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Track Smack: Junior's strong run a harbinger for success?

March 15, 2012, ,

Smacketeers debate Vegas' meaning, Nationwide regulars and Penske issues

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 70 laps last weekend at Las Vegas, after leading 52 all of last season. What does this say about his ability to win races and contend for the title at NASCAR's highest level?

Joe Menzer: I think it says something, but I'm not sure what yet. Until he actually closes the deal one time -- for the first time since Michigan in June of 2008 -- I won't be totally convinced that he or the 88 team has what it takes to actually contend, truly contend, for a championship. But he certainly has become quite the points racer without getting to Victory Lane, and that's a solid step in the right direction.

Dave Rodman: I'd say the answers are "yes" and "yes." Closing the deal is always one of the most maddening aspects of this sport -- just ask Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, among others. But Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte and their gang are that proverbial silly millimeter away from winning. They are already contenders, if they can maintain their consistency.

David Caraviello: It's the next step. Listen, fans complain that he doesn't win. Fans complain because his most recent win was on fuel mileage. They want the guy to get up front and dominate a race, and last Sunday gave us a real indication that he may be able to do that. No question you have to finish, but before you can finish you have to be in position, and Las Vegas showed that Earnhardt can definitely do that much at the very least.

Dave Rodman: I know contending without winning is offensive to some folks. But I would say, as much as they have improved, if Junior and his current gang can win, that might unleash, if not a Tony Stewart-esque flood, at least a couple more wins this season. Now, that would be refreshing.

Joe Menzer: And that would mark him as a true contender. But I contend that it has to happen -- at least once -- where he closes the deal before I will accept him as such for this season. I do, however, think it will eventually happen that he'll win this season -- and probably more than once.

David Caraviello: This coming from the man who guaranteed Elliott Sadler would win like nine times last year. Dave is right -- closing is damn hard. Guys lead all race and then crazy stuff happens at the end, and somebody else takes the checkered flag. Look at Sunday -- as good as Earnhardt was early, nobody was catching Tony Stewart with all those restarts. Things happen. All you can do is put yourself in position and give yourself a chance, and it was good to see Earnhardt do that on the kind of intermediate track the circuit seems to visit every other week. Too bad he's just received the Menzer Curse.

Back up front

Dale Earnhardt Jr. led more laps Sunday at Las Vegas than he did in the entirety of 2011. A sign of things to come for the No. 88 team?

Dave Rodman: Uh-oh.

Joe Menzer: Listen, closing is hard in this and every sport. It should be. This is a sport being played at its highest level. As for my prediction about Sadler, I was only a year off! I meant to say he will get multiple wins this season.

David Caraviello: Watch out for Junior in 2013!

Dave Rodman: To diverge momentarily, it's pretty cool to see the way ESad has hooked up with crew chief Luke Lambert to run the way a lot of people thought Elliott could run for years. It's the package, and that circles it back around to Junior and Letarte. It might have taken them a year, but Dale and Steve showed plenty last year and this year could be a payoff.

David Caraviello: What everybody needs to remember here is this is a program that's been rebuilt from the ground up, and a driver who mentally has had to work hard to get himself in the right place. He's gone from off the radar to competitive again, and Vegas showed that Dale and Steve may be ready to build off their Chase berth from last season. He had a good Daytona 500, he had a good Vegas, he's in a very good position in the points. Just enjoy the ride, people. Everyone is so caught up in the winless streak that they seem to forget that getting there is half the fun.

Joe Menzer: Well, I think we can all agree that Letarte seems to be the perfect fit for Dale Jr. And Letarte is smart about how he sets up the cars and approaches an entire race weekend. He's consistent, and upbeat, yet demanding when he has to be -- of his driver and that entire team. It's a great combination and it should pay off. It already has in that, despite not winning a single race, Junior finished higher in points last year than he had since, what, 2006?

Dave Rodman: Yep. And at Vegas Junior took the weight and said he didn't give Steve good enough information. They are truly on the verge -- and man, that will be a Victory Lane when they get there. You want nuts? Try this weekend. Bristol. Hendrick's 200th. The icing would be if Rick makes good on his threat to spot!

2. Moonlighting Cup drivers have been shut out of the first three Nationwide Series events this year. Have the Nationwide regulars taken back their series?

Joe Menzer: Ah, a question right up my alley. I tried to tell you guys last year this was coming. It's a byproduct of a couple of things: 1) Guys like Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have realized that to give their Cup efforts the best they've got, they don't need to be racing in Nationwide every week (and besides, with no driver points available to them, what's the point?) And 2) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and guys like that have gotten better, and some of the N-wide regulars like Sadler are hardly inexperienced. I think this is great for the Nationwide Series in particular and for NASCAR as a whole. I really do.

The streak continues

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Nationwide Series champion, extended the run of races won by non-Cup regulars to three with his Las Vegas victory.

