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Track Smack: The 11 vs. 14; Dodge's '13 car; Kahne in hole

March 08, 2012, ,

Topics: The 11 vs. the 14; team-less Dodge to unveil '13 car; Kahne in early hole

1. Which duo will ultimately have the better season: Tony Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington, or Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb?

Mark Aumann: After two races -- particularly with one being the roulette wheel that is Daytona -- it's really hard for me to say. All I can tell you is that Denny's confidence seems to be back, and if that's the definition of "better," then I'm leaning toward the Hamlin-Grubb duo (season highlights).

David Caraviello: I know he's the easy pick right now because he just won at Phoenix last week, but I've been partial to the No. 11 team in this debate for a while now. Denny is just in such a good position to rebound from his hangover season of 2011, and we all know Grubb can win races in bunches and contend for a title. Not saying they're going to win it all, and of course they have to beat many more teams than just the No. 14 to do it, but I just feel like the table is set for the Gibbs guys.

Bill Kimm: Denny and Darian have found Victory Lane first, and good for them. But since we are in Vegas, my money (and there isn't much of it) is on Smoke and Addington (season highlights). Don't get me wrong, you will see a huge improvement from the No. 11 camp now that Grubb is on top of the pit box, but when these guys return to Vegas for the banquet, Stewart will be speaking after Hamlin.

Mark Aumann: There you go, Bill! I like the contradictory thinking.

David Caraviello: That's why we bring Bill Kimm aboard, ladies and gentlemen.

Bill Kimm: Nice rebound for Hamlin, but Stewart will have a better season. What is so hard to understand?

Mark Aumann: What Darian Grubb brings to the No. 11 team is the ability to get Hamlin focused on the future instead of the past. I love David's description of 2011 as being a "hangover season," because Hamlin never got over the debacle at Phoenix at the end of 2010. And all those engine issues just continued to hammer at his confidence. So it's really up to Grubb to rebuild that confidence and move forward.

David Caraviello: Hey, Stewart is a three-time champion, so nobody's busting on him. Absolutely not. But you look at how Tony won the championship last year, and it was incredibly impressive at the time. But in retrospect, you look at the No. 14 team's Chase run and think -- no way they can pull off something like that again. Not saying Tony doesn't have more titles in him, and that he's not one of the greatest drivers ever. But that was one of those moments in time that will never be replicated, and we need to see a lot more consistency from the No. 14 to think they can be in this down to Homestead year after year after year.

Bill Kimm: The interesting thing about the No. 11 camp is both Denny and Darian have so much to prove. Darian wants to prove Stewart was wrong in letting him go and Denny wants to prove 2011 was a fluke. When you have that kind of motivation behind you, you can do some amazing things. But I never thought I would see the words "Tony Stewart" and "more consistency" in the same sentence. Guy has been pretty stout for a vast majority of his career.

David Caraviello: Except for last year, Bill. This is a guy who said he was out of it at Michigan and then fired his crew chief at Charlotte. He's not at Gibbs anymore. As good as Stewart-Haas can be, its margin for error is a little narrower given that it's a smaller outfit dependent on other teams for engines and equipment.

Mark Aumann: David, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Tony's Chase run was by no means a fluke, but it was so unusual that it's hard to grasp how different those last 10 races were from the first 26. I mean, that basically came out of nowhere. So to expect that to continue at that level is unfair to Tony and Steve.

David Caraviello: I can totally believe in the up-down-up cycle we see so many drivers go through. Carl Edwards lived it, for one. The crew chief change seems just what Denny needed to shake off whatever vestiges of his 2010 runner-up finish that were still in there. As good a crew chief as Addington is, and he's won a heck of a lot of races, he's never really been in the thick of a title run down to the end. This is a cyclical sport, and things change, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Denny have the better season here.

Mark Aumann: But Bill makes an excellent point. There's something about having a "chip on your shoulder" that seems to bring out the best in the competition. And certainly, that's the feeling I'm getting from the No. 11 bunch. They're much better than they showed in 2011. And you must admit, David, getting Rick Hendrick's hand-me-downs are a pretty sweet "dependency."

Bill Kimm: Yeah, Mark, I was going to say -- pretty sure Stewart-Haas is very happy with the situation it is in. No, it doesn't make its own engines, but very few teams do. And it still won a championship. Smart business model, I'd say.

David Caraviello: No question, it did. But bringing us back to the heart of the question, I'm not sure the 14 can count on winning another the same way.

Mark Aumann: And don't forget, Hamlin's team is no longer making its own engines, either.

David Caraviello: I may need to make some more coffee to get me through this "Track Smack."

Mark Aumann: Again, two races doesn't really constitute a trend, but it seems that the Toyota teams have all stepped up their games -- particularly at Michael Waltrip Racing. So Hamlin's early success might be attributed to not only the crew chief change and the rebuilt confidence, but some big gains at the manufacturer level, as well.

Bill Kimm: I don't think David likes us, Mark. We don't just agree with the "Smack Master!"

