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Track Smack: Wins earn wild cards, consistency earns titles

August 11, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Top drivers at WGI up for debate; all are in agreement about Nationwide favorite

1. Brad Keselowski now has more race wins this year than Jimmie Johnson or Carl Edwards. But is the Penske Racing driver a legitimate championship threat?

David Caraviello: Part of me doesn't want to short-change the dude in any way possible, especially given the way he won at Pocono. And any driver who can win multiple races in this season of a million different winners has to be taken seriously to some extent. But I look at whether he can sustain a Jimmie Johnson-type run over a 10-race stretch ... and I just don't know. Because that's what it's going to take to win the championship, regardless of how many wins you have going in.

Dave Rodman: At this moment, no. But having said that, they could get there if they move ahead without hitting a glitch between now and Richmond. He and Paul Wolfe are pretty special and have a pretty good future ahead. We'll see if that includes this season.

Mark Aumann: No. He's just too inconsistent and nothing's really different. It was exciting to see who would make it in as the 12th-place driver under the old rules, but to be honest, they had almost no chance of winning the title, either. It's a neat exercise in short-term excitement, but the odds of someone who's barely in the top 20 suddenly putting together a 10-race stretch of top-five finishes -- which is what Jimmie Johnson has done repeatedly -- is asking an awful lot.

Dave Rodman: Inconsistency was what caused me to say no at the moment. But inconsistency is part of the past and this discussion concerns the future. Whatever else has already happened this season is irrelevant -- except for the fact it's got Brad limping a little bit.

David Caraviello: Brad's past 10 races mark his best stretch of the year, after things finally got turned around on that No. 2 car. He has a pair of victories during that span. But he also has a 25th, a 23rd, a 35th and a 19th. That's not going to fly come Chase time. This team has to get a lot more consistent to become a viable championship threat. Of course, they still have a little -- not a lot, but a little -- time to get there.

Mark Aumann: Keselowski has had seven finishes of 25th or worse this season. You just can't win a championship doing that. It's great that the rules allow him to have the chance, but I just don't see it being anything more than a new gimmick.

Wild Card Standings

Pocono
WC Pos.Pts. Pos.DriverWinsPoints
12.11.D. Hamlin1618
--14.P. Menard1587
--19.D. Ragan1556


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Much to be settled


Joe Menzer says the fact that the wild-card scenario is drawing so much attention is a clear indication that this is the best tweak to the Chase ever executed by NASCAR.

David Caraviello: Wow, a rare three-headed agreement on this one, which probably means Brad is going to storm to the championship come November!

Dave Rodman: He has to get past this weekend. I know Kurt Busch will sub for Brad in the No. 22, but if I was Roger I would definitely put Jacques Villeneuve in the Nationwide car, and I would seriously consider starting Brad in the No. 2 and replacing him at the first possible moment. The strain on his body, plus what they have to lose if the wrong thing happens, is too much of a risk.

David Caraviello: A situation like this one represents what's always been my biggest worry when it comes to the wild card -- somebody getting into the Chase at the expense of someone else who's a more viable championship contender. No question, it's crazy fun watching all these guys shift places and jockey for position via wins. The scenarios change every week. But we also run the risk of somebody who might be a more legitimate title threat getting left out because they're a few points on the wrong side of the top 10.

Mark Aumann: If you haven't been running near the top 10 -- and maybe even the top five -- all year, you're really going to have to do something totally unexpected to beat those cars that have. Maybe one or two will have problems in the Chase, but not all five. And Dave, if you can't make the top 10 in points, you don't really deserve to be called a contender. Honest. That's a quarter of the field.

David Caraviello: Here's the thing -- we've seen guys score two wins in a Chase and still not be able to mount a real run toward the title. Greg Biffle did that a few years back, where he won the first two races, hung in there for a little while, but in the end was watching Johnson celebrate along with everyone else. Wins are one thing, consistency is another. The former may get you into the Chase under this current format, but the latter still wins it.

Dave Rodman: This team is coming -- if not this year, then really soon. To me that's considerably different than someone who's just been mediocre all season, even if they're on the decent side of mediocre.

David Caraviello: Oh, I don't think there's any doubt Brad and that No. 2 group are coming -- if not now, then sometime in the future. But he still has another step to take, and I don't know if he can get there in just five races. The big winner here may be Kurt Busch, who seems like he'll have a teammate in the Chase for a change. That will have to be nice.

Dave Rodman: The whole premise of this discussion might be too much of a leap. We're not discussing who might be legitimate contenders for the championship -- and that might be just five guys unless something drastic changes. And Jimmie Johnson is still the king of this format until he gets beheaded, in a manner of speaking.

Mark Aumann: The fact that Kurt Busch put the No. 2's setup on his car for the race tells me that the team is headed in the right direction. It's just asking too much to think they'll put together 10 races to equal Johnson, Edwards, Harvick or the Busch brothers.

David Caraviello: Well, let's hope there are no public beheadings. That could get messy.

2. Who has a better chance of winning this weekend at Watkins Glen: Juan Montoya or Marcos Ambrose? And from a wild card perspective, would a victory by either really matter?

Mark Aumann: I don't really understand it, but Juan's team seems to be completely out of sync right now. This stretch -- Indy, Pocono, Watkins Glen -- was one where I really thought the No. 42 would make up some ground and perhaps get the win or two that would put them in position for the wild card. It hasn't happened.

Dave Rodman: I'd call it dead even, and if I had to give the edge to anyone obviously it would be to Juan, because he's won Cup road races before. Then again, Marcos' team is more stable, so that tosses it back to dead even. I don't think a win will get either of them anywhere near the Chase, and maybe even the top 20, ultimately.

David Caraviello: For all the attention his no-gas stall-out at Infineon Raceway got a few years back, I still think Watkins Glen is where Marcos Ambrose has his best shot at claiming a Sprint Cup victory. He's been an absolute terror there in a Nationwide car, had a real chance to win a race there with the Wood Brothers when they were struggling to stay in the top 35, and just seems to take to that place better. And given Juan's issues right now, who knows, Marcos may be in a better position to steal one this weekend.

Mark Aumann: All right, who is this Dave Rodman, and what have you done with the old one? I guess my pick is Ambrose, not necessarily by default because he's a great road racer, but because I'm puzzled by Montoya's collapse. And no, neither driver is close enough to the top 15 to hurdle any of the current race winners. We're running out of races.

Watkins Glen


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

David Caraviello: Mark, Juan even tweeted the other day something along the lines of, it's been a tough few weeks, hope to get the car running better again soon. I guess you expected this with a rookie crew chief now calling things for the No. 42 team, but if they're not in the running this weekend I wouldn't be surprised if it's time to start preparing for 2012. They just don't have any mojo right now. Juan can only do so much.

Dave Rodman: We're talking about which of these two has the better chance to win, between the two of them, right? I think they're fifth or sixth in line against other potential winners.

David Caraviello: Dave has been throwing haymakers in Smack for a while now. And he's right -- these guys do not top the list of favorites. They should be in the mix, but most of the rank-and-file Cup drivers are too good to be dismissed anymore on road courses. Watch out for the Double Deuce and a potential road-course sweep.

Mark Aumann: The real question may be, "Is this Tony Stewart's last best chance to win before the Chase?" I think if he doesn't, he's going to be the guy on the bubble all the way to Richmond. And I can't figure out why, except that crazy decision to dump Brian Vickers at Infineon could really come back to haunt him. And Kurt's going to have to watch out for Jimmie Johnson, David. For some reason, the road races have become the place for paybacks. And who knows? Does last week's last lap beating and banging get settled there?

Dave Rodman: Tony Stewart is among a rather small group of drivers who can win on any given weekend. So no, this is not his last chance. But with Brad K's big breakthrough last weekend, the landscape has suddenly changed considerably. Staying in the top 10 now and winning a race will take a lot of attention.

David Caraviello: Here's the rub in all this, boys -- should JPM or Ambrose win, it almost certainly won't matter in terms of the wild card. Brad Keselowski has raised the admission ticket to two wins, not just one. Denny Hamlin is so high in points, these guys (who are both outside the top 20 for now) won't be able to touch him. They're probably racing for the win, and only the win.

Mark Aumann: I agree, David. And if Kes can't stay in the top 20, Paul Menard and David Ragan still have the advantage over Ambrose and Montoya at this point. And Dave, Tony hasn't really come close since Las Vegas. That's really the point. This is almost a must-win for him at a place where he's been dominant. Sort of Hamlin at Pocono (and Denny didn't win either race, by the way).

David Caraviello: Tony has had chances for a while and been unable to capitalize. Not going to short-change the guy given all he's done, and if you're pitting him against JPM or Ambrose, then certainly, Tony has more chances over the final five events. But again, how long have we been waiting on Tony to win? The potential is there, but I think we've all been of the mindset of, it's a matter of if not when. If we get through this weekend and the No. 14 still has yet to visit Victory Lane, that dynamic changes.

Mark Aumann: You can say Tony can win any given weekend, but he's struggled at times just to stay in the top 10. And I don't know why. But back to Ambrose, I'd love for him to score a win, if only to erase the memories of Infineon -- and that rainy race at Montreal in which he dominated and had the pit stop penalty. He's been so close and to me, very deserving.

Dave Rodman: Tony's in the top 10, so that gives him an advantage. What he did to get there and stay there at Indy and Pocono both were significant. Denny Hamlin, on the other hand, was unable to get back in at Pocono of all places. So with a win, he has an advantage even if he's not able to get back into the top 10. My take is Newman is rock solid now; so the battle for those last two spots in the top 10 and who can win are dead-even on the drama meter. And if you can't eliminate mistakes, deserving is a tough argument to make. Robby Gordon would have a few more Cup Series wins if he hadn't screwed something up -- but I could never say he deserved them ...

David Caraviello: There's been so much focus on Watkins Glen, and rightly so given the unpredictability that comes with road courses, but the real linchpin in the wild card race down the stretch may turn out to be Michigan next week, given its fuel-mileage history and the fact that so many guys on the bubble are good there.

Mark Aumann: And we haven't talked about the 800-pound elephant in the room there, Dave. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had terrible finishes at the Glen, and he's hanging by his fingernails right now. Talk about the team that could use a win in the very worst way.

David Caraviello: Michigan looms, guys! Next week's race in Brooklyn could be like Woodstock for the Junior Nation crowd.

Mark Aumann: Bring on the fuel economy! Because it's been so rare that we've had a race decided on fuel mileage in 2011. And let's hope it doesn't rain next weekend as much as it did at Woodstock, David.

3. After his second victory of the season, is it safe to say that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is now the favorite for the Nationwide Series championship?

Mark Aumann: Yes. Reed Sorenson's 12 points back and Elliott Sadler's 29 out, so they're still close enough to take advantage of any missteps by Stenhouse. But I think the Iowa race showed that Ricky has taken the favorite's role.

David Caraviello: I know it seems like we talk about Ricky every week, but that's because the kid deserves it. He's gone from the brink of unemployment last year to yes, the favorite for the Nationwide Series championship as we stand now. It's an incredible transformation, and a testament to both the driver's development and the car owner's patience, the latter of which is often in short supply these days. How many teams would have kicked Stenhouse to the curb after his rough first half in 2010? And now, he's one of the best stories in NASCAR this year.

Nationwide Standings

After Iowa
Pos.DriverPts.Behind
2.R. Sorenson775-12
3.E. Sadler758-29
4.A. Almirola710-77
5.J. Allgaier704-83
6.J. Leffler677-110
7.K. Wallace674-113
8.S. Wallace608-179
9.M. Annett598-189
10.B. Scott596-191

Dave Rodman: Speaking of winning and being consistent, I guess we could get creative and spell that S-t-e-n-h-o-u-s-e, now couldn't we? You keep thinking Sadler or Sorenson, with their wealth of experience, could handle youthful exuberance -- but Lil' Ricky keeps putting it on 'em.

