In Racing Even The Best Can Hit The Skids – And Do

Every professional athlete and team goes through a period in which he, she or it is unproductive and does not perform at a once-high level.

This sort of thing is known as a “slump.” We’ve all heard of it and many of us have experienced our own personal agony when our favorite athlete or team goes through one.

Some “slumps” last much longer than others. Chicago Cubs fans have been suffering for years.

On the other hand, some athletes and teams are so successful for so long that for them to experience any adversity for any length of time is highly unusual.

It’s seldom expected – if ever. Teams like the New York Yankees and the New England Patriots seem to display excellence year after year.

Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they always will. Sooner or later, for any number of reasons, their bleak competitive days will come. Ask Tiger Woods.

Certainly this is all true in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Over the years there have been countless drivers and teams that have enjoyed success for many seasons. Yet they, too, have fallen into adversity from time to time.

It’s happened to the best of drivers – Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt – heck, just about all of them.

Well, OK, maybe Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team haven’t fallen into anything adversarial for the last several years. But, as hard as this may be to believe, they will – in time.

To me the definition of a “slump” in NASCAR is up for interpretation.

There are drivers and teams that have reasonably good season records. In fact, they are the envy of others that would be pleased if they could match their performance level.

However, they are still “slumping” because they are not performing at their usual high level; they are not meeting the expectations of their peers, the fans and the media.

Their established reputations indicate that they should be better than they are – whatever that may be.

This season, a couple of organizations come to mind, neither of which is at the expected performance level.

Stewart Haas Racing is, of course, identified by one of its drivers and its co-owner, Tony Stewart.

Stewart is a two-time Cup champion. He first won the title in 2002 while with Joe Gibbs Racing and earned his second in 2005, when he ranked No. 1 in points going into the Chase and then won five of seven races.

He has won a race in every season since 1999, his first with Gibbs. He won six in 2000 and five each in 2005-06. He’s been out of the top 10 in points only once, in ’06, when he was 11th.

The 2011 season could go down as Stewart’s worst. He clings to 10th-place in points, which would get him into the Chase, but has yet to win.

Through 24 races this year, Stewart has only two top-five and nine top-10 finishes. He has an average start of 18.8 and an average finish of 15.0.

For Stewart fans – and those accustomed to seeing him race with much higher proficiency – his performance at Bristol last week was disheartening.

He was never higher than 28th place and finished three laps down, not because his Chevrolet had problems, it was just too slow.

Stewart’s grip on 10th place in the points is tenuous, so much so that it’s likely he’s going to have to rely on a victory or misfortune for others to make the Chase.

There are two races remaining before the Chase begins and, make no mistake, Stewart can win either one of them, or both.

He won’t if he has another race like Bristol.

Let’s be clear about one thing – the Chase is not the end of the season. It’s the start of another.

NASCAR’s “playoff” consists of 10 races, which will be the number of opportunities Stewart will have to avoid the first winless season of his career.

By the way, Stewart knows all of this – no need to mention it to him. He’s not afraid to make changes should he deem them necessary. And to be a driver/owner always increases responsibility, which sometimes can be a competitive distraction.

I don’t think any fan has to be told the quality of Richard Childress Racing, a multi-car team that has consistently been one of NASCAR’s finest organizations.

Last year, RCR was in contention for the championship as all three of its teams made the Chase. Driver Kevin Harvick led the standings for most of the season, although he lapsed at year’s end.

He did win three times. Teammate Clint Bowyer won twice. Harvick finished third in points, Bowyer 10th and Jeff Burton, the only winless RCR driver in 2010, 12th.

RCR was expected to challenge Johnson and Hendrick for this season’s title.

It still can, but it’s all up to one driver – Harvick. He’s the only Childress competitor who is assured a place in the Chase. He is fifth in points and has three wins, all achieved before the halfway point of the season.

