News & Media

Track Smack: Win at Brickyard, win a Cup title?

July 28, 2011, ,

Topics: Indy can be precursor to title; crew chiefs on hot seat; Dillon vs. Herring

1. Eight times the Brickyard 400 has been won by a driver who has gone on to win the series championship. Which contender is in the best position to potentially pull off that sweep this year?

Joe Menzer: Five-Time. I seriously get the sense that Jimmie Johnson is about to go into Chase mode. The only issue may be if the rest of that No. 48 team comes along with him. They've made too many mistakes this year, and he called them out on it after working his tail off to finish fifth at New Hampshire.

Bill Kimm: Well if I'm being honest, I don't think it's going to happen. That being said, I'm picking Jeff Gordon to win this weekend, so he's the one who could pull off the sweep. He won at Pocono, has always been strong at Indy, and if he does win this weekend, that gives him three on the season which puts him right at the top when the Chase begins.

David Caraviello: Indianapolis is a unique place, not only in how it traditionally produces such championship-caliber winners, but also in how technically difficult the race track is. That eliminates a lot of people. And we forget, someone like Jimmie Johnson was absolutely terrible there his first few times out. So it's fickle, and it can pull the rug out from under you at the end. So with all that said, you have to think somebody like Jeff Gordon is in the best shape right now to win there and contend for the title, even though there are other drivers who are ahead of him in the standings.

Bill Kimm: Wow, I thought I was on a pretty thin limb with Gordon, but then Caraviello confirms my pick. This is a big day for me!

David Caraviello: It's a strange year, guys -- Jimmie is in the thick of the title hunt, to be certain, but he's not winning races at exactly the rate we've seen him do so in the past. Jeff Gordon maybe isn't as much of a championship threat as his teammate, but he's proving more adept at winning races. You have to win the Brickyard first to have a shot at the sweep. So I'm going with Gordon, even if Johnson maybe is capable of more on the back end.

Joe Menzer: Wow. That didn't take long for you two to gang up on me. That's OK. I'll stick with the 48 on this one. If you're looking for a wild card, so to speak, this is one of two places in the next three weeks where I figure Juan Montoya absolutely has to win to place himself in the conversation. So I think he'll be in the mix at Indy, but I'm not saying he'll be a championship contender.

David Caraviello: Bill, why is that a limb? Jeff Gordon has 13 top-10s in 17 starts at Indianapolis. Clearly, he knows his way around the place. And again, we're talking more someone who can win the Brickyard right now, not win the championship in four months, although the question involves doing both. But Indy comes first, and Gordon is as good there as anyone else, and he's winning races again.

Bill Kimm: More of a limb for the championship than Indy. At seventh in points, he isn't really in the conversation, although I think that is a mistake.

David Caraviello: Still, first things first. Does Menzer realize that Johnson has finished in the top 10 in fewer than half his Brickyard 400 starts?

Joe Menzer: I will tell you now, very reluctantly because Bill Kimm is always watching, trying to copy ... both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be in my NASCAR Fantasy Live lineup for this Sunday's Brickyard 400.

Bill Kimm: That's a lot of your money on two guys -- you better hope they both perform! And I think Joe is still in Nationwide mode after his epic Nashville trip -- so he's more Trevor Bayne and Travis Pastrana right now than Gordon and Johnson.

Joe Menzer: Listen, Caraviello, don't talk about me like I'm not even here. Do you realize that Johnson has won two of the past three Brickyards -- and three of the past five?

David Caraviello: Yes, Jimmie has won three of the past five at Indy, but one was the tire-plagued race that turned into a parade of competition cautions. Johnson's average finish at the Brickyard: 18.3.

Bill Kimm: What's interesting is that we aren't discussing the championship contenders at all. Do none of us think Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, the Busch brothers ... do they not have a chance Sunday?

Chevy heavy at Indy

Chevrolet has won the past eight races at the Brickyard and 12 overall, with Hendrick leading the way with seven.

Joe Menzer: Sure, they have a chance. Harvick has even won at Indy before (2003). But it's pretty obvious from looking at the results through the years that your top contenders this Sunday are likely to be Jimmie, Jeff and Tony Stewart. They're the best there.

