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Smack: Drivers in trouble, in the headlines, in contention

March 10, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Dishing on drivers who are in trouble, in the headlines and in contention

1. Brian Vickers is 24th in Sprint Cup points after three races. Greg Biffle is in 31st. Jeff Burton is in 32nd. How much trouble are these guys in?

Joe Menzer: I don't think Vickers is that much of a surprise. The guy is coming off a long layoff and a serious health condition, so I figured it would take him some time to find his racing groove again. The other two guys are surprising. Biffle was victimized by his team's inability to deal with the new fueling system in Vegas, so that's not really his fault. Burton, on the other hand, usually runs well at Vegas and just didn't. So they're all in trouble, but I think of the three Biffle shows the most promising signs of at least snapping out of it.

David Caraviello: They're in trouble, particularly those guys a full race or more behind. I know the numbers don't seem like much in this points system, and the gaps up front are small enough that a lot of drivers are switching places every week, but further back you really have some guys at risk of getting buried. These days 43 points is an entire race's worth, and there are plenty of Chase-contending drivers already facing deficits of nearly that number or larger.

Bill Kimm: That's an interesting question. Three races in, you'd like to say there is still a ton of racing left -- way too early to hit the panic button. But that being said, these guys are a full race out of 10th. This new points system, we aren't sure how it will all play out, but being a full-race behind already is not a good thing.

David Caraviello: It is early, and there is a lot of racing left. But the one thing drivers wondered about when it came to this revised point system is, was it too easy to fall behind? I had somebody mention to me over the weekend -- a last-place finish now gets you only 1/43rd the points of the leader, where before you received a much larger proportion. There's some truth in that, even though NASCAR tried to work this so many things were scaled to the same proportion. These are deep holes to crawl out of, even if the numbers are smaller and it doesn't quite look that way.

Joe Menzer: Where have you guys been? That was being lamented during the Sprint media tour in Charlotte over the winter -- the fact that you now are going to be penalized much more for poor finishes than you are going to be rewarded for strong ones. And it's already becoming reality for some.

Bill Kimm: I said for a while that the new points system was basically a scaled down version of the old one, but that's not the case and we are seeing that now. If drivers thought they got penalized for bad finishes before, clearly things are worse now. And with multiple bad finishes to start the season, things aren't looking good for Burton and the Biff.

David Caraviello: Joe, it's one thing to hear about it in theory, and it's another thing to see it in practice. I think a lot of talk on the media tour was about how one poor finish might scuttle someone's chances in the Chase -- which, given what we've seen thus far, certainly seems possible. I don't think there was quite as much concern about falling behind out of the gate, and how difficult it might be to make those points up.

Cup Series

Standings
Pos.+/-DriverPts.Behind
2.--Ku. Busch113Leader
3.+9C. Edwards106-7
4.+5J. Montoya106-7
5.+3R. Newman103-10
6.+5P. Menard96-17
7.+9M. Truex Jr.95-18
8.+6D. Hamlin95-18
9.-5Allmendinger94-19
10.+7Dale Jr.91-22
11.-5M. Martin91-22
12.+1J. Johnson87-26

Bill Kimm: The one thing Biffle and Burton do have on their side is the wild card. Even if they can't make up the points and crack the top 10, win two or three races and they have a legitimate shot at the two wild-card spots. So all is not lost yet.

Joe Menzer: I'm going to try to get this right, but it's math and I'm a journalist so I probably won't. But I believe Chip Ganassi put it best during the media tour, when he pointed out that finishing dead last under the old system would get you something like 17 percent of the possible pie, but now if you finish last it's more like two percent. And then he added, "And that's a pretty big freakin' hole to dig out of." He's right. Now these guys we've mentioned aren't finishing dead last, but what has happened is that we're seeing a few poor finishes dig a pretty deep hole very quickly. That's just the way it is now.

Bill Kimm: Here's the interesting thing about Biffle and Burton -- they have yet to post a top-20 this season. Two perennial Chase guys haven't even come close to a strong finish. Forget the points right now, they to need fix some serious issues.

Joe Menzer: Bill does make a good point about the wild card, and as a matter of fact I think perhaps this plays right into the hands of the powers-that-be who foresee a mad scramble over the final eight to 10 races of the regular season to gain one of those wild-card spots. Because if I'm Biffle or Burton and I have no other way to make it in, I'm sure not going to play it conservative going into that final stretch of races. You've got to win to get in at that point, so you're going to really push the envelope. My guess is we'll see some guys really hit on something and be very aggressive with it; others will take some big swings and miss, but come back the next week to try the same thing again.

