News & Media

Track Smack: Some drivers need a win; all of them want a title

July 21, 2011, ,

Join in this week's discussion, then submit your own questions for next week

1.Six drivers who won last year -- Tony Stewart, Juan Montoya, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and David Reutimann -- have yet to win in 2011. Who from that group is most capable of scoring a victory and a potential Chase berth?

Dave Rodman: This is painful on a number of counts, or names -- like Biffle, Bowyer, McMurray, Montoya and Reutimann -- but without question it's Tony Stewart. What he did last weekend -- and what his organization did, with a considerable amount of gains on the line, was impressive.

Jill Erwin: I can tell you who it won't be: Biffle, McMurray and Reutimann. None of them have showed any "consistently up front" days. Stewart is always a threat in the summer (I'm sticking with that!), Montoya has Watkins Glen coming up and the spark of a new crew chief, and Bowyer is ready to turn things around. So ... if forced to pick one, I'd go with Stewart.

David Caraviello: Until earlier this week I would have said Montoya, given that he's the defending champion at Watkins Glen, and a victory there may well be enough to launch him into the Chase. But with the recent change of crew chief, I just don't know. Suddenly that team is in a bit of upheaval, and it comes just as two of Juan's best tracks -- Indianapolis and the Glen -- approach.

Dave Rodman: Nice answer, Jill. Very nice. A Dave-like response. I like it.

Jill Erwin: I've been channeling you for weeks. I need therapy.

David Caraviello: And Jill, Biffle is kind of in the same situation -- he's got a new crew chief he's breaking in as well. I know everyone points to Michigan as the Biff's potential breakthrough, but I don't think we know yet what he and Matt Puccia are capable of. So it all comes back to Smoke, who showed at New Hampshire he can still run up front, and has some very good tracks ahead of him.

Jill Erwin: David, you're right in most cases. But Juan strikes me as a guy who when he's done with a situation, he's done. I think he will feel like he has something to prove, and he'll go all out to make something happen under his interim guy.

Dave Rodman: Seriously, as Jill so aptly points out, this is Tony's time. There have been a number of teams running averse to what you'd expect -- McMurray, Bowyer and Biffle really stand out in that regard. But what Stewart and Ryan Newman did at New Hampshire is a reflection of what they could have been doing for the better part of the season -- and with seven to go to the Chase cutoff, their timing is impeccable.

Jill Erwin: You will not find a bigger fan of Biffle than I am. Great with the media, good guy, etc. etc. But he doesn't have the fiery personality or almost chip-on-the-shoulder (no pun intended) of Montoya.

Speak your mind

Submit questions for our writers to tackle in next week's Track Smack.


Driver Comparison

('11/'10 through Loudon)
Driver'11 Rank'10 Rank+/-


Picture Perfect

After 19 Cup races, 13 drivers have visited Victory Lane. To the casual observer, every celebration may look the same, but as this photo essay shows, each journey is unique.

Dave Rodman: Matt Puccia has had success as a crew chief in both Trucks and Busch/Nationwide. For a few moments, or laps, it looked like he and Biff were gonna make something happen in Lobsterville, but the final results don't show it. But if you figure that car -- because of the timing -- was not a true Puccia-Biffle collaboration, let's wait 'til Indy. There will still be time.

David Caraviello: I don't think Juan feels like he has anything to prove to anybody. And to be honest, we really don't know a lot about Jim Pohlman, the new crew chief on the No. 42, who comes from Earnhardt Ganassi's research and development side. It seems like R&D is where everybody is looking for crew chiefs nowadays.

Jill Erwin: They need to find some new blood somewhere. How many teams has Todd Parrott been with now? Get some new guys, find out what they can do rather than cycling the same guys through the teams.

David Caraviello: Oh, I don't disagree at all. But it's just another example of how this is such a follow-the-leader sport. One team goes the R&D route for a crew chief, and suddenly everybody's going in that direction. That's very typical in NASCAR.

Jill Erwin: Well said, David. And to clarify, I didn't mean JPM needed to prove to anyone else. He's a very proud man, and performing how he has been has to be killing him.

Dave Rodman: With seven to go, not much time for statements, but I think with this timing -- though Juan's vacationing in Colombia so he won't be having lunch on the lake with Jim Pohlman -- Juan either has to deliver at his two good tracks that are two of the next three on the schedule, or start building for 2012.

