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Track Smack: Will Junior get the Triple Crown at 'Dega?

May 03, 2012, ,

Smacketeers debate big victory; Bowyer as MWR's big hope; KBM set to repeat?

1. It's Talladega time. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has the potential to snap his 138-race winless streak, give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th victory, and perhaps assume the Sprint Cup points lead all in one fell swoop. Odds of it happening?

Jill Erwin: Hard to say, really. Looking at the numbers, Junior is known for success at Talladega, but has just four top-10s in his past 14 races there. His last victory came in 2004. Sure, he's running better now than he has been in a while, but that's a whole lot of stuff to happen based on a crapshoot of a race. More importantly, will he break the Internet if that all happens?

Dave Rodman: I'd say very high. Despite Junior's feeling that tandem drafting is unnatural and that he thinks a tandem will win the Aaron's 499 -- I think he and crew chief Stevie Letarte and the boys are poised to make it happen. I've written about them for the last two weeks -- three times -- and I am feeling a good vibe for an 88 score.

David Caraviello: Oh, I'm sure in a perfect world that's what the good race fans of north Alabama would love to see -- their beloved Junior coming in and scoring this triple crown, so to speak. And it's completely possible, given his track record at Talladega and how well he's run this season. But Talladega is a capricious place, and the winner is often spit out of that final draft like a ping-pong ball on lottery night, so I don't know if you can really count on anything there. Except mayhem. That's pretty much a given.

Dave Rodman: Jill, you nailed it. I think the ramifications and repercussions would be ... extreme, to say the least. And, I might add, totally in a positive way.

Jill Erwin: I mean, I'm off this weekend, so with all due respect to my fellow deskers here at NASCAR.COM, I'm pulling for Junior. And my phone will be mysteriously out of order if that happens.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Jill, I do think people tend to sometimes overlook the fact that this isn't Dale Jr. from back in the days when Dale Earnhardt Inc. had everyone else covered on plate tracks, and those DEI cars were the overwhelming favorites every time they unloaded in the garage. That was a different era and a different time. Still, that's not to say the guy isn't good there and isn't capable of winning again. But this is one case where people have very long memories, and perhaps let that influence their thinking.

Hendrick at 'Dega

Past performances
Laps Led2011
Avg. Start14.4
Avg. Finish18.3
Lead-Lap Finishes95

Jill Erwin: However, and here's the thing we haven't been able to say for a while: Junior's good everywhere now. He's not just a plate guy, or just a short-track guy. He's running strong, and I really do think it's just a matter of time before that team starts ticking off the victories.

Dave Rodman: Junior claims he's neither raced for a win, nor lost out on an attempt to win this season. If that's what he feels, I'm not gonna debate it. But it's a fact he has been close, and the next step from close is Victory Lane. He can make both varieties of plate racing work for him, as he proved with Jimmie Johnson a year or two ago. This Talladega is gonna be dicey because it's gonna be largely back to old-school racing -- NASCAR will make sure of that, and that creates a lot of unknowns.

David Caraviello: Anyway, the shocker to me isn't that Junior hasn't won there since 2004. Those things happen, and winning races is difficult (as Earnhardt fans well know). The stunner to me is that he has just two top-10s in his last seven starts there. I know some of those were from back in the days when he was mired in points, but still -- that's not at all what we'd expect from the guy at Talladega. I know he's talked in the past about how he needs to run better there, and how he can sense just how well that crowd wants him to succeed. As with everything, the dude has no shortage of self-awareness.

Jill Erwin: You know, people like to talk about how, "Oh, I just want to win the next race on the schedule," etc. etc., blah blah. But I'd be hard-pressed to think of a place where this confluence of events would mean more than at Talladega. Possibly Daytona, but I still think 'Dega wins it.

David Caraviello: Jill, really, it's the perfect setting. During his Budweiser days, the crowd was just a sea of red. It was unbelievable sometimes the level of support that guy got. I know it's still there, and I suspect is just waiting for the right time to erupt. A victory that ends his personal streak, gives Mr. H No. 200 and puts him in the points lead -- that would be Junior Nation nirvana, though maybe too much to ask for. How often, after all, does the favorite actually win? In this sport, not much. Too many things can happen. And remember, his last trip to Talladega was ruined by a ride-around-in-the-back strategy that clearly didn't suit him, and saw him and Jimmie Johnson try to make their move to the front much too late. I suspect that won't happen again. Look for the No. 88 car up front.

