saw last weekend at Phoenix: wins two-of-three; then is apologetic, respectful and insightful post-race. Doesn't get much better. But Bobby is a million miles better than what we've seen lately, and I'd like to see that 47 crowd reap the benefits.

Jarrod Breeze: Yeah I don't think any of these guys will be around come Chase time, but Allmendinger might sneak into the top 15 in points. I just don't see him as a championship contender.

Dave Rodman: All David and Front Row need is for luck to stay on their side -- and Bob Jenkins has made a lot of commitment to building that luck. All you have to do is look at how DG and Travis Kvapil ran in those barely-funded Yates cars a couple years ago -- then look at what's happened to Travis in two series in two races to know luck does play a part. Ugh.

Time to succeed


At the end of Daytona, the proof was in the pushing for many, but none so much as Gilliland and Labonte.

David Caraviello: Here's the thing about A.J. -- stack his two top-11 finishes on top of the way he finished last year, with 10 top-20s in his final 12 races for a team that was on the brink of falling apart, and you see some real potential. In the midst of all that junk with RPM last year, the guy still managed to squeeze out finishes like back-to-back 10ths at Dover and Kansas, and fifth at Homestead. That's not a mirage. The only question is if the dude has staying power.

Jarrod Breeze: It really is amazing to see how far Labonte has fallen, and the type of rides that have come his way. No doubt he is a good race car driver; this is his best chance probably since his JGR days, seeing how non-competitive the former Petty Enterprises was. I think Allmendinger has a chance to finish higher in points than Kahne. Now wouldn't that be something?

David Caraviello: Yes, the No. 47 car is a step up for Labonte. After the wasteland that was Hall of Fame Racing and the uncertainty that surrounded his rides last year, he's in something that's been rather competitive the last few years. Let's not forget Marcos entered last year as an outside Chase contender before everything that could go wrong did. This is Labonte's best situation since his last days at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Jarrod Breeze: Right, until this year he was in one bad ride after another, and it seemed as if suddenly a former champion couldn't drive anymore. I think the move to JTG Daugherty is a good one for Labonte; Ambrose proved it could be a solid ride, and I think Labonte is a better NASCAR driver than Ambrose.

David Caraviello: On oval tracks, JB, I don't think you'd find many dissenters.

Dave Rodman: With A.J. -- and I've dealt out of this deck many times, and going to Vegas, it works once again -- look at what he produced, I think, in his last year in Champ Car, when he got fired from one team, went to another team and cranked off at least, I think, three wins in a row for a team that I believe went under within the next year. He thrives on challenges.

David Caraviello: And NASCAR, as many ex-open-wheelers will tell you, is as still a challenge as there is.

Dave Rodman: Allmendinger is slowly and methodically getting his ducks in a row -- no offense to Carl Edwards -- and when the dam breaks, damn -- we might see an outburst because he has been competitive at a lot of varied places. And like Jarrod pointed out, in a two-car team he has more loving care, not to mention more financing. It'll pay off.

Jarrod Breeze: I will also say this: Allmendinger has a chance to supplant Juan Montoya as the best import in the Cup Series. [And no, Tony Stewart doesn't count.]

David Caraviello: Whoa, now JB. That's some bold stuff right there. Making a statement in your Smack debut. I think AJ has all the potential in the world, but let's see him win a few races and make a Chase before we go quite that far.

Jarrod Breeze: Smack debut '11 -- I went out on the limb last year, too, in my limited appearances. At least I think I did.

David Caraviello: That limb still has the cracks to show for it.

2. Kyle and Kurt Busch stand first and second in the Sprint Cup standings, the first time two brothers have ever held those positions. Which is a bigger threat to win the championship this year?

Jarrod Breeze: Kyle is the best driver in NASCAR. I would give him the edge. But sometimes Kyle is his own worst enemy, but even with Kurt's new look and early success and past championship, right now I don't envision him as one of the handful of drivers capable of winning the title.

