*ONE: Will mind games work better for Tony Stewart than they did for Denny Hamlin?*
Last year, much was made about how Denny Hamlin, Mike Ford, and the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team tried to play mind-games with Jimmie Johnson, only for the team to self-destruct in the final races of 2010. This year, after Tony Stewart’s comments on how Carl Edwards “better be nervous the last three races of the year,” the big question is can Tony succeed where Denny could not?
While Hamlin was using the tactic to try and win a first championship, Stewart is trying to win his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title. He clearly knows how to handle the pressure, something Hamlin could not do. Carl Edwards, in comparison, has yet to break through the proverbial glass ceiling. Another reason to believe this may work for the Columbus, Indiana native can be seen in comparing his winning ways in the Chase to Edwards’ relative complacency to run ninth each week. It’s safe to say “Smoke” is definitely on the rise, and could be clouding the No. 99 Aflac Ford team’s judgment just a bit. Now the pressure is on the 2007 Nationwide champ to bump up his performance the next few weeks. Otherwise, he’s going to come up short in his quest for the elusive Sprint Cup championship yet again.
*TWO: Is Jimmie Johnson officially out of Chase contention?*
Going into this Chase, many had Jimmie Johnson pegged for a sixth consecutive championship. Sure, he hadn’t won like he had in years past, but he was more consistent during the course of the season than in previous years. After Kansas, many were sure that Johnson was back in the hunt. But a funny thing happened on the way to the sixth annual championship coronation. Johnson had uncharacteristically poor showings at Charlotte and Talladgea, through no fault of his own, and now finds himself a full race back in the championship standings with three events to go in the season. Which begs the question: Is Jimmie officially done for in the Chase?
Well, he gained slight ground at Martinsville, but not enough to make any sizable impact in his points deficit. Even if disaster struck his nearest combatants in the Chase, it would practically take an act of God… or another golden horseshoe… to get him even remotely within striking distance. It’s still foolish to totally count out the No. 48 team, especially at a track they have had success at. But if they can’t gain huge points on everybody this week, the half-decade of domination will more likely than not come to an ignominious end.
*THREE: Will anyone be seeking retribution on Brian Vickers for his Martinsville antics?*
Make no mistake, last week Brian Vickers set a standard for ineptitude that hadn’t been seen since the “glory days” of Brent Sherman and BAM Racing, currently residing in the “Where are they now?” files. And in the process, he had a lot of drivers more than irritated with him after the race, with Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, and Matt Kenseth among those who weren’t too keen on Vickers’ audition for the American weapon of mass destruction program. One has to wonder if anybody’s bad blood with Vickers is going to carry over to the end of the season?
On one hand, the “Have at it, boys!” approach doesn’t rule the possibility out entirely, but with Kenseth and McMurray having repaid the Red Bull driver for his angry teenager style antics, the only person that is left to potentially repay Vickers could be Jimmie Johnson. But, since he didn’t directly do anything to him and Johnson’s trying to keep his dim Chase hopes alive, odds of such retribution carrying over to the high-speed oval at Texas are short. Plus, with the recent death of Dan Wheldon in Indy Car certainly fresh in the minds of NASCAR drivers, that payback is not too likely to happen on the high speed oval in Fort Worth.
*FOUR: Can anyone outside of Edwards and Stewart factor into the Chase hunt after Texas?*
With all the NASCAR media hoopla centered on Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, what gets lost in the shuffle are the competitors with an outside shot at making this Chase more than a two-horse race. Guys like Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, who still are realistically going to be factors into the final race at Homestead for the title, have virtually been ignored. So, the question to ponder is this: do Harvick or Keselowski stand a legitimate chance…or has their golden carriage already started turning into a pumpkin?
For Harvick, he’s run well at all three of the tracks left on the circuit this season, and has a strong mile and a half program, but he’s going to need some help from potential misfortune by both Edwards and Stewart to have any real shot going into the final race of the season. As for Keselowski? Oddly enough, most people didn’t expect a whole lot out of him in the Chase, even with three wins. But here he is, just a handful of points away from the lead. If the Nos. 99 and 14 teams slip up in the slightest bit, as well as the No. 2 Miller Lite team has fared in the second half of the year, it is very difficult to count them out. Still, like Harvick, the Penske Racing driver is going to need help to do it.
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