David Caraviello: I'm beginning to think they have. Not that Cup guys aren't going to win again, and soon, but the days when a Nationwide regular won just once the entire season are clearly long behind us. You have to go back to the mid-90s to find the last time Cup guys were shut out of the Nationwide [or old Busch] Series to this point. You look at the point standings, and really the competitive Nationwide drivers go eight or nine deep. And that doesn't include James Buescher, a Truck Series regular who won at Daytona. Or Danica Patrick, who's off to a rough start. This shapes up as the best Nationwide field in years.

Dave Rodman: Hmmm. Shows what a fine line it is between Victory Lane and a smoking heap in the garage. Proves what a Nationwide King Kong Carl Edwards was. Proves how potent Kyle Busch was in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment. On the flip side, shows how great a crew-chief-in-development Luke Lambert is, and how spectacular Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is gonna be. Daytona was the ultimate in anomalies, but I believe it was a Cup driver that ignited that last pig pile, and only proves James Buescher is a champion-in-waiting.

Joe Menzer: Wow. I don't know what's more surprising. That the Nationwide regulars have taken back their series -- or that we all agree on something!

David Caraviello: Now granted, if there's not the big wreck at the end, maybe Tony Stewart wins at Daytona. If Brad Keselowski doesn't have problems, maybe he wins at Las Vegas. And then, we're never having this discussion. But things happen in racing, and it's how you react to them that counts. And these kids in the Nationwide Series today are fearless. They're not intimidated by the Cup guys. And they're winning races in the kind of tandem weekends where they're not supposed to win. Can't help but be impressed.

Dave Rodman: And now we come to Bristol. There's no reason to think Justin Allgaier couldn't repeat his win for Penske here a couple years ago. Having said that, it would be kinda cool to see Kyle Busch break through for KBM -- and a better guy than crew chief Mike Beam is hard to find.

Joe Menzer: It's just like we said earlier with Dale Jr. You put yourself in position to be in the running for a win at the end, and stuff happens. Sometimes it happens to you, but other times it happens to someone else -- and you find yourself sitting in Victory Lane. So no matter what happened or didn't happen at Daytona and Vegas, the guys that won there put them in position to be there at the end. And that's what you have to do.

David Caraviello: As much as it pains me to say it, Joe is right -- some of this is happening because some of the Cup guys have scaled back, finally noticing that Jimmie Johnson won five titles by focusing only on Sprint Cup efforts. But the drivers are talented, too. Ricky Stenhouse -- it's amazing to think what he might be capable of in a fully-funded Cup car. Talk about someone who has done it all the right way; he'll have three full Nationwide seasons under his belt after this year and be more than ready to take the next step if a sponsored ride is available. In this era where some drivers are rushing their ascent up the ladder, Ricky is showing how patience pays off.

Dave Rodman: Elliott Sadler has won before at Bristol, too. I really think I can see a week-in and week-out Stenhouse and Sadler dogfight throughout this season. They have both proven they can beat the best from the Cup Series. So even though Busch, Kevin Harvick and Junior are in this Nationwide field, I could see the Cup guys going oh-for-four here. Maybe a stretch to think the winner could be Sam Hornish Jr., but he's another one who gives the Nationwide boys -- if not an edge -- a real balance in the scale.

Joe Menzer: Go ahead and say it in unison, boys: Joe ... is ... right!

David Caraviello: Stenhouse, Bayne, Sadler, Austin Dillon, Cole Whitt, Justin Allgaier, Sam Hornish -- it's a battle every week between those guys, and it makes Saturdays a lot more fun to watch. And Joe, don't give yourself too much credit for just being the first to mention an obvious point.

Joe Menzer: Why not? I've spent a lifetime doing just that. Just ask my wife. And wasn't that the whole point of changing the system and making drivers declare one -- and only one -- series in which they would compete for a championship each year? So let's give credit where credit is due here, too: NASCAR made the right call on this one.

Dave Rodman: It puts the Nationwide Series back in a real position of what it was supposed to be: a development series that has developed talent in a position to win against the sport's best drivers.

David Caraviello: Right on, Dave. It seems to be filling that role better at the moment than it has in a long, long time. Now only if Track Smack had a similar, developmental arena where we could send Menzer back for some seasoning.

3. It's on to Bristol, where Brad Keselowski won last August. This weekend, can he give Penske Racing the jump-start it so badly needs?

Dave Rodman: Wow. You have to hope so. From the sublime to the ridiculous, their season has had it all -- for both cars. AJ has run decent at Bristol. Can't predict what might happen, but I'd say they've had enough weird stuff this season. Win? we've already opined on how tough that is. But they'll contend -- and they need to.

Penske perils

Both AJ Allmendinger and Brad Keselowski had fuel pump issues last week at Las Vegas and find themselves mired back in the Cup Series points.