David Caraviello: Kevin Harvick has certainly shown he can win in Indianapolis -- he's done it before. But that team seems to lack a little swagger right now, and Indy is a place where you have to have everything working, so I don't know about his chances for Sunday. Kyle Busch absolutely can win the Brickyard, and unlike some others we're discussing, he's a threat to visit Victory Lane every week. I give Gordon the tiebreaker because of his experience, but Kyle would be my No. 1A.

Joe Menzer: Don't forget, too, that Montoya has shown an uncanny ability to get around the place fast. He just has had critical mistakes that arguably have cost him two wins there. And his Earnhardt Ganassi teammate, Jamie McMurray, won the Brickyard last year. So those two should be strong again -- at least as far as this individual race is concerned.

David Caraviello: I'm not trying to say Johnson can't win there, either. The dude's greatness, at Indianapolis and elsewhere, has been well-chronicled, and nobody is going to sell the guy short. But again, Indy is a tough track that demands everything be working well, and I wonder if the No. 48 is at the top of their game right now. It takes being at the top of your game to win there, regardless of what you may be capable of later on.

Bill Kimm: Joe keeps bringing up Montoya. Yes, this is his best chance at a win, but he should not be mentioned in a question that references the Cup championship. Let me ask you this DC2, if one of those we listed above wins this race, do they instantly become the favorite for the title?

David Caraviello: Yeah, if we're talking about guys who can win the Brickyard 400 and then go on to win the title -- which I believe was the question -- Smoke and Montoya don't exactly fit, although either is capable on Sunday. But if Jeff goes into the Chase with three wins -- I don't know if he's the favorite to win the championship, given what Edwards and Kyle have done for most of this year, but he's very much in the conversation. That's all it takes.

Joe Menzer: I also would argue that Carl Edwards is good enough right now to contend anywhere. He's never won at Indy, but he's finished second there and has three top-nine finishes in his past five races there. But if he doesn't get his contract situation settled soon, it's going to distract from his chances of winning a championship. He's admitted as much.

David Caraviello: Carl Edwards has led all of five laps at the Brickyard, for what that's worth.

Joe Menzer: But you don't think Carl can win anywhere? Just like you said about Kyle Busch?

David Caraviello: That's not what I said, Joe. I'm simply pointing out that Carl hasn't been up front much at Indianapolis. And as Montoya has shown us the past two years, running well there and winning there are two completely different things. I think Joe's ears are still ringing from all his time on Lower Broadway in Nashville last weekend.

Bill Kimm: He and Martina McBride are on a first-name basis.

Joe Menzer: That's right. Don't forget it!

* Preview Show: Marty Snider looks ahead to Chase, tiers the drivers

2. Brian Pattie has been replaced as Juan Montoya's crew chief, and Todd Berrier is out on Jeff Burton's team. As the stretch run nears, what other Sprint Cup crew chiefs are on the hot seat?

David Caraviello: First of all, let's point out that just because we're throwing some names out there on this topic doesn't mean we want anybody to be fired. Crew chief is the most thankless job in NASCAR -- these guys get none of the credit and all of the blame. Pattie and Berrier are solid crew chiefs who have won races in the past and will be back. All you have to do is look at Drew Blickensderfer to see how cyclical careers can be for these guys. They ebb and flow.

Joe Menzer: No one is on the hot seat more than Steve Letarte, rightly or wrongly. He was brought in to get the 88 to Victory Lane -- and after a fast start where they were running up front consistently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is experiencing an all-too-familiar summer swoon. Letarte will be held at least partly accountable if he can't get that team turned around, and fast.

David Caraviello: That said, I wonder about a guy like Rodney Childers at Michael Waltrip Racing. I think everyone expected more out of that No. 00 car this season, especially after it won a couple of races coming into the year. I think everyone thought David Reutimann could be a dark-horse contender for a Chase berth. None of that has happened, and MWR has already made one crew chief change this year, so who knows.

