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Track Smack: Debating All-Star Saturday, Stenhouse's success

May 17, 2012, ,

Smacksters debate All-Star Race possibilites, Stenhouse Jr.'s future

1. Defending Sprint All-Star Race champion Carl Edwards is 10th in points, with two top-five finishes. Does he need another victory in the no-points race to jump start his season?

Mark Aumann: I don't know whether Carl needs a win in the All-Star Race, but he definitely could use one a week later. It's weird, he's run OK at times but he's not showing the same domination that he had in 2011. And, yet, his teammates have been very strong nearly everywhere.

David Caraviello: I don't know if I'd go quite that far. Is Carl really in that bad of shape? He's in Chase position and even though he hasn't been in position to win lately, he's not exactly struggling, either. I think Carl suffers from comparisons -- to both his championship near-miss of last season and to his Roush Fenway teammates, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, who are first and second in points.

Jarrod Breeze: This race has no bearing on the rest of the season. It's a time to go all-out. Carl Edwards has already said he needs to play it cautious in points races, lingering so close to the Chase cutoff line. So, he could win the All-Star Race with a spectacular move, and then ride around playing it safe the week after and thereon. Of course, the time could come where he needs a win to make the Chase. But every race is different, so the All-Star will have no effect.

Mark Aumann: Was it you, David, who wrote the piece on how drivers who finish second in the points seem to suffer a "next season hangover?" I wonder if coming that close -- one point -- in 2011 has affected the No. 99 team, perhaps more subconsciously than they might admit. If there's anyone who realizes how important wins were to Tony Stewart's championship last season, it's Carl. And yet, they just haven't been good enough to get to the front.

David Caraviello: Mark, it's totally possible. But if this is a hangover, it's not exactly a terrible one. Remember, Denny Hamlin was buried in points this time last year, and had to make up a lot of ground to get in wild card contention. Carl is right there. He actually has a decent streak of finishes going if you take out the wreck at Talladega. So, he's been solid, if not spectacular. As hangovers go, not a bad one at all.

All-Star Race

Winner's year-end finish*
Yr.WinnerPts. Fin.
2010Kurt Busch11
2009Tony Stewart6
2008Kasey Kahne14
2007Kevin Harvick10

Jarrod Breeze: This isn't the first time Carl Edwards hasn't exactly performed up to expectations coming off the previous season. But I agree with David, it's not like he's in danger of missing the Chase ... yet. And there are a lot of other drivers you could argue also need a confidence-building victory -- All-Star or otherwise.

David Caraviello: JB is back! Throwing down the gantlet! Of course, I may disagree a little. Yes, this race has no bearing in points, but I think it gives the winning team a lot of momentum and confidence. Not to mention plenty of notes for the 600-miler the next week.

Mark Aumann: I guess the underlying issue is, "Does running well in the All-Star Race translate favorably to the Coke 600?" And I don't know the answer. Sometimes, but I don't know that it's a definite. The two events are so different in so many ways. Here's the wacky thing: the winner of the All-Star Race is traditionally one of the top guys. And yet, the Coke 600 has a history of providing us with winners like Casey Mears and David Reutimann. Wouldn't you think it would be the other way around?

Jarrod Breeze: No, Mark I don't -- because the 600 is more of a race of attrition than it is talent. Notes, schmotes ... Too much can go wrong by the time 600 miles have been exhausted. Each race is littered with guys who started out strong, only to be nowhere near the finish.

Mark Aumann: JB made a good point. Teams like Ganassi, Petty, Waltrip -- they all could use a huge boost from a win on Saturday night. And don't forget the money. I think Jeff and the No. 24 guys are seeing black cats, broken mirrors and ladders at every corner right now.

Jarrod Breeze: Believe it or not, all of these drivers have the ability to win a race if the stars align, the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars (personal shout-out to the Fifth Dimension). I consider the 600 to be on par with the restrictor-plate tracks -- take your chances and hope for the best.

Mark Aumann: Hey, Jarrod's onto a new slogan: "The Coke 600: It's all about attrition!" You should write headlines. Or song lyrics.

Jarrod Breeze: Besides, winning the All-Star Race and even the 600 is no guarantee of future success. How long did it take Hendrick to reach 200? Tony Stewart in 2011 notwithstanding, I'm just not a big believer in momentum in NASCAR -- there are too many outside variables (see Gordon, Johnson at Martinsville).

