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Track Smack: Hamlin and Johnson surprise, but not like Sauter

April 07, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Smack discusses Cup, Trucks at M'ville, title contenders and likely Chase players

1. Time to play Track Smack either/or. Which was the bigger surprise last weekend: that neither Jimmie Johnson nor Denny Hamlin won the Cup race at Martinsville, or that Johnny Sauter stunned Kyle Busch in the Truck race?

Mark Aumann: Even though the Johnson-Hamlin meltdown was unusual, I'd say Sauter stunning Busch was the bigger upset. That race had a lot of interesting elements, like Max Papis and Ricky Carmichael running at the front.

Joe Menzer: There was a Truck race? ... Just kidding, folks. Y'all know I'm a big supporter of that series, which routinely has some of the best racing in NASCAR. I think the biggest surprise of all might have been that KB handled the loss with maturity and total class. But then, maybe that shouldn't be that much of a surprise any longer. He is becoming the better behaved of the Busch brothers, for whatever that's worth.

David Caraviello: To me, it was the Cup race at Martinsville. I understand one of either Hamlin or Johnson having issues and not being in a position to win the race at the end, but both of them, at a track where they had combined to win every event for four years? Taking nothing away from Kevin Harvick, who's completely capable of winning anywhere, but I was stunned that both Johnson and Hamlin proved to be non-factors at the end on a facility they've essentially owned.

Mark Aumann: I guess not having Johnson or Hamlin win was more of a "going to happen sometime" situation, especially when guys like Kyle Busch were as good or better for most of the day. That race was more balanced than what's happened at Martinsville for the past several seasons.

Joe Menzer: Whoa there, big boy. I wouldn't say Johnson and Hamlin were "non-factors" in the race. They ran up front nearly all day.

David Caraviello: Talking about at the end, Joe, when it was Kyle and Harvick and Junior dicing it up for the victory. Neither of your favorites were in that mix. Might want to adjust the bifocals.

Joe Menzer: Frankly, Hamlin and Johnson and their teams simply made too many pit-road mistakes to be in the mix at the very end. It's that simple. Don't even need to adjust the bifocals to know that.

Mark Aumann: I don't think Joe's had his first cup of coffee today.

Joe Menzer: Whereas Caraviello's cup of knowledge is overflowing? I don't think so.

David Caraviello: Man, you have one coffee maker near-malfunction that makes you a little late for Track Smack, and they never let you forget it. Would you rather I have Arabica roast all over my kitchen floor?

Mark Aumann: Well, we couldn't put that on the back burner, David. Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Juan Montoya all had cars capable of winning that race, too. And Kevin Harvick has two wins after leading a total of seven laps. Right place, right time.

David Caraviello: No question. And to be honest, you had to expect that their shared run at the place was going to have to come to an end sometime. And in all honestly, it happens in an early season when neither Hamlin nor Johnson is exactly clicking perfectly as far as their programs are concerned. Six races in, and neither of the top two championship contenders from last year have won yet. You have to try hard not to read too much into that.

Joe Menzer: Don't forget one of the other past masters of Martinsville, Jeff Gordon. He started 21st but quickly moved up and stayed in the top five or six most of the day, eventually finishing fifth. As for Jimmie and Denny, truthfully I wasn't surprised that Hamlin's streak of wins at M'ville ended at three. I was more surprised Jimmie made the speeding mistake on pit road -- which he now has admitted to -- to take himself out of the mix on the final stop. Denny's team just doesn't seem to have it together yet, and they are beginning to get to the point where they'd better get it together fast if they want to get into the Chase on points. Otherwise, they're going to have to start taking some big swings to get in Victory Lane and push for a wild-card spot.

Sauter's big victory


Johnny Sauter passed Kyle Busch on the next-to-lap at Martinsville and held on to post his first Truck Series victory of the season and the third of his career.

David Caraviello: That's not to say I wasn't surprised by what went down in the Truck race. But as much as everyone thinks Kyle wins every time he suits up for a Truck or Nationwide race, he doesn't. His batting average is high, no question, but not perfect. I guess the bigger surprise was that it was Sauter who got him and not someone like Harvick.

Mark Aumann: Fuel mileage on flat tracks -- Phoenix, Martinsville -- is hanging like an albatross around the necks of the No. 11. About the time they seem to fix their engine issues, now it's the old bugaboo of having to stop earlier than everybody else. They got away with it the first time, mainly because NASCAR officials swallowed the whistle on Brad Keselowski's non-caution accident. But the second time was fatal to their hopes.

Joe Menzer: Is anyone going to tell me -- and the rest of the world reading this -- what in the heck is an "Arabica roast?" I'm thinking it's some sort of Arabic pot roast, but I'm guessing it has something to do with coffee and David spilling the beans all over his kitchen floor.

Mark Aumann: Geez, didn't you ever watch the Juan Valdez Colombian coffee ads growing up?

Joe Menzer: Um ... let me keep this simple, like how I take my pot roast. No.

David Caraviello: As I sip the smooth flavors of my Sumatran Reserve, I think back to my days backpacking through Java ... oh wait, I meant Martinsville. Anyway, even though Jimmie and Denny weren't in the mix at the end, I really thought that was a great finish on the short track. Having Dale Earnhardt Jr. in there surely stoked the drama, of course, but it was great watching guys moving each other up the race track to get to the lead.

Joe Menzer: The only way you're backpacking around Martinsville, Caraviello, is if Clay Campbell gets mad at you again and forces you to the woods after denying you entrance to the new, refurbished media center. Now, that truly would be great drama -- although the way the crowd there responded Sunday to Junior taking the lead with 20 to go was pretty powerful stuff. Even Harvick said he noticed it inside his car, and that's saying something.

David Caraviello: Oh yeah. You could hear that ovation through the television, no question. Speaking of ovations, let's give one to the new Kona dark. What a fine coffee that is. It's extra bold -- kind of like me.

Joe Menzer: I'll stick to Coors Light, thank you very much. Cool and refreshing. Like me.

Mark Aumann: The fans in Turns 1 and 2 were on their feet several times there at the end -- when Gordon rooted Busch out of the lead, when Junior went to the front, and then again when Harvick snuck through. Good stuff. And you two are a couple of hot dogs. And not the Martinsville kind.

2. Right now, who's the bigger threat to unseat the five-time champion: Kevin Harvick (who has two wins in a row), or Kyle Busch (who has three consecutive top-three finishes and the points lead)?

Mark Aumann: Are we allowed to choose Door No. 3? I'm still on the Carl Edwards bandwagon, particularly as we start to get back to the intermediates and superspeedways.

Joe Menzer: Now that is a very good question. I'm going to say right now that it's Harvick, but more because of the engine issues JGR has had this season than the belief that Harvick is a superior driver to KB. They're both on top of their game right now, and both benefactors of a somewhat newfound combination of patience and maturity [most of the time] on the track. But when it comes down to it in the Chase, one engine failure can spell doom.

David Caraviello: I'm very torn here. As much as I want to say Busch, because the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing have been there more recently, and know how to win a championship under the Chase format -- remember, Tony Stewart won the second one in 2005 -- I'm beginning to wonder about parts durability given all the engine issues we've seen in the early going. Gibbs unfortunately has some history here, as anyone who remembers Kyle's run of failures in the 2008 Chase can attest. I know oftentimes there are man-made mistakes that manifest themselves as parts breaking, but still -- I wonder if they can keep it together mechanically for all 36 events.

Mark Aumann: I think of the two, Busch has been more consistent throughout the entire race, but Harvick's been here before. That's the team that seems poised to make the leap in 2011. Still, if Kyle continues to be this poised, there's no reason to think he won't be in the mix at the end.

Joe Menzer: I disagree with Mark on his Busch comment -- but understand why he may have a point with what he said earlier about Edwards. This could be Carl's season. Just because he struggled a little at M'ville, a place where he's never done all that well, doesn't mean you dismiss the fact that he's been the most consistent dating back to the final two races of last season.

Mark Aumann: I'm waffling [apparently to go along with David's coffee] because it's still so early in the season and it's hard to make generalizations based on six races. Yeah, Harvick has the two wins but Busch has been steadier.

David Caraviello: And Mark, durability is kind of a hallmark at Richard Childress Racing. They've sort of made their name on outlasting everyone else by being around at the very end. They have the benefit of what appears to be the best engine program in NASCAR right now. And then there's Harvick, who ever since the end of last year has acted and raced like a guy with nothing to lose. If he ever feels pressure, he doesn't show. He's great at heaping it all on the other guys and making it look like he has nothing to worry about. He's so good at getting into peoples' heads, and his team has been so consistent ... that sort of answers the question.

Joe Menzer: Speaking of durability and Harvick's newfound maturity level [which even he candidly admits sometimes disappears during the heat of a battle], I think it showed mightily in the way the No. 29 team handled the disappointment of Daytona this year. Instead of panicking because they lost an engine in the 500 and finished 42nd, Harvick said he "almost laughed it off" because it was the first time one of their engines had failed in 156 races. He knew not to panic. So did his team. That's the mark of a team that's ready to handle the ups and downs of a long season and truly contend for a championship.

David Caraviello: This isn't to say Kyle isn't going to be around. I think Kyle is capable of winning races in bunches this year, like he did in 2008 when he dominated the regular season. I think the No. 18 program is back to that level. Things break a little differently, and they could be sitting on a three-race winning streak. They haven't won all of them, but they've been in position at the end, which is really all you can ask for.

Mark Aumann: This is a gross oversimplification, but in order to win a championship, it helps to have gone through the experience before, the pressure and all the associated emotions, good and bad. I think the No. 29 team received their trial by fire last season [as did the No. 1]. I don't know if the No. 18 team has, even though Kyle won the Nationwide title.

Joe Menzer: Meanwhile, JGR has had engine issues with all three of its drivers multiple times this season. They keep saying they're getting it straightened out, but you've got to wonder. It could be a red flag to their championship hopes both with Denny and Kyle.

David Caraviello: Mark, that's a good point -- even though Kyle dominated two-thirds of the 2008 campaign, he hasn't faced being the Chase leader late. They were essentially out of it by Dover that year, so he hasn't yet had to experience the down-to-the-wire element of this that Harvick and Denny did last year, and that Johnson knows all so well. No question that could be a disadvantage.

Mark Aumann: And Harvick's apparent calmness at Phoenix and Homestead last season -- whether it was the greatest poker face of all time or whatever -- was very telling. If they can stay in that frame of mind all season, he's going to be a very large factor.

Joe Menzer: Mark is waffling, though. Just answer the question, for the sake of clarity. Who do you like better at this point to win the championship -- Kyle or Kevin? [Let's leave Carl out of it for the moment].

Mark Aumann: Kevin. He's almost clinched a Chase berth already, based on the winner wild card. I'm guessing two wins gets you close, three guarantees a spot.

Joe Menzer: I'm taking Harvick in this equation, and I think Caraviello is, too, if he can quit sniffing the aroma of his bold Kona blend long enough to say so definitively. I'm glad we could get Mark to come over to our way of thinking.

David Caraviello: Of course, Kyle may be the most naturally gifted racer of the bunch, which can make up for a lot. And I'm still standing by my preseason pick of Carl Edwards to win the title this year. And Jimmie, even though he hasn't won, is in there somewhere almost every week. But Harvick has made a statement. Like Mark just pointed out, they're not going to have to stress over sewing up a Chase berth -- they're essentially already in, thanks to the wild card. They have cars and engines that typically run forever. All of that points in one direction, at least right now.

Mark Aumann: Choosing between Kyle and Kevin? It's half and half. No sugar. And the donuts are on me.

David Caraviello: Sorry, I was distracted by the scent of my Italian roast. I sense hints of sandalwood and coriander. Very nice.

3. As the circuit heads to Texas, which driver is the better bet to make the Chase: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (in eighth place) or Hamlin (in 19th)?

Mark Aumann: Junior has run very well to this point and I see no reason to think he won't continue to post top-10 finishes at his best tracks. But that new wild card format really plays into Hamlin's hand. He'll win at least four races before Richmond, and could break into the win column this weekend at Texas. Heck, he's almost a sure winner at Perkono, I mean, Pocono.