* Grubb finds early success in fresh start with JGR

* Hamlin had to get away to get back to winning

The 2013 Dodge Charger will be revealed at Las Vegas, but who drives it remains a mystery. (Autostock)

* Stewart not alone trying to figure out EFI mystery

2. Dodge is slated to unveil its 2013 car this week at Las Vegas, but the manufacturer's only Sprint Cup team has announced it's moving to Ford. What are the Dodge boys to do?

Mark Aumann: I think there are more than a few people in Auburn Hills, Mich., wondering that same question right now.

Bill Kimm: That's the million dollar (literally) question, isn't it? I honestly don't have an answer. All the big teams are with Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, and don't really show any signs of switching. Unless there are some serious happenings behind the scenes, I'm not sure how Dodge survives much longer.

David Caraviello: Oh, boy. There are going to be a lot of eyes on that unveiling, and it's going to be odd to see a manufacturer show off a new car and not have a team to put in it. It seems the Dodge gang got completely caught off-guard by all this, and clearly now it need to scramble and line up at least one replacement team. But who? Richard Petty Motorsports? Is there even another candidate out there?

Mark Aumann: David, RPM is the one carrot dangling out there. Its contract with Ford supposedly runs out at the end of the season, and despite the comments from its camp that it's very happy with Ford and would like a long-term deal, reading between the lines -- I didn't see anything from Ford that hinted a similar feeling. Dodge really has two options: 1, find a team willing to switch over; 2, start up or acquire an operation and run it as a factory team -- sort of how it got back into Cup in the first place.

Bill Kimm: I think of your two choices, Mark they have to go with No. 1. Starting up a team and running it will be so expensive and take such a long time to build up -- I just don't see that as an option.

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David Caraviello: Mark, Dodge's 2001 return to Cup racing was I believe a two-year effort. I think Ray Evernham left Hendrick in 1999 to spearhead it. Does it have enough time to put its own thing together? I'm not sure. I also don't know if there are really that many viable candidates available from a driver perspective, unless you're resigning yourself to be a second-tier team for a season or so until you can build it up.

Mark Aumann: And don't forget its financial issues and the federal bailout. Dodge is just starting to look like it's regaining its financial footing. That may not be the most fiscally prudent idea. I've heard rumors about Ganassi Earnhardt -- mainly because Chip was a former customer -- but I don't know that the folks from the DEI side have any interest in that.

Bill Kimm: Let's be real, Dodge hasn't truly been a contender in the Cup Series in a while. Dead last in the manufacturers' race since 2007. It just haven't invested as much as the other three, and now it is seeing what happens as its last big prize has jumped ship to Ford.

David Caraviello: Well, Bill, those Penske cats did put two cars in the Chase last year, and Kurt Busch was a regular in the playoff, so I wouldn't go that far. Dodge clearly didn't have the depth other manufacturers did, but I think it did pretty well for being a one-team operation. But clearly, it couldn't get over the hump and win the championship, and Roger thinks this is the next step toward that.

Mark Aumann: Well, Dodge certainly aren't going to move up in the manufacturers' standings without any cars in 2013.

David Caraviello: From a Penske perspective, this all seems like a natural. Once Ganassi was folded into Earnhardt, Gillett Evernham morphed into RPM, and Dodge was left with Penske, all we heard was about how beneficial it was to be a manufacturer's only team. All the attention and resources Penske had at its disposal, no pecking order, etc. And maybe that was indeed the case for a while. But it seems Penske got to a certain level and said, Dodge has taken us as far as it can, and we need to move on. Time has indeed changed.

Bill Kimm: And for once, David and I agree. I think that sums up the whole thing nicely, Mr. Caraviello.

Mark Aumann: Back to the original question: I don't know. I'm very interested to know what answers Dodge has at Las Vegas. Ralph Gilles and his folks have to be beating the bushes right now. So time will tell.

Bill Kimm: Definitely an interesting presser to be had Sunday.

David Caraviello: Can Dodge have any, Mark, other than the rather broad statement Ralph Gilles issued the day the Penske deal went down? I can't imagine a deal with another team has come together that quickly. I think we all noticed that Gilles stressed that Dodge was involved in motorsports activities other than NASCAR, as if giving himself a possible out. Clearly we're not on the inside here, but Dodge has to be scrambling.

Mark Aumann: Talk about your dealer incentive program!

David Caraviello: What do I have to do to put you in this Dodge today? Maybe it will throw in the undercoat protection at no cost. "Mr. Petty, have you seen our low, low financing?"

Mark Aumann: Tax, tag, title and dock fees additional.

* New Dodge Charger to be unveiled at Las Vegas

* Penske announces move to Ford stable for 2013

Kasey Kahne crashed out late at Daytona, but early woes and garage time at Phoenix had a more devastating effect . (Autostock)

* Keselowski weighs in on Penske shift to Ford

3. Two rough weeks have left Hendrick newcomer Kasey Kahne buried in points. Is it too early to worry about some drivers not making the Chase?