Mark Aumann: It's bragging rights and a big check. But does it move the needle? I had to look up the most recent four winners because I honestly couldn't remember: Edwards, Kurt Busch, Stewart and Kahne. At least they don't give home-field advantage at Homestead to the winner. Although if the All-Star Race was the tiebreaker, Edwards would have won the championship.

Jarrod Breeze: Well, Edwards has never won at his "home" track, either. But I think Homestead is one of his favorites.

David Caraviello: The All-Star Race may be more of a barometer than we give it credit for. Mark Martin won it the year he finished as runner-up in the championship to Tony Stewart. Johnson won it during his first championship season. Edwards won it last season, and came a tiebreaker away from the title. That's not exactly every year, I know, but guys who run well are running well for a reason. Perhaps the shorter race puts a premium on guys who are just on their game.

Jarrod Breeze: Key word being shorter.

Mark Aumann: Well, it's certainly a "bragging rights" race -- and that's the fun part. And you don't hear a single driver talk about points racing.

David Caraviello: That said, give me guys like Biffle or Kenseth or Stewart. Everybody in this is good, and anyone is really capable of winning the thing, but if formats seem to favor the top guys, you'd have to consider Edwards a dark horse to repeat. Although this pit stop deal they've thrown in there toward the end this year could scramble things up. You'll see drivers try to survive the final segment on old tires, since rubber is optional on that mandatory stop. Will be interesting, to say the least.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I think the winning car will have a number in the teens. Which pretty much covers DC's list!

2. A handful of prominent drivers aren't automatically eligible for the Sprint All-Star Race field. Which have the best chance of racing their way in through the preliminary event?

Jarrod Breeze: Just exactly what is the definition of the word "prominent?" Only one driver on the Sprint Showdown entry list is truly prominent (guess who ... anyone?), and he'll get in courtesy of the fan vote (now feel free to answer).

Mark Aumann: You know what? Given the history of the Open/Shootout/Showdown, I wouldn't be surprised to see AJ Allmendinger win.

David Caraviello: OK, I am stating this right now: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not win the fan vote on Saturday night. Book it. Lay money on it. The fan vote spot will go to someone else -- because Dale Jr. will race his way in by winning the Sprint Showdown qualifying race that precedes the main event. The streak is over! The streak is over! Oh, wait ...

Jarrod Breeze: Only four of the drivers needing to race their way in have ever made a Chase. These guys are on this list for a reason -- to paraphrase Adrian Balboa: "They can't win, Rocky." Given the names on the list, two drivers in the Showdown have been head and shoulders above the rest -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. I'll take Truex.

All-Star fever

Getting ramped up for the 2012 Sprint All-Star Race? Make sure you check in on the race site for both the Sprint Fan Vote and all the information on the eligible drivers.

David Caraviello: Ouch, Mick. Pull those punches, will ya? Despite his disappointing Darlington finish, Dale Jr. is having a great year. So is Martin Truex Jr. Joey Logano is also hanging around. Jeff Burton has won a lot in his career, albeit not recently. Jamie McMurray's won at Charlotte before. Juan Montoya is as talented as they come. Allmendinger is in a Penske car that's had success there in the past. That's like the '27 Yankees right there! OK, maybe not, but many of those guys are capable.

Jarrod Breeze: Capable, yes ... prominent?

Mark Aumann: Wow, David, you're going to make me go look up Junior's record at Charlotte, given that confidence. Let's see, 25 points races, no wins. Again, that doesn't count All-Star events. What exactly are you seeing to place that kind of a wager? And in case you're wondering, Truex and Earnhardt have 7-4 odds in Vegas as co-favorites for the Showdown.

David Caraviello: Mark, all I can see is that No. 88 coming off the final corner of last year's Coca-Cola 600, all alone in the lead, the crowd rising to its feet, the celebration about to begin ... and then he ran out of fuel. Yes, I know he only led for a few turns; yes, I know his record at Charlotte is iffy; but everybody has to start somewhere, right? The longest journey starts with the smallest step. What doesn't stop us makes us stronger.

Mark Aumann: Are you sure you don't moonlight as a copywriter for the Inspirations posters?

Jarrod Breeze: And whoever wins the Showdown won't be heard from again after taking the green in the main feature. It is OK to say main feature? That's what the whole All-Star event feels like.

Mark Aumann: Didn't Ryan Newman do that, JB? Seems to me that somebody's come out of the prelim to take the A Main.

Jarrod Breeze: Michael Waltrip?

Mark Aumann: That might be it!