Dave Rodman: And on a slightly different topic, I think the likelihood is large we might see the end of caution-free racing this weekend.

Jill Erwin: Dave, that's not even a likelihood. That's a definite. I'm still stunned there ever was a caution-free race there.

David Caraviello: No question, Dave. People need to be careful what they wish for.

Dave Rodman: You know, I threw this out there on the radio the other day -- do you think the guys have finally, really learned how to drive these cars, and their crew chiefs and crews are tuning them so well -- and despite themselves, they are exercising a great amount of respect -- and that equals very few cautions and virtually no accidents?

Jill Erwin: No. That would be like saying they never figured out the previous car because there were still wrecks. I just think it's a fluke thing, and it will balance out to the tune of like a seven-hour Pocono race or some such.

David Caraviello: Like everything in NASCAR, it's cyclical. We've seen periods like this before. We've seen plenty of races with few or no cautions. These things happen from time to time, for whatever reason. Either way, I'm not a fan of the "I can't wait 'til somebody hits the wall!" crowd. Seen enough of that in my time.

Jill Erwin: Agreed, David. Any enjoyment I may have gotten out of a spectacular crash ended during qualifying at Texas years ago when the media room went silent after Michael McDowell's flip(s).

Dave Rodman: And that rolls back around to, if there aren't any car- and man-eating "big ones" I'd say Junior's chances to be around at the finish, and near the front, are elevated. As I've also said, there is so much going on in any of these races that if you're bored, you need to launch Live Leaderboard or find another sport to follow.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega

DEI vs. Hendrick
TeamYearsRacesWinsTop-fivesTop-10sAvg. FinishLaps LedLead-Lap Finishes

David Caraviello: I think there will be plenty of "other sports" going on in the Talladega infield this weekend. I'm sure somebody, somewhere, will be holding wagon races or something similar. Odds are we'll see a few cautions there.

2. Clint Bowyer has won two of the last three Sprint Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway. Is this where Michael Waltrip Racing finally breaks through with its next race victory?

Jill Erwin: As with question No. 1, it's darn near impossible to predict a race winner at Talladega. It just is. I do think that Clint is among the favorites, but what does that really amount to in the grand scheme of things?

Dave Rodman: If Junior is one of those who's most primed to score, Clint's running a close second -- if not slightly ahead. He doesn't have quite the fan base, but I'd think a Bowyer win would be a real positive, maybe more so in the garage area. Bowyer is good people and -- not to the point of Junior being overdue -- he's overdue.

Michael Waltrip Racing

Drivers at Talladega
DriverSt.WLedAvg. Finish
Waltrip 51121219.9

David Caraviello: Speaking of bingo-ball-hopper finishes -- Clint has been the beneficiary a few times, winning that mass scramble that comes at the end. Of course, both of those victories came in cars owned by Richard Childress Racing, which has always has a solid record on restrictor plate tracks dating back to its days with the original Dale Earnhardt. So yeah, it's another one of those things that's very tough to predict given the conditions at Talladega, but then you also throw in Clint's move to another team that doesn't necessarily have the history to back up any claim of being a favorite. That's the good part -- they'll actually run the race, and then we'll see.

Jill Erwin: David, David, David. Does MWR know how it feels to roll into a track as the favorite? No. But Michael Waltrip himself has had a little bit of success on the plate tracks (albeit seemingly a lifetime ago).

David Caraviello: I don't mean to sell MWR short at all. They've had a fantastic year to this point, and they had a pretty good run last time out in our most recent restrictor-plate event, with Bowyer finishing 11th and teammate Martin Truex Jr. 12th in the Daytona 500. This team is clearly on the verge. But Talladega is unpredictable, and all about being in position at the end. Someone completely unexpected could win this -- maybe even Waltrip himself, who Jill just mentioned. Even though like Dale Jr., his success there came back in the plate heyday of DEI. Different organization, different time.