Mark Aumann: If there's one stumbling block I see off in the distance, it's Talladega. Stenhouse's past two restrictor-plate finishes were 38th at Talladega and 27th at Daytona. Other than that, he's been nearly spotless all season, with only one other finish outside of the top 15. Again, the point system penalizes bad finishes much more than it rewards good ones. So the less trouble you have, the harder it is for anyone below you to make up ground.

David Caraviello: Dave, I'm right there with you. We keep waiting on Sadler to win and take control of this thing, but that's become like waiting on Stewart or Earnhardt to win Cup races this year -- we've gone from near-certainty to a little doubtful. And into that void steps Stenhouse, who isn't shy about mixing it up with the beast of the Nationwide tour, Carl Edwards, and grabbing the Series lead by the throat. It's only 12 points, as Mark points out, but the kid is showing a moxie that's much bigger than that.

Dave Rodman: Thanks for the statistical update, Mark. With the way Stenhouse and Sorenson have managed to run, I'd say he hardly has another bullet to waste in his arsenal. And if the two "S" boys put together a run to close out the year, he might already be done. Sadler could crank off a few wins, but he needs to get the first one done to prove he can do it again.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I'm with you guys. Sadler has more experience and Harvick equipment, and yet, he just never dug himself out of the hole from the season-opener at Daytona. The 30th-place finish at Nashville may have doomed him. Plus, he hasn't been able to win races like I thought he might. And we talked about this in last week's Smack: Stenhouse is one of the only Nationwide regulars who can dish it out against the Busch brothers and Edwards every week. He really stood up to Carl at Iowa, and that's the mark of a guy deserving of a championship.

Top of the list


When it comes to past performance at Watkins Glen, Ron Fellows is not just one of the guys. He's won three times in a Nationwide car at WGI and shares his thoughts on Saturday's race.

David Caraviello: That finish Saturday night in Iowa was just epic. I don't scream at the television that often -- OK, maybe when Rizzoli and Isles is on -- but I did then. That was crazy. And I loved that ESPN's microphones caught Stenhouse's crew chief telling Carl "he thinks you hate him" after the race. There's a lot of head-butting going on between Edwards and Stenhouse, and more yet to come. It's terrific fun to watch, as long as both guys understand there are limits.

Mark Aumann: And wasn't it you, David, who picked him to win? Of course, my excuse is that I didn't know Brad Keselowski was going to knock down a concrete wall during testing at Road Atlanta. But then again, I'd have never thought he'd win at Pocono. So my crystal ball is cracked.

David Caraviello: Yes, my Vegas formula, which takes in a combination of past NASCAR results and corn futures, correctly came up with Stenhouse in Iowa. Of course, it's also picking Auggie Vidovich to win at Watkins Glen ...

Mark Aumann: Hey, Ron Fellows, baby! It's his favorite track, and perhaps he can avoid a lot of the shenanigans on the restarts. I see Ron Fellows in Victory Lane in the No. 5. So there. Ringing in one for the road course guys.

David Caraviello: But Mark, you're right -- there's not really an intimidation factor with this kid, is there? Maybe that comes with racing sprint and midget cars in the environment Stenhouse did. or maybe it's just in his makeup. Something in the water down there in Olive Branch, Mississippi, perhaps. Regardless, he certainly isn't scared to hold his ground with Carl, which to be honest I think gets to Edwards a little bit.

Mark Aumann: That, or these young kids just aren't awed by things. They've run so many races by the time they're 20, the idea of being intimidated is almost quaint. And I think that's part of the reason why we're seeing guys like Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith winning. They respect the Johnsons and the Busches and the Edwardses, but I don't think they are intimidated by them. And with Carl Edwards re-signing, what does that do for the future of Bayne and Stenhouse in a Roush Cup car? I guess that's fodder for another Smack.

Dave Rodman: Fellows is due, and Watkins Glen will provide a cleaner landscape than either Sonoma or, in the case of Nationwide, Road America. Penske ought to do the right thing at the Glen -- replace Brad with Jacques Villeneuve and let them have at it!

David Caraviello: Dave, you can't seem to get Brad out of that car fast enough. Good thing Keselowski has only one good foot to kick you with ....

Dave Rodman: I ain't intimidated. Bring it!

Mark Aumann: Sounds like Kurt and Jimmie.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.