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Smack: Best chances for the Indy-Cup championship double

July 26, 2012, , NASCAR.com



Smack: Best chances for the Indy-Cup championship double
Other topics: Nationwide hits the Bricks; can Gordon finally win this weekend?

1. It's Track Smack, Brickyard edition. Eight times, the winner of the Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has also gone on to win the series title. Who is the best bet to claim that double this season?

Jill Erwin: I guess I'd be clinically insane to say Jeff Gordon, so I won't. Looking at the combination of who has run well there and who has a shot in the points, I'm going to go with Tony Stewart. Fantasy Preview tells me that Stewart has finished in the top five in 46.2 percent of his Indy starts, and he's the best in the points of all the guys who have had some Indy success. Plus, he's already done the double in 2005.

David Caraviello: Not to rip off a 1980s hip-hop group, but it's got to be -- Tony, Tony, Tony. Stewart has two wins at Indianapolis, the best average finish among any active driver heading to the place, is the defending Cup champion and is in contention to be the top overall seed in this year's Chase. This is absolute no-brainer, like ordering the ribeye at St. Elmo's. A lot of guys can win this race, and several can win the title, but when you talk about who could do both, the pool thins considerably.

Joe Menzer: You know, lots of times I get on the folks who come up with these sometimes lame questions for Track Smack. But this is a really good one. Who do you go with ... Tony Stewart? Jimmie Johnson? Do you dare to blurt out the name Dale Earnhardt Jr.? The fact is that Jill does look clinically insane with her mention of Jeff Gordon, but he is indeed a guy who could win this race and use it to propel himself into the Chase.

David Caraviello: We'll talk more about Jeff Gordon later, but I just don't know that he could unleash the kind of 10-race stretch it's going to take to win the title. Win the Brickyard? Absolutely. Maybe he should have won last year, and he's has been fast enough on many occasions to win this year. String together 10 weeks of excellence and win the title? That's going to require a step up.

Joe Menzer: I think I'm going to go with Jimmie Johnson. I feel like that 48 team is lying in the weeds a little bit, waiting to pounce. I think they will build momentum as it inches closer to the Chase. And the dude has three wins at Indy already in his career.

Jill Erwin: Thanks, I think, Joe? And David, Tony Toni Tone was one of my favorite groups, but their best albums came out in the '90s. Recognize. Side note: How old do I have to be to say "albums?"

Joe Menzer: Just a side note, but I've ever heard of Tony Toni Tone, and I'm kind of glad I haven't.

David Caraviello: Sorry, Jill, but I was just putting on one of my old Cameo vinyls and wasn't paying attention. Word up?

Jill Erwin: I table the rest of my comments until Mr. Gordon makes his return appearance in Smack. And Menzer: Shut your mouth! Do some Googling. I think that's what the kids call it nowadays.

Double-dippers

Winners of Indy, Cup title in same season
DriverSeason
Dale Jarrett1999
Bobby Labonte2000
Jeff Gordon2001
Tony Stewart2005
Jimmie Johnson2006
Jimmie Johnson2008
Jimmie Johnson2009

David Caraviello: Joe, I was thinking about Jimmie Johnson the other day, and it wasn't just cursing him for scheduling his Indianapolis media availability at 7:45 in the morning (bring coffee, Jimmie). I was also wondering if they're just hanging out and biding their time, or if there's something else going on. They've been unusually quiet the last several weeks. No question, though, that the No. 48 group has shown they can win both Indy and the big prize at the end of the year. I think we're all just waiting to see exactly how strong they are this season, and the jury is still out on that.

Joe Menzer: Agreed. But I think the verdict is going to be that they'll be in contention until the end of this Chase. And they might start letting the world in on that little secret with a strong run at Indy this weekend.

Jill Erwin: Joe Menzer:, fortune teller. Tell Miss Cleo I said hey. I'm not as sold as Joe is, in that I come down far more on David's side of the ledger. I can understand sandbagging a little bit, but there just haven't been the flashes of brilliance from that 48 team I have come to expect.

Joe Menzer: I was thinking of some of the other title contenders. And it's getting to the point where even though Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are your points leaders, you have to change your way of thinking and realize that their current positions in the standings mean absolutely nothing. The guys in position to start the Chase at the top after the points are reset are Stewart and Brad Keselowski and whomever else can get up to three or more wins.

