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Track Smack: Victories and validation up for debate

August 04, 2011, ,

A fifth title for Gordon, Menard's win and a repeat for Stenhouse up for debate

1. Jeff Gordon goes to Pocono looking for the season sweep. He was the runner-up at the Brickyard, and has six top-10s in his past eight starts. Odds of him scoring title No. 5?

David Caraviello: Seems amazing to be that a little over a month ago we were all on here debating whether or not the combination of Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson was working. That was when Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were both high in the points, Jeff wasn't even in the top 12, and things looked bleak for the 24 gang despite their win in Phoenix. Now? They're on it, boys. I wouldn't want to mess with them right now. They've figured something out, and they're coming.

Jarrod Breeze: My gut says no. There's nothing in his stats to suggest he's not going to be a title contender, but something just tells me his championship days are over. I don't think it's a lack of desire, or ability even. I am just not feeling the idea of Jeff Gordon and a championship this year, for whatever that is worth.

Mark Aumann: Nobody has really stepped up and taken control this year. But I still see Gordon has one of the second tier guys behind Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. He's certainly been consistent recently. But there have been a lot of races this season in which the No. 24 hasn't been that competitive. He really has only dominated once -- at Phoenix.

David Caraviello: I don't know if all this makes Jeff the favorite for the championship, but I'm still going to disagree with you guys. Jeff looks stronger right now than even his five-time-champion teammate. They could very well have rolled the field at Indy had the fuel-mileage situation not intervened. I suspect they will be very strong at Pocono as well. I used to not think Jeff was a legitimate threat for the championship -- but the last few weeks have led me to change my mind.

Jarrod Breeze: I agree with all your statistical points, David. Jeff is as good as there is going right now. And I think he will be in the hunt come the fall. But when the checkered falls on Homestead, I don't think he will be the one hoisting the big check.

Weekend sweep?

Pocono should be predictable, but then again ...

Mark Aumann: There's still a lot of racing to go, even before they set the Chase field. Yeah, Gordon won Pocono, but that was really Denny Hamlin's race. And he finished 17th at Michigan. The point is valid that Gordon has gone from 16th after Charlotte to seventh in the points now. That's pretty impressive. At the same time, you're looking at guys like Edwards and Busch who have been right up front nearly from the get-go in 2011.

David Caraviello: Mark, honestly, I think he's right there with those guys. Nobody is dominating right now. Carl has had his ups and downs. Harvick doesn't seem to have the same swagger. Johnson and Busch have their share of tough weeks, as Indianapolis illustrated. I agree, there are other guys who have had better seasons as a whole. But you look at how everyone is running right now -- nobody is head and shoulders above anyone else. Gordon's right there in the mix for this thing, unless something changes between now and New Hampshire.

Mark Aumann: Harvick is an interesting case. Yeah, he has three wins. But one was a last-lap pass at Fontana. Another came in the closing laps at Martinsville. And the third came when Junior ran out of gas at Charlotte. He's been good but not great. There's not a spot where I've said, "Kevin Harvick is dominating this race."

Jarrod Breeze: Again, I agree with David, to a certain extent. No driver has been "on" all year long. But to branch off, the prohibitive favorite going into the Chase is the driver who has won it the past five years, and I don't care how underwhelming or problematic things have been recently. Remember, even when Jimmie Johnson has problems, he still manages a top 10 most of the time. Guy comes out of nowhere like nobody's business.

Mark Aumann: Jarrod, I've learned that lesson the hard way. Until somebody beats Jimmie head-to-head in one of these things, he's the man.

David Caraviello: Man, I feel like I'm getting ganged up on here, like I'm trying to defend myself against two teammates on a plate track. Here's a blocking maneuver -- sure, Hamlin had the best car at the first Pocono race and didn't win, but Gordon had the best car at Indy and didn't win. That kind of stuff happens all the time, and you can't hold it against anybody. Bottom line, their cars are better and their results are better, and they've made a giant leap from where they were in the spring.

Jarrod Breeze: I have agreed with all of your points. I think Jeff is on a roll and will be good from here on out, but I don't think he will win the Cup.

