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.

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