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Track Smack: Wild-card spots and Kentucky favorites

July 07, 2011, , NASCAR.com

1. David Ragan's victory at Daytona added another wrinkle to potential Chase scenarios. Right now, which drivers are the best bets to take the two wild-card positions?

Mark Aumann: I'm still of the opinion that Denny Hamlin has at least one more win in him before Richmond. And even though he hasn't run that well this summer -- at least not like he did earlier in the year -- Tony Stewart's due to win.

Dave Rodman: It's pretty simple, really -- Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Really. But since I don't think they'll collapse, just as obviously it's Denny Hamlin and David Ragan, since they're already in the top 20 and they already have a win apiece.

David Caraviello: Certainly Ragan is in a prime position now that he has a victory, given that the Daytona win also boosted him up three places to 17th in points. He stays that far clear of 20th place -- and it can be tougher to move up and down in this point system given the smaller numbers involved -- he's golden. As for the other guy? I don't think we know yet. I'm convinced that Denny Hamlin is going to get into the top 10, opening the door for somebody else.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, Dave, I don't see either one of those guys falling out of the top 10 now. Kenseth has 65 points over 11th-place Hamlin. Yeah, that could get wiped out with a couple of bad finishes, but that's like the old 250-point cushion. And Gordon's been as consistent as anybody this summer.

Dave Rodman: I guess it's quite the conundrum. They always say "dozens of people can win." Well, this season we've already proven that. And if you look at it honestly, every one of those guys in the top 20 has either won before or is on the verge of it. We've got a couple wild-card races in there, so who knows?

David Caraviello: I think that somebody else is going to be the winner of the Watkins Glen race on Aug. 14. Never has a road course event loomed larger in the Sprint Cup championship picture. It's very easy to foresee someone like Tony Stewart or Juan Montoya -- both outside the top 10 as of now -- winning there to punch their ticket to the championship round.

Mark Aumann: Really, it's going to come down to somebody in the top 15 -- Stewart, Biffle, Montoya -- winning a race between here and September. Ragan's proved that you can put yourself in a prime position. Now it's up to someone to bump him out. I know everyone's said, "You'll need two wins for the wild card." But I really think one of those spots will probably go to a one-time winner, unless something unusual happens between now and Richmond. Two wins, however, will definitely punch your ticket.

There is little doubt among Smackers that Denny Hamlin will be in the top 10 come Chase time.

Cup Standings

(through Race 17)
Pos.DriverPts.BehindWins
2.C. Edwards581-51
3.Ky. Busch576-102
4.K. Busch570-161
5.M. Kenseth564-222
6.J. Johnson564-221
7.Dale Jr.534-520
8.J. Gordon519-672
9.C. Bowyer505-810
10.R. Newman498-880
11.D. Hamlin495-911
12.T. Stewart494-920
13.G. Biffle473-1130
14.J. Montoya468-1180
15.Allmendinger467-1190
16.P. Menard466-1200
17.D. Ragan457-1291
18.M. Martin455-1310
19.K. Kahne452-1340
20.J. Logano439-1470

Dave Rodman: I can tell you one thing for sure, this format has made the entire points table a lot more interesting.

David Caraviello: Kenseth is not falling out of the top 10. Gordon's moving in the right direction. And I still think Hamlin is too good to be lollygagging around in 11th. That team has rebounded from an awful start and spent a lot of time making up ground, and I don't think they're done yet. Given that Denny is only three points out of 10th, if he does win again -- as Mark mentioned he might, and I don't disagree -- then he'll almost certainly move up enough in the process that he won't need the wild card, opening a space up for somebody else.

Dave Rodman: I think Ragan has run well enough -- as he himself said at Daytona -- to be about 13th in the points. Despite what such notables as Kyle Busch and, I think, Denny Hamlin have said, I believe at this stage if you got two wins and were in the top 15, you'd be about a lock.

Mark Aumann: Stewart's the guy who worries me the most. After giving away what appeared to be a sure victory at Las Vegas, he's really struggled to come close. And if he doesn't win a race, he may be on the outside looking in. Obviously, he's only four points out of 10th, but he realized even then how much a win would be worth in the overall scheme.