Dave Rodman: And I think for MWR Clint's been a big part of what's been a game-changing season for them. For sure, not the biggest part, but a significant one. Despite some headaches, they're in position to fulfill Mark Martin's prediction that MWR will have two cars in the Chase. And wouldn't that be some stuff? To me, MWR has been so solid, so consistent, that Talladega's uncertainty aside they're going to put themselves in position and then, if something stupid doesn't happen, look out.

David Caraviello: I don't think anyone doubts it, Dave. And if Mark Martin wanted to run full-time, that No. 55 car might very well be the best of the three. They've built new vehicles that are fast and competitive, they've added key people, and it's all showing on the race track. They've done a great job, no doubt about it.

Jill Erwin: I'm doubting it. Truex has made one Chase. Bowyer has made three, but hasn't finished better than 10th since 2008. I'm not ready to hand MWR two Chase berths just yet. There's still a lot of racing left to go before we get back to Richmond, boys.

David Caraviello: Here's the thing about Clint: go beyond the wins and look at his last four finishes at Talladega -- first, second, first, seventh. That's a heck of a run at a track where the whims of aerodynamics can dictate who gets shuffled to the back, or who gets wadded up into a ball. His average finish of 16.4 at Talladega is dragged down by some poor finishes very early in his Cup career. So we might just be talking about Clint Bowyer, Talladega Ace, even with the change of franchise. He's done enough there to merit the title.

Dave Rodman: I'm willing to bank on what they've done so far -- but I am an unabashed optimist. There's a lot of racing to go before race 26, as you say Jill -- just like there'll be a long way to go Sunday before we know anything.

David Caraviello: You know who I feel bad for here? David Reutimann. The guy won two races for MWR, putting them on the map to a certain degree, and everybody seems to forget those victories exist. Poor guy gets completely overlooked any time the discussion turns to MWR.

Jill Erwin: I am a hard-core Reutimann backer. He's another of those guys who seem to blend into the background, but is a really, truly good person. There aren't a ton of those in NASCAR these days. But yeah, all this comes to a head this year and it's all Bowyer and Martin and Truex and no one cares about the only guy to ever win a race for that team.

Dave Rodman: Well, like everything else in racing it's "what have you done for me lately ..." David's doing solid work at Tommy Baldwin Racing, as he's got that car pretty much locked-into the top 35 for the season, barring a financial collapse. And when you want to talk about foundations, I don't think anyone's forgotten what put the current MWR gang in position to be doing what they're doing. David had a big part in all that.

David Caraviello: I will agree, Jill. There's so much focus on MWR trying to break through and get that next race win, and I wonder if people remember they already have two. David may well stare at the ceiling at night seeing the leaps forward his old team has made, and how no one seems to remember what he did. Well, we do, at least. That and 99 cents will buy you a cup of coffee.

Jill Erwin: Where are you shopping that 99 cents buys a coffee? And where is Rodman shopping that 35th by 21 points is "pretty much locked in for the season"?

Michael Waltrip Racing

Drivers' statistics while with the team
DriverStartsWinsTop-fivesTop-10sAvg. Finish
2012 stable1870114118.1

Dave Rodman: Look at everyone behind them, and there is no one who can mount any kind of charge. Oh, and make mine light, with a Sweet & Low.

3. Kyle Busch won the Sprint Cup event last weekend at Richmond. This week, he's also entered in the Nationwide Series event at Talladega. After shaking off its rough start, chances of Kyle Busch Motorsports winning two in a row?

Dave Rodman: I'd say big -- even bigger than Junior's chances. It isn't a stretch for me to think back to Daytona, where the Busch brothers had worked themselves into position to possibly win. Dumb move took them out there, and there's no antidote for that at 'Dega. But the Richmond win was overdue and I'd say, with Kurt and Phoenix also in at Talladega, two-in-a-row is very feasible.

Jill Erwin: I'm just glad Nationwide's running back-to-back weeks for the first time since March. And it's hard to pick against Kyle, just as a matter of course. But I think not running every week will hurt him, even just a tiny bit, and that could be the difference. I think a Nationwide regular wins this one ... I'm calling it for Austin Dillon.

