Thursday, November 15, 2012

Penske more than just a first-rate owner

Roger Penske has done a lot of winning in his storied career as a race car owner. Most notably, Penske's drivers have won 12 titles in the IndyCar Series, where he and his drivers have dominated at times. Penske just missed winning the IndyCar title this year as it came down to the final race in Fontana, Calif. While winning that title would not have been unusual for the 75-year old Penske, it would have made what might happen this weekend all the more remarkable.
If Penske driver Brad Keselowski holds on to his 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and does capture the Sprint Cup crown Sunday, it will give Penske his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title. And if Penske IndyCar driver Will Power had won the title in September, Penske would have won two titles in the same year.
But Penske is not only the leader of remarkable teams on the track, he also a leads significant happenings off the track.
It was last month when the Driving Away Cold Program donated coats to Philadelphia area organizations based on how many cars auto dealer sold. One of those dealers involved was the Penske Group from Reading, Pa. Being part of the coat drive was a good thing to do, but not something highly unusual. However, one of the men at the Community YMCA of Eastern Delaware County in Upper Darby, Pa., in mid-October helping unload those coats was David Penske, Roger Penske's brother. He didn't hang around to be interviewed, and was not seeking extra attention to let the world know how great the Penske organization is. In fact, he was trying to avoid it. Not because he was being uncooperative, but simply because there was the next delivery to make and there was work to do. He wasn't looking for credit.

A little while later, after asking a few questions about the Penskes to a public relations representative for the program, I found that the truck used to deliver the coats was donated by Penske. And also, that the Penskes had been very helpful to the entire program.
That's one of those classy type of acts that often go unnoticed, but as is often the case life, an indication of a true winner.
That Penske hasn't been a Sprint Cup title winner sooner is a bit of a surprise. He came close with Rusty Wallace in 1993, when Wallace won 10 races and finished second, and then finished third the following year. But he hasn't been that close for a while ... until now.

The reason it's a surprise Penske hasn't won that Sprint Cup title is because he leads an organization that works to do everything first class. To put Penske's ownership career in perspective, he was viewed by many in IndyCar the way owner Rick Hendrick is viewed by many in NASCAR today. Penske's team was the place to go if you wanted to win the Indy 500 and win the IndyCar championship.
While Penske's teams got off to a good start when he re-entered NASCAR in 1992, it's been a bit of a struggle at times, with hints of success.
Penske is all about doing the right thing all the time. But he without question took a bit of risk after hiring the brash Brad Keselowski to be his driver three years ago. Keselowski delivered Penske his only NASCAR title by taking the Nationwide crown in 2010. And after making the Chase last year, Keselowski clearly set his sights on winning the title this year.
It's been a maturation process for Keselowski, who at times in years past took to wrecking other drivers if they were in slower cars. But he's realized that creates more problems than it solves.
And some of that maturation has had to come from Penske, whose adept at solving problems.
One of the team's biggest issues this year was being the final Dodge team in Sprint Cup and announced it was moving to Ford beginning next year. But what about this year? Penske has somehow managed to continue a quality relationship with Dodge, which announced earlier in the fall that it would not be fielding a team in 2013.
It could be the second ironic situation in two years for the Sprint Cup champion. Last year, Tony Stewart bid adieu to crew chief Darian Grubb after winning the title. This year Penske will be doing the same with Dodge.
You can be sure Penske has done a lot of work behind the scenes to keep a strong working relationship with the Dodge. Once again, not seeking attention, just seeking victory.

We've hit race No. 36 overall, and race No. 10 in the Chase as NASCAR finishes another season at Miami-Homestead. It will be hard for NASCAR to top the drama it had last year at Miami when Tony Stewart needed a victory to capture the title, then went out and won. It will be next to impossible to match the drama from last week, with then points leader Jimmie Johnson crashing, Jeff Gordon extracting revenge on Clint Bowyer in the form a causing a crash and eventually a pit crew fight, and a last lap finish that became wild when Danica Patrick's car lost oil in the fourth turn with NASCAR not throwing a yellow flag.
Keselowski heads into Miami with a 20-point lead over Johnson and needs only a 15th-place finish for a guarantee of the title. Keselowski's first goal, contrary to what his instincts will want it to be, is to stay out of trouble. He'll also be protecting tires, to try and avoid what happened to Johnson last week.
Unless an accident or mechanical issue sidelines Keselowski early, Johnson will be going all out for the win.
So with that in mind, here's a look at our final picks of the season:
1. Jimmie Johnson. His past history at Miami is a bit deceiving because during his run of five straight titles, he often was in control of the points race and was just looking to stay out of trouble, taking few risks. That won't be the case this Sunday as he knows he'll need to win for any shot to catch Keselowski.
2. Brad Keselowski. He'll be in protection mode, but I'm picking him anyway. He's only led 11 laps in eight races at Miami, but he's been breaking those trends in this Chase and it may well continue here.
3. Carl Edwards. If there's any place that he can break his 68-race losing streak it's at Miami. He has two wins in eight races at Miami and has led 560 laps.
4. Tony Stewart. He ended last season at Miami with a win, and just like Edwards, Miami has been one of his best tracks. In 13 races there he has three wins and has led 450 laps.
5. Matt Kenseth. This will be his final race with the only organization he has ever known, and Miami has also been a good track for him. He has one win there and has led 303 laps in 12 races. He'd love to finish his Roush-Fenway time with one more win before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Just for fun, wouldn't it be interesting to see Gordon leading this race on the final lap, with Bowyer on his bumper. Do we really need to ask what the outcome might be?
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 9 of the Chase at Phoenix.
Jimmie Johnson  - 32nd.  He was looking at a top 10 finish before his right-front tire blew, causing him to go to the garage for repairs, leaving him over 30 laps down.
Brad Keselowski  - 6th.  He was a contender to win for a while, but once Johnson went out, it was clear that he was looking for a good finish and to stay out of trouble.
Denny Hamlin  - 2nd. He also was in contention much of the day and had a nice rebound after a disappointing finish in Texas the week before.
Tony Stewart  - 19th. He was trying to battle for a top 10 finish when a spin put him a lap down.
Kyle Busch - 3rd. He had the dominating car for most of the day, but for some reason chose the inside lane on a late restart when the outside lane had been working well all day for restarts. He led the most laps at 237 and it was the eighth straight time when he has led the most laps in a race and not won.
Here's a look at my results after 35 races and 175 picks.
17 wins
56 top 5s
84 top 10s
Grade for the week: B-. No winner this time, even though Busch should have won it. Still two of the top five and three of the top six isn't too bad a day.
One last thing: Ryan Newman has not started from the pole this year, putting at risk his streak of 11 straight seasons of winning at least one pole position. Newman has not started from the pole in any of his 10 races at Miami.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

