News & Media

Smack: Hamlin's slide, Johnson's run and owners' worries

March 24, 2011, ,

Debating the runner-up jinx, staying on top and remaining in contention

1. Denny Hamlin slid nine spots in the standings to 17th after Bristol. Runners-up from the previous season don't have a great track record of contending for the title the next year -- is that jinx bound to continue?

Dave Rodman: Not with Hamlin. A brief statistical overview shows that to this point in the season, he's actually doing a little bit better than he did last year -- and we know what he ultimately did last year. I'm not getting too wound up over this point system and how alarming a rise or fall we've already seen people take. Give 'em time.

Mark Aumann: Nope. First, he rarely gets off to a great start. Second, his best tracks -- Martinsville, Texas and Pocono -- are coming up soon. Third, that's one of those "random occurrence seems to fit a trend" stats to me. Now, if he struggles at his better tracks, then I'd worry a little. But we're four races into a 26-race "regular season." And again, Hamlin's strengths are still down the road.

David Caraviello: Well, to answer the original question, I don't know if we can go quite that far yet. Yes, Denny hasn't had the ideal start to a season, yes, he's 17th in points, but he's still not that far out of Chase contention and we still have a very, very long way to go. Is he digging himself a hole? Absolutely. Is he out of it? No chance.

Dave Rodman: You don't want to have to resort to something as flighty as race wins to get you into anything, but more than most teams in the Cup garage, Hamlin and Mike Ford are capable of winning -- just about any time. So that's a great comfort zone to be in.

Mark Aumann: Two things about the new points/Chase format. You don't have to finish first to make the Chase, so he's really only chasing after the top 10. And secondly, winning races will get you a free pass if you don't catch the top 10. That could play a huge factor for someone like Hamlin or Jeff Gordon by September.

David Caraviello: And yet, despite all that, for whatever reason, runners-up from the previous season have had a devil of a time mounting a title campaign the next year. Look at Mark Martin last year. Carl Edwards went from neck-in-neck with Jimmie Johnson in 2008 to not winning a race in 2009. Even Johnson suffered a fall-off between his close call in 2004 and 2005. Really, only Tony Stewart in 2002 has done this kind of thing successfully in recent seasons. There's no sense to it. All those guys are great drivers. But there seems to be some kind of natural letdown after coming so close to a championship the season before. Again, it's too early to cast Hamlin in that role, but he's certainly showing some signs early on.

Mark Aumann: Of those, only Martin missed the Chase the next season, correct? So I guess we're debating whether Hamlin will fall apart enough to not be one of the top 12 cars after Richmond. And I just don't see that being the case right now. Now, one fly in the ointment might be the engine issues that Joe Gibbs Racing seems to be struggling with right now. If they don't solve that, perhaps I could see a letdown season for Hamlin. But there are too many positives in Hamlin's case to think that he's suddenly jinxed.

Easy does it

Off to a slow start this season, Denny Hamlin says he is in no way in panic mode and has high hopes for a strong finish at Fontana.

Dave Rodman: To quote a famous Goodyear tire spokesman, Phil Holmer, "beats me, pal." Those kinds of jinxes are too irrelevant for me to waste one second on. If I were any of those guys from 26th on back, I might be worried because they're in a little bit of a deficit, they haven't shown much of the consistency needed to mount a charge back into contention and with the exception of Jamie McMurray, have not shown the ability to consistently win. Relatively speaking, this new point format might work no differently in terms of erasing deficits.

David Caraviello: Yes, Mark, I guess there is a difference between making the Chase and legitimately challenging for the title. But this next three-week span may tell is something about where Hamlin in. After we get through California, we go to two of his best tracks -- Martinsville, where only Jimmie Johnson has been better as of late, and Texas, where Hamlin has shown the ability to run away and hide. So he'll have his chance to make up ground, and soon.

Dave Rodman: I'd say Hamlin will win at least twice by July, so there goes that worry.

Mark Aumann: Dave, if I'm Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano or Jeff Burton, winning races becomes the name of the game. Because at some point, you'll wind up expending way too much energy trying to get back to the top 10. Too many people to leap over.

