News & Media

Smack: Who's the bigger threat -- Kahne or Stewart?

August 30, 2012, ,

Other topics: Danica's progress in NASCAR and more wild card banter

1. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has slipped to 10th in the standings, and is just 16 points ahead of wild-card leader Kasey Kahne. Right now, which of those two drivers is the bigger championship threat?

Joe Menzer: Wow. That's a tough one -- if for no other reason than what happened with Tony last year when it looked like there was no way Smoke would rise during the Chase. Heck, I remember being at the pre-Chase media deal where Tony said point-blank that he didn't deserve to be there, that there were others who should have taken his place. Then he went out, won five of the 10 Chase races and his third championship. So it's hard to bet against Smoke here.

David Caraviello: Listen, I never want to sell Tony Stewart short, especially after what he did last year. That title run he unleashed in the Chase -- after a regular season where he was running about how he is right now -- was staggering. Even though I don't know if such a thing is possible again, it gives Tony a lot of leeway when the subject turns to what he's capable of. All that said, the answer here ... is Kasey Kahne. And I don't know if it's close. The guy is just on a rail right now, to the point where I'm beginning to think he's capable of winning the whole thing.

Jarrod Breeze: Tony Stewart. He's right where he needs to be, and has needed some bad results to get there. It was about this time last year when he said if he made the Chase, he would be wasting his time in it. We all know how that turned out. And besides, the name Kasey Kahne with the phrase "championship contender" just doesn't mesh.

Joe Menzer: Did you guys like my "no way Smoke would rise" line? I spent all morning thinking about that one. But I will give you this, Caraviello, regarding the point you make: Kahne is very able.

Jarrod Breeze: And how long did it take for you to come up with Kahne is able, Joe? Geez.

David Caraviello: Guys, I get the Tony love, I really do. After last year, nobody wants to count this guy out, because we know how he can turn things around. But do we really expect that to happen again? And have you paid attention to Kasey Kahne the past eight weeks? The dude is on fire, he has his Chase spot essentially locked up, and if he keeps this up he's going to be right in the thick of things. Meanwhile, Stewart continues to lose ground. I really think this comparison -- at least at the moment -- is more one-sided than it looks, Menzer's bad puns aside.

Joe Menzer: All of my bad puns aside, I find it humorous that Dr. Caraviello would come up with a diagnosis where he says, "this isn't even close." Are you kidding me? I'll give you that Kahne is on a roll right now, driving some very fast race cars. That No. 5 team seems to have hit its stride at precisely the right time. But you can't count Tony out. Not after last year. In fact, to pick someone who's never won a title over him right now and say it "isn't even close" is quite ludicrous.

Jarrod Breeze: I guess I'm one of those people who have to see it first to believe it. And Kasey Kahne has never given me any reason to consider him a championship contender. Now, he may finish ahead of Stewart in the final standings, if that is what we're really asking here, but to think Kahne is going to race for the championship is a bit of a stretch right now.

David Caraviello: Joe, sorry if you're personally offended, but Stewart's win at Daytona seems like it happened a year ago. Since then, he's cracked the top 10 just twice. His last three weeks have been miserable. Yes, the potential is there, as it always is. Tony's completely capable of making me look like a moron, which is actually nothing unusual. But right now ... heck, you take away back-to-back hiccups at Pocono and Michigan, and Kahne has been on fire ever since breaking out of his season-opening slump in the late spring. Guy's been running very well for a longer time than he gets credit for.

Kahne vs. Stewart

Results: Last six races
RaceKahne Fin.Stewart Fin.
The Glen13th19th

Jarrod Breeze: That said, if you look at his results, it's almost hard to believe Kahne isn't in the top 10 at this point. He's had only two bad results since early April, and both of those were crash DNFs. Everyone wants to talk about the great year Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having, but Kahne has been just as good from Texas on.

Joe Menzer: Let's check some facts here. Tony Stewart: three wins this season, three championships, has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup every year since its inception except for 2006 when he finished 11th in points (and there were only 10 Chasers). On the other side, there is Kasey Kahne. He has: two wins this season, no titles, only two Chase appearances in his career -- coming in 2006 and 2009. I'd say there is more than a slight edge going Smoke's way in experience during the crunch time that is the 10-race Chase.

