As NASCAR's regular season winds down with just three races remaining, a number of drivers have a number of different agendas. For some, it's about making the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR's version of the playoffs. Guys like Kasey Kahne Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose are battling for the two wild-card spots and need either a win or top-five finishes to make the Chase.
Others, guys solidly in the top 10, can simply go for the win. Guys like Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski can experiment a little without the worry of not making the Chase. And they can gamble a little and go for the win, too, with their high reward, low risk situation.
Then there's another scenario, and one that is particularly unique. Sam Hornish is not going to make the Chase, but he's in another kind of chase. One that if successful could give him a chance at a full-time Sprint Cup ride next season. Hornish ventured into NASCAR's top series full-time in 2008 after accomplishing all that was possible in Indycar, which included winning the Indy 500 and three Indycar points titles.
But Sprint Cup cars were a different deal for Hornish. The heavier, boxier stock cars handle much differently and when team owner Roger Penske gave Hornish a shot in the Sprint Cup series, it just didn't go well. In fairness to Hornish, he had just 11 Nationwide starts before the 2008 season.
Hornish's best average finish in his full seasons on the Sprint Cup circuit was 24.9 in 2010. After that season, as has been the case with many teams, sponsorship for the Sprint Cup ride disappeared. Last season and this season Hornish competed in the Nationwide Series. And really, that might be just what he needed. In 13 Nationwide races last season, Hornish had an average finish of 13.0. And in 22 Nationwide races this season, Hornish is third in the points standings with an average finish of 8.0.
So, it looks like he's starting to figure this stock car thing out.
After a full year-and-a-half driving almost exclusively Nationwide cars, he got an unexpected chance to return to a regular Sprint Cup ride for Penske in July. While Hornish admits he didn't want to get a full-time ride at the expense of former teammate AJ Allmendinger being suspended by NASCAR and then released by Penske for testing positive for a bannd substance, he's taken the opportunity and drove with it.
After getting his feet on the ground in the first two races, Hornish has an average finish of 12.5 in his last four Sprint Cup races. That includes a fifth-place run on the road course at Watkins Glen, then taking 12th last week at Michigan. He easily could have had a better result at Michigan as he spent much of the day in the top 10.
As is usually the case this time of year, there are plenty of rumors about who will be driving where next season. We know, or at least pretty much know, that Matt Kenseth will be driving for Joe Gibbs Racing next season. And the other heavy rumor is that if Gibbs can't find a sponsor for Logano, then Logano could end up the driving the No. 22 car for Penske. No disrepect to Logano, who could have a bright future in front of him as long as he is with a decent team, but if Hornish continues to prove himself over the next few races, he may well be more deserving of that ride than Logano.
Of course, the big issue will be if a big money sponsor thinks the same thing. That's the unfortunate part of the business. Let's hope Penske and his people can convince a big-time sponsor that Hornish deserves a Sprint Cup ride for a full season.
Hornish's Nationwide and Sprint Cup results this season are telling us he's ready. Hornish can only hope a big-time sponsor is listening.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
The Sprint Cup Series heads to the reconfigured Bristol Saturday night at 7 on ABC. Will the return to the old track bring back the beatin', helmet-throwing style that made Bristol famous? We'll find out for sure Saturday. Here's a look at this week's picks, which have been somewhat influenced by the new configuration, but no matter what that is, some guys have a knack for short-track racing and some don't, and that was the biggest influence of all in these picks.
Kyle Busch. - He's just outside the Chase picture and needs at least a good finish, but more importantly a win. He's got five of them at Bristol, so he's a must pick here.
Jeff Gordon - It's pretty much win one of these next three races or miss the Chase for the four-time champions. He's also got five wins here and the return to the former track style could help him.
Brad Keselowski - He's been excellent lately, and it seems no matter what kind of track the Sprint Cup guys are on, the No. 2 is contending for a win. Keselowski has two wins at Bristol and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him at or close the front again.
Carl Edwards - Much like Gordon, he's desperate for a win. He has two of them at Bristol and since he's 12th in points now, a win would put him in the Chase heading into the final two regular-season races.
Kevin Harvick - He's without a win this year and in the past, hasn't been afraid to use his bumper to get by slower cars on the short tracks. He's also got a new/old crew chief this week in Gil Martin, so maybe familiarity will help him win for the third time at Bristol.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - There were a lot of tough choices this week. I kept going back to Ryan Newman and I may regret not picking him. He's usually a good qualifier, which helps at Bristol, where track position is everything. He's been relatively good on short tracks, too, with an average finish of 11.9 since the beginning of the 2010 season.
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Michigan.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - 4th. He was solid for much of the day, though never really a threat to win.
Jimmie Johnson - 27th. He had it won, until his car decided to display its grenade engine in the final laps.
Greg Biffle - 1st. He said he would have caught Johnson before the end of the race. He was fast at the end for sure. So, maybe the fastest car did win.
Carl Edwards . - 6th. He was solid again, but the No. 99 really needs a win to make the Chase and he knows solid won't quite cut it.
Tony Stewart - 32nd. Also the victim of a Hendrick grenade engine in the early going.
Here's a look at my results after 23 races and 115 picks.
40 top fives
54 top 10s
Grade for the week: B-plus. I thought I had the winner in Johnson, but still had it in Biffle. So, in the end, it was three of the top six, and easily could have been four of the top seven.
One last thing: At some tracks, it's true, qualifying is not a big deal. But that's not the case at Bristol. of the 103 races there, the winner has started 10th or better 82 times, and 52 of the winners have come from the first four starting positions.