Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sprint Cup 2010: Race 31 -- Closest Competition Fails to Qualify up to 48's Standards

The importance of gaining points on Jimmie Johnson is mission one for all Sprint Cup teams who realistically want a shot at the championship. Here are the standings for those still in contention.

1- Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, #48, (leader)
2- Denny Hamlin, Toyota, #11, (-36)
3- Kevin Harvick, Chevy, #29 (-54)
4- Jeff Gordon, Chevy, #24 (-85)
5- Tony Stewart, Chevy, #14, (-107)

While the points situation looks good for Hamlin and Harvick, they shot their hopes by qualifying so poorly for Sunday’s race especially given whom they must hunt down and beat. No team knows how to adapt – race in a safe and deliberate manner if that’s what is called for or pushing for victory – than the #48 gang. Should Johnson win in front of the NASCAR home crowd as he did last year, that could be a knockout punch for some of his competition. Clearly, Jeff Gordon needs to win races but has not done so this season. Ton Stewart must avoid the kind of costly mistakes that ruined him earlier in the chase.

Aside from Johnson, the biggest fear for Denny Hamlin could be his own engine shop. Teammate, Kyle Busch, blew up last week in California. Such a problem would tank his season. Perhaps Kevin Harvick is best prepared to be the barrier that will end the drive for five.

What more can we say about “start and park drivers” however given the event is in Charlotte, all the rats are falling from the woodwork and winding up in the garage to attempt qualifying. 49 cars have entered to qualify for Bank of America 500. Of the “go or go homers” only Bill Elliot in the “legendary” Wood Brothers #21 Ford, and Patrick Carpentier in the #26 Latitude 43 Ford with Air National Guard sponsorship would attempt to complete the entire race. Additionally, Robby Gordon in his own #7 Toyota and Andy Lally in the #71 TRG Chevy are in the top 35 and they’ve been in the “start and park” failures too. The worst case scenario is if both Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliot don’t make the field on speed, one would be in as past champion. There could be NINE cars that will not compete. After what happened to Greg Biffle blowing his engine early thus finishing behind some of the quitters, the impact could be even more embarrassing this weekend. It is absolutely unacceptable that a team that is prepared to complete races would either be bumped from participation by teams not prepared to complete the race. T is also absolutely unacceptable for a situation like Biffle’s to occur.

Here’s where “the Chase” contestants qualified:

1- Jeff Gordon (4)
2- Carl Edwards (7)
6- Kyle Busch (9)
10- Jimmie Johnson (1)
15- Kurt Busch (6)
17- Matt Kenseth (11)
18- Jeff Burton (8)
20- Clint Bowyer (12)
22- Greg Biffle (10)
23- Denny Hamlin (2)
24- Kevin Harvick (3)
29- Tony Stewart (5)

Jimmie Johnson did what he had to do. He nabbed a top ten starting position starting on the fifth row, but what could be better than to have his two closest rivals fail so miserably? With Denny Hamlin in 23rd and Kevin Harvick in 24th, they will be right in the thick of the action as they attempt to move to top positions. Tony Stewart in 29th has more distance to cover both in terms of the standings and on the track. This leaves Jeff Gordon as the only driver with decent hopes of catching Johnson in a great position to make the most of this race.

The most horrific realization will start to settle in among the “Chase” contenders. They must hope for Johnson to fail, which in October and November is not too likely. The “drive for five” is largely in the hands of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. If the crew does what it needs to do to prepare the car and executes effectively on pit stops and Johnson races intelligently, the fifth championship will be theirs five races after Sunday’s.

Nothing short of a legendary effort by one of Johnson’s competitors can derail Johnson’s fifth consecutive championship. Like him, hate him, or find him as boring as oatmeal, NASCAR fans are watching one of the greatest feats in the history of sports in progress. This should be especially evident given the announcement this week of the next five drivers to enter NASCAR’s Hall-of-Fame. Yes, Jimmie Johnson is headed to territory only owned by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Should he win two more titles after this year’s, he just might be the most successful NASCAR driver ever.

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