Bill Kimm: That is a great question. We have seen time and time again drivers start out the season in a points hole and never find their way out of it. I'll be honest, I don't like looking at points after two weeks, but at the same time, Kahne is already a full race out of the top 10 -- that's not good.

Mark Aumann: You knew I'd have to go and do some research on this one, guys. Since the Chase was expanded to 12 drivers in 2006, only twice have drivers outside of the top 30 after two races made the Chase: Denny Hamlin was 31st in 2008, and Ryan Newman was 33rd in 2009.

David Caraviello: I'm a firm believer in the start setting the tone for your entire season. I remember a few years back Dale Earnhardt Jr. was something like 30th in points after Las Vegas. Nobody seemed worried at the time, but he never pulled out of it. Point holes can suck you in. You either never crawl out of them, or you expend so much energy doing so, you're in no position to contend once you get out.

Bill Kimm: But there are success stories. No one thought Brad Keselowski had a chance in you-know-what last year, but there he was in the Chase. If Kasey can throw a couple wins on the board, anything can happen.

Mark Aumann: Now, that doesn't mean that we haven't seen guys come back through the standings nearly every year -- Kevin Harvick was 22nd and Matt Kenseth 23rd after two races last year. And even Kahne himself made the Chase after starting off 23rd in 2009.

Bill Kimm: Wins are the big X-factor. With a few wins under your belt, all you need to be is in the top 20.

Notable Drivers

Outside top 20 in points
Pos.DriverBehind*Chase App.
23.J. Montoya -48/-21
25.Allmendinger -53/-70
26.Ku. Busch -54/-86
32.K. Kahne -64/-182
36.J. McMurray -68/-220
37.J. Johnson -71/-258

Mark Aumann: Kahne's been in this situation twice previously. In 2010, he was 33rd after two races -- and wound up 20th at season's end. In 2007, he climbed back from 32nd to finish 19th. And Bill hits on the key point of the discussion -- the wild card.

David Caraviello: And if memory serves me right, Hamlin kind of cratered last season -- maybe he didn't fall quite as far as some other guys, but enough to be worried -- but recovered enough to make the Chase. Of course, that was via the aforementioned wild card. And even so, he was in no position to contend for the thing once he got in.

Mark Aumann: Right now, Kahne is 64 points behind the leader. Consider last season, when Greg Biffle, Joey Logano and Jeff Burton were all closer in relation to Kahne's situation -- and didn't make it.

Bill Kimm: Again, it comes down to victories. I don't think Kahne will point his way into the Chase, but all it will take is two, maybe three victories and he is right there.

Mark Aumann: And it's a lot easier to make that move from 31st to 20th than it is to climb all the way back to 10th, Bill. As we saw last season, you have to win to get a sniff of the wild card. But unless you can win at least twice, you have no guarantees that win will help you. See David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard.

Bill Kimm: Exactly my point, Mark. Which is why, once again, I'm right.

David Caraviello: The flip side of this is, who can stay up there? Bill and I had our hotly debated Martin Truex vs. Joey Logano battle earlier this week, but Bobby Labonte, Regan Smith, Dave Blaney and Almirola are all in the top 20 in points right now. I know wins get all the focus, and they do matter, but as you guys referenced earlier that 20th position is the absolute Mendoza line. Have to be above that to just give yourself a chance.

Mark Aumann: Mark Martin's not running the full schedule, so he'll drop back. But there are a lot of pretty good names that Kahne will have to leap over to get back into contention. And those guys will be scrambling to move forward, as well. If you can say you get a couple of mulligans over a 26-race schedule, Kasey's pretty much used his up.

Bill Kimm: As David said, starts are too important in this sport. You get in too big of a hole, it takes everything you have and then some to get out of it. Vegas is our first barometer of who has what. Let's see what Kahne has this week and we will learn a lot more.

Mark Aumann: Vegas and Fontana will tell us a lot more about how teams will run all season at the dreaded intermediates. Hall of Fame baseball manager Sparky Anderson once said he didn't evaluate his team until after 40 games. I don't think you can really evaluate the Cup standings until after California. That'll give us more of an idea who's really struggling and in danger of needing to win to advance.

David Caraviello: I know we've had two weeks of racing, and all the points count, but I really believe the season starts in earnest this week. No more restrictor plates, no more recently reconfigured miles. A 1.5-mile downforce tri-oval, of the kind we're going to see about every other week from here on out. Oh, and the kind of track Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis were especially good at last year. In fact, Hendrick thinks its intermediate-track success can help the organization's downforce program as a whole. So a lot to watch in Vegas other than the slots and showgirls.

Bill Kimm: Absolutely agree -- sounds crazy but the season starts now.

David Caraviello: The speedway should use that as a slogan: "The season starts in Vegas." No charge, Chris Powell. Maybe just a better parking spot and access to the track's spa.

Mark Aumann: Good to see I haven't missed anything by not being on the road yet!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.

-- Check out Kahne's season highlights: