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Track Smack: Who will hoist the hardware after Homestead?

September 15, 2011, ,

Up for debate: Importance of first Chase race, who has a real chance at the title

1. It's Track Smack, Chase edition. This year's playoff opens at Chicagoland Speedway. How important is this first race?

David Caraviello: I feel like the Chase is a lot like a professional golf event -- you can't win it in the first round, but you sure can lose it. You look at the eventual champions, and not all of them have gotten off to great starts. But you look at some guys who bottomed out, and it all started at New Hampshire -- which until this year had been the playoff's first race.

Dave Rodman: It's not a sure thing that anyone can come back a-la Jimmie Johnson 2006 with this new points system. I'd say it's important to get off on the right foot and it's neat to have a new opener. I wish I remembered -- and it was just this week -- who it was that was advocating mixing-up the schedule from year to year, even if you didn't change the races. That's another topic for another Smack, but change is certainly good when it comes to this Chase schedule. Let's let this one play out and we'll see.

Mark Aumann: Obviously, it's always good to get off to a fast start and set the tone for the rest of the Chase. In this case, because it's an intermediate track -- much like many of the other races coming up -- I think we'll see who are the legitimate contenders.

David Caraviello: You guys might be on to something -- this year may present something of a different first round than we're used to, simply because of the mile-and-a-half effect. We're used to going through Loudon and Dover before we get to the meat-and-potatoes intermediate tracks of the Chase. This time, we get one right at the beginning. That could definitely change the equation, and give us more of an early glimpse of who could be the teams to beat.

Mark Aumann: You know, David, I've sort of thought the same thing about "you can't win it in the first race, but you can lose it." And yet, Jimmie Johnson finished 39th in the Chase opener in 2006 and still came back to win the title. Now, he had a five-race stretch where he finished first or second to be able to overcome that deficit. The prevailing opinion is still that you can have one bad race in the Chase -- whether that's Chicagoland or somewhere else -- and still win it. But you can't have two. And if you stumble right out of the gate, there's no more room for error.

Who will win it all?

Follow your favorite driver and explore the odds of them winning this year's title with CHASE CASTER! Predictions are updated several times a week.

David Caraviello: Mark, many people would be able to replicate that run? Could Johnson even do that again? That was the year he found himself almost 200 points back after getting wrecked by Brian Vickers at Talladega. He went something like 2-2-2-1 the rest of the way. I don't know if anyone, even Johnson, could pull off something like that again given how competitive it is among the top guys right now.

Dave Rodman: Right, Mark -- but this system might reward consistency more than the previous one did. Not saying five top-twos wouldn't be enough. But this year, I don't think we've seen anyone capable of that kind of string.

David Caraviello: But then again, Johnson also finished 25th in the opener last year, too, and look what happened. Clint Bowyer won the first race, had his penalty and was never heard from again. Remember Greg Biffle winning the first two races that one year? Or Jeff Burton pacing the field through Charlotte, and then disappearing after one bad race at Martinsville? This thing develops over time, and you can't draw all conclusions from what happens in the opener.

Mark Aumann: It's the same exact points system, as far as percentages go. It just looks less complicated. The numbers are almost perfectly comparable. It's always been about racking up consistent finishes and not getting dinged. The NASCAR points system is biased against negative finishes -- and nothing that's been done to it has changed that significantly.

David Caraviello: There's the other side of it, and the problems Kyle Busch had right off the bat in 2008, and the issues Tony Stewart had in the first race with his axle cap in 2009. Those issues took those guys out of it from the very first race. So, drivers can recover -- but only to a point. And Dover being pushed back to the third race heightens the chances for mayhem later in the Chase. That place is much more of a wild card than it gets credit for, and now it slides back a week on the schedule. The closer to the end we get, the narrower that margin for error Mark mentioned.

Mark Aumann: Johnson has shown that winning puts extraordinary pressure on the other teams to keep pace. But his strings of top threes and top fives are just as damaging.

David Caraviello: You're right, Mark. He didn't beat Jeff Gordon in 2007 with wins -- he beat him with top-five finishes. Heck, last year, what did he win, one race in the Chase? That's what makes Jimmie so dangerous, he can beat you in so many ways. His average finish over 70 previous Chase races in 8.1. That's crazy.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, a big track with a lot of room to race should keep everybody out of harm's way -- for the most part. But you just can't predict a part failure or a mistake by somebody else. Like David said, Jimmie was cruising when he got wrecked at Texas and wiped out a lot of his huge lead that season. This thing is all about still being in the mix by Texas or Phoenix.

Dave Rodman: David, that ain't crazy -- that's five consecutive championships. That sounds pretty bottom line to me -- and pretty darned simple.

Chase drivers

Season statistics (through Richmond)
2 .Kevin Harvick2012Leader04713
3 .Jeff Gordon2009-3131014
4 .Matt Kenseth2006-612714
5 .Carl Edwards2003-9211217
6 .Jimmie Johnson2003-9011117
7 .Kurt Busch2003-931714
8 .Ryan Newman2003-921813
9 .Tony Stewart2000-1200311
10 .Dale Earnhardt Jr.2000-121039
11 .Brad Keselowski2000-1213610
12 .Denny Hamlin2000-1201410

Mark Aumann: Everything about Smack is crazy talk.

2. Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin nabbed the final three available Chase spots in last weekend's regular-season finale in Richmond. Can any of them make any noise over the final 10?

Mark Aumann: No. That's the honest and unflinching answer. I wish they would. But none of the three have shown any ability to get to the front and stay there week after week. I keep thinking, 'You know, Tony's going to turn it on now. Or, Denny's going to show flashes of 2010.' And it's just not happening.

Dave Rodman: I started doing a case-by-case analysis and all of a sudden had to say, yes. I love a good debate with Mark, and in this case, where you're always trying to pin me down to one, I'd have to say my money would be with Hamlin having the best possibility.

David Caraviello: I'm convinced that Denny Hamlin can -- if his team isn't beset by mechanical trouble, which is asking for a lot for a program that's been snake-bitten by parts and pieces too many times this year. I really believe that if not for all the engine trouble and other issues, and if you take this team just on their merits, they're good enough to be in the mix for this thing. They have 10 races to prove that, but one more blown issue or part failure, and it's likely over.

Time to shine

Fantasy Preview breaks down the favorites and dark horses at Chicago and says it's not out of the question for Tony Stewart to make his first trip to Victory Lane this season on Sunday.

Mark Aumann: What have any of them shown you that brings you to that conclusion, Dave? The past three races are the only time he's had three consecutive top-10s all season. He only has four top-fives in 26 starts. I'm not sure I'm seeing "championship caliber" there.

Dave Rodman: The 2010 season is largely irrelevant, of course. But Denny and crew chief Mike Ford did win eight races, then. Now, they've registered three top-10s in a row, when they needed 'em most. So that tells me they are rounding into form at the right time. They know how to win. I think they could do it -- have an impact, that is.

David Caraviello: Right there with you, Rodman. Now it's Mark spouting the crazy talk. Too much time up in the north Georgia mountains.

Mark Aumann: There are four drivers in the Chase who have as many or more top-five finishes than Hamlin has top-10s. There are two drivers who have as many wins as Hamlin has top-fives.

David Caraviello: Mark, that view is completely legitimate. But this guy has been in so many wrecks, had so many engines go kaboom on him, and has had so many runs go poorly out of no fault of his own -- I'm convinced this is a better program than the results indicate. They've weathered a lot just to get where they are and make the Chase, to be sure, and it's asking a lot to think he'll flip a switch and become 2010 Denny again. But I believe that guy is in there, somewhere, and if the engines and other mechanical parts cooperate, he can be a factor in this thing.

Mark Aumann: Hamlin hung on to make the Chase by the skin of his teeth. I'm just not expecting "Super Denny" to come out of the phone booth this weekend. (And yeah, there are no such things as phone booths.)

Dave Rodman: Tony Stewart is Tony Stewart. He, too, is coming into his own at just the right time. Now that it's time, they have to keep producing. Kevin Harvick kinda proved last year that cumulative stats to this point don't count in the Chase, so since I'm being forced to do make this case, I can easily disallow those numbers. Hate to say it, but Junior won't contend for the championship -- but he and Steve Letarte could be building a good foundation for next year. I think they could win one of those Chase races, for sure.

Mark Aumann: It wasn't long ago that Tony said he wasn't running well enough to deserve a Chase spot. I'm not sure he's that much better still, even after the late-race charge at Atlanta. And we're asking these three guys to somehow be better than Jeff Gordon? Kyle Busch? Jimmie Johnson? Those the legit contenders.

Dave Rodman: He was looking pretty sterling after Richmond.

David Caraviello: Now, when it comes to Stewart, I need a little more convincing. No question, he's had two of his best runs of the year at the perfect time, and gets in on a high note. But I just haven't seen enough out of the guy over the course of this season to think he can emerge as a factor in the title hunt. We all remember Dale Jr.'s start to the season, and how long he hung around the top three in points. If he has a last 10 races as good as his first 10, who knows what he can do. He said last week he thought they had gotten a little conservative on the No. 88 just to make the Chase, and could have more "bullets in the gun" come Chicago. We'll see. And now, thanks to Mark, I can't get the image of "Super Denny" -- blue tights, red cape and all -- out of my head.