David Caraviello: And don't forget, Kevin Harvick is a former Brickyard winner, too, though there seems to be something missing in that team this year as far as contending for the championship goes. They seem a step behind that top tier of drivers that's been vying for the points lead. And what to make of guys like Kenseth, Dale Jr. and Greg Biffle, who've never won at Indy? We seem to be favoring guys with a history of success there, which I guess is only natural given what we've seen in the Brickyard race over the years. It tends to favor the same cast of characters over and over.

Jill Erwin: I do think Biffle has a real shot at the victory this weekend. I like him quite a lot, but his career numbers there are somewhat misleading. He's the only driver in this week's field with a four-race top-10 streak at the Brickyard. I think this could be his weekend, and that gives him two wins and nipping at Stewart and Keselowski's heels.

Joe Menzer: You look at Denny Hamlin, for instance. His average finish is only 18.5 at Indy and he's never kissed the bricks. Keselowski could be a dark horse, though. He's only run there twice and has one top 10 finish, plus he's proven to be a quick learner wherever he goes. Could he win and pull the double? Not out of the realm of possibilities, to be sure.

David Caraviello: Look at Jill Erwin:, bringing the statistics. Hey, five top-10s in nine starts and an average finish of 13.1 are nothing for the Biff to be embarrassed about.

Jill Erwin: Absolutely not. But in the past four years, his average finish is 5.5.

Joe Menzer: What's going on here with all this math? Is this Track Smack or an accounting class?

Jill Erwin: Hey, without Mark Aumann around, someone had to be the resident numbers geek.

2. The Nationwide Series makes its debut on the big track this weekend. What are those drivers in for, and is there a favorite in the race?

Familiar faces

Cup drivers also running Nationwide this weekend
DriverIndy starts*Best Finish
Ky. Busch74th (2007)
D. Hamlin63rd (2008)
K. Kahne82nd (2005)
Keselowski29th (2011)
J. Logano39th (2010)
P. Menard51st (2011)

Joe Menzer: I think you have to look to two guys as favorites: Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish Jr. They've kind of downplayed it, but I've got to believe the experience that they've accumulated turning laps at that track even in different types of cars than the ones they'll be driving this weekend is going to give them at least a middling advantage. Plus, both have been consistently fast this season anyway. Sadler, in particular, has been on some kind of roll. He's leading the series in points, and has three wins including last week. He's making folks take notice that perhaps he deserves another shot at a quality ride in Cup.

David Caraviello: Well, I think the fact that there are seven Cup regulars in the field says something about what drivers think of this event. Denny Hamlin tweeted the other day about how psyched he was at the prospect of getting two trophies at Indianapolis. Regardless of the series, it's still the most famous race track in the world, and I think Nationwide drivers are honestly stoked at the prospect of competing on it. Although you'd have to think the winner will be one of those moonlighting Cup guys with a lot more experience on a layout that's deceptively difficult to drive.

Jill Erwin: I think Joe's suggestions aren't a bad place to start. Indy is a different monster for these guys, and I'm excited to see what shakes out on Saturday. As for what to expect? I don't even know. I think that it will be a learning experience for all of the young guys, but I'm just not sure how much racing there will be. The gap from great to good to not-so-good can be pretty large in Nationwide, and spacing them out that much on a giant track could make for some long stretches without a ton of action. And David, fine point about a top-tier driver winning the Nationwide race. I suppose I was just thinking of the Nationwide regulars, instead of actual race favorites. I do think a Cup guy will win this race, just for the sheer experience factor.

David Caraviello: Jill, I think the field will be bunched up again and again on restarts, because I think there are going to be a lot of cautions in this race. Indy might be the most technically demanding oval track on the planet, and it's going to be 100 degrees and very slick, and that good-to-great gap is going to be as obvious as a blinking neon sign. I'm really wondering how some of the drivers at the back end of the Nationwide field are going to handle this thing. Perhaps not well, making me think we're going to see a lot of yellow.

Jill Erwin: Also a fair point. Who are you, and what have you done with pontificating, big-picture David Caraviello?

David Caraviello: He's off listening to one of his classic Boyz II Men albums.

Joe Menzer: I hate to always agree with you two. So I won't. I'll stick with my statement that Sadler and Hornish are two guys the Cup fellas are going to have to go through to get to Victory Lane. I think they'll both be stout. And I'm just surprised Caraviello hasn't tabbed Danica Patrick as a favorite. Or is there still time?

