For drivers, superspeedways can be the ultimate momentum killers because often they can’t control their own destinies like they can at other tracks.
Jimmie Johnson is the perfect example. Johnson had reeled off five straight finishes of sixth or better heading into Saturday’s race at Daytona (July 7) and was one of the hottest drivers in the series. He was an afterthought by race end.
Johnson was involved in a wreck and finished 36th. The same thing happened in the Daytona 500 (42nd). Johnson spent the next eight races (seven top 10s) climbing his way out of the hole Daytona created, but then Talladega came and knocked him right back in (engine, 35th). He reeled off six more top 10s in the next seven races before Saturday’s race, which knocked him 58 points back of points leader Matt Kenseth.
Not much has affected the No. 48 team in 2012, but even Johnson and Chad Knaus are powerless against superspeedway racing. Let their climb back to the top begin.
For the second straight superspeedway race, Kenseth led the most laps and failed to hold on for the victory. That is the only negative that can be taken from Kenseth’s performance on Saturday. His third-place result was his third in the last six races. He extended his lead to 25 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr. and picked up his series-leading ninth top five (tied with Johnson) of 2012.
Tony Stewart left Daytona as the victor, but Kenseth left as the driver everyone else is going to have to beat at the next superspeedway, which will be Talladega in The Chase.
Stewart suffered a mechanical setback at Kentucky (32nd), but in the three races before Kentucky and the one race after it, he has been nothing short of spectacular.
Stewart reeled off finishes of third, second and second at Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma, respectively. He didn’t have the strongest car at Daytona, but pulled a smooth last-lap pass, using the side draft off Greg Biffle and Kenseth to power past both cars.
Brad Keselowski didn’t seem to have luck on his side on Saturday. It didn’t matter though because he willed his No. 2 Dodge to an eighth-place finish. Keselowski was clipped in an accident and had the rear end of his car damaged while sitting in his pit stall (Ryan Newman spun into Keselowski’s pit).
Keselowski certainly didn’t give up. With the aerodynamics all out of whack on the No. 2, Keselowski drove to the top 15, but spun coming off turn 4 on lap 146. Coming off turn 4 on the final lap on Saturday, he found himself directly in the middle of the pack as the big wreck started, but he slammed on the brakes and did some impressive maneuvering to come out eighth. He had to work for it, but it wasn’t a bad follow-up to his win at Kentucky.
The drivers fighting for the two wildcard spots have been in a fight for consistency, and they all have a long way to go. Joey Logano seems to be headed in the right direction. To say Logano needed a lot of luck to get fourth on Saturday is an understatement, but the finish put him one point ahead of Ryan Newman in the standings, meaning he currently has the last spot in the playoffs.
Logano didn’t get the finish he deserved at Kentucky and wrecked at Michigan. He still has four top 10s in his last six starts and consistency like that should be good enough to make the playoffs.
Kevin Harvick had the No. 29 in the top five on the final lap Saturday. Unfortunately for Harvick, he never saw the checkered and ended up 23rd. That late-race magic that we saw early in 2011 that led to wins at California, Martinsville and Charlotte, has disappeared in 2012.
The driver nicknamed “The Closer” has three straight finishes outside the top 10 and is tied with Clint Bowyer for fewest top fives (three) of any driver in the top 10 in the standings.
Denny Hamlin has either been feast or famine all season. The last five races are a perfect indicator of that. He placed fifth at Pocono and third at Kentucky, but was 34th at Michigan, 35th at Sonoma and 25th at Daytona.
If the No. 11 team plans to be a factor in the Chase, it is going to have to figure out how to avoid the terrible finishes.
Kyle Busch has been fast just about everywhere this season, but he doesn’t have much to show for it. He has one victory and is now a whopping 56 points out of 10th place. After experiencing engine problems at Dover, Pocono and Michigan, Busch cost himself the finishes he deserved at Sonoma and Kentucky.
It was only fitting that he got caught up in an accident at Daytona (24th). Rowdy is still one of the most talented drivers on the circuit, he just needs one uneventful race to get his season back on track.
There’s no contest for who the coldest driver in Sprint Cup is after Daytona. Most weeks in the bottom of this column I make jokes about just how poorly certain drivers have performed, but there is nothing funny about what is happening with AJ Allmendinger. It is tragic. Allmendinger’s NASCAR career could very well be finished if his “B” sample comes back positive for the banned substance that sidelined him at Daytona.
Allmendinger was having a trying year before the news of the failed test broke on Saturday, but he finally seemed to be building some confidence and momentum with Penske Racing. He recorded his first pair of consecutive top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky and a week after the Kentucky race, his career hangs in the balance.
Kyle Busch has had a tough stretch, but no driver in NASCAR can relate to what Allmendinger is going through.
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