Friday, October 12, 2012

Sprint Cup 2012: Race 31 -- Home Sweet Home

Perhaps it’s only just that the Sprint Cup tour should stop at Charlotte after racing in Talladega last week. In a sport where every week is a road trip, Charlotte is the only time the Cup drivers get a home game. As if the “big one” wasn’t bad enough for the number of cars that were collected in the horrific last lap wreck and how many hopes for the season dashed, the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will sit out at least the next two weeks ending perhaps his best chance in his career to run for a championship underscores just how frightening the Alabama track is as if memories of Carl Edwards crashing into the guard fence, horrible accidents involving Junior’s dad or the defining accident where Bobby Allison’s car jumped the fence hastening the era of restrictor plate racing aren’t all terror enough for a normal sports fan.

Talladega was a track built a little too soon. It pushed big bulky cars to their limits when it opened but as cars became lighter and more aerodynamic making speeds of over 200 mph, even faster than 210 possible, no track has made the darker side of racing more possible, and perhaps we are blessed that more horrors haven’t happened. The deadly consequences have been more frequent at its sister track in Daytona.

Let’s not forget as they buckle up for Charlotte, the IRL saw Charlotte as an attractive venue for Indy Car racing, but a track that allows more speed than car technology proved lethal with history repeating itself last year at a similar track in Las Vegas, the last on track event killing a popular driver. A Charlotte configuration works just fine for Sprint Cup at its current level of technology. No fan wants an IRL like event in Charlotte to be NASCAR’s fate in Alabama. That Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sports’ favorite driver, got his brain rattled should perhaps rattle a few brains among the NASCAR brain trust and seriously think about what options they have to improve safety concerns at Talladega. While tremendous advancements have made Sprint Cup racing much safer since Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona, February, 2001, drivers aren’t the only possible casualties at racing events. Many options are on the drawing board but none ever seem to be close to reality. The judgment is “We’ll just have to live with Talladega the way it is right now,” but the instant somebody is killed or gruesomely disabled such smugness will end. This is avoidable not inevitable.

As action approaches tomorrow night, the Chase for the Cup is pretty much a three driver competition between Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin. If any driver seems to own Charlotte, it’s Johnson. Starting 21st, Keselowski has his work cut out for him requiring brilliant pit strategy, patience, and opportunism to give him a fighting chance to build on his 14 point lead over Johnson.

This will be only Keselowski’s 7th race at the venerated speedway with only one top five, his last race in May. He’s only failed to finish on the lead lap once with an average 16.5 finish at the Carolina track.

Jimmie Johnson is absolutely dominant at Charlotte with six wins, ten top fives, and an average 11.8 finish. The consolation is Johnson has finished outside the top ten in his last four races in Charlotte with a 34th and 37th finish in his last two fall races. Johnson starts fifth, well-positioned to get back to his typical form at the track.

Denny Hamlin’s results at Charlotte are lackluster, with a 15th average finish, no wins, only two top 5’s and seven top 10’s, this is not one of Hamlin’s stronger tracks though he is no slouch on 1 ½ mile tracks in general. Hamlin starts 9th in good striking distance for a good evening of racing.

Regan Smith, shopping for a job for next year, starts 26th substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. While Earnhardt’s chance for a top ten finish this year are over, a respectable performance from Smith will certainly help Hendricks Motor Sports maintain its dominance in owner points as the sports’ team to beat.

Almost certainly, Tony Stewart’s desire to repeat as champ is over. He starts a horrible 32nd right in front of the trash heap. Does anyone wonder if he misses Darien Grubb, one of the three crew chiefs right in the thick of the battle for the championship. In 7th place,  46 points out, he’s racing for pride and next year.

The starting field is listed below with Chase drivers shown in CAPS. 

1 16 GREG BIFFLE Ford 3M / IDG 193.708
2 55 Mark Martin Toyota Aaron's Dream Machine 193.361
3 39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet Quicken Loans 193.251
4 15 CLINT BOWYER Toyota 5-Hour Energy 193.043
5 48 JIMMIE JOHNSON Chevrolet MyLowe's 192.995
6 56 MARTIN TRUEX, JR. Toyota NAPA Auto Parts 192.919
7 17 MATT KENSETH Ford Best Buy 192.885
8 18 Kyle Busch Toyota M&M's 192.850
9 11 DENNY HAMLIN Toyota FedEx Ground 192.802
10 5 KASEY KAHNE Chevrolet Time Warner Cable 192.644
11 29 KEVIN HARVICK Chevrolet Jimmy Johns 192.637
12 20 Joey Logano Toyota The Home Depot 192.561
13 24 JEFF GORDON  Chevrolet Drive to End Hunger 192.212
14 22 Sam Hornish Jr. Dodge Shell / Pennzoil 191.666
15 47 Bobby Labonte Toyota Scott Products 191.605
16 21 Trevor Bayne Ford Good Sam Club / Camping World 191.293
17 43 Aric Almirola Ford Smithfield 191.286
18 9 Marcos Ambrose Ford Stanley 191.279
19 99 Carl Edwards Ford Kellogg's 191.245
20 2 BRAD KESELOWSKI Dodge Miller Lite 191.232
21 78 Kurt Busch Chevrolet Furniture Row / Farm American 191.225
22 42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet Target / Kellogg's 190.691
23 195 Scott Speed Ford B&D Electrical 190.691
24 27 Paul Menard Chevrolet Menards / Pittsburgh Paints 190.617
25 34 David Ragan Ford Glory Foods 190.382
26 88 Regan Smith Chevrolet AMP Energy / National Guard 190.181
27 13 Casey Mears Ford GEICO 190.027
28 19 Mike Bliss Toyota Plinker Tactical 190.027
29 6 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Ford Best Buy 189.987
30 1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet McDonald's 189.867
31 30 David Stremme Toyota Inception Motorsports 189.687
32 14 TONY STEWART Chevrolet Mobil 1 / Office Depot 189.587
33 98 Michael McDowell Ford K-Love / Curb Records 189.587
34 10 David Reutimann Chevrolet Tommy Baldwin Racing 189.520
35 37 J.J. Yeley Ford MaxQworkforce 189.341
36 38 David Gilliland Ford Glory Foods 189.255
37 83 Landon Cassill Toyota Burger King / Dr Pepper 189.168
38 51 AJ Allmendinger Chevrolet Phoenix Construction 189.142
39 31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet Caterpillar 188.469
40 32 Timmy Hill Ford U.S. Chrome 188.225
41 93 Travis Kvapil+ Toyota Burger King / Dr Pepper 186.735
42 36 Dave Blaney+ Chevrolet Tommy Baldwin Racing 186.322
43 91 Reed Sorenson Toyota Aquaria USA 189.102
Did Not Qualify
44 87 Joe Nemechek Toyota AM / FM Energy Wood & Pellet Stoves 188.937
45 26 Josh Wise* Ford MDS Transport 187.123
46 23 Scott Riggs Chevrolet North Texas Pipe 184.988
47 33 Cole Whitt Chevrolet Little Joes A 183.517

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