Jill Erwin: Caraviello is too busy prepping for his live-on-NASCAR.COM chat with Danica this Friday. The man's got work to do, Joe!

Joe Menzer: And as far as music references go, I've got to bring this back to terms most NASCAR fans -- and myself included -- can relate to. This is the track where I last saw the legendary Charlie Daniels Band play a few years back. Awesome stuff. And by the way, Charlie Daniels is an avid NASCAR fan who isn't afraid to share his views about it on Twitter. I'm not sure he'd agree with you, David.

David Caraviello: I believe Miss Erwin was the one who picked Mrs. Patrick to win a race earlier this season, so back off, Menzer. Are you guys forgetting about all the Cup guys in this race? I see what you're saying about Sadler and Hornish and Danica and all that, but we're not at Chicagoland anymore. This isn't a standalone event at your run-of-the-mill tri-oval. This is Indy, and the winner is going to be one of those double-dipping Cup guys. I'll be even more specific: the winner is going to be Kasey Kahne. As much a sure thing as Peyton Manning leading the Colts back to the playoffs.

Jill Erwin: Ahem ... I've ditched Menzer's silly "Sadler and Hornish" bandwagon and jumped on your "Cup guys drive this show" train. However, I'm not moving all the way to the Kasey Kahne Kar. I'm going with America's sweetheart, Kurt Busch. I have no earthly idea why. Can we start a "Which driver will Jill pick out of thin air to win this week" contest for Smack?

Joe Menzer: Did you guys know that Sadler twice had top-five finishes at Indy in Cup? He knows his way around the place.

Jill Erwin: Joe, did you know that was seven years ago and with a then-strong Yates Racing team? And in a Cup Series where most of them knew their way around the track enough to avoid multiple pileups. Whole different ballgame this week, pal.

David Caraviello: Joe, if this were your standard Nationwide field, I'd be right there with you. As it is, you have to think Elliott will be up there among the contenders. But those Cup guys are going to be tough to beat on a track where they have so much more experience. The only negative? Saturday is going to be crazy busy for the guys in both races, and perhaps crazy hot, so there could be a physical price paid for all that on-track activity. But I'll still take Kasey, with maybe Hamlin or Joey Logano in one of those powerhouse Gibbs cars right behind.

Joe Menzer: I will defend myself with the Sadler pick, Jill. The guy is in great Richard Childress Racing Nationwide equipment now, obviously. And again, he's on a serious roll. He will be there at the end this Saturday, I do believe. And I'll still say Hornish will be a factor, too. What the heck, why not?

Jill Erwin: Because you're wrong?

Joe Menzer: But if we're doing math, I'd better stay away from reciting too many Sam Hornish stock-car statistics at the track where he ran so well in IndyCars. In three previous cup starts, his average Indy finish is 29.3. Ugh. That might put a dent in my theory that laps in any type of car there is actually going to mean something.

David Caraviello: I think now we're discovering why Menzer never liked math.

3. Four-time Brickyard race winner Jeff Gordon is still searching for that one victory to vault him into wild-card contention. Is Indianapolis his best chance?

Joe Menzer: Yes. But it's only a starting point. The fact is, at 17th in points and with four guys ahead of him with at least one win, he's likely got to win twice over the last seven regular-season races to jump ahead of them and qualify for the Chase as a wild card. So I say, yes, he could win this Sunday. And, yes, it will vault him into contention. But, no, it will not be enough to get him to the Chase by itself.

David Caraviello: OK, let's be honest: Of all the wild-card hopefuls who are on the outside looking in, perhaps no one benefits from the schedule of remaining regular-season tracks better than Jeff Gordon. There's Indy, where he's won four times. There's Watkins Glen, and he's the sport's all-time winner on road courses. There's Atlanta, where he claimed career victory No. 85 last year. So you must admit, things set up very nicely for the guy going forward. Of course, now all he has to do is win -- which has proven something of a sticking point thus far.

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Follow your favorite driver's chance of winning this week's race and making the Chase.

Jill Erwin: Ah, the return of my good friend Jeff Gordon. Who's crazy now? I say, yes, for obvious reasons. Look at the guy's record there: 18 starts, four wins, 10 top-fives, 14 top-10s. He has missed the top 10 all of four times since 1994. He's much more likely to be a force to be reckoned with this weekend than he was back early in the season when he was oh-so snake bitten.