David Caraviello: I mean, if I had to rank the championship contenders right now, it would have to look something like: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle ... and then Kasey Kahne? He's certainly right there in the conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth at this point. He has more wins than those latter two guys.

Joe Menzer: You keep talking about all the momentum Kahne has, and how Stewart has none? Hello? Hello? Did you not see what Stewart did in the Chase last year -- when he had absolutely zero momentum coming into it?

Jarrod Breeze: Stewart has done it before; Kahne hasn't. But if you look at the list of top contenders right now, most would be in that "hasn't" category -- beside Johnson and Kenseth, and even Kenseth dates to pre-Chase. Who else has a track record of Chase success?

David Caraviello: Joe, in racing as with the stock market, past history is no guarantee of future results. Last year has zero bearing on what's happening right now, your ornery manner aside. To be fair, Kasey needs a year like this to justify the opportunity he's been given -- he's been well overdue to break through in this way. But it's happening, even if there's too much Smoke in your eyes for you to see it. Did you see what I did there?

Joe Menzer: I ... can't ... see ... Caraviello's logic. It seems to be all Smoke and mirrors to me.

2. Danica Patrick finished ninth in the Nationwide race at Bristol, and was contenting for a top-20 in the Cup event before she was caught up in a crash. Was last weekend a sign of progress?

Joe Menzer: I was impressed, especially given the fact that she appeared to be down, mentally, when the weekend began. Or maybe that was simply because her Friday was so packed with Nationwide and Cup practices that they had her come into the media center to talk to us at the crack of dawn. But then she went out and struggled mightily, at least in the Cup practices, and was able to put it all behind her for a strong run that night in the Nationwide race.

David Caraviello: You're going to hold that 8:15 a.m. media availability against her for a while, aren't you, Menzer? Hey, it's not her fault you decided to stay in Boone, N.C. Let's be honest, it looked bad for her when she was the slowest of the 47 cars trying to make the Bristol race, in both Sprint Cup practice sessions. And then she spun in Nationwide qualifying. Then she got into the race ... and did a darn nice job both nights of staying out of trouble and trying to get to the end. Bristol is a tough place -- you can't really hide there -- and Danica did a fine job of turning what shaped up as a miserable weekend into a pretty hopeful one.

Jarrod Breeze: If Danica stays out of the crashes that lead to DNFs, she has proven that she can finish among the top 15 in the Nationwide races. So i don't really see a ninth place at Bristol as signs of progress, but maintaining the status quo. Don't get me started in Cup; there is no progress there.

David Caraviello: Ah, JB returns. Ever the optimist.

Patrick performances

Danica's Cup results

Jarrod Breeze: Sorry, I need more than four races and a potential top-20 to fairly surmise her Cup progress. Too small a sample size.

Joe Menzer: To me, staying in Boone was nothing but a boon. Nice little drive over the mountains and nice little college town to stay in. But, dang, that was an early media session. No way even JB the optimist would have liked it.

David Caraviello: Listen, I'm not exactly a fan of this rush to Cup either, but it's happening. She'll be there next year. If anything, last weekend showed that she can pick things up pretty quickly and be more competitive than people might think. Yes, she was helped in both cases by other contenders getting caught up in accidents. But, hey, that's Bristol. Keeping your nose clean is part of the deal, and Danica did that all night in the Nationwide race, and then for much of the evening in the Cup event. In the end, it was one of those weekends that made you think she just might be able to do this.

Joe Menzer: Well, you do have to take into consideration that in the Cup race she got wrecked-out when she was hit from behind by Regan Smith (who may have gotten hit from behind himself, so let's be careful pointing too many wagging fingers at him). It was late in the race and she was still on the lead lap -- no small feat for someone who had never run a Cup race there.

*Video: Danica not happy with Regan Smith wreck

David Caraviello: If that doesn't happen, Joe, she probably finishes inside the top 20 -- not bad for someone who had been 47th in each of the two practices the day before. I realize the bar is set low here, but given her experience level and what she's trying to get out of these Cup races this season, it's probably at an appropriate level.

Jarrod Breeze: It's not for me to decide if she is ready for Cup. The question posed is, has progress been made? And I have to say no on both fronts. For Nationwide progress, she needs consistent top-10s with a couple of top-fives sprinkled in. In Cup, she just needs more starts, worthy or no.

Joe Menzer: I thought the stuff Tony Stewart said about why he picked all the toughest tracks for her to go to this year in Cup was very interesting. Basically he ended by saying she'll probably hate him for it at the end of this year but love him for it when she has to come back to tracks like Bristol and Darlington next year.

David Caraviello: What struck me about her Bristol weekend was how much it mirrored her effort earlier this season at Darlington. In both cases she struggled mightily for much of the day, to the point where you thought a disaster might be brewing. And in both cases she pulled out good Nationwide finishes and held her own (to a certain degree) in the Cup race. Those are two very good examples of how much she can learn and adapt on the fly, and they probably stand out as the two most impressive weekends of her season thus far.

Joe Menzer: Meanwhile, I understand where JB and some of her harshest critics are coming from: the finishes haven't been there in Nationwide. But she did lead 20 laps at Montreal and she did post a top-10 finish at Bristol. So if you're expecting her to compete for wins and a championship -- like she said she hoped to prior to the season -- no, the overall progress isn't there. But as it turns out, those were unrealistic goals for her. And yes, to me she did show at least baby steps of progress at Bristol.

Jarrod Breeze: Now I will say this: sometimes progress can't be measured in results. Right now it is the experience that counts most, and the progress she makes learning how to race these cars. Since I was on vacation this past weekend, the things you are saying about Bristol make me believe she is fast learner. So, in that regard, there's progress. When that translates into results might take a little longer.

David Caraviello: JB, I will give you that I'd like to see what Danica is capable of in a full Nationwide season with nothing else (read: no Cup) to divert her attention. Not that she's carrying too much on her plate right now, but we've never really seen a single effort from her dedicated to one series since she's been in NASCAR. Like this year, she's always juggling multiple rides. Of course, that will end next year when she's in the big show. But I really think she could have some major breakthroughs if she were all-Nationwide, all the time. Look at what it did for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. But Cup beckons, regardless.

Joe Menzer: You said it earlier, DC2. This is a rushed effort because of who she is. And my fear is that it will hurt more than help her.

David Caraviello: And in fairness, Joe, she has been wrecked a lot through no fault of her own. So her point standing is skewed a bit by crashes like those at Daytona and Watkins Glen. She's probably run better than her points standing. Even resident optimist JB would have to admit that.

Jarrod Breeze: I did admit to that.

David Caraviello: Progress! Jarrod will be clad in GoDaddy gear before we know it.

Jarrod Breeze: In races she has not crashed out of, regardless of her own doing, she has been a consistent top-15 driver. So, for progress, I need to see consistent top-10s.

Joe Menzer: And in fairness, there are a whole lot of other drivers in NASCAR who could say the same thing about being wrecked through no fault of their own. And if only this race or that race had panned out a little differently, they'd be much better off in points. It happens every week of every season. Yes, she has had some horrible luck and it's bound to turn at some point. But she's far from alone in fighting that battle.

Jarrod Breeze: I think she is more than capable of holding her own in the Nationwide Series. I won't go as far as championship contender just yet, and it will probably never get to that point as she moves up. As for Cup, well, let's just stop talking about it.

David Caraviello: Oh, Jarrod. And I thought you had come so far ...

3. On to the big Labor Day weekend show at Atlanta, where Jeff Gordon is defending champion. Of the contenders for the second wild card, who's the best bet to win and get in over the regular season's final two weeks?

David Caraviello: OK, we've had questions like this before, and you guys have ganged up on me because of my answer, but I'm sticking to it: Carl Edwards. Yeah, I know -- release the hounds, right? But if you look at how much better his cars have been since crew chief Chad Norris took over at Indianapolis, and his track record at Atlanta, and what he did in the spring at Richmond ... the potential is there, boys. Just have to get past the fact that he doesn't have a win. Doesn't mean he's incapable of getting one now and turning this whole wild card race on its ear.

Joe Menzer: Man, I've been saying Kyle Busch for weeks. I won't deny that my faith in that pick is wavering a bit, but I've got to stick with it. He's really good at Richmond and he's won at Atlanta previously, too. So I'm going to say KB.

Sprint Cup Series

Wild-card standings
2. (WC) Ky. Busch7071
3.J. Gordon6911
4.R. Newman6881
5.M. Ambrose6791
6.J. Logano6381
7.C. Edwards7120

Play all season long

Follow your favorite driver's chance of winning this week's race and making the Chase.

Jarrod Breeze: I guess I need to say Gordon, then, right? Honestly, I also think Edwards could sneak in with an Atlanta victory. But Kyle and Gordon can't be discounted. As for the others -- Newman, Logano, Ambrose -- I think they can be discounted. It's a three-man race for that final spot.

Joe Menzer: At least I feel better about my Kyle Busch pick now that I see Caraviello is picking Edwards. Look, I really like Carl. But this just doesn't seem to be panning out as his year -- and if you go back to even last year, that No. 99 team just hasn't made a habit of winning Cup races. He won one last year, two in 2010, none the year before that. I know he can do it. The nine-win season of 2008 proved it. But that was a long time ago, so I'm not sure why we should expect him to suddenly win one of these next two.

David Caraviello: He had a strong car for the first half of the race at Bristol but, yeah, it does seem Joey Logano has kind of slipped off the map at this point. I was kind of shocked that he didn't post a better effort in the second race at Pocono, which was his big shot to separate himself from the field. Ambrose had to be in the conversation because of how well he's historically run at Michigan and Bristol -- but I don't know about anywhere else. Newman has been barely holding on by virtue of his spring Martinsville win, and he's run good but not great. So I can see this coming down to Busch, Gordon, or Edwards getting a victory.

Joe Menzer: I think I might pick Ambrose as the true wild card's wild card here. That No. 9 team has been on a serious roll lately, and I think it's only a matter of time until Ambrose wheels that car to Victory Lane on an oval. A long shot? Sure. But at this point, I might bet on him over Edwards -- especially if someone gave me better odds on it!

David Caraviello: Wait, this coming from the guy who thinks Carl Edwards is a long shot to win? Love you, Joe, but you've either been spending too much time with the RPM guys, or eating too much Vegemite. Marcos has made great leaps, but I don't know if the tracks ahead line up very well for him. He's definitely put himself in position to be a contender next season, though, which given his transition to stock cars is still great progress.

Jarrod Breeze: Eight top-10s in 14 races is a good starting point, Joe. And if Edwards is close (and I like those odds) you never know how these races are going to play out in the closing laps. Maybe the question should have been, has Ambrose made progress in Cup this year? That I can definitively answer as yes. But I like someone in the triumvirate of Gordon-Busch-Edwards to grab that final wild card spot.

David Caraviello: There's one possibility we're leaving out: that nobody wins. Honestly, given the scrambling state of some of these hopeful wild-card teams, that might be the best bet of all. That second spot could very well come down to a points jostle among the guys with one win each, and if that's the case, Kyle is definitely in a great position. We've assumed all year that each wild card will have two wins -- I'm wondering if we're overthinking it a little bit. After all, these guys are below 10th in the standings for a reason.

Jarrod Breeze: Oh, I think the odds of no wild-card hopeful winning these next two races is your best bet. Which means it comes down to how well Busch and Gordon finish in those races. Should be interesting.

Joe Menzer: The problem with Ambrose is his sample size at these tracks is not all that large because he hasn't been around long enough. But he's struggled at Atlanta with only one top-10 finish in six career starts and an average finish of 22.0. He's been a little better at Richmond -- finishing fifth and ninth in the two 2010 races and with an average finish of 16.1 in seven career starts. But, hey, wait a minute. He's got momentum. Didn't Caraviello say that's all that matters when we were talking about Kasey Kahne?

Jarrod Breeze: Don't go all Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth on me, fellas. Let's debate nicely.

David Caraviello: Um, no, Joe. I did not. Put the Foster's down and step away.

Joe Menzer: Where's my racing helmet? I'm ready to throw it at Caraviello's Outback station wagon! Why do you drive such a car anyway?

David Caraviello: Because you can get a surfboard in the back. At least that was the idea at one point. But enough about ours cars, Mr. Screeching Windstar. I'll take Edwards over Ambrose straight-up over the next two races. Winner goes with Ryan Newman to get a Bloomin' Onion.

Jarrod Breeze: Maybe if Ambrose drove an Outback, he would have better results on the ovals? Free Bloomin' Onions for everyone in attendance!

Joe Menzer: And if Ambrose wins one of these next two weeks, I'll bet he'd spring for some Foster's drafts to wash 'em down! Now we're talkin'.

David Caraviello: Goodness. I'm going to need a few Foster's after this Track Smack is over.

Joe Menzer: How about now? I'm thirsty.