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Track Smack: Who earns the final wild-card berth at Richmond?

September 05, 2012, , NASCAR.com



Track Smack: Who earns the final wild-card berth at Richmond?
Also: Hamlin's Chase seed outlook and will Kenseth or Logano be better in '13?

1. It's time for Richmond, and the regular season's final race. Simply put: who earns that final wild-card berth, and who misses out on the Chase?

Mark Aumann: Based on his track record at Richmond, Kyle Busch is in. And even if he bumps Tony Stewart out of the top 10, I think he and Kasey Kahne get the wild cards, leaving Jeff Gordon out in the cold this year. Here's the stat that does it for me: Kyle Busch has made 15 starts at Richmond and has completed every one of 6,010 laps during that span. Every. One. Gordon is 12 points behind, which means if he doesn't win Saturday night, he has to finish 12 positions better than Busch, who has finished worse than sixth only twice in those 15 starts.

Joe Menzer: I'd like to say that Jeff Gordon or even some real long shot like Marcos Ambrose is going to win the race in dramatic fashion and knock Kyle Busch out of that second wild-card spot -- and not because I'm anti-Kyle Busch, but just because that would really be exciting. But it's just not likely. For one thing, Kyle is well aware of the circumstances and what he needs to do to make sure he gets in, and that's to stay in front of those guys -- or at least keep Gordon in his sights and, if necessary, prevent the 24 from winning.

David Caraviello: I don't know if there are quite as many drivers in play here as it might seem, given the point gaps we're talking about. It would take a lot of strange things to happen for some of these guys on the lower end of the Chase bubble to have a serious shot at getting in. I guess what it comes down to is -- can Jeff Gordon beat Kyle Busch by 12 positions on the race track Saturday night to take this thing? Looking at their respective records at Richmond recently, you'd have to say no. But then again, one blown engine or cut tire changes everything.

Mark Aumann: Kyle Busch's past seven Richmond finishes: First, fifth, first, second, first, sixth, first. Not saying he's a stone-cold lock, but if there is such a thing in NASCAR, he's a stone-cold lock.

David Caraviello: Those are some stone-cold facts you're bringing to the table today, Mark. Barring a Gordon win, I guess all Kyle really has to do is stalk the 24 car all night. He doesn't have to win -- or at least you wouldn't think he has to, given the scenarios. Now, should Tony Stewart have a rotten night and fall out of the top-10 in points, I guess this opens up some new possibilities. But we've been waiting weeks for Tony to fall out of that 10th spot and relinquish it to Kasey Kahne, yet he's still hanging in there.

Joe Menzer: Listen, not to drop names, but I talked with Kyle Busch just the other day at the Joe Gibbs Racing shop. He knows what he has to do. He's calm, confident -- and willing to knock Gordon out of the way if that's what it takes. Kyle talked matter-of-factly about just making sure he keeps the 24 in his sights, never letting him get too far ahead. And then making sure he's right there with him if Gordon actually gets in position to race for the win, so that if he has to get to Gordon's bumper and perhaps give him the boot, he can do it.

Mark Aumann: Name dropper!

David Caraviello: Dude. We all talked with Kyle Busch the other day -- he was there when Gibbs introduced Matt Kenseth. It's not like he came over to the Man Cave for a Coors Light and a game of cornhole. Although that would be kind of cool.

Joe Menzer: Well, you and I talked to him. Mark was at his cabin in the mountains. Hey, buddy, did you ever replace that 14-inch TV?

Mark Aumann: Yeah, finally bit the bullet and got a 17-inch flatscreen. What a huge difference that made! You know, we could end up with an surprise winner Saturday night, but since 2005, every driver who has celebrated in Victory Lane there is in this year's Chase field ... except for Kyle Busch.

Wild-card hopefuls

Career results at Richmond
DriverStartsAvg. Fin.
Kyle Busch154.7
Jeff Gordon3914.7
Ryan Newman2111.8
Marcos Ambrose716.1
Joey Logano717.6
Carl Edwards1614.8
Paul Menard1127.5

Joe Menzer: And what you're going to see on your new TV Saturday night in Richmond is going to be quite entertaining, I think. But in the end, I think you're still going to have the same guys lined up for the Chase that are listed one through 12 this morning.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, despite the possibility for great upheaval Saturday night, I think we've got what we've got. Add Busch and Kahne to the party invitation list. You just have to think Gordon's last best chance came on the last lap Sunday night at Atlanta. If he can root Hamlin out of the bottom groove -- or not overdrive the car in the top groove -- he's sitting pretty with two wins.