Otherwise, the RCR situation is unexpectedly dismal. Bowyer is 12th in points with no wins, three top-fives and nine top-10s on the season. He has a chance to make the Chase but it’s about as good as that proverbial snowball’s in that hot place.

Paul Menard, the newcomer at RCR, enjoyed a popular victory in the Brickyard 400 and for a time was a “wildcard” candidate for the Chase.

He still is, but given he is 20th in points and thus the last driver eligible, he’s going to have to win a second race – and stay in the top 20 – to make it.

Burton, meanwhile, has had a very atypical season. He is winless, has just one finish among the top 10 and ranks 24th in points, with no chance to make the Chase.

Where RCR was once considered a title threat based on its performance in 2010, its hopes are now pinned on only one of its teams – not three or even four as many expected.

There are other teams that certainly could be described as in “slumps” or underachieving. There’s no doubt about that.

And there are many organizations that would relish being among the top 10, as are Stewart and Childress.

That, however, really doesn’t seem good enough for either Stewart-Haas or RCR. It’s not what was anticipated of either.

But achieving victory should restore much of their luster. And there are 12 opportunities to do just that.

Keselowski Starts To Peak At The Right TIme


Brad Keselowski has over come more than a broken foot. He’s a real threat once the Chase starts and he’s close to securing and locking down a spot.

No Doubt, Keselowski Shows Signs Of Stardom

We’ve seen this before in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

A young, unheralded driver comes along and accomplishes things not expected him. His achievements are so great and so startling that, in our eyes, he transforms quickly.

Instead of a youngster who someday might be great he becomes a veteran who is now familiar and a proven success.

In seasons past, such drivers had names like Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Davey Allison and, yes, Jeff Gordon.

And now there’s Brad Keselowski.

Keselowski was thought of by many – a great many – as a developmental driver, one who, with the proper experience and nurturing, might become a driver worthy of the ride he has at Penske Racing.

As far as “developmental” goes, Keselowski seems to have gone well past that.

In his last four races, the 27-year-old driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., has won twice, finished second once and third another time.

What is mind boggling is that he has achieved this enviable streak of success while driving on a broken left ankle, which he suffered in a wreck at Road Atlanta just before the Pocono race in early August – which he won.

His rise into the competitive stratosphere continued Saturday night when he won the Irwin Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway to earn his third victory of the season – second among all competitors – and almost certainly earned at least a “wildcard” entry into the Chase.

Keselowski, who won a fuel mileage race in Kansas in June, has shot to 11th in points, just 21 points behind struggling Tony Stewart and, with his victories, is No. 1 among “wildcard” contenders.

The other driver who ranks among the top 20 who has a victory is Denny Hamlin, who is 13th in points, finished seventh at Bristol and has endured a mediocre season.

Keselowski was steady throughout the Bristol race and made his winning move as the laps wound down.

Under caution on lap 413, Keselowski pitted and came out in second place alongside Martin Truex Jr., who pitted for two tires only.

Keselowski got a jump on the restart and passed Truex Jr. on lap 421 and pulled away.

“Man, I used to watch guys like Dale Earnhardt and Tony Stewart win this race,” said an enthusiastic Keselowski. “This is a race of champions. Some pay more and some have more prestige, but this is the coolest one of all.”

Before Pocono, Keselowski ranked 21st in points with the lone victory at Kansas – out of Chase consideration.

But over the course of the next four races, he has climbed 10 positions in the standings and evolved into the hottest driver of the Cup circuit – something virtually no one expected.

“We’re just a team that starts to click and believe in each other,” Keselowski explained. “We’ve just made good adjustments to our car over the last few months.”

A 27-year-old driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., and a member of a racing family, Keselowski began NASCAR competition in the Camping World Truck Series in 2008, the same year he ran a couple of Sprint Cup races for Rick Hendrick.

He won at Talladega in 2009 in a wild finish with Carl Edwards while driving for James Finch, thereby giving the journeyman team owner is first Cup victory.

