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Track Smack: Johnson firmly in control with two to go

November 08, 2012, ,

Also: Will Kyle Busch bounce back in 2013? Did Vickers make the right move?

1. With two races left, it's down to Jimmie Johnson vs. Brad Keselowski in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Who has the edge in this weekend's race at Phoenix?

Jarrod Breeze: Really? You have to ask that? In his five championship seasons, Johnson has finished second, first, first, first and fifth in the Chase races at Phoenix. The guy has four wins and 12 top-five finishes in 18 starts there. If he hasn't already, he puts the title on ice this week.

Mark Aumann: Well, if you look at past performance -- like we have every week -- Johnson hands-down is the best driver at Phoenix. However, two huge caveats here: 1. Phoenix has been reconfigured, so you can basically throw a lot of those stats out of the window. 2. The Brad Keselowski of the 2012 Chase is nothing like the BK who has one top-five finish in six Phoenix starts.

Joe Menzer: Well, not to name drop, but I was just talking with Brad the other day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- and he sounded very confident. But he admitted that he's more confident about making a run for the win at Homestead than he is Phoenix. So taking that into consideration, I think the edge goes to Jimmie this weekend and BK has to just make sure he doesn't lose many points to him so that Homestead will still be relevant.

Mark Aumann: Still, this is now Johnson's to lose, at perhaps his dominant track. I think Bad Brad needs a Hail Mary, or perhaps a Bloody Mary.

Joe Menzer: We all could use a Bloody Mary or three at this point in the long season!

Mark Aumann: And mimosas at Homestead.

Jarrod Breeze: You know, they all give that "we can do it" spiel. That's the PR coming out in them. But deep down Keselowski knows he is going to need Johnson to lay an egg to have a shot. And I may be a bird-brain, but that's just not going to happen.

Mark Aumann: A wing and a prayer?

Jarrod Breeze: Well, we know Keselowski will wing it. Don't know if he is a religious man.

Joe Menzer: Ah, don't be so hard on yourself JB. You're no bird-brain. If I'm I betting man, I'd bet on Johnson to hang onto his current lead and win his sixth championship. You just can't count on that 48 bunch making a bunch of mistakes (i.e., laying that proverbial egg). But I do disagree with JB on one point: There is a difference between the way Keselowski is carrying himself going into these final two races and, say, how Denny Hamlin was carrying himself into the final two in 2010.

Mark Aumann: Let's face it. Brad's performed at an incredibly high level the entire Chase and he's still got a good chance to pull this off. But Jimmie's coming off back-to-back race wins and heading to Phoenix. He's in perfect position.

Joe Menzer: BK seems to think, as much as anything, that the odds are bound to turn more in his favor over the final two races after he figures the racing gods smiled on the 48 guys over the last few. He said last Sunday he felt like he was a card player who got dealt a hand of 20 only to have the dealer turn over 21 and claim Blackjack on the final card.

Jarrod Breeze: Joe, hasn't Brad been paying attention? I'm sure Jimmie still has a golden horseshoe or two lying around. There is no balancing out here. Jimmie makes things one-sided. When he gets in this position, there's just little anyone can do that will make a difference.

Mark Aumann: Last week, I was certain Keselowski was going to unseat Johnson. But I didn't count on a series of late-race restarts, because sooner or later, Jimmie was going to figure out a way past. But one heck of a side-by-side battle before then.

Jarrod Breeze: Mark, you brought up a good point about the reconfiguration at Phoenix and that perhaps Jimmie's past performances might not be much of a factor as they once did. ... Remember how Johnson dominated at Charlotte before changes to the car? Maybe we get something like that here, but he did finish fourth in the spring at Phoenix.

Mark Aumann: One spot in front of BK, JB. I think that's a factor to watch, definitely.

Who will win?

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Joe Menzer: Well, there are a couple factors to consider here. And it just shows how the little things play into a tight championship battle such as this one. Jimmie not only won the past two races, but he won them after starting from the pole. BK qualified much better at Texas, but he started 32nd at Martinsville. By winning the pole, JJ avoided the pit-road issues that possibly cost Keselowski at Texas. He had that first pit stall and didn't have to worry about someone blocking him in if he overshot the pits like BK did when Danica Patrick had him boxed in.

