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Track Smack: Dale Jr., Bowyer regroup as Busch chases 100

July 14, 2011, ,

As this year's Chase field begins to solidify, several drivers still worthy of debate

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell another spot in the standings after his 30th-place finish at Kentucky. In three weeks, he's dropped from third to eighth. Is he going to make the Chase?

Bill Kimm: If I'm being totally honest, no I do not believe Junior is going to make the Chase. There are too many talented drivers just waiting to pounce on guys falling out of the top 10, and Junior is on the express elevator to another disappointing season.

Mark Aumann: I don't know. Three of his best four tracks -- Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond -- are still to come. But he's really not that great at Indy and Watkins Glen. The big worry is that he could be in a must-win situation by the end of August if he doesn't rebound soon. think the real key for the No. 88 team is the stem the bleeding now. They can't afford to have any more bad luck for the foreseeable future, because their window of opportunity is slipping away quickly.

Joe Menzer: Denny Hamlin, of course, already has one win. I'm going to have to say that, if pressed, I don't think Junior is going to make the Chase now. I said so at the beginning of the season but then he started making a believer out of me and I thought I was wrong. Now it appears he's building momentum in the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time of year, and that he's already entered an all-too-familiar summer swoon.

Bill Kimm: Guys, I'm afraid he is in that must-win situation now. Twenty-one points is all that separates him and Tony Stewart in 11th. I can almost guarantee Smoke will get in the top 10, so who will drop out to make room? It's either him, Ryan Newman or Denny Hamlin. My money based on recent performance is the No. 88.

Mark Aumann: You're right, Bill. When you look at guys like Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, there's no reason to think they can't leapfrog their way into a Chase berth, especially if they score a win. And again, a lot of this is from situations not of his own doing, although he admits blowing the tire at Kentucky was due in part to him sliding the car in the pit stall. But Junior's looking at finishes of 21st, 41st, 19th and 30th over the past four races. That's not Chase-worthy.

What, me worry?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. maintains a positive outlook on his season, even after a recent string of poor finishes. Why? Dave Rodman says the best thing Dale Jr. has going for him is his confidence.

Joe Menzer: That's not worthy of making the main finals at your local dirt track.

Mark Aumann: One of the things that hasn't been played up much, BK, is that 11th and 12th are no longer secure spots, especially with the winner's wild card. So eighth is a lot more iffy than it would have been last season. Again, a win would solidify Junior's chances exponentially, but we've gone over that time and time again, and until he can get there, there are no guaranteed wins out there for him.

Bill Kimm: You're right, Mark. This wild card has completely changed how we look at the standings ... and I love it!

Joe Menzer: What's with you two? You're right, Mark? You know what, BK? It's time to break up the love fest. But uh, I have to agree on this point, BK. I love the wild-card element to this year's Chase. The fact is, though, that Junior needs at least one win to get in that conversation. And right now he has zero -- over the last three seasons plus.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, of the changes made by NASCAR in recent seasons, that wild card is the one I think will wind up being the most positive. Boy, doesn't running out of gas with a couple hundred yards to go at Charlotte loom extra large now?

Bill Kimm: I'm sure Junior and Steve Letarte would love a victory, but recent performance doesn't leave much hope for one.

Joe Menzer: He'd be the first to tell you that he would have more or less lucked into that win, had he been able to hang on and secure it. And let's be brutally honest: his last win in June of 2008 at Michigan was won on a fuel-mileage gambit. All part of the sport, and I actually love fuel-mileage races and the strategies they entail, but to be Chase-worthy you really need to consistently put yourself in position to contend for wins -- and then actually win some. Junior hasn't really done that in three-plus years and even in his better years, like this one and 2008, he has wilted as the summer heat has increased. He's sort of like Bill Kimm in the late innings of a softball game.

2. It's on to New Hampshire, where Clint Bowyer won the playoff opener a season ago. After a miserable night in Kentucky that cost him three spots in the standings, can the driver of the No. 33 car regroup?

Mark Aumann: To me, Clint Bowyer's situation mirrors Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s, only with more at stake. He's 12th in the points, so those awful finishes at Daytona and Kentucky have not only killed his momentum but put him in almost a must-win situation. I just don't know if the No. 33 team can leapfrog that many teams -- especially Hamlin and Stewart. If you're Clint, how much does that photo finish loss at Talladega come back to haunt you by Richmond? Or finishing second at Texas?