But most considered Keselowski’s victory at the 2.66-mile Alabama track, known for unusual finishes, nothing more than a fluke.

Roger Penske put Keselowski to work in 2010. The driver won the Nationwide Series title and competed in 36 Cup events. It took him 32 races to get his first top-10 finish, but he did earn his first career pole position at New Hampshire.

As mentioned, Keselowski was viewed as Penske’s developmental driver, a subordinate to veteran Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion.

Now, perhaps, the perception has changed. Keselowski is presently out-performing Busch, who, nevertheless, has a win and is comfortably among the top 10 in points with an eighth-place.

Busch appears destined to make the Chase, which means the odds are good both Penske cars will be in NASCAR’s “playoff.”

Stewart finished 28th at Bristol and is in danger of failing to make the Chase. If he loses his lead over Keselowski or Clint Bowyer (who, at 12th, is only a single point out of 11th), he’s out.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ninth in points, 18 ahead of Stewart with two races remaining before the Chase begins. While it’s still not certain if he’ll qualify, his position in certainly more secure than Stewart’s.

With a couple weeks to go, the Chase scenario remains uncertain. The only drivers who are assured starting positions are Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who rank from first to fourth, respectively, in points.

Where he was once considered a long shot to make the Chase field, Keselowski is now a long shot only to NOT make it.

His accomplishments over the last month have indicated to many that he has the potential to become NASCAR’s next superstar – especially since he’s performed so well and courageously under circumstances that might have forced other competitors to the sideline.

Although he’s shown signs that it will happen, we don’t yet know if Keselowski will indeed become another Allison or Gordon.

All we do know is that the potential is certainly there. Keselowski has indeed shown us that – and in no small measure.

Danica Signs But Pressure Mounts For Chase Berths


The big news for many this week was Danica Patrick signing ti go full time NASCAR racing for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It was the worst kept secret in sports. The real story is the brutal level of competition that’s taking place in Sprint Cup. The Chase is close to closing.

The Story Of The ‘79 Daytona 500? I Still Don’t Like The Ending

After Junior and Cale Yarborough won a third consecutive Winston Cup championship in 1978, they started the ’79 season with a great deal of optimism and a new sponsor.

The odds of achieving a fourth-straight title were long, but Junior Johnson & Associates had already bucked the odds with a trio of championships.

Many NASCAR observers felt the team, long established as perhaps the best in stock car racing, certainly had what it took – driver, equipment, and personnel – to win another title.

Things started out well enough as Yarborough finished third on the road course in Riverside, Calif., the first race of the season.

Then it was on to the Daytona 500.

No one could have predicted what would happen in that race, considered one of the greatest in NASCAR’s history and credited – because it was broadcast nationally on TV by CBS – as the force that propelled stock car racing into the national consciousness.

To be honest, in 1979, Junior could not have cared less about any of that.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

 

 

For me, when it comes to the 1979 Winston Cup season, believe me, I know the story everyone wants to hear.

I’ve heard it, told it and even seen it about a million times and, to this day, I still don’t like the ending.

Before we get to the 1979 Daytona 500 – reckon you knew that’s what I was talking about, right? – I’d like to tell you about a major change at Junior Johnson & Associates that took place before the season began.

We would continue to race Oldsmobiles and roll out a Chevrolet at selected races, but they would have new colors – mostly blue and white, since we landed the sponsorship of Anheuser-Busch and its product, Busch Beer.

It was quite a coup for us and it was, for me, the beginning of a relationship with Anheuser-Busch that would last for many years. The company also became a big player in NASCAR itself.

On to Daytona …

Everyone was aware that the Daytona 500 was going to be broadcast nationally by CBS. It was going to be flag-to-flag coverage, a first for NASCAR.

On the morning of Feb. 18, the day of the race, we learned that a massive snowstorm had struck most of the country. People stayed home and to pass the time, millions of them decided to tune in the race and see what this NASCAR stuff was all about.

We were about to race in front of the largest audience in NASCAR’s history.

If there’s not enough motivation to win the Daytona 500 simply because it’s NASCAR’s most prestigious race, believe me, there’s more than enough when that many folks are watching.

We figured we could win. Why not? We were coming off three straight championships and Cale was the 500 winner in 1977.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Buddy Baker, who loved the superspeedways, was the pole winner in an Olds with a record speed of 196.049 mph.

Donnie Allison, in Hoss Ellington’s Olds, was also on the front row. Then there was old nemesis Darrell Waltrip, who had already won earlier at Riverside, along with a 125-miler and the Sportsman 300 at Daytona.

As optimistic as we were, I thought it was all over not long after the race started. On just the 32nd of 200 laps, Cale, Donnie and his brother Bobby crashed along the backstretch.

Donnie lost a lap. Cale got stuck in the mud and lost three laps. I figured we were finished and so did just about everyone else.

But, fortunately, some timely caution periods allowed Cale to return to the lead lap. Donnie got there, too.

With 50 laps to go Cale and Donnie hooked up in the draft and they were gone. They left the field behind. It was obvious they were going to determine the outcome.

Remember, this was in the day of the “slingshot” pass, which the guy running second could utilize to quickly take the lead.

I had figured that out myself nearly two decades earlier.

Sure enough, on the last lap the two drivers came out of the second turn and headed down the backstretch. Cale was exactly where I wanted him to be – right behind Donnie.

He moved to the low side of the track to make the pass. Then, well, I could hardly believe what I saw – Donnie moved down to make the block. But he did a lot more than that. He forced Cale into the grass.

Being the type of driver he was, Cale did not back off – and I darn sure didn’t want him go.

But he did call me on the radio earlier and told me that he thought Bobby had been waiting on him and was going to wreck him – stuff like that.

I wasn’t entirely sure what Cale was talking about but I think he thought Bobby was going to wreck him to keep him from catching Donnie.

I told Cale, “Just win the race. Catch Donnie and do your job.”

The next thing I knew, those two Oldsmobiles were bouncing off each other. They would split and then hit again. Then they locked together, hit the wall in the third turn and slid into the grass, where they stopped.

Richard Petty was running a distant third and with Cale and Donnie out of the way, all he had to do was keep Waltrip at bay to win the Daytona 500 – which is exactly what he did.

Of course, I didn’t hear Ken Squier’s call on CBS about a fistfight in the infield. I didn’t know, at first, that Bobby had stopped in the third turn – for reasons I can’t imagine – and that he, Cale and Donnie had gotten into it.

I didn’t know any of this until somebody came running up to me in the garage after the wreck and said all three of ‘em where over there fighting.

Naturally, I was very upset. Here my driver had made up three lost laps and had put himself in position to win the race – and he didn’t.

The person that told me about the fight asked me if I was going to do something about it. Dumb question.

“Hell no,” I said. “Let ‘em kill each other as far as I’m concerned. This day is over for me.”

A day after the race, NASCAR put the blame on Donnie – and in my opinion, that’s exactly where it belonged. And as for Bobby, he didn’t have any business stopping and instigating the fight, as far as I was concerned.

Bobby, Cale and Donnie were all fined $6,000. Donnie was given a severe probation. Then he and Bobby filed an appeal and NASCAR changed everything.

The fines stood at $6,000 but $1,000 would be given back per race over the next five events. The remainder of the money would be put into the point fund.

Huh?

The facts spoke for themselves. Donnie ran Cale plumb into the grass. Then Bobby steps in and it ain’t none of his business. He should have let Cale and Donnie settle it between themselves. Some people stick their noses in places where they ain’t got no damn business.

I knew some of the people who made the judgment and their first call was the right call. Fines all around and, at the least, probation for Donnie.

This business of returning money just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially where the Allisons were concerned.