Kyle no Monster

Busch's starts for KBM
Laps Led55
Lead-Lap Finishes2

David Caraviello: Boy, I hate to repeat the same thing, but again -- it's Talladega. No one really knows. As fun as last week's Nationwide race was to watch, and as much as the victory means to a KBM team that clearly needed it, they have had issues getting their cars up to speed this year. Not sure if the Richmond win means everything is solved, but Talladega is a place that puts a lot of people into the mix, and I can absolutely see Kyle once again becoming the terror he once was on the race track. As with everything else, the potential is there, but nothing is guaranteed.

Jill Erwin: I want to save that last sentence, Caraviello, and use it whenever someone mentions anything about Talladega.

Dave Rodman: This is wide open, true. But the Richmond car was Mike Beam's first complete effort, I believe. Don't know if the Talladega car is the second, considering their Daytona car kinda got tore up. But if nobody dopes-out I see it being the same gang coming forward for the win on Saturday. Of course, Tony Stewart won't be there, but Junior and Kevin Harvick will be. Nice, hot, slick day -- I can't wait.

Jill Erwin: As a Kentucky girl whose mind Saturday will be preoccupied with a different race, I'll do an exacta: Dillon-Harvick for the win.

David Caraviello: I will say this, it was very cool to see the celebration after the Nationwide race at Richmond. Think what you will of Kyle, but seeing Kurt win in his car clearly meant the world to him. I spoke to Kyle about KBM's situation at Kansas, and he got a faraway look in his eye when he talked about the subject. Clearly, the struggles were wearing on him. Kyle has removed himself somewhat from KBM this year, trying to make it grow on it own, but obviously that's been a tough thing for him to do. So the race win meant everything. You could see it.

Dave Rodman: Well, it was interesting to see him say, Saturday night in Richmond, that winning as an owner was more difficult than winning as a driver. The interaction between him and Joe Gibbs was priceless -- a real case of walking in the other guy's shoes and seeing how it feels.

David Caraviello: I think it's fair to say Kyle's win in the Cup race at Richmond may have been aided somewhat by circumstances -- Carl Edwards' penalty, Tony Stewart's pit stop, and the like -- and so the jury may still be out on that No. 18 team. But Kurt drove the wheels off that thing in the Nationwide race. The car was good, maybe KBM's best yet. In time that team could very well be the monster (pun intended) everyone thought it would be from the outset.

Dave Rodman: I'm not so sure that would be a great thing. But no different than when Kyle was firmly ensconced in the JGR Nationwide stuff, it puts a very distinct bull's-eye out there for everyone to aim at. And that's probably a good thing.

Jill Erwin: I mean, I think people tend to forget sometimes this is a team that has exactly seven races under its belt. I'm not ready to pass judgment on "struggles" when the team made its series debut in February. And Rodman, I think right now, Kyle is putting himself and Kurt in it to get it started. But Kyle has always been very good about getting younger drivers into his equipment and giving them a good start in NASCAR. I think if KBM becomes a power in Nationwide, he will not shy away from giving new drivers their first looks, and that's always a good thing.

Dave Rodman: KBM is a startup team, sure -- but when you start up with Rick Ren, Mike Beam and Kurt and Kyle Busch -- that takes you several leagues beyond your typical "startup."

David Caraviello: Given who the drivers were and given what KBM had accomplished in the Truck Series, I think the expectations were fair. I think even Kyle thought they'd set the world on fire, to a degree. I think we've all learned that building competitive Nationwide cars is hard without some kind of direct Cup affiliation. If KBM can become one of the few teams to make it work on their own, that's a good thing for the series.

Jill Erwin: Caraviello, I think we're making the same point. Expectations are one thing. But winning in your seventh start when both of your drivers were kind of having a different kind of season than they're used to is something to be celebrated. The road is tough, and no one should assume they'd be a front-runner week in and week out when others have shown it's not that easy.

Dave Rodman: Well, they're already "Monstrous," but I'm not sure that they would buy into driver development. But maybe they would, like the Kasey Kahne/Brad Sweet tandem at Turner Motorsports. That's a good deal for all parties, if you ask me.

David Caraviello: Given the sponsor, the drivers, and the team's track record -- the expectations were natural and fair. We've all learned a lesson here as to how hard this can be. But hey, let's not forget, Kurt is in the Nationwide race this weekend, too. How about brother versus brother banging to the finish? That would be like Rodman and Joe Menzer going after the last piece of chicken in the media center buffet line. Everybody out of the way!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.