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Inside NASCAR: Midseason analysis of the Cup Series

July 13, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Midseason analysis: Car, tire are helping to level the field; winning is everything

At its midpoint, NASCAR's first season with a new points system appears to be delivering all the drama it promised with close, position-swapping points races at the front of each of its three national series and just as much intrigue further back.

It's in the Cup Series, though, where winning has created a different dimension spawned by a format that reserves the last two positions in the Chase field for drivers with the most wins between 10th and 20th position in the standings.

"I think because the [new car] is such a game changer, man. It has really leveled the playing field. "

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

Whether it's coincidental or not, 12 different drivers have visited Victory Lane this season and eight of those drivers currently sit in the top-10 in the standings.

Drivers best positioned to claim the last two positions in the Chase field -- albeit with eight races to go before the cutoff at Richmond in September -- include David Ragan, who won at Daytona and Tony Stewart, who's only two points behind 10th-place Denny Hamlin.

After last weekend's midpoint race at Kentucky Speedway, Clint Bowyer is the only driver within 30 points of Hamlin. But wins are the intriguing element as Brad Keselowski -- who won in June at Kansas Speedway -- is only three points behind 20th-place Joey Logano.

Wins equal bonus points, and while Carl Edwards led the standings for most of the season's first half before losing the spot to Kevin Harvick at Daytona, Harvick and current leader Kyle Busch --- each with three wins -- would lead the Chase field if it was set today.

As intriguing as this year's list of winners is, the list of non-winners is just as fascinating. With more than 40 career Cup wins between them, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Stewart, Bowyer and Greg Biffle have yet to visit Victory Lane in 2011.

And that points to a critical element of NASCAR's current car style -- competitive parity.

A level playing field

It would be easy to paint Jimmie Johnson and team as the dominant force in the Cup Series, and given the fact that Johnson has mastered the Chase format to the tune of five consecutive championships, that wouldn't be far from the truth.

But that's not been apparent this season. While Johnson has won once, his overall performance has only been adequate, marred at times by shortcomings on pit road.

Hamlin put up a serious challenge to Johnson's title run last season, but has just recently begun to resemble the squad that led the standings going into the 2010 Homestead finale.

Four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who's already won twice this season, said the lack of a dominant driver this season was "a good question."

Five months after losing the Daytona 500, David Ragan got his first Cup victory at the same track. (Getty)

Race Rewind


Twelve different drivers made a trip to Victory Lane during the first 18 Cup races of 2011. Relive all of the action and catch up on race highlights.

"When the season started, I thought that Carl [Edwards] had the ability to put that together or a Roush driver," Gordon said. "They, to me, seemed to be the strongest when the season started. Harvick, I think their team has been very strong, but his performance has not been up to maybe what I thought it could be, but yet -- he has three wins. He's been there at the right time, so that's the sign of a good team.

"Then you have the No. 48 and the No. 11 that have been off to a little bit of a slow start. It's hard to say. The cool thing about that, is there is no clear-cut favorite right now that just shows all the signs of 'this is the team to beat for the championship,' which I think makes it very exciting as we get closer and closer to the Chase, to see who is going to step up and take control of this championship. I think it's really wide open right now."

Matt Kenseth, the last Cup champion to claim the title based on a full season of points in 2003, said NASCAR's new car was the cause.

"I think since they have introduced this car, it has kept all the cars closer to the same speed," Kenseth said. "You look at it and say, 'Jimmie has won five straight.' If you just look at it on paper then there is one guy that has dominated.

"We're only halfway through the year and there have been some cars that have performed better than others, but it has been a really competitive season with all the different winners we've had, but there is a lot of racing to do yet."

Earnhardt agreed with Kenseth.

"I think because the [new car] is such a game changer, man," Earnhardt said. "It has really leveled the playing field. Everybody kind of has the same thing. It is really difficult with the limitations on how we can hang the bodies on the car and all the kinds of things we used to be able to do with the old car that would set teams apart from each other."

Even Johnson was circumspect when he discussed the competition.

"I think that as time goes on and the longer the rules stay the same, it closes the gap up on the competition side," Johnson said. "It provides for more winners throughout the course of the year and the less you'll see one guy running away with it.

"The rules open up and there's some changes. ... I think you'll see the big teams kind of migrate away from the rest of the group and then find something first. I certainly hope that Hendrick Motorsports would be the group to do it and we've been that in the past. Then everyone starts catching up.

"The other component to that which throws us from week to week is the tire. The tire technology is changing, Goodyear is trying to make their product better each and every week and we're not coming back to the same race track with the same stuff -- even from a spring race to a fall race, it changes.

"It's amazing how big of a difference the tires make. It's not that it's bad, it's just different. Every time you show up, you have to start over and figure out what the tire wants. I think those two elements have changed things quite a bit."

Hamlin, who won at Michigan and has yet to fully extend his team's potential, seemed to shrug when he opined about things being business as usual, but did offer a positive twist.

"I think [different winners] has been relatively normal in that sense," Hamlin said. "It seems like first-time winners are always on superspeedways especially -- it's kind of up for grabs and you find different guys that get in the win column there [and] obviously, fuel mileage races.

"It opens it up to a lot of different guys to be able to win, so I think that it's relatively normal in that sense, even though it's good to see we have three new winners in our Series. Obviously, two or three [drivers] that are right there on the cusp of getting their first win. It looks like it's starting to be more competitive now than it ever has been."

Hamlin went on to say that, with the new car, NASCAR accomplished what it originally set out to do.

"I don't know that it's a bad thing and I think that's what NASCAR wanted with this car, was to make a car where the lower-budget teams are competitive and winning races," Hamlin said. "Obviously, when you see teams like the Wood Brothers and Furniture Row Racing winning races, that's objective accomplished in NASCAR's eyes.

"I think that part of it is good, but it is [equal] -- it's so tough for these crew chiefs and teams to gain an advantage. That's why we've seen the limited amount of passing for the lead and things like that on regular race tracks that we've been accustomed to, because everyone is running so even [and] when you run even there's no passing."

Points leader Busch seconded that opinion.

"I think [the lack of dominance] is because everyone's so equal -- competition is so tight. Everybody has a really good sense of this car now, there's not much room for leeway in the rulebook for us to get creative and get our cars faster than anybody else's.

"You notice it more come down to the end of the race and strategy and how pit strategy plays out, fuel mileage plays out and how all of that comes down to who you see in Victory Lane, rather than somebody coming off pit road eighth or 10th and then being able to pass everybody and get up to the lead."

David Ragan's win at Daytona certainly gave him an edge on other drivers outside the top 10 in points, but at 15th in the standings, Ragan isn't resting on his laurels and knows there is plenty of work left to do in order to make the Chase.

Pressure to perform

With parity, there still exists the pressure to perform, and those on the fringes of the top 10 -- or someone like Keselowski, who needs to stay consistent and get into the top 20 where even his one win might not be enough -- know it.

Earnhardt sure does. After residing in the top three earlier in the season, he fell to eighth after Kentucky -- his third consecutive poor finish. Before a slide into pit road and a flat tire killed his chances of winning, Earnhardt wasn't feeling too badly despite a growing winless streak.

"We're hanging in there -- doing good," Earnhardt said. "We started the season really good. We've struggled the last couple of weeks, but I had them kind of circled on my radar as weekends that might be hit or miss for us. So, hopefully we can get back on track and start putting together a couple of more good weeks and try our best to lock ourselves into the Chase."

Newman, who struggled in recent years to consistently make the Chase field, said getting to Victory Lane was the only relevant topic -- even with a recent run of good finishes.

"Until you finally get that win you never really think about how close you can be to making the Chase. "

--DAVID RAGAN

"I don't think it has anything to do with the Chase, I think it has everything to do with trying to get a victory," Newman said. "I think after you get that victory you think about 'man, we've got a better shot at the Chase because of the format this year.'

"I don't think that Regan's [Smith, who scored his first career Cup win earlier this season but is mired in 27th position, 70 points out of 20th] guys at Darlington just decided to go on no tires just to see if they can try to make it into the Chase. They went for no tires just to see if they could win that race.

"That, I think, is everybody's short-term goal. The long-term goal is the championship."

Ragan, who jumped two more spots to 15th in the standings after Kentucky, has often run well enough that another trip to Victory Lane ins;t out of the question this season. The delightfully low-key and confident Ragan soft-pedals any ill effects when asked how he felt about being in contention for the Chase.