Mark Aumann: But here's the deal. The championship is totally out of Keselowski's control now, just like where Carl Edwards stood at this point last year. If Johnson keeps winning, Brad can't gain any ground. Simple math.

Jarrod Breeze: And if Brad wins at Phoenix but Jimmie finishes second, Keselowski gains what? He'll have to lead the most laps for it really to make a difference. Seven points doesn't seem like a lot, but with just two races to go, it is.

Mark Aumann: And yeah, if Brad had won at Texas, the complexion of the championship -- even though it's just four points -- is probably completely different. Because now Keselowski has a two-point edge heading into Phoenix, and perhaps more breathing room.

Joe Menzer: And if BK had another bad qualifying day at either of these last two places, one of these times he very well might get caught up in someone else's mess in the back of the field while trying to move up. And that wouldn't be totally a "bad luck" thing.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, this isn't a situation where Keselowski is getting breaks or barely holding on. The guy had the race won until the final caution and restart. And he drove a methodical, analytical race the week before to get a solid finish. He's not going away due to any mistakes on his part.

Jarrod Breeze: Keselowski admitted to Joe, and others, to making some mistakes during the course of the Chase. And Johnson has taken advantage.

Mark Aumann: I know a lot of folks want to blame the loss on the two-tire stop. But honestly, by the time that final restart came around, nobody had tires with a significantly better grip. It's just Jimmie stuck with Brad better and pinned him to the bottom of the track in Turn 1, something he learned from not doing it the restart before.

Jarrod Breeze: Agreed. Jimmie won that race more-so than Brad or, more to the point, any pit call lost it. There's something to be said for that. I don't think Jimmie Johnson is the best driver in NASCAR, but he is the best clutch driver. And he has the best team, hands down.

Mark Aumann: He's no spring chicken, that's for sure.

Jarrod Breeze: No bird-brain, either. Johnson is the smartest driver in NASCAR, as well, and he has the smartest crew chief, too.

Joe Menzer: Like Brad has said, you can win two out of three restarts and that's pretty good. But eventually, you're going to lose one. And don't even get me started on the conspiracy theorists who claim Johnson jumped that last restart. He didn't -- at least not by enough for it to be called a penalty. That stuff happens all the time and rarely, if ever, gets called.

Jarrod Breeze: Heck, both Johnson and Kyle Busch complained BK had jumped the restart just before the final one.

Joe Menzer: Just like two restarts earlier when Johnson complained over his team radio that BK jumped a restart, when the No. 2 car wasn't guilty, either.

Jarrod Breeze: Hey, great minds think alike, huh Joe? Two bird-brains in the bush is better than one in the hand.

2. Kyle Busch missed the Chase this season, but has put together quite a string of impressive finishes lately. Does that bode well for him and his No. 18 Toyota team in 2013?

Mark Aumann: Consider that one year ago, Kyle was writing apologies instead of racing and waiting to see what his sponsors wanted to do about his future, Texas was a huge success. He made an interesting point that maybe seems obvious, but he runs better when he races a lot. He had three top-fives during the weekend. And that's something he hadn't done much this season, on the advice of the team -- concentrating more on the Cup ride.

Joe Menzer: You'd like to say yes, that it means something. But there have been other years where it has seemed that way -- Joey Logano finishing strong in 2010 and then struggling last year, for instance -- and it ended up meaning nothing. Throw in the fact that they'll be going to a new car in Cup in 2013 and I think it means less than ever. Sorry, Kyle fans, but that's how I see it.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, but we're talking about a guy who has Chase experience, Joe. I'm thinking more along the lines of how Kasey Kahne finished out 2011 -- even though it was with a different team -- and carried that momentum into this season.

Joe Menzer: Of course Kahne stunk at the beginning of this season, so I don't know about that theory. The momentum he has now was gained gradually from about a third of the season in through now, as he became more acclimated with the new team.

Mark Aumann: Hey, quit bringing facts into this.