Dave Rodman: Right. Logano and Burton are kind of a long way from making that happen with any regularity. Their truly competitive, race-ending efforts are few and far between -- though we're probably splitting hairs with Joey considering the way he ended last season. Clint's another who could go on a tear, and he might need to.

David Caraviello: Well, we all thought Mark Martin would win last year, too, right? Shoot, and this time last year he was seventh in points, in much better shape (as far as the standings) than Hamlin is now. And look what happened. Now, Gibbs this year looks stronger than Hendrick last year, where only Jimmie won a race. But there are just no guarantees in this deal. You can't say "so and so will win this many times." Because we never really know if they will.

Mark Aumann: David, I can't refute that. Yeah, Martin's 2010 season was somewhat of a head-scratcher. But again, if you would have told me in 2005 that anybody would win five of these in a row -- based on the randomness of a 10-race playoff -- I'd have laughed at you. Fortune is a fickle thing, especially in this sport.

David Caraviello: Mark, no question. In the no-way-could-that-happen department, that trumps all. But this is a difficult deal. There are so many factors that have to align themselves, and if one of them is a little off ... you're not winning. That's just how it is. And it's too early to tell if Denny's just a victim of bad luck right now, or if there's something else going on. Who would have thought at this time last year, for instance, that the Hendrick cars just wouldn't be fast enough en masse? And that at the end of the year three of four crew chiefs would be moved? Clearly, that's an extreme case. But you never know if it's a slump, or something deeper. Right now, we'll give Denny the benefit of the doubt and assume it's the former.

Mark Aumann: I think everybody keeps waiting for Jimmie Johnson to have that one off-year that all drivers go through, and he still hasn't.

Dave Rodman: Could be the same for Jimmie. His start is nothing to rave about.

David Caraviello: Speaking of that ....

2. Jimmie Johnson has won three of the past five races at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California, but he hasn't yet won this year. Is he still a sure thing, or has the field caught up with him?

Dave Rodman: His record probably shows how fine a line winning these things -- or finishing 18th -- is. He could win again. But there are six or eight other people who could just as easily win. And then you have the dark horses.

Mark Aumann: I'd say you keep betting the favorite until he shows why he shouldn't be considered the favorite any more. Still, there are a number of teams that have run well there, particularly Jack Roush's group. And with the early-season strength we've seen from them, I wouldn't be surprised to see Greg Biffle or Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane on Sunday.

Auto Club

Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

David Caraviello: This is another one of those wait-and-see situations. Fontana and Martinsville are probably Johnson's two best race tracks, so over the next two weeks we'll get a good chance to see whether the No. 48 team can rise to the occasion. I wouldn't be surprised if he swept both, I wouldn't be surprised if he came out of that span still searching. Because the competition did make up some ground on Five-Time last year, even though he won the title again.

Mark Aumann: I'm interested in Rodman's dark horses? Who are you considering dark horses there?

Dave Rodman: Paul Menard would be a good start.

Mark Aumann: Wow. You realize RCR has never won at Fontana. And Paul Menard ... has never won. Not saying it won't happen, but there's a real dark horse candidate. I applaud you, Dave.

David Caraviello: California is definitely one of those places where you have a rather defined pool of contenders. The two-mile tracks seem to fit the Roush guys. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have historically been very good there. And then of course there's Jimmie. We could have another situation like Bristol, where it's clear that the No. 48 car is strong even if it doesn't win. But historically, Johnson is much better at Fontana than at Bristol.

Dave Rodman: I know Paul has taken his game to another level, he and Slugger Labbe have proven to have a special driver-crew chief bond and there's no denying RCR's overall strength -- or the fact that Menard's been the most consistent RCR car so far this season.

Mark Aumann: Toyota has never won there. Could it be a place for Kyle Busch to break that streak? Heck, maybe even Hamlin (since we've all but ceded Martinsville to him or Jimmie).

David Caraviello: Harvick came mighty close there last spring, chasing Johnson down in the final laps before getting a little too eager and slapping the wall. Harvick has also won at Michigan, so you'd have to consider him a contender going in. As for Menard ... nobody should deny what he's done this year. The guy has just been fantastic. He's in great equipment, and he's showing staying power. But there's a big difference between running up front and winning. A huge difference.

