Thursday, September 27, 2012

Contenders could be chasing Johnson after Dover

They like to call it the Monster Mile, but it just might be Jimmie Johnson's best friend.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to Dover Sunday for third of its 10 races in the Chase for the Championship, the sport's version of the playoffs.
Johnson comes into the race with a one-point lead over Brad Keselowski, a seven point lead over Denny Hamlin and a 10-point lead over defending champion Tony Stewart in the championship points race. Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer are also just 15 points back.
But given the recent history of Johnson when compared to these drivers closest to the five-time champion in the points race, Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet could very well leave the Delaware track with a substantially bigger lead.
That's because Johnson has a history of dominating on the concrete one-mile oval, while those close to him in the points race have generally not been very good there lately. Now, it's not impossible to have a stinker of a race at Dover and then win the title. In fact, Stewart did that just last year when he finished 25th at Dover. However, he had to win five of the 10 Chase races, including three of the last four, to get the title, something that Stewart proved was possible, but it's definitely not likely.
Here's a look at what Johnson's challengers have done in their last five races at Dover:
Keselowski has an average finish of 17th, does not have a top 10 finish and has led two out of the last 2,000 laps there.
Hamlin has an average finish of 13th, one top five finish and like Keselowski, has led two laps in the last five races there.
Stewart has an average finish of 21.8, one top 10 finish and has not led a lap in his last five trips to Dover.
Kahne has an average finish of 19.4, with one top five and one top 10 finish and has led 24 laps.
Bowyer has an average finish of 12.2, with one top five, two top 10's and has led 29 laps.
So, unless we see a turnaround, those guys don't appear to be serious challengers for Johnson Sunday, especially when you compare their numbers to Johnson's. In his last five races at Dover, Johnson has two wins, another top five and another top 10 finish to his credit for an average finish of 5.80. But here's the big number: Johnson has led 1,069 laps in the last five races there. He also has seven career victores at Dover, tying him with Richard Petty for the most career Sprint Cup wins at the track.
Of those top challengers, maybe Kahne or Stewart have a shot to be competitive. They've each got access to the same Hendrick Motorsports team information that Johnson does and they have plenty of experience on shorter tracks from their younger racing days in the Midwest.
The rest of the Chase field is in danger of having its hopes for a title put to rest, should Johnson dominate Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is seventh in points, 26 behind, but if that gap reaches into the 30s or higher, that's going to be a lot of points to makeup since Johnson, and the other five drivers would have to have two or three bad days to fall back. That's just too much to expect.
Along with Earnhardt, the rest of the Chase field of Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth will need multiple victories and no 20-something type finishes the rest of the way to have a chance.
The numbers say Kenseth may have best shot of keeping Johnson out of Victory Lane Sunday. Kenseth has a win and three other top five finishes in his last five races at Dover for an average finish of 6.0.
But whether you're a Johnson fan or not, there's no denying the numbers are in his favor for Sunday, and quite possibly, the rest of the Chase as well.
As we enter Week 3 of the Chase, it's usually at about this time when we starting seeing some separation of the contenders from the pretenders. So, here's a look at who should contend at Dover Sunday afternoon.
1. Jimmie Johnson. He has seven wins on the concrete mile and won the June race here earlier this year, wearing that rainbow-colored wig in Victory Lane. Wig or not, don't be surprised to see him there again late Sunday afternoon.
2. Matt Kenseth. He's one of the few drivers who have been able to challenge Johnson at Dover in recent years. He also needs a win if he wants to have any hope of contending for the title as he is in  11th place, 35 points behind Johnson.
3. Greg Biffle. Much like his Roush-Fenway teammate Kenseth, he needs a win to get back into the title picture. He's won twice at Dover, so maybe he can give it a shot.
4. Kyle Busch. He's had a frustrating year with several engine woes, then missed the Chase. But he 's still capable of winning at any of these Chase tracks.
5. Jeff Gordon. OK, so no other driver really sticks out here. However, if Gordon, who is 12th and 45 points behind Johnson, gets a win, maybe it would be the beginning of an epic comeback to get him back into the Chase title picture, just like the epic rally he had to make the Chase. He does have four career wins at Dover, though none in the last five races there.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Tony Stewart. He used to be good at Dover in his early days in the Sprint Cup cars as he has two wins there. But has struggled in recent years, including consecutive 25th place finishes in his last two races there. However, he's also known for doing the improbable, so I wouldn't count him out Sunday.
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 2 of the Chase at New Hampshire
Jimmie Johnson - 2nd. Was pretty good all day, just not as good as the winner who was ...
Denny Hamlin  - 1st. A dominating performance that put him right in the title hunt.
Tony Stewart - 7th. He didn't have his best day, but was respectable enough.
Clint Bowyer - 4th. He needed a good run to keep realistic title hopes and he did it.
Ryan Newman - 10th. Though he's not in the Chase, he fared OK at one of his best tracks.
Here's a look at my results after 28 races and 140 picks.

