News & Media

Track Smack: Can MIS be a saving grace again for Junior?

August 16, 2012, ,

Other topics included: Canadian drivers claim turf and Newman's Chase chances

1. After two rough weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads back to Michigan International Speedway, where he won in dominating fashion in June. Is this where NASCAR's most popular driver gets it back on track?

David Caraviello: Hard to blame the guy for what's happened the last two weekends. Pocono marked the first time he's failed to finish a race this season, and it came not because of driver error, but because his car dropped a transmission. And as for Watkins Glen -- he was running decent enough until he got a little over-eager in one of the corners. We all knew road courses weren't Dale Jr.'s "thing," so I guess the results there isn't surprising. I guess the point of all this is that maybe the results of the last two weeks haven't been quite as bad as they've seemed.

Jill Erwin: I'd love to say yes, because I like it when Junior runs well. But while his past two victories have come at Michigan, it's hardly a given for him to get a good finish there. His average finish is 15.2 and that's with nine top-10s in the mix. He also has nine finishes outside the top 20, and that's what's concerning. When he won at Michigan in 2008, he also finished 23rd in his August race there.

Joe Menzer: You would think so. Prior to the last couple of weeks, he had been so consistent all year -- avoiding that "summer swoon" that had dogged him so much in the past. And he was running well at Watkins Glen before spinning out toward the end and going from like 10th to 23rd in about two seconds, wiping out a good day of work. So I think, yes, he rebounds at Michigan with a strong showing. Maybe not a win, but a top-10 finish at least, and probably more like a top-five.

*Video: Junior snaps streak with Michigan win

Jill Erwin: At this point, David, I'm not sure it matters how it "seems." The Chase is all about momentum, and Junior needs to get some more good juju going to push him through.

David Caraviello: About that, there's no question, Jill. You look at the direction he's heading in, and where stable mate Jimmie Johnson is going, and they're like passing elevators as far as the Chase goes. Tony Stewart's title run from last year aside, historically you don't want to limp into the playoffs if you hope to make any noise once you're there. Junior's had a tremendous season, and this is a group with a little different mental makeup than in years past. I'm pretty confident they'll get it going again before the Chase begins.

Joe Menzer: For Junior's sake, I just hope he doesn't change his mindset because of what happened at The Glen. Prior to that race, he was as calm and as confident as I've seen him -- talking about taking chances to go hard for wins over these last few races to gain bonus points (and momentum along with them) for the Chase. He said he felt he could do that because he was so secure in the points. He's still secure, although he dropped from first to fourth after what happened in upstate New York.

Jill Erwin: Oh, I also think that's true. As Joe astutely pointed out, they've been far more consistent than ever before, and a little bump in the road won't derail that. But I think going in off a streak of top-10s is going to be better for him and his driving style than "limping" in regardless of what causes the bad finishes.

David Caraviello: Joe, I have to imagine they're going to take the Glen for what it was. Nobody expected Dale to really contend on a road course. That group would be forgiven if they just wanted to get through it salvaging whatever they could. And I can't emphasize enough -- this isn't the 88 team of a few years ago, when guys cracked a little mentally when times got tough. This group doesn't appear nearly as fragile, and while the timing isn't ideal, they had to know a bump was coming eventually, and I have to believe they're confident enough to move past all this.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Performance since MIS win*
Watkins Glen16280

Joe Menzer: These last four races before the Chase cutoff should be great -- although they've got a lot to measure up to after that fantastic finish in Watkins Glen. You've got guys like Junior who want to add to their win total and gain momentum, but then you've got that gaggle of wild-card hopefuls who all need to win or at least outpoint their rivals just to get into the Chase. It's going to make for some fantastic racing, I do believe. As far as Junior goes, I'm just saying I hope they don't go all conservative mode these last four races after what happened at The Glen. I don't think they will, either.

Jill Erwin: I'm telling you what, I could not be more impressed with No. 88 crew chief Steve Letarte. I realize I'm kind of playing Dr. Obvious in this whole Track Smack so far (when do I not?) but Letarte's work with that team has been amazing all year long. It's not a flash in the pan, it's long-term improvement and a complete change.

David Caraviello: Earnhardt has won at Michigan, has won at Bristol, has won at Atlanta. I realize that in some cases those victories were a while ago, but the tracks he has coming up are much more comfortable than the one he just left behind. I can't imagine more mechanical issues like Pocono are on the horizon, not with Hendrick's quality control and given how dependable those 88 cars have been all year. I really do expect good finishes from this team from here until the start of the Chase. Then it's a different ball game.

Joe Menzer: Letarte's touch reminds me, in a way, of how Jill Erwin: : has tried to crew chief the NASCAR.COM staff over the last couple of years. Tough love at times, but I guess we're all better off for it.

Jill Erwin: His job is much easier. I think I'd be a better match for Tony Stewart or Kurt Busch. I can match them word for (bad) word.

Joe Menzer: Ha! Speaking of which, I would like to hear Jill barking instructions to Dale Jr. over the team radio during the heat of a race. Would be quite entertaining, I'm sure, and he'd probably have four championships by now.

David Caraviello: The one thing I wonder about with Earnhardt going back to Michigan is, will everything translate from last time? I think we all expected Joey Logano to be a contender going back to Pocono, given how the No. 20 guys had dominated that resurfaced track. They were a non-issue. Earnhardt's also had to deal with a tire change. So I wonder if they can go up there and use the same notebook and expect the same result, or if so much will be different the second time around.

Jill Erwin: Back to Junior: I think Michigan could put him back on the right path, but I'm not as sold as Joe is that it will.

Joe Menzer: Way to waffle, Jillbird.

David Caraviello: That's not the kind of confidence Dale Jr. needs to hear over the radio, Jill.

Jill Erwin: I'm telling you, I'm Kurt's girl. I'll give him the what-for. And I learned from watching Fantasy Showdown and from David Caraviello: that there's something to this whole tire compound deal. I do think Junior has not always been the quickest to adjust to change -- he's not as technical in discussing how the car is driving as some -- so that is also something to think about with his performance this weekend. Joe, does that alter your take?

Joe Menzer: Well, I don't usually talk much about tires. But the tires were such a big issue last time when they had to bring in some old ones and switch to them at the last minute. It was a crazy weekend with that and it was impressive how the 88 team adjusted better than anyone to the ever-changing conditions. But my guess is this time they -- and everyone else -- better be prepared to adjust on the fly again.

David Caraviello: No, no, no. That's the reason they had another tire test up there, to firm up the compound for this race and avoid the blistering issue and late change-out they experienced in June. I think they're on the ball here and have this situation in hand. Jill, about time to get on the radio and order Menzer to get up on that wheel. Clearly, his mental focus is lacking right about now.

Joe Menzer: I should also note that no one complained more bitterly last time about the last-minute switch to different tires than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Then he went out there and wore 'em out. And Caraviello, they had had a tire test prior to the last race weekend, too, but then found out it was a whole different ballgame with all the cars on the track, attempting to make longer runs. So I'll believe it's completely fixed when I see that it's completely fixed.

Jill Erwin: Menzer, stop all that back-talking and keep your head in the game!

Joe Menzer: Yes ma'am.

2. Nearly a dozen Canadians are entered in Saturday's Nationwide race at Montreal. Which driver with a maple leaf above the window opening might be the best bet to finish in Victory Lane?

Jill Erwin: So long as Danica Patrick is in the race and anywhere near Jacques Villeneuve, I would not put a ton of money on Monsieur Villeneuve coming home with a great finish. I'm pretty sure she remembers Road America. I am, however, putting my money on Ron Fellows. Good run last week at Watkins Glen and with a previous win at Montreal (albeit in 2008) and an 11th-place run there last year, I'm going with Fellows.

David Caraviello: Goodness, I do love this race. One of my favorites of the season, even if the boss has never seen fit to send me up there (AHEM) to cover it. All the Canadian drivers, the tremendous Canadian fans, the cool race course, the setting, the finishes -- historically, this event has it all. It's always so much fun to watch, and I'm looking forward to it again this weekend. And yes, there's absolutely a good shot that a Canadian could win the thing, given the performances we've seen from some of those guys in the past.

Canadian racin'

Canadian entries into Montreal's Nationwide race
DriverHometownCareer Nationwide racesBest Nationwide Series result
Louis-Philippe DumoulinTrois Rivieres, Quebec128th (Montreal, '11)
Ron FellowsMississauga, Ontario231st (Montreal, '08; The Glen in '98, '00, '01)
Kenny HabulEtobicoke, Ontario216th (Road America, '12)
Daryl HarrSt. Albert, Alberta1024th (Iowa, '11)
Andrew RangerRoxton Pond, Quebec123rd (Montreal, '09)
Dexter StaceyKahnawake, Quebec132nd (The Glen, '12)
Alex TaglianiLachenaie, Quebec32nd (Montreal, '11)
Jacques VilleneuveMontreal, Quebec83rd (Road America, '11; Montreal, '10)
Derek WhiteKahnawake, Quebec0N/A

Joe Menzer: How can you go against the guy whose last name is associated with the track? So I've got to say Jacques Villeneuve. But you can't rule out Fellows -- and I have always liked Andrew Ranger. Those are my top three.

Jill Erwin: Stop wasting our time, Caraviello! This race isn't 500 miles long! Pick your guy!