Dave Rodman: Mark, I agree that is probably a 50-50 bet. The fact is, there aren't gonna be a lot of wins actually available if you think -- and I think -- at least one of the Busches, Harvick, Hamlin and Gordon will all win at least one more race between now and Richmond.

David Caraviello: Mark, I pick out Watkins Glen because it's so obvious, and we have some guys on the bubble who have some strong history there, but you're right -- it could be anywhere. Greg Biffle could win at Michigan. Joey Logano could win this weekend at Kentucky. Montoya could win at Indianapolis. That's almost a nightmare situation for guys like Ragan and Brad Keselowski, who are lower in points, and could get leapfrogged if one or two guys above them win. And that's all it would take, was one or two wins by the right people, and many in the top 20 are certainly capable of it.

Dave Rodman: Nice to see that Tony has agreed that not being in the Chase was worth his principles, which he defended atop the tires at Sonoma. But the thing with Tony, he is like lightning -- he can strike at any time.

Mark Aumann: And if you look at the recent history, most of the wins have been concentrated around the top 10. You're not going to end up with many worst-case scenarios. Jamie McMurray last season is the one that quickly comes to mind. But yeah, if I'm Ragan and Brad Keselowski, I'm praying that Kyle Busch wins nine races in a row.

Dave Rodman: Jamie started last season with the big win in the Daytona 500, and continually came up big. There's no one in that territory this season. And Brad can he happy there are no more plate races before Chase cutoff. He needs to get back to the verge.

David Caraviello: That's the key here, Mark. We talk about all these scenarios, but you're right -- under this format last year, one win would have been enough. Most of the victories were clustered among the top guys. But then, that wasn't a season where we saw Trevor Bayne, David Ragan, and Regan Smith win. This year does have an anything-can-happen feel to it, so I wouldn't be surprised if in the end we had four guys with win each trying to muscle each other out for one spot.

Mark Aumann: Looking back, looks like Kyle Busch and Kenseth make the Chase as wild cards in 2009, if the current rule had been in effect. Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2008. And yeah, David, it still matters to be as high in the points as you can be, because of the tiebreaker. That's why Hamlin and Stewart are in pretty good shape, with the proviso that they score a win. Definitely, and the more Ragan runs well, the better his chances get.

David Caraviello: It's almost like the NCAA basketball tournament, where the hopeful at-large teams are hoping all the favorites win so no underdogs sneak in and steal a bid.

Dave Rodman: Shooting for the top 10 has now become the top 15 if you're a winner. But you've gotta win, so kudos to NASCAR for getting this one right.

Mark Aumann: Well, no matter what, there's a good chance we could be talking about as many as 12 or 13 guys at Richmond, if they can win the race and leapfrog somebody. And hey, Ragan has a win and some of those other guys don't. He's golden for now.

2. It's on to Kentucky Speedway for the venue's first Sprint Cup event. Is anyone the favorite? Are we in for another surprise winner in a season that's seen several of them already?

Mark Aumann: The obvious answer is Joey Logano, since he has three wins in the Nationwide Series there. But that's with the older chassis. I'm wondering if drivers who do well at Las Vegas, another bumpy track, would translate well at Kentucky, which has that reputation. If that's the case, then perhaps Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin -- and perhaps even Tony Stewart -- would be considered favorites.

Dave Rodman: Talk about timing. Joey Logano has a good history at Kentucky, he's coming off a stout weekend at Daytona, and Kentucky with this car is a clean slate for just about everyone. So it would be pretty huge for him -- though he'd have to stay on his horse to stay in the top 20.

David Caraviello: It's certainly possible, given the unknowns there. There's a lot of talk this week about guys like Joey Logano who have a history of winning at the track in lower series, but I'd be more apt to go with one of the big boys who has proven themselves able to quickly adapt. Give me somebody like Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick, who have shown in the past that they can win under less-than-ideal conditions -- and coming into the weekend with essentially a blank notebook certainly qualifies in that regard.

Mark Aumann: Here's another name: Kyle Busch. He dominated two of the past three Kentucky races in Nationwide, only to have late-race issues.