They say because of the race’s conclusion – and all that was involved – and the massive audience that had seen it, NASCAR became more popular than it could have imagined.

You know, I believe that.

But at the time I really didn’t care. All I knew was that we had lost a race we shouldn’t have.

And that’s not a good way to start any season.

The First Of Bristol’s “Streakers” Was “The Golden Boy”

One of the most unique things about Bristol Motor Speedway is that when a driver wins at the 0.533-mile track, he tends to do so repeatedly.

None of this “one and done” stuff. Over the years drivers have accumulated victory after victory at Bristol, dominating the competition season after season.

It reached the point where fans and media didn’t have to guess who was going to win the next Bristol race. Heck, everyone KNEW – it sure wasn’t hard to figure out.

For example, Cale Yarborough won nine times at Bristol during his career in just 16 races. He won eight of 12 events from 1973-78, including four in a row from 1976-77, when he won two straight Winston Cup championships.

Then along came Darrell Waltrip. He is Bristol’s all-time victory leader with 12, including a whopping seven consecutive wins from 1981-84.

Suffice it to say fans weren’t on the edge of their seats during those years.

Interestingly, all of Yarborough’s victories and all but three of Waltrip’s were achieved while they drove for team owner Junior Johnson. That led to the widespread theory that, when it came to racing at Bristol, Johnson had something up his sleeve.

He probably did. But he sure didn’t when he was a driver. Bristol opened in 1961 and Johnson won there only once, in the spring of 1965.

Ned Jarrett won at Bristol in the summer of that same year and, ironically, both he and Johnson retired at the end of the season.

Dale Earnhardt picked up where Waltrip left off, with five victories in eight races from 1985-1988, all while driving for Richard Childress. Like Yarborough, Earnhardt won nine times at Bristol.

Rusty Wallace also won nine times but he never put together a string of victories, although he did sweep both Bristol races in 2000.

All of this continues today.

Kurt Busch won five-of-nine from 2002-2008 and his brother Kyle, currently the Sprint Cup points leader, has done the same thing. The first of his five wins came in 2007 and he won in August of 2010 (making him the defending Irwin Tools Night Race champion) and in this spring’s Jeff Byrd 500.

Thus, the younger Busch will enter this weekend’s activities with two consecutive Bristol victories under his belt.

While it has certainly had more than its share, Bristol wasn’t always a track dominated by “streakers.”

Fact is, there were five different winners in its first five races from 1961-1963.

That, however, changed in the summer of ’63 when a young driver became the first to sweep Bristol events.

Fred Lorenzen came out of Elmhurst, Ill., with dreams of making it big in stock car racing. He tried NASCAR’s Grand National circuit for the first time 1956 when he was 21 years old. He competed in seven races in his own car and averaged only a little more than $33 in winnings. He decided to go home and lick his wounds.

He kicked around the USAC stock car circuit for a few seasons before he returned to NASCAR in 1960.

He moved to Charlotte and took a job with the powerful Holman-Moody team, for which he helped prepare cars to be driven by others.

But Lorenzen wanted to race. He quit his job and competed in 10 events, again driving his own car.

He started out well enough with an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 but things soured after that. By the end of the year he had earned slightly more than $9,000 – but had spent considerably more.

Lorenzen sold his car for $7,500. He went in search of a ride but was turned down flat by the top car owners of the day. Again, he went home. Again, he was broke.

This could have been the end of Lorenzen’s story and he would have been a forgotten man. However, his fate changed for the better – and soon NASCAR had a bright new superstar.

On Christmas Eve, 1960, Lorenzen got a call from Ralph Moody, the co-owner, with John Holman, of Holman-Moody. As improbable as it sounds, Moody wanted Lorenzen to drive for the team in 1961.

Lorenzen didn’t know what he had done or said to impress Moody, but he made the most of the opportunity given him. He won three times in just 15 races in ’61, at Martinsville, Darlington and Atlanta.

