News & Media

Track Smack: Picking favorites

June 02, 2011, ,

Topics: One-third contenders; at 'home' in Kansas; Bayne, Patrick at Chicago

1. With the Coca-Cola 600 behind us, we're now one-third of the way through the Sprint Cup season. Has the championship battle distilled down to a three-man race between Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick?

Chris Stanfield: Well, it sure is starting to look that way. One or two races does not a contender make, but Carl Edwards is sure making that new Ford engine work for him. Kevin Harvick proves he can still close, even at the expense (and heartbreak) of others. And I wouldn't count out Jimmie Johnson for all the tools at Lowe's.

Joe Menzer: I think it's a little early to say that. Don't forget Matt Kenseth, for instance. He's now won two races, too, and he's the type of wily, consistent veteran to perhaps hang around until the end. And my goodness, what if Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually does finally start winning some races? Couldn't he jump into the mix?

David Caraviello: It's surely starting to look like that's your lead group. Harvick has the race wins, Edwards has the consistency, Johnson has the pedigree. That's not to say guys like Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't muscle in there, and when the Chase starts, all these pieces will get tossed up into the air again. But for right now, I'd have to say yes, that's your lead pack.

Joe Menzer: Wow. Well, that's not going out on much of a limb to say that -- since they're 1-2-3 in points. Of course they're the lead pack right now. The question is, whether it is now down to a three-man race. And the answer to that, right now, is no. It's too early.

Chris Stanfield: Joe -- if I expect little, then I'm never disappointed, but man -- Dale Jr. won't go away. He's proven (so far) that he's a top-10-type of driver this year. Man oh man, what a Chase it would be if he stayed in the hunt.

Joe Menzer: The other guy out there who still could very well be part of this championship contender conversation is Kyle Busch. But the problem is that I don't think Richard Childress is going to let him get anywhere close to that trophy.

David Caraviello: The interesting thing about the top three is, all of those guys also have weaknesses, however slight. Harvick's gotten a lot of mileage out of this "closer" role, but you wonder if he can keep winning races by swooping in at the end. Edwards doesn't match Harvick or even teammate Matt Kenseth in terms of race wins, at least not yet. And although Jimmie has so far avoided one of the "slumps" -- by Johnsonian standards -- that he went through last year, that group doesn't look quite as bulletproof.

Chris Stanfield: In the end, Joe is right. Rare, I know -- but we've got too much racing to do. And Kyle Busch may have a thought or two on contending.

Joe Menzer: Oh, he has more than a thought about it. Unfortunately for him, he should have thought about it in Darlington when he deliberately turned Harvick. They already didn't like each other, but that night he may have put a bull's-eye on his back that all the RCR cars will have in their sights at one point or another -- and if one of 'em takes him out in the Chase, well, that could be all she wrote.

David Caraviello: Well, given that the driver who has dominated the regular season has an awful track record of holding onto the top spot until the end of the Chase -- Tony Stewart in 2005 is the only one to pull that off, I believe -- things don't exactly bode well for the leader at the moment. So yes, Menzer, of course things can change. They surely will. But you still have to think that the odds of the eventual champion coming from that group is extremely high. Maybe 75 percent right now?

2011 winners

Where they stand in points
Kyle Busch25
Matt Kenseth27
Carl Edwards11
Jimmie Johnson13
Jeff Gordon116
Regan Smith129
Trevor Bayne*145

Chris Stanfield: Kenseth had eight top-10s and four top-fives at this point in the season last year and was third in points, I believe. Where did he finish?

David Caraviello: Yeah, but Matt couldn't win races a year ago. The dude was in an almost two-year winless slump, and he knew that he didn't quite have enough to hang with the leaders the whole way. This group is different. All three of them have race wins, all three should get more, and all three are looking very much like they're going to be in this until the very end.

Joe Menzer: As for Kenseth, I sense that this year is different for all the Roush Fenway cars. Even David Ragan is showing some signs of life. Edwards has been by far the most consistent of anyone and has been within a whisker of winning at least two or three more races. Biffle is starting to come on after an awful start. Kenseth has the two wins and is seventh in points despite two DNFs already, which is uncharacteristic.