David Caraviello: Bill, you are absolutely right. But there are only two of those wild cards available. Look down at the standings -- Logano, McMurray, Vickers, Burton, Biffle, Reutimann, Keselowski -- there are a lot of potentially race-winning cars well behind. And all those guys are going to be vying for the same wild cards if they can't dig themselves out of it. Not to mention drivers in the top 12 now who will fall out. The competition for the wild cars might be more heated than the competition for the ninth and 10th Chase spots.

Joe Menzer: I don't know if I like how we're telling young Bill how great he is with his points. Then again, maybe he finally has learned from us masters, Caraviello, and he's starting to come around. And, of course, Bill is not that young. But everyone seems young to me as I approach a milestone birthday.

Bill Kimm: I've been trying to tell you guys you are my Yoda and Obi-Wan! I'll let you decide which is which.

Joe Menzer: Aren't they both long dead? Thanks a lot.

Bill Kimm: Exactly, Yoda. And like David said, there are a lot of good drivers currently out of the top 10 -- not everyone is going to find a seat at the Chase table.

David Caraviello: This all goes back to my initial fears about the wild card -- they're going to be letting a team into the Chase that has no business being there. Winning races is one thing, contending for a championship is another. Just because you can do the first doesn't necessarily mean you're capable of the second.

Bill Kimm: I disagree, David. I don't think some guy with one victory is going to sneak into the party. The two wild-card drivers will more than likely have multiple victories, especially in the scenario Joe put out there. The two who grab the wild card will have earned it.

Joe Menzer: Seriously? You're going to get all high and mighty about the wild card? I like the wild-card addition to the Chase. What's the difference between some of the guys who have made it into the Chase previously in the 11th or 12th position with no victories, and the wild cards? I'll tell you what: at least this year the wild cards will have proven they can win races, and that will make them more of a threat in the Chase, not less of one.

Bill Kimm: And that is why Joe is Yoda!

Joe Menzer: At least it's not because I'm all wrinkly. And old.

David Caraviello: Last year under this format, Clint Bowyer -- a driver who would have been in the championship mix 'til almost the end save his New Hampshire penalty -- would have been knocked out by Jamie McMurray, who won more races but showed little to no consistency. Which team was more capable of running for a title? Chew on that, Jedi master.

2. Danica Patrick grabbed the headlines at Las Vegas, but what's the biggest story in the Nationwide Series through three races?

Bill Kimm: To me the biggest storyline is the more things change, the more they stay the same. The one championship rule was supposed to help weed out the Cup stars from the Nationwide events. Well, three races in and we have exactly zero Nationwide-only winners. Three-for-three for the Cup stars. Whoever wins the Nationwide championship will have a serious asterisk by his or her name.

Joe Menzer: Well, it's not Danica -- or at least it shouldn't be. I mean, the top three in the series are Reed Sorenson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jason Leffler. Let's talk about them. Or about who will really challenge for this Nationwide title? I say the top true contenders remain Trevor Bayne, currently sixth in points; Aric Almirola, who is currently seventh -- and of course Elliott Sadler, lurking back there in 12th at the moment.

Head turners


Three races doesn't a Nationwide Series season make, but its enough to look at some early trends that reveal some surprising facts.

David Caraviello: It's still Danica Patrick. What she did Saturday in Las Vegas was stunning, compared to most of her previous finishes on similar tracks. I know they said her lap times in many races last year were up there with the contenders, I know she finished on the lead lap at Homestead. But what a jump from that to Las Vegas, where she raced guys tooth-and-nail and took advantage of circumstances to enjoy a spectacular day.

Joe Menzer: Listen, guys. This is what could be cool about having to pick one series in which to run for the championship. There now are races within the races every week to keep an eye on. I do agree with Bill -- geez, it grates on Yoda's nerves to keep saying it -- that it stinks that the Cup guys are still winning all the races. But that could change, and in the meantime, the races within the races are making it more interesting than in the past, not less.

David Caraviello: There are a lot of facets to this Nationwide season, one of them being Reed Sorsenson, who's the most overlooked points leader in NASCAR right now. You have Sadler, the preseason favorite, not quite getting off to the start he'd hoped for. There's Justin Allgaier and those Turner Motorsports guys proving they're for real. But none of that was as galvanizing as the effort Patrick turned in Saturday. Sorry gang, but the place was electric over that. Should have heard the cheers.

Joe Menzer: I forgot about Allgaier. He could be another contender. That was merely an oversight. I was skeptical about him jumping to Turner Motorsports, but right now Justin sits fifth in the points and they look strong.

David Caraviello: Given that he's just 16 points back, he absolutely is. A lot of people wondered if he'd suffer falloff moving from powerhouse Penske to Turner Motorsports. So far, he hasn't. That's good to see. The Series absolutely needs him running up front and contending for race wins. And he was the first driver to come over and congratulate Patrick on Saturday.