The next year Lorenzen ran in 19 races and won twice, at Atlanta again and at Augusta.

Then came 1963, the year that defined Lorenzen’s career and earned him the nickname, “The Golden Boy.”

Lorenzen competed on what was, for him, a very expanded schedule in 29 of the season’s 55 races. Truth be known, he never competed on the full Grand National slate, which consisted of anywhere from 44 to 62 events.

But despite the fact he ran in only slightly more than half of the races in 1963, he nearly won the title. That’s because he won six races, including Atlanta, Charlotte, a sweep at Martinsville and his first triumph at Bristol in July of that year.

He finished among the top five 21 times and was third in the final point standings even though he missed 26 races.

But what was most impressive is that Lorenzen established a record most thought unattainable. He won over $100,000 in a single season – $122,587.28 to be exact. That was nearly $50,000 more than 1963 champion Joe Weatherly, who had to run 53 races to earn that.

Lorenzen’s winnings were more than double those of Richard Petty, who made 54 starts, won 14 times, finished second in points and earned about $55,000.

Lorenzen had another good season in 1964 with eight wins in 16 starts, including a sweep of both Bristol races, which meant he had won three straight times at the track and became the very first of its many “streakers.”

With his skill and the type of good looks that made him appealing beyond stock car racing circles, Lorenzen evolved into one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers.

But he often competed on very truncated schedules and did not win another race after 1967. He left NASCAR after the 1972 season, when he ran in only eight events for Ray Nichels. He was just 37 years old with 26 career victories.

Lorenzen – whom you can find today on Facebook – fashioned a glorious career in a short time.

In so doing he became the man who, when it came to “streaking” at Bristol, started it all.

Kyle Busch Wins His Fourth Cup Race

Say what you will, but Kyle Busch has matured enough to be a real threat to take the Sprint Cup title. With 4 wins he has more than any other driver showing how competitive NASCAR has become. Just ask Tony Stewart.

A Tale Of Three Drivers, And Their Fortunes, At Michigan

As it is with most NASCAR Sprint Cup races, there were many story lines in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

One of them involves three different drivers who experienced decidedly different fates. One had what he might call a perfect race – he won it, retained the top position in the Cup point standings and clinched a spot in the Chase, which begins three races from now.

For the other two it was anything but perfection. Had they known what was in store for them at the two-mile Michigan track when they woke up Sunday morning, they probably would have said to heck with it and gone back to sleep.

Truth of the matter is, for themselves, they would not have missed a whole lot.

Kyle Busch, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, won the Pure Michigan 400 to win at MIS for the first time in his career. It was his fourth victory of the season and tightened his hold on first place in the point standings.

Busch came into the race tied, at least in the number of points, with Carl Edwards. Each had 752 points but Busch held the tiebreaker with three wins to one for Edwards.

A tiebreaker is no longer needed. Busch is now 10 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion who moved into second place. Edwards tumbled to fourth place. More on that later.

Busch, who has the most victories this season, is assured a place in the Chase.

He has now won four races per Cup season in every year since 2008. He has 23 career victories on the circuit along with 49 in the Nationwide Series and 29 on the Craftsman Truck Series. That’s 101 wins on NASCAR’s top three national circuits.

“This victory is what we wanted,” said Busch, who held off Johnson and Brad Keselowski on a green-white-checkered restart created after Busch’s brother, Kurt, brought out the final caution when he smacked the wall with four laps to go.

“We wanted to make sure we could come out here and have the opportunity to go for broke. At the end, I thought about coming down pit road, and I’m like, ‘You know what, we might as well stay out and see if we can’t just can’t get it done and hold off the guys rather than come from behind.’

“We felt that was our best opportunity to win the race.”

And Busch made the most of it.

Back to Edwards, the subject of one of our tales of gloom.

As said, the Roush Fenway driver was atop the standings – a familiar position for him for a good portion of the season – before Michigan and was looking to move ahead of Busch.

