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Track Smack: Back talk and forward thinking

May 24, 2012, ,

Track Smack: Back talk and forward thinking
Topics: Johnson's recent run; breakthrough candidates; Truck leaders

1. Jimmie Johnson won at Darlington, won the Sprint All-Star Race, and now heads into the Coca-Cola 600 at a Charlotte track where he's won six times. Is he back?

David Caraviello: I think the five-time champ showed he was back before last weekend, and maybe before Darlington, too. The bottom line with the 48 guys -- and with all of Hendrick Motorsports this season -- is that the cars just have more speed than they did a season ago. That's why we're seeing such across-the-board strength from this organization, despite Kasey Kahne's slow start, despite Jeff Gordon's misfortune, despite its 16-race winless streak. It was just a matter of time, given how fast all the cars were, and especially given how well the 48 has run most of the year.

Mark Aumann: You know, there was a time when Jimmie was a stone-cold lock at Charlotte, particularly in the 600. But that's almost ancient history. He has one win and three top-10 finishes in the past nine points-paying races there. Not bad, but definitely not to the point where the field cringes when the No. 48 Chevrolet gets on the track. And I'm still of the opinion that the All-Star Race -- with its various permutations, odd rules and freaky setups -- really doesn't give a true indication of what you're going to see over 600 miles.

Joe Menzer: I didn't realize he went anywhere. Seriously, are you guys kidding me? Just because his string of five consecutive championships was finally snapped, we're going to act like he was terrible and something was seriously wrong? That streak was one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of sport -- and I'm not talking just NASCAR. So it's not like the 48 team was ever really that "off." So I'm going to say no, Johnson's not back -- because that 48 bunch never went anywhere.

David Caraviello: Mark, the 48 just hasn't been the same at Charlotte since the resurfacing. The change in NASCAR chassis style hurt it, too -- I want to think that all but one of Jimmie's wins at Charlotte came with the same car. They hit on something with that package and that surface, and they didn't let go.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, Charlotte was a place to avoid for Johnson last year. Led one lap, blew an engine in the 600 and crashed hard in the fall race. And Joe, there definitely was no aura of invincibility at the end of last year, or even at the beginning of this one. Jimmie looked vulnerable for the first time since he showed up in the series. I think that's where we've set the bar.

Joe Menzer: Well, that very well may be, as far as "an aura of invincibility." But I think that had as much to do with Tony Stewart's sudden emergence as a dominant force in the Chase as anything else.

Mark Aumann: Carl Edwards has a bone to pick with you there. As does Kevin Harvick.

David Caraviello: Was Menzer asleep for the entire 2011 season? Did he miss the 48 car just not being able to keep pace with title contenders like Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, or even teammate Gordon? Did he miss Johnson finishing sixth in points, the lowest of his career? Evidently so.

Joe Menzer: And I'll go back further. There were times in his most recent championship season -- and probably in other championship seasons before that -- when I seem to remember a lot of stories being written about how the 48 was vulnerable and this and that. I'm just saying it's not like that team was so far off its game that we need to act like it was totally out to lunch. It never has been. If anything, I think the sixth-place finish in points last year -- with only two victories -- served as a powerful motivator for not just Johnson but for crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire team. They're lining up to push for that sixth title, if that answers the question.

Is Johnson back in '12? Did he ever go away?

Jimmie Johnson's 2011 was on par with his averages during his five-year run of titles, save mostly for wins and laps led. Only in 2006 did Johnson have fewer top-fives (13) and laps led (854) than in 2011, but he had his best average finish (9.7) of his career during that first championship season.

Lead Lap Fin.28.6299
Laps Led1,5311,115502
Avg. Start9.312.913.2
Avg. Finish10.911.911.5

David Caraviello: Evidently, Menzer's Man Cave has been redecorated in 48 gear. Yes, Stewart kicked everyone's butt in the Chase. But Joe, anyone watching the bulk of last year could see that it wasn't the same old 48 team. It had shown some signs of vulnerability in its most recent championship season, but got away with it because Johnson is just so damn good. But there's only so much he could do. He can't make the cars faster, which was the team's issue last season, and why it fell out of the championship hunt. So it's perfectly reasonable to say he's back.

Mark Aumann: The 48 won at Kansas -- and everybody was chatting up Jimmie for six -- and then he wrecked at Charlotte, and the wheels figuratively fell off from there.

Joe Menzer: My point is that most teams would be very pleased with the type of season Johnson had last year, even if it wasn't up to the 48's usual standards. It's not like they totally stunk. That's all I'm saying. But I know how you two guys like to gang up on me, so have at it. You'll probably be agreeing with me by closing arguments, as usually is the case.

Mark Aumann: If not for the plate races, Johnson would be right in the thick of things. Heck, even had the team not escaped the C-post snafu, he'd still be solidly in the top 10. Daytona, 42nd. Talladega, 35th. Good thing there's only one plate race in the Chase.

