** The 2011 Sprint Cup season is one-quarter over and, while it’s still too early to draw any real conclusions, some drivers whom we thought would be in the championship hunt, and aren’t, now have more pressure on them.
Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray are some of the drivers who figured to rank among the top 10 by now, and thus Chase eligible, in many pre-season reports.
However, at present, Biffle ranks 14th in points and the others are 17th and beyond. It’s especially surprising to see Hamlin at 17th, given that he was considered the man who could potentially bring Jimmie Johnson’s string of five consecutive championships to an end.
A couple of tasks face these drivers. First, they have to start piling up decent finishes, and somewhat quickly. That, obviously, could lead to a rise in the point standings.
It can be done. Clint Bowyer provides ample proof of that. At Richmond, where he finished sixth, the Richard Childress Racing driver posted his fifth consecutive top-10 of the season. He has gained 17 positions in points in the last five races. He’s presently seventh in the standings.
But, while it can be done, what Bowyer has achieved isn’t routine in NASCAR. It’s the exception, not the rule.
Consequently, the aforementioned drivers, who will certainly do their utmost to match or better what Bowyer has done, can’t rely it alone.
That brings up an alternate strategy – which is to win.
With its revamped requirements for the Chase this year, the top 10 in points are eligible after 26 races. Also in the field are “wildcard” entries consisting of the two drivers ranked among the top 20 who have won the most races.
So if the mentioned drivers, not all of whom currently rank in the top 20, by the way, and several others not in the top 10 can win a race, that adds a measure of insurance.
Jeff Gordon, who is 16th in points, is the only driver outside the top 10 in points who has a victory (yes, Trevor Bayne is another but he is not eligible for the Cup championship). So at the moment, Gordon has an advantage.
Several others would, at the least, like to match it.
But if putting together a series of high finishes is an exception and not the norm in NASCAR, what do you think winning is?
As said, it’s early in the year and there’s time for any number of scenarios to play out.
What could prove to be a very exciting one for fans is for a few drivers, desperate to make the Chase as its start looms, throw strategy and caution to the wind and make an all-out lunge for victory.
It could happen. No, make that it will happen.
** Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch demands respect as a race driver.
His Richmond victory was the 21st of his young Cup career. He ranks third in NASCAR to achieve that many wins by the age of 26, behind Jeff Gordon (26) and Richard Petty (22).
That Busch won should not have been all that surprising. He now has won Richmond’s spring race three consecutive times, which ties him with Petty. Hamlin has won the other two races at RIR in the last three years, which gives Joe Gibbs Racing five straight victories at the 0.75-mile track – and eight overall.
Hamlin, incidentally, was the runnerup in the Crown Royal 400 and he dominated the Nationwide Series race on the previous night.
It’s not likely that Busch will ever be NASCAR’s most popular driver – but you never know. Wiseguy Darrell Waltrip was once, like Busch, called a jerk. But he was the fans’ choice twice in his career.
You don’t have to like Busch. But I think his talent should always be recognized, even if grudgingly.
** The incidents between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman were not atypical of short-track racing.
First, Newman rubbed Montoya and sent him into the wall. Then, later in the race, Montoya did the same thing. Happens all the time.
The only difference was that while few chose to call Newman’s actions deliberate, there was little doubt about Montoya’s.
NASCAR warned both drivers about bad behavior and even told Montoya that if he got near Newman, his car would be ordered to its hauler.
Many media members felt the issue would spill over into the garage area, especially since the haulers of Montoya and Newman were parked almost alongside each other.
After the race there could be some good chin-to-chin action – or more. Hey, it’s happened.
Instead Montoya left the track without comment – a good move on his part. Newman went to the NASCAR hauler. He told the media he was going to ask the sanctioning body what it was going to do about all that happened.
In my opinion, that was another good move. If he did what he said he was going to do, Newman effectively put the ball into NASCAR’s court; for it to tell him, and all of us, how it is going to rule on the issue.
Had Newman and Montoya gotten into a scrap in the garage, NASCAR would have come down hard on both of them.
Had their entanglements on the track involved other cars, believe me, NASCAR would have acted swiftly.
As it is, it appears Newman stated his case to NASCAR and asked for a ruling. Smart move.
What will NASCAR do? If it hands out any punishment beyond probation I’d be surprised.
But NASCAR has surprised me many times.