David Caraviello: OK, OK. You're both wrong. The guy I'm going with is Alex Tagliani, who finished second there last year behind Marcos Ambrose, who isn't competing in the event this time around. He's in a Turner Motorsports car, and we know how good those are, and Turner driver Nelson Piquet Jr. won the last Nationwide road race up in Road America. With that, I'm going to go stock up on Labatt Blue and Canadian bacon and get ready to enjoy the race.

Jill Erwin: I love Canada. My grandmother was born there. I was born near Detroit, which is basically Canada. But Canadian Bacon is two things: a terrible movie, and ham. Don't bring me that floppy stuff. I like my bacon in strips, and crispy!

Joe Menzer: I will say that I had a few Labatt Blues last weekend at Watkins Glen and enjoyed them very much.

Jill Erwin: If you can get Alexander Keith's, you should. Delicious.

Joe Menzer: Wow. We really are easily distracted. Bu then again, now we're talking about beer and bacon.

Jill Erwin: To me, not talking about beer and bacon is the real distraction.

Joe Menzer: Good point. But which Canadian driver is the best bet to bring home the bacon this Saturday. That is the question!

David Caraviello: Canadian bacon -- the bacon (kind of) that's good for you (kind of)! That should be the industry's motto. As far as the race goes, I think there are four Canadians in cars good enough to contend -- Ron Fellows in his JR Motorsports machine, Patrick Carpentier in the No. 99 RAB car that Travis Pastrana pilots on occasion, Villeneuve in the Penske No. 22, and Tagliani. That's your lead group right there to battle the likes of Kyle Busch, Sam Hornish Jr., and the rest of the Nationwide regulars. As much as I like some of these other Canadian drivers, I just don't know if their cars are good enough to contend. But then again, what do I know. I always thought Canadian bacon was bacon from Canada.

Jill Erwin: But Villeneuve? Seriously, Joe? That's your pick? And remember, the track is named after his late papa, not him. I'm going to need Jacques to stop becoming a human chicane before I can back him in this race, no matter how good that No. 22 car is.

Joe Menzer: Seriously, that is my pick for top Canadian finisher. And yes, I did know that the track was named after his dad, not him. But they could be chanting his name by the end of this one. You are wrong to disparage him and his road-course racing skills just because of one misstep at Road America.

Jill Erwin: No talking back to the crew chief, buddy.

David Caraviello: I wonder what might happen if Ms. Patrick finds herself in the vicinity of Villeneuve's rear bumper at some point in this race. I'm sure those memories from Road America are still vivid. Of course, if Danica takes Jacques out, she might have to be spirited out of Canada under cover of darkness. Maybe in a crate full of Canadian bacon bound for morons like me in the States.

Joe Menzer: That's OK, pal. I thought Canadian bacon was named as such because it came from the Great White North as well. Just don't tell me Labatt Blue is brewed in Wisconsin.

Jill Erwin: I'm sorry. I'm giggling out loud at the image of Danica covered in floppy pork product in a big crate. I think, if she's near Jacques, some of Tony Jr.'s speeches about not taking any more guff might suddenly crystallize into a target.

David Caraviello: Hey, Jacques Villeneuve has finished fourth and third at Montreal, but he's made a lot of enemies along the way. So, we'll see. One guy I'll be interested to watch is Carpentier, who has twice finished second at Montreal. The guy was basically retired and selling real estate in Las Vegas before agreeing to drive the No. 99 this weekend, so we'll see if the rust shows. But he's also one of the best people in the industry, so happy to have him back on the scene, even if it is for just one week.

Jill Erwin: Carpentier is a total class act and I'd love for him to be the top-finishing Canadian. I just don't know if a one-off shot in a car with two top-10 finishes all season is the way to go.

Joe Menzer: Between Montreal and all the wild card and Chase-related drama that will unfold at Michigan, this is going to be a great NASCAR weekend. I might drink to it and fry up some Canadian bacon. Although, after my annual visit to the doc the other day, I don't think he'd approve. I even had to throw half a box of Cap'n Crunch out of the pantry after I got home.

David Caraviello: I guess, then, this wouldn't be the best time to introduce you to poutine?

Jill Erwin: "Never" is a good time to introduce anyone to poutine.

Joe Menzer: What the hell is that?

David Caraviello: Exactly.

3. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch each suffered setbacks to their wild-card hopes at Watkins Glen, once again moving Ryan Newman into playoff position. With four races left, can the Stewart-Haas driver close the deal?

Jill Erwin: I'm not sold on it. If you look at the four races left, Ryan's average finish is 18.1 at Michigan, 16.5 at Bristol, 17.5 at Atlanta and 11.8 at Richmond. I still think that second wild card is Kyle Busch's for the taking, especially if it's still within reach heading into Richmond, where he has four wins and an average finish of 4.7.

Sprint Cup Series

Wild-card standings
2. (WC) R. Newman6441
3.Ky. Busch6381
4.J. Gordon6341
5.M. Ambrose6001
6.J. Logano5871

Joe Menzer: No. I still think that final spot will go to Kyle Busch, who will win one of these last four to claim it. And after that, I'd pick Gordon. But adding to the mix now is Ambrose. I know he's never won on an oval, but he's actually pretty good at Michigan and I could see him contending at Atlanta, too. He might come out of nowhere here, although I still like Kyle the most.

David Caraviello: Ryan Newman is like the invisible man in this Chase hunt. Every weekend he's overlooked, but almost every weekend there he is, still in contention. He's been far from spectacular, but he's been doing just well enough to keep his name in play. And if he's hung around this long -- well, it gets tough to count him out. And quietly, he's actually had a pretty good last five weeks. Busch and Gordon keep trying to knock him out of the way, but can't. Every time you think he's out ... he's pulled right back in.

Jill Erwin: Ryan Newman as Al Pacino? I thought Pacino had a neck ....

Joe Menzer: Jillbird is getting pretty brave as she prepares to head out the NASCAR door!

David Caraviello: And yes, Jill, I totally see those averages at the upcoming tracks. But Newman hasn't finished worse than 11th since the Kentucky race in July. He's not putting up the wrong kind of big numbers like some of these other wild-card contenders are occasionally doing. I'm not saying I'm sold on him, but he's probably doing a better job of staying in this than he gets credit for, as evidenced by his recent results.

Joe Menzer: The politician is back at Track Smack. So what's your answer, Senator Caraviello? Is Newman the pick for Caraviellocare -- or not?

Jill Erwin: Caraviello, I'll concede that fact. But that's always been Newman's M.O. He's the under-the-radar guy. Not flashy, doesn't talk a lot of big game, but he's there. And it's calming to see him there, somehow. But at this time of year, with so much on the line and so many people with one win, I'm just not sold that slow and steady is going to win this race. Not with Kyle eyeing Victory Lane.

David Caraviello: Tough call, Joe. One of those deals where your head says one thing and your gut says another. I'm sure you have similar issues around fried breakfast meats. And allow me to state for the record that I am pro breakfast meat.

Jill Erwin: If you weren't, I'd have to call you a commie. I think you'd also be banned from covering NASCAR.

Joe Menzer: Kyle isn't just eyeing Victory Lane. He's staring it down with laser-like focus -- especially after Watkins Glen. Meanwhile, the gentleman from South Carolina (that would be Caraviello) continues to sit on the fence while we wait for an answer. Will Newman hold onto that spot -- or not?

David Caraviello: Here's the crazy thing about Newman. When we look back on the season, what will prove one of the most pivotal points of the year was the finish of the spring race at Martinsville. Jimmie and Jeff going for the win, David Reutimann stalling to bring out the caution, Clint Bowyer forcing it three-wide on the restart and starting a wreck that takes out the two top contenders. Jimmie wins, he almost sews up the top Chase seed. Gordon wins, he has that second win that will get him into the playoff. But who wins? Hello, Newman -- and that victory has allows him to stay in wild-card contention. Weird, wild stuff. That race ends differently, and perhaps the whole playoff picture is changed.

Jill Erwin: That was my second-favorite finish of the year. NASCAR needs more insanity at the end of races. I decree it, so shall it be done.

Joe Menzer: You are so right. But that kind of seals the point that Jill and I have boldly made as we await your answer. Newman hasn't shown the ability to run up front nearly as much as Kyle Busch or Jeff Gordon, nor is he as desperate to win on an oval as Marcos Ambrose. I say he will not be in the Chase when all is said in done, and one of the others will be.

Jill Erwin: Go for the win or get out of the way, Caraviello! I can't round up both of you people. Make a pick. Not just "I don't think he can, but he still does, so who knows?"

David Caraviello: Without that win, Newman is about sixth in line for the wild card instead of a leading candidate for the second one. Amazing how things can unfold. But will he hold on to it the rest of the way? I keep thinking, no chance. But there he is, still in it. It's getting difficult to bet against him. So there's my answer. I hope you're happy. Breakfast meats all around!

Joe Menzer: And there you are, continuing to sit on the fence, Senator! But I do applaud the motion for breakfast meats all around. It kind of made me forget what we were talking about.

David Caraviello: And since we've all answered the question, a tip of the cap to Jill Erwin, who has always been a wonderfully entertaining and enthusiastic Track Smacker, and is now moving on to bigger and better things. You will be missed, Jill. A crate of Canadian bacon and a case of Labatt Blue are waiting for you on the way out.

Jill Erwin: None of that floppy stuff! I want my bacon to crumble when I try to pick it up!

Joe Menzer: Well, as the good Senator stated, goodbye and good luck to you, Jillbird. You will be missed. Now pass the beer and bacon and let's go racin'.

Jill Erwin: I will miss you crazy guys. Even though I tell you I won't. I will not, however, share my Labatt Blue.