Joe Menzer: Junior, no question. I was at the Hendrick shop earlier this week, as a matter of fact, and happened to run into Steve Letarte. It convinced me more than ever that his always-positive outlook, his cheerleading if you will, is exactly what Junior needed this season. After the second-place run at M'ville, I think they really are headed in the right direction. Hamlin, not so much. I think that 11 team still has a hangover from the way last season ended.

David Caraviello: Despite the gains that the No. 88 program has made this season -- and make no doubt about it, they've made serious gains over where they were last year -- you've still got to go with Denny here. Although championship runners-up have often fared poorly the next season, I can't believe he's not going to get back into this thing. Wild card or not, they're just too good to be where they are. Surely this group can manage its way back into the top 12, and Texas -- where Denny won last fall -- would be a good place to start that climb.

Joe Menzer: Are you serious, Mark? Hamlin is going to win "at least four races before Richmond?" Wow. I don't see that happening at all. But he'll probably only have to win two to get in as a wild card, and that very well could happen.

David Caraviello: I'm trying to think -- has Denny been in position to win one race this season?

Mark Aumann: The best thing about the Letarte-Junior relationship is not hearing Junior sound defeated on the radio during the race. So much of this is mental because everything else is relatively equal. It's about having the right attitude inside your head, and I think Junior's slowly regaining whatever confidence he seemed to have lacked in recent years. I'm already giving Hamlin the Pocono sweep. So that's halfway there. The rest of the field might as well not show up.

David Caraviello: I love that Junior is back in the Chase mix. His presence makes the sport more fun to watch and cover, no question. And Letarte was indeed the perfect match, although I'm not sure anyone could foresee it working out this well. But I need to see a little more from that No. 88 group to convince me they're up there for the long haul. I think they have it in them, no question, but let's see how they face adversity before we pencil them into the Chase.

Joe Menzer: I think both of you are totally failing to see that what happened last year with the 11 at the end has had a seemingly negative, eroding effect on that team. Denny seems to have lost some of his swagger and lots of his confidence. And he's already pointing fingers at the JGR engine shop, saying they've got to "work harder." Trust me, them working harder is not the problem -- and him pointing fingers is not the answer. It's a team struggling to find its way right now, and the season comes fast at you from this point on. I think they're in trouble.

Mark Aumann: In fact, let's cancel those Pocono races, declare Denny the winner and I'll just hang out on the golf course all weekend. Well, Joe Gibbs was right there with Denny and the team after their frustrations at Martinsville, and I get the feeling that he'll do what he can to keep Denny focused on the race and not on the negatives. Post-season hangover is a very good point, Joe.

David Caraviello: I understand that this kind of thing isn't uncommon -- just look at Mark Martin, who went from series runner-up in 2009 to no wins and no Chase last year. But that was indicative of organization-wide issues at Hendrick Motorsports. We know Gibbs can win -- we've seen Kyle do it, and we'll see Kyle do it again. I keep going back to the fact that that No. 11 team is just too good to crater. Absolutely nothing against Earnhardt, who has made great strides, but if we're talking either/or -- at this point, I'm going with Denny. In another month, maybe I'll change my mind.

Joe Menzer: Keep in mind here that I'm eating my own words on Junior a little bit. I said before the season that I didn't think he'd make the Chase. But I'm seeing things from both teams early this season that seem to indicate they're headed in opposite directions. That can always change, and quickly sometimes, but after six races it's possibly time to start declaring it a trend.

Mark Aumann: Well, what's encouraging is that not only is Junior getting the finishes, but he's running better during the race. It's not like he's needing multiple free passes to stay on the lead lap. The key will be how that team handles adversity, because everybody has a couple of bad races. If they bounce back like nothing's wrong, then I'll be sold. And remember, you still have major players like Stewart, Gordon, Kahne, Bowyer, Hamlin and Biffle outside of the top 10. I think we'll see more shuffling before it's over.

Joe Menzer: It's still early for Junior this season and if he doesn't win at Texas this Sunday, it'll mark 100 races since he's been to Victory Lane. So I'm admittedly going out on a possibly premature limb here by saying Junior's more likely to have a better finish this season than Denny, but I think the signs are there to support my case.

Mark Aumann: You know, this is all grounds for thought.

David Caraviello: Kind of like my Robusta special blend!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.