Joe Menzer: I guess the reason I'm reluctant to say Danica is the biggest story in Nationwide is that she's just not going to be around much longer, so why get all worked up about it. Having said that, she made a move at Daytona to avoid a bunch of trouble that made a bunch of us arch our eyebrows and notice that perhaps things were going to be different for her during her part-time foray into the series this year. But as soon as folks start getting worked up about it -- herself included -- she'll be off to race IndyCars and you'll only see her once a month in NASCAR until November. So it will be almost impossible for her to build on what she's shown in terms of confidence and simply improvement through experience.

David Caraviello: Look, I know the standings on the Nationwide side look absolutely wacky without the guys winning races in there. But I'm happy for guys like Allgaier, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and even a guy like Kenny Wallace, who's in a competitive ride again and is in the top 10 in points. I'm selfish -- I want storylines, no matter how they happen, and this system gives us more of them. Now, one of those storylines will be at the end of the season, when they hand a championship trophy to a guy with one or zero wins. But for now -- the more the merrier. I'll take what I can get.

Nationwide Series

Standings
Pos.+/-DriverPts.Behind
2.--Stenhouse Jr.109-2
3.--J. Leffler106-5
4.--D. Patrick98-13
5.+3J. Allgaier95-16

Bill Kimm: David, no one is talking about Sorenson because he doesn't truly belong atop the point standings. his two top-fives are great, but we all know he'd at best be third if everyone was accruing points. Until the Cup guys stop competing full-time in the series, the Nationwide-only drivers will not get the headlines they may deserve.

David Caraviello: So, we are to blame Reed Sorenson because NASCAR changed its championship eligibility rule? Hey, I understand the idea that champions from now on might need to have an asterisk next to their names, I understand that it's going to look strange if a guy with one or zero race victories takes the championship. But let's not pile on Reed because of that. He's just trying to take advantage of the situation. You want to question the system, fine, but don't dismiss him along with it. Not exactly fair to a guy who has zero control over this situation.

Joe Menzer: Bill, you need to get over the fact that the Cup guys are gone from this series and look at the bigger picture. It's been three races. It's not like the Nationwide guys have been shut out for this entire season. Let's see where it goes from here -- and in the meantime, keep an eye on the races within the races. Geez, it feels good to finally blister Bill over something. I knew he couldn't keep it up and would say something stupid before we got through. This is so refreshing. Yoda feels rejuvenated.

David Caraviello: Well, Joe, only one Nationwide regular -- Allgaier -- won a race last year. All the other race winners were moonlighting Cup guys. So it's within the scope of possibility that the Nationwide guys could very well get shut out this year. Would hate to see it happen, but it's a distinct possibility. But that doesn't mean the points leader deserves to be belittled. Dang, Bill, did Reed Sorenson steal your lunch money one day? I'm sensing a personal grudge.

Bill Kimm: I'm not blaming Reed, and you're right, he's just doing what he is supposed to. But don't be upset that the fans and media aren't giving Reed his due justice as a national series points leader ... what has he done that warrants anyone paying attention?

Joe Menzer: I realize Allgaier was the lone Nationwide regular to win a race last year (don't forget Boris Said also won a road race in Montreal). I even wrote a feature story about Allgaier recently where I pointed that out. I'm just saying let's give it some time this year before jumping to conclusions. As for Sorenson, I'll admit I've never been his biggest fan -- but you have to give credit where credit is due. He's off to a fine start and should be recognized for it.

Bill Kimm: Wait! I like Reed! When did I belittle him? I simply stated a fact -- he'd be third or fourth in points right now. That's all.

Joe Menzer: Right now I'm sensing Bill Kimm got off to a Reed Sorenson-like start in Smack today, but couldn't sustain that level of excellence and is starting to feel the heat. Could be a parallel here.

David Caraviello: Bill, it's not healthy to hold on to anger. You need to let it go. You need to sit down with Reed Sorenson and let it all out. You'll feel better afterward.

Bill Kimm: Yoda and Obi-wan have turned on me!

Joe Menzer: It was only a matter of time, my young apprentice. You have been toying with the dark side.

3. Todd Bodine is defending champ in the Camping World Truck circuit, but he's 12th in points as the circuit heads to Darlington. Right now, who's the biggest title threat?

Bill Kimm: They are only two races in, so it's still kind of early to tell. But Matt Crafton has been so close for so long, you have to think this could be the year. And don't count out the youngster Austin Dillon, who continues to show he will be a force for sometime in this series, if he chooses to remain.

David Caraviello: Boy, you thought the Nationwide standings were fuzzy at this point in the season -- take a look at the Trucks. We're still waiting on someone to step up and assert themselves in that series, although to be fair the Trucks have had one fewer race than everyone else. But still -- the top 10 guys are within 14 points of one another. It's anyone's ballgame. Bodine and Ron Hornaday are still in there lurking, but there is no clear favorite at this point.

