Monday, August 9, 2010

Sprint Cup 2010: Race 22 -- The Golden Road for Juan Pablo

How many drivers would have seemed more long overdue for a win than Juan Pablo Montoya? Don’t say Dale Earnhardt Jr.! More on him later. Aside from Jeff Gordon who is tied for second place for the most top 10’s with Kurt Busch (13) and tied for first in top fives with Kevin Harvick at 10, Montoya has to be the man. How many times has his car looked dominant only to have some late racing episode send him to the garage? The ill-fated final pit-stop where his crew chief, Brian Pattie, elected to put on four tires while most leaders opted for two, took him out of the running to win the Brickyard 400, and adding insult to injury an accident with the #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. ride added insult to injury after having dominated the race so successfully. Marcos Ambrose was Montoya’s toughest adversary, but tire trouble reduced him to 3rd.

Watkins Glen Top 10
1. Juan Montoya, #42, Chevrolet
2. Kurt Busch, #2, Dodge
3. Marcos Ambrose, #47, Toyota
4. A.J. Allmendinger, #43, Ford
5. Carl Edwards, #99, Ford
6. Jamie McMurray, #1, Chevrolet
7. Tony Stewart, #14, Chevrolet
8. Kyle Busch, #18, Toyota
9. Jeff Burton, #31, Chevrolet
10. Jeff Gordon, #24, Chevrolet

Points leader, Kevin Harvick, finished in 11th. Jimmie Johnson, in trouble and causing trouble finished in 28th pushing Denny Hamlin out of the race and a finishing position of 37th down with the quitters.

NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. only managed a far removed 26th place finish. Now reduced to 16th in the standings, 121 points out of 12th place, only a series of miracles could put him in the Chase. Earnhardt, likewise ranks 19th in top 5 finishes tied with Joey Logano and Ryan Newman with just two. He also rests in 19th in top 10’s with only six. Add it up, this is not the mark of what would be a good season were it not for a couple tough breaks, it adds up to a mediocre, uninspired season. Junior, the ghost of your daddy is calling. Do you hear him? “Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up and eat that candy ass.” It’s hard not to like Dale Jr. He’s smart, personable, and respectful of others, but with all the promise that his move to Hendrick Motor Sports was supposed to fulfill. In his third year with racing’s most elite team, he still has just one win, June 15, 2008 in Michigan. With no wins in 2007, his lasat year with DEI and one win in 2005, it’s now been six years since Junior has posted multiple wins, having won six in 2004 where he won the Daytona 500, Atlanta, Richmond, Bristol, Talladega, and Phoenix showing the ability to handle all forms of racing skillfully. In the right circumstances, there is no question, he can still race with a champion’s intensity as he showed in the #3 Wrangler Chevrolet raced to honor his father’s induction into NASCAR’s Hall-of-Fame in July’s Nationwide Race at Daytona. The next level up, the #88 car seems to be a magnet for trouble. If there’s a late in the race mishap, almost certainly the 88 will be nearby.

The results from Watkins Glen didn’t turnout to a blender race in the Chase standings. Instead it mostly served to help sure up the field. While a 19th place finish would be nothing spectacular for Mark Martin, struggling to ease into the top 12 it proved sufficient to move ahead of Clint Bowyer whose 32nd place finish, a lap down, put him outside by a slim ten points.

The bubble report shows few possibilities with four races left. In the top 12, three drivers are on pins and needles but with Matt Kenseth in 10th with a 180 point advantage, he’d need to absolutely fall apart in the next four races to dive out of contention. Greg Biffle, his teammate and last week’s victor holds a 102 point advantage, still pretty strong.

Outside looking in, here’s the field and the points behind 12th place:

13. Clint Bowyer, -10
14. Ryan Newman, -83
15. Jaime McMurray, -94
16. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., -121
17. Kasey Kahne, -133
18. David Reutimann, -166

Realistically, does it not look like a dogfight between Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer, both of whom have looked strong at times but struggle to find consistency? Mark Martin scored more top 5 finishes, with five to Bowyer’s three. This flip-flops for top tens, with Bowyer entering the top ten, 11 times while Martin has six, one more besides his top fives.

The days ahead will be full of speculation what the 2011 schedule will look like. Kentucky Motor Speedway will join the lineup while Kansas will add a second date. Meanwhile, the early Atlanta race in March will be scrubbed as will an ISC venue for Kansas, most likely Fontana, CA. These changes will require a number of dates being shuffled with added speculation that the first race of “The Chase” will be at Chicagoland.

With talk of schedule changes in the air and having just finished Watkins Glen, naturally, there is talk that NASCAR should consider more road race courses and perhaps have one in The Chase. For the novelty they provide, they do not accommodate large audiences. Besides that, many have structural problems that would make them difficult to accommodate a 43 car Sprint Cup field. Road America looked beautiful for Nationwide, but it is far from major markets and its length could make a Cup style race difficult.

Next week, it’s back to Michigan, ten weeks since their last visit. For some there will be some comfort returning to the first “conventional” track since Chicago. However, those looking to participate in The Chase or improve their position within the sacred top 12, the competition intensifies. Ten drivers have victories in 2010. Four of them are not likely to be in the show. Look at this:

Denny Hamlin – 5 wins
Jimmie Johnson – 5 wins
Kevin Harvick – 2 wins
Kurt Busch – 2 wins
*Jaime McMurray – 2 wins
Kyle Busch – 2 wins
*Juan Montoya – 1 win
*David Reutimann – 1 win
Greg Biffle – 1 win
*Ryan Newman – 1 win

*indicates driver outside top 12 points standings. With four races to go before the field is settled, look at the advantage Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have for the points lead they will have over their competition for victories. The job is not finished for top 12 drivers in the next four weeks.


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