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Track Smack: Keselowski in driver's seat at midpoint of Chase

October 11, 2012, ,

Kahne looks to get in the mix with Charlotte sweep; Busch NNS win streak on line

1. Brad Keselowski didn't just escape Talladega, he built on his points lead. As the Chase nears its halfway point, is it his title to lose?

Joe Menzer: It appears so. Then again, should anyone be surprised that he was able to navigate the rough waters of Talladega? He's the latest master of that place, as much as anyone can master it, and he was adroit at avoiding the big mess at the end. The rest of the way, he just needs to avoid that one bad race -- so yes, it's his to lose. But that's not to say this thing is over. Far from it.

David Caraviello: Well, I will say this about the guy -- he's showing amazing staying power. Week after week, he's up there and he's not budging. We've talked often about how one of Keselowski's strengths is his ability to run well on so many different types of tracks, and I think that's benefiting him right now as he maintains his position through the first half of this Chase.

Mark Aumann: Well, as the points leader, technically the answer would be yes. However, if the spirit of the question is if Brad has this thing in cruise control, I'm not willing to go that far this quickly. Lots of races, lots of things could happen -- and some guy named Jimmie Johnson still hanging around. If you look at how he's run this season at the tracks left on the schedule, Keselowski's got to be considered the favorite from here on out: fifth at Charlotte, ninth at Martinsville, fifth at Phoenix. His biggest misstep was at Texas.

Joe Menzer: And here's the rub, too: I don't think Brad Keselowski will go into straight cruise control at any point down the stretch, no matter what his lead is. It's not in his nature. On one hand, you have to admire that and say it's good; on the other, maybe it puts him more at risk to make a bobble that lets the others gain ground.

Mark Aumann: As we've seen in the past, once you build yourself a cushion, it's just a matter of not doing something to give a big hunk of it back. He's got house money to play with for now, because the only way Johnson and Denny Hamlin will be able to make up the difference is if Keselowski stumbles.

David Caraviello: You know, 14 points is far from a runaway lead, but it's also not exactly small, either. As well as the title contenders historically run in this thing, and how closely bunched toward the front they usually are, that's a margin that's going to take a few weeks to whittle away, if someone can do it at all. He keeps this up, he's going to need a major failure or a big number to let everyone catch up, and I don't know if everybody else wants to pin their hopes on something like that. Brad adds a few more points to his lead at Charlotte, and suddenly this thing is going to seem very real.

Joe Menzer: I actually would argue that it's sort of like the prevent defense that so often comes back to bite teams in football. You gotta drive the way that got you there; you start backing it down, driving defensively to try to maintain what you've got instead of building on it, and suddenly you're out of your element and actually more prone to making costly mistakes. I don't think BK will fall into that trap.

Brad Keselowski

Remaing Chase tracks
TrackStartsAvg. Finish2012


Mark Aumann: And Joe's point is a good one. Brad is the type of driver who uses his aggressiveness to his benefit. But ... that can backfire in this instance. He may have to limit his chance-taking.

Joe Menzer: Then again, if Jimmie wins Charlotte and BK has some kind of problem, it's a whole new ballgame. That's why it's a little early to be asking this question.

Mark Aumann: DC is right. Every race from here on out is one less chance for the Chasers to chase down the leader. If Brad puts together a solid run at Charlotte, everyone else is just trying to run in place. And wasn't this the track where Jimmie's championship hopes hit the wall in 2011?

Joe Menzer: It's also the track where he's won a series-high six times.

Mark Aumann: And don't get me wrong. Brad's one of the smartest guys out there. He broke out an Albert Einstein quote in the media center at Talladega, for crying out loud. So he's not going to go do something foolish, all of a sudden. And yeah, Jimmie won a bunch of races at Charlotte -- in the old car. But he has just one since NASCAR switched chassis. He's not nearly the odds-on favorite there that he used to be.

Joe Menzer: Wow. An Einstein quote? I've eaten Einstein bagels before, but that's about it.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Jimmie won almost all those races with the same chassis. Since then he's about taken the big Einstein Brothers bagel at the place. Saturday night we get a glimpse at the intermediate-track packages that may decide this title, and while it's too early to rule any of those top guys out, you have to like the way Brad's going about his business right now.

* Fantasy: Charlotte a danger zone, but Keselowski on a roll

Joe Menzer: Of course, one victory is more than BK has ever had at Charlotte.

Mark Aumann: Two wins in the Nationwide Series, including this spring. He's seen Victory Lane -- just not in the Cup car.

Joe Menzer: I thought we were talking Cup here? As the points leader, though, BK doesn't necessarily have to win. All he has to do is keep Jimmie and the others in his sights and make sure he doesn't have any major problems that cause them to drive off and leave him.

Mark Aumann: But he doesn't have to win the race, Joe. He just has to keep the competition at bay.

David Caraviello: Like keeping Joe away from the bagel counter, that may be more difficult than it appears.

Kasey Kahne already has one Charlotte sweep in his career. (Getty Images)


2. It's on to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Kasey Kahne won in May. Can a season sweep at the industry's home track propel him into the thick of the championship hunt?

David Caraviello: You know, trying to decide who's still in this title race and who's really out of it is tougher than it seems. Kahne is 36 back, which seems like a real healthy number, but he's only in fourth place. Yeah, he needs some help to get back into this. He wins at Charlotte, one or two of the guys ahead of him have an incident, and it's a whole new ballgame. Remember, this is where Jimmie hit the wall last year.

Mark Aumann: Kasey's 36 points back, so yeah, a win definitely would do nothing less than keep him in contention. I think he needs no worse than a top-three finish -- and some bad luck to at least one of the three guys in front of him -- to merit consideration as a serious threat. That's a lot of points to make up in six races.

Who will win?

The Chase for the Sprint Cup? This week's race? Check out the up-to-date predictions.

Joe Menzer: Well, this is sort of tied into the first question, isn't it? If Kahne wins, it kind of depends on what kind of days those in front of him in the current Chase standings have as to how far it propels him back into the hunt. But you've gotta believe that it would at least put him back in the conversation, especially if he could gain 10 points or so on Keselowski in the process. But then you get back to the first question, and what you're talking about is a Kahne win coupled with Keselowski finishing outside of the top 10 or worse. That's a tall order on both ends.

Mark Aumann: This will get us to the crossed flags and the halfway point of the Chase. I don't necessarily know the "gotta be within x number of points to have a shot," but I'm guessing anybody more than 30 behind after Charlotte is probably facing a very uphill battle.

David Caraviello: Kasey doesn't control his own destiny. Unless he goes on some crazy streak of winning several races in a row -- unlikely, sure, but you never can completely rule that out -- he needs help. Goodness, look at poor Matt Kenseth, who won last weekend at Talladega and is still buried. Wins only do so much good. Trouble suffered by someone else helps you more than anything, but that's not the kind of thing a driver can just make happen.

Mark Aumann: I don't see both Keselowski and Johnson -- or truthfully, Denny Hamlin -- having enough poor finishes to let somebody back in the title hunt.

Joe Menzer: And one bad race earlier in the Chase is always going to haunt you. Just ask Jeff Gordon, who has been driving the wheels off his car since Pocono back in early August. But because of one bad finish in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, he's still likely too far back to truly get back in this thing unless something really crazy happens.

David Caraviello: Mark, I wouldn't disagree. That's asking an awful lot. Will one of those teams falter? Probably. Two? Maybe. All three? Goodness, I don't know if that's possible.

Joe Menzer: That's like Track Smack. Is it possible during a session that one of you guys will be a little off? Sure. Two of you? OK, that could happen. But all three of us, myself included? Not likely to happen. One thing to remember about Kahne, though, is that he loves this track. Always has. He swept both races at Charlotte in 2006 and won the 600 again in 2008 before capturing that race for a third time earlier this season. So he's won in new cars, old cars, before repaving, after repaving. He's definitely one of the top threats this Saturday night.

