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Track Smack: Bayne, Dale Jr. and a drop in points on tap

April 14, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Two seek to recapture magic while others attempt to recover from drop in points

1. Trevor Bayne has recovered from an insect bite that put him in the hospital. Now, can the Daytona 500 champ recapture the magic this week at another restrictor-plate track, Talladega Superspeedway?

David Caraviello: Maybe the spider, tick, or whatever it was that bit Bayne had been genetically altered somehow, and Trevor will wake up on the morning of the Talladega race and discover he has super powers, like Peter Parker in Spider-Man. OK, maybe not. Either way, this is clearly Bayne's best chance to look like a superhero again. Everybody expects the drafting to be similar to what it was in Daytona, the Woods know they're strong on those types of tracks, and obviously Bayne can get it done.

Dave Rodman: Phoenix, Vegas, et al. obviously was a return to the real world -- and so was Texas, so it was nice to see Trevor back up his stunning Cup debut. Having said that, Talladega definitely has the possibility of being a restrictor-plate double for the kid. Of course, he has the possibility of being wiped out in an accident at any time, too. But given his sterling Daytona efforts, I'd say his possibilities are more favorable.

Joe Menzer: OK, I'm going to warn you both right now. After the day I've had --- no, the week I've had --- I'm going to be dropping some names on you today. So anyway, I had lunch today with someone from the Trevor Bayne marketing arm, and all is well. Plus you have to base this on his ability to slice and dice in the Daytona 500, and we all know how that ended up. I say he finishes top-10 --- if he can avoid the Big One. A big if for anybody in this race. For him to win again might be asking too much, although some folks will assume he can pull it off. I would be stunned -- as stunned as I was that he won the Daytona 500 in the first place.

David Caraviello: That's going to be key, Joe. Regardless of how good Trevor is on these types of tracks, regardless of how good his car may be, there's an element of chance that looms at Talladega much larger than it does in Daytona. I don't necessarily believe in luck -- most times, you make your own -- but if there's any place where 10 cars can get wadded up through no fault of their own, it's here. Trevor has to run that gantlet to have any real chance to win. Of course, being up front would certainly help.

Talladega


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Joe Menzer: He should find some people to work with him at 'Dega. At least they'll all know who he is this time.

David Caraviello: All that said, can you really label Trevor the favorite this week? I know the kid won Daytona and he has all kinds of potential on big plate tracks, but I'm not sure I'd bet the house on him. Give me Kevin Harvick, who has a great record at Talladega, who has won two races, and drives for a team that knows how to get it done on plate tracks. Heck, if any team is capable of sweeping the top three here, it could be RCR. Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard know their way around the place, too.

Joe Menzer: Oh, no, no, no. He's not the favorite. Who said he was the favorite? Rodman?

Dave Rodman: I'm actually waiting to see what we see at Talladega. I won't say it's a given that it'll be identical to Daytona until we see practice on Friday. That's if we see practice Friday, because we all know how much the weather forecast has been fluctuating. Tuesday morning was a 70 percent chance of rain -- but in short order it dropped to 40 percent. Whew!

David Caraviello: Wow, Joe's name-dropping is off to a rousing start. One marketing guy? After that buildup, that's the best you can do? I expected more like, 'Well, I dropped by the Beacon in Spartanburg today to have lunch with David Pearson, and the Silver Fox told me, 'On Lap 10, here's what Trevor is going to do in my old car ...'

Joe Menzer: It was a marketing gal. And did I mention that driving down Interstate-77 to the lunch from my earlier live video chat with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at JR Motorsports was like negotiating a Talladega bottleneck? Only I was driving an underpowered minivan. I think it was running down one cylinder.

David Caraviello: Come on, man. Hook up with another Soccer Mom Mobile and draft straight to the front!

Dave Rodman: By the way, I never said Bayne was the favorite this week. If you wanted to press me on someone, I'd throw out David Ragan. I don't want to throw any more gasoline on the kid after he's well-and-truly recovered from that awful decision at Daytona. But Ragan could have won the Daytona 500 -- and that day I said it might be a head-to-head throw-down between him and Bayne to see who's at Roush Fenway next season. Since Daytona, I'd say David has roundly kicked TB's butt in the head-to-head. Could've and should've, as we know, is worthless. But David Ragan's mistake made Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 victory 80 percent easier.

Joe Menzer: David Ragan? That's your pick over Trevor Bayne after you've had a chance to think about it? I think you're soaking up too much of that Florida sun. I'll take -- drum roll, please -- the gentleman I just had a live video chat with. But I believe we may be discussing those possibilities in greater detail later, so I will hold onto that thought for the moment.