David Caraviello: So have the fuel pickup problems the Penske cars have experienced lately been a bit of cosmic Dodge revenge for Penske recently announcing its move to Ford for next year? Probably not. Either way, the Penske drivers are in something of a spot right now, with both Brad and AJ Allmendinger off to rough starts. Granted, not all of this has been on the drivers, but they're the ones facing the points deficits, and they're the ones who are going to have to crawl out of this and try and turn things around.

Joe Menzer: Well, I don't think any of us thought BK would be languishing at 21st in the point standings after the first three races. But that's what a pair of 32nd-place finishes (at Daytona and Vegas) will get you. Don't forget it took him a while to get cooking last year as well, but once he and that team reached their boiling point, they were for a stretch the hottest group in the garage. I predict a strong run for the Blue Deuce this weekend -- and a strong season ahead despite some obvious challenges they'll face.

Dave Rodman: Nobody but Dodge wants to win more than Roger, Brad and AJ do -- the whole darned organization. The timing of that announcement wasn't good for anybody, but there no karmic inferences whatsoever.

Joe Menzer: As for the fuel-pickup problems, other manufacturers have experienced them as well. And the last thing Dodge wants or needs right now is for these two Penske teams to go into the tank. What they want is not revenge in that sense ... they want to send them out on top in an attempt to prove to Roger that he's making a mistake in switching to Fords.

David Caraviello: Ultimately I think Brad will be fine. He got caught up in a wreck at Daytona, had the fuel issue at Vegas, and he couldn't really control either situation. We've seen him make a much bigger comeback, we know what he's capable of, and I think we'd all be shocked if he didn't right the ship. When he's been on the track he's been pretty good -- he's just had too many things go wrong. On Allmendinger, though, the jury is still out. I'm not sure we know yet what he's really capable of in this caliber of car.

Joe Menzer: Finally, we can disagree on something. I think AJ Allmendinger will be just fine. And I think he's capable of winning and contending for a Chase spot in a car of this caliber. It is very early in the season, Mr. Caraviello. Think about Keselowski last year, and how he didn't start coming on until at least Darlington in May.

David Caraviello: Granted, we really didn't know what Brad was capable of at this time last year, either. But you can't just automatically assume what happened with one Penske driver will happen with another. That's a broad brush you're carrying there, Menzer.

Joe Menzer: If Dodge wants to stay in NASCAR, as they say emphatically that they do, they need these two cars to do well as this season progresses. You could even argue that they need to do well sooner rather than later, so Richard Petty Motorsports or whatever organization thinking about switching to Dodges next season has some proof that it can work. My other point is that I believe in AJ Allmendinger. Given time, I think he can be a winner and a Chase contender.

Dave Rodman: I hate to say it, but when it comes to points, A.J. is up against it. What he has going for him is the wild card aspect. I think crew chief Todd Gordon moving to Cup and AJ working with a new crew chief at a new organization is going to doom them in points. But winning? They have both proven they can, in a variety of venues. Cup is the ultimate, but that is going to be the intrigue -- can they win to get into the Chase via the wild card provision?

David Caraviello: And a lot of guys are going to be in that same position, Dave, including perhaps one Mr. Jimmie Freaking Johnson. With only two spots available, that's a tough thing to ask. But I do appreciate the dose of reality in comparison to Mr. Sunshine over there.

Joe Menzer: Granted, I frequently have been accused of painting everything in life with the same broad brush I use to apply barbeque sauce to ribs on the grill. Of that, I guess I plead guilty. But if BK can win and be a Chaser in a Penske Dodge, I think Allmendinger can, too, in a car that made the Chase last year with Kurt Busch as its driver. Kasey Kahne was 30th in points last year after three races. He didn't make the Chase, but he did eventually climb to a respectable 14th and win a race. It's not too late for AJ, but this weekend would be a great time for him to start making a move in the right direction.

Dave Rodman: You look at who's struggling, and marching anywhere in points is going to be a tall order for anyone short of Five-Time. Winning races is another thing, and that's going to be the wildest part of this 2012 race to the Chase.

David Caraviello: Joe's scenario is certainly possible. But I look at the standings right now, and I see Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne and Juan Montoya all out of the top 10, and I think -- the odds of assuming a wild-card for anyone at this point are about as good as Menzer beating me in basketball. Which does not happen.

Joe Menzer: I am almost speechless at this moment. Even at my age, me against Caraviello is like Ohio State taking on, uh, uh, Mississippi Valley State. In hoops, I mean. He might have a chance in, say, a card game or something.

David Caraviello: This from the guy who still cannot stop my patented behind-the-back move. Bring the high-tops to Bristol, Menzer. You're about due for another beating.

Dave Rodman: Forget EFI -- I want courtside for that.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.