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Track Smack: Chase leads to big hits, big potential, larger debate

September 22, 2011, ,

Up for debate heading into NHMS: Can Hamlin recover; will Dale Jr. be crowned?

1. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Denny Hamlin each suffered big hits in the points after Monday's opening Chase race. Are any of them out of it?

Joe Menzer: Well, obviously Hamlin is in the most trouble -- being 41 points off the pace after just one race. But I think Kenseth and Gordon can still rally. They've been showing enough speed lately. It's just that if we end up having several more of these fuel-mileage races, they'll have to manage that a whole lot better.

Bill Kimm: None of them are out of it, but if I had to choose one who has the biggest uphill climb it would be Hamlin. Gordon and Kenseth didn't want to start with 20th-place finishes, but I think they will be OK. The winning mentality just doesn't seem to be with the No. 11 team this year. As Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have shown, you have to be mentally on top of your game as well ... and Hamlin and Mike Ford just don't have that this season.

David Caraviello: I think everyone is worried about Hamlin at this point, and rightfully so. There was so much talk this year about how one bad Chase finish could doom you under this points system, and Hamlin is facing that exact situation after the first race. He's 41 back, which under the old system would have been 120 or so. That's a massive deficit. Yes, Jimmie Johnson made up a ton of points in 2006. But this No. 11 team has been so snake-bitten this year, so beaten down by problems, you wonder if they have that kind of a comeback in them.

Joe Menzer: That's the thing with the No. 11 team. They've just been up-and-down -- or down, then up -- all year long. You can't have that inconsistency in the Chase, and this just doesn't seem to be their year. I'd be rather shocked if they can come back from this. But Kenseth and Gordon have been more consistent all year long, have the time -- and appear to have the cars with the speed in them to get back in this thing.

David Caraviello: Remember, Kenseth would have finished eighth if not for the penalty NASCAR levied against him for receiving assistance on the final lap, so clearly that car was good enough to contend before the fuel-mileage scenario played out. So you have to think that Matt might have something for everyone else on the other intermediate tracks, which would help him crawl out of the hole he's in. Gordon, though, was all over the place Monday. It was not the kind of day that instills confidence, even before they ran out of gas. He summed it up perfectly afterward -- they just can't have days like that. And they can't, not this time of year.

Losing ground

Denny Hamlin parked his car in the garage at Chicagoland, climbed out, and started walking. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn't talk to the media after his miserable experience in the opening Chase race, but his silence spoke for him.

Joe Menzer: And, of course, Kenseth and Gordon are facing a much smaller deficit after Race 1 than Hamlin. He's down 41. They're down 24 and 25, respectively -- a big difference in this new system.

Bill Kimm: Hang on David, you don't know where Kenseth would have finished without the push ... but he did have a top-10 car at Chicago. The finish was kind of a fluke and I think the best of the best will rise to the top in the next couple weeks. That means Junior will start to fall and guys like Kyle, Gordon and Kenseth will work their way back up.

Joe Menzer: Kenseth had better than a top-10 car at Chicago. He had a top-five car that could have possibly contended for the win if they had played the fuel mileage right. That's why he was so disappointed. But I'm not ready to throw Gordon under the bus. He had one bad race. He's been having a great season. He'll bounce back.

David Caraviello: Well, Bill, let's be fair. Denny has dealt with so much this year that isn't necessarily his fault, and Monday was a perfect example. He didn't leave the wheel loose, he didn't cut down the tire, but in the end he takes the hit. I don't know if that has anything to do with his mentality. Anyone in his situation would be despondent, which he clearly seemed as he walked away from his race car afterward.

Bill Kimm: What I'm saying David, is Ford and Hamlin don't look like they think they can win it all. There isn't a swagger there, it's almost like they are just happy to be in the Chase. Nobody's fault ... just a tough season that didn't go the way they planned at all.

David Caraviello: We can't call fuel-mileage finishes flukes, Bill. There have been so many of them this year, teams have to be ready for them. And they were, as evidenced by how early some teams were trying to save fuel to make it to the end. Some teams managed that end-of-race situation better than others. That's not a fluke. That's being prepared, or in the case of the driver, knowing how to do what it takes to get to the finish. In a fuel-mileage scenario, that's a real weakness for some teams, our five-time champions among them.

Joe Menzer: I think the Ford guys and Toyota teams have got to be worried about the fuel mileage biting them. Right now the two Dodges appear to be getting better fuel mileage than anybody, with the Chevys right behind. Did you realize Brad Keselowski had one less pit stop than everybody else in the field at Chicagoland? He pitted six times Monday. Everyone else pitted at least seven.

