Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600
Photo by ASP, Inc.
A happy Memorial Day weekend to all the fantasy NASCAR racers out there. This week it’s the most demanding 600 miles on the schedule, the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The annual tradition dating back to 1960 tests the best of driver, equipment and team. Coming one week after the All-Star Race, the Coke 600 also marks the next phase of the NASCAR season.
Teams have ebbed and flowed thus far over the season, but with a week of practice under their belts on the 1.5-mile speedway in Charlotte, this Sunday’s 600 miles provides an opportunity to make a statement, maintain consistent finishes, or turn a difficult season around before it is too late.
One team that certainly made a statement in Saturday night’s All-Star Race was the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports. Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus knew if they won the first of the five segments, the night would fall into their laps.
Starting from the sixth spot, Johnson was able to make his moves to the front in the first 20-lap segment. After taking the caution flag for the break, it was all about avoiding trouble in the back of the pack and making adjustments to the racecar throughout the night. Restarting in the lead for the final 10-lap segment, Johnson powered out front on the green flag and never looked back.
While the format of the All-Star Race is dramatically different from the one we'll see Sunday afternoon and evening, there are a lot of things that will transfer over. Primarily, the fact the No. 48 is the team to beat.
Coming off an historic 200th career win for Hendrick Motorsports in Darlington, the No. 48 team beat the two-time defending champion No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew for the 2012 Pit Crew Challenge. That momentum carried over into the All-Star Race, where the 48 Chevrolet was the dominant car on the evening.
Enjoying the extended time in the Charlotte area these past two weeks, Hendrick Motorsports enters the Coca-Cola 600 weekend with a ton of momentum, loads of confidence, and the rest of the field looking up at Johnson.
All told, Johnson has six career wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600 wins from 2003-05. However, Johnson has not found Victory Lane at Charlotte since 2009.
The win Saturday night gives the No. 48 team confidence heading into Sunday's marathon race, but Johnson knows it will not be easy.
“Even though we won the race, I saw a lot of strong cars tonight,” Johnson said following his third All-Star Race win. “I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key. Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy, if it's fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be, that’s going to be key.”
While Johnson will be this week’s fantasy favorite, also keep an eye on a few guys that had solid cars in Saturday's All-Star Race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne ran down to the wire in a photo finish to end the third segment of the night. Both drivers had strong cars in that race and carry momentum from the past few weeks as well. Keselowski will be searching for his first victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, while Kahne, a three-time winner at Charlotte, will be looking to rekindle some of his past success.
Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth also knows how to get the job done on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford was third in Saturday's All-Star Race after struggling on the outside on the final restart. The long 600-mile event is the type of race that falls right into Kenseth's style, so look for him to be a strong contender as well.
Fan-favorite and hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally scored a win last week, but unfortunately it was in the Sprint Showdown to qualify for the All-Star Race. Although the win was not a points-paying event, and will not eliminate his winless streak dating back to 2008, the fact is Earnhardt won that event and won the fourth 20-lap segment in Saturday's main event.
Earnhardt has a lot of confidence and momentum on his side, not to mention that he nearly won last year's Coca-Cola 600. Leading on the final lap, his No. 88 Chevy ran out of fuel coming through the final corners, giving the win to Kevin Harvick. The team is bringing the same car they ran the All-Star Race with, so expect Earnhardt to bring fans to their feet late in the race and possibly end that daunting winless streak.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One driver that caught my eye throughout last weekend's All-Star events was Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although he did not lead a single lap, Ambrose was one of, if not the, strongest cars on each restart. Whenever the No. 9 Ford restarted on the outside line, Ambrose had passed a handful of cars before exiting Turn 2 onto the backstretch.
Ambrose scored two top-10 finishes at Charlotte last year, and is hungry to score that elusive oval win. This team has ratcheted it up a notch, and I expect them to be a solid contender in Sunday's race, leading to solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
AJ Allmendinger drove his heart out in the Sprint Showdown to finish second and qualify for the night's main event. Once in the Sprint All-Star Race, Allmendinger powered his No. 22 Dodge to the front of the field on numerous occasions.
Since joining Penske Racing, Allmendinger has struggled mainly to find any luck on the track. This week he is looking to turn his poor luck around and finally score the all-so-difficult first Sprint Cup Series win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards
One organization that heads into this weekend looking to turn its season around before it is too late is the two-car Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. After significant changes behind the scenes during the offseason, precious few result have come to pass in the first part of 2012.
However, both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya enter this weekend's race as our darkhorse picks. McMurray has two wins at Charlotte, but struggled there in 2011. The 2010 fall Charlotte race winner nearly raced his way into Saturday night's All-Star Race, but came up one position short.
Montoya has one top-10 finish at Charlotte (2009), but has been knocking on the door over the past few years, finishing 11th, 12th and 14th in his last three starts. While this weekend may not be the one in which he scores his first oval win, he should put up solid fantasy numbers.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Charlotte (Wins)
1. Joey Logano - 8.2 (0)
2. Jimmie Johnson - 11.9 (6)
3. Carl Edwards - 12.6 (0)
4. Kasey Kahne - 13.4 (3)
5. Tony Stewart - 13.6 (1)
6. Matt Kenseth - 14.4 (2)
7. Bobby Labonte - 14.7 (2)
8. Jeff Burton - 15.4 (3)
9. David Reutimann - 15.8 (1)
10. Jeff Gordon - 15.9 (5)
Have you noticed the oddity already taking place in NASCAR this season?
Don’t see it?
Look at the Nationwide Series where all three races have been won by drivers not competing full time in Cup this year.
James Buescher won at Daytona, points leader Elliott Sadler at Phoenix and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Las Vegas last weekend.
Consider that only six of 34 Nationwide races last year were won by drivers not competing in Cup full time. In 2010, only one race was won by a Nationwide regular not competing in Cup.
The odds are likely that the current streak will end this weekend at Bristol. Kyle Busch has won the last three Nationwide races there and is entered, along with Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.
Still, a tide is turning.
Sadler, who did not win a race but finished second in the points in 2011, is excited about his chances of winning multiple races this year.
“I feel like when we show up every week, we’re going to be very, very fast,” he said. “We’re going to haul butt at Bristol. They’re taking my favorite car. It’s neat to have this confidence in this race and it’s neat this race team has this confidence in me.”
Others can relate.
The first three races show what the Nationwide Series can become a way to showcase its drivers, particularly the younger ones. Buescher is 21, Stenhouse is 24.
It’s not just them having success.
Look at what 20-year-old Cole Whitt and 21-year-old Austin Dillon have done so far.
Whitt was fourth at Daytona, 13th at Phoenix and sixth at Las Vegas. Dillon was fifth at Daytona, fourth at Phoenix and seventh at Las Vegas. They’re the favorites for the rookie of the year title and, based on how they started the season, could make that an interesting race.
It’s already been quite a start to the season for Whitt, who might be better known as the driver who bumped teammate Danica Patrick at Daytona, causing her to wreck. He hit the wall during qualifying at Las Vegas, but the team repaired it instead of going to a backup.
“I didn’t want to start that way with Danica,” Whitt said. “I messed up. Hopefully, over time I can earn that respect back from them. That, obviously, put a lot of limelight on us, a lot more than I wanted. Obviously, I felt a little bit of the pressure. Hopefully, with a clean race (at Las Vegas) and run as good as we did, we keep pulling those off and earn the respect of the veterans.”
The challenge for the series, though, remains, finding a way to make it affordable for teams to provide younger drivers quality rides. That’s not easy in this economic climate, but that’s what it will take for the series to gain more attention and interest from fans.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
HOLD ON TIGHT Jeff Gordon was asked what it was like inside his car when it went upside down during his crash in Daytona. Gordon gave a detailed answer that I thought might give you a sense of what drivers experience in such a crash.
Here’s an edited version of what Gordon said:
“You hold on tight and you just hope that it ends soon. You hold onto the steering wheel, but you basically just brace yourself for any impact that may be coming. The one thing about when you are flipping upside down, you really don’t know what’s coming next because you can’t see. You’re spinning around and you’re seeing the sky and the track and the sky and the track and it’s all happening pretty fast.
“There are only a few split seconds through that whole experience where I was nervous. One was when I was sliding on the door. I was more concerned with if those sparks turn into fire and I need to get out, how am I going to go through the other window? I knew some cars had gotten into me and I thought the car might be stuck like that. That didn’t last for very long because I started flipping. Then I was like, ‘Please don’t land upside down.’ Then it landed upside down.
“When it landed upside down, everything was fine. I told the team I was fine, but now it’s like how am I going to get out? The longest part of that entire wreck was waiting for (rescue crews) to get to the window and going through the process of whether or not we should flip it over or not. That seemed like it took forever and I wish I would have waited longer because I wanted to get out in a hurry and they wanted to wait and flip the car over.
“I wish I had waited because I tried to get out and that was the only time I was scared. I was stuck inside the car when I tried to unhook. That was the part that wasn’t much fun. As far as coping with it, maybe it’s just the mentality you have to have to be a race car driver. I was ready to get back in the car as fast as I possibly could and go out there and go race.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME Kevin Harvick and his wife DeLana have a name for their son due this July, they’re just not telling. Instead, they’re calling the child, for now, Otis.
“It is just something silly that we came up with as we have gone through the few months,” Harvick said. “That has been the most common question as to what we are going to name the boy. We don’t really want to tell anybody until it’s time so we just came up with a code name and that is what we came up with.
“It’s really (Ryan Newman’s wife) Krissie Newman’s fault to tell you the truth. She calls me that every once in a while, so we just called it ‘Baby ‘Otis’. At least it has some kind of name; you can refer to it as something. I keep wanting to call it ‘it’ and DeLana gets mad at me. She’s like ‘you can call it ‘son or boy’? So we just came up with ‘Otis’.”
PIT STOPS Trevor Bayne’s ninth-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas was his best finish in Cup since winning last year’s Daytona 500 ... The car Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer at Daytona now resides on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s property among a collection of destroyed race cars.
Driver crashes into jet dryer, sparking massive fire
Although Matt Kenseth took home the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 last night, most spectators will be talking about the bizarre crash involving driver Juan Pablo Montoya. The crash took place while under caution when Montoya crashed into a jet dryer filled with about 200 gallons of jet fuel. The collision sparked a massive fire that scorched the track and delayed the race for more than an hour.
The 1979 Daytona 500 is considered by many to be the most noteworthy in the event’s 54-year history. A snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast, providing a captivated audience; a last-lap battle for the win, ending in a wreck and a surprise winner; and of course, an infamous post-race fight in the infield between Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison.
The 2012 edition of The Great American Race did its best to top it. And just may have done so.
Rained out for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 took NASCAR’s premier turn on a weeknight, prime-time slot on network television, and it didn’t take long for the storylines to develop. A wreck on Lap 2 eliminated five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, along with Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan.
A somewhat subdued period followed, as drivers filed in line, ran in formation and waited to make their moves as the possibility of rain kept crew chiefs chewing their pencils. A Ryan Newman single-car spin, a blown engine in Jeff Gordon’s Chevy and another blown powerplant, this in David Stremme’s ride, punctuated a largely two-by-two affair.
And then, it all went up in flames.
While under caution for Stremme’s blown engine, Juan Pablo Montoya’s rear wheels locked up as he was catching up to the field due to a faulty transmission. His No. 42 Chevy crashed violently into a jet dryer that was blowing debris off of the track, igniting the safety vehicle into a ball of jet-fueled fire. Two hundred gallons of jet fuel burned on the track as safety personnel attempted to put out the blaze and then remove the vehicle while questions circulated that the race may not be resumed.
A two hour and five minute red-flag period ensued while NASCAR and track personnel repaired the surface, cleaning the spilt fuel and patching damaged areas of the surface. Meanwhile, drivers exited their parked cars on the backstretch, taking to Twitter — Brad Keselowski is believed to have gained 55,000 followers during the break — huddling around unlikely leader Dave Blaney’s car and doing television interviews.
