Friday, October 10, 2008

Sprint Cup: The Chase: Race 5, Home Sweet Home

RACE: Bank of America 500
PLACE: Lowes Motor Speedway, Concord, NC
DATE: Saturday, October 11, 2008
TIME: 7:00 pm.
TV: ABC, WMAR-TV, Channel 2
WEATHER: 69F, Partly Cloudy

Could there be no place like home as the drivers enjoy their second visit to their home track in Charlotte, North Carolina for the fifth stop on the Chase for the cup. Maybe the comforts of home will settle the emotions from last weekend at Talladega. Chasers and the rest of the field, will try to put aside anger and frustration from many drivers enjoying good rides loused up by wrecks caused by other racers’ miscalculations, the "big one" and all the other circumstances that make 'Bama racing especially tough. Imagine Greg Biffle’s plight. Biffle was leading his teammate, Carl Edwards, who got a little over anxious applying a bump draft move which wound up wrecking both cars giving Jimmy Johnson the lead in the points standings with a little margin to play with. There is one more real mixer which almost certainly will shake up the standings significantly when the battle travels to Martinsville, Virginia next week, but starting tomorrow night at Charlotte, most of the races will be on one and a half mile ovals. Only Phoenix is one mile. While each track has its own personality and Texas is a very similar design to Charlotte, they all favor the same kinds of strategies, similar car setups, and most significantly, drivers’ style. All these tracks are ones that have been kind to Jimmie Johnson. His dominance at the mile and a half tracks is overwhelming particularly at Charlotte where only Kasey Kahne, outside the chase, has also been a key player. Elsewhere, the Roush boys have had some success spread between Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth.

Things are looking very good for Jimmie Johnson to join Carl Yarborough as the only two drivers to achieve three consecutive championships. Still, all it takes is one miserable finish and he’s way back in the standings while others excel. It’s too soon for him to start sandbagging but if Chad Knauss and crew can help him stay in the top five for the rest of the season, he’s in. Further, working to his advantage, qualifying rained out lines up the drivers to start in order of the current points standings. That makes it real easy for him to snag a quick five points for leading a lap regardless of what happens in the rest of the race.

Some driver shuffles are taking place down in the bottom of the field as owners see they are going nowhere with their current driver and seek to reevaluate their needs for the future. It seemed like a shocker to some that Red Bull Racing would release A.J. Allmendinger was released from Red Bull in favor of Scott Speed for next year. Allmendinger was showing steady improvement over the second half of the season. Seeing that, he has been hired to race the #00 car for Michael Waltrip Racing for the rest of the year and possibly longer. Ken Schrader will finish the year for Hall of Fame Motorsports. Mike Skinner fills in the #84 Red Bull ride for now. Mike Wallace rides in the #10 car for Gillette/Evernham ride at least for Charlotte. It’s musical driver’s seats for the #45 Kyle Petty car with Chad McCumbee racing that ride this week. Bill Elliot will finish the year with the “legendary” Wood Brothers where his past champion’s provisional could come into play to keep them in the show. The future of that organization given the way their fortunes have collapsed the last couple years has to be most uncertain. How sad to see a program so rich in history be one of the most mediocre in the whole field. The #70 Haas car with Tony Raines and #66 car with Scott Riggs are both lame ducks as that team will be Stewart-Haas racing with Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman next year. This is by no means a summary of the silly season but only where driver assignments are concerned for Charlotte and beyond for the remainder of this season.

The race continues on between many of these drivers and others to lock in to the top 35 in owners’ points securing starting positions in the first four races of the 2009 season. A number of programs have all but been eliminated from a shot at that fortune as they are deep down in the standings. These include the #70 Haas ride in 43rd, the Wood Brothers in 42nd, Furniture Row racing in 41st, Kyle Petty’s #45 car in 40th , #10 for Gillett/Everham in 39th, #96 Hall-of-Fame Racing in 38th. The #96 car is 328 points behind Robby Gordon, currently #35. As such, none of these full time rides are going to be locked in for the start of next year’s competition. That leaves only two teams with a shot at racing into the field. In 37th spot, Roger Penske’s #77 car driven by Sam Hornish faces a 177 point deficit. In 36th position, Michael Waltrip Racing’s #00 car is 39 points short. Above Gordon sweating bullets are the following teams, in 34th is car #84, Red Bull Racing with a 17 point advantage; Haas Racing’s #66 is in 33rd, 59 points up; the Bill Davis #22 car in 32nd leads by 63 points; Michael Waltrip’s #55 car is in 31st place up by 86 points. Next on the misery index is Chip Gannasi’s #41 ride in 30th position, 101 points above Robby Gordon, and the last team still sweating bullets is the #01 DEI ride in 29th position, 128 points up. Beyond that, the rest of the teams are all but mathematically locked in. This field includes mostly inexperienced drivers who could get over anxious given what’s at stake in the final races leading up to Homestead. Surely, the contenders will want to not get caught it this pack as lap traffic.

The boys will be racing in Prime Time on the big network for some serious Saturday night drama. Race conditions look ideal, and time’s running out for some chase contenders to make their move to the top. Charlotte is a challenging course with no consistent strategy for victory. All eyes will be on Jimmie Johnson who drives the Lowe’s car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. He’s represented the Lowe’s brand with distinction at Charlotte. Given his history and recent success, all eyes will be on the 48 car tomorrow night. It’s his race to lose.

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