Chris Stanfield: Can we just not stop for a moment and reflect on the fact that Dale Jr. is fourth in points and had what I think was his best race in months (if not years) at Charlotte. We may be witnessing something exciting here. I want to believe. I really do. (And I also want people who read Track Smack to love me!)

Joe Menzer: But yes, I guess if you had to pick a favorite or put a percentage on it -- I'd probably lean toward saying this is either Edwards' year or Harvick's. Of course, Harvick may have to contend with some interference from Kyle Busch. Those two are on probation now, but what happens when they're not on probation and if one is in position to spoil the other's Chase (assuming it won't also wreck his own chances)? We'll have to see.

David Caraviello: For all the talent Kyle Busch has, Kenseth to me is the most likely candidate to horn in on the leaders. Wins speak volumes in this sport, and Matt has two of them, and he's driving for a Roush operation that's the top of the class right now. As for Dale Jr. ... no doubt we're seeing progress, no question he's fourth in points, but if we're talking about making the leap to title contender this year, he's going to need to win some races. Some. Multiple. And we see how arduous it is to get to one.

Chris Stanfield: The beautiful thing about this sport, is that you can predict and analyze all you want. In the end, it's the drivers with proven track records of long-term consistency -- combined with the ability to overcome adversity -- who win championships. Of the three, Johnson and crew still have that market cornered.

David Caraviello: And yet, Carl Edwards has easily been the most consistent driver all season, to this point, which is why he's the points leader. Is the 48 car as capable of winning every week as it once was? I don't know. I do know the competition -- the Roush guys, primarily -- have gotten a lot better. But I'm going to withhold judgment on Jimmie until the Chase starts. If he doesn't kick-start things then like he usually does, then we'll know something is amiss. As for now ... they're playing the waiting game until the fall, like they always do.

Joe Menzer: Jimmie not only no longer looks bulletproof -- but I think the 48 team is paying a bit of a price for shifting last year's pit crew over to the 88. That's paying off for the 88, but Chad Knaus called his new guys out at the Coke 600, apologizing to JJ for the "Keystone Kops (expletive)" that had transpired in the pits. Speaking of which, as ringleader of this thing we call Track Smack, I think Caraviello long ago should have made the same apology to us, Chris!

Chris Stanfield: Don't hold your breath.

2. It's on to Kansas Speedway for the track's inaugural spring race. Is this when area native Clint Bowyer finally gets a win at his home track?

Chris Stanfield: Is there really such a thing as home-track advantage?

David Caraviello: I don't know about that, but "local" -- we use that term loosely, I know -- drivers like Clint, Edwards and Jamie McMurray have to be very happy about now having the chance to come to Kansas twice a year. The fans have traditionally given that speedway great support for its one annual Chase race, and it will be interesting to see if that translates over to the spring, too. There's always some hesitancy when you're about to find out if a market can support two events. We're about to find that out with Kansas.

Race winners

2002Jeff Gordon
2003Ryan Newman
2004Joe Nemechek
2005Mark Martin
2006Tony Stewart
2007Greg Biffle
2008Jimmie Johnson
2009Tony Stewart
2010Greg Biffle

Joe Menzer: Hmm. There could be a home-track advantage, I guess, but I'm going to say no. I think if I had to pick someone, which maybe you are asking me to do, I would go with Greg Biffle. He's won there twice and almost won the Coca-Cola 600. I'd go with him or Edwards.

Chris Stanfield: Bowyer has a better chance of winning at his "home track" in a truck this weekend.

Joe Menzer: The only possible advantage someone might get from a home track is psychological -- or if he grew up running laps there and long ago discovered a certain rhythm to driving at the place, like perhaps Denny Hamlin at Richmond. But you know what? It can be a double-edge sword where you put too much pressure on yourself to do well, too.

David Caraviello: Not to turn this into the Carl Edwards Commemorative Track Smack Session, but if I had to go with a regional driver at Kansas, I'm going with Carl. The dude has five top-10s in seven career starts there, and we all remember his runner-up banzai move a few years ago. Bowyer has two top-10s in five races, and finished runner-up to Biffle in that goofy fuel-mileage event a few years back. McMurray hasn't had as much success there, with two top-10s in eight races and a best finish of seventh.