Bill Kimm: Much like Junior, I'm just not sure if this is Bowyer's year. I don't see him getting into the top 10, so that leaves wins, and he hasn't really shown recently that this team is going to contend for a victory. Bowyer is scoring a top-10 here and there, but mostly he is outside the top 15, which doesn't earn you a Chase berth.

Parity and points

Dave Rodman offers his midseason analysis of the Cup Series and discovers the current car and tire continues to level the playing field during a time when winning really is everything.

Joe Menzer: This goes deeper than what it might seem on the surface. Bowyer's situation at RCR for next year and beyond is unsettled, and it's obviously on not only his mind but also on the minds of those who comprise the entire No. 33 team. But to say he can't get into the top 10 from where he stands right now is a little ridiculous. He's right on Tony's tail, and Mr. Stewart arguably has had a rougher year than he has -- with fewer top-five and top-10 finishes. It could come down to a group that includes the aforementioned Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Bowyer -- with only one or possibly two of the four making the Chase via the top 10 route.

Mark Aumann: On the other hand, the RCR guys have proven that they can put together good, consistent runs. Bowyer had a stretch earlier this year of five consecutive top-10 finishes. But it seems like every time he takes two steps forward, he winds up going back one. That's pretty much Daytona and Kentucky in a nutshell. But I agree, Bill. You can't keep putting up finishes in the mid-teens and think that's good enough to make the Chase. They're going to have to step up and run up front a lot more here in the last eight races before the Chase field is set.

Bill Kimm: You guys, you know what we haven't really talked about, and we should start seeing it more and more. There are a lot of guys who are going to start having the "nothing to lose" mentality. Junior and Bowyer are two of them. These final eight races, we should start seeing some great drivers and good cars start doing some crazy stuff just to get a win and try to get that wild card.

Joe Menzer: And another guy who could easily become a factor is Juan Montoya. Despite what seems to be sort of a nondescript, disappointing season, he sits there 13th in points and is about to head to a couple of tracks where he ranks among the favorites to win: Watkins Glen and Indianapolis. One win puts him in the Chase wild-card conversation and two likely makes him a lock to get in via either vaulting ahead of others to get into the top 10 in points or by nailing down one of the two wild-card spots.

Mark Aumann: We really are getting to the point where a win by someone on the Chase bubble is going to be enough to get them in. And what kind of howling will we hear from Junior Nation if David Ragan and Brad Keselowski get in, and guys like Earnhardt, Bowyer and Stewart don't? Fascinating stuff. Just win, baby. Al Davis had it right all along.

Bill Kimm: I might be howling with them. Does David Ragan deserve to be in the Chase? I could definitely argue no. But, them are the rules, so ultimately he does.

Race Rewind

Twelve different drivers made a trip to Victory Lane during the first 18 Cup races of 2011. Relive all of the action and catch up on race highlights.

Mark Aumann: I totally agree. If I'm Greg Biffle, I circle Michigan on the calendar right now. I've got to win that race. And Juan Montoya? Watkins Glen is on my mind every weekend

Joe Menzer: But Bill, why single out David Ragan? The kid is coming. He's got more pressure on him than most others in the garage, and he's starting to respond. It's as if he and his team are sending a message to his sponsor, UPS, and car owner Jack Roush that they deserve to stay together and stick around. Of all the guys with one win on the wrong side of the top 10, Ragan seems to be making the most progress.

Bill Kimm: Biffle's got bigger issues right now, specifically getting used to a new crew chief for the first time since 2007. I think the Greg Erwin demotion was the white flag waving on this season.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, that's like throwing the Hail Mary pass for that team right now. Maybe Jack Roush is hoping something will click.

Joe Menzer: Speaking of Hail Marys, it's about time for BK to say something that will stir me up -- and the masses.

Bill Kimm: I've said all year, wouldn't it be a shame to see a Montoya or Ambrose sneak into the Chase because of a road-course win. But Montoya has earned it, what a quiet, successful season for that bunch.

Joe Menzer: Well, there it is! Right on cue! Are you serious? Montoya hasn't earned anything yet. If he wins Indy or Watkins Glen or both, then maybe you can talk about "what a quiet, successful season for that bunch" it's been. To this point, I say the No. 42 team has been so wildly inconsistent that they've been nothing short of a pretty large disappointment. But he's done well enough to sit 13th in the standings, heading into a couple of tracks where he can contend. The next month will tell the story of his season.