NASCAR gets it all wrong and all right at the same time

If there's anything that can be said about NASCAR's handling of the events that took place at the end of Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Phoenix is that the organization was all wrong and all right.
And just how might this be possible?
They made mistakes in their late race calls to not throw cautions, but those mistakes also upped the drama meter significantly, and maybe even more than NASCAR could have ever imagined.
The first caution that should have been thrown was when Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer tapped each other, eventually sending Gordon into the wall. Normally, that's enough to cause a yellow, but Gordon managed to keep his car going and since it was late in the race, NASCAR may have been hoping for the race to stay green the rest of the way. But once word  began spreading over the Bowyer team radio that Gordon was waiting for an opportunity to wreck him, NASCAR should have thrown the caution.
And well, as you've probably heard or seen many times now, the result was the big fight (see video at right) between the Bowyer and Gordon pit crews in the garage area. Some are saying that Gordon was at the bottom of that big pileup, but the replays appear to show him being held back by three crewmen at a tool box next to where the melee broke out. And then of course there was Clint Bowyer's sprint from pit lane to the the melee. While the sprint was impressive, it was as if his arrival would bring some sort of conclusion to the fracas, whether it be negative or positive.
So, mistake No. 1 resulted in something better than any reality TV show could ever dream of. Once the action started, it was impossible to change channels. Just what NASCAR wants.
Then there was the final two laps of the race. Danica Patrick was minding her own business while going for a top 20 finish, when Jeff Burton apparently slipped from the apron to the center of the fourth corner and tapped the No. 10 car, sending Patrick into the wall. Again, a fairly significant hit with the wall almost always brings out the caution. But it didn't this time. That left Patrick leaking oil on the track and to give her credit, she did her best to stay out of the way, driving next to the inside wall that separates pit road from the frontstretch. But her spilled oil left cars slipping and sliding all over the place as they came to the finish line, including Patrick, who was limping slowly across the start-finish line when she took a big hit. NASCAR said after the race that the smoke coming from Patrick's car could have been caused by a tire rub. Any veteran NASCAR observer knows from where the smoke was coming from and how slow she was going, it could have only been from oil leaking not a tire rub.
But here's the rub on error No. 2: It gave us a crazy and dangerous finish. Just what the ratings doctor ordered for NASCAR.
But NASCAR wasn't done making mistakes.
Monday it was announced that Gordon would receive a $100,000 fine and 25 point penalty for his role in the final accident with Bowyer. By all rights, and going by history of past judgments , Gordon should have been suspended for this Sunday's final race at Homestead-Miami. But that would take away one of the big storylines of the day Sunday, to see if Bowyer will retaliate. And by not suspending Gordon, NASCAR is sending the message to Bowyer that if wants to extract some revenge on the No. 24 car, go right ahead. NASCAR can say what it wants about the penalty being fair etc., but to believe the powers that be didn't know a revenge scenario would help add to the drama Sunday would be naive. Some have suggested that since Gordon is a four-time champion and drives for Hendrick Racing that he got preferential treatment from NASCAR. And while being a high-profile driver helps in these situations, this time it's all about getting more eyes to tune in to ESPN Sunday.
So, miscue No. 3 gives us the possibility of even more drama.
But we're not done yet.
During the Bowyer-Gordon crew melee, NASCAR red-flagged the race for 15 minutes (well, it was actually 14 minutes, 58 seconds for those your snoring at home). That was the right call by NASCAR. But during the red flag, points leader Brad Keselowski took his phone out and sent and answered a couple of tweets on Twitter. He did the same thing at the start of the season at Daytona, during the great Jet Dryer Fire red flag, and Keselowski become an instant social media star. But this time Keselowski took the big hit, in a $25,000 fine for having that kind of electrical device in his car.
In this age of social media and the public's want for instant information, Keselowski's tweeting, at Daytona and Phoenix, was a stroke of genius. Instantly, you've got more people interested in the sport because they can actually communicate with a participant before the event is over. It's a connection that makes NASCAR, or at least Keselowski, unique and someone who is quickly becoming a fan favorite. Now, with a fine for tweeting, Keselowski's popularity will only grow more. In trying to discipline Keselowski, they may just raise him to hero status.
And really, that's good news for NASCAR, too. They have plenty of stars in guys like Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But if Keselowski keeps his 20-point lead over Johnson to win the title Sunday, he may become NASCAR's next superstar.
And make no mistake about it, that could be a very good thing for NASCAR.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Confessions of a former Jimmie Johnson hater

I keep trying to find reasons to not like Jimmie Johnson, but the well is running dry and, really, I'm ready to give up.
Sure, you could say, the simple fact that he drives on the best financed-team and has won five of the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, with a sixth crown well within reach this season, is enough of a reason to not like him. You could say he gets all the breaks and has the best equipment and sure, he makes a ton of money. But, can you really not like somebody just because of that? Think for a second who your favorite professional athlete is, and how much money they make, and really is there a big difference?
Maybe it's the fact that Johnson's life seems perfect, with his wife and young daughter, and he's on the top of his sport. But, even at that, it's still difficult to not like a guy for the simple reason that he is successful. If Johnson came across with an attitude that he's better than anyone else and he knows it and he could care less about the rest of the world, then OK, maybe that could be the root of having some kind of dislike for him. But he's just not like that.
Maybe if he was not really in the greatest physical condition, and fed the stereotype that race car drivers are not  athletes, and didn't care about how he represented the sport, then, OK, maybe that would work, too. But after the July Daytona race, Johnson, along with teammate Kasey Kahne, went and competed in a triathlon in South Carolina. So, he's an athlete, no doubt.
Or maybe if he consistently won races by purposely knocking other cars out of the way in order to win, then, yes, it would be easy to not like seeing that No. 48 at the head of the pack. But he doesn't do that.
So the problem with trying to dislike him is, well, there's just not much to dislike.
Can we really blame a guy who goes out and does his job well? Sure, his crew chief, Chad Knaus can come off as a bit of a know-it-all at times, but given his record, a little extra confidence can be understood. Last year on the radio one time Johnson basically told Knaus to shut up and just let him drive. So, even Johnson can be a little annoyed with Knaus at times, and that did give us a glimpse of Johnson's more human side.
But Johnson's human side was even more apparent after Sunday's victory at Texas, when in three different interviews, he ended by reminding fans how they could donate to help victims from Hurricane Sandy.
Now, after a victory, the questions are of course all about the driver and the winning team. It's his moment, his time to shine, and as they all rightfully say, they are going to enjoy the moment because they realize the top of the mountain experiences in sports are rare.
And while there was the celebration in victory lane, which includes gunfire at Texas, Johnson wasn't pounding his chest, exuberantly attempting to remind the world that he is the so-called man. Somewhere along the line, he's figured out that others will let the world know how good he is.
If he does go on and wins this sixth title, as racing fans, we should take a second to appreciate what he has done.  Even if you're sick of him beating your favorite driver year after year, if you don't respect what he and his team have done, then you've got a problem. We could very well be in the midst of seeing one of the top two or three drivers in NASCAR history make more history.
But even if he doesn't win title No. 6, he alluded Sunday to the fact that being a father overrides what takes place on the track.  Sure, Johnson figured out what it takes to finish first in a race years ago. Now it seems, he's figured how to be a winner, too. And it's hard to dislike a guy who accomplishes that.

