The perils of Thunder Valley are over for 2011, but for NASCAR’s Chase “bubble” drivers the lightning round of danger lies dead ahead. Two weeks, two races and a plethora of mastering some mathematical formulas are all that stand in the way of a postseason bid.
For some, they need to simply take it easy down the stretch while others will let it all hang out, take enormous risk and hope for a miracle to boot. At stake: millions in point money, sponsor bonuses and that modern-era NASCAR add-on we like to call “Chase immortality” (even if you tank in the final ten races and wind up 12th).
First on the list of those postseason “bubble men,” as he has been for the past month is none other than NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Is this the season Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally gets over the hump and ends that postseason drought? His on-track future headlines this week’s jam-packed list of prognostications in Fact or Fiction.
FACT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Making the Chase
Just last week, I noted crew chief Steve Letarte’s risky Chase strategy for the No. 88: playing it safe, almost too safe as a long line of 15th-place finishes left Earnhardt vulnerable should danger strike. But as it turns out, a long line of “B-” results – Junior was 16th at Bristol, just a tick below his average finish of 14.1 since Loudon mid-July – became the ugly, dirty, perfect way for this driver to make a breakthrough.
At this point, it’s time to call a spade a spade; come September, Earnhardt will finally make his first Chase since year one driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
“But Brad Keselowski’s charging,” you say. Sorry; it’s not happening fast enough. That’s not to take anything away from the No. 2 team; indeed, Keselowski’s chopped 74 points off his deficit from 10th in points in just the last four races alone. But keep in mind it’s Tony Stewart, not Earnhardt who occupies that 10th-place slot. Keselowski remains 39 points behind Junior in ninth, a daunting gap for him to close the next two weeks even with an average finish of 1.75 in August.
Just do the math; at the pace Keselowski’s on, he’ll chop 37 points off Earnhardt’s deficit by the checkered flag at Richmond. That’ll bring him close – just not close enough.
Indeed, even if Keselowski maxes out, scoring 96 points the next two weeks Earnhardt simply needs to run 15th or better each race to stay ahead. And that’s assuming Stewart, stuck in a rut the size of Death Valley suddenly wakes up and blows by Earnhardt as well. I’d put those Vegas odds on both happening at oh, about 500/1, which is something that even, yes, the confidence-challenged Earnhardt can tackle without even a gulp of nervousness.
FICTION: Greg Zipadelli is Set in Stone at Joe Gibbs Racing for 2012
It’s been denied from here until the cows come home: Greg Zipadelli is staying put at Joe Gibbs Racing. No way, no how is he moving from a team that, with Joey Logano driving has finally begun to make some noise after a God-awful spring that saw the third-year driver nearly lose his full-time Cup opportunity to Carl Edwards next season. Any call, email or inquiry to JGR will be met with a firm, emphatic, I can’t-believe-we’re-answering-this-question “No.”
But the rumors? They linger on, especially since Zippy’s old buddy Stewart finds himself floundering around to the point missing the Chase has become a real possibility. Bristol may have been the low point of Darian Grubb’s crew chief tenure with the organization; while Ryan Newman’s Stewart-Haas car ran smoothly, winning the pole and finishing a strong eighth Grubb’s setup was only good enough for Stewart to start the race second-to-last.
Adjustments throughout the night didn’t fare much better; going down a lap by the 50-mile mark, Stewart’s driving style did little to aid a hapless Chevrolet as he slowpoked it home to 28th.
Meanwhile, over in Logano-land all is not as peachy as it seems. Rumors persist Home Depot, anxious over another winless season is continuing to look at Edwards despite the fact Edwards is no longer looking at Gibbs. Should the home improvement company bolt, sponsorship becomes an issue at the No. 20 and the door opens just a little for Zipadelli to understandably pursue other options.
And meanwhile, over at SHR Stewart needs just a little extra help; there’s a girl named Danica Patrick who’ll expand the organization to three cars come 2013. For the right price, would Zippy become the next Robbie Reiser, moving up a level and overseeing each of SHR’s cars for 2012?
Chances are Stewart will put enough money on the table to make him think. And if Gibbs can’t match that stability, it will be a very, very interesting fall for one of the most loyal employees the JGR organization has ever had.
FACT: Replacing Crew Chiefs By July, Not September Worth the Risk… Even if It Fails
Want to know why so many struggling teams try and fix the crew chief role midseason? The proof was in the pudding Saturday night, where Martin Truex Jr. almost pulled off an amazing upset at the hands of new head wrench Chad Johnston’s late-race pit strategy. A two-tire stop turned a top-10 car into a contender for the win; and while ending the night runner-up, that was already the second top-five finish for Truex in just the last three months.
It’s two more than he accomplished with former crew chief Pat Tryson this season, a giant goose-egg that likely led to the veteran’s dismissal in early June.
“You know, Chad has definitely brought a lot to the table for our team,” he said at Bristol. “And the communication between us has gone really well. I feel like he’s the right person to get the most out of me, ask the right questions and make sure he’s giving me what I’m looking for.”
That chemistry clearly wasn’t there with Tryson, released after the team had worked its way out of Chase contention by Memorial Day. In the past, owners would have waited until the postseason itself to make a change, playing out the string with two sides that were clearly incompatible but the wildcard has now offered them an opportunity to make a change earlier: hit the jackpot, as Truex and Johnston almost did and suddenly you’ve got a backdoor chance to the Chase through a wildcard spot.
Greg Erwin, picked up for AJ Allmendinger despite a solid season has had a similar effect. Armed with four straight top-12 finishes, suddenly the No. 43 is 14th in points, right behind Denny Hamlin and in position to surprise should the team produce a maiden victory at Atlanta – a track where the ‘Dinger’s been successful in the past – or Richmond in September.
While Shiplett and Allmendinger had worked together well, 15th–17th-place finishes every week just weren’t going to cut it; so why wait, if you’re going to make the switch, especially when a guy like Erwin becomes available?
Certainly, making a change now doesn’t always bear fruit. Juan Pablo Montoya, since losing crew chief Brian Pattie late July has been running like a lump on a log; finishes of 28th, 32nd, seventh, 15th and 19th have dropped him from the fringes of Chase contention to well outside the top 20 in points.
But with the Pattie-Montoya relationship nearing an end, why wait to rock the boat? This way, Earnhardt Ganassi knows for certain interim replacement Jim Pohlman is not a permanent solution; if the struggles continue, they’ll simply seek another high-profile candidate.
FACT: If Kyle Busch Keeps Running Nationwide & Trucks, It’s Inevitable He’ll Reach “200”
Whether Kyle Busch should be compared to the King is a topic of endless debate. But I’m not here to judge whether he should be compared to those mythical 200 Cup wins; I’m just the messenger to inform you that based on his current pace, Busch will reach that mythical number with little if any problem.
In just the last four years alone, Busch, now aged 26 has won a total of 62 times in the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series alone. Cutting participation in those divisions hasn’t curtailed the trips to victory lane; in fact, Busch has more of those wins (33) from the last two seasons when he wasn’t even running full schedules in either series.
Play that pattern out and it’s easy to see what happens next: by age 30, Busch is on pace for 164 victories total even if he gets shut out in Sprint Cup. By age 33, well in his prime the mythical “200” will have been achieved; the only way it won’t is if a slowdown occurs (unlikely) or NASCAR outright prevents him from participating in either of their lower-tier series.
But, based on their latest rule changes, designed to stay in place for several years don’t expect the rules to adjust anytime soon – meaning Busch, with his own top-tier Truck equipment and Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide cars that are ten steps above the rest seems destined to be on a collision course for 2-0-0.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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