Instead, his Ford suffered all manner of problems early in the race and he was never a factor. He finish 36th, completing just 174 of 200 laps.

“It was a very tough race,” Edwards said. “I thought we would have a Ford in victory lane. I thought one way or another we would win this thing.

“I don’t know what was wrong with it. It felt like it was running on seven cylinders. We changed a bunch of stuff and then it was fixed. It wasn’t something mechanical, it was probably something with some electrical connection or a coil or something.

“We were going all out to win this thing and we were prepared for something – but we weren’t expecting a failure like that.”

Edwards is now fourth in points but nonetheless is certain to make the Chase.

“It was a frustrating day,” he said. “But we’re in a very good points position. We’ll just absorb this bad day and take it from here.”

Danny Hamlin can’t really say that. He has to do a bit more than “take it from here.” At Michigan, he, too, had a tale of woe.

Busch’s teammate at Gibbs, Hamlin was a strong favorite to win at Michigan, or at least do well, given he had two wins and a runnerup finish in his last three MIS races, with five straight top-10s, and an average finish of 3.4.

He was 12th in the point standings with one victory, and, with Keselowski, was one of two leading candidates to make the Chase as a “wildcard” entry.

He still is. But he’s now 14th in points and has become more vulnerable to exclusion from the Chase.

Just 78 laps into the race, Hamlin hit the wall and was forced to pit. He fell to 31st and was one lap down.

A handful of laps later, Hamlin was back in the pits, the victim of a blown tire. Thereafter, his car did not perform well and he finished 35th.

It just seems like we’ve been very fortunate that the guys around us in points either haven’t won a race or on days we struggle they have a bad race,” Hamlin said. “Any other circumstances and we’d be in big trouble right now, but I’m still glad to be in our spot than anyone else’s at this point.

“We just need to figure out how to finish races and that carries on my shoulders as much as it carries on anyone’s.”

With his third-place finish, Keselowski moved past Hamlin to 12th in points. He also has two victories, which solidifies his standing as the leading “wildcard” candidate.

The only other drivers among the top 20 with wins are Paul Menard (18th) and David Ragan (who moved into 20th after finishing 12th at Michigan).

Menard is 18 points behind Hamlin, Ragan 34. Those differences might be hard for the drivers to overcome in three races, but another victory by either could supplant Hamlin.

Despite his lofty position, Busch is not about to admit he and his team will be the ones to watch in the Chase.

After all, at this point in 2008, Busch had already won eight times and was the favorite when the Chase began.

But he finished 28th or worse four times in the 10-race “playoff” and his championship hopes disappeared.

“We feel like we’ve been better prepared this year,” Busch said. “We’re a lot more consistent. Before, we’d have a bad race and not be able to rebound from it.

“But there’s no way we can be considered the ones to beat. There’s too much that can happen, way too many laps to run, way too many miles to run.

“We have built ourselves into contenders this year and it’s just being able to be consistent. We would love, of course, to carry on our strong runs through the final 10 races.

“It’s just a matter of being consistent.”

Format Provides Plenty Of Intrigue As Chase Start Nears

With four races remaining until the Chase begins – following the Richmond race on Sept. 10 – it’s not unusual that fans hear, read and see plenty of news about the drivers who are still fighting for entry into the exclusive 12-car field.

After all, several different scenarios exist and the questions over the next month will be, which one of them, or one as yet unknown, will be a reality and which drivers will be pleased – or disappointed?

Don’t think for a moment the competitors who are not yet in the Chase aren’t thinking about what they have to do to make it.

For a few of them it’s a matter of consistent performances over the next four races. The higher the finish, the better – and, oh yeah, a win would be great but it’s not really necessary to become one of the 12 drivers who will make the Chase.

For others, a victory is paramount. Can’t worry about points – to do so would be a waste of time. The only way to make up lost ground is to win.