* Preview Show: Kahne on how different his setup will be from his Coca-Cola 600 winning car

Mark Aumann: A little off? That's like saying the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a little crooked. Jimmie Johnson has shown that you can put together an amazing run over the next four or five races and put yourself right back in it. But does Kahne, or Gordon or Tony Stewart, for that matter, have a car capable of doing that? Maybe Gordon, but that's a tall order.

Joe Menzer: I think maybe Kahne does have the kind of car to go on a serious run, much like Gordon. But it might be too late for both of them in that no matter what they do, there are too many points to make up and too many teams ahead of them that aren't likely to mess up. They would need to be "a lot off" like Caraviello sometimes is by the time we get to the end of these things.

David Caraviello: To me this whole who's in/who's out exercise is made all the more interesting by comparing the standings to what they looked like at this point a year ago. Brad's lead is 14 points -- last season heading to Charlotte, 16 points separated the top six. Things just seem much more spread out now, making it seem tougher for those guys in the middle of the pack to make a real run at it. I mean, yeah, sure, Tony Stewart was seventh in points at this time last year -- but only 19 out of the lead. That same deficit would put him in third right now.

Six Pack

Nik Wallenda's high-wire act is sure to entertain at Charlotte.

Mark Aumann: I pretty much made up my mind a few weeks ago that this is down to BK, JJ and Denny. And unless something crazy happens at Charlotte, I'm sticking with that assessment. OK, let me rephrase that, since Bruton Smith always has something crazy lined up at Charlotte. On the track, I mean.

Joe Menzer: Check his math anyway, Mark. We need Rain Man to make sure all those numbers he started throwing out are correct. And yeah, this pre-race show will be a doozy -- including the world-famous Nik Wallenda descending more than two and a half football fields from the frontstretch grandstands on a tightrope that will be connected to a crane above Victory Lane.

David Caraviello: Fifth through 11th right now is a total crapshoot -- all those guys are separated by just 11 points. But the margins near the top are wider, and they're going to make it tough for anyone to build any forward momentum without getting a lot of help from the guys in front of them. And if Nik Wallenda wanted to try something really crazy, he'd attempt to cut in on the media buffet line. That would be death-defying.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, and the situation with Kenseth winning and remaining 12th had to be discouraging for the guys sitting pretty far back. Gordon's been outstanding and can't seem to overcome the Chicagoland deficit.

Joe Menzer: Nik tried to show me a few wire-walking tips at Charlotte Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, but I declined. If he only knew the tightrope I have to walk every week between you two guys and the truth in Track Smack!

Mark Aumann: We're a high-wire act every week here!

Joe Menzer: And with no safety net, either.

Kyle Busch has a 13.2 average finish driving his own car in the Nationwide Series. (Getty Images)


3. Kyle Busch is racing this weekend in the Nationwide Series, where he's won at least one race in each of the last eight seasons. Can he keep that streak going in 2012?

Mark Aumann: He hasn't won, but he's led a lot of laps and come very close. Kurt got the car into Victory Lane at Richmond. I think Kyle will break though. It's almost like his lousy Cup luck has carried over to the Nationwide team in 2012.

Joe Menzer: Sure he will. Didn't he also announce a few other races that he's added to his Nationwide schedule going down the stretch? I believe I asked him about it in Chicago and he said, 'Well, I am the owner so I can do what I want, right?' If he's in his own car and has added a couple more races, I'll bet you he wins one to keep the streak alive.

Kyle Busch

Nationwide wins by year

Mark Aumann: He's had top-10 finishes in each of his past six races, so it's not like he hasn't been in the hunt. He just hasn't gotten that one stroke of luck to pull off a win. It could very well come this weekend. He finished third at Charlotte in May.

David Caraviello: I guess when you think of it, it is kind of hard to believe that the career leader in Nationwide Series victories doesn't have one this season. But he's driving his own cars and not those seemingly unbeatable Joe Gibbs Racing entries, and he's running fewer events. But yeah, as Mark mentioned, his past six finishes have all been really strong. Assuming he picks up more Nationwide starts now that he's out of the Chase, you'd think his chances of snagging a win this season would be pretty good.

Mark Aumann: I really have liked the "choose a series" rule, because it has allowed the Nationwide-only (and Truck-only) drivers a little more of an even playing field, or that's what it seems like this season. We've seen a lot more series regulars winning, and that's good for the series, to be honest. Not at all a slam on guys such as Kyle and Carl Edwards and the other top Cup guys, but it's healthier long-term for the Nationwide Series to have a strong identity.

Joe Menzer: It adds an interesting side dynamic to the Nationwide Series down the stretch here. You know Kyle is hungry for his first Nationwide win in one of his own cars -- especially since big bro already got one. Meanwhile, what he does could and likely will factor into how a tight championship battle between Elliott Sadler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon plays out.

David Caraviello: Could not agree with you guys more. Pick-a-series has been one of the best things NASCAR has done. The Nationwide tour is its own series again for the first time since the heyday of Jason Keller and Randy LaJoie.

Joe Menzer: Not only that, but I think it has helped the guys like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon develop more quickly than maybe they would have. At least they're probably driving with more confidence that they can run up front and win some of these races. Heck, Elliott Sadler probably is a much better driver now than when he was last in Cup. And isn't that what the Nationwide Series is supposed to be about, more than anything? Helping guys develop?

* Nationwide Championship Predictor: Who will win?

David Caraviello: Another interesting thing is, you look at all the guys who cut back on their Nationwide efforts in an attempt to improve their Sprint Cup results -- Kyle, Edwards, Kevin Harvick -- and they seem to have taken a step backward. That's not all on them, of course -- some of these guys are dealing with company-wide performance issues -- but it hasn't been the magic bullet so many thought it might be. Of course, Jimmie keeps rolling along, and he doesn't race any Nationwide, and Stewart rarely does. But for some guys, cutting back hasn't generated automatic improvement.

Mark Aumann: I hadn't really thought about the corollary there, DC. But Joey Logano has been one of the guys to beat every time he shows up in the Nationwide Series and it hasn't really carried over to his Cup ride. I don't know that we can infer, if A and B, therefore C, as much as in the past.

David Caraviello: You're right, Mark. So it flows (or doesn't) in the opposite direction, too. I still think for Sprint Cup title contenders, fewer Nationwide events are the way to go -- hard to argue with the way Jimmie Johnson's done it -- but this season makes it clear that the approach tends to vary on a driver-to-driver basis.

Mark Aumann: There's enough of a difference -- maybe with the power or the handling -- to where the experience advantage isn't as pronounced now.


Joe Menzer: Getting more to your point, DC, I think some guys such as Carl and Kyle had been doing double-duty so long that getting out of a regular Nationwide car has been an adjustment that perhaps has hurt them in Cup. But you can't say the same about Keselowski, who is flourishing in Cup this season after cutting back his Nationwide load. Every guy is different, I guess, sort of like how every one of my kids is different.

Mark Aumann: Or how all the TVs in Joe's Man Cave are different.

David Caraviello: And Brad plans to further reduce his Nationwide schedule this year for as long as he's still in title contention. Which is starting to look like a long time.

Mark Aumann: And Ryan Blaney is more than grateful. Boy, Roger's got some pretty talented kids on the farm there.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Mark, it's like going from my 52-inch HDTV to Joe's 19-inch black and white. Quite a contrast.

Mark Aumann: Contrast! Somebody needs to put DC's jokes on vertical hold.

Joe Menzer: Uh, wait a minute. You've got me mixed up with Mountain Man Mark. You know very well that I have three different sizes of TVs in the Man Cave, all color, one HD -- ranging in size from 55 inches to 38 to 20.

Mark Aumann: No matter. I think readers have had us on mute for years.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.