Track Smack: Should Johnson be worried?
May 08, 2014, David Caraviello, Holly Cain and Alan Cavanna, NASCAR.com
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Editor's Note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will showcase a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their analysis from the previous week, while also looking ahead. In this edition, NASCAR.com's David Caraviello, Holly Cain and Alan Cavanna examine whether winless drivers including Jimmie Johnson should be concerned, if Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the right move at Talladega and how the Nationwide Series championship could shake out.
1. Should Jimmie Johnson -- or any driver without a race win, for that matter -- be getting worried given how fast those Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berths appear to be filling up?
Holly Cain: It's hard to imagine worrying about Jimmie Johnson making the Chase. He doesn't seem to be, and made a point last week in Talladega to say that he's in based on points right now anyway.
David Caraviello: Worried? Maybe not. Slightly anxious? Perhaps. He's rarely gone this deep into a season without a race victory, and the longer he goes, the more the pressure to get one is going to build. So maybe right now it's not bothering him. But if we get through Dover, and he's still 0-fer -- then it might be time to get really concerned.
Alan Cavanna: Depends on what your name is. Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon shouldn't be worried. I still think they all get wins and easily fall back on points position. But if you're a smaller team who is hoping to be a Cinderella, you just missed a big opportunity in Talladega.
Cain: Not having a win that late into the season -- Dover -- would definitely be new ground for Johnson. Kenseth and Gordon have faced those late-season questions before. They are all in good position points-wise, ironically in a season rewarding wins.
Caraviello: OK, but gang -- are points going to be enough? Everybody except for Carl Edwards seems content that some guys are going to make the Chase on points. But race wins have never been this valuable. Guys have never gone after them this hard, this early. The whole dynamic has changed, which makes me wonder if we can really use history as a barometer here. Just because we've never had 16 winners in 26 races doesn't mean we can't this season. Not with the way guys are going at it right now.
Cain: Not history. Just talent and reasonable expectation. The wheels haven't fallen off those teams. It's just a matter of time.
Caraviello: No question, the 48 car is still strong every week. Jimmie is a contender over and over. But, those guys are also perfectionists and champions, and I guarantee you being winless is bothering them a lot more than they let on. And having good cars week after week and still coming up short -- that's got to grate on you.
Cain: I do believe there will also be a surprise winner at some point. A small team or a rookie!
Cavanna: More than 16 winners? I'll believe it when I see it. Even in a crazy world where we have 15 winners and Six-Time isn't one of them, the quality of team he'll be competing against for that last points spot won't even be close.
Caraviello: I'm already a believer, Alan! I think the new winners will continue to come. It's like a campaign motto: 17 in '14!
Cavanna: The No. 48 team has earned its reputation, but out of 10 races they have four finishes of 24th or worse. Fortunately, they can pair that with five top-10s.
Caraviello: In a win-and-in format, I'm not sure about pinning your playoff hopes on top-10 finishes. The era of the good points day is over.
Cavanna: Gordon and Kenseth seem to be doing just fine at the moment.
Cain: For me, the questions are about some of the other winless drivers -- like Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne. There is a whole long list of those who we fully expect to win, but haven't yet.
Caraviello: Good point, Holly. Perhaps those guys, who haven't shown the week-to-week strength, are the ones who should be truly concerned -- right now.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped to the back late at Talladega anticipating an accident, and finished 26th. Did he make the right move?
Cain: Moves at Talladega are always calculated risks. It's called strategy, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
Caraviello: Let's be honest, Dale Jr. was right -- there was plenty of calamity near the front of the field. Unfortunately for Earnhardt, there was too much of it, and it gummed up the finish and didn't allow anyone enough of an opportunity to make a move to the front. So he wasn't wrong -- he just didn't get the chance to prove he was right.
Cavanna: He got exactly what he was planning for. He didn't get caught in the big accident. Unfortunately for Junior Nation, he didn't have the good finish he wanted.
Cain: I've seen too many races where the winner passes half the field in the final few laps. It just didn't work out that way Sunday. I don't believe he gave any less than 100 percent, it was simply a matter of circumstance and not enough time to get back up there.
Caraviello: People love Talladega because of the craziness and the unpredictability. But you get too much of that near the end, and nobody can make a move. As great as it was to see some of those lesser-funded teams up there, they were slowing up some of the lines of traffic. All those accidents at the end made it impossible for anyone to do anything.