Joe Menzer: When did NASCAR stat man Mike Forde drop in on this Smack session? I mean, that's a lot of stats!

David Caraviello: If anything, I think the "home track" phenomenon works against you. Look how long it took Hamlin to break through at Richmond. Elliott Sadler always had horrible luck there. There's so much internal pressure to win in front of the home folks that it often backfires.

Joe Menzer: I believe I mentioned that earlier. So thanks for agreeing with me. You always come around to my way of thinking ... eventually.

David Caraviello: Watch out, Joe, or I'll bring up Driver Rating. (Of which Greg Biffle has the best at Kansas, a hefty 122.6.)

Joe Menzer: See, the numbers say Biffle's the favorite! Stat Man Caraviello admits it.

David Caraviello: In case you're wondering (and I know you are): Dale Earnhardt Jr. has four top-10s in 10 career starts at Kansas.

Chris Stanfield: Caraviello is stealing my thunder. If I have to pick, Edwards is my guy as well. And if there is anything to be said for running fast during a day race, it would seem Edwards has the car. As an aside, I thought it was interesting how much his car slowed as the sun set at Charlotte.

Joe Menzer: Seriously, I expect all four Roush Fenway cars to be fast this weekend. I'm telling you, they've turned the corner and have it going on. In fact, I'll say all the Ford cars have it going on. Anyone notice that A.J. Allmendinger is up to 13th in points, or that Marcos Ambrose now has more top-five finishes this season than Tony Stewart and others?

Chris Stanfield: Why wouldn't we consider Jeff Gordon, with two wins and eight top-10s (two more than Biffle) in the past 10 races at Kansas. See, we've already forgotten about Bowyer.

David Caraviello: The great drama of the 600 is how the race changes from day to night. Kenseth was one of the few whose car worked at either time, but he got buried in traffic during pit-stop cycles and could never make up the ground he lost. We won't have to worry about that this weekend. Although it will be very interesting to see the track conditions at Kansas in June, as opposed to October when the series is usually there. It can get hot as a barbecue pit in K.C. this time of year. Crew chiefs are going to need a whole new set of notes.

Chris Stanfield: Isn't K.C. known for its wet barbecue? Or is it the dry rub I'm fond of?

Joe Menzer: Meat. That's what Kansas City is known for, and that's what I'm fond of.

David Caraviello: Dry rub is Memphis style. Anyway, I'm not sure about using this as kind of a look-ahead to the Chase race at Kansas later in the year. I'm sure some things will translate, but I would suspect the track would be a lot slicker than it usually is in October. And you know who loves those slick, greasy race tracks? Tony Stewart.

Joe Menzer: He loves meat, too.

David Caraviello: The slicker and the greasier the better.

Joe Menzer: Are we talking meat now, or are we still stuck on tracks?

David Caraviello: I think we just came up with a new concession item: Kansas Speedway Slick n' Greasy Barbecue.

Joe Menzer: I'd try it!

David Caraviello: Why am I not surprised.

3. The Nationwide Series races this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Which returning driver will make more of an impact in Joliet -- Danica Patrick or Trevor Bayne?

Joe Menzer: Wow. Good question. Fact is, I think they'll both struggle after having been away for a while. But if I have to pick one, I'll go with Trevor. I think he has the better chance of the two to put together at least a respectable run. Plus he's been in a stock car more lately, if only for testing.

David Caraviello: It's gotta be T-Bayne, right? I know the guy has been out of the car since Talladega, but he's done some testing, and he's a stock-car driver though-and-through. Sliding back into that No. 16 car should be like settling in on a old sofa. Danica has spent the past few months racing machines with much more horsepower and much more grip, so I would suspect she's going to go through her usual adjustment period.