Dave Rodman: And don't forget this -- Bayne's winning ride from the Daytona 500 is sitting comatose in something of a burial vault adjacent to the track. Hope crew chief Donnie Wingo and the boys were able to replicate it - exactly.

David Caraviello: Regardless, Talladega comes at a good time for Bayne. Texas marked his best finish since Daytona -- and that was 17th. I know people weren't expecting the kid to contend every week, but I also don't know if an average finish of 25.3 is what they had in mind, either. At least one snarky sports web site has poked fun at him for his post-Daytona struggles. But Texas was something to build on, and Talladega brings the promise of another strong run, and who knows -- maybe this time next week, we'll be awash in our second wave of Trevormania.

Joe Menzer: Wow, if that happens I will have to hook up with his marketing arm for another lunch -- and maybe this time on them!

Dave Rodman: I don't think I believe in such things, but think of this: What was Trevor's last Cup race when he won the Daytona 500? Karma? You tell me...

David Caraviello: Texas. Very good point, there, Dave. The parallelism is hard to escape. And by the way, where does Bayne live, anyway, that he's getting bitten by dangerous insects? Did he move to Central America? Was he bushwhacking through the Congo? Was he trimming the shrubs in his front yard in the darkest heart of North Carolina?

Joe Menzer: All good questions I should have asked at lunch. I definitely will have to arrange another. And no, you cannot come, Roadman. I knew you were about to ask.

2. It's been 100 race weekends since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won. He's second among active drivers with five wins at Talladega. Is this the week the streak ends?

Dave Rodman: My gut said go to crew chief Steve Letarte and Jeff Gordon's record at 'Dega. ... But that's silly. Junior isn't Jeff. And those guys have worked great together. I'd say it's 75-25 percent that it comes to an end -- with the same 'all bets off with an accident' qualifiers we put on Trevor.

David Caraviello: Not to be a name-dropper, but I had a talk with Dale Jr. last weekend at Texas. We hung out behind his hauler and talked about Talladega. Of course, there were about 20 other people there, too. But even so, he said some interesting things, like about how he hasn't been very good there lately, and how he needs to do a better job taking care of his car so he can be there at the end to try and contend for the win. Just the things you talk about in an intimate chat.

By the Numbers


The past six winners at Talladega all won for the first time at the track.

Joe Menzer: Now we're talking! Did I tell you I did a live video chat with him that posted earlier on the NASCAR.COM Nationwide page? I couldn't remember if I mentioned it or not. Anyway, he is as relaxed and as calm and as confident as I can remember seeing him, well, maybe in the five years I have been covering this sport full-time. I think this very well might be his week to win and end the winless streak.

David Caraviello: Joe Menzer has a way of putting all the world's elite athletes at ease. Must be the aura of the Man Cave. These dudes just relate to him somehow.

Dave Rodman: I've seen some fencing get ripped-down at Talladega, unfortunately. What do you guys think? If Junior were to win, would the racing equivalent of tearing down the goal posts occur?

Joe Menzer: I know that's been said many times before, and there are just so many variables no one can control at Talladega -- even if you're Dale Jr. But he definitely has plans to go to the front and try to stay there. Says he is not interested in riding around in the back much. And when I said "that's been said many times," just to clarify, I meant that it has been predicted many times over the past 100 races that Junior is going to win -- not that "these dudes just relate" to me somehow. Although that may be true, too.

Dave Rodman: Now that I think about it, what would the racing equivalent of tearing down the goal posts be? You'd have to start with tearing down the fence, and that might be tough ... Actually, if Junior were to win, do you think Junior might go through the start/finish gate and into the crowd?

Joe Menzer: I would not advise that, no.

Dave Rodman: I was thinking he might never come back, true...

David Caraviello: Dale Jr.'s recent record at Talladega is surprising -- and not in a good way. Only two top-10 finishes in his past seven starts there. Coming off a 39th-place finish last fall. He hasn't been the world-beater he once was there, and he knows it. Got to remember, when Dale won all those races at 'Dega in the 8 car, he was with a DEI team that was unsurpassed in terms of its prowess on plate tracks. Things are different now. As good as Hendrick can be, DEI was dominant at Daytona and Talladega back then. So maybe the comparisons -- and the expectations they fuel -- are a little unfair.

Joe Menzer: I will tell you a couple of others I like this week that are picks off the usual beaten path -- Regan Smith and Juan Montoya. Smith's team has a very good restrictor-plate program and he was strong throughout Speedweeks at Daytona, and Montoya has usually run well at 'Dega, if my memory serves correct. I can neither confirm nor deny that I have had any recent lunches or 1-on-1 interviews with either driver or representatives from their camps, however.