It's Week 9 of the Chase, the next to last race of the year, as the Sprint Cup series heads to Phoenix for Sunday's 2 p.m. race on ESPN. Of course, we all will be watching what points leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Brad Keselowski do. Johnson has a seven-point lead going in and while Keselowski doesn't have to have a huge day, if he gains three or four points on the leader, that will set things up nicely for Homestead-Miami next week. However, if Keselowski loses, say even seven or eight points, he'll be in a tough spot to try and catch the five-time champion.
As for this Sunday, it would be a surprise if each Johnson and Keselowski were not on the top of their games. So, no matter what past history is telling us, they're each must picks this week.
Here's a look at this week's picks:
1. Jimmie Johnson. It's true he hasn't won in the last five races at Phoenix, but he does have four top-five finishes in those races and has led 187 laps. That may be bad news for Keselowski, because if a driver is leading that many laps and finishing that well at a track, that usually means a win is not too far away.
2. Brad Keselowski. Here we go again, ignoring so many of his past performances at Phoenix. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has an average finish of 19.2 in his last five races there, but that doesn't mean there is no hope. Keselowski finished fifth in the spring race there and with so much on the line now, it's hard to imagine this team not being prepared for every scenario this week.
3. Denny Hamlin. After being a contender for the title until two races ago, he's been reduced to spoiler status now. Last week's performance at Texas, where he finished 20th, was a little disturbing because he has been so good there in the past and was never a factor Sunday. We'll give him one more chance this week as he has led 260 laps in the last five races at Phoenix, including one win.
4. Tony Stewart. He showed he was still giving his best all the way to the end with last week's fifth-place finish at Texas. And while this isn't a big issue, he probably would like to finish ahead of Hamlin and former crew chief Darian Grubb, just so he can say he had a better season with his hiring of this year's crew chief Steve Addington. While Stewart hasn't won in the last five races at Phoenix, he is second to Hamlin with 243 laps led in those races.
5. Kyle  Busch. The No. 18 team has had its frustrations this year for sure, including missing the Chase. But what I like about the team is that it continues to go out and compete and try to win races. Busch has led 194 laps in the last five trips to Phoenix, so based on that and his recent contention in races, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him in Victory Lane Sunday night.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Jeff Gordon. He got off on the wrong foot to start the Chase when his throttle stuck at Chicagoland, costing him what would have been at least a top 10 finish.  But Gordon has been a contender in several races since then and he does have a win in his last five races at Phoenix.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 8 of the Chase at Texas..
Jimmie Johnson  - 1st. The five-time champion displayed his poise and patience, using the final restart to get the edge and race to his 60th win of the year.
Brad Keselowski  - 2nd.  He was a contender to win at a track where he had traditionally struggled. That's a good sign for this team in the last two races.Denny Hamlin  - 20th. His recent and long-term history at Texas has been outstanding, so this finish was a real headscratcher.
Matt Kenseth  - 4th. For once, not a win or 30 plus finish for the Kenseth. He's had a nice rebound since a poor start in the Chase.
Greg Biffle - 10th. He has been traditionally strong at Texas, and while this was certainly no disaster, it was a bit of surprise that he didn't contend for the win.
Here's a look at my results after 34 races and 170 picks.
17 wins
54 top 5s
81 top 10s
Grade for the week: A-. That's a winner two weeks in a row thanks to Johnson, and Keselowski came through even though he had not been good at Texas. Picking three of thetop  five, and four of the top 10 is a pretty good day.
One last thing: Keselowski is trying to become the first Dodge driver to win a title since Richard Petty in 1975.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

For these five guys, 2012 definitely a disappointment

Yes, we're getting down toward the end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, with just three races left starting with Sunday's 3 p.m. race on ESPN at Texas.  And while we can't quite be sure who the top driver will be this season, you know it's either going to be Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski, we do have a pretty good idea of some drivers who have without question had disappointing seasons.
So, here's a look at five drivers that easily fall into that disappointing category based on the expectations they had coming into this season.
1) Carl Edwards: He finished in a tie for the title last season, only to lose the tiebreaker to Tony Stewart for most wins. But Edwards hasn't won since the Las Vegas race in the spring of 2011, a span of 66 races. And this season, he has just three top five finishes and 10 other top 10 finishes. What's more disturbing is he has rarely contended for a victory this season. He missed the Chase and is 14th in the points standings with an average finish of 15.8. It would be fair to expect a rebound season from him in 2013.
2) Kyle Busch: This isn't so much a reflection on the driver as much as a team that had an endless string of bad luck. Busch is certainly still capable of being a championship driver, but the No. 18 Toyota has had numerous mechanical issues this year, and then in the  final race of the regular season, a questionable call late in the race by crew chief Dave Rogers left Busch on the outside of the Chase.  While Busch has an average finish of 14.2 this season and sits 13th in points, one sign that the team still has a quality program is that the Busch has led 928 laps this season, the third most in the Sprint Cup. Yes, he'll be considered a title contender again next year.
3) Joey Logano: This was a contract year for Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 20 Toyota. And while he did win the first race at Pocono this season, that was really about his only highlight. Logano, who certainly seems like one of the nicest guys on the circuit, sits 17th in points with an average finish of 17.4  And what's more disturbing is that he has just one other top five finish and 10 other top 10 finishes in 33 races this season. Also, he's led just 25 laps this season. He'll be in the No. 22 car for Roger Penske next year and at age 22 Logano certainly has potential. But potential will only last so long when the results don't follow.
4) Kevin Harvick: It's true, he is in the Chase, so you can't say this season has been a complete disaster. But many thought he would be a legitimate contender to win the Sprint Cup title this season. But he has no wins this year and just four top five finishes and seven other top 10 finishes in the 33 races this season and he's rarely been a legitimate contender to win. It's been a disappointing year for the Richard Childress Racing team as Harvick, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton have combined for just seven top five finishes without a win in their 99 combined starts. The team clearly has a lot of work to do before hitting Daytona in February.
5) Juan Pablo Montoya: No, I wouldn't have picked him to win the title this season, but he's a talented driver with a team that looked ready to at least contend for one of the 12 Chase spots coming into the season. But his highlight moment came at Daytona when a suspension piece broke on his car on a yellow flag and he crashed into a Jet Dryer causing a the now famous Jet Dryer fire. Montoya's average finish is 21.4 this year and he sits 22nd in the standings with no top five finishes and just two top 10 finishes. Whether it's the team or the driver or maybe a combination of both, Montoya is simply too talented of a driver to almost never contend for a top five spot.
In these final three races each of these drivers still has a chance to salvage a victory, and maybe go into 2013 with a little positive momentum, something Edwards did two years ago before he went on to contend last year. But if they haven't already, these teams are going to be asking a lot of questions about what went wrong, rather than talking about all the things that went right.