Joe Menzer: I will go ahead and be the one to say it: the 48 will be there at the end this season, challenging for that sixth title. But I've been saying that since Speedweeks. It may not win it, but it'll be there.

David Caraviello: Man, Menzer. That must be quite a shovel you have there, because you keep digging yourself in deeper and deeper. Most teams would be happy with sixth place? Not most teams that start the year thinking they can win the championship. Not the 24, or the 99, or the 18, or the 29, or the 14 -- or the 48. Especially not the 48. In fact, why don't you stop Chad Knaus sometime in the garage this week and ask him how pleased he was with finishing sixth last year. Your shovel might wind up bent around your head.

Joe Menzer: Caraviello, thanks once again for twisting my words. My point is that the 48 was never totally out to lunch. It contended pretty much until the last few races, then fell off to sixth. No, I didn't say it was happy about it. But yes, there were many other teams -- the 37 or more who finished behind the 48 in the standings -- who would have been pleased with sixth. If I had a shovel, I would wrap it around your head right about now. But then I'd have to go to anger management classes, so I'll refrain.

Mark Aumann: Can you imagine George Steinbrenner "pleased" with sixth? Or George Halas? Or George Patton? By George, they'd be beside themselves with anger. And now we know why Joe has a shovel close by -- to dig himself out of the hole he's dug for himself.

David Caraviello: Now, looking ahead to the 600, I don't know that Jimmie's All-Star win makes him the automatic favorite. That format allowed him to coast around in the back for much of the race, not using as much of his car as some others did, and letting him save everything for that last 10-lap dash at the end. The 600 will be very different. There will be no place to hide. Much like Menzer, when Chad Knaus comes looking for him after Joe tries to convince him how wonderful it was to finish sixth.

Joe Menzer: Again, try reading what I said next time before piling on. Never said the 48 was pleased with sixth. But hey, why let the facts get in the way?

David Caraviello: I think they should make a change at this year's postseason banquet. The sixth-place finisher should receive the Joe Menzer: Don't Worry, Be Happy Award. For a job (kind of) well done!

Mark Aumann: Sixth: Halfway to the top!

* Preview Show: Johnson discusses a taxing 600 miles

* Race Hub: Johnson desires to leave impact on sport

2. The Coca-Cola 600 has produced more of its share of first-time winners through the years, from Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth to Casey Mears and David Reutimann more recently. Who are the leading candidates to make the big breakthrough Sunday?

Joe Menzer: I'm going to say AJ Allmendinger. He's due, he ran well in the All-Star Race -- which sometimes can be an indicator, if not always. And he's been running much better lately. He's my top candidate to break through.

Mark Aumann: Geez, I keep beating the drum for AJ Allmendinger and he keeps coming so close. I hate to contradict myself about not comparing exhibition results to the real thing a week later, but that run in the Showdown was pretty impressive. See? We can agree on things, Joe!

Joe Menzer: The thing is, there aren't really that many candidates from which to choose. Aric Almirola will win some races, I think, before he's done. But he's just getting started and I don't think he's ready to win yet. Beyond that, who are you going to choose who hasn't won at least once already? David Gilliland? Dave Blaney? Danica Patrick? I don't think so.

Breaking thru hard to do

Seventeen drivers entered in the Coca-Cola 600 have yet to win a race in the Cup Series.

D. Gilliland19732
S. Riggs18742
T. Kvapil18506
J. Yeley15122*
D. Stremme14708
M. Bliss13514
M. McDowell94020
S. Speed9215
L. Cassill59012
A. Almirola4614
J. Wise14037
T. Bell5029
C. Whitt4025
S. Leicht3024
D. Patrick2031

David Caraviello: Well, here's one situation where perhaps the All-Star Race is a potential harbinger of things to come. Allmendinger did a fantastic job last weekend, recovering from that flat tire, battling Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray for second place in the Showdown, and then really giving it a heck of a run in the main event. AJ hasn't had the best of early seasons, but the kid is determined to say the least, and really showed some grit last weekend. Penske gets that from him all the time; he'll be all right. Of course, now is about the point where Joe will chime in to claim any team should be "pleased" with 22nd in points.

Joe Menzer: No, but I am extremely pleased that you two agree with me on this Allmendinger kid (as Caraviello likes to call him). I knew you would both eventually come around to my way of thinking. It always happens.

* Allmendinger excels in racing's marathons

David Caraviello: Ladies and gentlemen, presented to the 22nd-place finisher in Sprint Cup points -- the Joe Menzer: Try Harder Award!

Joe Menzer: Some day, perhaps, you will even actually read my comments before trying to pile on. But baby steps ... baby steps.