David Caraviello: Now -- can Junior win there? Of course. The dude is on a short list, along with his father, of the greatest plate-track racers of all time. He has that knack for being able to get to the front at the end, if his car isn't used up or damaged from earlier in the race. For Junior to end the streak at Talladega, where his father won his last race, while the skid stands at an even 100 -- it would be one of those only-in-NASCAR moments, like Richard Petty winning before the president. It would be crazy.

Joe Menzer: It is not the only reason lots of folks will be watching, but it very well may be the most compelling reason why lots of folks will be tuning in or attending.

Dave Rodman: Joe, I can't believe you're scurrying off-topic -- though having shaken my finger at you, you make two great points. But David, that's an interesting observation, for sure. I think that former DEI prowess certainly brings the field closer. But Junior's sheer ability at that place can't be denied, and with Letarte steering the ship this week, I think there could be a lot of rejoicing world-wide Sunday evening.

David Caraviello: My goodness, grown men might very well weep in the grandstands. And then go out to the campgrounds and burn pieces of furniture to celebrate.

Dave Rodman: They might be tossing anything they can find over the fence -- assuming they don't tear it down.

David Caraviello: I'm going to tell you -- I like Regan Smith as a dark horse, too. The guy has the best qualifying average on the circuit, and we know those No. 78 cars have speed in them. He was right in the mix at Daytona. If he can keep the car from getting damaged -- a chore, as we've seen with all the mishaps he's been caught in this year -- I absolutely think Smith has a chance. That little nugget came out of a brunch I had with some marketing folks. Very illuminating.

Joe Menzer: Plus don't forget that he's been right there at the end at 'Dega before, too. He just didn't get official credit for it.

Dave Rodman: I like the comment on Twitter earlier this week, addressed to @Regan_Smith_: "So, how does it feel to be going back to a track where you've won before?" Priceless.

Joe Menzer: Hold on. I feel a lunch with the venerable David Ferroni coming on in my very near future.

David Caraviello: If Regan wins at Talladega on Sunday, something tells me David -- who is Regan's splendid PR man -- may be picking up several checks that night. And if Junior wins, we may all be hiding under desks as the fans tear the place apart in jubilation.

3. Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin all lost ground in the standings last weekend at Texas. Which of those drivers is in the most trouble as far as making the Chase?

Dave Rodman: I think we can place them on two equivalent plates: I think Gordon and Hamlin are virtually in, while I think Mark and Kasey, if they are truly in trouble, are equally in trouble.

Joe Menzer: Well, right off the bat, you have to say that Gordon is the least in trouble because he already has one win in his pocket. Remember the wild-card factor. I think one more win gets him in regardless of where he finishes in points, and he appears to have that in him.

Dave Rodman: Joe, that was exactly what was forefront in my mind when I made the statement. And Hamlin, despite what he's looked like so far, will have multiple wins before we get to mid-summer. So there you have it.

Cup Standings

Race 7 of 36
Pos.+/-DriverPts.Behind
2.-1Ky. Busch247-9
3.+6M. Kenseth243-13
4.-1J. Johnson243-13
5.-1K. Busch240-16
6.+2Dale Jr.235-21
7.-1R. Newman233-23
8.-1J. Montoya232-24
9.-4K. Harvick228-28
10.+1T. Stewart213-43
14.-2J. Gordon192-64
15.-5M. Martin189-67
16.-1K. Kahne186-70
20.-1D. Hamlin174-82

David Caraviello: OK, I know last week I wrote that I thought Hamlin, despite his rotten start, still had a better chance of making the Chase than Earnhardt. Well, now I'm waffling. We're through two of Denny's best tracks -- Martinsville and Texas -- and the guy is still heading the wrong direction in points. All the engine troubles have him perhaps overly sensitive (and understandably so) to anything amiss under the hood. There's a long way to go until September, of course, but unless the guy starts scoring some wins, my optimism is rapidly fading.

Joe Menzer: I think you have to say Hamlin here. He didn't win at Martinsville, or even finish top-5, and that was supposed to be a statement race for him where he righted the ship. And now he still has zero victories in the wild-card bank, plus he's 39 points out of 10th in a new point system where we're not quite sure how difficult a deficit that is to make up. But it seems like a whole lot.

David Caraviello: I'll accede to your points on Gordon, but let's not assume that one win is going to be enough to get you a wild card berth. I think that's an awfully thin limb to climb out on. I think they're a better team than they've shown lately, and I think they'll recover from this little dip, but I can't imagine Gordon is feeling safe just because he has that one victory at Phoenix.

Dave Rodman: The ace up Mark's sleeve is, if he and Lance McGrew and the boys ever hit their stride, they could win a couple races in quick succession. But they have to prove they can get there -- and I think they will. Think about it .... That creates the fascinating scenario of having a multiple race winner potentially eliminated from the Chase.

Joe Menzer: Furthermore, and we touched on this in last week's Track Smack -- or at least I did -- but that 11 team is showing signs of having a severe chemistry hangover from the way last season ended so badly for them. Denny has been pointing some fingers at crew members and the Joe Gibbs Racing engine shop, and that's not good. I sense his head's not quite right. And Talladega is a crapshoot where a lack of team chemistry and a head that's not quite right better not bite you, because there already are too many other variables that you can't control that might. Those are variables you can control, and better have under control for this sure-to-be-wild weekend.

David Caraviello: We're no longer in the early part of the season -- Talladega is roughly a quarter of the way to the Chase -- so we're beyond the point where teams can use that as an excuse. At this point, what you have is what you have, and it's a matter of making things better rather than waiting on them to come around. You're seeing that already in some instances, where some of the big guns -- Tony Stewart, Bowyer, Greg Biffle, even Jeff Burton, way down there in points - are showing some signs of life. If you're heading downward in points right now, you're trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time of year.

Joe Menzer: By the way, Caraviello, I never said one win would be enough to get Gordon a wild-card spot. But I said he's halfway there to earning one, no matter what happens in points, because I think two wins will get a driver qualified. And besides, of the four guys asked about in this question, Gordon is 14th in points. Martin is 15th, Kahne 16th and Hamlin 20th.

David Caraviello: I believe Gordon will be in the top 10 before the year is out. I think Mark Martin has a real chance at it, given that he had been running fairly well until he got wrecked out at Texas. The verdict is still out on Kahne, who's shown flashes, but not enough to make me think that his Red Bull car can mount a real run for the title. And then there's Denny, rapidly entering win-or-else territory, and without really having contended for a victory to this point this year. I gleaned those insights having after-dinner drinks the other night with a sales team from a Camping World Truck outfit that will go unnamed. Not to name drop or anything.

Dave Rodman: Kasey and that entire Red Bull bunch have just been kinda erratic. They have only led one lap this season and neither start nor finish consistently well. So having said that, they're not too far out to have suffered so much. They could right the ship -- and they'll have to, because I think each of the two wild cards will have won twice, at least.

Joe Menzer: Listen, I don't want to throw the 11 team completely under the proverbial bus. But if they're getting into the Chase this year, I don't see them doing it by climbing into the top 10 on points. I see them possibly getting it figured out the last half of the regular season and winning a couple races to perhaps get in as one of the two wild cards. Even then, though, they've got plenty of work to do. So is anyone else besides me going to definitively answer the question that was asked? I say Hamlin is in the most trouble, hands down. It's really the only logical answer.

Dave Rodman: Joe, read back. I answered it definitively in the first comment: Martin and Kahne. I clarified it a little bit more, but if you want me to spell it out even more clearly, K-a-h-n-e. Happy?

David Caraviello: Joe, I don't think anyone is throwing the 11 team under the bus. No one knows what they're up against more than they do. Not to name drop, but I had a little talk with Denny last weekend at Texas -- OK, it was at a media event with about 10 other people, but who's counting -- and he was very upfront in saying his anxiety level is rising over how he's performed. Nobody's wishing this on them, just pointing out their situation, which grows a little more severe by the week. Now, of course, one win, and that anxiety eases considerably. And the 11 team is very, very capable of that, which is why you can't count them out completely.

Joe Menzer: Your excessive name dropping is getting annoying, Caraviello. That's supposed to be my game. And speaking of game, did I tell you guys I was at the Hendrick shop last week and ran into Steve Letarte? We started talking pickup hoops and it turns out Dale Jr. is supposedly one heck of a shooting guard. Gets a lot of calls, too, if you can believe that. Maybe we can discuss this further on the next Track Smack, if I can squeeze it in between shop visits, live video chats and lunches with knowledgeable NASCAR sources.

Dave Rodman: I think if this were a couple years ago, we might have to fret a little more over the 11's trials and tribulations and performance. But not after what they've been through -- unless Denny himself turns out to be the weak link, and I just don't see the 2011 Denny being that guy. I said it at the beginning of the year (I think) and I said it in this edition: Hamlin will have won twice by Daytona in July.

Joe Menzer: Now you're finally making some statements. They might be outrageous and wrong, but at least you're taking a stand, man!

Dave Rodman: I need to find better sources. Lend me your phone, man ...

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.

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