David Caraviello: Goodness. Who came up with this question? That's like asking me to choose between Blue Moon and Leinenkugel. Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson. Rome and Paris. How do you make that choice? Clearly both have the opportunity -- the consensus being maybe Kyle has more raw natural talent, maybe Kurt has more experience in that situation. Very difficult to choose between the two. They could both be sitting in these same positions 30 weeks from now, and no one would be surprised.

Las Vegas


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dave Rodman: Again, I'll lean on the crutch of not knowing the impact of this new point system -- and the season's only been going two weekends; but based on what we've seen I believe they'll stay about in that relative proximity all season -- but if what we saw at Phoenix is the new Kyle Busch -- look out, this could be the [championship] year.

David Caraviello: But if you force me to make a choice ... it's very hard to bet against Kyle. I don't know if Kurt has the ability to run off wins in bunches like Kyle does. I think back to Kyle's 2008 season, and the first half of his 2009 campaign, and think -- the guy has the potential to just lay waste to the entire series, in a Jimmie Johnson-type fashion. As good as Kurt and Penske are, can they really do that?

Jarrod Breeze: Oh no, that's two in a row we all agree upon. Is the sky falling? I think Kurt has too many ups and downs whereas Kyle, if he can keep his aggressiveness in check, is the more consistent driver with the ability to win more races. Of course, asking Kyle to keep his aggressiveness in check is like asking the mountain to move to Mohammed -- tough to do.

Dave Rodman: I think Kurt has less of a propensity to detonate, at least based on past history. I can think of a lot of cases where he went ballistic in the car, but that's just Kurt's passion -- and he pulled out a finish. Kyle might have something happen like that jingle with Edwards at Phoenix, he's in the wall and a sub-30 finish is the result. Whoever can minimize those will be the better contender.

David Caraviello: Now, let's not short-change Kurt here. The guy may make more of his situation than any other driver in NASCAR, given Penske's lack of a manufacturer brethren. I don't care what the Dodge folks say, that has to be limiting to a degree. And Kurt made it work for most of last year. His No. 22 car was a beast at Daytona. He's going to be in the championship picture for the long haul this season. He's completely capable of winning this thing, even if his little brother has a penchant for being a touch more spectacular.

Dave Rodman: But with what we saw with Kyle at Phoenix, two near-dominant, clean performances -- particularly with Edwards in the Nationwide race -- seem to indicate he's crossed a developmental threshold. Let's see what happens at Vegas and revisit this topic. Personally, I think the bigger issue is who'll be able to scramble back near the front versus who'll stay there -- but both will be interesting.

Jarrod Breeze: I put no stock in what a driver does at Daytona [see Bayne, Trevor]. But agreed, Kurt is the face of Dodge and keep the manufacturer relevant in NASCAR. I don't think there is a knock on Kurt here, I think Kyle just has more potential.

David Caraviello: Dave, Kyle didn't let the jingle -- where does that come from? -- with Edwards derail his day at Phoenix. In that vein, I think he benefits immensely from having Dave Rogers on the pit box. Dave brings the sense of composure Kyle needs, like Greg Zipadelli did for Tony Stewart. When Kyle had problems at Daytona, he was incredibly calm on the radio, when everyone expected the opposite. He pulled out a nice finish at Phoenix. That's what a composed Kyle Busch is capable of.

Dave Rodman: Exactly. He and Dave Rogers have apparently worked hard on getting on the same page and that will be more than a page -- maybe a whole chapter. And as for jingles -- there were a whole lotta those going on at Westboro, Thompson, Stafford and Riverside Park back in the day. Just ask Bugsy, Fats and Leo the Lion.

David Caraviello: And yet, let's not forget JB, Kurt is the brother with a championship ring at the Cup level. Not that Kyle can't get there, but that has to count for something.

Jarrod Breeze: Seven years ago now, Bobby Labonte had one in 2000 and look where he's been since.

David Caraviello: JB, easy on BLab. Don't make me sic Fats or Leo the Lion on you. You do not want to mess with those guys.

3. On to Las Vegas, where Jimmie Johnson is defending champion. If you're working at a sports book, whom do you install as the odds-on favorite?

Dave Rodman: Today, it would have to be Kyle Busch -- though I believe Vegas will be a heckuva show between him and the revitalized Jeff Gordon.

Jarrod Breeze: I think anytime you are laying odds in Cup, the smart money is on Jimmie Johnson.

Place your bets

Vegas weekend odds
DriverOdds
Jimmie Johnson9-2
Carl Edwards5-1
Kyle Busch6-1
Denny Hamlin8-1
Jeff Gordon10-1
 
Las Vegas Hilton
Jimmie Johnson9-2
Carl Edwards5-1
Kyle Busch6-1
Denny Hamlin8-1
Jeff Gordon8-1
 
MGM Resorts
Jimmie Johnson9-2
Kyle Busch5-1
Kevin Harvick13-2
Tony Stewart7-1
*Three drivers8-1

David Caraviello: Well, when I think back to my days running numbers at the Desert Inn, hanging with Bugsy and Deano and Sammy and the Chairman, NASCAR was always a very difficult sport to figure out. Too many factors, too many things that can go wrong. So you have to go with the guys who have been there before. That would mean Johnson, who I'd open at, say 5-to-1. Don't want to make it too heavy in anyone's favor or you scare the easy money away.

Dave Rodman: How about odds on whether or not the same pit crew will be in place for the 48 when the green flag drops? I really don't like seeing the look I saw on Chad Knaus' face when that front changer had his issue, and I don't even have a dog in the fight.

David Caraviello: Kyle Busch, who won this race in 2009, would have to be up there, too. So would Carl Edwards, who won in 2008, and Jeff Gordon, who dominated the race last year before his two-tire stop doomed him at the end. Those guys would all have to be in the 7-to-1 to 10-to-1 range. Anybody else, and you start talking long shots. Hey, don't take offense. That's just the way things work in the smoke-filled back rooms of Sin City, baby. Now somebody bring me another martini.

Dave Rodman: But before I get too heavily into odds and betting, I need to review Smack cohort Joe Menzer's treatise on Vegas odds makers and NASCAR elsewhere in these pages. And I agree, David -- I can't imagine putting real money on something that has so many elements and so much of the element of the unknown ready to leap up and take a bite.

Jarrod Breeze: Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin have all had success there, too. But I would have to have more than one martini to put any money of any of them.

David Caraviello: Yeah, but that was before the resurfacing and reconfiguration, which completely changed Vegas, It's a totally different track now, Jarrod, which sort of renders anything that happened before 2007 moot. This isn't the old flat-track Vegas anymore.

Jarrod Breeze: And if I wanted a real long shot, how about Casey Mears? Three top-10s in seven starts there. That would pay really well. Is he even entered in this week's race?

David Caraviello: OK, now who's had too many martinis?

Jarrod Breeze: I moved on from the martinis. I admit.

Dave Rodman: You just can't get away from the new Kyle Busch, I don't think, until he proves he has some soft spots. And if the softest spots he has results in finishes like he made last weekend at Phoenix, it's gonna be a long season for a lot of people -- both competitors and fans. Luckily, it'll be nothing but a party for us media types.

David Caraviello: The potential for proposition bets here are endless. Odds of a tire rolling into the infield grass? 10-to-1. Odds of two teammates getting into it with one another, as we saw last year with Montoya and Jamie McMurray? 20-to-1. Odds of Knaus calling Blue Man Group out of the bullpen to service the No. 48 car? 100-to-1.

Jarrod Breeze: Odds of Casey Mears winning? One million-to-1. OK, I'm going to stop picking on Mears.

David Caraviello: If you were looking for someone to lay some long odds on, though, the potential is there. Hard to resist Kevin Harvick, the runner-up last season, who's 12-to-1 according to the Las Vegas Hilton. McMurray is 25-to-1. There are some opportunities out there.

Dave Rodman: You guys are going -- where do you want me to send the money order? You talked me into it.

David Caraviello: Dave, just make it out to my initials -- CASH.

Jarrod Breeze: Just make it out to me. I'll place that bet for you. Or better still, Dave, I'll take your money and blow it at the casino -- You'll still end up with nothing, but at least I would have had some fun.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.