Mark Aumann: Joe, I was trying to go through the entry list and come up with other names -- and the list gets pretty thin, pretty quickly. Dave Blaney? Danica? Landon Cassill? Is there anyone else who really has the combination of car and crew who could pull that off?

Joe Menzer: Now, I think the question should be expanded to say who might win his first oval race here. And if we do that, I'd throw Marcos Ambrose into the mix. He looked strong on All-Star night, as well, and he's going to win on an oval sooner or later. But he technically would not be a first-time winner, because he won on the road course at Watkins Glen this past summer.

Mark Aumann: Casey Mears and David Reutimann were definitely in the kind of stuff that's capable of getting there, with a break or two. In Mears' case, it was fuel economy. In Reutimann's, it was rain.

David Caraviello: I will give Joe this -- he did spot the obvious, that we don't have many candidates for first-time winners anymore. Something really strange would have to unfold Sunday afternoon and evening for a lot of these guys without a Sprint Cup win to make the breakthrough in the 600 this year. There's AJ, there's Almirola, and then the pool gets really thin really quickly. You have to go all the way down to guys like David Gilliland and Landon Cassill, who are capable enough drivers, but I'm not sure those teams are capable of winning unless things get really wacky.

Mark Aumann: But there's just so many top-notch cars out there that I can't conceive of a situation where we get a first-timer in Victory Lane. Especially with the way Roush Fenway cars have been on intermediate tracks.

Joe Menzer: Thank you, again, for coming around to my way of thinking. Keep the praise coming, please. I will accept your apologies for the earlier rudeness later. As for Roush Fenway, I think it's worried sick going into this race after the problems Edwards and Biffle had with their engines during the All-Star Race. Edwards said they were experimenting with some stuff and pushing their luck because it was a non-points event, but in talking with Matt Kenseth afterward, he said it was his understanding that they ran a new package that they hoped to transition into the Cup races. So now they've got to be nervous, needing those engines to last 600 miles.

David Caraviello: I think this question needs a qualifier. First-time winner on an oval course, or first-time winner (non-rainout division)? Ambrose continues to get better on ovals, and had a rather nice run in the All-Star event, and showed he can get around Charlotte Motor Speedway. There's a situation where, say if fuel mileage or something else comes into play, the Australian could sneak in and steal one. And don't sleep on Joey Logano here, boys -- the guy has the fifth-best driver rating at Charlotte among active competitors. His average finish there is 8.2. His numbers are good, and he's overdue for another win.

Mark Aumann: Well, if the Fords need a new package that's better than what they've shown so far in 2012, even Jimmie Johnson may quake in his sixth-place shoes.

Joe Menzer: So I'm right, again? Wow! This is getting to be one of my favorite Track Smacks of all time, and it started out a little rough for me. I'm back!

David Caraviello: Not so fast. You have to think the Roush Yates guys had those engines maxed out to get everything they could from a non-points race that featured a lot of short runs. I can't imagine they're using the same engine package this week for the 600. Of course, if they do, and somebody blows up and finishes 31st, I'm sure Menzer will be there to greet them in the garage and tell them they ought to be pleased with their night.

Mark Aumann: If we're pulling names out of "haven't won in a while," I think Caraviello's pretty much throwing Junior's hat in the ring. He was only 250 yards from doing it last May.

Joe Menzer: Oh, he tossed it in there with authority via his column last Saturday night. And this time, I can't say I disagree with the surly Caraviello.

* Caraviello: From fifth place, a favorite for 600 emerges

David Caraviello: Dale Earnhardt Jr. got more out of his car than anyone else last Saturday night. The thing was a beast, and he didn't have the track position nor the opportunity to cruise around in the back as did Johnson. The 88 ran well in a time span that will closely mirror that of the 600. Watch out for those guys Sunday. They're coming.

Mark Aumann: This race may end surly, but it definitely won't end early.

Joe Menzer: And now I can say I agree with you, good sir.

3. Last weekend Justin Lofton became the fifth different winner in as many Camping World Truck Series events this season. Is there a championship favorite in there somewhere?

David Caraviello: Not only did Lofton win, but he also assumed the points lead, by a one over Timothy Peters. This is kind of an odd start to the Truck Series season -- traditional contenders like Ron Hornaday and Johnny Sauter and Todd Bodine aren't out of it by any means, but they're also not exactly vying for the points lead, either. But you have to look at James Buescher, who shows week after week that he can drive the wheels off anything, and think he might currently be in the best position to take control of this thing.

Mark Aumann: Having run only five times this year, the Trucks are like saving some room for dessert. It's too much to have just as the meal, but in little bites, it's delicious. Especially when five different winners makes it seem like you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Joe Menzer: Man, I love the Camping World Truck Series. And one of the things I love so much about it, especially this year, is its unpredictability. Well, except for when Kasey Kahne is racing in a CWTS event. Then you know he'll finish first or second. But this year has been wonderful with all the different winners, and for the uncertainty that it has produced going forward. Favorites? Don't count out Ty Dillon. Ron Hornaday could still be a factor. Lofton, the current points leader, obviously is strong. But Peters might be the steadiest of them all, the most consistent.

