*Did You Notice?* … That with nine races left, there’s a bit of a cushion for a handful of playoff contenders? The top six in the Sprint Cup standings have at least 271 points over 13th-place *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* That’s not an insurmountable margin, but large enough that all can breathe a sigh of relief, avoiding the dreaded “bubble” talk and the media frenzy that goes with it. For their teams, the focus can turn towards succeeding in the playoffs rather than simply getting in the door.
While drivers that peak getting into the Chase can often play the role of Cinderella (see: Juan Pablo Montoya last year, Greg Biffle in 2008) chances are the man holding the trophy is having success right now. After all, since the current format came into existence, only Kurt Busch has come from lower than fourth in the regular season to win the title, rising from seventh in the standings in 2004.
So what do each of these half-dozen contenders need to work on the next nine races? Let’s delve deep inside the fine-tuning that’ll go on in their shops the next few weeks:
*Kevin Harvick.* *NEEDS: Win races, announce sponsor.* No question, Harvick’s established more consistency this season than at any point throughout his Cup career. But while the No. 29 has a comfy 105-point lead in the standings, they’re a little further behind in two other important categories: wins and laps led. Right now, a lone victory through a last-lap ‘Dega pass leaves Harvick 40 points behind playoff “top seeds” Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, a deficit that equates to at least four positions on the racetrack.
But it’s that second statistic – laps led – that should really leave the No. 29 troubled. His total of 137 is just 10th-best on the circuit, and 68 of those occurred in the series’ first two races, Daytona and Fontana, back in February. In his last 15 starts, Harvick’s led for more than five laps in a race just once – Martinsville the end of March, a win he wound up losing to a top championship rival (Hamlin). For Harvick to be taken a bit more seriously, he’s going to have to spend less time scraping and clawing for top-5 finishes and more time clicking off laps up front.
Also, there’s that little distraction of coming up with money for 2011. Harvick may be resigned with RCR, but when’s Budweiser, their likely replacement for Shell/Pennzoil, going to sign on the dotted line? The longer things go without an announcement, the more speculation could become an off-track distraction. I’m hearing the deal could get done by August, and you’d better believe all parties are pushing for sooner behind the scenes.
*Jimmie Johnson.* *NEEDS: Stay out of controversy.* With back-to-back victories, talk of a Johnson “slump” has subsided as the reigning four-time champ is once again clicking on all cylinders. At this point, the team’s clearly been there, done that, leaving them fine-tuning and experimenting with setups all the way from here ‘till September.
Looking ahead, I’m not even sure peaking at the right time applies to this group, as Johnson’s won the title every which way – from seemingly on the verge of chaos heading into the ’06 Chase to winning the last two regular season races of ’08. My concern lies more in making sure this group dots some I’s and crosses their T’s. Chad Knaus is the master of the gray area, but all experiments don’t need to cross the line. Remember the six-week suspension both he and Steve Letarte got for those Car of Tomorrow violations in 2007? That’s the type of stuff to avoid.
I’d think if the No. 48 wins two, maybe three more times, ends the regular season about fourth or fifth in points, and doesn’t get involved in a wreck, they’d call the next two months successful.
*Kyle Busch.* *NEEDS: Consistency, consistency, consistency.* Don’t worry, there’s no more talk about an “old” or “new” Kyle Busch in this column. But this year’s version of Kyle is a nice “in-between” of last year’s disaster and 2008’s incredible success story. He’s on track to win four times, tabling about 14 top-10 finishes come Chase time.
The issue is that most of those top-10 finishes have come in clusters. After starting the season with zero through the first four races, Kyle caught fire with the rest of JGR in going nine-for-10, scoring two victories in the process. But in the last three weeks, some untimely wrecks combined with poor-handling cars left this team with runs of 20th, 39th, and 11th.
Streaky is a dangerous way to be, because then you’re banking on starting one right as the Chase begins to have a chance. As we saw with Kyle in ’08, that just doesn’t work; three poor finishes to start the playoffs all but eliminated a chance at a title. As aggressive as this guy can be it’s a Jeff Burton-like zen (ironic, isn’t it?) this team needs to achieve the next nine weeks.
They won’t catch Hamlin or Johnson in the wins column, so it’s time to practice the art that’ll really make a difference come September: taking a seventh-place car and bringing it home seventh, or pushing a 15th-place car into the top 10 instead of whining and getting it involved in a wreck. Clearly, they’ve made progress in this department – Charlotte and Pocono come to mind – but practice makes perfect when you’re still lagging behind your rivals.
*Denny Hamlin.* *NEEDS: Don’t hop on that emotional roller coaster.* Hamlin followed up an embarrassing run at Infineon, where his hood popped up on him under green flag conditions with an ugly 14th at Loudon, where the team experimented with disastrous results. All of a sudden, people are jumping off the Hamlin bandwagon in record numbers, what we see all the time in an ADD society that changes focus the second a new pretty, shiny thing appears in their field of vision.
But while people lost confidence in Hamlin, the most important thing is that Hamlin doesn’t lose confidence in himself. We’ve seen that ugly ending before, including self-induced mistakes last year that he didn’t recover from until it was far too late. Being an emotional driver can be a blessing, and Hamlin’s great at using the highs to give himself an extra boost. He just needs to make sure the lows don’t break them apart.