Bill Kimm: I think Greg Erwin ... oh wait, never mind. What a final off weekend, with lots of personnel changes. I guess Lance McGrew is now in limbo as Kenny Francis gets ready to take over that 5 car. From a performance standpoint, I agree with Letarte, and I think maybe Shane Wilson, maybe Mike Ford.

Joe Menzer: Well, Mike Ford's value has been proven already. That team could have fallen apart earlier this season under a lesser leader. But that is his strength -- being consistent, staying on course even when things are going badly. Now if he can just keep it together in the final few races and not go out of character with the big cowboy hat and pop off about the 48, they might just win it all this time around.

David Caraviello: Yeah, McGrew has had a tough year with Mark Martin, and now we know that Kasey Kahne and Francis will be together on the No. 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports for 2012. As for Shane Wilson -- how many crew chief changes can Richard Childress Racing make? You'd have thought that if Richard had more than one up his sleeve, he'd have switched a couple of guys, as he is so wont to do.

Bill Kimm: David is right about Childers; talk about a team that failed to live up to expectations. The same could be said about Jamie McMurray and Kevin Manion.

David Caraviello: Mike Ford? Has somebody started drinking already?

Bill Kimm: Yes, the first Coke Zero of the day has already been consumed.

Joe Menzer: Childers, I agree with. They have been a disappointment. McGrew with the No. 5 team, as well. I think with McMurray and Manion, they didn't suddenly get stupid during the last year. They won three races a year ago and deserve to stay together a little longer for sure.

David Caraviello: I cannot imagine Mike Ford is going anywhere, unless there's some conflict somewhere I don't know about, or they get to the brink of the championship and melt down again. Mike has done too good a job of righting that ship this year. And so many of those bad runs early were because of engine failures, which aren't always the crew chief's fault. As for Steve Letarte -- I'm giving him a mulligan. Yes, Junior is sliding, but Steve has done a great job of rebuilding his driver's confidence. The results will come, even if we have to wait until next year to see them.

Joe Menzer: Mike Ford is not going anywhere. But Bill started firing back Coke Zeroes early today, and apparently lack of logic is one of the side effects that hit him when he does that. What about Darian Grubb? I really like the guy, but Tony Stewart is not the world's most patient man. He already jettisoned -- or at least authorized the jettisoning of -- competition director Bobby Hutchens. If they don't win a race or two here soon, who knows? But the fact is I think they will.

David Caraviello: Joe, I think we're all under the impression that Tony and Darian are too tight for something like that to happen. Of course, we all thought the same about Stewart and Bobby Hutchens, too, and look what happened. Either way, maybe that runner-up finish two weeks ago at New Hampshire will change something and Darian's seat will cool off a bit.

Bill Kimm: I didn't say Ford was going anywhere, I simply said that the performance isn't there and the seat may be getting a little warm. That's all.

Joe Menzer: Poor Darian. He was battling pneumonia at New Hampshire. But again, the Stewart-Haas guys were so strong there, both teams look like they're coming. I don't think Grubb is in trouble, but his seat may be getting a little warm -- as are any in Tony's camp when the job isn't getting done to his satisfaction. Hey, David, while you're in Indy, why don't you ask Tony to assess his season? Then you should follow it up by asking if he still enjoys being an owner -- and then tell him Joe Menzer says hi!

Bill Kimm: What's interesting is everyone that we have mentioned are proven successful Cup crew chiefs. So it's not that they are horrible at their job, it's that the performance just isn't there this season.

David Caraviello: Did I miss something?

Joe Menzer: Tony and I, uh, had some issues in New Hampshire.

David Caraviello: Joe, I'm sure others will ask those questions -- and get the same, dismissive answers they always receive. Got to bring something a little different to the table with Smoke, I can respect that. Besides, you have issues with a lot of people. Better be careful now, we don't want to talk about you being on the hot seat one day.

Bill Kimm: Joe is turning into the old guy from Up. He can't get along with anyone. David, if he brings a cane with tennis balls as feet into the media center, consider yourself warned.