15  wins
46 top fives
65 top 10s
Grade for the week: A. I gave you the winner, three of the top four and five of the top 10. Wish I could do that every week.
One last thing: Among active drivers, Jeff Gordon has led the most laps at Dover at 2,291. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson has led 2,275, so he could surpass Gordon for that honor Sunday.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Keselowski showing championship maturity

There was a time we didn't know what to do with Brad Keselowski. There was probably even a time when Brad Keselowski didn't know what to do with Brad Keselowski.
But thanks to some patience from a first-class owner in Roger Penske, Keselowski's pure ability to drive a race car, and now his maturation, Keselowski is a legitimate NASCAR Sprint Cup champion contender. He has not only proved it by winning the first race in Chase, and fourth of the season, Sunday at Chicagoland, he has done it in other ways, too.
Penske spoke of Keselowski's maturation in his post-race press conference at Chicagoland Sunday. Penske, who was a Will Power crash away from being an IndyCar champion owner late Saturday night in California made the cross-country trip to get to Chicagoland in time for Sunday's race.
And part of the reason Penske did that is because Keselowski expected it. And, so, Penske, who has a habit of running first-class racing organizations, did his part. But the fact that Keselowski expected his owner to be there, and even told him so, shows that the 28-year-old driver believes there was something worth seeing.
While Keselowski has at times in the past come off as a bit cocky, he seems to have reigned that in just enough to become confident. And sure, if you don't believe you're good enough to go out and win a race if you have decent car, then maybe you should question whether you're doing the right thing. Keselowski's average finish in his first full Sprint Cup season in 2010 was 22.4. That improved to 14.8 last year and is now up to 11.1 as has four wins this season and holds the points lead heading into Sunday.
And while he's still not afraid to rattle some cages on occasion, he's also gotten away from the senseless act of causing crashes on high-speed restrictor-plate tracks.
Keselowski gained some social media fame in the first race of the year, the Daytona 500, which was on a Monday night due to rain all day Sunday. And when the race was red-flagged due to the now famous jet dryer fire, Keselowski used his time well. He took out his phone and went on Twitter and interacted with fans during an event. That's something that not even the most popular athletes can do in other sports. But Keselowski did so, and created a connection with fans.
And while that looked good, and could have been construed as a public relations stunt by some, Penske also indicated Sunday that Keselowski's influence on the team is real. Penske said that Keselowski comes to the team's shop regularly and talks with all the employees, which makes them feel like part of the team. And it's that kind of attitude and leadership that makes employees take maybe a couple of extra minutes to make sure what they are doing is done exactly right.
Also, as Keselowski gets to know the team's employees, and at least takes a little time to understand their jobs,  maybe he realizes his performance can help them keep their jobs in these times where sponsorship is difficult to find. So that could gives him just a little extra on the track. Or maybe in his case, he rethinks a situation where he wants to retaliate against a driver who nearly wrecks him, because he knows if he wrecks, too, it not only makes matters worse for him, but those back in the shop,
The other factor in all of this is that Keselowski also owns a NASCAR truck team. And, once you own a team and starting seeing how much the bills are, and what it means when a vehicle gets torn up, that also helps the thought process out on the track, too.
Now, Keselowski may be in the process of winning his first Sprint Cup championship. If he wins Sunday at New Hampshire it will bode well for him. The only two drivers to win the first two races of the Chase are Kurt Busch in 2004 and Tony Stewart last year. They each went on to the win title.
Whether Keselowski will win this Sprint Cup title or not is still an unknown. But we do know is he's going in the right direction.

After Week One of the Chase, we're off to New Hampshire for Week 2. So, just as Tony Stewart started last year's Chase with two straight victories on the way to the title, the question will now be if Brad Keselowski can do the same thing. Here's a look at who we like for Round 2 of this championship fight as Keselowski likes to call it, that continues Sunday afternoon.
1)  Jimmie Johnson - He finished second at Chicagoland while dominating much of the race. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him dominate and win in Loudon, where he has three victories.
2) Tony Stewart - He has three wins and 10 top fives here, so this is an easy pick.
3) Clint Bowyer - If he wants to be considered a serious contender for the title, this is one of the places he needs to win at. He has two victories and three top fives in 13 races at Loudon.
4) Denny Hamlin - He had been running so well before Chicagoland, which has never been a great track for him. Hamlin, one of the favorites coming into the Chase, needs a win to get all the way back to the front here. He has a win and six top five finishes in 13 races at New Hampshire.
5) Ryan Newman - He's not a Chaser but he's usually a factor in the outcome at New Hampshire. In the last five races there he has a win and three top 10 finishes.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - A couple of guys I like, but couldn't pick were Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Gordon has an average finish of 6.2 in the last five races there, but no wins. Kahne also has a win there and is a dangerous, too.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 1 of the Chase at Chicagoland.
Tony Stewart - 6th. He had a pretty good day considering he started back in 28th.
Denny Hamlin  - 16th. He was set to finish ninth before running out of gas on the last lap. That could be some crucial points lost later in the Chase.
Jimmie Johnson  - 2nd. Continued to be a driver who can dominate much of the race, leading 202 laps this time, but not win at Chicagoland.
Jeff Gordon - 35th. He was running fourth when his throttle stuck and stuck him into the wall.
Kevin Harvick - 12th.  Not a bad finish, but was never really a factor on track that he has generally been good at. So one has to wonder if he will be a factor at all during the Chase.

Here's a look at my results after 27 races and 135 picks.
14  wins
43 top fives
60 top 10s
Grade for the week: C. Johnson could have easily won this race, but as he said, Keselowski was just better at the end. Gordon may have been a contender too had he not found the wall. No matter, we need winners here. That's what matters in the Chase.
One last thing: Seven drivers have 10 or more top five finishes this season, and they are each in the Chase, led by Jimmie Johnson's 13 top-five finishes. Kevin Harvick has the least amount of top-five finishes among Chase drivers this season with four.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

It takes magic act to know who will find Chase magic

It's going to be hard for NASCAR to duplicate, or even come close to duplicating, the magic that occurred in last year's 10-race Chase for the Championship, the sport's version of the playoffs. The odds are simply too long for this season's champion to be decided by a tiebreaker on a day where he had to win the race.
But there very well may be a different kind of magic and drama going into this year's Chase, which begins with a 1 p.m. Sunday race at Chicagoland Speedway. Just figuring out who is the favorite here can make even the best experts a little dizzy.
Sure, you have to like guys like five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, three-time and defending champion Tony Stewart, along with Denny Hamlin, who won four races this season, and Brad Keselowski, who won three times.
But if we learned anything from Stewart's dramatic five wins in 10 races dash to the title, it's that anything is possible. Stewart entered the Chase last year ninth in the standings and without a win and then declared that he had no shot at winning the thing. Then, of course, he went out and the thing.
Stewart did so by getting hot at the right time, including winning three of the last four races.
So, one way to look at this Chase is to try and figure out which of the 12 drivers  to qualify can get on a Stewart-like Chase roll. Stewart, of course, Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, after showing us he's still got that fire last weekend, are certainly guys who can get on a hot streak.
This year's champion will have to win at least two of the next 10 races to have a shot at the title. Stewart, Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski and Kahne have combined for 15 of the 26 wins this season.
The other part of the equation is consistency. That's where guys like Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. come in. However, the consistency can't include top 10 finishes, they will need to be top five finishes. Earnhardt Jr. has 12 top fives this season to go with one win and Kenseth has 10 tops fives with a victory. So, their hope is  get a win or two, but to be consistent.
Then we have two guys who each have two wins, but really, do we think either one is going win this thing? That would be Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. The issue with Bowyer is both of his wins came on fuel saving runs. Of course, you win however you can, but drivers would rather do it with the best car. Biffle, led the points at the end of the regular season, and he did win two races this season. He's a quality driver, who hasn't been on a roll lately. But he's the kind of driver when you look at the standings with three races to go who just might be right in the mix for the title.
Then we have the winless guys. Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick were steady all year, Truex even showed more improvement in the last few races, but couldn't get to Victory Lane. That may well change for him in the Chase. Harvick has been around long enough to know how to win, he just hasn't done it this year. And like Stewart last year, he is ninth in the standings and not one most consider a factor to win the title. The switch back to his old crew chief, Gil Martin may help, but the middle-of-the-season crew chief switcharoo usually isn't a good sign for the immediate future.
Then there are the wild-cards in Kahne and Gordon. Since they each drive for Hendrick, they are capable of finding some Chase magic. Gordon, who got in with his dramatic late-race run Saturday night at Richmond, would love nothing more than to join Johnson as a five-time champion. He's still got the desire, and now new life after experiencing all kinds of bad luck earlier this season. Kahne, like Gordon, had a ton a bad fortune early, but he also has two wins this year.
OK, so the question is who will find the magic at the right time this year?
It's just impossible to answer heading into Week 1 of the playoffs. And that unknown just might be the magical element for the 2012 Chase.

We're off to the Chase and we learned last year that anything can happen as the magic started for Tony Stewart when he won his first race of the year here. Will the same happen this season? Who knows?
 Here's a look at what might happen at Chicagoland Sunday afternoon.1)  Tony Stewart. He has three wins in 11 races at Chicagoland. The victory there last year propelled him to the championship, so he's got to be feeling good about that again.
2) Denny Hamlin. It's true he doesn't have a win at Chicago and has only one top five, but he's been on such a roll lately it's hard not to pick him. 
3) Jeff Gordon. He's feeling good about himself after the rally to make the Chase. He's also got a solid record at Chicagoland with a win and six tops fives, so yeah, going to go with him here.
4) Jimmie Johnson. True, he doesn't have a win at Chicagoland, but he has led 365 laps in 10 races there, easily the most of any active driver without a win.
5) Kevin Harvick. If there is someone who could do what Stewart did last year (enter the Chase ninth in points and not have a win on the season and then win the title), it's Harvick. He has two wins at Chicagoland and six top fives in 11 races there.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Kyle Busch. He would not be a bad pick here. He's got a win and two top fives in seven races and he certainly would like to make a statement that he's still good, even though he's not in the Chase.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Richmond.
Kyle Busch - 16th. He had won four of the last seven at Richmond, but was never a factor for the win.
Denny Hamlin  - 18th. He dominated while leading 202 of the first 275 laps. The decision to stay out when a short rain shower came probably cost him the win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.  - 14th. He  was in contention for much of the night, but the rain caution also messed up his chances after leading 67 laps.
Jimmie Johnson - 13th. He was another victim of old tires when deciding not to come in on that rain caution, or he may have been in the top 5.
Tony Stewart - 4th. The defending champion broke out of a serious slump, helped by the fact that he pitted immediately when the final rain caution came.
Here's a look at my results after 26 races and 130 picks.
14  wins
42 top fives
58 top 10s
Grade for the week: C. It was clear that Hamlin had the best car on the track, but he and crew chief Darian Grubb made the wrong choice, as it turned out, when the final rain caution came. Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart also led at times. That final rain caution changed the complexion of the race.
One last thing: Tony Stewart is the only one of the 12 Chase drivers to win at each of the 10 tracks in the Chase for the Championship. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Just who is chasing who here?

There are a lot of scenarios that could play out in the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup's regular season Saturday night at Richmond.
Some of the things to watch include whether Tony Stewart will remain in the top 10, or make the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR's version of the playoffs, as a wild card; whether Kasey Kahne will remain the first wild-card qualifier by being the only driver 11th-20th in the standings with a win; will either Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards or Paul Menard put themselves in the Chase, or have a shot at the Chase, with a win.
And there's the guys already in the top 10. Since they have clinched a spot in the Chase, they can gamble and go for the win, which would give them three bonus points when the Chase starts next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedwday. The top 10 in points will be seeded by how many wins they have, while the two wild-card qualifiers will not get bonus points for victories.
There are a lot of different scenarios where the above drivers could make the Chase. Some are more extreme than others.
But the real battle here will be between the No. 18 of Kyle Busch and No. 24 of Jeff Gordon. Busch currently sits in the 12th and final qualifying spot with a 12-point lead on Gordon. They each have a win,  so if either wins, they are in the Chase. However, if neither is close to victory, then Gordon will need to have a 13-point advantage over Busch to make the Chase. Along with finishing that many spots ahead of Busch, Gordon can also get a point each for leading a lap and leading the most laps.
But leading at Richmond is something that Busch is accustomed to. He's won three of the last five races there and those wins weren't simply good luck. In those five races, Busch has led 493 laps, the most of any driver. He's finished in the top five four times in those fives races and the other finish was sixth. That all adds up to an average finish of 2.2 in his last five trips to Richmond.
It would be hard for anybody to compare to those numbers favorably. They just can't be topped.
But Gordon has at least been respectable at Richmond the last five times out. He has two top-five finishes and has led 155 laps.
So it's not inconceivable that Gordon could win on Saturday night. He's visited Victory Lane 86 times in Sprint Cup career. so he knows how to win. And being 13 points better than Busch at Richmond seems like a stretch.
So for Gordon, too, just like the rest of the one-win drivers sitting 11th-20th in points, it's pretty much win or miss the Chase. 
The regular season ends with the 7:30 p.m. Saturday race on ESPN. It's get in the top 12 or miss the Chase for those who will still have a chance, so there could be some desperation strategy late in the race. But there are a handful of drivers who have a strong record at Richmond, so that's what the picks are based on this week, not theoretical possibilities that may or may not play out at the end of the race.
1)  Kyle Busch. He has four wins at Richmond and an average finish of 4.7 in 15 races. And he needs at least a good finish, and possibly a win, to make the Chase.
2) Denny Hamlin. He's got two wins and seven top fives in 13 races at Richmond and he's on a roll at the right time.
3) Dale Earnhardt Jr. If he's going to be a title contender in the Chase, three bonus points for a win would sure help him. He's got three victories at Richmond.
4) Jimmie Johnson. Even though he took himself out with an accident last week, the No. 48 will be one of the favorites at each track for the rest of the season.
5) Tony Stewart. He's desperate for a good finish and this is the place where he could get it. He's got three wins at Richmond, too, and an average finish of 10.6 in 27 races there.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Jeff Gordon. I had him as a possibility to win here. With Busch's record at Richmond, Gordon and his team pretty much knows it will need a victory to make the Chase. He's had some success there in the past with two wins and 15 top five finishes. But a top five might not be enough to make up the 12-point gap between him and Busch.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Atlanta.
Kasey Kahne - 23rd. Loved this pick going into the race, but he was never factor.
Tony Stewart  - 22nd. He started on the pole, so this looked like a strong pick, but he faded quickly after the early laps and never really got the handling figured out.
Carl Edwards  - 36th. He was in the top 10 for much of the race, until a grenade engine ended his night.
Jimmie Johnson - 34th. He wasn't having a great night, but hopes were dashed wihen it ended in an accident.
Kyle Busch - 6th. He was the only respectable pick I had. He did lead 66 laps and did contend, but couldn't get to the front on the final restart.
Here's a look at my results after 25 races and 125 picks.
14  wins
41 top fives
57 top 10s
Grade for the week: D. Only Busch saved this week from being a complete disaster.
One last thing: Hamlin has a chance to win three straight races as he and  Busch are the two favorites. The last driver to win three straight was Jimmie Johnson in 2007, when he won four straight with victories at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix..