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Track Smack: For drivers not in title hunt, there's always next year

August 25, 2011, ,

Kahne tops list of drivers to watch in 2012 as debate continues on '11 Chase field

1. The championship contenders are falling into place and wild card hopefuls are jostling for position. But who not in the Chase mix should be on the radar for 2012?

Joe Menzer: I think I'll start with Kasey Kahne. He's currently 17th in points, and he's not going to be in the Chase mix this year unless he wins one of these last three races and Denny Hamlin continues to drop like a rock. But next year when he joins Hendrick Motorsports, he should be a factor.

Dave Rodman: I don't think it's too thin a limb to say Kasey Kahne. When you think of him and Kenny Francis staying together and having all those Hendrick resources ... it will be interesting. I'm not going to predict what they'll produce, but the result will be in the mix, for sure.

David Caraviello: Well, there's one obvious name here, and it's Kahne. I know people maybe didn't expect a championship-contending run from his one-year stop at Red Bull, but I think they hoped for better than this. And everything changes for the guy next year when he steps into Hendrick equipment. The expectations go way, way up. He's always had the talent and the potential ... now it's time for him to emerge into the real thing.

Joe Menzer: You know what they say about great minds, guys! But I said it first!

David Caraviello: I mean, clearly, you have to give the guy something of a pass this year. Nobody expected Red Bull to pull out, and for that team to be kind of thrust into upheaval. But still, the cars have shown flashes, and that Kahne-Kenny Francis tandem is good enough to win races. And to really never mount much of a charge to get into the Chase ... I'm not sure that's what the Red Bull folks were hoping for. Still, there are clearly some mitigating factors at work here, but all those go away next year when Kasey gets into the No. 5.

Dave Rodman: Earlier this season, Kahne seemed like he was going to win, maybe even in multiples. Something happened, but when they start testing, and given Hendrick's resitrictor-plate strength, I think they'll come roaring out of the gate next season.

Kahne he contend in 2012?

Cup season stats (through Michigan)
2011WinsTop-FiveTop-10PoleLapsLedRankAvg. StartAvg. Finish
Career: 2004-present1152952175542328313.618.3

David Caraviello: Dave, I think they need to. Kasey's reached the point in his career where a few wins here and there aren't going to cut it anymore. This is a guy who everyone has always believed has had as much talent as anyone out there, and it's time for the guy to deliver. Eleven Cup wins is nothing to sneeze at, but this guy has been kind of dormant for two years now.

Joe Menzer: Let me now go out on a limb a little bit with a couple of names whose teams have just missed the mark for the most part this season -- but have shown flashes. I'm talking about the Earnhardt Ganassi teams of Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray. Those guys have got to be better in 2012, don't you think? And actually, I'm being kind to say McMurray's team has shown flashes. Mostly they've just imploded in a small puff of smoke.

Dave Rodman: Juan's already shaken his bag up and Jamie's situation is confounding -- but they have to find the magic they had in 2010. The other driver I'm thinking might make a big impact is A.J. Allmendinger and Greg Erwin. They've been together for a handful of races -- enough to get to know each other -- and may be ready to come out with a winning shot right at Daytona. I'd even say A.J. could win his career-first Cup race during the Chase.

'It doesn't matter'

Tony Stewart shares his feelings on his Chase chances after the race at Michigan.

Joe Menzer: Allmendinger and teammate Marcos Ambrose comprise another twosome that I think will continue to get better and could rise up to challenge for at least one Chase spot between them next year. I still say it's only a matter of time until A.J. starts winning occasionally. And Marcos, already a beast on the road courses, has had some good runs on ovals and just needs lots more consistency. I see them getting better. So again, I guess I agree with the Rodman on A.J. -- but this time he said it first. That makes it Menzer 1, Rodman 1, Caraviello 0 for this Smack session.

Dave Rodman: What's the tiebreaker gonna be? How about Regan Smith? That whole program has got to make you smile -- from owner Barney Visser to general manager Joe Garone to crew chief Pete Rondeau and Regan. Win No. 1 was pretty cool. If he doesn't win again in this stretch, they have laid a pretty good foundation this season.

David Caraviello: Guys, come on. Although he's improved greatly, Marcos has a long way to go still before he's able to consistently contend on ovals to the point of perhaps wedging himself into the Chase. Regan Smith, as much as we all love the guy and as much potential as he clearly has as a driver, may not quite have a strong enough program to crack the top 10. Allmendinger is another one of those guys who is going to have to deliver, and soon. You guys are just throwing everybody in the mix, aren't you? Andy Lally, 2012 Chase or bust!

Dave Rodman: I'd give Andy 'til 2013.

Joe Menzer: Hey, you ask for names and we provide them. In all seriousness, I'm going to throw one more name out there and then that's it for now. But Paul Menard has surprised me -- again -- this season. Started strong and faded and I thought that would be the last we'd see of him for a while. But they've battled and battled, got the one big win at Indy, and shown some resiliency and some consistency. They could be a Chase contender in 2012.

Dave Rodman: Paul Menard is a Chase contender this year. Put that man in handcuffs, officer.

David Caraviello: Honestly, with this wild card situation, the Chase field is probably as deep as it's ever going to get. Taking into account all the drivers who have wins, you have about 16 folks who can claim to have been contenders at one point or another. The cast of characters is going to change, of course -- it always does, given the cyclical nature of the sport -- but I'm not sure the number will. So maybe Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne jump up and replace, say, a Paul Menard and a Greg Biffle. But let's not throw everyone into the pool. Obviously, though, you guys have been spending a little too much time in the deep end as it is. Dave Blaney, Chase or bust 2012!

Dave Rodman: If any of you Blaniacs want me to text you Caraviello's address, let me know ...

2. On to Bristol, where Kyle Busch has won five times at the Sprint Cup level. Would a sixth on Saturday make him the undisputed favorite for the title?

Joe Menzer: I think he's already the favorite, because this time he's peaking at the right time of the season and he's beginning to show a level of maturity -- most of the time -- that will serve him well in the Chase. The key will be his equipment. Joe Gibbs Racing needs to see to it that there are no technical difficulties for the No. 18 team during the Chase, which hasn't been the case in the past.

Dave Rodman: No. Once again, the title is Jimmie Johnson's until someone rips it away from him. Another Bristol win for KB would only cement what we already knew -- the kid is pretty damned stout. Without question, he's probably in the driver's seat as the chief threat right now. But another Bristol win would just be more-of-the-same at a facility where he excels.

David Caraviello: Got news for you, gang -- he already is. Let's not forget, that if a few things break differently, Kyle could be riding a three-race winning streak coming to Bristol. He's led the past two Cup events coming to the last restart, and if he doesn't jump low to try and block Jimmie Johnson at Pocono, and then overrun Turn 1 at Watkins Glen, he'd be in East Tennessee going for four in a row. That's stout. They're running very, very well right now.

Men on a mission

With top-fives in each of the past three races, no one has more momentum heading into Thunder Valley than Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.

Joe Menzer: Listen, Five-Time is the defending champ until someone knocks him off. No one is going to be shocked if that No. 48 team lights the Chase candle and starts winning races again. But they're looking vulnerable right now. They're not finishing races like they used to. The No. 18 team and a couple of others have more positive momentum building right now than the 48 group.

Dave Rodman: This is not finger-pointing at Kyle, but we all know racing is truly a what-have-you-done-lately sport. Even if KB wins at Bristol, it's more important that he do well at Atlanta and Richmond. And then he has to carry that momentum through 10 more races without hard flagging. To this point, he's not shown the ability to do it. But this season we're not seeing the same Kyle Busch, week in and week out -- so it's a possibility.

David Caraviello: Dave, I completely understand that sentiment. The Chase remains JJ's ballgame, and he plays it better than everyone else. But I don't think even they are capable of just flipping a switch once the calendar turns to fall. He's second in points, true, and trending in the right direction, but Kyle is just better than everybody else right now. Of course, he was in 2008, too, and we know how that turned out. But I'm not going to shortchange the guy at the moment.

Joe Menzer: I'll give you two others to look out for in the Chase -- Kevin Harvick, who won three races early and has had his No. 29 team preparing for the Chase since then -- and Brad Keselowski, the hottest driver on the planet right now. And yes, I mean more so than Kyle Busch.

David Caraviello: Harvick does give the impression that he's kind of lying in the weeds a little bit, doesn't he?

Dave Rodman: It was impressive that Kyle won at Michigan, because wins are all that matter right now for that lead group. It makes me laugh when people talk about position shifts in the top 10 and what they mean. All that trash doesn't matter. Harvick's been on target for months. As he's said, "It's all about wins."

Joe Menzer: Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin, told me during Beer School 101 back in May -- or was it June? All these Beer Schools run together -- anyway, Gil said back then, that the early victories gave them the luxury of spending the rest of the regular season building for the Chase, and I think that's exactly what they've done.

Dave Rodman: That's not suds talking, Joe -- you and Gil are right. But how can you guys forget about the original Four-Time? Jeff Gordon is lining himself up to be a real championship threat, make no mistake.

Joe Menzer: To me, the top four championship contenders heading into the Chase, regardless of where they end up seeded look like this: 1. Kyle; 2. Johnson; 3. Harvick; 4. Brad K.

David Caraviello: Joe -- what happened to Carl Edwards? Has the guy fallen completely off your radar? The guy has led the points for much of this year.

Joe Menzer: Here's the thing: what Edwards had going for him the first 20 races or so has suddenly eluded the No. 99 team at precisely the worst of times -- and that's remarkable consistency. They've won only one race, same as JJ, and I think you're going to have to be able to show you can win more races to win the championship.

Dave Rodman: Carl, on the other hand, is the poster child for "what have you done lately?" But the good news is he and Bob Osborne are good enough that they could do it any time; they need to pull the trigger. If they can't win, or seriously threaten to win one of these next three races, I'd be worried. Matt Kenseth would take the lead role, potentially, as a Roush Fenway championship contender.

Joe Menzer: I put Carl in a second group that definitely has a shot at the title but has to pull it together and be more consistent, plus win a race or two during the Chase. To me, that group also includes Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. They have a shot at it, but I wouldn't currently rate them in the group of four favorites I mentioned earlier.

David Caraviello: Here you guys go again. Time to throw everyone into the pool! Listen, I understand that the list of real title contenders here -- guys who really, really, could win the thing -- is about seven or eight deep. But come on. Not everyone can be the favorite. For all the knocks on his consistency, Kyle Busch has three more top-fives than anyone else on the circuit. He dominates in laps led. Oh, and he has more wins than anyone else, too. Those aren't mirages, boys. Quit drinking the chlorinated water!

Joe Menzer: No one is challenging me on my Keselowski pick? I'm surprised. But the thing is the kid is doing it hurt -- with a broken ankle, aching back -- and he's getting it done on all sorts of tracks.

David Caraviello: No one's knocking what the kid has done, Joe. But you may be hitting Beer School a bit too early today. Three races may get you into the Chase, but they don't make you one of the favorites to win it. Brad needs to string together a few more solid efforts before you can make that claim.

* As hot run continues, Keselowski looks forward

Joe Menzer: It's been more than three races, man! He's been on fire for the better part of six weeks, going back to before his injury in testing at Road Atlanta. The past six weeks, he's been in the top nine in five of six races and has an average finish of 4.4 in five of them. That's getting it done, and it would be good enough to win a championship if he can keep it up during the Chase.

Dave Rodman: We've gotten lost in the weeds, methinks. Johnson is the favorite because he's undisputedly proven he and Chad Knaus know how to win 'em that way. Kyle Busch has the best potential to mount a charge, but since we could have said that every year since and including 2008, well, he just better prove it this year.

David Caraviello: Might be time to check Joe's refrigerator for empties.

Joe Menzer: I guess we agree to disagree with Rodman on this one. I say Busch is the favorite at this moment, no matter what happens at Bristol. And I will take this moment to say I never drink this early in the day -- or in media centers.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. left Montreal with an eight-point lead in the standings. Both Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson are within nine points of the top spot heading into Bristol.

3. It's down to 10 to go for the Nationwide Series, which has completed its road-course swing. Can points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hang on?

Dave Rodman: If there was another road course coming up, I would be shaking my head -- but honestly that would apply to any one of the top three. Trust me, I am not equating what Ricky and Mike Kelley are doing to anything JJ and Chad ever achieved, but the Roush Fenway leaders have been so impressive and so consistent this season ... yes, someone's gonna have to step up and rip this away from them.

David Caraviello: I got a chance at Watkins Glen to talk to Stenhouse's crew chief, Mike Kelley -- and let me say, that guy might be the best interview in the garage area. He talked about how much they wanted to get through WGI and Montreal with the points lead, given Ricky's relative lack of experience on road courses compared to the guys pursuing him. Well, mission accomplished. And given the tracks left and how many of them are the same ones on which Stenhouse finally found his footing late last season ... I'm saying yes, they can, despite leading by just eight points.

Joe Menzer: The Nationwide deal looks like a three-man race to the finish -- Stenhouse, Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson -- although I guess it's too early to count out a couple of others lurking a little further back in Justin Allgaier and Aric Almirola. If you want me to pick one, and I know Caraviello does, I think I'll go with Sadler. He's going to win a race or two sooner or later, and he's the most experienced veteran of the bunch.

Bristol bound

Elliott Sadler still remembers his dad taking him to Bristol as a young fan and says the experience is unlike any other in racing.

David Caraviello: There goes Joe, again. Not sure if it's pressure from life in the deep end or the effects of Beer School, but the guy has been claiming all year that Sadler is going to win multiple races, and it has yet to happen. I'm beginning to doubt that it will. He's certainly in shape to take the title, of course, should Stenhouse slip, but at this point I'd steer away from any blanket statements about how much the guy is going to win.

Dave Rodman: You know, length of service, the experience they have and how long I've known both Elliott and Reed makes me want to agree with you, Joe. But I love Stenhouse's fire. His teammate is a former champion and was the Sprint Cup points leader a lot of this season -- yet Stenhouse would not even think about backing down from him. That's guts, and guts wins championships.

David Caraviello: Dave, I'm right there with you. After what the dude went through last year, nearly losing his job, you think this is pressure? Please -- this is gravy. The guy feeling the pressure is Sadler, who was brought into Kevin Harvick Inc. expressly to win races and the championship. Everybody expected this from Elliott; no one (save Kelley and the guys on that No. 6 team) expected this from Ricky. He has everything to gain, and is racing like it.

Dave Rodman: I agree with David. Experience should have put a number of guys in a position to be in a position to be working on speech drafts by now. If you hadn't noticed, we're 10 races away from the end of the season, and this points format is not going to work in any chaser's favor.

Joe Menzer: Stenhouse certainly has been impressive, with the two wins at Iowa. Remember when you guys said no Nationwide regular would win a single race this season and I disagreed? Ah, the Smack memories ... but having said that, I'm still going to say that Sadler's going to make fewer mistakes over the home stretch and he's going to catch the kid.

David Caraviello: Ah, there goes Menzer, once again trapped in a chlorinated fog. Come on up for a breath, buddy. I believe I doubted your assertion that the Nationwide champion would have multiple wins. Hey, given the Cup dominance of the past few seasons, it seemed a ridiculous statement. Clearly, now it's a possibility. But it's also not guaranteed, so save your smug comebacks for November, Joe.

Joe Menzer: I will say this: If Sadler cannot get to Victory Lane, I would rather see Stenhouse or Sorenson win the title. I don't like the idea of a champion in a series not having a single victory. But I stand by my many earlier statements that I think Sadler will win at least once, if not twice down the stretch. They're knocking on the door all the time now.

Dave Rodman: You want to talk multiple wins -- little Ricky has then. Already!

Joe Menzer: Oh, and I forgot about Allgaier. Geez, there are so many Nationwide regulars with wins that it's hard to keep mental track of them. He's a long shot to get back up there -- 62 points back -- but with that one victory (should have been two if he doesn't run out of gas at Road America) he's another guy who deserves a mention here.

David Caraviello: Everybody into the pool! Notice a theme? I'm waiting on Joe to deconstruct the championship chances of Steve Wallace.

Joe Menzer: Maybe I should go now. It's 5 o'clock somewhere, and the pool in back does look rather inviting.

Dave Rodman: Welcome to the Track Smack equivalent of the State Fair dunk tank.

David Caraviello: Give me a bucket full of softballs ...

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.