Joe Menzer: Now that doesn't mean that Gordon and perhaps some others won't at least make it interesting. I think that's definitely a high possibility. But in the end, it would be quite remarkable to actually pull it off -- especially since Kyle Busch is so aware of what he must do to secure his place in the Chase.

David Caraviello: Menzer, despite his star-studded lifestyle, does bring up one point -- everything changes if Gordon can win. Now, Gordon hasn't done such a thing at Richmond since 2000, back when Menzer was covering some sport involving an oblong leather ball. Of course, he hadn't won at Atlanta in eight years before he did it last season, and he's running well right now, so I'm not going to put it past him. But given that point spread, it's that second win or nothing right now for the No. 24 team. At least, that's how it would seem.

Mark Aumann: And Carl Edwards? He's going to need a Hail Mary on the scale of Doug Flutie's toss against Miami. His Chase hopes literally went up in smoke at Atlanta.

Joe Menzer: Edwards could win Saturday night and still not make it. In fact, he almost certainly wouldn't -- not unless other guys falter tremendously. Or like Caraviello faltered when we played pickup basketball at Pocono.

David Caraviello: Pity your memory is going so quickly, Joe. Mark, right you are. Carl is at the point where not even a win will guarantee him anything, now that he's fallen out of the 12th position. Throughout all this, his points standing was always his trump card, and he doesn't have it anymore. Which is unfortunate, because he's run much better since Chad Norris took over as crew chief. Circumstances and gambles just haven't worked out their way.

Joe Menzer: Wait, Mark is right? What about me? Are you excluding me because I took you to school on the asphalt at Pocono?

Mark Aumann: Joe and I playing basketball would be the very definition of "old school."

2. Denny Hamlin won at Atlanta last weekend for his fourth victory of the season, and now heads to a hometown Richmond track where he's won twice. Is he a lock for the top Chase seed?

David Caraviello: You know, I was talking with Denny the other day -- he came over for a little Wii tennis, like he does every few weeks or so -- and he was talking about how he had a feeling he was going to win at Atlanta. And boy, did he certainly back that up. The guy in that No. 11 car just might be the most underrated great driver in the sport. I know Stewart and Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski have captured many of the headlines this year, but it's Hamlin who would be the top seed if the Chase started today, and we all know how good Richmond has been to him. Five wins in the regular season? It's very realistic, especially given how well Hamlin is running right now.

Mark Aumann: To be honest, based on the previous eight Chases, he'd fare better as the No. 2 seed. The top seed has won two Chases, but none since 2007. The second seed has won three. Here's the thing about all the talk over "top seed" and "bonus points." When you're talking about a maximum of 480 points over the 10 races, three, six, nine or even 12 additional points are such a small percentage to be statistically insignificant. Case in point? Kyle Busch in 2008. Won eight times and carried a 30-point advantage into the Chase. And finished 10th. In looking at the previous eight Chases, at no point did "bonus points" ever play a role in determining the champion.

Joe Menzer: No, you can't say Denny is a lock. Not with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, who have three wins apiece, ahead of him in the points going in. Those two know what is at stake here, too, and will be doing everything they can to get to Victory Lane and earn those extra three bonus points for the Chase. They are capable of doing it, even though Hamlin obviously loves the Richmond track and has to be favored over them. So favored, yes. A lock? No.

David Caraviello: And here's the thing about this regular season -- Jimmie Johnson should already have five wins. Would have, had he not crashed in what proved the final laps at Pocono and blown up at the end at Michigan. A few weeks ago, I argued Jimmie was running better than everyone else, and I still believe he has the most potential of anyone as far as what he can do in the Chase. But he's coming off two DNFs in three races, got involved in a wreck last week at Atlanta that was admittedly his fault, and Hamlin has surged past him. It's hard to argue with back-to-back wins, especially at this point in the year. Denny wins three straight entering the Chase -- that's a statement, boys.

Joe Menzer: I hear what you are saying about bonus points, Mark. But if Carl Edwards had won one more race last year over the first 26, and the three bonus points that went along with it, he would have won the championship. So there are times when it obviously could make a difference. What seems insignificant often turns out to not be the case.