Joe Menzer: Well, the answer to that question is Ron Hornaday Jr. It's always Ron Hornaday Jr. But look at the top six or seven in the standings in that series right now. Fresh faces, relatively new names. That's what's cool about this new system. I don't mean to sound like I'm finally drinking from the same Kool-Aid water fountain as some of those guys down in Daytona Beach, but I like it. I really do.

Career rebirth


Thirty-year old Clay Rogers is second in Truck Series points after an up-and-down 10-year career.

Bill Kimm: Hornaday's Kevin Harvick Inc. team has proven they are consistently among the trucks to beat each and every year. So I agree with Yoda there ... but I just have a feeling it won't be a familiar face hoisting the trophy in Homestead.

Joe Menzer: Your top seven right now are Crafton, Clay Rogers, Cole Whitt, Johnny Sauter, Timothy Peters, Austin Dillon and Jeffrey Earnhardt. I don't know if one of them will win it this year -- I'd still pick Hornaday -- but I think that's a very interesting mix that also will include the aforementioned Bodine before it's over. That's good for this series and for the sport overall.

David Caraviello: Well, Hornaday did have a decidedly un-Hornaday-like season last year, so I'm going to wait and see whether that program has returned to form before I make any grand pronouncements about Hornaday being the favorite for another championship. But I do agree with Joe that's it's fun to see so many different guys up there. Jeffrey Earnhardt and Max Papis are both in the top 10. Who knows if they can stay there. Right now, who cares? Just enjoy the moment, and a race this weekend at Darlington.

Joe Menzer: Don't ever forget that Mike Skinner is still out there, too. But I'll tell you a couple other names to watch: Ricky Carmichael and Jason White. They could make a run at this before it's over as well.

David Caraviello: Ricky Carmichael really seems to be getting this NASCAR thing figured out. And it's great to see Papis in a competitive ride. NASCAR needs that guy to do well. He brings a zest for life into the series, more so than almost anyone else.

Bill Kimm: Joe, you have officially named everyone in the top 20 -- great job Mr. Vague!

Joe Menzer: Are you kidding me? I was the only guy who came out and actually named a prohibitive favorite, you fence-sitting apprentice.

David Caraviello: Joe, you named Hornaday and then followed that up with about 15 other guys. I wouldn't exactly say you made a "definitive" choice.

Joe Menzer: Also, to clarify, I don't see the likes of Clay Rogers, Cole Whitt and Jeffrey Earnhardt being anywhere near the top five when it's over. Rogers isn't even sure if he'll have the funding to run more than 15 races. I just listed who's in the top seven now.

Bill Kimm: The point is ... the Truck Series is completely up for grabs with different drivers, styles and experience. That will make for one heck of a season!

Joe Menzer: My favorite is Ron Hornaday. Can't you guys read?

Bill Kimm: The old guy in Smack likes the old guy in the Truck Series. Something about the AARP crowd sticking together? My pick remains Crafton, followed by Dillon and Johnny Sauter. There, mark it down.

Joe Menzer: I think Bodine ultimately will be in the hunt, along with Crafton and maybe Timothy Peters. The others I mentioned, specifically Carmichael and White, are guys who I think can win races before the year is over and at least finish in the top 10, then contend for a title next year. There, is that definitive enough for you guys. Geez, I'm starting to get grumpy now. Must be about my nap time.

David Caraviello: Sometimes your style is a little tough to decipher, Menzer. OK, if we're picking Truck Series championship favorites, I'll go with one -- Austin Dillon. Kid was in it until the end last year, can win races, and is at the forefront of this generational change. The young kids have been banging on the door a few years now, and it's finally time for one of them to break through and win the championship. If any of them can do it, it's Dillon.

Joe Menzer: Oh, yeah, I like Austin, too. I forgot about him. Man, I really need that nap.

David Caraviello: That's 16 guys! Anyone else you want to add before we're done, Joe? Nelson Piquet Jr.? Johanna Long? Parker Kligerman? Dusty Davis? While we're at it, you might as well name 'em all.

Bill Kimm: Yeah, why did you skip over Miguel Paludo, who is ninth?

Joe Menzer: Because I'm not even sure who he is.

David Caraviello: Well, maybe Menzer's pool of 25 championship favorites will be whittled down some after Saturday. Darlington is a tough old place that's difficult to master, and a lot of these young drivers on the Truck tour have probably never even seen it before, much less competed on it. Should be an illuminating afternoon.

Bill Kimm: The Trucks do put on a good show at Darlington -- I just hope Yoda stays awake long enough to watch it.

Joe Menzer: Wait! What about that young kid, what's his name ... uh, yeah, Luke Skywalker, that's it! Really looks good in the pod races.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.

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