Did You Notice? NASCAR gets so focused on the postseason we often forget there’s 31 other cars on the grid each week? So, in honor of giving you a breather from the onslaught of Chase previews let’s look at a few “spoilers” set to win or wreak havoc during the season’s final ten weeks.
AJ Allmendinger: Quietly, Richard Petty Motorsports has put together a remarkable comeback season just months removed from near bankruptcy. Marcos Ambrose has already won at Watkins Glen but it’s been the ‘Dinger who’s emerged as more consistent. The best full-time Cup driver yet to win a race, he’s positioning himself to take that next step under the helm of new crew chief Greg Erwin.
That change, made despite an already successful start under long-term head wrench Mike Shiplett has really stepped the performance up another level. In just the last five weeks alone, the Californian’s collected a 10.4 average finish while failing to dip lower than 12th in any race.
Best Chance to Win: Dover. The last two races at the Monster Mile, Allmendinger’s started on the outside of row 1 only to have Lady Luck ruin his chance at victory lane. A flat tire was the culprit in the fall of 2010, while an engine failure left him sitting in the garage in 37th back in May. Without that DNF, the sport’s current “Mr. Irrelevant” at 13th in points would have had a real shot of making the Chase.
Runner-Up: Talladega. In the restrictor-plate roulette wheel, you never know whose name might come up.
Clint Bowyer: The sport’s most hotly pursued free agent needs to pull the 10-race audition of his life to avoid a pay cut after missing the Chase. Showing signs of snapping out of his funk the past two weeks, ugly wrecks have stood his way of the top-five finishes needed to put “yourself in position to win,” as teammate Jeff Burton would say.
It’s a whole different kind of pressure than the Chase, but considering Bowyer’s still in a contract year – and his crew will be fighting for their jobs – you’d expect nothing less than the best foot forward from the No. 33 team down the stretch.
Best Chance to Win: Loudon. Bowyer’s the defending champ from last fall, the ugly 150-point penalty incident that defined his 2010 Chase. A mediocre 17th in the summer, this September outing offers a chance for Magic Mile redemption.
Runner-Up: Texas. Leading a total of 44 laps in the spring, Bowyer finished runner-up as part of an overall RCR resurgence on intermediates. Expect all four cars, including the No. 33 to show themselves up front that Sunday.
David Ragan: All indications are Ragan will be racing for a job this fall; he’s sponsorless should UPS jump to a limited schedule with teammate Carl Edwards. But the No. 6 car, who went through a month-long slump that cost them after July’s Daytona upset still looks mentally sharp overall. As long as Roush Fenway Racing doesn’t put him on the R&D train to help his two Chasers.
Best Chance to Win: Talladega. There’s something about Ragan on restrictor-plate tracks that brings out the best in him – even in this era of automatic parity. Five of his 12 career top fives have come at either there or the sister track down in Daytona Beach.
Runner-Up: Homestead. Not a particularly notable track record, but Roush Fenway has a history of running well at the 1.5-mile facility. And if Ragan’s looking to end his current Cup career with a bang….
Kasey Kahne: Two straight DNFs with Red Bull Racing ended any outside chance at the postseason. But that doesn’t change the fact this intermediate track specialist is now faced with five 1.5-mile tracks in front of him the last 10 weeks. The flip side of a pending divorce argument also applies here; while Kahne is going off to Hendrick in 2012, an upward move he’s said repeatedly going winless is unacceptable the year before.
Add in an organization who, on the verge of folding this November will have every person looking for jobs top to bottom and this becomes a rather unpredictable package.
Best Chance to Win: Texas. He’s already won there, has three top-five finishes at the track and Red Bull Racing has had extensive success on intermediates. What a way to go out with a bang; participating in a victory lane ceremony with track-donated guns in each hand.
Runner-Up: Phoenix. Sixth in the spring, Kahne can be a short-track kind of guy under the right circumstances.
Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we take off.
- Hmm. The Race to the Chase, held over the past month, ended with two solid races, at Atlanta and Richmond combined with an early wreck that left the outcome of the final three postseason spots briefly in doubt. Add in plenty of side-by-side action, two fantastic finishes and voila! Suddenly you have Richmond ratings up 10%, the best Nielsen number (3.7) since 2006. Coincidence? I think not.
- First, Kevin Harvick Inc. announces they’re closing their Truck teams; now, Germain Racing says they’re cutting at least two. When even your best organizations can’t keep up with funding, what does it say about the long-term future of that division?
- If you’re looking for Fords to get off to a fast start this weekend, think again: no Blue Oval driver has won any of the previous 10 Sprint Cup races at Chicagoland. Edwards came close, runner-up last year but led just two laps all night. In comparison, they’ve won 10 of 22 races held at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana), more than any other manufacturer to date. Guess who was hurt the most by that postseason switch?
- More than any other drivers, I’m curious about how Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will perform. At no time in Chase history have we encountered two drivers with less to lose; for Earnhardt, the expectations are virtually zero after just one top-10 finish in the last 12 races. He already has signed his extension, too which means the contract is safe and the whole “making the Chase” thing was more than enough improvement after two ugly seasons outside the top 20 in points. And as for Hamlin? He was so sure the team wasn’t championship ready they were willing to switch to the risky, developmental TRD engine package in a move to prepare for 2012. Even now that they’re in it, no one expects them to win it considering the strength of even his current teammate Kyle Busch alone. The moral of this story? Both men could finish 11th or 12th in points and no one would do more than bat an eyebrow. That puts them in perfect position to take risks, use strategy to top the points early and keep them loose.
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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