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Menzer: The answer man weighs in on hot topics

June 20, 2011, Joe Menzer,

From Denny to Kyle, from Michigan to Sonoma: questions that need to be asked

With Michigan in NASCAR's rear-view mirror -- for now -- and an interesting weekend of twists and turns directly ahead, here are five questions that beg to be asked along with opinionated answers.

1. Is Denny Hamlin better poised now to win a Sprint Cup championship than he was at this time a year ago?

On the surface, this question might seem silly. At this point a year ago, Hamlin already had visited Victory Lane five times. After winning the June race at Michigan, Hamlin sat third in the points standings behind only Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. He needed last Sunday's win at the same track to crack the victory column for the first time this season, and that elevated him inside the top 10 for the first time this year as well.

But here is the difference, and the reason it is a legitimate question: Hamlin was indeed on a roll last year and shocked much of the NASCAR community with the toughness and resilience he displayed in making a championship charge even as he recovered from major knee surgery in the middle of the season. But his No. 11 Toyota team seemed to wilt under the heat applied by the No. 48 team of defending champ Jimmie Johnson over the final two weeks of the season, and Johnson cruised to his fifth consecutive title.

This year, even though Hamlin only now is up to ninth in points and has just the one win, he is beginning to show determination and grit and some powerful momentum all at the right time. He won two Chase races last year, which was one more than Johnson. He and crew chief Mike Ford might be better at playing from behind and being aggressive than they were at trying to manage their slim lead over the final two races of last season, perhaps making them a more viable threat to win it all this time around. Plus they won't make the same mistakes twice, will they?

2. How important is it for Juan Montoya to win this Sunday's Toyota SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.?

Montoya is one of two drivers who really will be feeling the pressure to win this Sunday. The other is Marcos Ambrose. Both are great on road courses, and since NASCAR continues to place only two on the entire 36-race Sprint Cup schedule, each needs a win either here or in August on the other road course at Watkins Glen to put themselves in the Chase conversation.

Montoya currently sits 15th in the points; Ambrose is 21st. If either can earn at least one victory and finish in the top 20 in points, a wild-card Chase berth likely awaits as long as they can stay ahead of Brad Keselowski, who already has one win but sits 22nd in points, in the standings. Two wins and a top-20 points finish and a Chase berth certainly awaits.

But they are running out of time to get into the Chase in the more conventional manner of finishing in the top 10 in points over the first 26 races. In fact, with only 11 such races left, the hourglass already appears to have run out on Ambrose. Sonoma is one of only two venues where Montoya and Ambrose can make up lots of ground in one afternoon on several competitors ahead of them in the standings -- but they also have to beat each other. Seeing them battle might be the best show this Sunday has to offer.

3. How cool is it -- or is it cool at all -- for drivers to have to go from the 2-mile oval at Michigan International Speedway to tricky road courses both in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series?

It's very cool. The only problem is -- and this has been stated many times previously -- NASCAR needs to either be in the business of mixing in more road courses or staying away from them altogether. It makes little or no sense to only have the two road-course events during the first 26 races, then no others during the 10-race Chase that determines the season's champion.

"They've already talked and Martin apologized to Earnhardt after last Sunday's race. ... So it's over, folks. Move on. There is nothing left to see here now. "


It has long seemed that the best way to solve this obvious dilemma would be to add one road course during the Chase. And that brings us to this weekend's Road America event in the Nationwide Series. Why not add one more regular-season road course to the Sprint Cup mix at a place such as Road America, and then start making Watkins Glen and Infineon events in the Chase on an alternating basis?

If how a driver negotiates a road course is going to play a factor in who gets into the Chase, it should also play a factor in how that champion is determined during the Chase. This isn't likely to ever happen, of course. But it sure makes sense, doesn't it?

4. Is there a new feud brewing between Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Uh, no. While it's true that Earnhardt was upset with Martin after Earnhardt felt the veteran driver forced him into the outside wall late in the race at Michigan, they've already talked and Martin apologized to Earnhardt after last Sunday's race.

"I don't have any history of having problems. I don't think I have one now," Martin told reporters afterward. "I feel like I give everybody on the race track respect. I made a mistake."

So it's over, folks. Move on. There is nothing left to see here now.

5. Is the old feud between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick settled?

Uh, no. Maybe it'll happen this week or maybe it'll be next. But we were all left with the distinct feeling after Michigan that at some point before this season is over, Harvick will still do something on the track to retaliate for what transpired between the two earlier this season at Darlington.

The question is when, and how to do it so as to minimize damage to his own championship hopes? The most certain answer to that would be to do nothing at all, but this is Kevin Harvick we're talking about. He may not be able to help himself.

So if he settles the score in his mind, should he do it before the Chase starts and risk being disciplined -- probation a second time, or worse -- again? Or should he wait to see how the Chase develops, keep it in the back of Busch's mind that he could strike at any time, and play that mind game until he sees how the Chase develops? It's risky business, to be sure, and could end up costing one or the other, or both, a championship if a retaliation attempt comes at an inopportune time.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.