News & Media

Track Smack: Is it now Edwards' Chase to lose?

October 27, 2011, ,

Also up for debate: Johnson, Earnhardt's strategy at 'Dega, not-so-friendly Fords

1. Four Sprint Cup races remain, beginning with Sunday's trip to Martinsville, Va. At this point, is it Carl Edwards' championship to lose?

Jill Erwin: Here's the joy of the Chase and this new points system. Three weeks ago it was "How viable is Carl Edwards as a title contender?" Then it was "Was Carl lucky at Kansas?" Now it's "Is it his to lose?" Fortunes can change so quickly. But yes, yes it is. He's got enough of a lead that the likelihood of anyone catching him without a slip-up on his part is extremely slim.

David Caraviello: To lose? Not quite. Things are getting more strung out, to the point where I'm beginning to wonder how big the point gaps may be between drivers heading into Homestead. But as for now -- Carl is the absolute favorite. Clear-cut. He's putting down the kind of consistently strong efforts you need to win a Chase. Maybe it's not his to lose yet, but maybe in another week or so it will be.

Joe Menzer: Well, that depends. While my first reaction is to say yes, there are others trailing him who are better at Martinsville than he is. So I still say there are those who can jump up and win it if he plays it too conservatively. I understand why he did what he did at Talladega, but now he needs to get back to being aggressive and play to win, not play to "not lose." And here's the thing: even if Carl plays it aggressively, it's still too early to call this "his to lose." There is too much racing left, too many things that could happen out of his control -- and too many good racers too close to call it that way at this point.

Jill Erwin: See, to me, "his to lose" means if everyone runs as they can, will he win? And my answer is yes. "His to lose" doesn't mean that if his engine blows, it means it wasn't his to lose before.

David Caraviello: Well, I think we need to throw out Talladega. I'm sure he just wanted to get out of there with a decent enough finish and an intact points lead, and both those missions were accomplished. But even with that 11th-place finish Sunday, his results over the past eight weeks or so have been downright beastly. Nobody else has been better in this Chase. Can things change? Sure. Do I expect Edwards to suddenly reverse course and come back to the pack? Not really, especially if he gets through Martinsville.

Carl Edwards

Chase Stats (through 'Dega)
RaceSt.Fin.Pts. Rank

Driver performance

RacesWinsT5T10Avg. Fin.
@ M'ville01416.9

Joe Menzer: See, there's the thing. He absolutely cannot approach every remaining race like he did Talladega -- hoping only to "get through it." If the 99 team takes that approach, and I personally don't think they will, they will not win this championship.

Jill Erwin: I'm jealous you get to be in Martinsville, David. Though at least I won't have any bright red hot dogs at my house. Joe, I don't disagree. But Carl hasn't done that all year, and Talladega is such a one-off race that I really don't think there's another race where he'll do that (short of possibly Homestead, depending on points). Will we see another "banzai" move? Probably not. But I don't think he's in a mental place where safe is good enough for him.

David Caraviello: Jill, I can agree with that point. To me, it just comes down to the fact that he's been the most consistently good driver out there. In terms of week-to-week finishes, nobody can really touch him. Everybody's had bobbles or races where they've looked vulnerable. Carl made a big comeback at Kansas and came out of Talladega decent enough. He salvages something out of Martinsville, perhaps his worst track, and it might be time to do some party planning in Columbia, Mo.

Joe Menzer: And Jill, when we talk about this being Carl's championship to lose, I think the term means does he have it more or less locked up unless he or someone on his team does something stupid. At least that's how I'm defining it. And I don't think they're quite there yet.

Jill Erwin: I'm there. I completely think this has to be something that goes wrong for him vs. someone else flat out-running him.

David Caraviello: Menzer, did you spike your coffee this morning? Who said anything about "getting through" other races like guys try to get through Talladega? Goodness, everybody just tries to get through Talladega, writers included. It's over. You throw it out like it never happened, you catch your breath, and you move on. You know that.

Joe Menzer: Well, I don't drink coffee. And let's go back to Phoenix last year for Denny Hamlin. Didn't they play it conservatively and lose it all? I'm just saying that the 99 folks can't afford to have that mentality. It's like going to a prevent defense too early -- or at all. Plus I already said I think they'll be fine, that they won't go down that path.