Jarrod Breeze: There was a time when I considered Kyle Busch the best pure driver in NASCAR. But I don't know anymore, something just seems to be amiss. He missed the Chase for the second time in four years and even when he's been in it he hasn't done anything. Also, he only has one win this year, his fewest since his last year with Hendrick Motorsports. Not a good career trend.

Kyle Busch

2012 Chase Results

Mark Aumann: JB, that was a point that I overheard someone talk about this weekend, that at one time, Kyle's career seemed to parallel Jeff Gordon's. And now it seems like he's stalled out. He really hasn't had a good Chase when he's made it. And the victories disappeared this year.

Joe Menzer: I just don't think you can take this one season and suggest that Kyle Busch's career is somehow in a downward spiral. He won four Cup races last year, three the year before, four the year before that. And with better luck, he would have won at least two more to give him three for this season.

Jarrod Breeze: Here we go with that luck factor again. It sometimes might be better to be lucky than good, but if you are counting on luck, you're going to lose.

Joe Menzer: I do think Mark is on to something with the theory that Kyle races better when he races more. He's happier, probably more focused. It's just the way he seems to be built. I think if you look at Carl Edwards, you'd be compelled to come to the same conclusion. Those are the two guys who cut back drastically on their Nationwide schedules to focus on Cup this year -- and neither one made the Chase.

Jarrod Breeze: I wonder what role Truck and Nationwide ownership is playing into all of this for Kyle? That has to be added pressure and stress. Maybe he just needs to go back racing for Billy Ballew in Trucks and having fun. Of course, driving for Joe Gibbs in the NNS is out -- as we will discuss later -- but I'm sure there is another team out there who would be willing to put him in their car.

Joe Menzer: Good point, JB. You saw the stress that the demands of ownership placed on Kevin Harvick previously. So much so that he got out of it. But that hasn't really translated into a better Cup season for Harvick, either. Sometimes maybe we overanalyze all this stuff. Either your cars are fast and don't break, or they aren't and they break too often. Kyle's had more than his fair share of stuff break this season.

Jarrod Breeze: Yeah, this could be a team thing. I haven't discounted that. But Hamlin was in the thick of the Chase just a couple of weeks ago and despite what Mark Martin thinks, I've never been completely sold on Logano in the Cup Series. And Kyle is there in the middle. But I will say this, mechanical trouble seems to find Busch more-so than his teammates.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, Harvick would definitely be the guy most knowledgeable about that. Although I'm not sure Kyle wants his opinion. I know Kyle decided he wanted more races in the Nationwide car as the season went along. And it helps to be the owner in that situation. He's run better in the Cup car since.

Joe Menzer: Well, Kyle didn't decide he was going to run more Nationwide races until he got to Chicagoland for the Chase-opening race and he knew he wasn't in the Chase. But cutting back on those races wasn't his idea anyway, I don't think. I think that was driven by his bosses at Joe Gibbs Racing, who said they didn't mind him dabbling in ownership and all, but that at some point they needed to have him more completely focused on his Cup efforts. Maybe now they'll rethink that position, considering how this year went.

Jarrod Breeze: Which is why, Joe, 2013 is so important. We'll see if this year is the beginning of a trend or just an aberration.

Joe Menzer: I think Kyle Busch will be just fine next year, although I don't think the momentum gained at the end of this year will have all that much to do with it except for possibly restoring any faith the driver may have lost in crew chief Dave Rogers.

Jarrod Breeze: You may not have momentum, you may not have luck, but you "gotta have faith."

3. Speaking of Joe Gibbs Racing, it has been announced that Brian Vickers will be driving a JGR car full-time and running for a championship in the Nationwide Series next season. Was this the right move for Vickers, who also will drive in nine Sprint Cup races for Michael Waltrip Racing?

Jarrod Breeze: I think it's a great move for Vickers, who won't be sitting idly in the few and far between Cup starts. I would think he would have to be one of the preseason favorites to win the 2013 title.

Mark Aumann: It gives him a shot at a championship and keeps him in the spotlight, in case Mark Martin decides he'd like to stick around for the next presidential election. Vickers all but hinted that he's waiting in the wings for the No. 55 ride at some point, but Mark's shown no signs of wanting to do less.