Mark Aumann: And in the "shut up about your stats" department, only once has the pole-sitter won there: Johnson in 2008.

Dave Rodman: Kurt Busch could break through here, as well. But while I'm on an RCR roll I'd have to agree about Harvick being a pretty strong contender, as well. His effort could be a the proverbial dam preparing to bust.

David Caraviello: Again, nobody is saying Paul Menard can't win, but that's his next step, and it's a big one. Of course, these two-mile layouts do lend themselves to screwy fuel-mileage finishes, and even though this race is 100 miles shorter, who knows what might be in the cards in the Inland Empire.

Mark Aumann: One thing Auto Club folks deserve credit for is cutting the race from 500 to 400 miles. That's a fair distance and should create more intrigue from green to checker. It worked well in the fall. And I'm not saying other tracks should take a look at that (Pocono, hint, hint), but that's almost a perfect distance for a superspeedway. There's nothing like looking at the scoring pylon at Lap 85 and thinking, "We're still an hour from halfway."

Dave Rodman: Tracks have to do what suits their business model. In California's case, maybe they should have tried five 40-lap heat races. Cumulative finish takes all. Do a green flag pit stop after the 40th lap and order out of the pits determines starting order for next heat.

David Caraviello: Too bad Dave isn't a track promoter. We might have the next Humpy Wheeler right here in our midst.

Mark Aumann: Heck, Dave, just have the cars try to beat the traffic from San Bernardino to Malibu. There's more road rage on I-10 than at Bristol.

Dave Rodman: Instead of Lap 41, do a Lap 20 pit stop -- get out, eat a chili dog and belt back in. How's that, Humpy? Wait a minute -- this is California. Make a pit stop, race under the grandstands to greet all those fans and buy a hat, then get back in the car and race on.

Mark Aumann: Just add fireworks, paratroopers, salt to taste.

David Caraviello: Going back to Jimmie -- I do believe the competition has caught up to him, at least to a degree. It was very clear by the end of last year that other teams had matched or exceeded the No. 48 in terms of speed, and that it was Jimmie's savvy and natural talent that helped separate him from the rest. I see nothing so far this season to make me believe that has changed. Even Johnson said last week they're still working on things, trying to get them to where they want them. Now, clearly, he could go on a tear and leave everyone behind. He's capable of that. But I think everything is more evenly matched than it has been in a while, and he'll have a dogfight on his hands all season.

Mark Aumann: I think Ford has made major inroads. Kyle Busch is the kind of guy who could be a huge factor if he can control his poor finishes. But yeah, Jimmie's the king until somebody dethrones him.

David Caraviello: Mark, good point. Last year the No. 48 was as vulnerable as it's ever been, and that was a year where Ford was a mess until the end. Those Roush guys continue to improve at the rate they have ... well, let's just say there's a reason I picked Carl Edwards to win the championship in the preseason.

Mark Aumann: Gratuitous self-promotion seems to be the order of the day here in Track Smack.

3. A few top-tier teams -- like those of Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, and Brian Vickers -- are perilously close to falling outside the top 35 in owners' points. Should they be worried?

Dave Rodman: Yes, they should be, because it only takes one mechanical failure, a driver error -- either their own or a competitor's -- and they're on the outs. And being on the outs creates another whole field of razorblades you have to dance on. Not pretty.

David Caraviello: No question, they ought to be worried. The series begins working off 2011 owner points beginning next weekend at Martinsville, and no top-tier, fully-funded team wants to go there on the brink of falling outside the top 35. With so many start-and-parkers involved right now, that would be an embarrassment for a program from a championship-caliber organization. And yet, some drivers may face just that if things don't turn around.

Mark Aumann: Nope. A quick check of the owners points shows a pretty big swing between even Vickers in 32nd (69 points) and the car in 36th (51). That's 18 positions in one race. No reason to think at a track like Fontana that the big boys won't run away and hide. This isn't Bristol or Daytona, where things happen not of your own accord.

Dave Rodman: It doesn't seem like qualifying has been their issue, and that's a good thing. But getting caught out in that environment would demand the ability to get out of it, quickly -- lest you fall inextricably into the chasm. And right now, none of them has shown the ability to run and finish consistently well enough to avoid it.