David Caraviello: And let's be honest, it's a race in which Dale should contend for the win. He and Truex should take those two transfer spots, and leave the fan vote to someone else. Then, finally, the people's choice, Joe Nemechek, will have his moment.

Jarrod Breeze: I agree with you David, Dale Jr. should contend for the win. But just like I picked Jimmie Johnson to win the championship every year until he didn't, I need to see Dale Jr. win a race before I can pick him to do so.

David Caraviello: Jarrod, what are you talking about? I know you haven't been at this for a while, and I'm sure you still have that taste for expensive Kentucky bourbon, but we've seen guys win the prelim and then go on and win the big show. Didn't Kasey Kahne do it a few years ago? Don't Earnhardt and Truex have fast cars every week? Of course it's possible.

Jarrod Breeze: No, Kahne won the fan vote, not the Showdown.

David Caraviello: Well, I just got knocked down on the canvas there, didn't I? But anything is possible! Keep hope alive! Hang in there! Don't stop believing!

Mark Aumann: Gonna fly now? I just imagined Dale Earnhardt Jr. punching a side of beef in a meat locker and have no idea why. Now I'm interested to know who Caraviello thinks will win the fan vote if Junior wins the race. That might be the most fascinating thing about the whole evening. Anyway, winning the All-Star Race after making it through the Showdown will definitely make for a Rocky road.

David Caraviello: OK, I think we're all in agreement that Earnhardt and Truex should probably take the two transfer spots, in some order. Then, as for the fan vote ... does Joey Logano have enough juice with the masses? People still love Jeff Burton, don't they? Are Allmendinger or McMurray popular enough? Got to think it will be one of those four guys. Unless it's a dead heat between Mike Bliss and Steven Leicht.

Jarrod Breeze: Allmendinger has raised his profile this year, moving to Penske and doing a blog on NASCAR.COM. He may be the frontrunner, here.

* Behind the Wheel: Allmendinger discusses teamwork in latest blog

Mark Aumann: Give Juan some love, man!

David Caraviello: Mark, I am trying to think like the race fan. I cannot see Juan winning the fan vote, unless we get a flood of unexpected ballots from Bogota arriving late.

YearWinnerAll-Star Fin. YearWinnerAll-Star Fin.
1987Buddy Baker18 2000Steve Park13
1988Sterling Marlin2 2001Johnny Benson9
1989Sterling Marlin6 2002Jeremy Mayfield17
1990Dick Trickle6 2003Jeff Burton9
1991Michael Waltrip6 2004Sterling Marlin18
1992Michael Waltrip15 2005Brian Vickers3
1993Sterling Marlin7 2006Scott Riggs10
1994Jeff Gordon14 2007Martin Truex Jr.10
1995Todd Bodine17 2008AJ Allmendinger17
1996Jimmy Spencer14 2009Sam Hornis Jr.16
1997Ricky Craven8 2010Martin Truex Jr.2
1998Jeremy Mayfield16 2011David Ragan8

Mark Aumann: Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner ... the Colombian Stallion!


3. The Nationwide drivers head back to Iowa Speedway, where Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won twice last season en route to the championship. Can anyone keep the Roush driver from consecutive titles?

Jarrod Breeze: Well, the way it's shaping up, only two other drivers may be able to stop him -- Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon. But it's going to take some wins -- Sadler has them, Dillon, to this point, doesn't.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I think someone like Elliott Sadler, who had a fifth and a third there last year, is definitely one guy to watch. And Austin Dillon has won in the Trucks there.

David Caraviello: I know the gap at the moment is only 23 points, but I'm thinking we're going old school here. I'm thinking Ricky is going to end up running roughshod over this Nationwide field like Jeff Green did back in the early 2000s, winning the championship by several hundred points. The kid is just too good, he has too much confidence and he knows he can win almost any week. Yes, Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon are still in the hunt at the moment, but I really don't think this is going to end up being close.

Mark Aumann: Well, Darlington really separated the two. Sadler was running right up there before the crash, so I don't know the 23-point differential is as significant as it looks. Stenhouse could run into some trouble before this is all over.

Jarrod Breeze: I think Dillon will win this year and stay in the hunt, and two early wins by Sadler give me greater cause to believe he can win a couple more. That said, Stenhouse has certainly taken off -- remarkable from where he was just two short years ago. I think Stenhouse's 2011 title was taken with a grain of salt, if you will, considering Cup regulars were ineligible, but he is proving that he is no fluke and is in great shape to make it two in a row.

