News & Media

Track Smack: Staying power for Bayne, Junior, Stewart-Haas

March 17, 2011, ,

Bayne looks for more magic at Bristol; good starts for Earnhardt, Stewart-Haas

1. Time for Bristol, where the Wood Brothers last won before the Daytona 500, and near Trevor Bayne's hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. Can the No. 21 car recapture the magic once again?

Joe Menzer: That might be a stretch, but who really knows? Bayne might surprise us again with a good run, but I seriously doubt he'll win again. Last time the Wood Brothers won there was with Elliott Sadler when he went a gazillion miles on the same set of tires, I do believe, and that was a long time ago. Has no relevance to this weekend.

David Caraviello: That Bristol victory was a decade ago, with a different driver, in a different car and on a different race track surface, so I don't think it will do the Woods' any good this weekend. But I remember watching it on television and thinking -- there's no way Elliott Sadler's tires can hold up this long. I don't remember what his final tire run was, but it was insane, something like 140 laps. And he made them hold up, and the Woods won, and it was a last hurrah for the proud team before a very bleak period.

Chris Stanfield: I can't imagine a more meaningful place for Trevor Bayne than Bristol (aside from Daytona, of course). He made his NASCAR debut there and is coming off an enormous victory that adds to the history of Wood Brothers Racing. But a win? That's a stretch. I'm not sure that even Trevor Bayne is setting his sights that high this weekend. I believe he referenced that a "top-15 finish would be nice" via a team release.

David Caraviello: Trevor does have kind of an affinity for the place, I'll give him that. According to a Ford release this week, he went there all the time as a kid. There's a photo of a very young Jeff Gordon standing next to a much, much younger Trevor Bayne that evidently was snapped by Ray Evernham. Trevor looks like he might have been 8. Of course, to me, he sometimes looks that way now, too.

Joe Menzer: Here's the thing, though. What's more outlandish than Trevor Bayne winning the 2011 Daytona 500 in a Wood Brothers car? Nothing. Nada. So once he has accomplished the seemingly impossible, all else that once seemed insurmountable or impossible becomes possible in his eyes. And that means he will come in with the kind of confidence you need to succeed.

Chris Stanfield: Of course, this is racing and this is Bristol and this team made history once already this season when no one gave it a second thought. I guess anything is possible, and what a cool story it would make.

David Caraviello: For what it's worth, this will be Bayne's first Cup start at Bristol. In four previous Nationwide starts, he has a best finish of ninth and three other results of 23rd or worse. So we don't really know what the kid is capable of there.

Joe Menzer: I do think Trevor's statement that a top-15 finish would be nice -- as in more realistic -- is right on. I do not think he will win this race and probably not again this year, although I certainly won't count him out in any of the remaining three restrictor-plate races after Daytona.

Garage Expert

Larry McReynolds talks with Donnie Wingo about winning the Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne, and the goals for the No. 21 this season.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Joe, we're getting to the point where it's time to wonder -- what's fair to expect from Trevor Bayne for the remainder of the season? Heck, if he does nothing else, he's had a terrific year. But he's still 20, still seeing all these tracks for the first time in a Cup car, still faces a learning curve that his Daytona victory belies. I think it's fair to think he should contend at whatever plate events he runs this year, and anything else is gravy. Of course, I'm also not sure what remaining plate events are on the Wood Brothers' still-limited schedule. I want to think it said Talladega was not. If that's the case, the pool of races Trevor can contend in shrinks a little.

Joe Menzer: With the glory that is winning the Daytona 500 comes new, higher expectations. But that's the thing about Bayne. He seems to be the type of level-headed kid who can keep them in perspective and not let them eat him alive. And I gotta believe he will find his way into a car at Talladega, one way or another.

Chris Stanfield: Couldn't agree more, Joe. Plus, my mother told me never to argue with my elders. More valuable than his win, though, is the confidence that comes with it. Long after the euphoria of winning the 500 subsides, Trevor knows now that he can win against the best. That will serve him well this season and may be the difference between wanting to finish on the lead lap and wanting to finish in Victory Lane.

Joe Menzer: True story. I was at the grocery store Saturday with my 11-year-old son. The checkout girl asks if I need help getting groceries out to the car. My son starts snickering, then asks when she's out of earshot, "Did she just assume you were an elder?"

David Caraviello: Regardless, this weekend sets up as the Busch vs. Busch show we didn't get to see at Las Vegas. Kurt is fantastic there and on top of his game. Kyle is right behind him. Those guys are more likely going to be the story on Sunday, not Trevor Bayne.

Chris Stanfield: I'll call it now and say Kurt Busch has the points lead after Sunday.

David Caraviello: I can see that. Mr. Menzer, sir, is it OK to move onto the next topic?

Joe Menzer: I was going to mention that Kyle Busch has won three of the past four races at Bristol first, but OK.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in the top 10 for the first time in almost a year. Is he there to stay this time?

