Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sprint Cup 2011: Race 13 -- Halfway to the Chase

The Chase for the Pot of Gold heats up at 1/2 way to Chase selection.
Perhaps Kansas is the perfect setting for the end of the first half leading to the cutoff for “The Chase” as all the “Wizard of Oz” imagery comes into play. So with that in mind, let’s see what remains over the rainbow and whose on the Yellow Brick Road and whose fighting off the flying monkeys. The STP 400 saw Brad Keselowski’s path to victory cleared by teammate, Kurt Busch running out of gas as Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought possibly running out of gas as his former Nationwide driver conserved enough to maintain his lead to win team Penske’s first victory of the year as Junior was 2nd best again. It’s halfway to “The Chase” and time to look at where things stand for the season so far.

The big winners for the 2011 season are the Roush Fords of Carl Edwards currently leading the points standings and Matt Kenseth with two wins. Kevin Harvick is continuing his championship contending form from last year with the most wins so far with three wins. Kyle Busch remains a strong contender with two wins and top five in points. Perhaps the most popular success of the year is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance, only able to achieve bridesmaid status in three races, his performance has been strong and consistent in 2011 currently standing in 4th place in points.

The disappointments for this year have to include Denny Hamlin, 11th in points and winless having provided Jimmie Johnson his toughest competition for the title last year. That Jeff Gordon is not in the top 10 in points hanging on with one win is not the kind of performance expected from the four time champion. While Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are currently in the top ten in points, their hold is tenuous having endured many mishaps and disappointments so far. Either team would benefit tremendously with a win or two.

Having been one of NASCAR’s consistent performers, Jeff Burton’s season mired in 24th place with no top tens has to be seen as a huge disappointment. Similarly based on his strong performance down the stretch last year and expected growth in his third year at the Sprint Cup level, Joey Logano’s 25th spot in points is far below expectations having one top five and two top tens.

Jaime McMurray who is perhaps the driver responsible for NASCAR devising the wild card scheme for 2011 with his two huge victories leading to “The Chase” winning the Daytona 500 and Brickyard then picking up an additional win later is buried in 27th spot with two top tens.

Mark Martin in 14th outside the Chase field, has only one top five and four top tens. More would have been expected of him so far.

Kasey Kahne’s in 18th in points with two top fives and five top tens is perhaps the half empty/half full scenario. Leaving Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of his contract but having a year in waiting before assuming the 4th ride in the Hendricks stable is racing in lame duck status with Red Bull racing keeping his trusted crew chief, Kenny Francis. That he is in the top 20, a win, a fete his team is capable of achieving could put him in the chase if no other team exceeds his performance. Without significant improvement or a win, he’s looking like an odd man out.

Halfway to “The Chase” here’s how the field would be seeded.

1- Kevin Harvick (3 wins)
2- Kyle Busch (2 wins)
3- Matt Kenseth (2 wins)
4- Carl Edwards (1 win)
5- Jimmie Johnson (1 win)
6- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (pts standing)
7- Kurt Busch (pts standing)
8- Tony Stewart (pts standing)
9- Clint Bowyer (pts standing)
10- Ryan Newman (pts standing)

11- Jeff Gordon (1 win, top 20, 13th)
12- Denny Hamlin (11th in points)

On the bubble, points out of 10th place.

Any of these drivers either need to exceed Ryan Newman’s points standing or have the 2nd most wins of drivers outside the top ten to be seeded. Greg Biffle would need to gain more than four points in the next race to exceed Ryan Newman or win to take the second wild card spot based on winning. If Jeff Gordon wins one more race, he would have to have a driver win three races and another driver win two races and be ahead of him to bump him out of “The Chase.” Drivers in positions 6th to 10th, top 10 drivers without wins, any of them could be bumped if the fall short of the top 10 in points if both wild card positions are claimed by wins.

12 – Greg Biffle (-4)
14 – Mark Martin (-24)
15 – Juan Pablo Montoya (-24)
16 – A.J. Allmendinger (-29)
17 – David Ragan (-37)
18 – Kasey Kahne (-42)
19 – Marcos Ambrose (-43)
20 – Paul Menard (-50)

Have one victory but not in top 20 showing points behind 20th position. Jeff Gordon is in the wild card by virtue or one win while any of the above drivers can take the second slot with a win or Brad Keselowski or Regan Smith would have to make up their points deficits to get into the top 20.

21 – Brad Keselowski (-21)
29 – Regan Smith (-49)

The 2011 season cannot be completely evaluated without noting that the sport would be well-served if some teams would simply pack up and leave. The “start and park” scam which has now seemingly become an accepted part of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series racing cheapens the sport and proves conclusively that NASCAR has hidden agendas beyond fielding the most capable drivers competing in their sport tolerating teams that have no intention participating in the sport.

The following drivers and/or teams are fired. Get lost, go collect unemployment, get a real job, stop stinking up the garage.

Joe Nemechek, nobody accepts his good guy BS any longer. He’s not involved for anything more than freeloading. Michael McDowell, okay he’s part of NASCAR history for his dramatic explosion in qualifying validating the safety features of the COT, but showing up just to get a paycheck for a greedy, uncommitted owner is inexcusable. Robby Gordon, the whole sport thinks you’re a bastard for your many misdeeds through your history in the sport but disgracing the legacy of car #7, the late champ, Alan Kulwicki’s team, is beyond shameful. Kulwicki won a championship with a low budget hardworking operation. To see a burned out selfish pig sucking earnings from the sport joining the freeloaders’ brigade only further enhances Robby Gordon’s reputation as one of the great bastards of NASCAR. Other drivers involved in the scam are J.J. Yeley, David Stremme, Mike Bliss, Dennis Setzer, Scott Riggs, and Todd Bodine. If running for under financed teams with no intent to do anything but pull in an average of $60-$80k each race is seen as a way to move into real competition is a delusion. Running twenty or so laps avoiding all else on the field proves nothing of a driver’s talent only his ego and greed. Competitive owners are far more interested in who the up and coming drivers are in Nationwide, Camping Series Trucks, the regional series, and ARCA than those who’ve had full-time rides and failed.

Whether maintaining the guarantee that the top 35 in owner’s points should be guaranteed a starting position may or may not be worthy of further scrutiny, but under no circumstances should teams be allowed to qualify, run a few laps, and split. If the field needs to be reduced to maybe as few as 37 starting cars, so be it. Fans deserve to see the best of the best compete in Sprint Cup while Nationwide and the Truck series develop the stars of tomorrow or field drivers content to win not just show up at that level. The overwhelming growth of “Start and Park” is destroying the Nationwide series to little more than an exhibition sport where Cup stars can collect some extra money. It’s fallen off along way since the days when fellows like Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought off Matt Kenseth to win two championships – really win them in real competition. OVER FOUR MILLION DOLLARS HAS BEEN SQUANDERED BY “START AND PARK” TEAMS IN 2011. That amount could be put to much better use in so many different ways by a sport struggling to regain its momentum of several years ago. This shameful scandal is a horrible detraction from the superb efforts of those who are fighting for the checkered flag every weekend. The more Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds serve as apologists for the fraud from which their fellow broadcaster, Phil Parsons, color commentator for the Camping World Truck Series benefits from tremendously, the more ridiculous the whole notion becomes.

What would Bill France Jr. have done? It’s hard to image such a charade would be allowed to divert NASCAR funds to scam artists.

The tour moves on to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania for the first of two races in two months in the bucolic splendor racing less than two hours from the heart of the Big Apple and Philadelphia. TNT picks up television coverage for the next six races as those who don’t have cable or satellite will only see three more races on over-the-air broadcasts. While after Loudon starting with the Brickyard 400, all remaining races will be produced by ESPN including the three ABC dates, this is not the ESPN of the growth years of NASCAR. The Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett, Benny Parsons, and Dr. Jerry Punch team and its producers provided sharp, friendly presentation where ESPN’s certainly invested much in technology and gimmicks but their enthusiasm for the sport itself is not what it used to be. Here’s hoping ESPN will learn from the past and once again serve as a great champion of the sport.

At halfway to the chase, the top of the sport is in real good shape with hot competition and new winners arriving as some old familiar drivers give all they’ve got to return to victory lane; however, the foundation of the sport is not healthy. NASCAR must work affirmatively to improve its product, discard the fluff, and focus on commitment to winning at all levels. To the extent that NASCAR and its media partners recognize the challenge and respond effectively, 2011 could be one hot season as the heat of summer approaches.

One thing’s becoming clear, the third generation of Brian France and Mike Helton isn’t as shrewd and gifted to run the sport the way Bill France Jr. did. It’s taken a few years for this reality to become clear. At what point will they have difficulties renewing broadcast partners, and when will track owners like Bruton Smith and owners like Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, and Joe Gibbs tolerate the share of mediocrity that’s become institutionalized into the sport at their expense?

Talk about the race or Sprint Cup so far this season at

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