Joe Menzer: Seriously? You are going to defend the way Tony treats the media? I'm disappointed in you -- and, of course, the series of questions I asked him weren't worded that simply. Well, maybe a couple were. But it isn't too much to ask for Tony -- and all drivers -- to be a little more civil on a more consistent basis. And most of them are. As I tell my four children, it's not that hard to be a nice person.

David Caraviello: How the heck did we go from crew chief job security to this? I think Joe had a manifesto he was waiting for the right opportunity to unleash. Sorry, Menzer, but Track Smack is a little too tight a ship for that. Like Tony Stewart, I don't suffer that kind of stuff very easily. You have a problem with that? I didn't think so.

Joe Menzer: How about we go to the next question?

* Caraviello: Redemption for crew chiefs often a weekly occurrence

3. Although winner Carl Edwards stole the show, series newcomers Austin Dillon and Drew Herring both scored impressive top-10s in last week's Nationwide race at Nashville. Which driver has the best chance of making it to the Cup level first?

Bill Kimm: Without question that would be Dillon. His grandfather is a team owner and has a long-term plan for Dillon. Plus, Dillon has proven he can win on a national level, which he's done in the Camping World Truck Series. Herring has been good, but nowhere near a victory.

Joe Menzer: Seriously? It's pretty obvious that Austin Dillon is on the fast track to Cup. He'll likely be running full time in Nationwide next year and has the bloodline -- and money -- behind him. Herring had a very impressive run at Nashville, but the answer to this question is obvious.

Austin Dillon signs an autograph for a young fan. (Getty Images)

Awesome for Austin

Austin Dillon is coming off a big weekend in Nashville and has a big future ahead of him.

David Caraviello: OK, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. The kid has made only six career Nationwide Series starts, but from what we've seen thus far, you have to think Herring is the real deal. In two starts in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment, he's posted a 12th and a seventh. He gets another chance this weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway. I know Austin Dillon has the pedigree and the Truck Series results to back it up, but we need to keep an eye on Drew Herring here. The kid is coming.

Bill Kimm: I'm sorry, David, but Herring is a long way from the Cup Series. Unless some start-and-parker elevates him too soon, you will see Dillon in the Cup Series way before Herring.

Joe Menzer: I have to admit Drew Herring wasn't on my radar until recently -- and again, he was a lap down early in that race at Nashville and came back to post a very strong finish. But I still stay this is a no-brainer. Then again, I'm the guy who thinks Tony Stewart is downright rude sometimes -- and of course, very engaging and charming many other times. Like when he's promoting a charity event or something at Eldora Speedway.

David Caraviello: There goes Menzer again. Yes, we'll almost certainly see Austin in a Nationwide car next season. But in terms of getting to Cup, so much of that hinges on availability as well as talent. If Austin is ready after next year -- and he may very well be -- where does he go? Is that No. 31 car open at RCR? Do he and Kevin Harvick Inc. move up to the Cup Series together? Again, this is all about timing and availability as much as anything else.

Bill Kimm: Anymore, it seems timing plays more of a role than talent -- all about being available to the right team at the right time. How many talented individuals are now out of the Cup Series because they didn't have the benefit of timing?

Joe Menzer: Well, the fact is we're way ahead of ourselves here. Austin said after the race at Nashville that the plan is to move up to Nationwide full time next year -- if they can get the sponsorship money lined up. That's a big "if" in today's world. Both he and Herring need more races under their belts in Nationwide before anyone can seriously be thinking about Cup with them.

David Caraviello: I've been big on Austin Dillon since his first days in a truck, Bill, back when people thought he was getting the ride just because he was RC's grandson and questioned whether he had the ability to back it up. And yes, Austin scored a fourth-place result in his second Nationwide start, at Memphis in 2008. But you learn a lot about a guy in how well he runs in and takes care of good equipment, and Herring has shown all of the above. Let's not sell him short here.

Bill Kimm: And there are so many other talented drivers in the Nationwide Series that should get promoted before those two: Stenhouse, Bayne, Allgaier, Wallace ... OK, I kid on that last one.

David Caraviello: Hey, leave Mike Wallace out of this.