David Caraviello: So, yes, we've established that Jeff is great at the Brickyard, and that this weekend is a golden opportunity for him. Cannot argue with four wins and a career average finish of 9.1. And that driver rating (because I know Joe loves math) of 99.4 is pretty solid, too. But I think we're also establishing that one win may not be enough for the guy anymore. He needs to win once and made up 23 points between him and Kyle Busch, who currently holds the second wild-card spot. And I think we all have a feeling that Kasey Kahne won't be the only wild-card contender to get to two wins.

Jill Erwin: I do agree with Joe on one point: One win is not going to do it. Not for Jeff Gordon and most likely not for anyone. I do think Kyle has another win in him this season, and he's sitting in that second wild-card spot.

Joe Menzer: Let's not get ahead of ourselves now. Watkins Glen belongs to Marcos Ambrose these days. I think I like Gordon's chances at Atlanta more than at Watkins Glen. But, hey, first he has to win at Indy to really get this conversation started. Let's not forget that he last did that in 2004. That's a long, long time ago.

David Caraviello: Wow, Joe is already penciling Ambrose in as your winner at the Glen. A little premature, you think? Watkins "belongs" to a guy who has all of one career Cup win there (or anywhere)? Did it "belong" to Juan Montoya after he won there in 2010?

Jill Erwin: Hey, Joe, did you need a straw? Saw you grasping at one. I'm having a hard enough time picking a Nationwide race winner, and Joe's already on to Watkins Glen? I'm telling you, the guy should have his own late-night infomercial.

David Caraviello: Hey Joe, Marvin Panch just called. He's wondering why you didn't say Watkins Glen "belonged" to him. He has one career victory there as well.

Joe Menzer: Seriously, Jillbird, what straws am I grasping at? Gordon hasn't won at the Brickyard in eight years. That's a fact. Ambrose pretty much owns Watkins Glen these days. Check his record in Nationwide as well as Cup. Fact. Word up. Whatever it is that you two can relate to.

David Caraviello: Do Nationwide wins get you into the Chase? Was there a rule change I missed?

Jill Erwin: Jillbird is my new favorite nickname. And I'm not arguing it's been a while since Gordon won, but the guy did run second there last year and led more laps than your race winner, the esteemed Paul Menard.

Joe Menzer: Last time I checked Ambrose was pretty good on all road courses, but especially Watkins Glen. And Gordon hasn't won at The Glen since 2001, when Caraviello was still covering preps for the Spartanburg newspaper. So, yeah, I'll take Ambrose over Jeff at The Glen these days. As for Indy, I'll still take Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie "Jimbird" Johnson, over the No. 24 driver this time around.

Wild card standings

WC pos.Pts. pos.DriverWinsPoints
12.13.Kyle Busch1545
--14.Ryan Newman1536
--16.Joey Logano1533
--11.Carl Edwards0567
--15.Paul Menard0534
--17.Jeff Gordon0524
--18.Marcos Ambrose0495

David Caraviello: The frightening thing is, here I am agreeing with Joe, and he still spins all this off into some incomprehensible tangent. (Up next: He claims Aric Almirola will win five times this season.) But going back to Gordon, I fear his window is rapidly closing, despite the favorable tracks ahead of him. He's not in control of his own destiny here, and the minute Logano or Kyle Busch or whoever gets to two wins, he's essentially cooked. They've made a very nice rally from their early-season troubles, but things are just out of their hands now.

Joe Menzer: Thanks for coming around to my way of thinking, guys. Much appreciated.

David Caraviello: And actually, Joe, in 2001 was covering a sport called NASCAR, which you at the time knew little about. Sometimes it feels like things have never changed.

Jill Erwin: My head hurts again. Still? David's got it right, however. Barring a Tony-Stewart-in-the-2011-Chase type of run out of Gordon, he's going to have to rely a lot more on people outside that No. 24 garage than those in it.

Joe Menzer: Good point, Jillbird. David, I'll have to do some research to make sure your numbers are correct about your own career. Then I'll get back to you.

David Caraviello: I can't listen to this anymore. I'm going to turn up my Bell Biv DeVoe record. That Menzer is poison.