It's Week 8 of the Chase and as the Sprint Cup series heads to Texas it is now without question a two-driver race for the title with three races remaining. It's between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson as Johnson has a two-point lead. Next in line are Clint Bowyer at 26 points back and Kasey Kahne at 29 behind. The largest comeback in NASCAR history in the final three races came when Dale Earnhardt rallied from 49 points down under the old points system to beat Mark Martin for the title in 1990. If that was converted into today's points system, Earnhardt would have been 12 points back. Last year, Tony Stewart was eight points behind Carl Edwards with three races to go before winning two of the final three races and taking the title on a tiebreaker. So, yes, it's really a two-man race at this point.
Here's a look at this week's picks:
1. Jimmie Johnson. He has an average finish of seventh in the last five races at Texas and with a title on the line, it's hard to imagine him not finishing in the top five.
2. Brad Keselowski. It's impossible not to pick him, even though the numbers are telling us something completely different. In his last five trips to Texas, Keselowski has an average finish of 30th and has not finished on the lead lap,. But he's been breaking down personal barriers all season, so we'll go against the numbers here.
3. Denny Hamlin. Yes, his title chances got short-circuited with last week's electrical issues, but he's still been very good at Texas, with two wins in the last five races with an average finish of  9.8. 
4. Greg Biffle. Things haven't gone well for him in the Chase, but he does have a win, three other top five finishes and another top 10 finish in the last five races at Texas. Can't ignore that.
 5. Matt Kenseth. It's pretty much been all or nothing for Kenseth in the Chase. He has an average finish of 6.4 in the last five races with a win and three other top five finishes at Texas. So, he could be in feast mode, which means he could have three wins in eight Chase races and still have no shot at the title. That would be hard to do.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Tony Stewart. His Chase has gone pretty much the opposite of last year when he won five of the 10 races, but Texas has been a good place for him, including winning this race last year and since he's back in 10th in the standings, he'll not be afraid to gamble late and go for the win.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 7 of the Chase at Martinsville..
Denny Hamlin  - 33rd. May have had the best car, but getting caught twice speeding on pit lane and eventually going to garage with electrical issues put him way back in the pack.
Jimmie Johnson  - 1st.  He was at or near the front all day, and five-timer may become six-timer in a few weeks.
Jeff Gordon  - 7th. Was near the front much of the day, but got caught in the dreaded outside lane on final restart and fell back a bit.
Brad Keselowski  - 6th. Tried the old stay out and get track position trick late to go for the win, but he'll take sixth considering his past history there.
Clint Bowyer - 5th. It looked like he might win, leading 154 laps, but stalled in pits and never got all the way back to the front again.
Here's a look at my results after 33 races and 165 picks.
16 wins
51 top 5s
77 top 10s
Grade for the week: A-. Finally, I got you the winner and four of the top seven. And Hamlin would've been a top five car if it hadn't quit running on him.
One last thing: Johnson's win broke an 11-race winless streak for Chevrolet. The last time Chevrolet went 11 or more races without a win was 12 races in 1993.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chasing down the Final Four formula to determine NASCAR's next champ

So we're down to the Final Four in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and in this case that means two things. It means there are four races left in the 10-race Chase for the Championship as the Sprint Cup Series heads into Martinsville this weekend. And in this case it also means there are just four drivers who have a shot of winning the Sprint Cup title.
But trying to figure out who is going to win the title is a little more complicated than adding 2 + 2.
Before looking at the numbers at, I pretty much thought Denny Hamlin had no chance as he is 20 points out. That would also exclude Clint Bowyer, who is in fourth at 25 points out.
However, when looking at the last four tracks and the history of both points leader Brad Keselowski and second-place Jimmie Johnson, the numbers say it's not quite time to rule out Hamlin and Bowyer. Well, at least Hamlin anyway. But if we're going to say Hamlin is still in this thing, and Bowyer is just five points behind Hamlin, then we have to say that Bowyer is still in it, too. If not in theory, at least just to be nice to a guy whose had a big season with three wins for Michael Waltrip Racing.
So, I took at look at the history of these four drivers on the last four tracks, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. On the first three tracks, we just looked at the last five races, as it takes into account how drivers have done with the newer cars and on tracks that have had repaves in recent years, such as Phoenix. However, since the Sprint Cup circuit visits Miami just once a year, we counted each driver's career stats there.
Then I came up with a bit of a different scoring system, sort of like a cross country meet, where the low score wins (or you could say golf, but hey, cross country is a race, so we'll go with that analogy). At each of these last four tracks we totaled a driver's average finish, how many wins he had and how many laps he has led. The best score for a category received one point, the second best two points and so on.
And here's what the numbers told us: Based on recent past history, Hamlin still has a realistic shot. His total number in the three categories was four, while Johnson was second with a six, and Keselowski and Bowyer tied for third with 10 points each.
So, since Johnson is seven points behind Keselowski, and Keselowski has a poor record at the remaining tracks with an average finish of almost 15th, with no wins and only 47 laps led, maybe Hamlin needs to focus more on beating Johnson. And if that's the case, he's 13 points behind Johnson.
And that just might be doable.
While Johnson has a slightly better average finish at these final four tracks, Hamlin is the only of the four to have a win at any of them. But he doesn't have just one win, he's got five of them. And Hamlin has led 693 laps in recent races at these four tracks compared to Johnson's 525.
The other thing in Hamlin's favor is that he's got last year's champion crew chief on his pit box in Darian Grubb. And while he's had some ups and downs this year (like taking four tires at Dover when he clearly should have called for two), he proved last year he could make the right calls under pressure. For sure, he doesn't have the same history as Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus and their five titles, but he does have recent success on his side.
The other variable in this slightly complicated math problem is that Johnson's record is not good at Homestead-Miami because five-timer has often entered that race in points protection mode, merely trying to miss accidents and come home safely for the title. So, as a result, he has led just three laps there in his career.
The other variable here is Keselowski. He's broken a lot of barriers in his career this year and he's a legitimate contender for the title, no doubt. But he's going to have to keep breaking those barriers down. He's led just 47 laps in recent years at these last four tracks.
So, he's either going to have to lead a lot more of them, or lead at the right time.
And as is the case in every sport, timing just may be everything when it comes to deciding this year's Sprint Cup champion.

It's Week 7 of the Chase and as the Sprint Cup series heads into Martinsville and with four races this seems to be looking more and more like a two-horse race. Sure, Denny Hamlin is within striking distance of the lead at 20 points, and Clint Bowyer is next at 25 out and even Kasey Kahne at 30. But for these drivers to have a realistic shot of getting into the title hunt they'll need leader Brad Keselowski and second-place Jimmie Johnson, who is seven points back, to do something they haven't done all year - have two bad races in these last four and it's not likely to happen to either one of them, let alone both of them.
With that in mind, here's a look at this week's picks:
1. Denny Hamlin. He may need to do what Tony Stewart did last year to win the title, and that's win three of the last four races. He's won two of the last five races at Martinsville, so he does have a chance this week.
2. Jimmie Johnson. He's on Keselowski's tale and he hasn't won a race in the Chase yet. He has three career wins at Martinsville, so it makes sense to pick him here because he's due for a victory and he's had success at Martinsville.3. Jeff Gordon. He very easily could have, and maybe should have, won the spring race here. He led 329 laps before a late accident relegated him to 14th.
4. Brad Keselowski. He's still a must pick pretty much every week, especially because his bad days are still top 10 finishes. So, that means a good day will put him in the top two or three.
 5. Clint Bowyer. It seems more and more that a lot of these races are coming down to which car gets the best fuel mileage. And if that happens again Sunday, look for Bowyer to be in the mix as the No. 15 seems to get better mileage than anyone else. And yes, like Hamlin, he really needs a win to have a shot at the title.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Dale Earnhardt Jr. So, he's coming back after a two-race hiatus due to a concussion.. This wouldn't be a bad place to pick him because he'll want to show he's healthy and he also has a good track record at Martinsville with an average finish of 6.8 and four top 10 finishes in the last five races.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 6 of the Chase at Kansas.
Brad Keselowski  - 8th. Never a factor to win it, but avoided enough wrecks for an OK day.
Jimmie Johnson  - 9th.  Actually had a shot to win, but a meeting with the wall ended those hopes.Denny Hamlin   - 13th. Got caught  in pits during a yellow, so had to battle back from that.
Clint Bowyer  - 6th. Was up front a couple of times and good finish kept his title hopes somewhat alive.
Carl Edwards  - 14th. Took a shot with a non-Chaser here and was reminded there's a reason he's not in the Chase.
Here's a look at my results after 32 races and 160 picks.
15 wins
49 top 5s
73 top 10s
Grade for the week: C-. Not a disaster in terms of having some decent finishes, just couldn't get anyone in the top five.
One last thing: Not that he's close to a Dale Earnhardt Jr. type losing streak, but Edwards hasn't won since the Las Vegas race of last year, a span of 65 races..

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Junior and other NASCAR headaches

There's been a lot happening off the track in NASCAR the past couple of weeks, so here's a look at what was good, and bad about some of those issues and some suggestions to make things better.
Junior's headache: Yes, it was good that Dale Earnhardt Jr. came forward and is sitting out this week's race at Kansas, along with last week's at Charlotte, due to a concussion. There is always debate about whether NASCAR is a real sport (usually started by those who've never driven a race car, so they must be experts right?). But there is no debating that when it comes to serious mental concentration for an extended period of time, driving in a NASCAR race is at the top of list of where that's needed and if Junior couldn't do it, he needed to take a break.
No more top 35: Since 2005, NASCAR has had a rule that the top 35 cars in owners points were guaranteed a spot in the following week's race. That rule had become pretty much a joke as there are basically 35 teams that are guaranteed to compete each week while other part-time rides that fill in the 43-car field. Going back to qualifying strictly on speed and saving a provisional spot for a past champion is much better.
Start and Parkers: First, let's not place the blame on the teams that do this, they qualify, run say one tank of gas, and then pull in the garage. It's a chance for those teams/owners to make some money when sponsorship is difficult. Also, yes, I like owner James Finch's idea of giving more purse money to teams who actually compete in the whole race. Another bad thing about the start and parkers is when you look at the official results, the reasons these guys are listed as being out usually includes things like overheating, brakes, ignition, etc. NASCAR should just list these cars as S/P, similar to how the NBA lists players who don't play with a DNP-CD (did not play, coach's decision). Let's just end the facade and tell it like it is.
Sponsor backfire: Back when Sprint took over as the title sponsor in 2004, part of the deal was that it would be the exclusive communications sponsor in the sport. Now, it's a sport that is desperate for sponsors and that decision may well be costing some teams a major sponsor, but we'll never know for sure since they can't join in the fun. Wouldn't it be interesting to see a T-Mobile car or a Verizon car on the track? Also, you would think it would be automatic to have a McDonald's or Wendy's car, too. And Wal-Mart, which has its roots in the South, why aren't they in? NASCAR needs to take a hard look at why some of these multi-billion dollar companies aren't on board.
Sunday Starting times: It used to be that the actual green flag times for races came at about 12:45 p.m. on Sundays. There were a lot of good things about this. First, if you like NASCAR and the NFL, which is the case with many fans, it gives you a chance to get into the race a little bit before the 1 p.m. NFL games start. Then once you're interested in the race, if you are flipping back and forth between plays, or watching both events on a split screen, the interest is there. The way it is now, with with 2:15 green flags, fans are already invested in the NFL game of their choice, and it becomes more difficult to get into the race. These later start times also don't help those fans who in the past didn't mind traveling four or five hours to see a race. The early start times allowed them to get home before say around 11 p.m., and be in bed by midnight. Late, but doable. Now, with races not ending until after 6 p.m., and figuring it takes about an hour of waiting or sitting in traffic to get out of most venues, it's more like arriving home at midnight, and not to bed until 1 a.m. That's crossing the line for many who work the next day. And, we understand this due to the ...
TV Contracts: NASCAR announced earlier this week that it had reached an eight-year contract extension with FOX to broadcast the first 13 races of the year ... for a total of $2.4 billion. That's enough big bucks to say the sport is healthy. Next will be what ESPN does. The way it's set up now, when ESPN takes over coverage for the second part of the season, it can't get to race coverage once the NFL starts because it's NFL pre-game show lasts until 1 p.m. ESPN could put its pre-race coverage on ESPN2 at the same as the NFL pre-game show, and then start the race an hour earlier. But when it comes to money and ratings, what ESPN wants, ESPN gets. That's just the way its in sports television these days, whether we like it or not.
Will the new car help?: It's not that the drivers aren't trying, because they are. Or that the crew chiefs aren't trying to make their cars faster, because they are. But while the current NASCAR race car template has proven its value in safety (the Elliot Sadler crash at Pocono a couple of years ago could be used as Exhibit A), way, way too many races are not decided by side-by-side battles. The only realistic possibilities for these are the half-mile short tracks, such as Martinsville and Bristol, or the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona, with the one exception being Darlington ... wouldn't change a thing about that track. That still leaves 27 races that if there is an exciting finish, we are surprised. So, NASCAR is introducing it's new cars for 2013 season. Hopefully, we won't have to keep hearing about clean air and track position being the most important things to make the cars go fast. Hopefully, the new model will put results much more in the hands of the drivers rather than circumstances.
And that would be best news of all.

It's Week 6 of the Chase, and, yes, the same guys who were on top going into Charlotte are on top going into Kansas. The only difference is that now, Clint Bowyer, is a legitimate contender as he is 28 points back with five to go. He's still a long shot, but at least it's possible for him to rally. And speaking of top contenders, you just might notice a theme in this week's picks. That's partially because past history at Kansas won't mean much as this is the first race on the re-paved track.
1. Brad Keselowski. No matter what his history on these final tracks, he's pretty much a must pick here. Just for the record, he does have a win and a top five in five races at Kansas.
2. Jimmie Johnson. Five-timer hasn't really had a hot streak yet and he's just seven points out of the lead. That's not good for everybody else and he does have two wins at Kansas.
3. Denny Hamlin. He's right there, too, just 15 points back. Hamlin's the kind of driver that can win three or four in a row and he has a win and two top fives in nine races at Kansas.
4. Clint Bowyer. This is considered his home track and teams get pumped up when their driver has a shot at the title and they are on their home track. He just might win two in a row, and if he does that, it might put him right in the mix with the first three.
 5. Carl Edwards. True, he's never won at Kansas and true, he's not in the Chase, and true, he's not won since the Las Vegas race in March 2011. He used to be a weekly contender to win, but no more of late. So why pick him here? I'd just like to see that victory back flip.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Tony Stewart. He's 50 points behind and is pretty much in a win at all cost mode and he did win a fuel-mileage race at Kansas when he was not in the Chase. He does have another win at Kansas, too, so it's always dangerous to not pick him here.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 5 of the Chase at Charlotte.
Kyle Busch - 5th. He seemed to be in contention for much of the race, but never actually led a lap.
Kasey Kahne - 8th. He was in the top 10 pretty much all night, but never a factor to win the race. Also did not lead a lap.
Matt Kenseth  - 14th. Never was close to pulling off a two wins in a row.
Kevin Harvick  - 16th. A win can come at any time, but even though he's in the Chase, it would be a surprise to see him in Victory Lane these days.
Jeff Gordon - 18th. Seemed destined to get a top 10 finish, but was caught speeding on pit road and the drive-through penalty put him out of contention.

Here's a look at my results after 31 races and 155 picks.
15 wins
49 top 5s
70 top 10s
Grade for the week: D. Yes, the fuel-saving game played a part in this one, but none of my picks were serious contenders to win.
One last thing: The last non-Chaser to win the Kansas fall race was Greg Biffle in 2007.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gordon, others underdogs to rally for title

Most every sports fan likes to see a good comeback, unless you are of course, a fan of the team, or in this the driver, who is in the process of losing the lead.
There are six races left in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, and in the second season of points system, that was designed in part, to help keep the standings closer, many are wondering if for the second straight season there can be a dramatic comeback for the title.
Last year after five races, eventual champion Tony Stewart was 24 points out of first place. Stewart went on to win three of the final four races to take the title from Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.
And as we look at standings heading into Saturday night's race at Charlotte, there are three definite contenders for the title. Brad Keselowski is in the lead with a 14-point margin over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and a 23-point lead over Denny Hamlin. The current points system gives 43 points to the winner, 42 to second place and so on, with a bonus point for most laps led, leading at least one lap and for winning the race.
The old point system was more complicated, where there were 180 points awarded for a win, with five points for leading a lap, the most laps and for the win.
So in these modern times, while a lead might not look that big, it actually can be difficult to make up ground. The perfect example here is the case of Jeff Gordon, who currently sits sixth in points.
Gordon was running well in the first race of the Chase when he had a throttle stick while in a corner, causing him to crash and relegating him to a 35th place finish. Of course, not what a driver contending for a title wants. In these next three races Gordon has rebounded quite nicely. He finished third and New Hampshire and then has had back-to-back seconds at Dover and Talladega. His reward for running so well in those three races has been a gain of five points. In other words, Gordon has to keep turning in these top three finishes and hope Keselowski, Johnson or Hamlin have a disaster day like the one he had in Chicago if he wants to have a shot at the title.
Gordon seemed rejuvenated after racing his way into the Chase in the final regular season race of the year at Richmond, where he rallied from a lap down to finish second. He'll need another miracle rally to have a shot at what would be his fifth title this season.
Even with Stewart's comeback last year, history tells us it's rare for a driver to rally and win in the final five races. Since 2000, all under the old points system, and both times in the Chase which began in 2004, Johnson has been the only driver to rally from a deficit and win the title with five races remaining. He was 68 points behind Gordon in 2007 and 146 behind Jeff Burton in 2006 when he went on to win the crown.
Hey, it would be great to see Gordon, or even Stewart, who is 46 points back, Clint Bowyer who is 40 back or Kasey Kahne at 36 back jump up and join fray for the title hunt.
But it took Stewart being a regular visitor to victory lane to rally from 24 back. So, hey, while it's sports and anything is possible, it certainly isn't likely to see anyone other than the current top three win this year's crown.

It's Week 5 of the Chase, and the same guys who were on top going into Talladega are on top going into Charlotte. This is generally not considered a shakeup-the-standings kind of race, but if we look at the recent history of Chase drivers at Charlotte, it could provide a bit of a shuffle. With that in mind, here are this week's picks.
1. Kyle Busch. Of course. we know he's a non-Chaser, but he's led 474 laps in the last five races at Charlotte. And even though he hasn't won any of those, he has four top-five finishes in those races. The luck has got to change sometime and it could be Saturday night.
2. Kasey Kahne. He's on the fringe here, at 36 points behind Keselowski for the lead. Charlotte has been a good track for him and he has a win, a top five and a top 10 in the last five starts at Charlotte. It could be his best chance to become a legitimate contender for the title.
3. Matt Kenseth. He's got a win, a top five and three top 10s in the last five races here. Sure, he's in 12th in the Chase and 62 points out, so he's got nothing to go for but the win here.
4. Kevin Harvick. He has an average finish of 6.8 in the last five races here, including a win. And he has yet to win this year, so he is due.
5. Jeff Gordon. Fans of the No. 24 driver are saying if that throttle hadn't stuck at Chicago he'd be right in the Chase picture and they'd be right. He does have five career wins at the track and with his back-to-back second place finishes in the last two weeks, maybe a win is in the cards here.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Jimmie Johnson. It's always dangerous to not pick Johnson at this track. He's got six career wins at Charlotte, but in the last five points races he has an average finish of  22.60 at Charlotte. 

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 4 of the Chase at Talladega.
Kevin Harvick - 11th. He was in the mix up front in the later stages and avoiding the big one at the end for an OK finish.
Clint Bowyer - 23rd. He was contending for the win until his No. 15 Toyota crashed the scene with Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevy.
Brad Keselowski - 7th. The points leader did what eventual champions do at Talladega ... avoid the big one.
Tony Stewart - 22nd. Being a second late on the blocking tactic while in the lead on the last lap at Talladega cost him a potential win and likely any shot at second straight Sprint Cup title.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - 20th. Was trying to push his way to the front when he was swallowed up by the Big One.
Here's a look at my results after 30 races and 150 picks.
15  wins
48 top fives
69 top 10s
Grade for the week: C-. Only giving this grade because it was Talladega and really, no one knows what will happen there.
One last thing: The only non-Chase driver to win a Charlotte Chase race is Jamie McMurray in 2010.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks about concussion issues, missing next two races

Here's the AP story after the Dale Earnhardt Jr. press conference earlier this morning.


AP Auto Racing Writer

   CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the next two races with his second concussion in the past six weeks, ending the championship chances of NASCAR’s most popular driver. 
The first concussion, suffered in a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas, went undiagnosed until Wednesday, when Earnhardt was examined in Charlotte for lingering effects from Sunday’s crash at Talladega.  
 “I knew having those two concussions back to back was not a good thing,” he said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  “I knew to go see someone whether I wanted to get out of the car or not.” 
Hendrick Motorsports said Earnhardt will sit out races Charlotte and Kansas, and Regan Smith will replace him in the No. 88 Chevrolet. 
Earnhardt, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Wednesday, was injured in a 25-car, last-lap accident Sunday at Talladega. Because he was able to drive his car away from the accident — teammate Jimmie Johnson even caught a lift on the window back to the garage — Earnhardt was not required to go to the care center for an examination at the time.  
Immediately after the race, he called restrictor-plate racing  “bloodthirsty” and said he no longer had any desire to compete at Daytona and Talladega.  
The wreck was at least the second hard hit Earnhardt has had this season. He struck the wall extremely hard during the Goodyear test at Kansas when his right front tire failed, an accident driver Brad Keselowski tweeted about moments afterward.   
Earnhardt, who attended a Washington Redskins exhibition game later that evening, was asked Thursday why didn’t he seek attention after the Kansas accident.  
 “Too stubborn” he said.  “With the Chase coming up, if I was to volunteer myself for medical attention, I didn’t know how difficult it would be to get back in.” 
He added:  “I knew something was not right. But I decided to just push through. I’d had concussions before.” 
Dr. Jerry Petty, a neurosurgeon who consults for NASCAR and also personally treats Earnhardt, said the driver was honest about his symptoms over the last six weeks. Earnhardt underwent an MRI on Wednesday and tests came back normal with no damage.  
 “He had no amnesia after either incident, which is very important,” Petty said. We’ll want to give him four, five days without a headache,” and then they’ll try to invoke a headache to see how he reacts before clearing him to race.” 
Said Earnhardt:  “I feel perfectly fine, but I don’t want to keep getting hit in the head.”  
Earnhardt earlier this season snapped a 143-race winless streak dating to 2008, and many believed he was in the best position in years to finally win his first Sprint Cup Series championship. But he had a mediocre start to the Chase for the Sprint Cup and left Talladega ranked 11th in the field.  
By sitting out the next two races, he’ll most certainly finish last in the 12-driver Chase race.   
Earnhardt will also end his streak of 461 consecutive starts, which is the fifth longest active streak in the Sprint Cup Series.  
NASCAR strengthened its commitment to keeping drivers with concussions off the track in 2002, in part because Earnhardt admitted he was unable to fully concentrate or communicate with his crew chief after an accident at California. He self-diagnosed himself with a concussion, which he revealed weeks later.  
NASCAR then said doctors at infield care centers could require drivers to undergo CT scans or MRIs if they suspected a concussion. Clearance to race after suffering a concussion is not given until after a driver obtains a medical release.  
Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure missed six weeks this season with lingering effects of a concussion suffered at Talladega. McClure said the concussion he sustained in the May 5 race was the third of his career, one of the main reasons his doctors and NASCAR officials made him sit out for an extended period of time.  
 “There’s not really a set timetable for those things and that’s been the challenging thing,” McClure said after his June return.  “That’s what kept me from coming back was the lingering symptoms. I really felt a couple of weeks ago, after the first two weeks of being away from the track, and having total brain rest, that I was ready. But (my doctor) felt like we needed to wait, and I respect that opinion.”   

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't drive next two races due to concussion

The big news in NASCAR this morning is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the next two races, at Charlotte Saturday night, and then at Kansas next Sunday, due to a concussion. Hendrick Motorsports said that Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, was disagnosed Wednesday afternoon. He sustained the concussion in the 25-car pileup on the final lap of last Sunday's race at Talladega.
Regan Smith will replace Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet in the next two events.
Earnhardt Jr. is one of the 12 drivers in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship and sits 11th in the standings, 51 behind points leader Brad Keselowski, a gap that would have been difficult for him to make up in the final six races of the Chase.
Smith was scheduled to drive the No. 51 car this weekend, that will now be filled by the recently reinstated AJ Allmendinger, who lost his ride at Penske Racing earlier this season for violating the sport's substance abuse policy. He was reinstated to the sport last month after completing NASCAR's Road to Recovery program.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Junior among those who are desperate at 'Dega

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega Sunday afternoon and with this being the fourth race in the Chase for the Championship, the sport's 10-race version of the playoffs, this will be a make or break race for many of the title contenders.
At the moment, it's a three-driver race for the title with Brad Keselowski leading, Jimmie Johnson five points behind and Denny Hamlin 16 points back. As for the rest of the field, they will need at least a top five finish, or for Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin to get wiped out in accidents, for things to change. And that's certainly not an impossibility at a restrictor plate track like Talladega.
There are two schools of thought on how and where to run at Talladega, where cars go at about 200 mph in a tight packs with no need to slow down for the corners.
Some choose to sit in the back of the pack to try and avoid the so-called "big one" accident. Other choose to run up front and to try and avoid the so-called "big one" accident.
That means if you subtract lets say the front four, and then maybe the back four, there are about 30 other drivers in the middle (yes, we're throwing out the start-and-parkers). And that's where trouble usually starts because no one likes the feeling of being stuck in traffic, even if it going nearly 200 mph.
If you hear drivers talking about avoiding trouble this weekend there's a good reason for it. They've all pretty much been bit by accidents at restrictor plate tracks that were out of everyone's control at one point or another in their careers.
That brings us to the drivers sitting in the fourth through seventh positions in the standings. This is their chance to get back into the title hunt and be legitimate threats for the crown. Right now, Clint Bowyer is fourth in points, 25 behind Keselowski, Tony Stewart is fifth and Kasey Kahne sixth each 32 behind, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is seventh 39 behind.
In recent retstrictor plate races Bowyer has been on top, with an average finish of 11.9, which includes two wins at Talladega. Having success on restrictor plate tracks is a bit tricky and a driver has to have a kind of sixth sense of where and when to go in tight traffic at high speeds.. Bowyer seems to have discovered that.
While Stewart hasn't been good in recent restrictor races recently, his history tells us he can be a factor, too. He has five wins on restrictor plate tracks in his career, including nine top-five finishes in 27 races at Talladega. He's always a potential winner at plate races.
The same cannot be said about Kahne. In 35 restrictor plate races, he has no wins and just five top five finishes. If he wants to contend for the title, Sunday would be a good time for him to break through.
And that, of course, brings us to Earnhardt Jr. There may be no better place for him to win than Talladega. Once considered the master of restrictor plate tracks just like his late father, Junior has two wins at Daytona and five Talladega. But since the 2010 season, he has an average finish of 18th at Talladega and his last win there was the fall race in 2004. So, if Junior wants to be a contender, he's going to have to recapture some of the early 2000s magic.
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin don't need magical runs to stay in contention. They can play it a bit conservatively, hang around until the end, and try to get a top 10 finish. But for Bowyer, Stewart, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr.,  it's go time. There's no waiting around to see how things workout. They need to show and know they are contenders to win early in Sunday's race.  They simply can't afford to get stuck in the middle of a traffic jam and find themselves as victims in the "big one."
And Sunday may well be their last one big chance at the title for 2012.

It's Week 4 of the Chase, and really, as mentioned above, it's do or die for several drivers.  So with that in mind, here's a look at this week's picks for the 2 p.m. race at Talladega to be shown on ESPN.
1. Clint Bowyer. He's won the last two fall races at Talladega and he's under pressure to get a win to get back into the title hunt.
2. Brad Keselowski. The bad news for the rest of the Chasers is that Keselowski, and the soon-be-extinct Penske Dodge's have been strong at Talladega for a while, including Keselowski winning the spring race there this year.
3. Tony Stewart. He's usually good at the plate tracks and if the defending champion wants to add a fourth title to his resume, he'll likely need a win Sunday to get back in the race.
4. Kevin Harvick. It's almost forgotten that he is in the Chase, but he shouldn't be forgotten at Talladega. In his last five races there, he has a win and an average finish of 13th.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, I'l make this pick, even if takes some proverbial arm twisting. Junior has had a nice year, but now he needs to learn to win again. And while he does have fives wins at Talledaga, he last went to Victory Lane there eight years ago. It would be a great confidence boost for him and his team to win Sunday.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Trevor Bayne. OK, i understand all the factors against him, mainly youth and only running a partial schedule this year. But just have a pure gut feeling that the 2011 Daytona 500 champion will do well Sunday. 
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 3 of the Chase at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson - 4th. He was strong all day and may have had the best car at the end, but had to go to into fuel conservation mode in the final 30 laps.
Matt Kenseth  - 35th. He was struggling a bit when he had a piece break on the rear of his car.
Greg Biffle - 16th. He was hanging in there, but an unscheduled stop for a bad tire,  became a four-tire stop and then resulted in Biffle berating crew chief Matt Puccia on the radio. So, not his best day either.
Kyle Busch - 7th. Not to defend all of his misgivings over the years, but if there was anybody who deserved to be mad for not winning Sunday it was Busch. He led 302 laps, then had to come in for a late fuel stop that put him a lap down.
Jeff Gordon - 2nd. He was solid all day, then had enough fuel to make it to the end and almost steal a win.
Here's a look at my results after 29 races and 145 picks.
15  wins
48 top fives
68 top 10s
Grade for the week: B. OK, I know, no winner here, but either Busch or Johnson would have won if not for fuel issues, so really, felt good about these picks after the fact.
One last thing: With his win at Dover last week, Brad Keselowski is the third Penske driver to win at least five races in a season. The others are Rusty Wallace with 10 in 1993, eight 1994 and five in 1996 and Ryan Newman with in 2003.