David Caraviello: And yet, you keep bringing it up. Tell me, has Carl played it "conservatively" in any Chase race other than Talladega?

Joe Menzer: I'm agreeing with you! I was merely pointing out that they cannot afford to, that's all.

David Caraviello: Yeah. If you're agreeing with me, I'd hate to see it when you disagree.

Jill Erwin: Whatever you drink instead of coffee, Joe, go decaf. Denny Hamlin is no Carl Edwards. I'm not a road warrior like you guys, but I used to be. And Carl oozes confidence, while Hamlin was so obviously in over his head last year. This year, I think he'd play it differently.

David Caraviello: I cannot afford to listen to Joe Menzer talk in any more circles. I'm just trying to get through this Track Smack!


TrackStartsWinsTop-5sTop-10sDNFsLaps LedLead Lap Fin.PolesAvg. StartAvg. Finish

In his post-race news conference at Talladega, Edwards said he had never been happier about an 11th-place finish. With similar results at Martinsville, he might roll out a similar quote. Edwards has a Driver Rating of just 81.1, which makes the short track his second-worst track in terms of the Loop Data statistic. In 14 starts, Edwards has led just three laps -- all of them coming in this past April's 18th-place finish.

Watch Carl Edwards' Chase highlights:

2. Jimmie Johnson and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. hung at the back of the pack Sunday at Talladega, and couldn't get to the front at the end. Is that strategy worth it?

Jill Erwin: Depends on if it works or not. Worked well enough for Carl Edwards. Didn't work for Jimmie and Junior. And Junior was raring to go all race. In terms of racing philosophies, that was not a match made in heaven.

David Caraviello: OK, for the record, I totally get the strategy of hanging out at the back at Talladega. It's sort of a tried-and-true method, given how often it's been used through the years. Early in the race we saw how easy it was for Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman to get back to the front just so Smoke could try to lead a lap. You stay back there, you stay clear of the wrecks, you wait for the end. The problems come when you wait too long, as the 48 and 88 evidently did Sunday.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, I gotta say that I'm surprised Junior went along with that strategy. It had to go against every fiber of his being at that place, and it certainly didn't sit well with fans who want to see him up front every lap. I've got to say after watching so many races there over the past several years that I've seen no concrete evidence that riding back there ends up making much of a consistent difference for those who do it. So there you go, I guess I'm already disagreeing with you Caraviello. I don't think it's a "tried-and-true" method, by any means. It's a crapshoot, like everything else at 'Dega.

Jill Erwin: I'm with Joe. In theory it makes sense. But it's not like all the wrecks there happen at the front of the field. If anything, I'd rather be up with the guys who know how to drive, versus being back in the back with the not-as-good cars.

"We wanted to try to work our way toward the front in the last 20 laps. ... We just didn't have the track position at the end to make a run with two laps to go. Just not enough time."


Jimmie's last stand

David Caraviello says Johnson's hopes for sixth consecutive title come down to Martinsville.

Joe Menzer: Now you're talkin', sister. Come over to my side!

Jill Erwin: I'm just setting you up for the inevitable butt-kicking in section 3.

Joe Menzer: Getting feisty ... I like it! We might have to have you do Smack more often.

David Caraviello: Well, I think Tony Stewart is pretty good at restrictor plate races, and he's used that same strategy several times. It can absolutely work -- if you give yourself enough time to get to the front. I understand the end of the race is when most of the craziness breaks out, and you want to steer clear of as much of that as possible, but you simply can't wait too long to make that move. If you do, what was the purpose of hanging out back there to begin with?

Joe Menzer: I don't have any hard statistics to prove the point that Jill and I agree on. But just going from my admittedly sometimes clouded memory, it seems to me that the ride-around-in-back strategy fails at least as often as it works. I will concede that perhaps it works better for some, such as Stewart perhaps, than others. As it is, though, you are outnumbered 2-1 on this issue, Mr. Caraviello.

Jill Erwin: I think everyone's right! How about that for kumbaya? It's a crapshoot, and sometimes you win by being up front (as Bowyer showed) and sometimes you can ride around in the back and climb late (as Stewart has shown). But whatever Jimmie and Junior did didn't work, and that is obvious. Now everyone join hands.

