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Track Smack: Who is the frontrunner heading down the stretch?

August 23, 2012, , NASCAR.com



Track Smack: Who is the frontrunner heading down the stretch?
Other topics: Nationwide points race tightens and can No. 18 rebound at Bristol?

1. Michigan winner Greg Biffle is the third driver to lead the Sprint Cup points in as many weeks, after Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Which of these frontrunners is the strongest bet for the championship?

Bill Kimm: I think common sense says Five-Time would have to be the favorite, but honestly, my money is on Greg Biffle. The confidence is there, and we saw that at Michigan. But more importantly, the performance is there. Now, he's not rolling off victory after victory, but he is consistently in the top five each and every week. I see some history being made this year ... and Biffle will be making it.

Mark Aumann: It seems like the collective media has anointed an "odds-on favorite" every week since, oh, Daytona. And every week, there's a new "odds-on favorite." Usually, it's Jimmie Johnson. And I'm not even certain the guy who will hold up the trophy at Homestead is even in this list. Consider that none of us would have given Tony Stewart a shot in 2011.

David Caraviello: There's really no question here, ladies and gentlemen. As impressive as Dale Jr. has been hanging in there all year, and as strong as Biffle seems to be, Jimmie Johnson is just on another level. He doesn't necessarily have the results to show it, but let's be honest -- this is a guy who should have won three of the past four races, have five victories overall, and be pulling away in the battle for the top Chase seed. Obviously, stuff happened and he's in the pack with everyone else. But you get beyond race winners and look at performance, and Five-Time is having one of those years that make you think a sixth title is a real possibility.

Mark Aumann: Despite all the love of Johnson, Brad Keselowski's name keeps jumping out at me. Back-to-back second-place finishes. Solid, consistent runs just about everywhere we go. Perhaps we're setting up for a real surprise champion. I know he's not on the list, sorry. Of the three who are, Johnson's been better this summer. But I'm still not buying that he's head and shoulders better than the crowd right now.

Bill Kimm: I agree Mark ... I'm not sold as much as David is. And it's hard for me to totally embrace Keselowski as a Cup title contender, but let's be honest -- the dude could easily go into the Chase as the points leader. He's clearly the odds-on favorite at Bristol. I still like what I see from the No. 16 team ... such an underdog, no one is looking at that team, and they should be.

David Caraviello: Mark, I will give you that Brad Keselowski right now shapes up as perhaps Johnson's most likely foil, even though he hasn't been one of the recent points leaders. Still, he's benefitted from some good fortune to finish second the past two weeks, with the last-lap calamity befalling Kyle Busch at Watkins Glen -- which BK might have had something to do with, by the way -- and JJ blowing an engine at Michigan. But I would agree that he's perhaps a more realistic title contender than either Biffle or Earnhardt at this point, given his consistency and the way he can contend for race wins.

Mark Aumann: And yes, I'll concede to DC that Johnson's been very good as of late -- and probably could have won two races that got away. But he didn't. And they blew up at Michigan.

David Caraviello: Regardless, the 48 is head and shoulders above everyone else. If they get the finishes they deserve, this is a runaway. Now, in NASCAR that kind of thing is never guaranteed, as we've seen the past few weeks. But in my mind contending for the title during the regular season is one thing, and being able to win it in the Chase is another. One takes consistency, the other likely takes race wins. I think Johnson's the only one who's shown the ability to do both. As good as Brad's been, he's still fifth in the points. Dale Jr. has one race win. Greg Biffle needed a huge break to get his second. When we get to all those Chase tracks that Johnson thrives on, it could get scary.

Sprint Cup Series

Official Driver Standings
RankDriverPointsWins
2M. Kenseth8031
3D. Earnhardt Jr.8011
4J. Johnson7953
5B. Keselowski7763

Bill Kimm: The question is Biffle, Jimmie or Earnhardt ... but that's the beauty of this season -- there hasn't been a favorite all year. No one has jumped up and taken that title. For all we know, Denny Hamlin could turn it on starting at Chicagoland! And turn it down a little DC ... Jimmie hasn't been that amazing. "Head and shoulders above everyone else"? I can't back that statement.

Mark Aumann: Don't forget Matt Kenseth. That's what makes this particular exercise interesting and frustrating at the same time. We're trying to use current races to forecast a postseason that can turn on one or two freak situations. But the points all get reset to zero, or close to it, in two weeks. So what Jimmie does now only matters if you believe in a constant of momentum. And this sport has proven time and time again, momentum is a fallacy. Not even from race to race, but pit stop to pit stop. Or even lap to lap. And Jimmie Johnson has 11 top-five finishes. Six others have at least nine. That's pretty competitive.

Bill Kimm: Competitive yes, head and shoulders above everyone else ... not even close.

David Caraviello: Listen, Tony's run last year was so amazing, partly because of the freakish nature of it. Ninety-nine times out of 100, you're running the way you're running for a reason, and you can't flip a switch and make everything better. Those Gibbs guys have their issues right now, and despite his race wins I'm beginning to think Hamlin is a step behind everyone else. Kenseth is a lurker by nature, and so this scenario perhaps fits him better than a lot of other guys. But I'm not going to say anyone can win it just because Tony did it last year. That was too much of an aberration to be taken as a rule.

Mark Aumann: Wasn't it after Michigan last year that Tony said he wasn't deserving of being in the Chase? But we've also seen some freakish things happen in the Chase as well. Kyle Busch breaking a rear end bolt. Matt Kenseth running into the end of the pit road wall. It's just too much of a roulette spin to think Jimmie's that much better than the rest of the competition at this point, in my opinion.

David Caraviello: You guys have watched the last four races, yes? Anybody else been in a position to win three of them? I know the numbers are what they are, but the performance is something else altogether. JJ's not going to spin or blow an engine every week. If they start finishing the job, it could be lights out.

Bill Kimm: What do the past four races have in common with the Chase? Oh yeah, absolutely nothing! Those tracks are like nothing in the Chase. Indy, Pocono, the Glen and Michigan are not going to help in the final 10.

David Caraviello: It has nothing to do with what the tracks are like, Bill. Shoot, for the No. 48 team, the tracks are more than a known quantity. I'm just not buying this theory that somebody's going to emerge from deep in the pack again because Stewart did it last year. No question, Mark, strange things can happen. But you have to have the performance, first and foremost. Have to. Everything falls in line from there. And it's pretty clear the 48 has more of it than everyone else.

Mark Aumann: I do like David's momentum in this week's Smack, however. Let's see if he can keep it up over the next two questions.

2. It's on to Bristol Motor Speedway, where wild-card contender Kyle Busch is a five-time winner. What are his chances on the track's revamped concrete surface?

Mark Aumann: I wrote in Power Rankings this week that for all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about how Kyle may miss the Chase, there's just as much of a possibility that he goes out and wins three consecutive races, starting with Bristol. Yeah, DC made the point earlier about Gibbs not being as competitive perhaps this season, but boy, I wouldn't bet against Kyle at a track like Bristol. The real wild card in all of this is the track regrinding. If it's back to beating and banging, a guy like Kyle is in his element.

David Caraviello: Mark, I must admit, I read that and about choked on my skinny mocha frappachino (no whip). Looking at the non-factor the No. 18 guys have been the past few weeks, that's just difficult for me to wrap my head around. Now -- Bristol and Richmond are clearly the whole ballgame for Kyle, and it starts at a place where he's won five times. He's so young that most of his races have come at the Bristol post-resurfacing, so I'm not sure we can go on his record on the "old" track. I really don't know what to expect here, to be honest. You talk about a spin of the roulette wheel, this is it.

Kyle Busch

Last 10 races at Bristol
YearStartFinish
2011121
20112314
2010389
2010191
2009191
2009151
20082217
200892
2007201

Bill Kimm: In Fantasy Showdown (shameless plug) I picked Kyle Busch as my stud. Yes, things haven't been great for Busch lately, but the aggressiveness of Thunder Valley may just be the medicine. He should be very strong this weekend and I wouldn't be surprised to see him get that second victory.

Mark Aumann: Letting the win slip away -- literally -- at the Glen could very well come back to haunt the No. 18, but I think he's good enough here in the last three races before the Chase field is set to get a second win.

David Caraviello: I don't know, guys. I understand Kyle's history here and everything, but when you look at who's running well and who's not ... this to me is Brad Keselowski's golden opportunity to set himself up as the No. 1 seed in the Chase. Taking the track out of the equation, it's hard to bet against a guy who's won two straight races there and has back-to-back runner-up finishes. Putting the track into the equation, these wild cards (not the Chase kind) typically benefit the strong teams that can adapt the quickest. Brad fits on both counts, assuming he doesn't get punted out of the way on the last lap.

Bill Kimm: Kyle a non-factor? He was going to win at Watkins Glen, he finished second at Indy. How exactly is that a non-factor?

Mark Aumann: I'm with you, DC, on the track. The engineers believe they've done all they can do to make the track "similar" to what it was before. But that's no guarantee that the race will be anything close to what we've seen in the past. So you almost have to throw out past performance -- with the exception of knowing that certain guys have run well under both configurations there. And one of those is Kyle. His first win was in 2007, before the most recent resurfacing. Plus, Kyle had a stretch of 12 top-10 finishes in a 13-race span at Bristol. He's not chopped liver there. Whatever that means. Idioms.

Bill Kimm: No question, Kyle and Brad are "head and shoulders" above the field at Bristol. They've won six of the past seven races there. The new surface could be interesting ... but I honestly don't think it's going to change things so drastically that Brad and Kyle will all of a sudden struggle there. Bristol is still Bristol.

Mark Aumann: Sorry, but I liked the actual "racing" at Bristol. Unfortunately, I'm in the minority -- and I don't buy a ticket. Over/under on number of cautions Saturday night? I'm picking 18. The record is 20.

David Caraviello: I shouldn't say Kyle's been a non-factor the last few weeks. That's unfair. He obviously could have won at Watkins Glen, finished a distant second behind Johnson at Indianapolis. The last time he was really in the mix to win before that? The Coca-Cola 600. In May. Hey, anything can happen on any given week, but this year we haven't seen the Kyle Busch we've been used to, and I think he'd be the first person to tell you that. Oh yeah, Kyle's last two Bristol races? He's finished 14th and 32nd. Of course, before that he won four out of five.

Mark Aumann: Oh, those damned statistics!

David Caraviello: As for the race track ... on this I think Mark and I would agree. I thought the finish to the March race there, with Kenseth and Keselowski chasing one another through lapped traffic, was fantastic. Put that product on any other layout, and people go nuts for it. But at Bristol they want wrecks and tempers. The track is a victim of its own reputation, in many ways.

Bill Kimm: If the past two weeks are any indication, we should see plenty of tempers!

David Caraviello: That's true. The gamesmanship has begun. And two short tracks in the next three weeks. Could get interesting.

Mark Aumann: If this Track Smack is any indication, it's a good thing we don't have helmets to throw.

Bill Kimm: It's not my fault David is wrong most of the time.

David Caraviello: I am, though, willing to punch an ambulance like Elliott Sadler did at Bristol in 2004. Or if Bill keeps it up, punch something else like Jimmy Spencer did that one time ....

Mark Aumann: Wasn't that a kid named Busch?

3. Sam Hornish Jr. has knotted defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for second place in Nationwide points, 22 behind Elliott Sadler. Does the double-duty Penske driver have a shot at the title?

Mark Aumann: I honestly think any of the top four guys right now have a legitimate shot, and perhaps Hornish better than anyone. Coming back to finish second at Montreal after getting dumped late in the race was amazing. Sadler has a pretty good margin, but as we've seen time and time again, it only takes one trip up to make this a close horse race again.

David Caraviello: OK, let me come clean and be upfront about something: I was totally off the mark about Sam Hornish Jr. I really worried that being pressed into double duty in this post-AJ Allmendinger era at Penske Racing would negatively affect him on the Nationwide Series, especially with split weekends looming. Boy, has he proven me a bigger idiom than Mark thinks I am. Second, third, third, second the past four weeks. Did anyone see this coming? Is anyone on the Nationwide tour running better right now?

Nationwide Series

Official Driver Standings
RankDriverPointsWins
2R. Stenhouse Jr.8023
3S. Hornish Jr. 8020
4A. Dillon7891
5Justin Allgaier7561

Bill Kimm: I must eat a little crow here, too. A few weeks ago I wrote Sam Hornish Jr. off and said the title would be won by either Sadler, Stenhouse or Dillon. Hornish has made himself a contender and I am openly admitting I was wrong! I didn't think he had it in him, and don't get me wrong, the road courses have helped ... but he has four consecutive finishes of third or better -- that has title threat written all over it.

Mark Aumann: That win at Phoenix last season seemed to be the boost to the morale that Sam desperately needed, and he's carried that over into 2012 -- particularly in recent weeks. And yeah, who would have thought getting back into the Cup car would have been such a step forward? I think he's turned the corner and has sloughed off the whole "Sideways Sam" moniker. The guy was obviously a fantastic open-wheel driver. You don't win championships and Indy 500s without having talent. But getting over the hump in NASCAR took him some time. We're seeing the results of that development now.

Bill Kimm: Well, he did get sideways a few times at Montreal. But how he was able to drive through the field and finish second shows just how wrong I, and apparently David, were about him.

David Caraviello: Bill, glad to see I'm not the only one. And the Penske folks clearly see it, too, as evidenced by how they kept Sam in Montreal all of last weekend until after the race. It's quite clear that's the emphasis right now, even though he's racing for a ride in the No. 22 Cup car as well. Listen, Sam has been good all year, so it's not like these guys suddenly found something. But he's clearly running better, and you wonder if that's because of the increased seat time given how all this has coincided with him stint in AJ's old car.

Mark Aumann: He's not only put himself in a position to prove himself at the Nationwide level, but has to be considered right up there for the No. 22 Cup ride in 2013. I don't think any of us could have guessed that to be the case a month ago. We talked about Keselowski earlier -- and there seemed to be a moment last season, perhaps at Pocono, where it all "clicked." I think we're seeing something similar with Sam right now.

David Caraviello: There's been gradual improvement on the Cup side. Back-to-back top 20s, a strong finish at Watkins Glen, 12th last week at Michigan. The guy is clearly getting more competitive, but he's not there yet, and you have to think that where Penske goes for 2013 and beyond depends on what other options might be on the table. If they can't get Trevor Bayne, and they don't want to pursue Joey Logano ... then yes, you'd have to think it's Sam's ride to lose right now. Though I wonder if all this AJ stuff had gone down earlier, if Matt Kenseth might be pointed in a different direction.

Bill Kimm: Can't wait for all the dominoes to fall ... but that is for another Track Smack. The funny thing is, he's been pretty phenomenal all season. Aside from a 20th in the season opener, he hasn't finished worse than 13th in Nationwide all season. His eight top-fives are strong and 15 top 10s trail just the three others in the title discussion. The one big omission from this season is a victory.

Mark Aumann: Correct. The only thing Sam is missing right now is the ability to close out victories. He's that close to getting there.

Bill Kimm: And that may ultimately be what separates him from the championship.

Mark Aumann: Great minds think alike, BK. Just like in Cup, the real key will be strength on the intermediate tracks. I'll be real interested to see how Atlanta shapes up, because that could give us a good indication of which way the championship goes this fall.

David Caraviello: Mark, I do wonder if Sam's road-course ability has perhaps skewed his results a little in his favor the past few weeks, though he does have plenty of strong runs on ovals to back them up. And as for a win -- no Chase on the Nationwide tour, boys. All about points. And given how he's run the last four weeks or so, I wouldn't count him out at 22 back. The Nationwide title hunt could be as exciting as anything else.

Mark Aumann: Sadler won at Chicagoland and Iowa, so you can't discount his ability to put together victories at those kind of tracks. But I think this will come down to the last race or two.

David Caraviello: Well, Hornish isn't the only one in a new ride. Sadly for us and good for him, our own Bill Kimm is moving on to greener pastures as well. He's always taken Track Smack in the right spirit, and been a great sport about it, so this is definitely a loss for us all. Mark, we're going to have to find somebody else to pile on now, aren't we?

Mark Aumann: Yeah, we won't have Mr. Kimm to kick around any more. Canadians everywhere are breathing sighs of relief. They'll just have to find another ugly American to send their hate e-mails to.

Bill Kimm: Well, I have to say David it has been an honor smacking with you, Mark and Joe Menzer. You three have made me feel small, insignificant, and clueless the past few years and I look forward to paying hundreds of dollars to a therapist trying to boost my self esteem! In all seriousness, I am going to miss my NASCAR family ... not only here at NASCAR.com, but all the fans as well. Best fan base in sports, without question, and it has been an honor being a part of it the past six years. It has been an amazing ride and I am truly blessed to have been able to spend the past six years in this business.

Mark Aumann: Hmm, I knew I should have listened to my father and become a shrink.

David Caraviello: Bill, it's been a pleasure. And Mark, don't be such an idiom.