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Track Smack: Charlotte next as Chase nears pivotal midpoint

October 13, 2011, ,

Edwards stays viable; Johnson ready to seize control; influential tracks remain

1. Carl Edwards came back from a lap down at Kansas to finish fifth and retake the points lead for the first time since August. How viable a title contender is the Roush Fenway driver at this point?

Jill Erwin: I'm not sure Edwards hasn't been a viable candidate all year. The guy's been consistently strong, and that finish right there, making chicken salad out of being one lap down, is the kind of thing you look back at when you're hoisting the trophy in South Florida in November. It's still early, but to me, it's a three-man race. And he's in the middle of it.

David Caraviello: Given that Edwards was the guy we pointed to for much of the season as Jimmie Johnson's primary competition, you'd have to say yes. But let's be honest -- he was fortunate Sunday. He could have been buried, but some guys ahead of him made some mistakes, he and Bob Osborne got the car better, and he took advantage and somehow salvaged a miracle top-five. I'm not sure Kansas was a reflection of how strong he's been for much of the year.

Mark Aumann: Let's see. Edwards has the most top-fives this season. Edwards has the most top-10s this season. Edwards shares the best average finish with Jimmie Johnson. He's on a streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes. Yeah, he's pretty good. And all of his favorite tracks -- which I think pretty much describes everywhere he goes -- are still coming up. Is there anywhere Carl doesn't think is his favorite track? Maybe Talladega.

Jill Erwin: And there's Aumann, the numbers guy. I never mess with statistics in here, because I know he's got them on lock. David, no doubt it wasn't a reflection of how he's run. But getting those finishes out of bad days are what championship runs are made of. And to come out of a day like that with the points lead? To have had his "bad" day already and get a fifth with it? He's gotta feel pretty good about the next six races.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, but luck is sometimes what you make of it, David. And yeah, that team got way behind. But I think that makes him even more of a threat to Johnson in that they dug themselves out of that hole and didn't lose any ground. Which is what Jill said in so many words.

David Caraviello: I'm guess what I'm saying is, Carl's finish Sunday wasn't exactly a statement, not nearly anything along the lines of what Jimmie Johnson made. Although, like you both said, you can also look at the turnaround they made and say, well, that's the kind of day that wins you a championship. It very well could, but he can't necessarily have another of them given how short this Chase is, and how unlikely teams are to rebound from that kind of thing on a regular basis.

Jill Erwin: Very true, David, but that doesn't really count as a "bad" day any more. He finished fifth. So another not-great finish doesn't necessarily bury him. Kansas could have buried him, and didn't. And that, right there, is what makes him viable.

Mark Aumann: True. But consider that Edwards led 61 laps at Charlotte in May, he finished third at Texas and had the absolute rocket at Phoenix in the spring. I think this was just a hiccup. Are we ganging up on Caraviello here?

Jill Erwin: It's Smack tradition! Filling in as Jarrod Breeze this week, David Caraviello!

Mark Aumann: He's a worthy contrarian.

Jill Erwin: I was doing Lap-by-Lap for Kansas, and I remember in the closing laps, I saw Edwards was 13th and was absolutely gobsmacked. Then when they crossed the finish line, I believe my line was "and out-of-nowhere Carl Edwards was fifth." I mean, seriously ... I had no idea where that guy came from.

David Caraviello: The truest thing anybody said after Kansas was when Dale Earnhardt Jr. said something along the lines of: Somebody doesn't make something happen in this Chase, Johnson is going to win it again. He's absolutely right. You look at what's unfolding now in this Chase -- Gordon falling, Stewart fading, Kyle Busch never being a factor -- it's very easy to see it opening up for you-know-who to have runs like Sunday and seize control of the thing.

Mark Aumann: The way the whole season has played out, you put yourself in position to make up ground or lose it in the final two pit stops. Unless you have a wreck or a mechanical issue, it seems like everyone's been pretty much in the game to that point. I agree, though, David. But the question was is Edwards a title contender? Yup. Although if Johnson keeps this up, it won't matter much.

Jill Erwin: Yeah, I really, truly think this is a three-man race, and that's including Kevin Harvick. To me, it's Edwards, Harvick and Johnson. The end.

David Caraviello: This is all about taking advantage, and I don't exactly think the run the No. 99 team had at Kansas fits that definition. Yes, it's only one race, and no question, it rebounded from it in miraculous fashion. But somebody's going to eventually take this thing by the throat, and you don't do that my running 19th all day and stealing fifth at the end.

Carl Edwards

Season results
Laps Led713155
Avg. St.10.38.5
Avg. Fin.10.25.0

Jill Erwin: Very true, David, and I don't think anyone's arguing this was a title-clinching run. All I'm saying is turning bad runs into good points days on top of the good runs he's expecting to have in the next six is what wins championships.

Mark Aumann: Jimmie Johnson wants to remind you about New Hampshire, where he basically had the same kind of race as Edwards at Kansas. And he finished 18th. And we're arguing that Edwards suddenly isn't worthy?

David Caraviello: Again, this isn't to say Carl can't win it. Heck, he was my pick in the preseason. Mark mentioned his numbers. He's an awesome driver and that's an awesome team. But let's see him have those good runs first, Jill. You-know-who has some pretty good tracks coming up in Charlotte and Martinsville and Talladega, the latter where the No. 48 team won in the spring.

Mark Aumann: So what if Edwards goes out and clobbers everybody at Charlotte? Does that make things any different than they are today? I don't think so. He was a viable contender before Kansas and still is until things change.

Jill Erwin: Is Jimmie Johnson Candyman all of a sudden? We can't say his name three times or he'll feast on some start-and-parkers?

Mark Aumann: Chad Knaus. Chad Knaus. Chad Knaus.

David Caraviello: Hey, you know what the guy is capable of. Sunday brought back all too familiar feelings ....

Jill Erwin: Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie Johnson. Sorry, J.J. Yeley.

* Edwards fashions miraculous result at Kansas

* Caraviello: Johnson's back -- if he really left

2. On to Charlotte, where Kevin Harvick scored his first victory at the track this spring. Who should be the favorite on the 1.5-mile oval this time around?

Mark Aumann: Pick a Roush driver. Matt Kenseth. Greg Biffle. Carl Edwards. They were all very good in May. For all the "Junior shoulda won" talk, he led all of two laps.

Jill Erwin: If you haven't read the cover story in this week's Sports Illustrated, do so. Killer Jimmie ju-ju is back. And it's strong. And Charlotte is the perfect place for him to take control, as Caraviello so astutely pointed out.

David Caraviello: Kevin Harvick is kind of the invisible man in all this -- with Stewart winning the first two races, Edwards in the points lead and you-know-who evoking memories of comebacks past, Harvick is kind of lurking in the shadows here, which is probably exactly how he wants it. I don't know if I'd expect a repeat performance from him in Charlotte. The 600 was his first career win at a track where his average finish is 19th. Who knows, maybe they found something and are bringing back the exact same stuff. But we'll see.

Mark Aumann: When you think of Charlotte, you think of how Johnson has dominated that place. But that's really 2002-06. In the past five seasons, he's won once -- the 2009 fall race -- and has five finishes of 13th or worse. So I don't think the field is ready and willing to concede a Johnson win just yet, especially since he popped the engine there in May.

Jill Erwin: Yeah, my pick of him has less to do with recent track history and more to do with recent 2011 history. That team is like a pack of sharks, and it smells blood. When the stakes get high, it buckles down and it feels natural to them. And it has to feel like deja vu to the other 11 at this point in the season. No matter what they say, it has to be there.

David Caraviello: Of all the Chase drivers, the guy with the best average career finish at Charlotte is ... Jimmie Johnson at 10.7. But like Mark said, his dominance there faded after they resurfaced the place. And I seem to remember that a lot of those wins came with the same chassis, which is of course unusable now given the changes in the car since then.

Mark Aumann: Well, May was a freaky fuel-mileage, green-white-checkered situation. Oh, wait. That pretty much describes the entire season.

David Caraviello: And Jimmie has finished deep in the pack in two of his past three starts there. The 600 brought only his third career DNF at Charlotte. So yes, we'd all be foolish to count him out there, but it's not the same track where he won all those races. He's not the favorite every time walking through the gates like he used to be.

Mark Aumann: Here's some wacky stuff. Average finish, most recent five Charlotte races: Joey Logano 7.4, David Reutimann 7.8, Matt Kenseth 8.4. Could this be a race where one of the non-Chasers shakes things up at the top?

Jill Erwin: I'd love to see it, and I'd love to see it be either of those guys. But just don't see it happening, unless it's someone like Biffle.

David Caraviello: Heck, Logano's only finished worse than ninth there once in his career. That's not much of a sample size, I know, given how young he is, but the kid clearly has a feel for the place. Maybe his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates lean on Joey for all his Charlotte knowledge, and Kyle Busch wins the race to make a stab at getting back in this thing? Who knows. The fact that Kyle only has one career Chase race win boggles the mind.

Mark Aumann: Again, I sort of see the first six races of the Chase as a spot where you can't win the championship, but you sure can lose it. I think the fact that there are eight drivers still grouped together near the top tells you that the idea is not to make any mistakes yet. And Charlotte's one of those places where you try to stay on the lead lap and be there at the end. I think the Chase guys are thinking, "Let's get a top-10 finish and move on to the next one."

David Caraviello: Um, the next one is Talladega.

Jill Erwin: Completely agree on the first part. But no one in that Chase is saying, "Let's get to Talladega."

Mark Aumann: What? Talladega isn't anybody's favorite track?

David Caraviello: "Man, I can't wait to get done with this predictable 1.5-mile track, and get to a place where the winner might as well be determined using a roulette wheel!"

Jill Erwin: Red and black? So you're picking Harvick at Talladega then, David?

Mark Aumann: David would make a great croupier.

Jill Erwin: He'd look good in a bow tie.

Jimmie Johnson

Charlotte results

David Caraviello: And I do carry a crooked stick around with me most of the time, anyway. Speaking of Junior ... I realize the guy has had some pretty good runs at Charlotte during the length of his career, and came within a half a straightaway of snapping the streak in May, but that seventh-place finish ended a pretty futile string of performances there -- 29, 22, 38, 40, 36. Yeesh. Maybe he's turned that around. For Earnhardt's sake, you hope so.

Jill Erwin: For Junior's sake, and that of his mental state, I really do hope so. I think he was really coming together throughout the season, and I just feel like he's slipping back into his self-doubt and negativity. So a good run would be a nice boost for him.

David Caraviello: I think his mental state is pretty good, Jill, I really do. I think he feels like he has good cars, which counts for a lot, even if he didn't quite get the finishes he deserved in those first few Chase events. Yeah, Kansas maybe wasn't what he wanted, but I get the impression from talking to him that he's in an OK place. Not happy with where he is in the standings, don't get me wrong, but not exactly down in the dumps, either.

Mark Aumann: Charlotte hasn't necessarily been Jeff Gordon's friend, either. There's another team looking at the wrong side of the score with the clock beginning to run down. And who would have guessed that five weeks ago? I thought he had a better than 50-50 chance at No. 5 this season. To quote Han Solo: Odds? Never tell me the odds.

David Caraviello: Mark would look good in a black leather vest.

Mark Aumann: OK. So to paraphrase: Jimmie Johnson could dominate at Charlotte, or he might not. There are some non-Chasers who could win. And then it could be a fuel-economy run, which would allow almost anybody to win.

David Caraviello: That about clears it up.

* Harvick wins Coca-Cola 600 when Earnhardt runs dry

* Caraviello: Earnhardt finds comfort zone in 'fish tank'

3. Talladega, Martinsville, Phoenix: Which of these three nontraditional layouts will have the biggest impact on who wins the Sprint Cup title?

Jill Erwin: Phoenix. Talladega's a crapshoot, so they could all suck or all run top-12. Martinsville isn't that much of a tossup. Phoenix, however, with the new surface and all the raves (assuming the second groove comes in) is going to go a long way, in my opinion, to determining who's going to be on top going into the final race.

Mark Aumann: Talladega is the sucker bet here. But you look at the list of recent winners -- Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson Jimmie Johnson Jimmie Johnson (sorry, Casey Mears) -- and it's not nearly as wacky as Daytona. The wider track may have more to do with it.

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David Caraviello: The fact that all three of these tracks are clustered in the second half of the Chase schedule really makes you wonder how different standings may look once we get through them. A lot can happen at all those places, much of it not good. But with apologies to the big, bad track in Alabama, I'm going with Jill -- the real unknown lurks in the desert. This is like going to a brand-new track, in the next-to-last race of the season, with a championship in the balance. Big deal. Very big deal.

Mark Aumann: I'm with Jill. Phoenix is the unknown. Heck, it was the key race last season, when Denny Hamlin basically gave away the championship because of fuel mileage. I just realized I'm going to all three. Maybe I should excuse myself from this discussion.

Jill Erwin: That second groove is really going to be the determining factor at Phoenix. Harvick said if it doesn't rubber up, it's going to be single-file racing with difficult passes. If it does? I think it becomes a really fun race.

David Caraviello: Although anything can happen in Talladega, Mark is right that the recent winners there have come from more of the sport's upper tier. Many of the Chase drivers will be in the mix there. Who'll win will be a factor of timing and aerodynamics, but I don't know if a Trevor Bayne-like moment is in the offing. Then again, we are dealing with some new technical rules, so maybe that changes things. But usually all those do is favor the stronger teams who are better able to adapt. And let's all wish the best to that driving school that's evidently going to make laps around Phoenix 24 hours a day until the race, trying to rubber in a second groove.

Jill Erwin: How do I sign up?

Mark Aumann: And don't forget, no more grease allowed at Talladega this time around. On the bumpers of the cars, that is. Gives a new meaning to the term "slipstream," I think. Back to being somewhat serious, I think everybody has the two-car tandem drafting pretty much figured out. And I know David's never been a fan of the Colosseum aspect of racing at Talladega, but I will say it's taken away some of the ability of the field to get wadded up. So I think Talladega's a touch less of a random roll than it has been in previous years.

Jill Erwin: We'll see if the changes to the plates restrict (ha!) some of that two-car racing at 'Dega. And if the top-two or -three in the standings run well there and the others get caught up, then it is a big decision-maker in the standings. But it's just as likely they all get caught up or they all run well. So it's the biggest wild card in terms of finishes, but not necessarily in the standings -- if that makes sense to anyone but me.

David Caraviello: That whole who-adapts-best theory could very well play out at reconfigured Phoenix, as well. No question, these kind of curveballs favor the better teams, which are simply more in a position to deal with and overcome them. Look at the inaugural race earlier this year at Kentucky: Kyle wins, Jimmie second, Carl fifth, Kenseth sixth, Kurt Busch ninth, Jeff Gordon 10th. Good teams are where they are because of their ability to adapt. I'd be shocked if the same thing doesn't unfold in the desert next month.

Mark Aumann: The teams that are good on flat, short tracks should go right to the front. As Jill said, the real key will be if it becomes "follow the leader." Then suddenly, you're talking about pit calls to gain track position. And now I don't know if I'm discussing Martinsville or Phoenix. Or both.

Jill Erwin: Well if you don't know, I surely don't. So let's go with both. Just for giggles.

David Caraviello: I don't disagree, but we're seeing those kinds of pit calls already, aren't we? We saw them last week at Kansas, which is far from an unknown, where guys were taking two tires on their first pit stops trying to improve their track position. Does that really change if Phoenix is single-file?

Jill Erwin: Absolutely not. Pit calls have become so crucial, and with so many drivers coming out and saying "it's the crew chief's race, I do what he says," the pressure is really on the guys on top of the box rather than in the car. More so than ever.

David Caraviello: I think the conclusion we're coming to here is that maybe some of these places aren't as unpredictable as we expected. Close up shop, boys! We got this Chase figured out! Between this and the return of he-who-shall-not-be-named, heck, let's just go on to Daytona now!

Jill Erwin: David, you just saved Joe Nemechek. He thanks you.

Mark Aumann: Phoenix always has been a difficult track on which to pass, so if it's similar this fall, I would think we won't see much of a change. Who's good there? Edwards, Johnson, Gordon. If there's a second groove, then I don't know. Maybe we'll have a clearer view, by the time I get to Phoenix. You know, I've never seen a rhinestone cowboy. Or a Wichita lineman.

David Caraviello: Glen Campbell, ladies and gentlemen. He'll be performing all weekend in the Octane Lounge. Tip your bartenders and waitresses!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.