The field for the Chase this year will be made up of the drivers in the top 10 in points after the Richmond race.

The 12-competitor lineup will be completed by two “wildcard” entries – those drivers with the most victories who are ranked among the top 20.

This “wildcard” business has been most intriguing. It has received constant attention from the media and, I daresay, the fans.

It’s NASCAR’s newest wrinkle in its oft-altered point system and it’s been a good one in the sense that it has, at the very least, provided some interest.

Let’s be honest here. If there was no “wildcard” and victories didn’t count for something, would anyone presently pay the slightest bit of attention to, say, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose or David Ragan?

In the past, believe me, these guys would have been ignored simply because they stood no chance of making NASCAR’s “playoff” under the point systems then utilized. They wouldn’t be given a second thought.

This year, however small their opportunities may be, they are parts of discussions and speculation. As we head into Michigan for this weekend’s Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race, they’re not out of the hunt.

The reason? It ain’t so much about points as it is winning.

Menard is 14th in points with a single victory. Ambrose is 22nd and won for the first time in his career at Watkins Glen. Ragan is 23rd with a win at Daytona in July. He’s tumbled a bit since then and has fallen from a relatively comfortable Chase contender status.

All three of these guys could improve their points position – Ambrose, for example, is just one point out of 20th and Ragan is five in arrears – but it’s highly unlikely that alone is going to cut it.

But another win could make all the difference.

Currently, Brad Keselowski is the “wildcard” leader. He’s 14th in points, but is the only driver among the top 20 with two victories this season.

If Menard, 15th in points, wins again he could join Keselowski in the Chase field. So could Ambrose or Ragan because another victory would very likely push either into the top 20.

Denny Hamlin is, presently, next in line to make the Chase as a “wildcard,” behind Keselowski. Hamlin stands 12th in points with one victory.

For the Joe Gibbs Racing driver the season has been decidedly different than last year. He won at Michigan in June 2010 and finished second when the circuit returned to MIS in August.

He then won at Richmond for his sixth victory of the year and thus was No. 1 in the seeded standings when the Chase began.

Hamlin’s lone win of this season came at, yep, Michigan in June. He will likely be a strong favorite this weekend as he has an impeccable record at the two-mile track.

He has two wins and a runnerup finish in his last three MIS races with five straight top-10s and an average finish of 3.4.

Hamlin could use at least another top-five finish to keep his Chase hopes alive. He’s been in a three-race slump (he was 36th last week at the Glen after a frightening crash) and needs a solid performance.

Hamlin trails the trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, who rank ninth-11th in points, respectively.

Hamlin, however, has an advantage. He’s got the “insurance policy” of a victory. The others are winless – so far.

Earnhardt Jr., trying to make the Chase for the first time since 2008, appears, to some, to be safe. He’s 36 points ahead of Bowyer, the Richard Childress Racing driver who would have to make up more than nine points in each remaining race to catch Earnhardt Jr.

Well, yeah, but what if Bowyer or Stewart wins and Earnhardt Jr. slumps? Beyond that, what if … well, there are a heckuva lot of “what ifs.”

There are several scenarios that could play out over the next four races. In fact, there are so many that involve the contending drivers (not to mention those who could quickly and unexpectedly join them) that to list them all would be, frankly, impossible.

To me, that’s the beauty of the system and its “wildcard” opportunities for drivers who win and are consistent enough to be among the top 20.

How it’s all going to end before the Chase starts is a mystery. And, to be honest, that’s something we didn’t have much of in years past.

One thing is certain: We can expect a lot more news and speculation about the potential Chase lineup over the next handful of weeks.

Danica Patrick to Announce NASCAR Move: Shocking


The worst kept secret in motorsports is about to leap out of the jack-in-the-box. Danica Patrick will move to NASCAR with Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s Nationwide team, JR Motorsports. She’s rumored to also run a few Sprint Cup races for Tony Stewart’s team.

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