Joe Menzer: Wow. You trying to get Junior Nation riled up, or what? Listen, I hope I'm wrong on this one because I like Junior and I think we all would agree that it's best for the sport when he's doing well. But I have to stick with what I said at the beginning of the year or I would be a waffling weasel, and I said then that I didn't think he'll make the Chase. I still don't, but won't be upset if I'm wrong.

David Caraviello: OK, I'm going to tread lightly on this one, because I know this is the kind of topic that works Mr. Menzer into a lather. But the answer is no ... and yes. No, they're not in the top 10 to stay. Dale Jr. has much too many ebbs and flows in a season to think they're never going to experience another bobble. But do I think they'll hang in Chase contention all season long? Absolutely. Now, I don't know if he'll make it, but let's be honest -- sticking close to that Chase line, being in the ball game at Richmond, is a step up from where he was.

Progressive thinking

You can hear it in his voice. You can see it in his face, and in the results on the scoring tower. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having fun again.

Joe Menzer: At least after seeing Caraviello's fence-sitting posture, I know I am not the waffling weasel in this group.

Chris Stanfield: I don't know about you two, but this chemistry between Dale Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte has been something to see. And if I'm being honest, I'm a little surprised. I want him to succeed and he appears to be racing like he knows this may be his last and best shot to win in the sport's best equipment. To quote the man himself, "Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I've got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work. If it don't work with [Letarte], I got nowhere else to go."

Joe Menzer: Is that Junior speaking, or Caraviello?

Chris Stanfield: That would be the man behind the wheel, not the pen. Although both may be interchangeable.

David Caraviello: I thought that quote was me talking about Track Smack with you guys. Because trust me, if this doesn't work, I got nowhere else to go. Chris, the Letarte factor is what makes me think this Junior deal can work. Rick Hendrick paired the two because he thought Dale needed a morale-boosting presence like Letarte in his ear all afternoon. That's what Steve does best -- keep his drivers upbeat and motivated. Right now, it's absolutely working, and stunningly well at times. Of course, we're only three races in, and a lot can happen, but if you're a member of Junior Nation, it's impossible to see what's going on and not be optimistic.

Chris Stanfield: The question is really about consistency, isn't it? Any driver in the Cup Series can lead a lap, or get up front. With the support Junior has right now, most drivers would be more than capable of success, but can Junior ride the wave long enough to be in contention at the end? Honestly, I have no idea.

David Caraviello: Consistency is part if it, yes. And Earnhardt has shown that in the first three weeks, even if he didn't get the Daytona finish to back it up. But to me, it's more intangible. Earnhardt can get so frustrated in the car, can sometimes struggle to provide the right kind of feedback, can fade late in races. Those are the kind of things Letarte is on the box to change. He does that, the consistency will come. The first three races have been a very good sign in that regard.

Joe Menzer: That's where Letarte's cheerleading may come in and, frankly, has to if Junior is going to change the course of the way so many of his races have gone in the past two or three years. He runs well and up front for two-thirds of the race, then something goes wrong and either he or the team or both simply would not handle the adversity well in the past. Letarte needs to change that toxic pattern. Only then can he change really bad finishes into acceptable ones, and potentially good ones into great ones that get him back to Victory Lane.

Chris Stanfield: Letarte sure has a way of engaging his drivers, and that's important, but the man behind the wheel -- good mood or bad, confidence or doubt -- has to be able to win. By the way, Junior has top-10s in more than half of his starts at Bristol, including a win.

David Caraviello: Joe, I don't know about that. Earnhardt's last victory didn't have much staying power. Of course, everyone wants to see him win. But this is bigger than just one victory. This is trying to salvage the guy's career, in a manner of speaking. One win won't do that, but a season's worth of solid finishes and a potential Chase berth just might.

Joe Menzer: Let me be clear: I'm not talking about one win. I'm talking about him getting back on track and contending for multiple wins. Let me also be clear that I don't necessarily see it happening. When you get to be 35 and have won once -- in a fuel-mileage gambit -- in four-plus seasons, my belief is you are what you are. It's not likely to change too dramatically.

David Caraviello: Agreed, Mr. Menzer. Nobody's going to wave a magic wand and turn the guy into Jimmie Johnson. But let's let him improve and see where he ends up. Let him get better before we start worrying about when and how often he gets to Victory Lane.

Joe Menzer: And I'm off on Junior's age, by the way. He's 36, believe it or not -- and will turn 37 before this season is over.

David Caraviello: Man, somebody is obsessed with age today. Just saying ....

3. With two drivers in the top five -- including the points leader -- is Stewart-Haas Racing the best team in NASCAR right now?

Joe Menzer: No. Seriously? You're kidding, right? Listen, it's doing very well. But it's a two-car team and it's three races into the season. Who in their right mind would suggest it's better than Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway or Joe Gibbs Racing at this point in its existence? I think that's ridiculous.