Joe Menzer: You will definitely see Austin Dillon in a number of Nationwide races next year, and if the plans of his, his father and grandfather are realized, he will be running full time in that series and competing for a championship. Herring, I'm not sure about (through no fault of his own). Wow, you guys are tough on the Wallace family. Don't dis Kenny like that. He's having a nice Nationwide season -- and all joking aside, Steve has gotten better, too.

Bill Kimm: To quote your friend Tony Stewart, Steve Wallace is a "dart without feathers."

David Caraviello: I know we're getting very ahead of ourselves, but if Carl Edwards stays put, and Gibbs remains at three cars -- well, it has space for another driver should one present himself. And yes, Herring is a long way away, but he's showing promise, and if you don't think the brass at JGR hasn't noticed, you're crazy. And perhaps most important, Gibbs is a place with some room for upward mobility right now, which isn't the case everywhere else.

Joe Menzer: He still runs into too much stuff, but a lot of the guys who go on to do well have torn up a bunch of equipment at the beginning of their careers. The fact is, guys like Steve Wallace and Austin Dillon have the pedigree -- and, more importantly, the money -- behind them. They get the chance to learn a little longer than most. That's just the way it is.

David Caraviello: You're right, Bill -- Kenny Wallace is having a nice season. And man, we're back to this Tony Stewart issue. What exactly happened in New Hampshire? Joe, you two guys need to break open a few Coors Lights and hug it out.

Joe Menzer: Bill? What's with you? Always complimenting Bill, even when it's me who makes the comment? Geez ...

Bill Kimm: I hear you, David, but Herring doesn't look to me like a Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin or any of the guys who rocketed to the top series. He's been solid, but he has a long way to go. You are right though, JGR offers an opportunity that many other teams just don't have.

David Caraviello: Another great point there by Bill.

Joe Menzer: As for Tony, I'm ready to break bread -- or beer. But I hear he only drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon or Schlitz. Not sure I can do that.

David Caraviello: Even Joe Menzer has his limits!

Who's Drew Herring?

• Bio: Drew Herring was born on May 5, 1987, in Benson N.C. He is 23 years old and is working toward a mechanical engineering degree at North Carolina State University.
• 1998: Began racing at age 10 in Bandoleros at Charlotte Motor Speedway. From 1998-2000, spanning 60 starts, Herring scored 20 victories and 57 top-five finishes.
• 2001: Moved to Allison Legacy ranks, making 11 starts with five top-fives and seven top-10s.
• 2002: Finished third in first career start in late-model stock series. Due to NASCAR's age restrictions, the 14-year-old Herring competed at Coastal Plains Raceway in Jacksonville, N.C., a non-sanctioned track run by NASCAR rules; completed his first season with six top-fives and 10 top-10s in 11 starts, finishing fourth in points.
• 2003: Competed in 18 races at various tracks with two top-fives and 10 top-10s.
• 2004: Competed at Southern National Raceway Park in Kenly, N.C. Qualified 15th out of 88 cars for the Bailey?s 300. On June 19, Herring won his first race and won again the following weekend.
• 2005: Finished second in final point standings at South Boston (Va.) Speedway, scoring five wins.
• 2006: Won nine of the last 13 races, including five in a row, at South Boston to win the track championship.
• 2007: Competed at Southern National Raceway Park, scoring seven wins, 21 top-fives and 25 top-10s in 29 races to win both the regular season and championship series titles.
• 2008: Racing in Pro Cup, won rookie of the year honors by finishing second in the season finale at Rockingham Speedway.
• 2009: Scored his first Pro cup win, at South Georgia Motorsports Park.
• 2010: Competed in four Nationwide races, with one DNQ, for Baker Curb Racing, with a best finish of 15 in his series debut, at Iowa.
• 2011: Has made two starts for Joe Gibbs Racing, finishing 12th at Iowa in the No. 20 Toyota and seventh at Nashville in the No. 18.

Joe Menzer: I think I'm going to just go crack open a beer. It's got to be 5 o'clock somewhere. And I think what I have are standards. Not sure about "limits." That's sometimes my problem when I starting cracking the beers!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.