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Track Smack: A make-or-break race for Gordon at Kansas?

October 06, 2011, ,

Up for debate: Make-or-break race for Gordon; non-Chasers stealing a victory

1. Jeff Gordon has two wins and nine top-10s in 11 career starts at Kansas Speedway. After falling four positions at Dover, is this a make-or-break race for him?

Dave Rodman: Jimmie Johnson has already proven such talk is borderline ridiculous. Having a Denny Hamlin-like race isn't an option, but all or nothing? That's not hardly staring ol' original Four-Time in the face at this point. However, any more mediocrity is not going to carry him very far, either.

Joe Menzer: It very well may be. I'll tell you what hurt him at Dover -- he had a fast car, but slipped during qualifying and had to start so far back, in 34th, that it made for a difficult day. You guys know how important track position is these days. Gordon fought for it all day and made it to 12th, but that's not good enough when most of the other Chasers are finishing in front of you.

David Caraviello: Looking at the drivers in the Chase standings, I get the impression that they've fallen into three distinct groups: The guys who are emerging as favorites, the guys who are on the brink of falling out of it, and the guys who could go either way. Gordon, at 19 points back and with two somewhat mediocre runs in the first three races, falls squarely in that middle group. He's not out of it by any means, but he needs to start making some forward progress and capitalizing on some runs.

Joe Menzer: Well, Kansas is a track where he does well. His average finish there is like 8.4 -- best of all the Chasers. So this could be a good place for him to make the statement that he's not out of it. I think he will.

Dave Rodman: I guess we're saying that he better. And the difficult thing is, each race that goes by makes it more difficult to make up any deficits against the sport's best teams, who allegedly are running their very best. So yeah, time to post one. And I think Jeff and crew chief Alan Gustafson can. Unfortunately, for the most part I'm afraid that anyone who shows up in KC -- or watches on TV -- is gonna see a track-position special, par excellence.

David Caraviello: Joe, Jeff's situation at Dover wasn't the first time in this Chase we've seen guys doomed on race day because of their qualifying. If anything, we're getting to the point where track position and clean air are so valuable, that Fridays are becoming almost as important as race days. Suddenly it's not unusual for guys to get mired in the back solely because of their starting positions and not be able to make up much ground on their own.

Down, but not out

Whether last week was a success or failure for Jeff Gordon depends entirely on perspective. He hasn't run well at Dover in several years, so a 12th-place finish was respectable and kept him in the championship hunt. The good news? Gordon enters the weekend at Kansas with a perfect record of five top-fives since 2007.

Joe Menzer: Let me add that I sort of disagree with Mr. Caraviello on his earlier statement that the Chasers have fallen into three groups. I think there are only two. Everyone from ninth on up still has a shot, and that includes Gordon -- who is ninth and 19 back. With seven races to go, anyone within 19 of the leaders still has a shot. Earnhardt, Newman and Hamlin -- who are 34 and more behind and have all those guys in front of them -- have all but already eliminated themselves. So those are your two groups.

David Caraviello: Joe, I'm not saying Gordon doesn't still have a shot. At only 19 back, of course he does. I'm grouping those "middle ground" folks not necessarily on their finishes, but how they've run. We've hardly seen the best of Jeff Gordon in this Chase. He ran out of gas at Chicago, had a win get away at New Hampshire and struggled somewhat at Dover. That's not exactly championship-caliber stuff, and I'm sure he knows that. Regardless of where he stands, he needs to start getting the finishes he deserves, which thus far have been better that what he's recorded.

Dave Rodman: I'll draw a happy median. Joe, I agree on your first group, but the other three are divided into two. Earnhardt and Newman are at the point of no return. Denny, as he himself has admitted, is toast. And burnt toast, at that.

Joe Menzer: Rodman, I guess you would have to explain your definition of "point of no return" and "toast." Aren't' they the same? Of course, no one has yet been mathematically eliminated. The thing to remember is that now it's not just the points they have to make up, it's all the Chasers in front of them that would have to screw up for them to make up said points. And time is running out -- rapidly.

