Denny Hamlin gave 110 percent and, on an otherwise snooze-inducing Sunday, NASCAR took notice. In the end, the day’s dominant driver at Loudon came up short, but with 150 laps led, the driver of the Joe Gibbs Toyota made his presence felt amidst a sea of Hendrick Chevrolets attempting to seize control. Second place, in this case, may have been the first loser – Hamlin came up five car lengths short to Kasey Kahne after poor pit strategy left him back in the pack – yet the effort showcased excellence from a driver fully recovered post-2011 Chase hangover. With this year’s playoff looming less than two months away, the second track on the postseason schedule will now have Hamlin listed as a heavy favorite this Fall.
“Everything seems very, very similar to a couple of years ago as far as our performance,” Hamlin said after the race, referencing that runner-up heartbreak to Jimmie Johnson two years ago that has defined his career. “I feel like right now, even though we don’t have the wins we had in 2010 at this point, I think we’re more competitive now than what we were in 2010. Maybe not the all-out speed, [but] this weekend, we did have that speed.”
With two victories this season, coming within a hair’s breadth of a third, Mr. Hamlin is shaping up to be a postseason favorite. But what about Sunday’s winner, Kasey Kahne? Now, with two wins all his own and sitting 13th in points, Hendrick’s red hot driver of the Spring and Summer edged closer to earning that “sleeper” label come September. Holding ten top-10 finishes in hand, the same number as Hamlin, it’s only bad luck — in the form of wrecks and mechanical failure — that’s kept the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet from being further up the standings. In fact, during the last three races alone, he’s chopped off the deficit to championship leader Matt Kenseth by some 15 points.
“We made mistakes and we’ve had some issues on some of those DNFs,” Kahne said, pontificating after Victory Lane on the season’s rough beginning that’s quickly evened out. “Other than that, we’ve been fast all year. It’s nice; we’ve been able to put 10 or 11 top 10s, 13 or 14 weeks together, something like that, since kind of that horrible start.”
Sound familiar? Brad Keselowski, in 2011, had a similar rough patch before blossoming in the late Spring and early Summer; by Chase’s end, he had a top-5 points result and made a serious bid for the title as a “wild card.” There’s no reason Kahne can’t repeat the effort, and he’s not the only one with a shot. The driver who will join him on the “win and you’re in” list, in all likelihood will be one of three seasoned superstars: last year’s title runner-up Carl Edwards, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, or rough-and-tumble, 20 victories in the last five seasons Kyle Busch. That’s right; two of those three names will almost certainly be _left out_ in what’s shaping up to be the deepest Chase field in years. (For the record, those about to email “what about Joey Logano and Ryan Newman?” I didn’t forget, just remembered… they’re lame ducks.)
But what Sunday showcased, other than the poorest tire Goodyear’s brought to the racetrack in quite sometime, was just how wide open this year’s playoff really is. A quick look at Sunday’s results from Loudon show us the cream rose to the top; 11 of this year’s 12 drivers in position to make the Chase, as of now finished inside the top 13. The other, Kyle Busch, should have been there; the polesitter led 72 laps, only to have some bad breaks on pit road and wind up 16th. You can’t get more even than that, especially considering they’ll all be back slugging each other senseless when Loudon hosts a playoff race in the Fall.
Check out who else we haven’t even mentioned yet. There’s Dale Earnhardt, Jr., fourth on Sunday, second in points, and the only driver to complete every lap this season. Matt Kenseth ran 13th in runs as part of a “lame duck” program himself – the No. 17 gets handed to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2013 – but there’s no denying his continued march atop the Sprint Cup points. Greg Biffle, who led the points for much of the season’s first half, still sits third. Jimmie Johnson, fourth in the standings, is tied with Earnhardt for the most top-10 finishes (14) and would be light years ahead of everyone if not for his three DNFs, all at Russian Roulette restrictor plate tracks. The lowest finish for the No. 48 without the plates on? 12th.
All six of those drivers mentioned so far have between ten and fourteen top-10 results. The top-5 finishes couldn’t be more even; all but one of them has either eight or nine, with only Kahne (five) lagging behind the pack. And notice that doesn’t include the Cup Series win leaders, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart, who are both virtual postseason locks. With three victories apiece, each are capable of ripping off the type of ten-race performance you need to win the championship (see, Smoke: 2011).
At this point, we’ve mentioned 75% of the Chase field; only Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex, Jr., and Kevin Harvick seem like longshots at this point, unlikely to eke a championship performance out of their B+ seasons. But nine men left, fighting for a title should be more than enough to titillate the excitement of NASCAR nation once the schedule ramps up in September… right?
The powers that be certainly hope so. With the uninspired competition at times this season, combined with far too many empty seats in far too many places playoff parity needs to be the saving grace of 2012.