David Caraviello: Mark, I'm right with you there. Give me guys who are historically good on intermediates, who can prove they can get it done. All this talk about surprise winners ... I don't know. In a situation where everybody's going to be scrambling to figure the place out in Thursday's test session, give me the teams that have done it before. Winning Nationwide races is not winning Sprint Cup races, that much we know for sure.

Dave Rodman: And this place might be a technical nightmare, since it's reportedly so bumpy it might be extreme enough to require compromises to get an overall working setup. Steve Addington and Kurt Busch have been effective this season, so inject them into the mix.

Mark Aumann: I asked around last weekend as to what other track Kentucky resembled, but didn't really get a consensus. So I think everybody's going into these practices with more than the usual trepidation. The last thing you want to do is wreck the car and lose a bunch of track time. And the second to last thing you want is rain.

Dave Rodman: It's gonna be an engineer's delight.

Mark Aumann: And it may come down to somebody's "best guess." I believe many of the Cup teams have used Kentucky for testing, so it may not be as much of a surprise as we're describing. Joey Logano talked about having a number of test sessions there before he ever ran a race, so it's possible many of the bigger teams already have a pretty good handle on it.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Dave, you're already hearing a lot about the bumps in the low groove, which drivers say could be a particular issue during qualifying. And Mark, I know a lot of guys have raced Nationwide and Trucks at Kentucky, I know almost every team tested there back in the day before it became a national-series venue, but nobody's been there with this Sprint Cup car under race conditions. Everybody is going to be working hard to get a handle on the place.

Dave Rodman: I agree with the previous premise, specifically that it's going to be a previous winner, somebody like Hamlin, Johnson, or Harvick. And if engineering rules, Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson might elevate. Heck, we're back to 12 to 15 drivers again -- so we'll see what goes in testing. Telemetry rules!

Kentucky


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Mark Aumann: The real key: Keep it on the asphalt and out of the bluegrass.

David Caraviello: If you want to look at potential winners ... guys like Carl Edwards have traditionally run well there in lower events, and that team is strong enough to quickly get a handle on the place. Greg Biffle won the first Truck Series race there a few years ago, and we just talked about how much a victory would mean to him in terms of the Chase picture. And then there's a guy like Jeff Gordon, who has a history of winning at new venues -- he did it at Indianapolis, Fontana, and Kansas.

Mark Aumann: Didn't Gordon wreck on the first lap of the inaugural race at Texas?

David Caraviello: I'm not sure. That was before my time. Were weepers or that old "Humpy bump" involved?

Mark Aumann: I think it was complaints about the transitions into the corners. They were really tricky for stock cars until the track was reconfigured.

David Caraviello: Ah, the perils of coming to a new venue for the first time. Maybe we'll have similar issues this weekend. Perhaps the "Bruton bumps" will take their toll on some poor soul early in Saturday night's race.

Mark Aumann: My bad -- Gordon crashed midway through the race while running second, apparently. There was a 13-car pileup on the first lap of the inaugural Texas race.

David Caraviello: Well, let's certainly hope history doesn't repeat itself in that case.

3. To this point, the biggest gap between first and second in the Nationwide Series has been 10 points. Can we expect this all season? Is anyone ever going to pull away?

Dave Rodman: I'm betting it will be like this all year. The guys who have been good have been good all season. Though, all of a sudden, Reed Sorenson is looking mighty good -- despite working with multiple crew chiefs, I might add!

Mark Aumann: It's really a four-car race -- Reed Sorenson, Elliott Sadler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier. Each of them has shown the ability to run up front, but nobody's really done it consistently. I keep thinking that sooner or later, Sadler's going to put together two or three strong races and grab the lead. But at the same time, Stenhouse is equally capable of doing that.

David Caraviello: Reed and Elliott have been trading haymakers for quite a while now, haven't they? But to a degree, somebody has pulled away -- two guys, actually. Sorenson and Sadler are 31 and 22 points clear of the rest of the field, respectively, which doesn't sound like much. But this is a points system that doesn't necessarily allow guys to make up large chunks unless they win, and we know how hard that has historically been for Nationwide-only drivers.

Nationwide Standings

(through Race 17)
Pos.=/-DriverPts.Behind
2.--E. Sadler601-9
3.--Stenhouse Jr.579-31
4.--J. Allgaier573-37
5.--J. Leffler537-73
6.--A. Almirola529-81
7.--K. Wallace494-116
8.--S. Wallace467-143
9.--B. Scott454-156
10.--M. Annett446-164

Dave Rodman: The two Nationwide rooks have actually shown more propensity to self-destruct, despite having obvious talent. I'm kinda leaning toward a Sadler/Sorenson knock-down, drag-out. Would be good for both of their careers, and the Series.

Mark Aumann: And I think the decision to keep Cup guys from scoring points is creating some of the logjam. What's happened is that the Nationwide-only guys are running in about the same positions, week in and week out. Certainly Sorenson's win at Road America helped his situation. And it seems like Sadler's close every weekend and can't seal the deal.

David Caraviello: Mark, I'm with you -- I'm thinking it's only a matter of time before Elliott stretches this thing out on his own. He's nine points back now, but you look at what he has behind him, and the strength of that Kevin Harvick Inc. program, and it just makes it tough to think he's going to remain in second. Then again, Reed has a win, and Elliott doesn't, which certainly doesn't help Sadler's situation.

Dave Rodman: If you did the math I bet there would be a greatly reduced number of Cup guys, race-by-race. So that's improved the ability of Nationwide competitors to run at the front. But isn't it ironic that two "Cup drivers" -- at least former -- are still leading the championship?

Mark Aumann: The restrictor-plate tracks really hurt Stenhouse, who has similar numbers to Sorenson and Sadler. He finished 38th at Talladega and 27th last weekend. And in a tight points battle, you can't really afford to have a bad day. It's too bad, because Stenhouse had a stretch before that of fourth, first, fourth, 14th, second and eighth. He had really put himself back into contention.

Dave Rodman: Either that, or you do a lot of finagling to get bad days for all of your competition. Well, that means Ricky can do it again; and if the plate tracks are his big weakness they're all done for this season.

David Caraviello: I guess you'd have to say that everyone down to what, Justin Allgaier in fourth, is still in this? Is 37 points back (as of now) too meager of a cutoff? Can those guys like Jason Leffler and Aric Almirola who are 70- or 80-something behind still get in this? I would think not, given how tough upward mobility is under this system. Heck, even 37 points back seems like 137 sometimes.

Mark Aumann: Remember also that Sadler failed to score a top-10 finish in any of the first three races, and hasn't been worse than 13th since. Yeah, David, I think if you're more than a full race and a half behind -- 60 points -- it's almost impossible to make up, especially if you've got to leapfrog three, four or five other drivers. You're going to need bad luck to strike multiple times to guys who haven't been that unlucky all season.

David Caraviello: That's true, Mark -- like Denny Hamlin in the Cup Series, he's been playing from behind for most of the year. But he also had made up enough ground to take over the points lead by Charlotte in May. So he made the climb, and now he's slipped back a little. I still think he has what it takes to catch and overtake Reed, but there are certainly no guarantees at this point.

Dave Rodman: In this season, whether you're running for the top five in points or the top 35 (or top 30 in Nationwide) -- you have to beat the guys you're competing against, and not just by a couple of spots. The consistency of Sadler and Sorenson makes that awfully difficult.

Mark Aumann: All three -- Sorenson, Sadler and Stenhouse -- have 12 top-10s in 17 races. That's really put them head and shoulders above the pack.

Dave Rodman: There's that consistency again...

Mark Aumann: Yep, that's why it's really going to be hard for guys like Allgaier and Jason Leffler and Aric Almirola to make up any major ground from here on out.

David Caraviello: That also shows how much a few poor finishes can hammer you. Ricky's stats are very similar to Sorenson's and Sadler's -- he even has a win, which Elliott doesn't -- but man, those bad results in the plate races have cost him. That was every driver's big concern under this system, that a few bad finishes could bury you, and Stenhouse is proof of that.

Dave Rodman: And if that's the deciding factor, it's easy -- run better and you win the championship. That's the way it should be.

Mark Aumann: Hey, didn't Elvis Presley sing Kentucky Rain? Let's hope that's not this weekend's theme song. At least I won't be there.

David Caraviello: No, but I will be. With 125,000 of my closest friends. It will be quite a party on I-71! I may need some of Kentucky's finest after it's all over.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.