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Track Smack: Debating Johnson's summer swoon

August 07, 2014, Kenny Bruce, David Caraviello and Alan Cavanna, writers debate the hot topics of the week

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1. Pocono continued a summer swoon for Jimmie Johnson, who suffered two more tire issues and finished out of the top 10 for the fourth consecutive race. Should the No. 48 team be concerned?

Alan Cavanna: Here's what I always say about Jimmie Johnson and the 48: That team has set, and earned, its own high standards. Six championships and 60-plus wins will do that. So by those standards, yes the 48 team should be concerned. But by "normal" team standards, I think the 48 is just fine. Every team struggles for a bit during a long season. Much better now than in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

David Caraviello: As for the results, I don't know if "concerned" is quite the right word. This is a team with three wins already and a guaranteed high seed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, so they can afford to try things, and you have to think they are. Jimmie's no stranger to these kinds of stretches right before the playoff, and in the past he's rebounded by spanking the field in the Chase.

Kenny Bruce: They'll say there's no reason to worry, but the number of times they've had issues with camber/tire/front-end setup has continued to climb. They're obviously looking to fine-tune something there, but it has proven costly. Can they "fall back" on what works? Sure. But if others are moving forward and not having issues, will the 48 be as dominant as everyone expects? I don't know about that.


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Cavanna: The lack of speed has surprised me a bit. Jimmie was never a factor at Indianapolis, and even faded a bit toward the end. That's something we never see. In Pocono, the 48 didn't have speed in qualifying and ultimately had the multiple tire issues.

Bruce: Their best is on an entirely different level at times. And even when they aren't performing as well, they're still awfully strong. But I'd rather be finishing races heading into the Chase than sitting in the garage watching the crew make repairs. Johnson mentioned at Pocono that the Chase races are typically the team's best, which alleviates some of the concern. But I don't know if they can turn it off and on like they've been able to in the past. And they clearly haven't been the dominant team in recent weeks. 

Caraviello: The tire thing has to be something of a worry, doesn't it? I mean, the 48 guys have dealt with this kind of stuff a lot in the past, and it played a part in costing them a championship a few years ago. I have to think whatever is going on there needs to be addressed. But as far as this "slump," let's remember that this team finished in the top 10 for seven straight races -- and knocked out three wins in that span -- before its current skid. If any program in NASCAR can flip the switch, it's the 48 guys.

Bruce: Regarding the tire problems, I think you're right, David. They're obviously doing something in that area, and haven't been able to make it work consistently. 

Cavanna: There's always some finger-pointing when it comes to those tire issues, David. At some point I agree, though, the 48 team has to just figure it out internally. If it happens in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, then we'll have something to talk about. But now, on a 1-to-10 scale, I'd put my worry at about a 4.8. See what I did there?

2. This weekend's race at Watkins Glen presents something of a wild card as teams continue to scramble for those final berths in the Chase. Who has the best chance of crashing the party on the New York road course?

: Does anyone remember who the defending champion of this event is, by the way? A guy by the name of Kyle Busch.

Bruce: Given all the attention paid to the race by the Richard Petty Motorsports organization, specifically the No. 9 of Marcos Ambrose, and his success there, you can't ignore him.

Cavanna: If we're talking non-winners in 2014, all signs clearly point to Marcos Ambrose. Previous winner there, great road racer, and the team has used one of its precious tests at the track.

Bruce: But putting all your eggs in one basket like that -- I don't know. It can be pretty dangerous. AJ Allmendinger comes to mind as well, although I'm still not convinced that team has what it takes to get into Victory Lane. Yet. 

Caraviello: More so than Sonoma, Watkins Glen has been the track where guys like Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya (we barely knew ye) were more apt to reach Victory Lane. And surely Ambrose and the 9 guys are throwing everything at this race, from a test to extra seat time in the Nationwide race.

Cavanna: But Ambrose was in almost the same situation in Sonoma, and it didn't work. He seemed on-edge the entire weekend, whether it was nerves or simply frustration. It's almost like the pressure has an adverse effect at track where Ambrose should clearly do well.

Caraviello: There are also some guys like Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer who have proven themselves on road courses in the past, and really need a win right now. I wouldn't be surprised if someone got the big win they needed to punch a Chase ticket -- and it was someone with a more traditional NASCAR background.

