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Track Smack: Debating pretenders and contenders

April 28, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Debating pretenders and contenders, magic in the Music City, HOF favorites

1. Richmond marks the one-third post of the Sprint Cup regular season. Have the contenders been separated from the pretenders yet? And who's the most surprising in each category?

David Caraviello: In all honesty, I'm not sure. Besides, what are we talking -- pretenders and contenders for Chase berths? For the championship? For the latter, yes, I think we're starting to get a picture of four or five guys who are kind of separating themselves. For the former, there's still a pool of probably 25 guys or so who think they can win enough races to sneak into the Chase. So in that regard, the picture is just as muddled as it was the night before the Daytona 500.

Chris Stanfield: I said earlier this year that Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't have a fighting chance at a strong season. Man, am I glad as I was wrong. I never thought I'd see him in third, 19 points out of the top spot in the standings after eight races. Crew chief Steve Letarte has played a large role in the five top-10 finishes for the 88, but ultimately, it's the man behind the wheel who has to get it done each week. It's true folks, Dale Jr. is on his way to contention.

Joe Menzer: Interesting that you would say that, Chris. And I wish I could bash you for not believing in Junior earlier, but I was in the same boat. I did not think he would make the Chase this year, but now I am beginning to believe I was wrong. His confidence seems at an all-time high, or at least at an all-time high since he's come to Hendrick. And I think he will do well this weekend at Richmond, even though he actually has struggled there of late since the switch to this new car.

Chris Stanfield: Great equipment: Check Great team: Check Great support: Check ... and now confidence.

Joe Menzer: Are you talking about yourself and the NASCAR.COM staff? Or Junior and the 88 team? Don't you love how the (sort of) new guy comes into Smack and immediately tries to curry favor with the Junior Nation crowd, Caraviello?

David Caraviello: I don't mind Chris regaling the exploits of Dale Jr., right off the bat. But he really didn't need to come to work today in his No. 88 Amp Snuggie. Or is that a Slanket? I get confused.

Cup Standings

Race 8 of 36
RankDriverPts.Behind
2J. Johnson290-5
3Dale Jr.276-19
4K. Harvick268-27
5Ku. Busch267-28
6Ky. Busch257-38
7R. Newman253-42
8M. Kenseth252-43
9J. Montoya246-49
10C. Bowyer245-50

Chris Stanfield: I just bought Nationwide Insurance, too. This ain't my first rodeo, boys. My three fans have loved me since my first appearance. Sadly, my wife and two kids are at school today and won't be following.

David Caraviello: From an individual perspective, I'm not going to lie -- I had very low expectations for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season. I guess I thought he had just been beaten down too much by what had gone on the past few years. He's showing everybody something about his resilience this year. And then there are the guys like Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger, who just keep hanging around. It's like an underdog in a football game -- the longer you let them stay in it, the more they think they can win.

Chris Stanfield: Sometimes, it's not about being on the right bus, but in the right seat. Menard's move to Richard Childress Racing looks like it may pay dividends.

Joe Menzer: It's already paying dividends. Geez, I'm starting to feel like I'm in a confessional (I swear I meant to get there for the real deal in Lent). But I wasn't a believer in Menard before the season, either. The man with the most interesting sideburns in NASCAR has been showing staying power since the maddening month of Menarch.

David Caraviello: No question. The guy is still 11th in points. He's really hanging in there. He may not make the Chase, he may not win a race, but I think regardless Paul Menard has really gone a long way toward convincing everyone he's for real.

Chris Stanfield: When you're in the spotlight (Menard, Dale Jr., etc.) you'll always have your haters and doubters. I like how Menard has carried himself this season. He's letting his performance on the track speak for itself. The man can drive.

David Caraviello: As for the guys on the other end -- it starts and ends with Denny Hamlin. He's climbed up a bit in recent weeks, so I wouldn't count him out, but his start has been so horrid, and he's endured so many mechanical issues, that it's still natural to wonder whether wild cards are his only way into the postseason. He'd need a big push to get there via points, and has a lot of people to climb over.

Winners and losers


While Kyle Busch has won the past two spring Cup races at Richmond, Jeff Gordon has come up short recently.

Chris Stanfield: At this point in 2010, Hamlin had two wins and then went on to put together one heck of a season. Surprised? I am. If confidence can help Dale Jr., it can also destroy Denny Hamlin. Hamlin can't have a lot of it at this point. False confidence, perhaps, but that's a deep hole he's going to have to climb out of. And then on the other side, there's Jimmie. Right near the top, as always, poised for number six!

Joe Menzer: So here comes Richmond, usually the perfect tonic for whatever might be ailing Hamlin. This is a big week for him. He needs to take a stand and if not outright win, at least post a strong top-five finish, I think.

David Caraviello: Jeff Burton, of course, has had everything go wrong. Joey Logano has been terribly unfortunate. Jamie McMurray hasn't been able to recapture the magic from 2010. It's early, and all these guys have plenty of time to get back into it, but even so they're all facing very long odds at this point.

Joe Menzer: Coming into this race, you still have lots of big guns sitting on the wrong side of 10th in the standings. Jeff Gordon is better off than most, simply because he has one win and that'll go a long way toward getting into the Chase as a wild card (I think he'll have to win at least one more, though). But you also have Tony Stewart in that mix, along with Hamlin and Greg Biffle and a few others.

David Caraviello: Yes. There are a lot of big names there on the edge of the Chase bubble who have yet to sort themselves out. The catch: it's very doubtful there's going to be a place for all of them. It becomes a five-month game of musical chairs.

Chris Stanfield: Or a game of win at all costs. Pretty soon, it's going to be wreckers or checkers for those guys.

Joe Menzer: Well, that's where the new wild-card format could really start to make this fascinating. There will be no "points racing" for several of these guys in a few short weeks. By the time we get to, let's say Kentucky in July, it could start getting pretty wild toward the end of most of these shows. And to get in position to be there at the end, some teams are going to take some wild gambles -- both in terms of trying something new leading up to races, and perhaps some strategies during the races. Should be good stuff.

David Caraviello: Leave it to the Ohio guy to pick Kentucky as his random demarcation point. As predictable as Stanfield in his I (heart) Dale Jr. pajamas.

2. Cup regulars Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards swept last week's Camping World Truck/Nationwide doubleheader at Nashville. What was the most notable event of the weekend?

Chris Stanfield: Well, I wasn't surprised to see top performances from Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards in the Music City, and it's not surprising that Cup regulars swept the weekend in both series. I'd have to say the Nationwide standings had to raise a few eyebrows; Justin Allgaier and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied at the top and less than seven points separate the top seven drivers.

David Caraviello: I guess the most surprising thing was that Kyle didn't sweep both races, which I guess is what everyone figured would happen going in. Either way, seemed to me like a heck of a finish in the Truck race, with Busch outrunning Ron Hornaday in the end, and although there was some gnashing of teeth in some corners over the 1-2-3-4 Cup guy finish to the Nationwide race, I'm sure that's just what the fans there wanted to see -- their heroes running up front.

Chris Stanfield: Kyle Busch could race my mountain bike to the front most weekends. I've said this a million times: Jimmie Johnson has the best team in NASCAR and Kyle Busch is the most talented driver.

Music man


Kyle Busch led 140 of 150 laps at Nashville, but needed the final restart to push past Ron Hornaday for the win.

David Caraviello: I don't think there are many who would disagree with you, Chris.

Joe Menzer: You mean the most notable event besides Easter Sunday dinner? I'll go with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishing fifth in the Nationwide race. Isn't that like a win for him, since he was the top finisher amongst the guys competing for that championship? If that doesn't excite you, well, just pass the ham and potatoes, please.

David Caraviello: Ham and potatoes? Is that what they eat in Ohio for Easter?

Chris Stanfield: I had ham and potatoes here in Georgia. I heard that's what Dale Jr. was eating ...

Joe Menzer: Ham, green beans and mashed potatoes, mister. Notice I wasn't asking for seconds on the green beans. And I live in Charlotte now. Ohio just lives on in my heart.

Chris Stanfield: On the high or low side of your clogged artery, Joe?

Joe Menzer: I'm not sure there is a high or low side of my clogged artery, nor am I sure there is only one. But I am sure there can be only one champion in both the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series. Yet at this point the only non-Cupper to get to Victory Lane in either series is Johnny Sauter in the Trucks.

Chris Stanfield: I can't figure out if the new points system really has made things much tighter at the top of the standings across all three series, or if just appears to give off that impression. Of course, I'm terrible at math, so I'll rely on someone smarter than I to figure out points comparisons between this year and last.

David Caraviello: On a side note, Kentucky-style green beans are the best you can get. We had some of those. Anyway, perhaps the real surprise out of last weekend in Nashville was Nelson Piquet Jr. getting a second-place finish in the truck event. Talk about a guy who needed some positive momentum -- he was in real danger of falling on the wrong side of the owner points line, but the result last Friday moved him up 10 positions in that regard. Perfect timing. Nelson is one of those young guys in the Truck ranks that the sport needs to see succeed. There's a whole generation of young drivers down there trying to make some headway.

Carl's crescendo


Carl Edwards returned to Victory Lane at Nashville for the first time since 2007, winning Saturday's Nashville 300 Nationwide race.

Joe Menzer: You know, I don't say this often -- but you bring up a good point DC2. The run Nelson Piquet Jr. put together in the truck race at Nashville might have been the most impressive aspect of the entire race weekend.

Chris Stanfield: Agreed David, lets hope Piquet doesn't go 27-13-32-30 before his next top-five.

David Caraviello: It helps when at least one staff member pays attention, Joe. I know it was a holiday and you were knee-deep into potatoes, but still ....

Joe Menzer: Well, I was talking to Mike Beam on the Live Nationwide chat presented by Nationwide Insurance the other day at the fine NASCAR Hall of Fame, and he made a good point that even though he is Carl Edwards' crew chief and obviously they would like to win as many Nationwide races as they can, he really hopes that the eventual Nationwide champion does win at least three or four races to validate it.

David Caraviello: Joe, what are the odds of that happening? Nationwide regulars won only one race last year, Justin Allgaier at Bristol. They're oh-fer so far this season. I haven't seen much to give me hope they can win one, much less one driver winning multiple events.

Joe Menzer: I'm going to differ with you, Caraviello. (Ah, now that feels much better.) I would think the chances of that happening this year are much greater than last year -- based on fewer Cup drivers participating on a regular basis and more ex-Cup guys such as Elliott Sadler and Aric Almirola likes now focusing full-time on Nationwide. And it's not just Sadler and Almirola that I think have a chance to win multiple races in Nationwide. I'd put Allgaier in that mix, along with possibly Trevor Bayne and perhaps Stenhouse. These guys are going to start winning races at some point. Beam said it's only a matter of time after they gain more experience in the new Nationwide car.

Chris Stanfield: Um, we're a fourth of the way through the Nationwide season. How many Nationwide regulars have won a race?

David Caraviello: Exactly. But back to Mike Beam's point, I think what gets lost in this is that the Nationwide tour needs both sides here. It needs these new guys to give it some longevity, and it needs the Cup regulars to help sell tickets. I know people get frustrated with Kyle or Carl winning all the time. But if you want a place for guys like Stenhouse and Allgaier to race, the economic reality right now is such that Edwards and Busch probably need to be in there. You can't just assume if they're gone, the sponsors will just move to other guys. It doesn't work that way.

Joe Menzer: Beam was very frank about that, too. And remember, he's Carl's crew chief. He pointed out very correctly that some influence from the Cup guys is needed "so we all have jobs" on the Nationwide side. They bring in the money, both in terms of sponsors and selling more tickets and getting more eyeballs on the races.

Chris Stanfield: You're right, David, and the Nationwide Series knows the formula. It gains its own identity with having strong performances from the likes of Bayne, Allgaier, Sadler and others while Busch, Edwards and a few more Cup regulars put the fans in the stands. Nothing wrong with that.

Joe Menzer: You guys really should look up that chat replay on NASCAR.COM It was very interesting and entertaining. I looked good, too.

Chris Stanfield: Again, Joe? What's next, Dancing with the Stars?

Joe Menzer: Dancing with the ham!

David Caraviello: Sponsored by Idaho potatoes!

3. Clay Earles, Bobby Isaac, Cotton Owens, Les Richter and Leonard Wood were nominated last week for NASCAR's Hall of Fame. Who has the best shot of getting in?

Chris Stanfield: Best shot? Or most deserving? And are those two questions interchangeable? I'd think you'd have to ask the 55 or so folks who get to vote. One thing is for sure, there isn't a single person on the list who isn't deserving. Patience is a virtue at this point. But it would be special for the Wood family this year, considering the 500 win to kick off the season.

Joe Menzer: Clay Earles, Cotton Owens and Leonard Wood are all shoo-ins to get in at some point, aren't they? I'm not saying Isaac and Richter won't get in, too. But I guess I'd put the other three ahead of them. And of those three, I think I'm going to go with Leonard Wood by a nose over the other two.

David Caraviello: At first glance, I'd have to say Leonard Wood, given that he was the mechanical whiz behind those early Wood Brothers teams, and is credited with many of the innovations that organization is known for. But I almost wonder if Leonard and Glen Wood need to go in together, as a unit, and be on the same plaque (or spire, or whatever it is the NASCAR Hall of Fame uses). They're so synonymous with one another, and equally as important to that team's development. Leonard was the crew chief and engine builder, to be certain, but Glen founded the organization. I always wondered how the Hall would handle the Woods when they both became nominated, which they are now.

Joe Menzer: You want to talk about an impact on history? Cotton Owens was the guy who first hired Junior Johnson, wasn't he? Plus he drove and was a car owner to the stars: not only Junior Johnson, but David Pearson, Buddy Baker, and the aforementioned Isaac, to name a few. Ralph Earnhardt even drove for Cotton Owens. Not to mention Fireball Roberts, Mario Andretti and Al Unser. What a list of names!

Chris Stanfield: The debate will always grow with the list of nominees: Is it more important what someone does on or off the track that matters the most?

Joe Menzer: Seriously, David, you thought the Wood Brothers were going to go in as a tandem? I think that's kind of ridiculous. To be sure, they go together like ham and potatoes. But they are two distinctly different men, and Leonard has stayed involved longer than Glen, right?

Chris Stanfield: I think David was just thinking out loud, Joe. He didn't really mean they'd go in as a tandem. Sometimes, you have to combat the voices in your head with loud verbal banter. While you argue over the Wood brothers, I'll be celebrating the addition of Cale Yarborough and Fireball Roberts into this year's induction class.

David Caraviello: I don't think anyone on this list is a shoo-in. I don't know if shoo-ins exist with this Hall voting panel, given what they did with Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough last season. There may be a lot of guys in that room who loved Les Richter -- understandably -- and vote him in ahead of everyone else. They're playing favorites, which isn't objective, and probably isn't right, but that's what happens when so many former competitors are in control of the Hall keys.

Joe Menzer: I didn't say any of these guys was a shoo-in anytime soon. Too many others already are lined up to enter those hallowed doors in front of them, including D.W. and Yarborough. And are you saying David is hearing voices in his head, Chris?

Chris Stanfield: I like Darrell Waltrip as well, Joe. Good pick. Eighty-four wins and three championships ain't too shabby.

David Caraviello: Especially since DW should have gotten in last year. Unless the voting panel is completely tone deaf, you have to think Waltrip and Yarborough will get in this year. There's a lot of sentiment for Raymond Parks and Dale Inman. But what eventually happens ... picking lottery numbers might be a safer bet. Should Cotton Owens eventually get in? Absolutely. You talk about a godfather of racing, there's one right there. I love the fact that for years you could still go up to Spartanburg, knock on the door of Cotton's salvage yard, and he'd be behind the counter. A potential NASCAR Hall of Famer, working the counter. But that's Cotton Owens, as unassuming as his hometown. He absolutely should get in, sometime. But again, I don't take anything for granted.

Joe Menzer: Cotton's numbers aren't bad, either, and you have to remember his nickname was "King of the Modifieds" and he made his mark on the sport in other ways. But he also earned nine wins as a driver at what was then the Grand National level (now Sprint Cup) and another 32 wins and 29 poles as a car owner.

Chris Stanfield: I wish I had the stories you have David, I clearly am on the road less traveled. And I say again: There isn't a single person on the list who isn't deserving. Patience is a virtue at this point.

David Caraviello: Most of my stories revolve around eating ham and potatoes with Joe Menzer:. And when we go to Sparta, we are going to find us some Kentucky green beans, my man. The best.

Joe Menzer: If you're talking this year's class, I'm all about D.W., Cale, and Inman for sure. I could get behind the idea of Raymond Parks as well. But I'll have to get back to you on my fifth and final pick. I have ham and potatoes on my mind. Now, where are those leftovers again ...

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.