Owner Standings

As of Bristol
2.99J.Roush 149-1
3.14M. Haas 138-12
4.39T. Stewart 138-12
5.27T. Pumpelly136-14
6.18J. Gibbs133-17
7.48J. Gordon130-20
8.42C. Ganassi 126-24
9. 88R. Hendrick124-26
10. 56M. Waltrip 123-27

Mark Aumann: For the most part, there are really only 39 cars racing for 35 spots. The rest are either part-time teams or start-and-park operations. And of those, several are running near the back every week.

David Caraviello: Mark, no question California is a track that puts a premium on aerodynamics and horsepower, two things the big teams hold dominant over the little guys. So yes, this week is a good opportunity for guys like Vickers and Logano to make some space between themselves and that top-35 cutoff line. But we all know, anything can happen. And if you're still in the danger zone going to Martinsville -- well, that's a place where the differences between the haves and the have-nots are equalized, and can bite you on Lap 1.

Dave Rodman: Great point, Mark. It's gonna be hard for any of those teams from 33rd on back to advance much. But that only increases the embarrassment of falling back there for a better funded, more technically-advanced team.

Mark Aumann: Here's a for instance. Dave Blaney's 36th in the points. His best finish is 25th (at Bristol). That means Vickers would have to finish last to get passed by him at Fontana. Gonna happen? I'm not going to say no, but the chances are pretty slim.

David Caraviello: Not likely unless he blows an engine on lap 1.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, the new points system creates a somewhat false closeness, even at the bottom of the standings. And yeah, if I'm Robby Gordon, eight positions is a lot more of a concern than perhaps where Vickers is. But the bottom five or six teams are all fighting around the same spots on the track every week. I just don't see where the 83 and the 31 and the 00 and the 20 can be that consistently unlucky.

Dave Rodman: That's really true. It's going to be a real dogfight among those Front Row cars, TRG, RGM, Tommy Baldwin and the Germain's car.

Mark Aumann: Once we get to the intermediate tracks and things settle down, I think we'll see the standings revert to norm. And maybe we'll get back to normalcy, where Richard Petty doesn't own the Wood Brothers car or the 71.

David Caraviello: Even if the numbers aren't as close as they seem, I'm sure there's a lot of hand-wringing going on at these shops about where these teams are in the standings. It still has to feel too close to those involved. There has to be a lot of nervousness down there -- Burton is a guy coming off a Chase berth, Logano is a guy who seemed on the brink of contending for one, Vickers came back from blood clots that cost him most of last year. It's early, yes, but these guys must be frustrated, to say the least.

Mark Aumann: Certainly, David. I can't imagine any of those teams expected to blow chunks right off the bat. But we seem to see at least one big name stumble out of the blocks. And if there's a poster child for this, Matt Kenseth comes to mind. He made the Chase one season despite being way back in the standings at one point. Just keep doing the little things right and the big things will follow. Gratuitous self-introspection.

David Caraviello: The consolation is, it is early enough that drivers are able to make up points positions in bunches in a single race. Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle -- who just last weekend harbored his own top-35 worries -- both improved eight spots after Bristol. David Ragan improved six, Kevin Harvick five. Of course, things can go the other direction, too -- Hamlin, as we mentioned, dropped nine. But as Mark said, more intermediate tracks are better for the big teams because they have such a technological advantage there, and that's when things will begin to even out,

Dave Rodman: I don't think frustrated even comes close to describing how they feel. It doesn't write off the season, but for all intents and purposes, if they don't turn things around pretty soon, they'll only be racing for wins. Hey, wait a minute... If they could win -- they'd be in the Chase! What a concept!

David Caraviello: Yes, just what we need -- a wild card that's spent most of the year scuffling along at the bottom of the standings. Yes, that's how title contenders are made, all right ...

Dave Rodman: But that is how great stories are made.

David Caraviello: Sure. Unless you're the guy in 11th place getting bumped.

Dave Rodman: If you should have been 10th, you got no grounds for crying.

Mark Aumann: There's always the NIT. Hey, maybe there's an idea. A consolation championship.

David Caraviello: The National Invitation Chase! Final race at North Wilkesboro. I like it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.