Slick Ricky

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is tearing up the Nationwide Series again in 2012, trying to defend his title from last year. Here's another look at his wins already this season.

David Caraviello: Yeah, from the brink of losing his job to the cusp of back-to-back titles. I think Iowa is where Ricky wrecked three cars in one weekend a few years ago, which was the low point of that trying season he had before he broke through. Amazing the dividends patience can provide. As for this year's championship race, no question Stenhouse got a little help in the points when Logano accidentally turned Sadler at the end in Darlington, but I don't think that will matter. The kid is going to run away with this.

Mark Aumann: I don't know, David. There's a lot of racing to go. I think Ricky's the favorite -- but we've seen weirder things happen when we get to June and July. He had a bad finish at Daytona, but has been great since. The bigger question: How can there not be a major sponsor who wouldn't like to ride the Stenhouse gravy train? Maybe it's the economics of the sport right now. Maybe it's indicative of Jack Roush's overall situation. But Ricky is a marketable kid.

David Caraviello: Mark, I was just thinking the same thing. The big question to me isn't, does he win it again this season? The big question is, what do they do with him in 2013? Clearly, the guy is ready -- about as ready as any Nationwide driver has ever been to jump to the premier level. And that No. 6 car is theoretically there for him at Roush. But they're already on the hook for much of Kenseth's Cup season if they can't find enough sponsorship to fill out the year. I can't believe they'd pay for Ricky out of pocket next year as well. If they want to keep him, though, they may not have a choice.

Jarrod Breeze: Along those lines, I think any sponsor would latch on if a Cup deal could also be worked out. Maybe full Nationwide sponsorship, with a limited number of Cup races to give the sponsor a greater exposure.

Mark Aumann: Is there anyone out there who could offer Ricky enough of a deal to make the leap? It hasn't really worked out at all for Trevor Bayne. There is a dynamic at work in the sport right now that doesn't rely solely on looks or talent.

Jarrod Breeze: Surprising, too, given his marketability.

David Caraviello: I don't think Stenhouse is going to run full Nationwide again next season. I don't know if you can ask him to. The kid has been exceedingly patient to this point, and he's a better racer because of it, but sometime he has to make the step up. Ideally, I think that would be in a fully-backed No. 6 car at Roush. But we've seen how tough putting together deals can be in this climate.

Jarrod Breeze: He may not have a choice, David. But I was sort of thinking about this year. For those races he doesn't have a sponsor, someone comes to him and says, "We'll sponsor those races, but we want a few Cup races thrown in."

Mark Aumann: OK, crazy thought. Penske's going to Ford in 2013. Third car for Stenhouse?

David Caraviello: Mark, you beat me too it. Or a second car, if AJ doesn't turn things around.

Mark Aumann: That is absolute pure speculation. I have no inside information or even an inkling that it's ever been remotely discussed. But if Ford wants to keep him under contract, they may need to farm him somewhere.

Jarrod Breeze: That's Mark Aumann:with two n's.

David Caraviello: Just amazing to me that we have no rookies at the Cup level, and yet two of the brightest driving talents we've seen in a while are struggling to take the next step up because of sponsorship issues. And of course, I'm speaking of Danica Patrick and Travis Pastrana. I kid! I kid! Hey, both of them did fine at Darlington. I'm really beginning to think Pastrana can wheel it a little bit, even if his wife made him cut the mullet.

Mark Aumann: What's with the haircuts? I know Kevin Harvick was getting a little shaggy around the ears. Is there a lack of barbers in Charlotte, or have haircuts become too expensive?

Jarrod Breeze: OK -- NFL Draft expert Mike Mayock tried to go three whole days without mentioning Tim Tebow. Can we please get through a Track Smack without a Danica or Pastrana mention?

David Caraviello: Hey JB, how do you think Danica will do at Iowa? It should be interesting, given that she traditionally seems to favor bigger, faster tracks. I'm sure you're breaking down the film as we speak.

Jarrod Breeze: I will say this ... the fact that Danica is 10th in Nationwide points shows you the great divide in the top 10. And the two drivers directly above her don't have a top 10 on the season. Which makes your point, David, that Ricky could run away and hide with this thing very valid indeed.

David Caraviello: How dare you besmirch the name of Joe Nemechek! Lace 'em up, Breeze. Your fingers are writing checks your body can't cash! Now, where did I put all those gold chains and my fake mohawk?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.