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Track Smack: Bigger winners, contenders fuel discussion

June 09, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Allgaier, Keselowski fuel discussion as Hamlin, Gordon eye strong finishes

1. Who was the bigger surprise winner this past weekend: Justin Allgaier or Brad Keselowski?

Mark Aumann: I'm going to say Brad Keselowski, just because I think the fuel economy gamble played into his hands in just the right way. I know there were a couple of folks in the media center who saw it coming, but it seemed like the majority were certain it was going to come down to a Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Denny Hamlin showdown.

David Caraviello: It's got to be Allgaier, right? As much as Brad's win was perhaps unexpected given the issues Penske has dealt with this season, Nationwide regulars still had won only once in more than a year, and hadn't won in two races this close together in ... goodness, I don't recall how long. I know Kyle Busch wasn't in the field at Chicagoland, but Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards and Keselowski were. So it has to be Allgaier, just because of the trend he bucked, if nothing else.

Joe Menzer: Hmmm. That's a good question. I'm going to have to go with BK -- because Allgaier has been knocking on the door all year. He now has four top-fives and eight top-10 finishes. So even though he had to do it against some Cuppers who have pretty much dominated Victory Lane visits in Nationwide, I'm still going to say Keselowski was the bigger surprise.

Mark Aumann: I mean, they were both fuel gambles, and Allgaier's was more nerve-wracking because he also ran out, so you had two guys coasting for the checkers. It was like the 1976 Daytona 500 without the crash damage. In the case of Keselowski, you could see it unfolding throughout that last green-flag run. When he stopped on Lap 210 with 57 to go, you knew the team thought it could make it.

Joe Menzer: Caraviello, I've been telling you all year long in these Smack sessions that eventually the Nationwide regulars would start seeing Victory Lane. Now it's starting to happen. So I think Allgaier is a surprise to you only because of your own stubborn refusal to believe what I have been saying all along. Sadler is next to get a win in that series.

Conservation


Brad Keselowski made his fuel last when it counted and he held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his second career victory.

David Caraviello: Now, if you rephrase the question differently -- which driver seemed closer to a victory going into the weekend? Yes, you'd probably have to say Justin, because the guy has indeed been in the mix almost every week. That Turner Motorsports group continues to be the little team that can. Brad's Cup program has improved in recent weeks, no doubt, but I don't think anyone would have considered him a favorite going into Kansas. On the Nationwide side, Allgaier probably would have been. Yet the history of Nationwide regulars winning is so poor ... that's a lot to overcome.

Joe Menzer: Keselowski has only one other top-five/top-10 finish this season in Cup, and that was when he stayed out to gain track position while others pitted at Darlington and he came away with a third. Yes, they have been improving, but this was a huge leap. It will be interesting to see if they can now parlay it into something more -- like a Chase berth.

David Caraviello: I know fuel mileage produces surprise winners sometimes, but I think in the case of Allgaier, you almost can throw that out. The guy is legit. He was the only Nationwide regular to win a race last year, and he's most often right up there at the front. Not sure he would have been able to get by Carl even if Edwards hadn't run out of fuel, but he would at least have had a shot. Keselowski I'm not so sure. He needed several guys to fall victim to mileage to rotate up to the front.

Joe Menzer: Whatever, dude. I would just like to hear you say it: Joe, you ... were ... right.

David Caraviello: Yes, Joe, you're right. That program has been struggling to find its footing, but it was very competitive at Charlotte a few weeks ago. I know I sound like I'm undercutting my own answer here, but the whole track record of Nationwide regulars failing to win in that series cannot be overstated enough. It's a surprise when any Nationwide regular wins these days. Maybe sometime soon it won't be. But it is now,

Joe Menzer: There it is! Ah, I love the sweet sound of someone finally coming around to my way of thinking.

Mark Aumann: Is there anyone else who has had two unexpected Cup wins like Keselowski? He beats Carl Edwards at Talladega when Edwards puts an ill-advised block. And he wins when Kurt Busch gets rooked by the lack of caution flags over a nearly 100-lap stretch. Right place, right time.

Winning on empty


Justin Allgaier's fuel lasted just a bit longer than Carl Edwards' but it was enough for the victory at Chicagoland.

David Caraviello: Mark, I thought the exact same thing in the aftermath. My first reaction was -- great, Brad got his first Cup win! And then I was like ... wait, he already has one. That Talladega victory was under such bizarre circumstances that it slipped my mind. It feels like it happened in an alternate universe or something. Not to Brad, I'm sure.

Mark Aumann: And yeah, the surprise for Allgaier was more in the way he won rather than the fact that he broke through. That team is definitely good enough to win. Now it's Sadler's turn, I think. By the way, I think Bizarro Brad would be an awesome nickname.

David Caraviello: As for Keselowski, I'll say it again -- the dude could be a big star in this sport if he wins with more regularity. Brad is a smart, brash, funny kid who's tremendous in front of a microphone. I know some people think he has something of an attitude issue, but having been around him a little bit, I don't think that's the case. OK, so he can be cocky. So can all race car drivers.

Joe Menzer: The thing is, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. holding off Edwards at Iowa and now Allgaier winning, the dam has been broken and, well, if there isn't a flood of victories behind it for the Nationwide regulars, at least now they all know they can do it and there will be more coming for sure. Again, Elliott Sadler is not far away and I predict he will be next and that he will win at least two races in that series before the season is over.

David Caraviello: Yes, Sadler probably needs to win in order for Joe Menzer:'s claim that "the Nationwide champion will have multiple wins" to come to fruition. They've made huge strides -- a few months ago, two in three weeks would have seemed unthinkable -- but they still have some work to do to get there.

Mark Aumann: We talked about this in Smack a few weeks ago. I think the Cup teams had the advantage of understanding the new chassis in the first half of the season, but now the Nationwide-only teams are beginning to show signs of catching up. Still, you can't discount the fact that Edwards and Kyle Busch are clearly dominant when they're there.

Joe Menzer: Amen, brother. The flood, or at least a trickle, of wins is coming for the Nationwide regulars!

Mark Aumann: Dick Trickle had two Nationwide wins.

David Caraviello: Beat me to it!

2. Kansas was big for a few drivers trying to make the Chase. But are Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon true championship contenders at this point?

Mark Aumann: Well, we'll know where Hamlin stands Sunday afternoon. He's as good at Pocono as anybody, and I'm certain the team has had its focus on this race all season. This is where he needs to assert himself.

Joe Menzer: Hmmmm. Another good question. It seems like I'm saying that a lot today, but it is. Gordon said it best prior to the Kansas race when he was talking about needing another win to make sure he qualifies for the Chase as a wild card, if not on points. He said he needs another win not just to qualify, but to prove to himself and his team -- and others -- that he is a championship contender.

Gordon Statistics

(through Kansas)
RaceSt.Fin.Pts.Standing Pos.
Phoenix201485
Las Vegas1336919
Bristol7143019
Fontana29182616
Martinsville2154012
Texas32232214
Talladega134213
Richmond639616
Darlington5123217
Dover21172714
Charlotte11202516
Kansas2244013

David Caraviello: I'll tell you what -- I wouldn't want any part of that No. 11 outfit right now. Those guys are storming back from the edge of the abyss, and they're brimming with confidence, and they surely feel like they can get back to where they were at the end of last year. I don't think they're there yet, but they're starting to look a little scary. Not too long ago, we were seeing the 11 group as a bust. Right now, you'd have to think they're on their way to a Chase berth at least. A tremendous turnaround.

Joe Menzer: In other words, there is a difference between just getting in the Chase and actually being a legit championship contender. Gordon knows he has work left to do, but finishing fourth at Kansas was a step in the right direction. Same for Hamlin, whose team finally seems to be building some positive momentum -- and is heading into a track he really does well at in Pocono.

David Caraviello: Since Talladega, Denny has ripped off four top-10s in five starts to get back to 11th in points. He now heads to Pocono, his best track, and a place where he's won four times. You have to think the odds are pretty good that he'll be back in the top 10 by close of business Sunday afternoon.

Joe Menzer: OK, so to answer the question, they're both beginning to show signs that they may be true championship contenders. But neither is there yet and this Sunday will go a long way yet again -- as last Sunday did -- to determine if they are.

Mark Aumann: That's the thing about trying to gauge trends. Hamlin's great at Martinsville and Richmond, but really only mediocre on the rest of the tracks in the first half. But now we're talking about Pocono and Michigan, where the No. 11 runs at the front. In a way, it's like a horse race, where the early speed is gone and now we're seeing the stretch runners taking charge. Hamlin's one of those guys who gets better as the season goes along.

David Caraviello: Now, as for Gordon -- one of the big mysteries of this season is why that Gordon/Alan Gustafson combination hasn't produced the results everyone expected. When the Hendrick driver/crew chief shuffle was announced late last year, I think everyone pointed to that tandem as perhaps the most potent of the group. It still might be, and it has produced one win this season, which may be enough to get them into the Chase. Kansas was a positive step, but only their first top-10 since Talladega. Clearly there's some work left to do there.

Joe Menzer: Here's the key deal to remember: Gordon already has one win in the bank. One more and he's a virtual lock to get into the Chase at least as a wild card, and then he can do what some other teams such as Harvick's and presumably Kenseth's and Kyle Busch's have already done. Start trying some things at some Chase tracks in the regular season that they can apply later. Right now, with no wins, Hamlin isn't even able to think about that yet.

Hamlin Statistics

(through Kansas)
RaceSt.Fin.Pts.Standing Pos.
Phoenix12113414
Las Vegas177378
Bristol25331117
Fontana239621
Martinsville5123319
Texas23152920
Talladega29232117
Richmond1124317
Darlington363816
Dover26162813
Charlotte4103512
Kansas1534211

Mark Aumann: And as far as Gordon, he's shown the ability to run consistently up front. I'm just not certain that team has the victory thing figured out. Something seems to happen every week that takes him out of contention, whether it's a bad adjustment or just bad luck.

David Caraviello: Mark, I will give you that Jeff seems to run better every week than his finishes indicate. But that's been an issue with the 24 group even going back to last year with crew chief Steve Letarte. They just don't seem to close as well as they should.

Mark Aumann: I know a lot of folks have been chatting up the "gotta have two wins to guarantee the Chase" logic, but the more it's going, that one win -- and being 11th or 12th in the points -- may be good enough, especially since Regan Smith doesn't appear like he's going to be strong enough to get into the top 20. Since the tiebreaker is position in the standings, as long as Gordon stays in front of the other one-win guys, he's fine.

David Caraviello: Heck, one win would have gotten a driver in last year. The longer we go with the bulk of the race victories being concentrated among the top few guys, the more it looks that could be the case again.

Joe Menzer: I agree with you on that, guys. But if you get that second win, then you can use whatever time you have left to start building toward the Chase -- which could pay huge dividends later. Until then, you can't necessarily count on one win getting it done. What's kind of funny about this question is that only a week or so ago, we were being asked if it was down to the three-man race between Edwards, Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. Now we're at least willing to admit two others might get in the mix, plus I said then that Kenseth and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't be totally counted out yet. This is good stuff at this point in the season.

Mark Aumann: Where the pressure's going to build is on the guys around 11th to 15th without a win. You know Hamlin would love to solidify his chances on Sunday. And Greg Biffle's looking at Michigan and Juan Montoya at Sonoma.

Joe Menzer: And as an aside, isn't it interesting that the aforementioned Brad Keselowski must now be part of the Chase wild-card conversation. He now has that one win, and sits just outside the top 20 in points in 21st. That adds another element to the Chase scenario we haven't had before, and I think it's fantastic. I just love this wild-card addition. That would be absolutely huge for that team, just making the Chase.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, Keselowski has 13 more races to gain a couple of spots, certainly more than enough time for a time that should be at least one of the top 20 in the series right now.

David Caraviello: Mark, you almost think we're going to have to get through the next four races before we have a truer idea of where everyone stands. Michigan could be fuel mileage bingo. Then it's a road course and a restrictor-plate track, where anything can happen. Lot of strange factors in there before we turn attention back to the intermediate tracks we see so often in the Chase. As much as we talk about a horse race right now, Kentucky might be where it really starts. How appropriate. Maybe a bugler should sound the "call to the post" at Sparta.

Mark Aumann: And we have no idea what Kentucky might be like.

Joe Menzer: Well, Joey Logano does. That's for sure. He could easily win there and get himself in the Chase wild-card conversation.

Mark Aumann: Right. He's been unbeatable in the Nationwide ranks.

David Caraviello: And down the stretch they come!

3. It's on to Pocono for the first race of the year at the Tricky Triangle. After two consecutive runner-up finishes, is this where Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally breaks through?

Joe Menzer: I'm going to say no. This is Denny Hamlin's place, and Denny Hamlin's race. And if I had to pick a second favorite, I think I would go with Jimmie Johnson, who is always solid there.

David Caraviello: I don't know about that. Looking at the statistics, Earnhardt has endured a rough few years on the banks of Long Pond. Of course, his recent track record at Charlotte hadn't been very good, either, and look what almost happened there. They way he's been running the past few weeks, I don't know if I'd exactly count him out anywhere.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, Pocono is usually a fuel mileage track -- and Junior's been solid in the past two fuel mileage races -- but the No. 88 team has been out to lunch there in recent tries. His best finish in the past five Pocono races is 12th. Weird thing is, he was really good there earlier in his career. He has five top-fives, including a stretch in 2003 and 2004 where he finished fourth, third and sixth.

Nothing tricky about this


Denny Hamlin tops the list of favorites at Pocono Raceway, but don't count out Jimmie Johnson who failed to crack the top 10 only three times since he swept Victory Lane in '04 at the track.

Joe Menzer: And before anyone starts in on me, I realize Jimmie hasn't won at Pocono since sweeping both races there way back in 2004. But he's usually a solid top-five contender and I just think that No. 48 team is too good not to visit Victory Lane again soon. This could be their week. Of course, Greg Biffle won the fall Pocono race last year -- and he's been running well lately, too. It would be foolish to count him out.

Mark Aumann: I just think there are teams that are much better at Pocono than Junior right now. I'd say a top-10 finish would be huge. Here's another name to throw out there: Kurt Busch. He's steaming mad about giving away Kansas, and he's usually very good at Pocono. And a tip of the cap to the Mattiolis for adding much needed protection on the backstretch where Elliott Sadler nearly went through the windshield when he hit that earthen berm head-on last year.

David Caraviello: I know Junior is close, and his fans are eager, and they all are waiting for that agonizing winless skid -- what's it at now, 106? -- to finally end. But I think people are getting a little too caught up in that. Yes, I know, he has to win eventually. But so much focus on the skid gives the impression the guy is somehow failing, when the exact opposite is true. Earnhardt is third in points. Third! Given where he's been the past few years, that almost seems unthinkable. This 88 group is capable of a lot, winless streak or not.

Joe Menzer: I think we're in agreement on this one. A win by Junior this weekend would be a surprise on par with, well, Brad Keselowski winning last week. Not a shock, but certainly unexpected. Looking ahead, I'd say Junior's got a couple good shots to win again and soon -- like at Michigan or at Daytona. But not this weekend at Pocono. That doesn't mean we're pegging Junior as a failure. They've done great this season, without question. There are just a boatload of others who are better at this track than he typically is.

David Caraviello: I don't agree with you there, Joe. Brad didn't run second in the two weeks leading up to his victory. He's wasn't third in Sprint Cup points. Junior's victory will be a relief to the people who have been waiting for it, no question. But would it be a surprise? No way. Not after all they've shown in recent weeks. I don't care what track it is, what his record is there. Right now, it would not be a surprise to see Junior win. OK, Infineon, maybe. But at an oval? No way.

Mark Aumann: Michigan, you bet. Daytona, too. It feels like he's really close now. All those YouTube videos of his fans literally seeing their hearts ripped out when he ran out of gas at Charlotte? Yeah, they're funny but at the same time, I feel their pain. It'd be great for him to win convincingly so we can stop talking about it. Then we can get back to the real reason why we're at the track: covering fights in the garage. We've seen more punches thrown this year than on HBO's Saturday Night Fights.

Joe Menzer: OK, so maybe saying it would be on par with BK's win on the surprise meter might be a bit of a stretch. But really, not by much. Junior has never won at the place, and has finished 19th or worse in his last four races there. Sure, he has a couple of seconds -- but that was a long time ago. A win this weekend to end the long winless skein would be a surprise for sure.

Mark Aumann: Well, we've had Trevor Bayne at Daytona, Regan Smith at Darlington and Keselowski at Kansas. It's been a pretty crazy season already.

David Caraviello: That's true. And two Nationwide regulars winning in three weeks. It is the season of Anything Can Happen. So who knows what Pocono may hold. But yeah, Mark, all these races are getting in the way of competitors taking swings at one another. I mean, that seems to be what the fans really want, right? Unfortunately.

Joe Menzer: If Caraviello doesn't start agreeing with me more -- and soon -- I might be looking for him in the garage area. Bring your boxing gloves!

David Caraviello: Mark, hold my watch ....

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.