David Caraviello: Dave, you don't think this is the No. 42 team raising a white flag and saying, OK, time to prep for 2012, is it? Although lunch at the lake does sound nice ....

Jill Erwin: And he'd probably get all his picnic supplies donated by Target.

Dave Rodman: I hope not DC, because JPM -- if he could carry his car and team on his back -- could win at both the Brickyard and Watkins. But we all know this is not a one-man-gang landscape, so if they don't come out of the box like gangbusters at Indy, "interim" might be even shorter than normal.

Jill Erwin: I don't think Pohlman's on that short of a leash, Dave. But I don't think he'll be back next year if that team doesn't make a big rally for the Chase.

David Caraviello: The ironic thing is that JPM broke through as a contender because former crew chief Brian Pattie figured out how to suit setups to his driver. You wonder of Pohlman will follow that same lead, or has an approach of his own. Guess we'll find out.

* Pattie replaced as crew chief on Montoya's car

Dave Rodman: I didn't mean the one race, which is what it sounded like after I pushed the button. But they definitely have to show signs of life, and satisfaction on Juan's part. Reutimann, I think, could be the surprise of the bunch. He is within a half-step of contending for wins, which you couldn't honestly say about the EGR cars. Clint is surprising ... I keep thinking he's gonna break through, and honestly, he's not too far off. Juan isn't, either. But the others have to win, and that would be a surprise at this point.

David Caraviello: Either way, the clear favorite in this group is Stewart. That's not saying he will win -- nothing is guaranteed, and it's shocking how few times he's finished in the top five this season -- but the combination of tracks, time of the year, and talent all point in one direction. As for the other two guys in this discussion ... it's kind of stunning how far off the map they've fallen after combining for five victories last year. Reutimann is occasionally in the conversation, McMurray rarely. More examples of the cyclical nature of this sport.

Jill Erwin: I'd love to see Reutimann break through. But I just don't see it happening. And I'm not-sure he's a half-step away from competing for wins. He's had some good runs, but only one or two where he was a threat for the victory.

Dave Rodman: It only takes one.

David Caraviello: Exactly. Welcome to the new world of the wild card.

* Cup Season Statistics: Biffle | Bowyer | McMurray | Montoya | Reutimann | Stewart

2. Speaking of Stewart, does Stewart-Haas Racing's 1-2 finish in Loudon portend bigger things for the organization beyond New Hampshire?

Jill Erwin: Yes and no. It's definitely a step in the right direction, and Stewart and Newman have as much talent as anyone in that garage. But with the ongoing search to replace former competition director Bobby Hutchens, they're still in need of massive leadership at the top level aside from Tony himself.

Dave Rodman: Now I'm slithering back to my slippery self. I'd want to see another race, but New Hampshire was damned impressive.

David Caraviello: Man, who comes up with these questions? It seems like every week, we're exploring whether the winner from the previous race can turn that victory into something longer-lasting. Well, in Newman's case, it certainly will given that he now has something of a safety net. But I'm also beginning to suspect he might be able to stay in the top 10, given that we're hitting the stretch run here, and the time for making big moves is running out.

Jill Erwin: Talk about recycling the same people ... we need fresh Smack blood!

Hugs all around

Owner/driver Tony Stewart worked at New Hampshire on little more than three hours of sleep, but after being part of the first 1-2 finish in the three-year history of Stewart-Haas Racing -- he was blissfully unaware of how tired he should have been.

Dave Rodman: And again, both men have been good at the upcoming tracks. I don't want to minimize the impact of a guy like Bobby Hutchens. In fact, I'd take a black eye, or deliver a couple, defending the fact that what they're achieving now rests in Bobby's hands. They are veterans, they have veteran leadership on their teams and I feel like they can continue their roll. They need a competition director to properly get in tune for 2012.

David Caraviello: Either way, Newman's been a bit stronger this year than his boss. It's still shocking to realize that Tony's runner-up finish at Loudon was only his second top-five of the year. For the No. 39, I think Loudon could very well be a springboard to something else. I think Tony needs a little more. That 14 group is still searching, clearly, and the result in New Hampshire doesn't change that -- even if it does lift hopes.

Jill Erwin: David, I'm with you on Newman. I'm not sure he'll need that win to get in, but it certainly does wonders for him in the confidence category. And not having to be as careful in watching where he is in the points race.

David Caraviello: In the waning laps at New Hampshire, with Tony running second and clearly needing the win more than Ryan did, I couldn't help but think -- would the boss order him to pull over? I know this isn't the "team orders" days of Ferrari Formula One drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, but the thought crossed my mind for just a second. I doubt, though, Stewart would want to use team orders to win. And I doubt Ryan would have listened anyway.

Jill Erwin: You beat me to it. I was going to say "no way was Newman going for that." But the telling quote was after the race when Stewart said "In hindsight, I'd rather him win." That means in the moment, he thought about it.

Dave Rodman: If Tony doesn't go on any blocking vendettas -- or whatever the vendetta of the week might be -- I think he is positioned well enough and is solid enough to maintain that second qualified spot if nothing changes in the wild card category. But that is a pretty big "if" since those guys between 11th and 20th are pretty capable of winning an odd race -- and that's all it would take.

David Caraviello: Still, I'd love to hear that conversation over the radio. "Ryan, buddy, Smoke wants you to slow down and pull over ..."

Jill Erwin: Forget Newman. I want to hear Tony Gibson get mad.

David Caraviello: It's just so unusual in this day and age to see owners driving, so we rarely have a situation where the guy you're battling for a race win isn't just your teammate, but your car owner. Yes, I know Jeff Gordon technically owns Jimmie Johnson's car, but it's not the same thing. This is like Jimmie seeing Rick Hendrick in his rearview mirror. It adds a whole new wrinkle for the conspiracy theorists to explore.

Jill Erwin: Conspiracy theorists in NASCAR? Certainly not.

David Caraviello: Remember, right in there with those Stewart-Haas boys is David Ragan, who is up to 13th. The guy keeps moving up, which is exactly what he needs to do. Newman having a victory puts Ragan in a very precarious situation -- that 6 group could be toast if Newman falls out of the top 10. But the guy who really needs to worry here is Brad Keselowski, who just can't seem to make the headway he needs to make to become a player in this.

By the Numbers

(through Loudon)
Rank+/-DriverPointsBehindStartsPolesWinsTop 5Top 10
11--Tony Stewart570-82190027
13+2David Ragan524-128191136
23-2Brad Keselowski475-177191124

Jill Erwin: Brad is exactly who I thought of. He was hovering right outside the top 20, and just can't get the run he needs to break in there. Gotta be frustrating for him, and the whole No. 2 team.

Dave Rodman: DC, if that scenario happens, Stewart's the one who needs to worry; Ragan already has. And truth be told, he and Drew Blickensderfer have looked a better bet to win each week than either Tony or Ryan. Honestly, I think it's more likely Brad will win again than he will mount a charge to get high enough into the top 20 to qualify that way. What we said in the last Smack I joined -- you're gonna need to be in the top 15 with a win -- still stands as far as I'm concerned.

Jill Erwin: I don't think it's likely that either one of those will happen, Dave. I just haven't seen enough out of that No. 2 team to say a second victory or a strong climb up the charts is a probability. Plus, look at you not only making a stand, but revisiting it! Who are you and what have you done with Dave Rodman?

David Caraviello: Where are those conspiracy theorists when we need them?

* Midseason analysis: Car, tire are helping to level the field; winning is everything

3. It's on to Nashville for the Nationwide Series, where the past five races have been won by moonlighting Cup drivers. Any of the Series regulars have a chance this time around?

Dave Rodman: Well, the good news is there are only two Sprint Cup interlopers. The bad news is the pair is Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, and either one of them is a damned good bet to win on the concrete.

Jill Erwin: Yes, and his name is Reed Sorenson. He's got a victory, a pole, and five top-10 finishes in seven starts there. And this Turner Motorsports team is stout. By the way, has Carl considered taking a weekend to hang out with his family? Just one? Maybe?

David Caraviello: Well, there's no Kyle Busch in this race, so the competition (and guitar trophy designer Sam Bass) can feel relatively safe. But then there's Carl Edwards, who's been everywhere this week it seems, and has won four Nationwide races at the Nashville track. So the regulars are going to find no quarter, not with that No. 60 still out there.