Mark Aumann: I don't know. Kasey Kahne seemed to have the world's worst luck -- and was one of the only guys at Indy who could work through traffic. He's the one who probably should have been challenging Paul Menard at the end. But still, take nothing away from Jeff Gordon. He has shown flashes of past brilliance this season -- and that's good to see. You definitely can't count him out.

* Indianapolis: Victory Lane | Final Laps | Gordon on runner-up finish

Jarrod Breeze: I'm not too concerned about the type of tracks remaining. The champion is going to find a way on any type of track, and both Gordon and Johnson have proven they can get it done anywhere, anytime. But I still like Jimmie over Jeffie (or anyone elsie).

David Caraviello: Mark, I will give you that. This does historically become a different ballgame in the fall when the 48 team flips the switch. Somebody has to shoot down Johnson before we all really begin to believe somebody else can win it. But Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have a lot of difficulty with fuel-mileage races, and this is the Season of the Fuel-Mileage Finish, and that works against the 48. That keeps up -- and we have every reason to believe it will -- things are going to even out, and the 48's historical dominance over the field is diluted.

Jarrod Breeze: Hey, what about me? Didn't I say darn near the same thing, although maybe not as eloquently? 48. 48. 48. 48. 48. 48. Count 'em up -- adds to six.

David Caraviello: If we have a Chase full of fuel-mileage races, boys, the streak ends here. You can bet on it.

Mark Aumann: Actually, Gordon's been quite unremarkable on intermediate tracks in 2011. If there's a flaw in his chances, that could be it. He really needs to show he can run at the front at places like Texas, Kansas and Charlotte to win this thing. I loved the comment from Matt Kenseth after Indy that we've had about three months of fuel mileage racing. It's so true. I can't think of a race where we didn't have that in the back of our minds.

David Caraviello: And speaking of fuel-mileage races ....

2. Some fans question the legitimacy of fuel-mileage victories like the one Paul Menard recorded Sunday at Indianapolis. Should they?

Jarrod Breeze: Only if they question the legitimacy of restrictor-plate races and Derrike Cope's ... oops, I mean Trevor Bayne's ... victory. Like it not, as this season has come to attest, fuel mileage plays a big role in race strategy, and often ends up being the deciding factor. Everyone is playing under the same set of rules, aren't they?

Mark Aumann: I don't understand that method of thinking. The winner is the first one to the checkered flag. Period. I don't care if they get out and push. They won. It's not like there's a rule that says you have to average a certain speed.

David Caraviello: Listen, you're always going to have that question hanging over the head of whomever wins one of these things. Here's the deal, though -- somebody has to win. Drivers aren't going to offer to all pull into the pits at the same time so everybody can race to the finish. This is a sport where competitors look for any edge whatsoever, and fuel runs are just part of that. Is it like winning a baseball game on a balk, or a football game when the opposing quarterback throws an interception in the end zone? Sure. But those all count, too. So does this.


Paul Menard turns misfortune into triumph as he scores his first career Cup victory at the Brickyard.

Mark Aumann: There are really only a couple of way to solve this. One, NASCAR throws a mandatory caution within the final fuel window so that everybody can make it to the end. Two, they put on bigger fuel tanks so the fuel window isn't as critical.

Jarrod Breeze: Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s most recent win on fuel mileage? It's been a while, and I'm not an elephant. Would those same fans be questioning the legitimacy of that one, too? Just throwing that out there and see what sticks.

David Caraviello: And to be honest, Menard has had fast cars all year, and he did run to the finish Sunday -- the reason Gordon couldn't catch him is because Menard was able to keep the hammer down. That's racing to the finish in my book. Although what a vintage, heartbreaking Indianapolis finish that would have been -- a-la Marco Andretti or JR Hildebrand -- had Gordon run him down in the final hundred yards.

Jarrod Breeze: Of all the surprise winners in 2011, Menard is arguably having the best season. The guy's 14th in points. He earned his win, and had to hold off a four-time champion who in Question 1 is being considered a title favorite, to do it.

David Caraviello: JB, I think Junior has become so polarizing that absolutely you have disparate camps on that one. The Nation doesn't care, they just wanted to see him win; the haters are going to knock him for it until he gets another one. Same for Danica Patrick's lone open-wheel victory, which came in a fuel-mileage situation in Japan. But again -- somebody is going to win. Every driver would take it. Nobody's going to turn down a victory, no matter how it comes. No driver in the same situation is going to think, "You know, this isn't right. I'm going to pull over and even this up."

Mark Aumann: Again, that's the nature of racing. Sometimes you have the best car and you don't win the race. Sometimes you don't have the best car and you win. Very often, it's completely out of your control. You can get wrecked, you can have problems in the pits, you can have mechanical issues. And you can get beat on fuel economy. Going back to the last question, perhaps that's what amazes me most about Jimmie Johnson's five championships. There are so many variables involved that you cannot control.

David Caraviello: And JB, I completely agree with you on Menard. Guy has been under the radar all year. He's a different driver in good equipment, but I guess too many people still see him as this dude who used to race for 30th place at Yates or Dale Earnhardt Inc. Those days are gone, Menard can contend for race wins, and there's nothing tainted about his victory at Indianapolis. That doesn't make it any less shocking, given the nature of the usual winners there, but it's far from illegitimate. The guy drives for one of the power teams in the sport, for goodness sake. Would people react this way if it were Harvick, Clint Bowyer, or Jeff Burton?

Jarrod Breeze: Remember, it was Menard who basically kept RCR afloat through early-season struggles before Harvick came out of nowhere to win a couple of races. A bigger argument could be made to the legitimacy of Harvick's wins this year, instead of Menard's.

Mark Aumann: That's a great point, JB. Clint Bowyer got off to a terrible start and Jeff Burton is still struggling. I'll tell you what. With Trevor Bayne and David Ragan winning at Daytona, and Regan Smith at Darlington, I can't imagine what surprise we'll see at the Bristol night race.

* Smith no fan of fuel-mileage races despite results

Jarrod Breeze: I wonder in all the stats that are kept if you can determine just who had the best car on any given day and if they won? Most laps led, green-flag laps led, pass differential under green? What determines the best car over the long haul of a 500-mile race?

David Caraviello: I wonder if there's a loop stat for that, JB. Best Performance By a Non-Winner, taking into account the factors you just mentioned. If not, you probably just invented one.

Jarrod Breeze: Calling copyright digs right now.

David Caraviello: Mark, amazing to think that last year a driver without a victory would have gotten a wild-card berth. Now guys like David Ragan are seriously up against it, even with a win. And we've reached the point where even if Juan Montoya wins Watkins Glen, he'll be too far behind other drivers with wins for it to make much of a difference. Crazy.

Mark Aumann: Juan Montoya is almost to the point where he must win twice.

David Caraviello: Yep. A lot to ask of a guy with one career victory, and that one a road course. Amazing what Paul Menard hath wrought!

3. The Nationwide Series heads back to Iowa, where Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won in May. Is he primed for a repeat after his near-miss at Lucas Oil Raceway?

Jarrod Breeze: Depends. Is Brad Keselowski entered at Iowa, too?

Mark Aumann: Carl Edwards is. Brad was, until Penske replaced him with Sam Hornish Jr. following his testing crash at Road Atlanta.

Jarrod Breeze: So then my answer is no.

Mark Aumann: With Edwards in the field, it's going to be hard for any Nationwide regular to score a win. Although I will say the competitiveness has gotten better as more teams have gotten a handle on the new chassis and setups. I still think the championship is out there for the taking for Elliott Sadler. And yet, he hasn't won a race. It's going to come, sooner or later.

Jarrod Breeze: Well, I think Stenhouse has just as good a chance as any Nationwide driver will have at Iowa, but Keselowski and Edwards have to be considered the favorites.

David Caraviello: I think we've reached the point where we're pretty certain Ricky can win any given week. He is the Nationwide points leader, after all, and he's made up something of a gap to get there. Saturday at Lucas Oil Raceway was another of those events we referenced earlier, where a guy had the best car all night and didn't win. And last I checked, Keselowski and Edwards were in that field, too. So clearly, the kid can hang. Particularly in events that aren't in tandem with the Sprint Cup Series, I think he has to be considered a contender every time.

Jimmie Johnson posted this photo of the No. 2 via Twitter after Keselowski crashed at Road Atlanta.

Rough week

After hitting the wall at 100 mph during a test session at Road Atlanta Wednesday, Brad Keselowski was airlifted to Atlanta Medical Center. Penske Racing announced Thursday that Sam Hornish Jr. would replace Keselowski at Iowa and said the driver's status for Pocono was still under evaluation.

Jarrod Breeze: It's amazing the transformation that is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. If you would have told me in the middle of last year that Jack Roush would have stuck so long with him, and that he would answer that pressure (or reward his faith), with the season he is having .... Heck, he has even put himself in the rumor-mill scuttlebutt as a possible replacement for Edwards in the Sprint Cup Series should Edwards jettison the No. 99 car for greener (or oranger) pastures.

Mark Aumann: Sixteen top-10 finishes in 21 races. That's how you win championships. And that's what Stenhouse is doing. He's keeping his car in contention, week in and week out.

David Caraviello: I've agreed with that point about Sadler all season, Mark -- but I'm beginning to doubt it now. Elliott has fallen to third in the standings, 24 back of the leaders, and we know how hard it is to make up ground in this points system. It took Stenhouse almost half a season to regroup from some missteps earlier in the year. I'm not saying Elliott can't win it, only that I'm not as confident that he will.

Jarrod Breeze: I said the same thing about Jeff Gordon in Question No. 1.

David Caraviello: Guys, if you're Jack Roush, and Edwards had left for Joe Gibbs Racing instead of re-signing at Roush Fenway, who would you have wanted in that No. 99 car? Stenhouse or Bayne? Given what we've seen this year, I think you'd have to go Stenhouse, right?

Mark Aumann: Wow. Glad I'm not making that call.

Jarrod Breeze: I think Bayne is the sexy choice, Stenhouse is the intellectual choice.

Mark Aumann: Exactly.

David Caraviello: We're talking about Jack Roush here, boys.

Jarrod Breeze: Well, then that means money, which means Bayne is likely to get first dibs. Anyone who has a national campaign to give himself a nickname has to be higher on a sponsor's list than just plain ol' Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

David Caraviello: I don't think there's a choice. I understand Trevor's Daytona 500 victory stands as probably the biggest moment of this season, but they still have issues selling that Nationwide car, and he still spends too many Saturdays driving around with a blank white hood. Obviously that could change should you add the Cup quotient to the mix, but if you're judging all this on Nationwide performance and who's been easier to sell -- it's Ricky's ballgame, isn't it?

Mark Aumann: Now, playing Devil's advocate here. Bayne missed an entire month with his medical issues. Plus he's been going back and forth between Nationwide and Cup, which can't help his comfort level in either car. I just don't want to sit here and compare the two when the playing field isn't exactly even. Who has the greater potential? I don't know. Both have what look to be tremendous talent. I don't think Jack could really go wrong in either case.

David Caraviello: Mark, a very good point, and the last thing we want to do is shortchange a guy who's battled a medical issue. The rub here is, there guys are good friends. If Carl had left and that "Ricky vs. Trevor" campaign was still going on, maybe they could have battled it out for the No. 99 ride in go-karts or on the basketball court.

Mark Aumann: Or play basketball in go-karts.

David Caraviello: That would redefine the meaning of "taking the charge."

Mark Aumann: Or traveling!

Jarrod Breeze: Not to beat down on Bayne, but his numbers -- post Daytona -- weren't all that good before the medical problems. Although they're much, much better in Nationwide competition.

Mark Aumann: I wonder how much of that was because of the extra demands on his time. Just think of how many interviews he did and how much travel was involved. It would be interesting to see how the Daytona 500 winner is affected by all the extracurricular activities in the weeks following -- especially in the case of a kid like Trevor, who is still trying to get used to what it takes to run at the Cup level. Not making excuses, but it's an apples to oranges comparison, in some ways. At the same time, this is a sport where the bottom line is where you finished. And certainly Stenhouse has the better overall numbers.

Jarrod Breeze: Actually, Bayne had five top-10s in eight starts in Nationwide before his medical condition, compared to six top-10s in the same time for Stenhouse. So my apologies to the young man.

Mark Aumann: Boy, did that ever sound like a congressman explaining the debt ceiling.

Jarrod Breeze: We are looking into that to address those issues. This is my pledge to you.

David Caraviello: And with that, the gentleman from Kentucky yields the floor.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.