Mark Aumann: Thought you'd bring that up. But Edwards had a three-point advantage over winless Tony Stewart already, thanks to Carl's win at Las Vegas ... when Stewart gave away the win. So if Stewart had won that race instead, we wouldn't have even had the tie.

David Caraviello: Still, three points certainly would have made a difference last year. Ask Carl about that one next time he comes over to the Man Cave for some table tennis, Menzer. And Kyle's string of mechanical failures to open the 2008 Chase certainly skews that equation somewhat.

Denny Hamlin

Driver Performance
RacesWinsT5sT10s
Career2177124
@ Richmond279
@ Short Track72028

Joe Menzer: Could have, would have, it's all speculation. No doubt Hamlin's is the hottest driver at the moment. How could anyone argue he is not? But the question was, is he a "lock" to be the top seed? And the answer is, no, not really. Either Johnson or Keselowski could tie him. It wouldn't be easy, but they could do it. And if they each end up with four wins, Johnson or Keselowski would technically be the top seed over Hamlin with his four -- because they are ahead of him in points. Case closed.

Mark Aumann: But what if Hamlin wins at Richmond?

Joe Menzer: Then you can say he's a stone-cold lock, like me against Caraviello in Ping Pong.

Mark Aumann: Hey, the 17-inch widescreen is perfect for the Atari. I still play a mean game of Pong.

Joe Menzer: That's "Pong" without the Ping.

David Caraviello: Joe forgets who won the 2012 Man Cave Games. Are the final standings still written on the chalkboard? And in regard to Denny, Joe overlooks that his point standing is his weak spot. That's why I've so argued for Johnson for so much of this season -- he's won a lot and been dug in near the top of the points, which no one else has really been able to do. Should JJ win Saturday night -- and he does have three victories at Richmond -- the 48 would almost certainly take the top seed, given the point standings as they are now. But like Jeff Gordon, winning is almost all Johnson can do here. Hey, wouldn't it beat neat to see JJ and Gordon racing each other for the win, with each needing it for very different reasons?

Mark Aumann: At what point does Gordon use the "Hey, I own the car you're driving, son" card? Does Hendrick ask the flagman to put out the "move over" flag for the 48?

David Caraviello: Exactly. "Jimmie? It's Jeff. Yeah, I'm running behind you on the final lap -- so you're fired. At least until tomorrow morning. Now pull over."

Joe Menzer: And what does it all mean if Johnson is "top seed" but both he and Hamlin have four wins and the bonus points that go along with them? Absolutely nothing. He will be above Hamlin in the Chase standings in theory only, as they actually will start out tied after the points are reset.

Mark Aumann: Yep, and Gordon might actually be a 12th seed that could make some noise in the Chase.

David Caraviello: Given what we've seen of these two guys racing one another in the past, if there's one guy Gordon would be unafraid to be a little physical with coming down the stretch, it would be Johnson. They've traded blows at the end at Martinsville a few times. I don't think Jeff would go as far as to take him or anyone out -- of course, this could be a drastic situation -- but I also don't think he'd be shy about roughing up Jimmie a little if he had to.

Joe Menzer: I think Gordon, like Kyle Busch, will do whatever it takes to get into the Chase if he's in position to win Saturday night. Could be interesting.

David Caraviello: Poor Denny Hamlin. Here we are, supposedly chatting about whether he's a lock to take the top Chase seed, and who do we wind up talking about? Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Denny is not going to be happy about this the next time he comes over to play some "NASCAR Unleashed."

3. Two new rides for next year were announced this week. Who will have the better 2013 season -- Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing, or Joey Logano at Penske Racing?

Joe Menzer: You're kidding, right? Kenseth, of course. Listen, Joey Logano is a very good driver. You don't have the kind of success he's had in the Nationwide Series without being able to wheel it. But he's still very young and only scratching the surface of his potential. Kenseth is a major upgrade for JGR at this point in time and that's why they made the move. He's already a proven commodity.

Mark Aumann: I think that's a no-brainer. Cup champion with 22 career wins going to a team with the resources of Gibbs? Nothing against Logano -- or Penske, for that matter -- but that's going to be a team in transition in 2013. They'll be going through the process of switching to Fords and all.

David Caraviello: OK, on the surface this one seems easy. Matt Kenseth is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a former series champion, stepping into a program in which Tony Stewart won two titles. Joey Logano has won twice in his career. Now even though Joey has the opportunity of a lifetime staring right at him, the obvious answer here is Kenseth. Joey's goal next year will be to make the Chase; Kenseth's goal will be to win it. They're two very different drivers in very different phases of their careers, with vastly different expectations. Even in the No. 22, Logano is something of a question mark. Kenseth is as steady as it gets when it comes to performance.