Joe Menzer: I will say I think it's a bad strategy for Junior to employ there. It doesn't fit his Talladega style -- not to mention he probably feels like he's cheating the fans a little.

David Caraviello: Listen, I'm not saying it's foolproof. All I'm say is it can work, it has worked before. It all comes down to the timing of the big move, and Junior and Johnson waited too late. Heck, they did the same thing at Daytona in July, hung back too long, got trapped back there, never got up to the front. You just need to hit the go button early enough, and on Sunday those guys didn't.

Joe Menzer: So if that's twice this year where it hasn't worked for them, I would say they should abandon it next time they run at a restrictor-plate track. Seems that simple to me.

Jill Erwin: Or they should trade partners. Let Jimmie work with Mark Martin (er, Kasey Kahne, next year) and let Junior and Jeff Gordon run up front where they want to be.

David Caraviello: In their defense, it did seem like kind of an overall Hendrick strategy, given that Gordon and Martin did kind of the same thing. And Junior was very tactful afterward, veiling his criticism in comments about how boring it was back there, and how Bowyer won after being at the front all day. But I will concede to Joe the point that Earnhardt likes to be out front at Talladega. He almost feels pressure to do it there, given the level of fan support. In that regard, for him, the strategy certainly seemed counterintuitive.

Jill Erwin: Hey, I said that first! Am I going to have to whup two boys today?

Joe Menzer: I would be a run-at-the-front-of-the-pack type of guy, or at least that's how I do it in video games. Who's with me?

David Caraviello: You would be a run-into-the-wall type of guy, Menzer. And the only video games you know are those your kids have taught you how to play.

Jill Erwin: I'm now afraid of Menzer bump-drafting in rush-hour traffic in his minivan.

Joe Menzer: But at least I would be going fast, and doing it on my own terms! And yes, I occasionally play my 12-year-old in video games, although it's depressing how often he beats me -- at everything.

David Caraviello: Kind of like when you played me in racquetball in Chicago. Come to think of it, you ran into the wall a lot then, too!

Joe Menzer: Ha-ha. Well, in that case, it was a matter of strategy. It was fun to see you run so much. And don't make me bring up those scores!

David Caraviello: Hey I think this is a perfect time to go to topic No. 3 ....

Joe Menzer: At least it's not topic 15-3.

3. So, on the final restart Sunday, who should Trevor Bayne have gone with -- Jeff Gordon or Matt Kenseth?

Joe Menzer: Man, I'm kind of tired of this topic -- which Jill killed me in during Head2Head this week. I am getting crushed by nasty e-mails from folks who think I'm anti-Gordon. But my point was, and still is, that he should have known better as a four-time champ to trust a Ford guy at that point in a race when Ford had made it known beforehand what their intentions were going to be.

Jill Erwin: The answer here, of course, is whoever in the heck he wanted to. Gordon was his ticket to a better finish, Kenseth was what would make his manufacturer happy. But at some point, you've gotta trust these guys to do what they want to do. If I was a driver, until Ford started paying for my insurance as an independent contractor, I wouldn't feel all that torn.

David Caraviello: Whomever he felt like gave him the best chance to win. Listen, I understand the whole "play as a team" deal with Fords trying to help other Fords win the race and improve their championship standings, but Sunday it was taken to a ridiculous level. At one point Denny Hamlin wanted to draft with Marcos Ambrose, and was rebuffed because Ambrose wanted to wait on AJ Allmendinger, whose car was all beat up at the time from an accident. Who does that help? There was a practical sensibility to that strategy that just seemed to be lacking.


Are team orders OK when there's a championship battle being waged? Joe Menzer and Jill Erwin have their takes on it. Read theirs and weigh in with your own in the comments below. And don't forget to vote in the poll

Jill Erwin: Wait a second, Joe ... are you saying there were team orders? Because Jack Roush said that never happened, and we should always believe team statements that come out two days after the fact. And poor Trevor won the backwards-running race, backtracking from his post-race comments. Jack's comments about Trevor were pretty condescending too, to my eyes, that poor Trevor's just so young and doesn't know any better about how to answer questions.