Mark Aumann: FedExtraordinary powers?

Dave Rodman: Yikes! Mark's gone on the payroll -- where do I sign up?

3. Last year only one non-Chase driver, Jamie McMurray, won a race in the final 10. Is there anyone from outside the playoff who is capable of pulling such a surprise this season?

Dave Rodman: Sure. We can start with who I hope is everyone's favorite underdog -- David Ragan. Heck, for that matter, it's a short step to Clint Bowyer, as well.

Mark Aumann: With the races left on the schedule, I'll throw three names out there: Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin. And Talladega is a lottery. But I'm still seeing a very Chase-centric final 10 races. Like the last topic, what would anybody see different that would give you pause to think winless guys are suddenly going to get to Victory Lane? The law of averages?

'Anything can happen'

Much has been said about this year's dramatic run-up to the Chase for the Sprint Cup and with a host of legitimate contenders eager to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, the postseason should be nothing short of compelling.

David Caraviello: Dang. Me and Rodman are on the same wavelength once again. Scary thought. I'm right with you, Dave -- of all the guys who just missed out on this thing, I really think David Ragan is best suited to maybe steal one down the stretch here. He opened and closed the summer very strong, and had a lull in the middle that cost him a Chase spot. But other than him, I think the pickings are pretty slim. Time for a lot of these guys to get cracking on preparations for 2012.

Mark Aumann: The 12 Chase guys have combined for 21 of 26 wins. I don't really see that percentage dropping significantly.

David Caraviello: Mark, I do not disagree. Look at what we've seen for much of the past few weeks -- a bunch of guys who were in contention for those final few Chase spots, but couldn't make anything happen. Ragan was the only one who really came close. Everyone else just shuffled around. These programs are where they are for a reason, and it's because they're just not good enough to belong among the championship contenders. That's not a knock, that's fact. If guys like Bowyer, Juan Montoya, Martin and Biffle haven't done it yet, how are we to believe they're going to do it with just 10 to go, and the Chase guys likely to dominate the front?

Mark Aumann: Heck, I'll throw A.J. Allmendinger's name out there. In a season in which there have been some odd occurrences, he's got as much of a chance -- Talladega? -- as any of the veterans I mentioned.

Dave Rodman: The Stat-Man strikes -- and in this case, I don't disagree. But on that percentage, Mark, what -- are we talking two Chase wins by non-Chasers? Ragan and Bowyer would notch right in there. And Greg Biffle? I like your triumvirate. Biff has shown a stark inability to close the deal, but he's run well enough that that is a short step. He could easily mess up the percentages.

David Caraviello: But Dave, that step might as well be a chasm. Again, if they haven't done it over 26 races, why should we believe they can over the final 10? OK, like Mark mentioned, Talladega could be a complete shootout, and who knows where the bingo ball might land. But everywhere else? Granted, some guys have taken steps toward getting better. But to this point, those steps haven't been enough to get them in Victory Lane. Now the whole dynamic changes. They're all racing for 13th -- or first place next year.

Dave Rodman: I can tell you this -- I would love to see the percentages get slaughtered. They are all in a position to win. And except for getting caught up in that pig-pile at Richmond, you could easily include Martin Truex Jr. in that mix. Again, we're talking wins, not contending to take giant steps up in the points. Of that group, Biffle and Martin are furthest from winning, I hate to say. Ragan, Bowyer and Truex are closest and A.J.'s in the middle ground.

Mark Aumann: That's the whole thing. A bunch of guys "could" win, given the perfect storm. But that's less and less likely, particularly with the Chase. Unless we get a lot more fuel mileage finishes or crazy pit gambles, it is what it is. And that's 12 guys aiming for a championship.

David Caraviello: Ah, here it is again, a revered Track Smack tradition -- throwing in everybody's name. Can't wait to see what Kasey Kahne can do! Watch out for that Jeff Burton! It's not happening, gang. McMurray had a Chase-caliber program last year, and won three races. Most of the guys we've mentioned are nowhere near that level. The win-and-in desperation that we've seen in the run-up to this Chase is over. Time for the big dogs to eat.

Mark Aumann: Exactly, David. This is crunch time. Or Cap'n Crunch time, if we're sitting down to breakfast.

David Caraviello: I think that's just what Super Denny eats!

The opinions expressed are solely those oft he writers.