Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson may have been the two latest Hendrick Motorsports drivers to visit Victory Lane, but make no mistake about it, the spotlight is going to be on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this week.
For the first time since September, 2004 Junior will head to the next event as the Sprint Cup points leader. And while media coverage and interviews are nothing new to Earnhardt Jr., both are going to be ramped up this week.
It will be interesting to see exactly how Junior handles being back on top. I doubt it will get to his head, especially since the No. 88 team shares a shop with Jimmie Johnson’s. Earnhardt Jr. might be leading the point standings, but all he has to do is look across the way to see the hottest team in Sprint Cup, the one everyone is going to have to beat for the title when the points really count.
Here is Who’s Hot and Who’s Not after Indianapolis:
Can you say statement win? For anyone who wasn’t quite sure who the driver to beat for the 2012 championship was, his name is *Jimmie Johnson*. Johnson led 99 of the 160 laps and looked untouchable from the start.
It was the same look he had at Dover (led 289 laps in a win), and it was no coincidence. It was the same car. I’m not sure when that chassis will be racing next, but I surmise it’ll be making a number of appearances in the Chase.
*Jeff Gordon’s* going to have nightmares about the outer groove at Indianapolis all week. On restart after restart, Gordon lost positions from the top side and spent the rest of the run trying to make up ground. He showed early in the race that he might have been the only driver that had something for Johnson, but once again, circumstances prevented the original Four-Time from even getting the chance.
The pressure is now on the No. 24 team to win two of the next six races, and while that is asking a lot of any Sprint Cup team, it isn’t unthinkable. Gordon has been at the front nearly every week through this midseason stretch. He has finished sixth or better in five of the last six races, counting his fifth-place performance on Sunday. The only problem is reeling off top-5 finishes just isn’t good enough.
Are you getting the Hendrick vibe to this week’s column? If not, I thought I’d throw in a third into the mix. *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s* consistency this season has been remarkable. After 20 races, he has completed every lap this season (and is the only driver to do so). A fourth-place result on Sunday was his ninth top-5 and 15th top-10 result of 2012.
Fans should also be encouraged by what they heard from Junior after Sunday’s race. He expressed that he was pleased with the consistency, but that the No. 88 team needs to win more races. Now let’s see if he can execute.
Strategy didn’t play into *Brad Keselowski’s* hands at Indy the way he thought it would, but he still scored a fourth straight top-10 finish. It was a pretty good performance for a guy who claimed in a post-race interview he was driving a truck, at least compared to Johnson’s car.
Keselowski may have been frustrated after watching Johnson dominate, along with some midrace issues with Regan Smith but he can take solace in knowing that his team is closer than most to Johnson’s.
Finishes of 12th (New Hampshire) and 10th (Indy) don’t look all that bad on paper for a driver hoping to contend for a title, but the reality is *Tony Stewart’s* team has missed the setup in the last two races.
Stewart ran outside the top 15 for the majority of both events before making late charges to his finishing spots. He’s been salvaging too many races instead of fighting for wins like Johnson does nearly every week. Smoke fans don’t need to panic, not yet, but it isn’t realistic to think he is going to limp into The Chase like last year and then win five races and the title. Stewart-Haas needs to pick up the consistency sooner than later.
A month ago, *Marcos Ambrose* had as good of a shot as anyone to make the Chase. He was putting together solid runs and was in striking distance of the drivers fighting for the “wild card” spots.
But the last three races have proven that Ambrose isn’t Chase material. He was involved in an accident and finished 30th at Daytona before posting subpar results of 19th at New Hampshire and 20th at Indy. That means the Tasmanian’s Chase chances are over. It’s unfortunate because he could conceivably win at Watkins Glen (defending champion) but fall short of the Chase on the points tiebreaker.
*Carl Edwards’* crew chief Chad Norris had a rollercoaster of a weekend in his Sprint Cup debut. Norris helped Edwards earn one of his best starting spots of the year on Saturday (second) and watched as Edwards suffered a mechanical setback in the early laps on Sunday. He also witnessed the No. 99 team’s chances at a top-10 spot in the standings completely disappear.
Edwards can still earn a “wild card” position, but that means winning a race and scoring more points in the next six events than Kyle Busch (second on Sunday). According to my calculations, Edwards has about a 5.6 percent chance of pulling this off, which are the same odds as Jamie McMurray or Juan Pablo Montoya have of winning a race before the year is out.
I chronicled the year in a nutshell for *Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing* in “last week’s column,”:http://www.frontstretch.com/bpoirier/40526/ but Sunday had to be a new low. The 2010 Brickyard 400 champion Jamie McMurray couldn’t get past 15th on Sunday and ended up 22nd, which was one spot behind his teammate, Montoya.
Each driver has one top-10 performance in the last 16 races, tough times although the organization expects to re-sign both drivers for 2013.
Montoya started up front, but dropped like a rock once the green flag flew. A pair of pit stops under caution just before lap 100 summed up the season for this organization. Montoya’s team made a number of changes and even had the hood up on the Target car during one stop as they searched for answers. That’s what both Earnhardt-Ganassi teams have been doing all season — searching for reasons why the Nos. 1 and 42 aren’t as competitive as in years past. It doesn’t look like they’ve found anything yet.
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