Joe Menzer: I find it funny and kind of ridiculous, too, that now Roush Fenway has come out and said no team orders were ever given. They more or less had laid them out on the Ford Racing website prior to the race, did they not? And it's not like this kind of thing hasn't happened before. So I wasn't surprised at all when Bayne left Gordon to try to help Kenseth -- and yes, I understand the circumstances supposedly changed in a split second with David Ragan's engine letting loose. What surprised me was that a veteran like Gordon would believe Bayne in the first place.

Jill Erwin: Well they had the history of Speedweeks. I think in general, he'd have been more guarded. And to be fair, it's not like he was overloaded with options at that time. Bayne was the best option, it appeared at the time.

David Caraviello: The Ford folks and Jack Roush can say all they want about how there were no explicit orders Sunday, but listening to team radios over the course of the race, it was clear something was up. I mean, Hamlin -- the championship runner-up last year, for goodness' sake -- didn't have a set drafting partner all day because Stewart couldn't link up with Ford driver David Gilliland, which meant Hamlin's planned partner, Ryan Newman, went with Stewart. Other teams were smacking their foreheads over how difficult the Fords made life for everyone Sunday. And we saw how well it worked out in the end.

Jill Erwin: Apparently team orders equals no top-10 finishes. Keep that in mind next year, Ford.

Joe Menzer: Bayne ultimately had no choice but to go try to help Kenseth, his Ford and Roush Fenway Racing brethren. Maybe if my long-winded self had been permitted to write more than 250 words in Head2Head, I could have explained myself better and kept some of these folks off my back and out of my e-mail inbox.

Jill Erwin: I think your initial offering was 341 words. How many more times did you call Gordon dumb in that version? And this one only makes up for the butt-whupping and flood of angry e-mails I got from the "Was the Childress-Busch fight good for NASCAR" one. NASCAR fans are spirited, I'll give them that.

David Caraviello: I mean, what's Trevor Bayne supposed to do? He was allowed some kind of special dispensation all day to draft with Robby Gordon and his pink Dodge. The kid had a great car, probably thinks, OK, I can hook up with Jeff Gordon, with whom I drafted so well at Daytona, and maybe swipe another one. And he kind of had the rug ripped out from under him. I know he's not a Roush driver per se, but we know where his No. 21 car comes from, and we know he wants a future in a Roush Cup ride. No wonder he begrudgingly played good soldier at the end.

Jill Erwin: David, I think in a dream world Bayne wants to run full-time with the Wood Brothers. But that doesn't appear to be in the offing, so yes, his eggs are all in the Roush basket.

Joe Menzer: I can see why Bayne was so torn, too. Gordon helped him immensely in the Duels last February at Daytona, which ultimately helped prepare Bayne to pull off one of the greatest upsets in Daytona 500 history. Gordon is his childhood hero. And yet, in the end, Bayne was left with no choice but to follow the guidelines set out for him beforehand by the people currently writing his paycheck. It stinks, for him and for Gordon, but he did really the only thing he could do. I think what Trevor will find out, to his detriment, is that next time he wants to hook up with Gordon and get some help at a restrictor-plate race, the four-time champ isn't going to be so helpful.

Jill Erwin: Drivers' memories do tend to be awfully long. And it's just unfortunate for Trevor, who has done just about everything right as a youngster in the sport.

David Caraviello: Well, I'm sure he's smart enough to understand where things stand on that front. But he really was put in something of an impossible position Sunday, and for everyone to act like there was nothing behind it ... it comes across as a little spurious. All the kid was doing was thinking like a racer -- what are my best chances to win this event? That's why so many drivers dislike the tandem drafting, because so much is taken out of their hands, as was certainly the case with Bayne on Sunday.

Joe Menzer: Amen to that. And I've been one who said I didn't mind it. But I did mind it last Sunday, and now that it's not so new anymore, it's quickly becoming less interesting. Let's hope they can figure out how to move along and eliminate that style of racing.

Jill Erwin: I still love it. Sue me.

David Caraviello: Well, I thought Sunday was kind of fascinating -- until Regan Smith hit the wall. Then I remembered why I have so many conflicted feelings about restrictor plate racing. Kind of like the feelings I have when I beat up on Menzer in racquetball. I don't really want to, but ... there's just no other choice. Me and T-Bayne. In the same boat!

Joe Menzer: I think Caraviello is the one who hit the wall too hard.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.