*Regardless of who gets in on the wild card spot, does it really matter?*
Love it or hate it, the wild card race has been the main focus both last year and this year when Richmond rolls around. Introduced to the series at the beginning of 2011, it made wins the most important thing to getting in the Chase for those who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance. Awesome, right?
Sort of. Yes, of course it’s great to have the focus on winning. But have we ever considered there is a reason those drivers aren’t there in the first place?
Last year, wild card contenders Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin finished fifth and ninth in the Chase, respectively. That was effectively middle-of-the-pack, and neither driver was close enough down the stretch to mount a challenge on eventual champion Tony Stewart. Yes, both of them beat a handful of drivers who made it on points alone, but the postseason isn’t exactly about _almost._
Still, I’ll tell you what — there’s plenty of value to having these drivers involved. And for them, they’re able to tell their sponsors they made the Chase and have that shot at the championship. They can be one of the 12 that us media will pay the most attention to the rest of the week. They can potentially stand up on stage and thank those sponsors, along with crew members, fans, and anyone else who contributed.
I’m sure we’ll get used to this whole wild card system the longer it goes on (if NASCAR keeps it this way for longer than a few years). I do doubt Kyle Busch or Kasey Kahne (or Jeff Gordon, or Marcos Ambrose…) will have much of a say in this championship if they get in. But they will get some valuable recognition for the job they’ve done and a second chance at redeeming their season.
*What should we expect to see from Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth this year?*
Honestly, I would expect more of the same from them — a “good” but not “great” effort – as lame duck teams never seem to fare that well. Yes, you can point to a few exceptions, but for the most part it just doesn’t seem to work. I can’t imagine it’s not hard to look ahead and think “Gosh, I can’t wait for next year.” I mean, why wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you be the same way at your job? There is a reason these guys are leaving their current team for the other. That doesn’t mean there are any hard feelings, but the grass is greener in their minds.
While I don’t have a lot of hope for Logano, I could still see Kenseth possibly ending up in Victory Lane at least one more time and maybe even a top-5 finish in points. I think that’s as far as it will go for him, though until he jumps into that new ride in 2013. Don’t expect Logano to make the postseason or for Kenseth to seriously contend for the title.
*Is Denny Hamlin “back”?*
That confident, charismatic Hamlin of the 2010 season has been MIA ever since then, but seems to be making a surging comeback. Seriously, he has a great chance of making it three in a row this weekend in Richmond. No one would be the least bit surprised.
However, is it possible he is peaking too early? Can this latest surge really last straight through the next 11 races?
It’s hard to answer that since it seems like there are plenty of teams who aren’t even able to carry momentum through more than a couple of weeks. However, I do think Hamlin will be a _contender_. I think that’s fair to say. He’ll just have a ton of competition to keep at bay. The difference that I see, and many others have noted, is that he’s much more level-headed and a loss likely won’t devastate him in the same way it did two years ago. That doesn’t mean he won’t try and put up a heck of a fight beforehand.
Two notes to consider for Hamlin in the short-term: Richmond is a hometown track, historically one of his best so a victory provides that little extra boost. Second: his worst track on paper, Dover, is the second race in the Chase. So we should know early just how much this push will carry over.
*Was Jeff Gordon right in feeling bad that he’s too nice?*
And as a follow-up question … will that change?
As Gordon said last weekend after Atlanta, 15 years ago he would have been much more aggressive on that last lap. The four-time champion (who won his second back in ’97) was largely dejected, in fact, that those shadows of his former self seem to have vanished. It was bizarre to watch someone lament themselves for being _too nice_, especially a veteran of the sport. After all, Mark Martin has practically made a career of being a gentleman on the racetrack.
Yet Gordon was genuinely disheartened that he didn’t win the race because of his lack of aggression. Or, as I see it, it’s the 41-year-old’s respect for his fellow competitors. Sure, racing your rivals cleanly and respectfully may not put on the best racing, but is it really something to criticize? Is roughing people up the kind of environment the sport wants or even needs?
Now that Gordon has expressed this sentiment, though, it leads me to wonder what that means for the No. 24 car’s race this weekend in Richmond. It’s a last-ditch effort for him, on a team where all three teammates are likely postseason bound, to get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Do you really think if Gordon’s in the same position as last week that he’ll behave the same way? We might need to put him on suicide watch if that happens!
Seriously, Gordon has nothing to lose here and clearly he’s upset with himself for not pushing the issue. If the No. 24 is in contention down the stretch… I doubt he lets that happen twice.
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