David Caraviello: I don't know if I'd go that far, not just yet, but it has definitely proven itself a team with which to contend. Tony Stewart leads the points, Ryan Newman has had a nice start. And given its affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports, we know what kind of equipment it is getting. So maybe it's not the best, not yet -- you have to win races to make that claim, I'd think -- but it is putting itself in the conversation.

Chris Stanfield: Most of the top teams have a piece of the pie at this point. And yes, Stewart-Haas Racing has a driver at the top, but the best in NASCAR? A little early to wear that crown. If the Chase were today (and I hate saying that), Hendrick has three cars in the top 12, more than anyone else.

Joe Menzer: And I forgot to mention Richard Childress Racing. Blame it on my AARP age. I put Stewart-Haas about fifth on the list right now. Of course it's not the top 12 per se anymore that gets you in. Remember, we've got the wild-card equation this year, where wins count more than points after the top 10. The better, more meaningful question at this point in the season would be: Stewart-Haas Racing is off to a fine start early in this 2011 season. Can it sustain it?

David Caraviello: Heck, if we're looking at things right now -- and that's how the question was worded -- Stewart-Haas is the only team with two drivers in the top 10. Doesn't that speak for itself?

Chris Stanfield: Is the best team not the one with the driver who has won the past five championships? Just saying. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and we're not measuring success by what things look like after three weeks.

David Caraviello: For all the renewed strength Roush Fenway has shown, Carl Edwards is its only driver in the top 10. Paul Menard is the only driver up there for Richard Childress Racing right now. So things are very much spread out from a team perspective right now. I think we're still waiting to see who rises to the top. But you look at the standings right now -- and well, the positions of the Stewart-Haas guys speak for themselves.

Joe Menzer: I will say this: I think Tony Stewart will win four or five races this season. He will use the fact that they basically threw away a win at Vegas, or at least let the win get tangled up in an air hose on pit road, as additional motivation. More importantly, his cars appear to be consistently fast.

David Caraviello: Mr. Menzer, I will give you that much. Tony certainly appears to be on his game and his equipment seems to be fantastic. I can completely see him hanging out near the top of the points for much of the year. Ryan Newman has had so many ups and downs in recent years, I'm going to wait and see if he can stick around before making any grand pronouncements on what he might be capable. But given the preponderance of mile-and-a-half intermediate tracks on the schedule, and given how good Tony was at Vegas ... well, it's easy to do the math.

Joe Menzer: Math? No one told me there would be any math!

Chris Stanfield: I failed Algebra three times.

David Caraviello: Hey, I'll throw a real wild card into the best team discussion. How about Turner Motorsports? It has three of the top five drivers in the Nationwide standings, including points leader Reed Sorenson. It won the Vegas race with Mark Martin. It fields the truck of James Buescher, who's 11th in the Camping World Truck Series standings. Got to admit, under this new championship structure, the Turner guys are getting it done right now.

Joe Menzer: First with the math, and now he's dealing wild cards. What's up with you today, Caraviello? I thought we were talking about the Sprint Cup Series on this one, and now you want to throw all three national touring series in the mix? I have to admit, though. I was very skeptical of Turner Motorsports possessing staying power -- heck, any kind of power -- prior to this season. And it is literally off to a very fast start. It's been impressive.

David Caraviello: Joe, in your advancing age, perhaps you did not read the question correctly. It read, "in NASCAR," not "in the Sprint Cup Series." Maybe you can talk to Jeff Gordon about getting in on some AARP program for new eyeglasses.

Chris Stanfield: Again, is the best team not the one with the driver who has won the past five championships at the sport's highest level? I guess we should define "best." Last year, we talked about RCR being the best team at this point in the season. And then, see what happened ... Jimmie and Hendrick won again.

Joe Menzer: Amen, brother. I define the best every morning when I look in the pre-Smack mirror and get ready to fill you guys in on how it really is. I'm sure Five-Time feels the same way. You get no argument from me on that.

David Caraviello: It's like projecting the NCAA tournament bracket -- it's not about how you think things will eventually shake out, it's about who deserves to be in right now. And right now, only Stewart-Haas has two drivers in the top five. Of course, the Hendrick guys are coming -- it has three in the top 12 and a win with Gordon -- so it may very well be up there before too long.

Joe Menzer: Of course I need my glasses first before I can even see an NCAA bracket or gaze in the mirror in the morning. But that's to be expected at my age.

Chris Stanfield: With that approach, DC, then Stewart-Haas is the team to beat ... that is, until the Jimmie Show has its season premiere.

David Caraviello: Hope it comes on before 9. That's the only way Joe will be awake to see it!

Chris Stanfield: He'll DVR it. Or pop in a VHS tape.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.