Trevor Bayne has missed the past five races; Danica Patrick hasn't made a start since the fourth race of the season. (Getty Images)

2011 Nationwide results

Bayne and Patrick
Las Vegas54

Chris Stanfield: I'm going to go from the heart as they say: I like the idea of Danica behind the wheel in NASCAR; I enjoy watching her progress, no matter how slow it may be. But as a fan of racing, I can feel a connection with Bayne, who (for obvious reasons) has proven that he can win at the biggest level. I'm not sure fans feel as big of a connection with Danica -- perhaps we're all just enamored with her. Make sense?

Joe Menzer: Hence, the old argument that if Danica is going to do this and give it her best shot, she needs to get into NASCAR full time. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who puts on his owner's hat and fields her current part-time Nationwide ride, has said it again and again and he's not alone. I think she understands that now, and is starting to lean this way. And no, Chris, you didn't make any sense because you didn't answer the question. Who has the bigger impact this week? Danica or Trevor? Or are you trying to define "impact" for us before making the call?

Chris Stanfield: In other words, Danica is fun to watch, but I take Bayne seriously as a driver, and as a young, nice and talented driver, I can hook my wagon up to his success. Don't get me wrong, I want Danica to succeed, as well -- it would be great for the sport if she did. But come on, impact as in performance? Then why even ask the question? I'll go with the driver who won the Daytona 500 over the driver who led a lap under caution.

Joe Menzer: Thank you for answering the question, my man.

David Caraviello: Well, it's hard to not feel a connection with Bayne, given his gee-whiz reaction to winning the Daytona 500, his immense likability, his faith and how well he dealt with this recent health scare. Goodness, he's the kind of guy everybody wants as a son or a brother. Danica's very different -- she's a little more guarded, and we don't see as much of her. Those moments when she does let her guard down -- I remember her talking about Thanksgiving dinner plans at Homestead -- she's extremely likeable. The more we see of her in NASCAR, I would think the more of those kinds of moments we would get.

Chris Stanfield: Even Danica hasn't committed herself to making an impact in this sport. Let's keep it real here. Dabble all you want, but if impact is what you seek -- commit.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, I have to admit, and I've said this before, but my perception of Danica before doing some interviews with her did not match the reality. She's generally witty, charming and pretty likeable. Not always, but generally. She's much more down to earth than I thought she would be, and more so when you talk to her in smaller group interviews.

David Caraviello: Let's not forget that Danica's most recent intermediate-track event was a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas, the best ever by a woman in a NASCAR national series. So let's not act like leading that one lap at Daytona (which was not under caution) was all we've seen of her. The frustrating thing is, it's taken us months to see if she can build off that Vegas performance at another intermediate track. Those gaps in her schedule have to take their toll.

Joe Menzer: I give her kudos for finishing fourth at Vegas, and I, too, would like to see what she could do if she committed full time to this -- as her backers at apparently would like her to do.

Chris Stanfield: Again, defining "impact" then defines this discussion, but Bayne wins on both sides of the coin in my book.

David Caraviello: No question, he has to. I would not be surprised at all if Trevor slid back into that No. 16 car and finished inside the top 10. I'd be much more surprised if Patrick did it, not because she's not capable of it -- we all saw at Las Vegas that she was -- but because she's been wheeling IndyCars for the past month or so. Of course, what we don't know is what the effect of this layoff is going to be on Bayne. How will his stamina be? How will he feel in the car? I'm not talking about his mystery illness, just the fact that he hasn't subjected his body to the rigors of stock-car racing for some time.

Chris Stanfield: Bayne is a fearless kid with mad skills. I bet he does just fine.

Joe Menzer: You can't build on your successes when you're in and out of the car so much. Trevor hasn't been in the car that much lately, but he's been in it more than Danica and he also has more lifelong experiences in a stock car. Right now he's clearly the better driver in a stock car, although that might change over time. We're talking about this weekend at Chicagoland, so the answer to this question is a no-brainer. The real question is: Will Danica indulge in a Chicago-style hot dog or deep-dish pizza while she's in Chicago for the race?

Chris Stanfield: Oh no you didn't, Joe.

David Caraviello: Deep dish. Gotta be. Lots of toppings. Danica, I know a great place over on Wabash Street. Just gimme a call.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.