Cavanna: Add Tony Stewart to you list, David (but we'll get to him in a second).

Caraviello: And here's an oddity -- Jeff Gordon is NASCAR's all-time best road course racer, and he hasn't won at the Glen in a staggering 13 years. And now he returns freewheeling, his Chase berth assured, and driving for one of the best teams in Sprint Cup. If it's ever time to end that drought, it's this weekend.

Cavanna: Gordon was my pick in the Preview Show. Fast cars, a lot of momentum -- why not the 24?

Bruce: I think we can count on one thing at the Glen -- guys that haven't won this season aren't going to play nice. And I think it'll be obvious from the start of the race. 

Cavanna: I agree, Kenny. It'll be an interesting mix of those with nothing to lose, and those with everything to gain. Great recipe for race fans.

Caraviello: This is such an interesting track, with all those corners combined with superspeedway straights. You wouldn't think it would be as physical as Sonoma, but recent history surely indicates otherwise. Every other year it seems there are guys wrecked in the kitty litter shoving each other around. That's why the place is so great.

Cavanna: And Boris Said will be there!

Caraviello: Which means the guys wearing Boris wigs will be there!

Bruce: Can you imagine the backlash if a non-regular such as Boris won, taking away a Chase opportunity? 

Cavanna: I don't even want to think about it, Kenny. If a driver needs a victory that bad, he/she should go out and win the damn thing.

Caraviello: If Boris can win in the No. 32 car -- more power to him. And all the regular NASCAR drivers should be forced to wear Said Head wigs next week at Michigan. Almost makes you want to see it happen!

3. It's been over a year now since the sprint car accident that cost Tony Stewart most of his 2013 season. Currently winless and 19th in points, can Smoke make a late charge to qualify for the Chase?

: Why not start at Watkins Glen?

Caraviello: OK, first of all, let's say this -- the fact that Stewart has started every race this season, and at least publicly appears to be showing no ill effects from his injury in the race car, is a huge victory in and of itself. NASCAR is better when Tony Stewart is competitive and cranky, even if that can make life difficult for media members who don't ask original questions.

Bruce: You want it to happen, because you know what Tony is capable of accomplishing. But based on this year's results, I'm not sure that he'll be in the field. 

Cavanna: Smoke's season has been a mystery to me. He's surrounded by cars and a team that can win races. Having a new crew chief can be a challenge, I suppose. And the injury can't help things. But I can't put my finger on what exactly it is that's hampering his season.

Caraviello: When it comes to the state of the No. 14 car -- let's face it, Tony wasn't exactly setting the world on fire last year before he got hurt. He had a race win and was in Chase position, but losing all that seat time, not being able to test over the winter with new crew chief Chad Johnston -- that had to set him back from a competitive standpoint, or at least make it tough for him to gain ground. Even so -- two top-fives and 102 laps led in 21 races is not exactly Smoke-like.

Bruce: If he had come out of the box in February and ran competitively every week, would we be surprised? Maybe a bit. But everyone knew it would take time. I think it's just a case of it's taken longer than most expected. And while he may be fine from a health standpoint, the team still has a lot of room for improvement.

Caraviello: Yeah Kenny, no driver wants to write off an entire season, but you have to think whatever they do this year is a bonus. He just wasn't able to prepare and get up to speed like other drivers, and that had to put him behind from the start. I'd expect 2015 to be improved given the offseason work he'll be able to do.

Cavanna: It begs the question -- is this weekend his best remaining shot of getting a win? He had a top-five at Bristol earlier this year. But at Michigan and Richmond he finished outside the top 10. Remember when Smoke used to own the summer? He has two top-10s and no top-fives since Memorial Day. That will not put him in the Chase.

Bruce: Good point Alan. If you were asked where the team is strongest, from a track standpoint, I don't know that there's an obvious answer.

Caraviello: That said, given what we saw in the 2011 Chase, I'd never rule the guy out completely. He's great at Watkins Glen and fantastic at Atlanta, so some of the tracks coming up would seem -- on paper, at least -- to offer a chance.

Bruce: It's the Paper Chase! A good TV show, but a bad pun.

Caraviello: Kenny, I'm not sure John Houseman as crew chief is what the No. 14 team needs right now. Though the elocution over the radio would indeed be spectacular. And Tony would get his race wins the old fashioned way --he'd earn them.


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