Joe Menzer: I think it's a brilliant move. What else was he going to do? Try to jump into a mid-level Sprint Cup ride just for the heck of it? Stepping back to run for a championship in the series where he was once champion is a great move and will help him continue to revive his career as he waits for Mark Martin to eventually retire so he can climb into a competitive Cup ride in the No. 55 Toyota at MWR.

Jarrod Breeze: I hope Vickers has a Plan B. If I was him I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for 1). Mark Martin to make a decision and; 2 ). to stick with it. We've been sold that before.

Joe Menzer: Well, I believe Mark Martin's current contract with MWR runs out after 2013. At some point, he's going to have to move over for a younger driver.

Jarrod Breeze: Yeeeeaaaah, riiiight.

Mark Aumann: Brian Vickers vs. Regan Smith vs. Trevor Bayne is suddenly a very interesting championship battle, along with the other key components.

Joe Menzer: And don't forget Elliott Sadler, who is all but set to become Vickers' JGR Nationwide teammate, and Austin Dillon. It could be very interesting, indeed.

Mark Aumann: Yep, I wasn't omitting them as much as pointing out the fresh faces, but yeah, the Nationwide racing has the panache it seems to have been missing. Credit the "check one championship" rule for that. I think I'll be much more interested in Saturdays than Sundays next season.

Jarrod Breeze: It's certainly shaping up that way, especially if Jimmie Johnson wins yet another Cup title. Same 'ol, same 'ol ... unless you are interested in who will "step up" to finish second.

Mark Aumann: OK. How would you handicap it right now, between Sadler, Vickers, Dillon, Bayne and Smith? I'd have to go with Bayne, just because that car's about to win its second consecutive championship, but Sadler's getting in a car that's won a ton this season with Joey Logano. And Vickers ... I can see where some people might spin it as "damaged goods," but you're talking about guys with a lot of talent who got stuck in tough situations. Vickers is a prime example. He makes the Chase, has the heart surgery and then Red Bull goes belly-up. He has a Nationwide championship under his belt. He hasn't suddenly forgotten how to drive.

Joe Menzer: Hey, what about Sam Hornish Jr.? OK, I like Sam -- and he's made great strides this season -- but I'm joking. I think I'm going to go out on a limb here and pick ... Sadler. But I really do want to go out on a limb and pick Regan Smith, just because I think he's underrated and talented and got the shaft at Furniture Row Racing. But that car has not been as fast and so you have to wonder.

Jarrod Breeze: Regan Smith I think is the X-factor here. Everyone else, OK, maybe besides Trevor Bayne, has some sort of track record. Smith doesn't. It will be interesting to see what he can do in top-notch equipment.

Joe Menzer: How about if I pick Sadler for the 2013 championship and Regan Smith for the 2014 championship?

Jarrod Breeze: JGR certainly will have two strong candidates to win the title next year. But what about Darrell Wallace Jr. and Michael McDowell? In bit roles, both have excelled. Three top-10s and a pole in four races for Wallace this year. In the past two years, McDowell has nine top-10s in 11 starts.

Joe Menzer: I believe JGR intends to run Darrell Wallace Jr. in some Nationwide events next season, with the eye of possibly moving him into a full-time NNS ride in 2014. As for Michael McDowell, nice guy and a total team player. Based on that you'd like to see him get a full-time chance. But this is a production business. His production doesn't come close to matching that of Vickers and Sadler.

Jarrod Breeze: Because he hasn't been given the chance. Most of the NNS top-10 is filled with drivers not at that level, either. If not JGR, then McDowell should get an opportunity elsewhere.

Mark Aumann: Darrell's only run right in the thick of things every time they've handed him the car this season. And McDowell is much better than the situation he's found himself in at the Cup level right now.

Jarrod Breeze: I mean, right now we have drivers in the NNS top-10 in points without a top-five finish this year, and very few top-10s. I think with the drivers that have been mentioned previously -- and let's not forget Michael Annett, who has really come on in the second half of the season -- next year's NNS standings could pack more punch.

Mark Aumann: I think the Cup interlopers may have their hands full in 2013.