Bill Kimm: I heard that Joe, that crew chief Paul Wolfe had an extra set of tires. If we've learned anything this year, it's that Kes can save some fuel. He may be the best in the series at it. Very impressive is that young Keselowski.

Joe Menzer: We've discussed this many times before, and I know most drivers hate the fuel-mileage races. Heck, maybe all of them do -- although I'm sure Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick are OK with it this week. But strictly from a viewing standpoint, I find them fascinating, and think they brings an element of drama to the ends of races that I enjoy. Who's going to make it? Who isn't? Who's doing the best job of saving and when are they going to go for it?

Bill Kimm: Because the way the cautions fell ... everyone had to gamble on fuel. That's why this one was a little different than the rest. It's not like some teams decided to chance it ... every Chase contender had to gamble on fuel because of where the final caution fell. I think you'll see more conservative approaches in the future.

Joe Menzer: I don't want every race to be a fuel-mileage deal at the end, but I like having some of them sprinkled throughout a season. I thought it was fun watching Harvick shoot through the field after crew chief Gil Martin told him to go Monday, even though Martin wasn't certain they'd have enough fuel to finish. It was cool.

David Caraviello: Joe just likes fuel-mileage races because it reminds him of trying to get home in that creaky Windstar. Will he make it? Will he come up short? Will he have to call the wife to pick him up again?

Joe Menzer: The finish of every trip I make in my 2001 Ford Windstar is interesting.

David Caraviello: And a small victory unto itself.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third at Chicagoland and moved up to fifth in points. Is he for real?

Bill Kimm: Look, he's in the Chase, so that makes him for real. Do I think he is a threat to win the title, no. You have to win races to win the championship, and let's be fair ... Junior isn't close to winning a race, he's just not. Again, this is a team that is just happy to be here, that's not the mentality of a champion.

Joe Menzer: Well, now this is an interesting question. He likes New Hampshire and could do well there. I saw the other day where a prominent, bespectacled NASCAR statistician who shall remain nameless boldly predicted on Twitter that Dale Jr. would emerge from the Free State free and clear of everyone else in the point standings. (In other words, in first.) If Junior gets through these first two Chase races with the lead, people will be getting excited. But Bill is right about one thing. He has to prove he can win races. You're going to have to win at least one, if not two or more, to come out on top in the Chase. He still hasn't won a single race since June of 2008 at Michigan.

Dale Jr.

Season statistics

David Caraviello: I love how Bill seems an expert on every team's mentality, as if he's sitting in on competition meetings. Steve Letarte sure as heck isn't just in this for giggles. Listen, a lot of people are going to dismiss Junior's finish Monday because of the way the fuel-mileage scenario played out at the end. But the bottom line is, he was in the top 10 before that started to play out. Yes, like everyone else, he was saving fuel over much of that final green-flag run. But he drove up there, people. That car was a struggle early, and they made it better, and Junior drove into the top-10, where he would have finished regardless of how the endgame ultimately played out.

Bill Kimm: I'm just trying to be like you DC . You seem to be an expert on all things NASCAR, so I'm trying to find an angle you haven't tapped into yet. Call me when Junior breaks his 100-race winless drought and then we can talk about a championship contender. Until then, he's not in the conversation. David, you were at the track. Are you telling me in the times you talked to Hamlin and Junior, they sounded like they had the confidence to win it all? If you believe that, that's great. What I saw and heard, they don't have the confidence that Johnson, Gordon, Harvick have.

David Caraviello: Denny Hamlin clearly believes he's a championship-caliber driver hamstrung by events outside of his control. And speaking to Letarte in recent weeks, they clearly went into survival mode just to make the Chase, knowing what the outcry would be if they didn't. Junior talked at Richmond about how they'd played it conservative until then, and hoped to have more ammo for everyone once the playoff arrived. Junior likes the Chase tracks. Steve summed it up: We points raced to get here, we're not points racing now. That's far from a defeatist mentality.

Joe Menzer: And am I going to have to separate you two? Geez, who thought I would have to play peacemaker? I guess you both already know that Junior was very close to winning that race. If there had been one caution -- one Paul Menard or Mark Martin spin -- that brought out a green-white-checkered, the race win would likely have been his. Stewart and Harvick wouldn't have had the fuel to finish.

