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Track Smack: Chasing contenders, pretenders going into Atlanta

September 01, 2011, ,

1. In five weeks, Kurt Busch has slipped from third to eighth in points. Saturday at Bristol, Kevin Harvick dropped two places to fifth. Are these drivers falling off the list of legitimate championship contenders?

Jill Erwin: Oddly enough, my gut instinct goes against everything numbers would tell me. I say yes, they're toast. Yet, Busch's Penske teammate is the hottest guy in the garage right now, and Harvick's obviously got the best stuff Richard Childress Racing has to offer, and has been through the heat of battle. Yet, I just don't see enough out of them, at a crucial point in the season, to say they're legitimate threats to win this title.

Dave Rodman: The answer is no. That is just like watching practice too carefully without knowing which team is on which agenda. Busch and Harvick are both legitimate. We won't know if they're legitimate championship contenders until, oh, the second race of the Chase, or so ...

David Caraviello: I'm not sure it matters where these top-echelon guys are right now, as much as it matters whether they can string 10 good weeks together -- which is essentially the goal when the Chase comes around. Do that, it doesn't matter how you're running at the moment. Of course, you begin to wonder whether Kurt can do that, given his rough past few weeks. And we still don't know if Harvick is lying in the weeds, just waiting for the right time to turn it on again, or having some real issues.

Jill Erwin: Rodman, even after the second race, often you still don't know. No one thought Jimmie Johnson was legit in his first championship season after a disastrous Loudon and a not-great Dover.

Dave Rodman: Right. So since they're in the Chase, we need to get to the Chase to put a true pronouncement on them. What they showed when it mattered proved to me they will contend. But in the past, we've seen guys fiddle around and when it came time to launch a symphony, they couldn't. I think this point system, if someone is consistent, is gonna preclude a Johnson-like comeback -- though numbers are a funny thing. However, I think only a team as good as his and Chad Knaus' could orchestrate that type of rebound.

David Caraviello: Wait -- "legitimate championship contenders" is what we're trying to figure out here, correct? And Dave, I don't think two Chase races tell us anything. Remember a few years back when Greg Biffle won the first two Chase races? He kind of came out of nowhere to do it, and although he hung around for a while after that, he wasn't a threat at the end. Remember Jimmie's season, which Jill referenced, where he had to string together like four consecutive second-place finishes to get back in it? The first two Chase races can tell us very little.

Dave Rodman: Makes me wonder why we bothered asking the question, then.

David Caraviello: Makes me wonder why some don't want to answer it!

Free falling?

Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have each finished outside the top 20 three times in the past six races. Is this a bad omen for the Chase?

Watkins Glen386
Watkins Glen64

Jill Erwin: More symphony, less dissonance! I get your point, Dave, that it's too early to rule anyone in or out of legitimate contention. But two Chase races is also too early, I think.

David Caraviello: Look, we're not into Chase races yet. We're not trying to determine who'll win the title. We're trying to determine who can. Harvick isn't winning races like he was early in the season, but after listening to Joe Menzer and his Beer School logic in recent weeks, I had come to agree that they were just kind of hanging back and working on things, those three wins providing them the latitude to do so. But at Bristol, it was obvious that wasn't the case, and you begin to wonder about some of the weeks leading up to it. I still think Harvick's going to be there when it counts -- the dude has just done it too many times before -- but I'm going to be waiting on him and Gil Martin to flip the switch.

Dave Rodman: Really, you have to wonder what a resurgent Jimmie Johnson and a surging Brad Keselowski do to "the list" anyway. And you just know Kyle Busch is waiting to write his own book, one of these years.

Jill Erwin: That's the thing for me, David, is being able to flip a switch in a time like this. Flipping it in early August, awesome. Flipping it in September? So much pressure, harder to do. And Rodman, I've been waiting for Kyle to write that book for years now. Borders is already closed. By the time he gets it done, I'll have to buy it for some floating book-reader that hasn't even been invented yet.

David Caraviello: Kurt Busch's situation is a little different. They've had a lot of problems, but they've been issues like brake-induced crashes at Watkins Glen and pit-road speeding at Bristol. They've put themselves in this situation, to a certain degree. That doesn't mean they don't have good cars, or don't have the speed to contend beginning two weeks from now. But again, they're in one of those believe it when we see it situations.

Dave Rodman: Jimmie Johnson has put everyone in that position, after five years, don't you think?

Jill Erwin: Jimmie's the opposite. His is an "I'll believe it when I don't see it" deal.

David Caraviello: So to answer the question -- because goodness knows, someone has to -- I don't know if either of these guys has dropped off the list. Both are still essentially in that lock-to-make-the-Chase situation (Harvick's already in, actually), which sets them above all the guys just scrambling to get in. Those are the ones who are going to have some serious work to do come Chicagoland. I think Kurt and Harvick are just caught up in the natural ebb and flow of this thing. Whether they can win the title may just depend on how severe that ebb is.

Jill Erwin: See, I don't know where I fall on that. Part of me says those racing to get in will be going all out, which is the ride you want to be on going into the Chase. All momentum, all the time. Goes back to that flipping the switch thing -- would you rather be starting the fight two weeks early, or trying to jump into a fight in the middle without much warmup?

Dave Rodman: I'm still waiting for a few blows to land -- when it counts.

David Caraviello: Jill, I don't buy that at all. At all. The guys who win this thing are not the dudes who are just clawing to get in over the final weeks of the regular season. I realize Johnson's dominance skews the sample a little, and one of these bubble boys can surprise early and hang in there for a little while, but the guys in play at Homestead are always -- always -- the ones who have their programs in shape for the bulk of the season, and aren't scrambling just to get in. And unless something shocking happens in the next two weeks, Busch and Harvick are still in that group.

2. Jimmie Johnson is now tied (with Kyle Busch) atop the Sprint Cup standings, marking the first time the five-time champion has been in that position all season. Is it time to cue the Jaws theme music?

Jill Erwin: Regardless of what I said above, about not believing any other champion until Jimmie isn't standing there with the trophy at Homestead, I still say no. Second-guessing him is a fool's game, but I just haven't seen the consistency out of him to which I've become accustomed. So, he may still win (heaven knows he may still win) but I'm not sure he's the hunter right now.

David Caraviello: It's not unusual for Five-Time to take a little while to get to the top of the point standings. I remember this time last year, everyone was asking him about the "slump" he was in, and of course we all know what happened. The bottom line is you can never undersell this guy, ever. We know what he's capable of, and seeing him back atop the points -- OK, technically Kyle owns that on the race-victory tiebreaker, but we all know the deal -- only reinforces the notion that he's very much still a player of this, even if he doesn't have the wins some others do.

Cue music?

While Jimmie Johnson and Co. always turn it up a notch in the Chase, they always have had a winning history during their five-year title run. The 48 has one so far this year.

YearWins First 26Wins ChaseAvg. Fin. Chase

Dave Rodman: Definitely not. The funny thing is, we could change a few of the syllables from most of the comments on the first question and replay them here. I've been saying for years the title is the 48's until someone rips it out of its hands. More recently, I've been of the opinion that this will be the best Chase yet, by far. Until we're in the Chase, I'm not going to make too many hard-and-fast determinations.

Jill Erwin: Dave, I think this definitely has the feeling of a really great Chase on the way. I'm actually really excited about it, for so many reasons. So I think you're right on that, and I guess it's why I'm not ready to insert some sort of a "NASCAR needs a bigger boat" joke here.

Dave Rodman: And "back atop the points" is certainly a pure misnomer here, under this format. Kyle is actually three bonus-point races ahead of him in the points right now, and if he has his stuff together -- and a couple of million is certainly a big enough incentive -- the younger Busch could be even further ahead come Chase time. But then again, Chase irregularity still haunts Kyle, until he gets in there and erases it.

David Caraviello: All that said, tell John Williams to put a hold on the theme music. Dave, you do realize the 48 team appears to be as vulnerable as its been since that first championship season, right? The fewest wins JJ has accumulated during any of his individual championship campaigns is five. The guy has one now. And we all know this has been the Year of Pit Strategy, and how Johnson and Co. struggle with that. Clearly, I'd be an idiot to rule out the guy. But you can play the "someone's gotta rip it out of his hands" card all you want. The truth is this squad isn't as potent as it has been -- or at least, isn't to this point. Of course, now that I've written that, watch the guy win three in a row.

Dave Rodman: We're not in the Chase yet.

Jill Erwin: Three bonus races is only nine points, though. And while obviously you gain fewer points per race with the new system, nine points isn't that big of a deal for Jimmie if he can put together a good run. And he's very capable of putting together good runs.

David Caraviello: Dave, last year heading into the Chase, Johnson had four wins. The year before that, three wins. The year before that, four wins. Notice a pattern here? Now, can Johnson run off two in a row before we get to Chicago to get back to that level? Sure. But this guy wins the Chase by breaking the spirit of his opponents, and he does that by repeatedly getting to Victory Lane. If they win in this year, they may be taking a completely different tack.

Dave Rodman: I'm not gonna write them off, and I'm not gonna use numbers as a crutch.

Jill Erwin: That, David, would be the most impressive thing ever. Johnson's team has figured out the system in previous years. What if it has figured out this new point system even more than Brad K and crew have?

David Caraviello: Numbers aren't a crutch. Numbers are everything in NASCAR. Don't know if you've noticed, but numbers are essentially what drivers are racing for each week. Listen, he's still Jimmie Freaking Johnson. He's (kind of) back atop the points. But he's gotten there rather quietly, by a stealthier route than we're used to seeing. Maybe Jill is right, and they've figured things out. Or maybe others have caught up to them.

Jill Erwin: Hey, I'm not owning that! I just said "what if?!" Don't be hanging that on me. I'm no Menzer, claiming to know which teams have figured out what.

David Caraviello: Maybe you need a few trips to Beer School. According to Menzer, all secrets are revealed in that environment.

Jill Erwin: Mmm beer. When will someone be sponsored by Abita Purple Haze? Now that would be a team worthy of a championship!

3. It's on to Atlanta, where Tony Stewart won last year. Which of our Chase bubble boys has the best chance of winning to bolster their playoff hopes?

Dave Rodman: Just like I can't write off Jimmie Johnson, I'd have a hard time writing off Smoke -- as sorry as he's looked, lately. There is so much crap swirling around all those guys: Biffle, Bowyer -- Dale Jr. might be the best bet. And somehow, I can't write off Denny Hamlin, either.

Jill Erwin: Well, assuming neither Stewart nor Junior win, Denny's still got the wild card with the victory. I'm going out on a limb, especially looking at his numbers there, but I'm going to say Clint Bowyer has a shot to win this week and steal that last wild-card spot if he doesn't launch himself into the top 10.

Burst of power

Tony Stewart is holding onto the 10th position in points, but without a win. He leads the first non-wild-card driver Clint Bowyer by 22 points.

Pos.DriverWinsAvg. Fin.
9.Dale Jr.112.5
10.T. Stewart311.6
11.B. Keselowski030.5
12.C. Bowyer015.5
13.D. Hamlin018.4
20.P. Menard022.0
21.D. Ragan025.6
22.M. Ambrose022.2

David Caraviello: Clearly, Tony has a fine track record at Atlanta, with three wins and an average finish a hair above 11th. The guy is good there, as we saw last season when he smoked -- pun not intended -- the field. But this isn't last year. After what we witnessed at Bristol, I'm beginning to lose faith that Tony's going to be able to win this season. Everything on that program just feels like it's trending in the wrong direction. Bristol -- goodness, that was a slog for the 14 bunch all weekend. It was tough to watch at times.

Jill Erwin: David, as a staunch Darian Grubb fan (Virginia, represent!), it pains me, and I feel he may not be long for that team if they don't turn something around rather quick.

Dave Rodman: That's the thing. Everyone is sucking, to a degree. And we forgot the most obvious one -- Brad K. He's locked in, but he's still in a position to affect the entire Chase race and I'm loving every second of it!

David Caraviello: Speaking of Virginia ... Atlanta hasn't always been very good to Denny Hamlin. His average finish there is 18th. He's cracked the top 10 just once in his past four starts there, and finished 43rd last season. Historically, at least, Atlanta doesn't seem like one of Denny's better tracks, although who knows what may happen during the course of a long Sunday night.

Jill Erwin: I wasn't considering Brad as a bubble boy. That kid's on lockdown right now. Our boy Menzer nailed that on Monday, talking about BK and crew chief Paul Wolfe and their growth as a team. As for Hamlin, agreed. That team hasn't been really right all season.

David Caraviello: I agree with Jill -- Brad K is no bubble boy. Dude is in. I also agree with Dave -- other than Keselowski, nobody wants to step up and claim this. I think that goes back to what we've discussed for much of this Smack, which is, how you're running is how you're running. Things don't change for teams overnight, particularly in the positive, although Keselowski seems able to debunk that theory. But for the most part, guys are struggling now because they've been struggling for most of the year. That usually doesn't change just because of the calendar.

Jill Erwin: Good thing for Junior fans: He's got 39 points on BK in 11th, so he's probably good for the Chase regardless -- barring total destruction. To David's earlier point, Hamlin's ace in the hole is still Richmond. He's got a victory, and one more race left at one of his best tracks, so I don't think Hamlin will be on the outside looking in. I'm just not sure he'll be much of a threat in those final 10 weeks.

Dave Rodman: If I had to pick one out of that bunch, if we consider Kurt Busch as not being totally out of the woods, then like I said in response to the first question, it's Junior or even Kurt -- if he can keep air in the tires.

David Caraviello: I don't think I'd put Kurt on the same level as many of these guys, unless he has an awful next two weeks. But you look at Atlanta, and of those borderline boys the guy who may have the best track record there is -- drum roll please -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. Of course, you have to go back to 2008 to find his last top-five finish there, and 2004 to find his victory, but I still think Atlanta is one of those tracks Junior likes and feels he can do well. We shall see.

Jill Erwin: That being said, a Junior win before (or in) the Chase would be the best thing going for NASCAR and its fan base.

David Caraviello: Goodness, Jill, would Atlanta erupt if that happened. But let's be honest -- beyond Keselowski, who's proven he can do it again and again, we'd be kind of shocked if any of these guys on the bubble jumped up and won a race at this point. That's why they're on the bubble, after all. And I really don't expect their fortunes to change much. Brad K is on fire, and Denny appears fully capable when he's not having mechanical trouble. That's why they're in the position they're in. Anybody else? It can get ugly out there. Ugly enough to make you reach for another Abita Purple Haze ....

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.