Mark Aumann: When J.D. Gibbs came over for a quick game of Whack-A-Mole, he explained the whole thing about seizing the moment. If a driver like Matt Kenseth comes available, you have to make that move. Kenseth, Hamlin and Busch is a pretty formidable lineup. That's right up there -- and perhaps even stronger than -- Hendrick.

Cup Careers

DriverYearsWinsT5sT10s
Logano521637

Joe Menzer: And Joey didn't have "the opportunity of a lifetime" at JGR? Come on. I'll say it again: Logano is a very good driver, but also still very young and only scratching the surface of his potential. He had every opportunity to bust out in Cup at JGR and didn't do it. Now he's fortunate this other ride at Penske came along so he can stay in a quality Cup ride full-time. But truthfully, the offer to stay at JGR and take a step back -- maybe go back and pick up a Nationwide championship -- might have been a good thing for his career overall.

David Caraviello: Mark, no question, Penske will be going through a change of manufacturer next season. But if there's anything in Joey's favor, it's what that 22 was able to do with Kurt Busch behind the wheel. Now clearly, Kurt as a driver is at another level. But we also know what kind of potential that car and that program have. The No. 22 is absolutely capable of winning races and making Chases. The switch in manufacturers aside, that's a top-flight ride with the right guy behind the wheel. Is Logano a step up from AJ Allmendinger? Yes. But the expectations are set based off what Kurt Busch did in that car.

Joe Menzer: Now you're talking ancient history and ignoring me, Caraviello. Kurt hasn't been with that 22 bunch in almost a full year now. Plus here's the thing, you are acting like the No. 20 car that Logano is getting out of at JGR is not a top-flight ride. To me, this whole argument is ridiculous. The answer to the question is Kenseth, period. End of conversation. End of story.

David Caraviello: Menzer ... Menzer ... name kind of sounds familiar. Hey, didn't you used to cover the NFL? I heard that somewhere. And ancient history would be the last (and only) time you beat me in basketball. Listen, no question, Joey's being brought into provide a little stability to that ride after a year of upheaval. He's a nice kid who I'm sure Shell-Pennzoil will he happy to have after all they've dealt with. But regardless of who is in the No. 22, Kurt Busch set the bar as to what that program is capable of in terms of performance. One day -- not immediately, but one day -- Joey's going to have to try and meet or exceed that. Hopefully for him, he can.

Mark Aumann: The real downside in this whole thing is Sam Hornish Jr. The guy has done nothing but shine in a tough situation following the AJ Allmendinger issue -- and it looks as if he's going to get shuffled back into a full-time Nationwide ride in 2013. The way he's run, I thought he deserved a promotion.

David Caraviello: Logano is 22, guys. Who knows what he might be capable of. You know, I was talking to Joe Gibbs the other day -- we hang out at the same Starbucks -- and he firmly believes Joey is going to blossom into something special in this series. Certainly, the possibility is there. And yes, Joe, this is the opportunity of a lifetime for Logano, who has a chance to make a name for himself at a new organization. Kyle Busch mentioned when I was hanging out with him the other day that the change of scenery worked wonders for him when he came to Gibbs. Was the No. 5 at Hendrick a top-flight ride? Yes. But Kyle's unquestionably been a better driver since. Who knows, the same may be the case for Joey. New people and new ideas can work wonders sometime.

Joe Menzer: Once again, you aren't listening to me. I agree that Logano is a very good with loads of potential. But the question was who would have the better year next year, Kenseth or Logano. The answer is as simple as the answer to this question: Who has the better jump shot, Menzer or Caraviello?

David Caraviello: Now, that is an easy answer. Of course, if we were talking about two-handed set shots, it might be different. Who did you learn your style from, Menzer? Dolph Schayes? Rick Barry?

Mark Aumann: To me, this is like trading a prospect for a top-line starter in a stick-and-ball sport. Logano has tremendous potential, but will he ever reach it? We know what Kenseth brings to the table. Roger Penske obviously knows talent. And he can see how Logano could blossom under different circumstances. But Kenseth is year-in and year-out, a Chase contender. On that much can Wii agree?

Joe Menzer: Oui!