News & Media

Track Smack: Road races and familiar faces

June 23, 2011, ,

Topics: Looking ahead to Infineon and Road America; crowded Chase battle

1. Time to head for Sonoma and the first road-course event of the year. What chance do aces like Marcos Ambrose and Juan Montoya have of sweeping Infineon and Watkins Glen to sneak into the Chase?

David Caraviello: Winning one road-course race is tough -- sweeping both in the same season is even more difficult, although Kyle Busch did it a few years back. Anyway, no one doubts that someone like Montoya or Ambrose can win a road-course event, which looms large given the Chase wild-card situation. But sweep both? In the same year? That would be a feat, no matter how good you are. Long odds regardless of who's behind the wheel.

Dave Rodman: There are always intriguing back stories, and this is certainly one of them. Of course, one of them has to win at Sonoma first, and that's certainly not a given. But considering what happened to Marcos Ambrose in the final laps last year, if there can be a sentimental favorite this weekend, he's certainly it.

Jill Erwin: What chance? Slim to none. It's not like one of them sweeps both road-course races every year. Heck, expecting Marcos Ambrose to sweep both when he's still looking for his first Cup victory is asking an awful lot, if you ask me. Which I guess you did.

David Caraviello: Clearly, Marcos is still waiting on his breakthrough at the Cup level, a situation that made last year's stopping-the-car-to-save-gas situation that much more painful to watch. But let's not forget, as up and down as they've been this year, JPM and that No. 42 team have won at both Infineon and Watkins Glen. So I guess if anyone had the best chance of sweeping the road courses to get into the Chase, it's him. But those odds are still extremely long.

Jill Erwin: Oh, there's no doubt that Ambrose is a sentimental favorite. He's a really well-liked guy, and his spirit can be contagious. And I definitely think he can win one of them. But asking if he can sweep both to get into the Chase is a whole 'nother deal. I do think he and Montoya will be in the chase -- if not the Chase -- for victory at both tracks. I just don't think one of them has a shot at both wins.

David Caraviello: I know the former road racers get a lot of attention in weeks like these, but last year's race at Sonoma is a perfect of example of how difficult it is to win even on circuits where some guys have what's seen as an advantage. The rank-and-file Cup racers are much better on road courses than they used to be, making it that much harder for guys like JPM and Marcos to win. The advantage the former road racers once had over the rest of the field has been mitigated severely.

Jill Erwin: Dark horse not for the win but for a real solid finish: A.J. Allmendinger. He's been top-15 in the past two races at Sonoma and I just have a gut feeling about it. I'm sure I'll be held to that Monday morning.

David Caraviello: Monday morning I'll be 38,000 feet over Nevada. I won't be holding anyone to anything.

Dave Rodman: Sure, it's a tall order to win one of these things. And what's at stake could either provide the incentive to knock someone out of the way to do it, or the pressure that could create a scenario like we might have had last year -- bottom line, possibly a choke. But that's why we call it racing.

Jill Erwin: Dave, I'm not even sure I know what that last comment of yours means. But hey, I'll just have some fine wine to toast this weekend's race and forget about it.

Road-course sweeps

Infineon and Watkins Glen
1999Jeff Gordon
2003Robby Gordon
2005Tony Stewart
2008Kyle Busch

David Caraviello: Again, none of this is saying JPM or Marcos, or A.J., or any of the other guys with road-course backgrounds can't win Sunday. Almost certainly, they'll all be up there. But it's amazing to look at where the road-course winners have come from in recent years -- guys like Kyle, his buddy Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson. Not a road-course racer in the bunch, but all of them learned the craft and adapted well and wound up in Victory Lane. It's all just more proof of how good the regulars have become at this deal, and how they don't give up anything, not even on the road courses anymore.

Dave Rodman: Hey, give Shrub his due. What I see us saying makes Kyle Busch's road-course sweep even more impressive.

Jill Erwin: David, I completely agree with the improvement of the Cup regulars. I think it's a source of pride for many of them that not only are they not a liability, but actually a real competitor in these shows. I'm not going to lie, I love watching road races. So it's good to see the same guys so I don't have to keep thinking, "Who's in that car this week?"

Dave Rodman: Before Michigan, Juan had been on a considerably better roll than Marcos. But given Marcos' recent road-course record, in both Sprint Cup and Nationwide, and given the fact that either one of them would knock their mothers out of the way to win ... I'd say a sweep is possible. But it's for sure a looooong shot.

David Caraviello: The fun thing about road courses is, there are plenty of dark horses, Nobody would be shocked if Allmendinger were in the mix late on Sunday afternoon. Boris Said might have his best car there in some time, in a Hendrick-built machine fielded by James Finch. There are always those guys who have just enough road-racing background that you go, well ... maybe. And to be honest, it would be wild to see one of those guys win. But odds are it won't happen.

Jill Erwin: For my own guilty pleasures, I hope some combination of A.J., Marcos and Juan take the front row in qualifying. The 'Dinger/Montoya presser at Richmond last fall was one of the best times I've had in a media center. Those guys are all great, especially if Juan's in a good mood.

David Caraviello: And one more thing -- let's not forget last year's Sonoma race was a short-track event on a road course. Guys were rooting each other out of the way left and right. It was great fun to watch, even if it resulted in a lot of wrecked equipment and ticked drivers. So that may definitely play into it again. We may have some carnage that some of these road-course types can't escape, paving the way for a very usual suspect to win once again.

Jill Erwin: And probation's over. Hint hint.

David Caraviello: Oh, you did not go there ...

2. It's getting crowded around that all-important 10th spot in the Sprint Cup standings, with Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart all separated by two points. If there's going to be an odd man out of that group, who might it be?

Jill Erwin: I'm going Rodmanesque and taking two: either Newman or Bowyer. The RCR cars have been so hit (Kevin Harvick) or miss (Jeff Burton) that I just can't quite figure out where Bowyer will be in 11 weeks. Nothing against him, but I just don't know. I'm still figuring on Tony's annual hot streak, and Hamlin might have broken through last week to the point where he might not dominate, but I think his climb will continue. That leaves Newman possibly as the left-out one.

David Caraviello: I'm a little worried for the Stewart-Haas guys, simply because right now they don't have wins. I know Clint doesn't, either, but I think he's entirely capable and has been running better than his points finish probably indicates. Denny, of course, is coming on like gangbusters right now and very well may make the Chase with ease. But Stewart and Newman have had their issues, they've seen changes in their shop, and you just get the general impression that they're playing catch-up to a certain degree.

Tony Stewart

Summertime is Stewartime
• Stewart only has four wins prior to the month of June; 21 of his 39 wins have come during in June, July and August.
• Stewart has two wins, five top-fives and nine top-10s in the past 10 road-course races; he has scored the most points during that time with a best average finish of 6.8.
• Stewart won a road-course race in both of his title years, 2002 (Watkins Glen) and 2005 (Infineon and Watkins Glen).

Jill Erwin: Good point, David. I had forgotten about the Bobby Hutchens decision. Not sure it really changes my confidence in Tony's upcoming hot streak (book it!) but it is definitely something to consider.

David Caraviello: Jill, I will give you that summertime is often Tony time, and that he does tend to kick it up this time of year when the tracks get hot and greasy. But I don't think that group can exactly flip the switch right now. Of course, Tony's so naturally gifted he may offset some of that, particularly on tracks he likes in a time of year he thrives in. But he can only do so much, and he's not there yet, and I think he'd freely admit that.

Dave Rodman: Since I think that question is inappropriate for this time of the season, I'll say I can tell you who's locked in from that group and who shouldn't have even been included. And that's obviously Denny Hamlin.

Jill Erwin: Wow, something snipped Rodman this morning! Locked in? I think he's in good position, but one win doesn't guarantee him, and if he returns to his early struggles, he's far from locked in.

David Caraviello: An inappropriate question? Oh dear me. Fetch the fan, ma-ma. I do believe I'm feeling the vapors coming on again ...

Jill Erwin: It's all the talk about hot and greasy. It's expected.

Dave Rodman: Hamlin's "struggles" might not have been circumstantial, but I think what we've seen lately from him, Mike Ford and the bunch is more indicative of what we're going to see from here on out.

David Caraviello: Hey, whether you think Denny belongs in that group or not, fact is right now he's there. Granted, he's running better that the other guys around him, and I think we all expect him to jump ahead at some point, but given all the issues that No. 11 team has been through this season, I don't think you can bank on anything. And engine troubles aren't circumstantial, they're mechanical.

Jill Erwin: OK, of the five tracks they go to in the next 11 weeks that they've already visited, Bowyer's got finishes of 17th, 16th, 35th, eighth and sixth.

David Caraviello: So Dave, is it "appropriate" to surmise who might make the Chase out of Newman, Stewart, or Bowyer? Heck, I'll give you the Hamlin thing, but that wasn't the question. Regardless of the time of the season, it's unlikely that all those guys get in. And let's be honest, the Chase is a year-round deal, and guessing who's in and who's out has become America's favorite pastime.

Dave Rodman: Since his season-opening struggles, Clint has, I bet, the best average finish over the past 10 or so races than anyone in that group. And he has so much at stake right now with his ongoing contract discussions -- not that that probably has much bearing inside the doors at RCR -- but I don't see him flagging.

David Caraviello: Dave, I will give you that. As tough a year as Jeff Burton is having, I still believe Clint and those RCR guys are better than they've shown. This is the same shop, after all, that gives us "The Closer (non-TNT version)." There's a lot of swagger with RCR and with Harvick and with Clint, and there's a lot on the line, both in terms of pride and championship positioning and his future beyond this season.

Jill Erwin: Hey, the races are on TNT now, so in a way ... he's also the TNT version. (corporate synergy).

David Caraviello: Kyra Sedgwick has nothing on Kevin Harvick. So Dave, you don't believe Denny belongs in that group. Understandable, regardless of what the stats say. You don't think Clint will falter, and I don't disagree there. So we're left with Newman and Stewart. Does that mean we agree on this topic, that if anyone's in trouble there, it's one or both of those guys? Amazing! Will wonders never cease!

Dave Rodman: Based on consistency, I agree either member of the Stewart-Haas teams is probably the most at risk. And like we said, the personnel issues can't be minimized. Then again, they both were good at Michigan.

Driver comparison

Results past 10 races
9.Denny Hamlin121523261610319110.7
10.Clint Bowyer9226316151816811.3
11.Tony Stewart341217972917821716.1

David Caraviello: I knew that Dave Rodman was a smart cookie.

3. While the Cup circuit is in Northern California, the Nationwide gang heads to Road America. Is defending champ Carl Edwards the favorite, or is a surprise in store in Elkhart Lake, Wis.?

Jill Erwin: Ahhhh, finally. Some Nationwide talk! And I'm going big, and then I'm going home: I really like Jacques Villeneuve in the 22 car. No Brad Keselowski this week, so Jacques makes his (triumphant?) return to the Nationwide Series in a top-flight car. I think it could happen!

Dave Rodman: Edwards is definitely the favorite. But the neatest thing about this is watching one of those budding Sprint Cup talents in-the-making trying to battle him on a road course. Whether it's Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier or Aric Almirola (and I know I'm forgetting some others), that will be a neat side story.

By the Numbers

Jacques Villenueve had his only NASCAR success on road courses, but the "regular" he replaces at Road America was the most consistent of any Nationwide driver in 2010.

David Caraviello: Hey, Jill, you beat me to it. Didn't Jacques nearly win this event last year, or at least find himself running toward the front at the end? This kind of relates back to the first question, and what makes road-course races on any circuit so much fun -- the wild-card factor. And we're not talking about the Chase. Seeing somebody outside the box like Villeneuve have a chance to win is incredibly entertaining.

Jill Erwin: Absolutely. Plus, while we talked about the improvement of the Cup regulars on the road courses, you don't necessarily have that in Nationwide. In general, they're less experienced in all forms of racing, so they're not as polished on the right-hand turns. Everyone's kind of on the same footing at Road America, since it's only the second race there, but it could be super-entertaining. And it's a gorgeous course.

Dave Rodman: The real dark horse is Michael McDowell. His background, plus Gibbs equipment, plus Jason Ratcliff equals look out, Carl!

David Caraviello: Whoa, Dave and I in agreement two topics in a row? Is there a solar eclipse going on? I was just typing -- another name to consider, and not just because of our male bonding in the motorhome: Michael McDowell is back in Joe Gibbs' No. 18 car this weekend, and the guy has a road-racing background, and he scored a top-10 at Iowa in his most recent start in the 18. So anything can happen, especially on a course that big, and one that guys are still trying to get a handle on.

Jill Erwin: I'm feeling like the third wheel on this Track Smack: Love Connection edition.

Dave Rodman: Then there's Max Papis. And now that we mention that, Max is nearly a proven commodity in Kevin Harvick Inc. equipment -- so all of a sudden, Carl has a battler on his hands! For future Smack topics, you heard it here first -- Max could do the Nationwide triple if Kevin and DeLana gave him the shot: Road America, Watkins Glen and Montreal! He needs to wheel and deal in Grand-Am and see if he could get him a Rolex Series win in the bargain. Too bad he doesn't have sponsors in his pocket. Mike Shank could probably be convinced to pull his second car out ....

Jill Erwin: Another "ringer," Ron Fellows, finished second here last year in the other JR Motorsports car. This time, he's in the 7. Could be interesting. Fun side note: Of last year's top-10 finishers, only six are on the entry list this time around.

David Caraviello: Goodness, there are so many new faces in new places this weekend that I lose track. Max Papis, at Road America in a KHI car, should definitely be a factor. No question the guy spent some time on that circuit in his open-wheel days. Did I miss anybody else? Did Rick Hendrick slip Juan Manuel Fangio into a car while I wasn't looking?

Jill Erwin: That comment would be right in Mark Aumann's wheelhouse. As it were, I got nothing for you. Andrew Ranger do anything for you?

David Caraviello: Andrew Ranger, the guy who wowed Carl Edwards in Montreal a few years back? Absolutely. Goodness, half the top 10 could very well be all these guys we're talking about. How fun and different would that be. But then, like we talked about with the Cup guys, the regulars are so good now where they can still win amidst all these natives. Edwards has become a nifty little road racer, and if he doesn't wear himself out with all the travel back and forth to Sonoma, I'd still pick him as a favorite.

Jill Erwin: This weekend could really shake up the Nationwide points ... again. Every week we get a new leader. The new points setup is all a product of the system, but I'll be darned if it's not entertaining. And yeah, overlooking Carl would be a massive mistake. After all, he is the only NASCAR driver to win at Road America in the past 55 years!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.