David Caraviello: Going back to Gordon, Kansas is a track where Jeff can definitely "post one," to use the Rodman's words. His two wins there may have been a long time ago, in the venue's first two Sprint Cup events back in the early 2000s, but he also hasn't finished worse than fifth there since 2007. Overall, that's nine top-10s in 11 career starts. The dude can wheel it there, no doubt. If he feels like he does need to make a move, Kansas may be a hospitable place to do it.

Joe Menzer: I already told you guys Gordon has the best career average finish at Kansas of all the Chasers. And Rodman, I'm not getting you ... are you saying, then, that Earnhardt and Newman still have a chance to win this championship? I don't think so, my friend.

Dave Rodman: Well, they would have to make a very abrupt turnaround. But all we have to look at is Kurt Busch, just one race ago. I wasn't gonna stick a fork in him, but he was 28 points or so behind. I think Newman has been more consistent than Earnhardt over the full season and no, I don't think they are legitimate championship threats. But they aren't complete goners, either. Miracles would cover the former. Denny is past that point.

David Caraviello: As for Newman and Earnhardt, I would think that it's sensible to use a full race back as a cutoff point. In that vein, yeah, they're getting close to a tipping point. As for Denny ... 68 back is a tough one to swallow, boys. Not sure if they have the mechanical wherewithal (given all their issues in that department this year) to pull themselves out of that deep a hole. I think they're playing out the string and looking toward 2012.

Joe Menzer: I'll stick with my declaration that the Chasers are now divided into two groups -- sort of like this Smack party. There is me, who is right. Then there are the rest of y'all.

2. Chase drivers have won the first three playoff races. What are the odds of Greg Biffle or Clint Bowyer snapping that string at Kansas?

Joe Menzer: Both have run well there in the past. But let's face it: Bowyer's running out the string at Richard Childress Racing. I think it would be very difficult for his team to help put him in Victory Lane given the circumstances, and I'm not even sure his focus is entirely there right now. Biffle I give a better chance given his past Kansas success, but this just doesn't seem to be their year, either.

Dave Rodman: I really feel like Biffle and Bowyer could score in the Chase, and Kahne as well. But they're seriously outnumbered. And with the way their seasons have gone -- not that anyone really could luck into, or stumble into one of these wins -- they have hardly ever been able to put a full event together. The Chasers, on the other hand, have been getting better as Johnson and Busch proved at Dover.

David Caraviello: Slim to none, and you know what they say about slim out West in places like Kansas City ... OK, maybe it's not that outlandish. Biffle has won twice there, has top-five finishes in five consecutive races there and is one of three drivers (along with Gordon and a certain five-time champion) to average better there than top-10. Bowyer's also really good at Kansas; he won some Truck Series events and wants to win a Cup race there more than anywhere else. So yes, both drivers are very good at Kansas and the stats would indicate that yes, they should have a chance on Sunday.


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dave Rodman: Matt Puccia is a good young crew chief. Biffle is potent. Even though they've struggled to assemble the whole package since they got together, I think they aren't far off. Kansas is a great track for Greg -- and for Roush Fenway. Of course, that means he'd have to beat his Chase teammates, Edwards and Kenseth. And I did say a week or a few ago that David Ragan could easily win one more race this season. Kansas is calling.

Joe Menzer: But Slim (that's my new nickname for you, Caraviello), your, uh, gut tells you otherwise, doesn't it?

David Caraviello: I don't think it's happening. I don't know if, outside the great bingo-ball hopper that is Talladega, we're going to see a non-Chase driver win at all in this playoff. We know how these championship contenders hog the front this time of year, and the first three Chase races are indicative of that. Once we start seeing more 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, which we know all these Chase teams have geared toward, I think the odds of an outsider winning get even lower. Maybe somebody steals one at Talladega, or even at Phoenix given what an unknown that reconfigured track evidently is. But at Kansas? A 1.5-miler? Don't think so.

Joe Menzer: Geez, Rodman, how many wins are you doling out to the non-Chasers over these last seven events? While you're at it, why don't you add A.J. Allmendinger to the potential winner list? Or Dave Blaney? (Actually, I think the Dinger might have a chance.)

David Caraviello: Joe, you know that the mere mention of Dave Blaney is enough to overload your inbox with angry missives from Ohio.

Dave Rodman: You must have all your hot oil bins refilled and arrows re-sheathed to risk outraging the Blaniacs like that. The four I cited have been threats previously. A.J., I think has stagnated. Blaney I would love to see feed some deserving kids -- and maybe at Talladega he might.

David Caraviello: Dave, I'll believe that when I see it, especially this time of year. Nothing against David Ragan, who's a solid guy and a good driver, but someone with one career Sprint Cup victory isn't going win anything "easily." And despite Greg's history at Kansas, we haven't seen that No. 16 team challenging for wins on a regular basis this year. How is that going to chance at this point in the season? You know how the thinking goes ... by this point in the year, you have what you have, and that's not likely to change.

Dave Rodman: If emotion counts for anything -- and here in Kansas more than anywhere else, we've seen emotion carry Clint right into Victory Lane, it could all add up for him. He is walking a fine line, particularly if he announces he's leaving Richard Childress Racing. But then again, I'm sure his boys have already known what the writing on the wall says -- and since they're all pros and Richard would demand nothing less -- this weekend could be the time and place for Clint. After this weekend, not so sure.

Joe Menzer: "If" he announces he's leaving RCR? Come on, man! Are you kidding me? Bowyer to Michael Waltrip Racing is a done deal and everyone, including you, knows it.

David Caraviello: I will concede to Dave that the Bowyer Hometown Swan Song Theory perhaps has some merit. But emotion can carry you only so far in this deal. The car is an inanimate object.

Joe Menzer: Let me point this out as well: You guys are both forgetting the one guy who is likely to be a contender at Kansas and possibly put himself right back at the top of the Chase standings, and that's Tony Stewart. Crew chief Darian Grubb is very excited about their 1.5-mile program and Kansas is an awful lot like Chicagoland, where Tony won to start this Chase.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Joe, but Chicago was a fuel mileage race and I'm not sure if the guys who had the best cars that day won. Not to take anything away from Stewart, of course -- a win is a win, regardless of how it comes, and he earned it. But I'm not so sure you can overlay these sister 1.5-mile tracks and expect results at one because of what happened at the other. Not in this instance, at least.

Joe Menzer: And by the way, I don't see how you can say A.J. has "stagnated" after the strong run he put together at Dover. He got turned on lap 4 after running up front and then charged all the way from the back to finish 7th. It was impressive to watch.

Dave Rodman: Hmmm, I guess I meant to say I thought A.J. would've won by now. He still might, you're right. Maybe a promise of some great Kansas City barbecue will carry the day?

Joe Menzer: As for the Blaniacs, you know I love my fellow Ohioan deeply. Plus, who doesn't want to see kids eat free at Golden Corral? But he's not likely to come out of nowhere and contend for a win and a place at the head barbecue table in Kansas City, the city of meat.

David Caraviello: Only town in America where something called "burnt ends" qualifies as a vegetable.

* Wheaties to sponsor Burton, replacing Cheerios at RCR | Bowyer, MWR announcement on Friday

Watch: Final laps at Chicagoland

3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. increased his Nationwide Series lead over Elliott Sadler to 22 points at Dover. With five races remaining in the season, has the championship been effectively decided?

Dave Rodman: Nothing's changed in Stenhouse's world except we're closer to running out of races. Personally, I think he has strong tracks coming up. He's been cool, calm and resilient -- even when he seemed ready to come apart at Dover. He's been championship material. The disappointing thing with his two veteran foes is that, given plenty of opportunities, they have failed to mount a championship charge. Ricky has acted like a champion most of the season -- even when he had very little business acting that way. Again, that speaks championship.

Joe Menzer: Well, you guys know how I don't like to admit I'm wrong. I said earlier this year -- several times -- that Elliott Sadler would win multiple Nationwide races and thus capture the championship. Now that it's down to five to go, that's basically what he has to do while hoping Stenhouse encounters major problems. It now looks like that is unlikely to happen.