Mark Aumann: I will say, it's added a level of intrigue that's been missing. And will leave Richmond wide open.

Bill Kimm: But back to Bowyer, he's in that must-win mode, because I don't see him cracking the top 10. There are just too many strong drivers up there ... and they are there for a reason.

Mark Aumann: Hmmm. Richmond is Bowyer's best track, stats-wise. Wouldn't that be something?

3. Kyle Busch is slated to compete in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events at New Hampshire, in the Nationwide race at Nashville, and then in the Nationwide event at Lucas Oil Raceway before the Brickyard 400. When will he claim national-series victory No. 100?

Mark Aumann: When's the next Truck Series race? Probably there.

Bill Kimm: Kyle Busch is the man. You can hate on him all you want, but to win 100 national series races by the age of 27 ... that is flat-out impressive. And the next truck race is Iowa this week. Kyle isn't in it.

Joe Menzer: Why not this weekend in New Hampshire? He's won the Cup race there previously in his career and hasn't finished lower than 11th in his last five Cup races at the track. And here's the thing: He's at the point now in the Cup season where he can take chances without fear of falling out of the Chase. At the top of the points and with a series-high three wins under his belt, they're going to be searching to find something they can come back and use when they return to New Hampshire in the Chase. If he hits on it, look out. And, of course, he's got that win-or-take-the-steering-wheel home mentality all the time now in Nationwide races.

Mark Aumann: Well, I see it coming before Indianapolis. He's just too good to have a mini-slump this summer. I think the thing that impresses me most about Kyle is just his ability to seamlessly transition between three types of vehicles that handle differently. You look up at a truck race -- and if he's not leading, it seems like he'll be in the mix by the time the white flag flies.

Equal ground?

One win away from 100, Dave Rodman and Bill Kimm debate if Kyle Busch's potential 200 victories compares to Richard Petty's 200 in Head2Head.

Bill Kimm: He has a great chance to do it in the Nationwide race this weekend at the Magic Mile. He's won the past two Nationwide races there, so I guess my money would be on that one.

Mark Aumann: I wasn't old enough to see Petty in his prime, but you have to imagine fans of that era thought the same thing of the King. If he was entered, there was going to be a good chance that he'd be in Victory Lane at the end. And yep, I agree, Bill. He's got to be the favorite at New Hampshire.

Joe Menzer: Bill? There you go again. What about me?

Bill Kimm: Uh oh, Mark just brought out the comparison to the King. Let the e-mails commence! You can't compare Kyle to the King, Mark! What were you thinking? We did that this week in Head2Head, and, wow, the gloves came off in those subsequent comments and e-mails.

Joe Menzer: Finally, you two disagree on something! That warms my heart.

Mark Aumann: They certainly have polar opposite personalities off the track. But the King was anything but polite when it came to racing. He could dish it out as much as he took it. Oh, great. Now I've done it!

Joe Menzer: I'm wondering if Mark is going to be able to take it as much as he's dished it out when it comes to all those incoming comments and e-mails.

Bill Kimm: Here's the thing about Kyle: I don't think the 100th win will come in a Cup race. If it doesn't happen at New Hampshire, Nashville on the Cup off week is looking really good. He has the Truck/Nationwide double there and he's bound to win one of those.

Joe Menzer: I agree with that wholeheartedly. But I stand by my prediction that he wins either the Nationwide or Cup race this weekend to claim career victory No. 100.

Mark Aumann: When you look through the history of the sport at the guys who have had an uncanny ability to win, they are share one thing in common: an unwavering determination to succeed. Petty, Pearson, Allison, Yarborough, Waltrip, Gordon, Busch. That's what ties them together in my mind. They refused to lose. And yeah, back to the original question, Bill, New Hampshire Nationwide race.

Bill Kimm: Mark, this is unprecedented. I think you and I have agreed on all three questions.

Mark Aumann: Well, at least we didn't have to spend six hours in a car together, listening to Joe Menzer go on and on about his Cincinnati Reds.

Bill Kimm: Too bad Joe can't follow suit with the obvious brains of this week's Track Smack!

Joe Menzer: Just when I was starting to like you, too, Bill. Now I'll have to start cracking on your softball game and everything else again. As for you, Mark, I used to be able to say, yeah, well, at least I'm not a Detroit Tigers fan. But right about now, I can't say much along those lines.

Bill Kimm: At least listening to Menzer rattle on about the Reds is better than hearing him go on and on about Kyle Busch!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.