ONE: Richard Childress Racing This Weekend’s Biggest Question Mark
Fresh off a second-place finish that moved him back into the top 12 in points and saw the No. 33 car one misjudged pass on the frontstretch away from a likely win at Texas, Clint Bowyer has managed to right a ship that appeared sunk the first few races of the season. In fact, his recovery could apply to all of Richard Childress Racing.
Couple that with Paul Menard‘s top-five showing, Jeff Burton actually finishing a race without damage, plus Kevin Harvick winning the two races prior to Texas and RCR has been looking far more like their 2010 selves for the better part of the last month. Surprisingly, though, the same Talladega oval that the organization has long enjoyed success on, both before and after Dale Earnhardt, may prove to be a bump in the road of that recovery.
The slow start that the RCR organization sans Menard endured to start 2011 came at the hands of the last restrictor-plate race the Cup Series ran at Daytona. After ECR’s engine tuners overestimated the ability of their motors to handle the high temperatures and RPMs from running in two-car packs for 500 miles, both Harvick and Burton suffered terminal engine failures well short of the Daytona 500 finish.
Two things that were learned for certain at that race; one, the two-car draft is both predominant and now fully relied upon by the field of drivers. It will be seen ad nauseum at Talladega this coming Sunday. Two, no matter what NASCAR tries to do, be it to alter the radiator, the plate size, whatever, teams will find a way to get around it and run two-by-two for 500 miles. Speedweeks left little doubt as to the ability of today’s race teams to adapt on the fly to anything NASCAR throws at them.
Meaning that for the camp of Cup teams out there that count on ECR under the hood, this weekend is going to be a question mark. Did they push too far again? Did they learn something since February? Or are they playing it safe? Too aggressive and the RCR/EGR stables risk a repeat of Daytona. Go too safe and they risk falling victim to Ford’s resurgence and the durable horsepower of the FR9 motor.
And no matter what the drivers say, there will be at least a nagging doubt in the minds of RCR’s drivers all the way through the drop of the checkers Sunday. There’s an awful lot of pressure riding on the shoulders of their engine tuners this weekend.
TWO: On the other hand, Talladega Just in Time for Kurt Busch
As detailed on Monday, Kurt Busch‘s struggles of the past few Cup races came to a head on Saturday night, with the No. 22 team having to use pit strategy the entire race to keep their car on the outskirts of the top 10. They did it, scoring a solid finish to keep their status in the points, but both Busch and Addington were well aware they stole one at Texas. Couple that with disappointing runs for the team at both Bristol and Fontana, and suddenly the team that dominated Speedweeks looks anything but dominant two months in.
What better time for a return to a plate track?
Though he has yet to visit victory lane in a plate race for the Penske outfit, Busch has been among the most consistent restrictor-plate performers anywhere in the Sprint Cup Series the past five seasons. The 2004 champ has scored 14 top-10 finishes in his last 25 plate starts and has led multiple laps in the last five Talladega races.
A stout performance in the Daytona 500 and trophies both in the Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duels speak volumes as to the plate package the No. 22 bunch has in store for wide-open stretches on the high banks and the two-car draft. There will be no need for pit strategy this weekend, Busch will be up front and a factor. Score a top-10 finish heading into a needed bye week, and all that stress that Busch vented over the radio this past Saturday night may take a back seat by Richmond.
THREE: Do or Die for Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 Car
Talladega in recent years has proven to be where dreams of a locked-in owner points spot have gone to die in a number of national series. Last season in the spring race, Specialty Racing and Brandon Whitt failed to qualify for the Nationwide Series race at the track, a second consecutive DNQ that ultimately started the team on a downward spiral of start-and-parking before disappearing for good over the summer.
And in the fall, a streak of multiple consecutive races that saw Front Row Motorsports’ third car barreling on a Top-35 slot snapped when Travis Kvapil failed to crack the field for the Cup race, a deadly DNQ that ultimately cost Front Row a third locked-in car to start 2011.
Now, six months later, Front Row is facing both of these ugly scenarios with their No. 38 car. Thanks to a rash of wrecks and poor runs to start the season, Kvapil’s No. 38 Ford is now 39th in owner points and coming off a DNQ at Texas heading into Talladega, where time trials are going to be all but decided based on what’s under the hood in first practice. With Ford’s FR9 motors, at least, the chances of Kvapil cracking the field for this race is far more solid than it was in the fall of 2010.
But it does have to happen. Kvapil needs to be in this weekend’s race more than any other because it is a wildcard, a chance for the backmarkers to snag top-15 finishes and the points that come with it. Another miss, and Front Row’s going to have a go-or-go-homer on their hands for the rest of 2011, a situation that could very well derail the benefits the organization hoped to garner by cutting back to two cars.
FOUR: Do or Die for David Ragan?
Ever since blowing a chance at a Daytona 500 trophy with a late-race restart gaffe, David Ragan has been all but invisible on the Cup circuit. Texas was the first real sign of life the No. 6 team has shown since then, with Ragan winning his first career Cup pole and delivering a top-10 finish. This sudden shot of momentum couldn’t have come at a better time for the Georgia native, either, because his best shot at a win and somehow salvaging his Cup career is coming up right up.
Talladega was the site of Ragan’s first NASCAR win, a Nationwide Series victory in 2009. And based on what the repaved Daytona showed, the No. 6 team has something figured out on how to handle the two-car draft (the supercooled Ford engine packages don’t hurt, either). It being a wildcard race, an unlikely race winner is almost a certainty. And most importantly, it’s the stage that Ragan needs to make a splash on… because it’s a weekend that Trevor Bayne is going to be at the front of everyone’s mind. Can he win another plate race?
Is he OK after his insect bite and hospitalization? When is Ford going to step up and campaign the guy full time in Cup?
All of those questions will take a back seat if the driver that Bayne was rumored to have replaced as early as February can cash in. It’s a rare situation for Ragan; the irons are hot and he’s got a chance to take the story he’s likely to be victimized by and turn it upside down.
FIVE: Cole Whitt to Cup in 2012… It’s Going to Happen
Even back in the dark days of 2007, the days where Toyotas missed races and blew motors by the dozen, it would have been shocking to see both Red Bull Racing entries run as non-factors and finish outside the top 25 on a 1.5-mile oval. But that’s exactly what played out on Saturday night, with the only TV time of note for the Red Bull cars coming when Brian Vickers and the race leader made contact coming down the frontstretch.
With Kasey Kahne and Vickers both outside the top 15 in points and each driver yet to score a top five anywhere in 2011, it’s safe to say there’s work to be done. Kahne’s on a ticking clock already of getting the No. 4 team up to speed before an unremarkable year goes lame duck (don’t forget, he leaves the team after Homestead this year).
Meanwhile, Vickers is still in recovery mode after missing most of the 2010 season with blood clots that kept him not only from racing, but from seat time, period. The team’s veteran is kicking the rust and the second driver, while a marked improvement over Scott Speed, is still not contending for wins or a Chase slot as the organization was back in 2009.
Red Bull needs a spark. And they’ve got one in the wings in Cole Whitt.
There’s been no talk of Whitt making his Cup debut this year, of him taking over the No. 4 for Kahne last year, or hell of any kind of promotion from his current home in the Truck Series. But there’s no doubt that everyone and their mother is looking at this former East Series prospect. Sitting fourth in points as a rookie and having recently poached sponsor Fuel Doctor from one of the series’ most popular drivers in Jeffrey Earnhardt, Whitt is a hot commodity right now and a flashy hire should Red Bull make the move.
And between signing AJ Allmendinger to a Cup ride sans stock car experience while bringing up Speed after only one season of ARCA racing, Red Bull’s an organization that’s shown no hesitancy to go with an exotic hire whether the timing seems right or not.
History repeats itself in NASCAR as much as anywhere. So as hard to believe as it may be that a good start to a Truck season could realistically be read as a sign that Cup is in Whitt’s future for 2012, the same could be said for seeing Red Bull Racing a non-factor on a 1.5 mile oval.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
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