*Jeff Gordon.* *NEEDS: Finish, baby, finish.* This one’s so obvious, I’m waiting for a kindergarten fan to ask Jeff Gordon on race day, “Why haven’t you won lately?”
For quite awhile, I thought the constant failures of the No. 24 team late in races would come back to haunt them like 2005, when Gordon missed the Chase for the only time in his career. It seems like they’re safe at this point, but it’s hard to call anyone a champion if they’ve yet to win a race 17 starts into the season. Only Kurt Busch has more laps led than Gordon’s 712, so it’s clear the speed is there; they just have to execute.
But Gordon’s problem goes even beyond victories. He’s really struggled on double-file restarts late in races, costing him about 10-20 points every week with cars that tend to pull a Dale Earnhardt, Jr.-like fade already over the final 50 laps of a race. Steve Letarte has pulled some poor pit strategy calls that haven’t helped either, leaving Gordon scrambling to make the best of a bad situation in the closing laps. While the No. 24 weakens, the No. 48 uses that last portion to flex their muscles … and that’s why it’s Johnson four titles, Gordon zero, since the start of 2006.
*Kurt Busch.* *NEEDS: Get a little help from his friends.* Everything for Busch checks out so far this season. His 793 laps led are a Cup Series best, with two wins and 10 top-10 finishes at a variety of different racetracks. Nudging Johnson at New Hampshire Sunday, he lost the battle but sent a clear message that during the war this fall, he’s not beyond booting the No. 48 out of the way to score a victory. That’s a clear change and a leg up over too many challengers that have treated the Lowe’s Chevrolet with kid gloves.
But while Busch is driving on autopilot, owner Roger Penske’s dealing with a troubling stat: His other two cars are a combined 0-for-34 on top-10 finishes! How Busch has performed with two five-ton weights in the No. 12 and No. 77 behind him is pretty fascinating.
You’d have to think during the Chase, it’s going to come back to haunt him … right? Think of the resources these Hendrick, Childress, and Gibbs contenders have, with all teams within their multi-car organization capable of winning on any given week. Busch is effectively acting as a single-car team in comparison, and that’s going to leave him constantly fighting from behind if Penske’s not careful. I can see it now: Busch starts the weekend tops in practice, but Joey Logano gives Gibbs information that has Hamlin and Busch blowing by the No. 2 car come Sunday. It’s a valid concern that needs to be addressed for Penske to finally score his first ever Sprint Cup.
*Did You Notice?* … The biggest problem concerning Nationwide’s new Car of Tomorrow? Yes, there’s going to be a full field come Daytona, although a handful of cars are still expected to start-and-park. Yes, the cars look cool, sleek, and bring the “stock” back into “stock car” racing when NASCAR badly needs it.
But the biggest void on the entry list I see is at the ownership level. Everyone’s known the start date of this car for months now, with NASCAR trumpeting the “wave of new interest” that these models will generate for the sport. But if these cars are as low cost as they claim … where’s the new owners interested in joining the fun? The only one that’s on the list for Daytona is the No. 68, Craig Partee owning a fleur-de-lis sponsored car driven by Carl Long.
Don’t tell me it’s a bad economy driving those low numbers. If this “inexpensive” CoT could be a long-term benefit for owners in the Camping World Truck Series, K & N East Series, and other divisions, people would jump on the bandwagon in a heartbeat. Instead, the new car has actually driven some ownership groups away, with Specialty Racing’s No. 61 and K-Automotive’s operation (Kligerman is running a No. 26 Penske-supported car with Keselowski’s number) among those going MIA.
Will fan excitement over the new look spur ownership interest over the long-term? Possibly. But in the short-term, it’s far from a quick fix for a series that ultimately needs new owners, drivers, _and_ cars to be successful.
*Did You Notice?* … Some quick hits before we leave this long column …
– Amazing how years of pessimism can leave the glass half-empty. I was at New Hampshire covering the race, and I can tell you from personal experience those stands were almost completely full, with the exception of Turns 3 and 4. If you need proof, come back in time and sit with me in the _hours_ of bumper-to-bumper traffic I experienced after the race.
But just like the boy who cried wolf, weeks of inflated attendance figures have fans still sitting there in disbelief. All over the web, on my Twitter, and in my inbox, I’ve read about how “empty” people thought the seats were in New Hampshire. It just goes to show when you’re conditioned to think the worst about the sport, well, chances are you’re going to think the glass is always half-empty, right?
And when attendance is still a hot-button topic amongst fans … man, apparently Sunday’s race was boring then. Don’t we follow NASCAR to talk about what happens on the track every now and then?
– Speaking of Sunday, the race had a 201-lap green-flag run. By my calculations, it’s the most we’ve seen in over seven-and-a-half years. In November, 2002, Johnny Benson won his one and only Cup race at Rockingham, where there was a 203-lap green-flag run between Lap 27 and Lap 230. It could have actually lasted longer, but … NASCAR called a yellow for debris on the frontstretch.
The more things change …