Truck Series Standings

There have been five different winners in as many Truck races, including three first-timers: Justin Lofton, James Buescher and John King.

2.T. Peters -1 0 4 5
3.T. Dillon -16 0 1 5
4.J. Buescher-18 1 3 3
5.P. Kligerman -300 0 2
6.R. Hornaday-31 0 1 2
7.J. White -42 0 1 3
8.N. Piquet Jr.-45 0 1 3
9.T. Bodine -49 0 2 3
10.J. Coulter-55002

Mark Aumann: David's list is pretty good. I'd throw Ty Dillon in there, as well. And dang it, Joe! I was trying to avoiding being agreeable! Now you'll just accuse me of throwing in the trowel.

Joe Menzer: I love this! Thanks again, Mark, for pointing out how smart I am.

David Caraviello: Mark, the interesting thing to me is the generational shift we've seen on the Truck circuit in recent years. This was once very much kind of NASCAR's senior tour, but in recent years it's gotten younger, and sometimes dramatically so. You look at Dillon, Buescher, Lofton, Parker Kligerman, Nelson Piquet Jr., Joey Coulter -- these days, that's your Truck Series, and having all those new names and dynamic young drivers up there makes it a whole lot of fun to watch.

Joe Menzer: And I have to concede to Caraviello that I should have included Buescher on my list.

David Caraviello: It's OK, Joe. Given that you evidently slept through the entire 2011 Cup season, I imagine you snoozed through Buescher's Truck win at Kansas, as well.

Joe Menzer: I also will say I have been very impressed with Nelson Piquet Jr. at times this year and last. Now I'm not saying he'll win the Truck title this year, but I think he'll win at least one race and maybe a couple and perhaps be in the top-five mix by the end. Then next year he may just be in position to win a title himself.

Mark Aumann: The Truck Series has had these waves of talented young drivers. You think back to the Greg Biffles and the Travis Kvapils and the Kyle Busches -- and in between it was always Ron Hornaday against Jack Sprague or Todd Bodine. Very interesting dynamic at play. When one of the kids beats the veterans, they ought to change the term "margin of victory" to "generational gap."

Joe Menzer: And again, that's what's so great about the Truck Series. It's not just that the racing usually is very good, which it is. It's that there are so many young drivers who are fun to watch. And it's fun to watch them battle the occasional Cup guy who drops down to compete with them, as well as the Truck vets such as Hornaday and Bodine.

David Caraviello: People kind of dismissed Buescher's Nationwide victory at Daytona because of the way he won it, with what, a dozen cars crashing off the final corner. But you watch this stuff, and it's clear the cat can drive. It's somewhat exciting to think that perhaps one day soon, the Sprint Cup Series will feature guys like Ricky Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne, Truck alum Austin Dillon, his brother, Ty, and Buescher. All those guys are coming fast. You just hope there are enough rides -- and sponsorship -- to accommodate them at NASCAR's highest level.

Mark Aumann: I do wish there weren't as many open weeks early in the season. It's a series that needs a little more of a spotlight -- and doesn't seem to have enough races to get any flow going. I know that's partly because of the economy and partly because of the travel, but too bad there's not a standalone venue or two available in April/May that could keep from having the feeling that it's running once a month.

Joe Menzer: Agreed on that point. The schedule is a little too spread out. You get pumped about it and then it goes away for a while -- like the gap between John King's emotional win in the season opener at Daytona and when the series finally raced again at Martinsville like a month later.

Mark Aumann: David, I remember thinking the same thing about guys like Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace: "Just wait until these guys get good!"

David Caraviello: It does feel like both the Truck and Nationwide tours are kind of returning to their roles as developmental circuits, producing drivers who will one day be ready to make the leap to the next level. The single-series championship eligibility rule certainly helped that along. But you look at what's happening in the lower series, and from a driver standpoint, at least, you have to feel really good about NASCAR's future. There may be no rookies in Cup this season, but the premiere division is set up to have some really good ones relatively soon. Assuming sponsorship is there, of course.

Mark Aumann: David, I don't think driver talent is ever an issue. There's always been good and hungry guys wanting the shot, going all the way back to Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and the like. It's much more now about getting the right opportunity at the right price. The Trucks are a good wading-in point -- but the price goes up very steeply from here, and that's where we're seeing a logjam at the top. Very few good rides for a select few drivers. You either have to have connections or a full wallet.

Joe Menzer: Or both. As for Mark thinking that about DW, Earnhardt and Rusty, that just means Mark's old ... really old. Older than me, even. He probably remembers when those guys were just starting out, when they would have been pleased with a sixth-place finish!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.