David Caraviello: Well, I know one thing -- it doesn't appear third-place Reed Sorenson has much of a chance anymore, despite the fact that he's 49 points off the lead. What a shock it was earlier this week when Turner Motorsports let him go. I guess that's what happens when your primary car sponsor announces it's not sticking around -- suddenly, you become expendable. You wonder if Turner would have made the same decision if Reed had been a little closer to the lead.

* Sorenson out of Turner's No. 32; Vickers to race car at KS, Charlotte

Joe Menzer: I feel terrible for Reed. I truly have felt like maybe it all happened a little too fast for him earlier in his career, when he got a great ride at what was then Chip Ganassi Racing and maybe didn't appreciate it enough or understand all that came with it. I think this year he's been great, shown lots of maturity, run well for the most part -- and then he suddenly gets bounced from his ride. That stinks.

Dave Rodman: Sorenson has proven he can contend for a championship, so yes -- shocking doesn't even begin to describe what happened. I hope his stop-gap ride helps him stay third, at least.

David Caraviello: Joe, honestly I hate you've been wrong about Elliott. But I just never got the same vibe that you did, that the wins would come in bunches for that team. And given the point we're at in the season, it doesn't appear that will happen. That doesn't mean he's not still a factor in the championship race, which he is. Ricky doesn't have this thing sewed up yet. He's only one blown engine away from this deal potentially being even again. Is that likely? No, given the way Stenhouse has run all year. Is it possible? Of course, which is why it isn't over yet.


(through Dover)
7.--K. Wallace841-184
8.--S. Wallace815-210

Joe Menzer: I'm not so sure I ever said Sadler would win "in bunches." I was thinking multiple wins -- like two or maybe three. But I also said that I did not think the Nationwide champion would be winless, and I sure hope he won't be. Stenhouse has the two Iowa wins and has run more consistently all year long, so I think it's only fair that the only way Sadler can really insert himself back into the championship conversation now is to win one or two of these last five races.

David Caraviello: There goes Joe, revising history again. Let me dip into the Track Smack archives ...

Joe Menzer: You mean, the ones that will show you guys both thought no Nationwide "regular" would win a race this season? They've combined to win four! Five if you count Trevor Bayne's victory on the Cup side!

David Caraviello: Sorry, that one's in the wrong series. Dave, I will agree with you -- Ricky has unquestionably carried himself like a champion this year. Said all the right things, stayed even-keeled and consistent, didn't seem to come unglued in those rare times when the car wasn't as good as maybe it should have been. I'm sure crew chief Mike Kelley has something to do with that. But the kid just has that "it" to him when it comes to dealing with everything this circus involves. Maybe that comes from the struggles he endured last year. Regardless, you can't fake it.

Dave Rodman: Elliott could win a race -- heck, everything we thought about his past history forecasting wins could come true in the season's stretch run. At least he has shown the potential to win, and crew chief Ernie Cope certainly knows the way to Victory Lane.

Joe Menzer: I guess the bigger question now is, why hasn't that team won? I really thought they'd have a victory or two by now.

Dave Rodman: Murphy's Law, baby.

David Caraviello: They've had chances, haven't they? Breaks just haven't seemed to go their way. But they do have a few races left to try to end that skid, and let's not forget again that Sadler is still a factor in this championship hunt. But I will give Menzer this much -- he did indeed predict the eventual Nationwide champion would have multiple race victories. We all laughed at him when he said that, given that Justin Allgaier's win at Bristol last year was the lone triumph for a series regular. But should Stenhouse close this out, Menzer will have indeed been correct, as much as it pains me to say it.

Joe Menzer: Yes! This is a fine day, indeed!

David Caraviello: I've given you some credit. Don't start gloating on us.

Joe Menzer: Sorry, Caraviello, but it's too late to stop me from gloating. About 50 years too late.

David Caraviello: Man, talk about somebody who needs to be brought down a peg. Can't wait to see Joe after the Blaniacs have finally gotten a piece of him.

* For Stenhouse, Bayne, competition can't blur line that binds friendship

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.