2011 Winners

(through Loudon)
No. RaceWinner
2PhoenixKyle Busch
3Las VegasMark Martin
4BristolKyle Busch
5FontanaKyle Busch
6TexasCarl Edwards
7TalladegaKyle Busch
8NashvilleCarl Edwards
9RichmondDenny Hamlin
10DarlingtonKyle Busch
11DoverCarl Edwards
12IowaR. Stenhouse Jr.
13CharlotteMatt Kenseth
14ChicagoJustin Allgaier
15MichiganCarl Edwards
16Road AmericaReed Sorenson
17DaytonaJoey Logano
18KentuckyBrad Keselowski
19LoudonKyle Busch

Title talk

Reed Sorenson reflects on his first win at Nashville, how he races the track and what it would mean to win a championship in this week's Nationwide Spotlight.

Dave Rodman: I'd second that, Jill. If Concrete Carl's record wasn't so stellar, Reed could easily wear the title Prince of Portland -- cement, that is. That was an inside joke for those familiar with the construction industry.

Jill Erwin: Way to tackle that important demographic, Dave. If I'm a Nationwide regular, I'm showing Carl the tape of himself in the booth last week when he left the race early. Tell him how good he looks on camera and how he should spend more time up there. Can't hurt, right?

Dave Rodman: Seriously, Reed has stepped up, I think, as the co-favorite for the title with Elliott Sadler, who keeps taking beatings, it seems; but is right there when he needs to be. Almost more than anyone, ESad could win virtually any week, and if he does you don't want to give him an opening to rip off a string of two or three wins in three or five weeks. Can you believe Nationwide schedule is down to about 14 races?

David Caraviello: You have to think that now that the Nationwide regulars have proven they can win some of these Nationwide events, they're going in with a little more confidence. Let's be honest, Carl is going to be the favorite here. But Sorenson, who had a reputation for being somewhat soft and disinterested during his Sprint Cup days, has really reminded people that he knows how to wheel a race car. And Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is in Roush equipment, and has proven that he can steal one of these standalone events if given a chance.

Jill Erwin: Yeah, Sorenson has been the biggest surprise for me. He got some votes when I asked the drivers last year at Homestead who would win the title this year, and I knew Turner wasn't going to spare any expense. But he has proven exactly that mental strength that some didn't always attribute to him.

Dave Rodman: Sadler and Sorenson are known quantities, Justin Allgaier has shown he can win -- though he tends to be a pinball and is erratic. But Ricky Stenhouse Jr., without question, is the most improved Nationwide driver in 2011. From virtually unemployed to a bona fide title contender is pretty impressive. And even more than that, he can win almost everywhere the series goes. Good on him and Mike Kelley for that.

David Caraviello: Dave, it's amazing to think how Ricky almost lost his ride last year. Should be a message to team owners with itchy trigger fingers when it comes to the development of young guys. It took him a while, but when he broke through, he did it in a big way. Speaking of breakthroughs ... is Sadler going to win this year? I know the guy is very much in the championship picture, the guy has all the tools, he's with the right team, and he's more than capable. There's a lot of racing left. But the longer the year goes on with that goose egg, you wonder ... how much does he wonder?

Jill Erwin: With Sadler, I know he can talk all he wants to about how he's enjoying it and he's having a ball and all that, and I'm sure he is. But he's still eyeing a trip to Cup and he wants to prove he can do it. A win would go a long way to making that a closer goal, and it's gotta be eating at him. You're right, David. Oh, and by the way, Dave -- I wouldn't call Allgaier a pinball or erratic. I think he's solid as a driver, though he hasn't made the jump to "consistent winner" just yet. But he's no rolling chicane either.

Dave Rodman: When he's upside down I hope he understands, what goes around comes around. He acts like he's the third Busch brother.

David Caraviello: Whoa! Who is this outrageously opinionated person masquerading as Dave Rodman?

Jill Erwin: If he starts referencing the NFL, I'm wondering if Joe kept his loaner computer and is working as Dave.

David Caraviello: Allgaier may be the third Busch brother ... but Rodman is the second Menzer! Goodness, and we thought we only had to deal with one ....

Dave Rodman: A week in New England will do that to you. Wait a minute, I took my shrimp fra diavolo out of the refrigerator on Monday afternoon and ate it for breakfast Tuesday morning without getting it back on ice. Now, that's spicy.

Jill Erwin: That explains so much, Dave.

David Caraviello: I think I need a Pepcid.

Dave Rodman: Tums, baby. Breakfast of champions, and Dave Rodman.

David Caraviello: I smell a sponsorship opportunity! Or is that the shrimp fra diavolo from Monday?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.