Cain: Wow. I'm agreeing with David!
Caraviello: The universe must be out of balance or something!
Cain: Well, when Dale Jr. doesn't challenge for a win at Talladega, it clearly is.
Cavanna: The decision to pit by the No. 88 team was more detrimental than the decision to hang back. Yes, fuel may have been an issue, but we saw in the Daytona 500 that being up front was the place to be. Winner Denny Hamlin again proved that on Sunday. Plate racing isn't about huge surges from the back anymore.
Caraviello: Dang, look at the former New England Quarter Midget champ laying down the law on plate racing! Strong words, AC! Though I will agree, from my extensive racing experience on PlayStation 3, the front of the pack is always where I prefer to be.
Cavanna: Things have changed, DC! Track position played a huge factor on Sunday.
Cain: Maybe the marker Jimmie Johnson threw at Alan in the garage last weekend jarred something.
Cavanna: Knocked some sense into me! Remember that the next time you want to ask him about not winning yet.
Caraviello: So basically, I'm going to get an impact wrench tossed at my melon after my opinion on topic No. 1.
Cain: Not from Jimmie. That sounds more like Chad Knaus.
Cavanna: I wouldn't walk near you in the Kansas garage. That's all I'm saying.
3. Which driver is a more serious threat for the Nationwide Series championship -- phenom and standings leader Chase Elliott, or veteran and Talladega winner Elliott Sadler, who is one point behind in second?
Cavanna: I'm sticking with Chase until we see more checkered flags from Sadler. Chase has proved to be such a quick learner that I have no problem picking a rookie.
Cain: That JR Motorsports team is certainly on a huge roll right now. Question is whether this will come down to experience. They both want this very, very badly for different reasons!
Caraviello: Congrats to Elliott Sadler for winning at Talladega, a track that's flipped him up the air so many times, it seemed like the place held a personal grudge against him. Given his history there, was very happy to see him win. But he may need a few more victories if he's going to knock off young Chase.
Cain: I loved Sadler's answer that now maybe fans will ask him about his win at Talladega instead of his flip.
Cavanna: Sadler is guy not afraid to show his emotions, whether it be the highs or the lows. He went far too long at Joe Gibbs Racing without a win. Maybe this starts a turnaround.
Caraviello: And let's not forget about Elliott's JRM teammate Regan Smith, who's three points back in third. You could throw a blanket over that top trio right now.
Cain: And every driver in that third JRM car has been right alongside them in the front! Good stuff happening there right now.
Caraviello: Elliott and Sadler are basically in a dead heat statistically, except for the fact that Chase has one more win. I keep waiting for some inexperience to show on Chase's part -- and to this point, it hasn't. If anything, his youth has almost benefitted him, given some of the aggressive moves he made to win at Texas and Darlington.
Cavanna: Sadler should have the driving advantage given his experience. But I think Chase has the organizational advantage right now with the way the JRM cars are running.
Caraviello: Sadler said before the season that he thought this was his time to finally win a championship, and it's easy to see why the guy feels that way. He's been after this Nationwide title for a while, and keeps coming up short. I'm fully convinced he'll be in it until the end this year. Will it come down to the JRM cars -- which, let's face it, are basically Hendrick Motorsports cars -- just being that little bit better? We shall see.
Cain: And with high school graduation coming, Chase will have sole focus on his racing. No finals to study for. He'll have bigger tests ahead.
Cavanna: I think it's great we're talking about Nationwide championship contenders who've won races. That's not a knock on Austin Dillon last year, but it's far more exciting when these Nationwide regulars are one-upping each other for checkered flags.
Caraviello: Of course, none of this means Ty Dillon, Trevor Bayne, or any of those guys a little further down the standings are out of it. By no means. This deal is still completely wide open, even if Chase has been the story of the season to date.
Cain: I do love the dynamics at play in the NNS championship, though. Something for everyone.
Caraviello: How will Chase handle the adversity when it inevitably comes? That may be the moment of truth. Sadler's been there before and seen it all. Chase hasn't. If Elliott handles the tough times as well as he's handled the success, watch out. But at some point, you'd think Sadler would have an opportunity to use his experience as an advantage.
Cain: I say an "Elliott" will win the title.
Caraviello: Really going out on a limb there, Holly ...