Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: From the Back to the Front, Will Longshot Chasers Make Their Move?

With the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup finally decided, you are likely going to be inundated this week with article upon article with who will win, why, the rankings and what it’s going to take to win the title. This one will be a bit different, as I am going to be looking at things from a different angle: who will not be in contention for the crown and why.

It may hurt some feelings or ruffle some feathers – but in 10 weeks we will know whether or not I am stupid. Or at least confirm it. So with that, here we go –

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kind of like the band who opens a show with their signature song, I am leading off with the sport’s most popular driver, and the one who has garnered the most attention over the course of the past four months, for whom things went from progress to plight. The collective known as Junior Nation has been rallying and holding vigil for their favorite driver, just about saw that candle get blown out as Clint Bowyer pulled out into on-coming traffic and stopped Saturday night (Sept. 10) – much like a deer caught in headlights – or an 85-year old woman.

For the next 394 laps, the No. 88 team, their fans and NASCAR for that matter held their breath as Steve Letarte and company tried to patch the front of the Mountain Dew AMP Energy Chevrolet back together again. It was a heroic effort by team and driver to be sure – after all, another inch or so and there would have been a trail of fluid behind Earnhardt’s car that would have been either coolant or tears from a legion of fans desperate to see their man make the field for which he last qualified for back when he was swaddled in Budweiser regalia.

While he was able to solider on – despite blowing through nearly all their tires before the halfway mark – and getting into it with Travis Kvapil – the radio traffic was eye as well as ear opening. While trying to determine how the adjustments to the car were working, Earnhardt became very agitated; detailing how whatever they’ve been doing the last 10 weeks was not working.

“I cain’t -in’ drive it the way it is right now … as soon as I get in the gas, the thing drives all crooked. It’s the same s—, whatever we’ve been doing the last 10 weeks, it isn’t working.”

So that’s not a good thing, particularly judging how the team ran in Atlanta, a 19th-place finish that produced the same complaints of crooked crabbing in the corners; not exactly inspiring when heading into a playoff format that consists of ten races, of which half are very similar in their layout.

While the No. 88 team showed a tremendous amount of poise and patience getting their car to be able to nearly drive back up to the top 10 – and Earnhardt showing a lot of maturity and communicating in descriptive terms far beyond “it’s tight…” to help Letarte make the necessary corrections to what remained of the chassis, the Chase is not made up of all short tracks.

Strong runs at Martinsville and a potential win at Talladega will be bright spots, but other than that, the No. 88 will not be among those counted as contenders by the time teams return to Texas.

Tony Stewart

It’s probably best that I’m not in Chicagoland this weekend, otherwise I might catch a case from Smoke like Jenna Fryer did on Friday last week. Granted, I would not have asked him the same monotonous questions that set him off during trailer time outside the Office Depot hauler. I probably would asked him if the Steakhouse XT at Burger King offered any tangible benefits over a Double Whopper with cheese, and if a Triple Stacker is easier to eat while driving since it doesn’t have any tomatoes or mayo on it.

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That likely would have got me punched in the throat, but it would’ve made for some good TV at least.

What might make for bad TV is if you are a Stewart fan the next two-and-a-half months. A second Chase championship and third overall are going to be slim pickings at Stewart-Haas Racing, I’m afraid.

Stewart himself said so after a miserable Michigan outing saying the way the No. 14 team had been running, they’d be doing nothing but taking up space for somebody in the Chase who deserved to be there. Bristol wasn’t much better with Stewart swapping positions with Mike Skinner on the speed charts in practice, “improving” to a 28th-place finish.

If there is a bright spot for Stewart, neither Michigan nor Bristol are Chase tracks – and like Earnhardt he can take solace in knowing that Martinsville and Talladega are. Unlike Junior, however Stewart can look forward to the 1.5-milers that resemble Atlanta (Charlotte, Texas, Kansas, Chicago, Homestead) where he rebounded with a third-place finish and salvaged his Chase chances two weeks ago.

So why all the doom and gloom you might ask? The last few weeks are a sample of the whole season. Performance and finishes that are bipolar at best and not representative of a team that is truly ready to go out and compete for wins on a weekly basis with the No. 2, 18, 22, 24 and 48 teams. While Stewart is primed for a top-10 run at Chicagoland this weekend, would it really surprise you if they went and finished 16th?

The No. 14 team this year has finished in the top 10 in consecutive races on four occasions. On three occasions they have followed that up with a finish outside the top 10; two of which were runs of 19th and 29th. While finishes of seventh and third might indicate a win is just around the corner – the statistics this season speak to the contrary.

Ryan Newman

I’m probably not going to be getting any Tornadoes from SHR for Christmas this year. A swirlie and band-ripping wedgie maybe, but that’s about it.

While Newman does have one more win than his boss and buddy Stewart this year, I don’t see the No. 39 team as part of the championship equation late into the going. Much like their No. 14 brethren, crew chief Tony Gibson’s bunch have followed up back to back top 10s with a sub-top 10 run the third week in succession.

While wins still count in the Chase, it is consistency that is still king, and getting on a roll is not something this team – or organization – has been able to do this season. Early in the year they did, and was a huge help in them seeding seventh in the Chase standings. A four-race stretch the first six weeks of the season produced three fifth-place finishes and a 10th; the win at Loudon is encouraging for them with New Hampshire being the second race on the schedule for the title run.

Trying to see some trends and windows of hope for this team is tricky. Talladega you think would be a good place for the No. 39 to run well; Hendrick horsepower and a restrictor-plate racer in Stewart who would be a good partner to push. Newman ended up 22nd at Daytona and 25th at Talladega in the spring. Yes, he almost certainly gets caught up in a wreck at these tracks, and they aren’t of his doing – but that isn’t going to be reflected in the point total either.

Martinsville? Twentieth this past April. While he a 15th at Kansas might not seem too spectacular, Newman managed a fourth at Kentucky and fifth at Michigan – those might bode well for similarly low-banked speedways such as Chicagoland, a return trip to Kansas and Homestead.

Unfortunately, Atlanta looks a lot like Texas and Charlotte, and he finished 20th there a couple of Tuesdays ago. That 21st-place run at Dover earlier in the year can’t feel good either.

Then again, when the green flag falls on the field at Chicagoland who knows what will happen. If Earnhardt, Stewart and Newman just finish without fanfare, that might be just enough to set the stage for a heroic rebound. Sometimes just finishing is good enough, and there’s no guarantee that an engine won’t let go before 400 miles are complete – just ask the JGR trio this season, and sometimes you get run over by a five-time defending champion.

I probably wouldn’t ask Kurt Busch that last one though. He might want to punch you in the throat too. Or at least rip up your notes.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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