"It certainly adds some extra pressure," Ragan said. "We have to make that win count for something. I think that we've felt like we were close to being able to win some races this year and we knew we could do it. Until you finally get that win you never really think about how close you can be to making the Chase.

"Those wild-card spots are going to be fought for extremely hard. I think this final seven- or eight- or nine-race schedule -- I was talking to Keselowski earlier and he is right behind us in points and we are another win or some more top-fives from being in the top 12 or 13 and have a realistic chance of making the Chase.

"It puts some extra pressure on you and makes you really appreciate that win and look forward to these next races and make sure we are perfect and spot on."

How wild can it get?

The next string of races could prove to be a wild ride for wild-card candidates. New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen have all favored Chase contenders Stewart, Hamlin, Bowyer, Joey Logano and Juan Montoya in recent years. All of them have won at least once.

Stewart, for one, hopes it doesn't come down to that.

"No race that you lose is ever easy -- they never get easier, they don't get less tough."

--TONY STEWART

"I'm trying not to look at [the wild cards] at all," Stewart said. "I want to be in the top 10 and not have to worry about that aspect of it. If we do what we normally do then we shouldn't have to worry about having to get that position."

During last year's Chase opener, Stewart had the dominant car at Loudon, site of this weekend's venue, but when he ran out of gas, Bowyer slid by to take the checkers. Both one of them could really use a win Sunday and they each know what it will take.

"It's a trade off of whether your car rotates good through the center," Stewart said. "It seems like if you can get it to rotate through the center then the challenge is trying to keep the forward drive in it. If you get good forward drive then you are normally tight in the center.

"That's the two variables you fight the most and the tradeoff that you fight to find that balance between the two and how much you can give up in one area to get it in the other area."

Stewart's had to deal with plenty of frustration this season, so he can keep last year's disappointment in relative context.

"No race that you lose is ever easy -- they never get easier, they don't get less tough," Stewart said. "Not with the way this year's been. There's been a lot of stuff to be frustrated about."

Bowyer cited the same goals as Stewart, which potentially forecasts an epic struggle, not only this weekend, but in the run-up to Richmond as well.

"Hopefully we'll unload a good race car out of the box," Bowyer said. "That's a big thing, to be able to unload pretty close and be able to fine tune it from there. You have to be able to roll the center of the corner good; you have to be able to get to the gas and stay in the gas up off the corner.

"A lot of people can get to the gas and can't quite make that rotation without having to lift and get back out of the gas at one point or another off the corner. I think that's the key for me is just making sure the old girl rolls the middle good and you can get to the gas hard and wide open like you need to."

Time to put up or shut up

To be in contention, drivers need to find a high level of consistency right up to race No. 26 at Richmond. Edwards recognized that when he wrecked and lost the points lead at Daytona.

"It's a little bit of a reality check for us," Edwards said. "Although it has felt nice to be atop the standings, when the Chase starts, we won't be atop the standings. We need four wins to be on top and we don't have four wins. I think it is, in a way, good for us [to be second, albeit only four points out of the lead].

"There's a good chance that the best 12 teams aren't going to be in the 12 spots for the Chase."

--CLINT BOWYER

"It puts us back on the offensive and we can go out and test ourselves a little bit here these next [eight] races. We essentially get a practice Chase starting right now. I am curious to see how we can perform. If we can climb back to the top of the standings and build a big point lead again it will give us confidence going into the Chase.

"We're looking at it as an opportunity to take a step back and look at the reality of the situation that we have to beat these guys in the final 10 races and hopefully it will be a practice run and we can do it. It will give us more confidence going into the Chase if we are able to do that."

But between Edwards and Bowyer, the difference is stark between being a virtual lock and having to scramble just to make the Chase.

"I think the pressure, that's what's the unfortunate thing about that wild card deal," Bowyer said. "I'm just not a big fan [of it] and I never was.

"I told them when they said what they were going to do, I said, 'Well, I think this is what's going to happen and it's pretty sure the race is going to be for ninth and 10th -- 11th and 12th is going to be locked-up plenty before they ever get [to Richmond].'

"It's unfortunate that, it is what it is. There's a good chance that the best 12 teams aren't going to be in the 12 spots for the Chase."

But it seems a good bet it'll be the 12 who are running the best.