David Caraviello: And lost amid all this bluster about how you have to win races to win the Chase is the fact that -- maybe you don't. Jimmie Johnson won one race in the Chase last year. Granted, he's had some seasons when he's beaten the competition into submission with multiple trips to Victory Lane, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen this year. This may very well all be about top-fives. And if that's the case, Junior took a great step forward Monday. The car was at its best at the end. They capitalized when others couldn't. That's not a bad combination.

Joe Menzer: I do think you need to win at least one in the Chase to win it all, but I guess we'll see. Junior actually is pretty good at saving fuel. So if there are other fuel-mileage races in the Chase, and there likely will be, he could be in the mix again at the end. He almost won at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 before running out. There are other tracks where he does well, like Martinsville. He finished second there earlier this year and that was not a finish aided by fuel mileage.

Bill Kimm: David Caraviello has officially lost his mind. I need to look at the travel schedule and maybe give him a couple weekends off. That last statement is the craziest thing I've read in Track Smack in a very long time! And that's saying something! Junior has been an afterthought for three years and because of one third-place finish, he's now in position to win his first Cup title? All I can say is, wow!

Joe Menzer: Let me step between you two real quick ... Who would defeat whom if you two dropped the gloves and came out swinging? I mean, there is a clear weight advantage for Kimm, but I'd give the reach advantage to the lanky, svelte Caraviello. Kimm would have to reach over his ample gut.

David Caraviello: I'd use leverage. Arm bar at the throat. Drive 'em right up against the wall. Somebody taught me that.

Bill Kimm: Caraviello is a more technical fighter and has the stamina, but I have more beef. Twelve-round slugfest and Caraviello wins in a judges decision.

Joe Menzer: Now that is a defeatist mentality!

David Caraviello: Bottom line, I'd be surprised if someone wins this Chase by piling up race wins. Top-fives are what everyone aims for right now. We'll see how it plays out, but the bottom line is, Earnhardt got off to a great start, and he deserved the finish he earned Monday.

Joe Menzer: And Caraviello loves Junior's chances in this Chase. Guess we'll have to see how it plays out. I personally think Junior will get everybody excited here for a few weeks, but is a real long shot to be there as a factor at the end.

David Caraviello: He's pretty good at New Hampshire, people. He likes Dover. Talladega is out there. Not bad at Martinsville. The man has some tracks he can work with. Let's not sell him short yet.

Bill Kimm: Typical Caraviello, get one in after the bell.

3. Clint Bowyer seems on the brink of a move to Michael Waltrip Racing. Would that be a good home for the two-time New Hampshire winner?

Joe Menzer: Hmmm. A tricky question. But I'll be blunt. I think based on history, you'd have to say it's a downgrade to go from Richard Childress Racing to MWR. Of course, I'm sure he'll be getting a major upgrade in salary and he'll instantly become top dog in that organization, so for him, it's an understandable career move, if not maybe the smartest one in the long run.

Bill Kimm: He would instantly become top dog at MWR, but is that desirable? MWR seems to be a few years off from competing with the top dogs in the Cup Series, so Bowyer is going from a team that is in the Chase year-after-year to a team that is struggling to succeed. But, if he is able to push MWR to greatness, what a great legacy to leave behind.

David Caraviello: Well, that certainly seems where he'll end up. Richard Childress spoke a little on this subject at Chicagoland, and it appears that No. 33 team is in such flux from a sponsorship standpoint, that nothing is guaranteed. He said he told Bowyer to do what he needed to do to take care of himself, rather than wait on whatever might happen at Richard Childress Racing. So it appears there may be some factors forcing Clint's decision here, and of the other options that appear available, the Waltrip shop certainly seem to be the best one.

Bill Kimm: I think Joe and I drank the same Kool-Aid today. We almost went word-for-word on that one. Great minds do think alike.

Wheelin' and dealin'

In a perfect world, Richard Childress and Clint Bowyer would stay together. The car owner and driver have a good relationship, and Bowyer lives near the RCR shop. But in a sport dependent on sponsorship dollars, nothing stays perfect forever.


"If I'm going to spend the money, I'm going to spend it on the family."


Joe Menzer: Well, it's nice to have you think alike with me for at least a day anyway, Bill. I mean ... I'm sure it's nice for you to have that feeling.

Bill Kimm: It's such a tough question to answer. On paper, Bowyer is taking a step back, no question. But there are so many factors that play into this, it's impossible to know if this will be a good move or not.

Joe Menzer: Ah, now I can disagree with you, Bill. He obviously will not be better off in 2012 at MWR with an entirely new team, and less resources overall, than he would have been staying with his established team, and more resources, at RCR. But Childress is right to draw the line on what he was willing to pay Bowyer, based on sponsorship uncertainties and the fact that maybe, just maybe, Bowyer isn't quite worth what MWR is willing to pay just to get a name driver.

David Caraviello: You guys are right, though -- he would be going from one shop where the Chase is a minimum requirement, to another where the Chase has never been attained. I don't want to slam MWR with the downgrade talk like you guys are, because clearly there are two outfits at different parts of their evolution, and capable of doing different things. Now, do I think he could have a shot to win races and make the Chase at MWR? Certainly. Other drivers there have. And I guess that's all you can ask for at this point -- going somewhere where you have a chance to do those things.

Joe Menzer: Why the kid gloves about MWR? This is their fifth year. Next year will be their sixth. They've made roughly 400 Cup starts as an organization -- and won a total of two races. How long does it take for a team like that to do more? How long will investor Rob Kauffman keep pouring money into it if they don't get better results? I think this may be his way of saying, get it done now or else.

David Caraviello: But then again, Bowyer would be the most accomplished driver MWR has added since Michael retired. The guy is something of a proven commodity -- we know he can win races, we know with the right equipment he can make the Chase, and even contend. People forget he finished third in final points once. So maybe somebody like Bowyer comes in and elevates the entire program. That's not a ridiculous possibility.

Bill Kimm: Kid gloves on Hamlin, Junior and now MWR ... I'm re-thinking my breakdown of our fight ... I think I can take DC down. Ultimately, he's too soft, too easily broken. I do agree with that DC, Bowyer has the potential to lift MWR up a couple notches ... time will tell if he's able to get it done. He has the mentality, that's for sure.

Joe Menzer: But here is the thing: Bowyer has two wins over the past three seasons -- the same number current MWR driver David Reutimann also has. I'm not certain he's going to be come in and deliver immediate results much different than those being attained by current MWR drivers Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. -- capable guys who nonetheless just aren't in the mix to win that often.

David Caraviello: No kid gloves, Joe. This just isn't a cut-and-dry situation. MWR isn't exactly Stewart-Haas, getting everything from Hendrick Motorsports, with the leverage of a two-time champion behind it. They've built a lot more slowly, by necessity, and given their rocky start, I think they've done a pretty good job of getting where they are. Now, do they think they should have won more races and made the Chase by now? Certainly, I'm sure. And they might have last year with Reutimann, had this playoff format been used. But there is certainly potential there, it would appear.

Joe Menzer: Is Bowyer that much better of a driver than Truex or Reutimann? I'm just not sure he is. I think they are of similar talent levels and Bowyer simply has been in better equipment over the last four years at RCR. I'm not slamming him -- or them. They're all talented. But in terms of measuring up to all else in the garage, they are good but not great drivers at this stage of their careers. They are not yet, and may never be, in the same class as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and others.

Bill Kimm: Bigger surprise for me, MWR is going into its sixth season. Seems like yesterday we were talking about them starting up. Man, time flies in NASCAR-land.

Joe Menzer: They came in the same year I did. Hard to believe. And I still have only two less race wins than they do.

Bill Kimm: Ouch ... Menzer just went all MMA on MWR. David and I have nothing on Joe Menzer:!

David Caraviello: Joe, Bowyer has more race wins than those other two guys combined. He's made the Chase several times, was a contender down to the final races once, and might very well have been again last year if not for his penalty after winning the New Hampshire race. If Clint isn't A-list, he's very close.

Joe Menzer: Wow. Talk about manipulating statistics to try to prove a point. OK, yes, Bowyer has more career race wins than the other two MWR drivers combined. He has four. They have three (two for Reutimann, one for Truex). You should be a politician trying to balance our national budget, Caraviello!

David Caraviello: That's not manipulating statistics. That's citing real numbers. (And Truex's win came at Dale Earnhardt Inc., by the way.) Boy, Joe is as cranky as his Windstar right now! Last I checked, 4 > 3. Did that change? Did I miss the new math?

Joe Menzer: I repeat: Since 2009, Reutimann and Bowyer have registered exactly the same number of race wins. Two apiece. And I know when and where Truex got his win. That only proves my point further about how, for Bowyer, going from RCR to MWR just is not an upgrade. Not at this stage.

David Caraviello: Cranky Joe just needs to get in his cranky mini-van and go home. If he can make it that far.

Joe Menzer: I'll call you when I get there. Over a land line. Collect.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.