Once racing resumed — at midnight in the eastern time zone — and with 40 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth inherited the lead. And it was a lead he would hold for the duration, which included two additional wrecks, the first with 13 laps to go that involved seven cars and the second, an eight-car affair that took the race into a green-white-checker finish.
In the two-lap overtime conclusion, Kenseth held off teammate Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the pair failed to piece together a run that could dethrone Kenseth’s powerful Ford.
“It was like the 17 (Kenseth) had more motor at the end,” an incredulous Biffle said. “It was like he floored it and we couldn’t catch him.
“I thought Junior would push up to his back bumper and I’d side-draft him (Kenseth) and go by him and then it’d be me and Junior over here at the (finish) line. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
Earnhardt squeezed by Biffle for second. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 5.
The win was Kenseth's his second of Speedweeks 2012 after taking checkers in his Gatorade Duel race on Thursday, and his second Daytona 500 triumph in the last four years. It was also earned under difficult circumstances, as his Ford experienced water system issues early in the race (nearly falling a lap down) and radio problems late.
“Our car, for some reason, was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic,” Kenseth said. “It took a long time to get to the front, but like Thursday (in the Duel) once we were in the front, it was hard for anybody to get locked onto you.
“My car was one of the faster cars, so it was harder for some of the cars to push you and stay locked onto you. And I learned a little bit on Thursday about the last couple laps there, and kind of what to do and what not to do and what this car liked. And we had enough speed once we took the white (flag), I felt sort of OK about it, but I still thought they were going to get a run and pass me. By the time I got to (Turn) 3 and could see they couldn't get enough speed mustered up to try to make a move.”
So while the final lap may have lacked the fireworks seen in the ’79 edition, the rest of the event certainly had more twists, turns and downright surreal circumstances. Earnhardt, for one, was just happy to get out of a long Speedweeks with a clean car and a solid finish.
“You know, you bring such a nice car down here, and the chances of you tearing it up is pretty high. Odds are always kind of high you get caught up in something like what we saw at the end of the race. But I was really happy to be able to take the car home in one piece, and liked the way the motor ran, liked the way the car drove.”
And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, following a race that was supposed to be completed on Sunday afternoon, Earnhardt summed up a marathon weekend well: “It was a little bit of a bizarre week with the rain and all that, but you know, we stuck around and got it all done.”
Clint Bowyer in the wall after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya at Atlanta. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Tom Bowles
Kermit the Frog may have it tough being green, but in the muppet-like drama of NASCAR I’m betting it’s 1,000 times tougher to be driving the red No. 42 Target Chevy these days. Indeed, every driver appears to see a bulls-eye on Juan Pablo Montoya’s back, past the point of marriage counseling and consulting every lawyer possible to see if they can initiate stock car divorce.
“You can’t race around the jackass,” Clint Bowyer said as the “Oh, Snap!” quote of the shortened Sprint Cup week when he was eliminated in an ugly Tuesday wreck courtesy of Montoya’s front bumper. “You never can. Anybody in this sport knows what you’re up against when the No. 42 comes up. He dive-bombs the starts and bullies his way up in there and before you know it, he’s in the way and wrecking with somebody. I’m tired of it. Everybody in the garage area fights him. He’s just an idiot.”
Some may dispute that version of events — including Montoya himself, who wasted no time pulling his patented “counterpunch” where taking blame was the last item on the agenda. “I heard that Bowyer wasn't too happy,” he posted on Twitter. “I guess next time he'll give me a little room.”
Who’s really at fault? I don’t think in matters, because in looking back at this incident, there’s one quote I find hard to disagree with Bowyer on: no one seems to be on Montoya’s side, regardless of truth. Shockingly enough, in this “peace and love” era of NASCAR where information sharing is second nature, Montoya really has become the sport’s red herring — the one man few, if any, can stand.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick cross-section of those not on Montoya’s Christmas card list. Grab a cold one and get settled in, because this one could take awhile …
Jamie McMurray (teammate) McMurray’s partnership with Montoya was ruined on a rare occasion where the Colombian became a clear victim. But after McMurray wrecked out the No. 42 at Las Vegas in the spring of 2010, it was Montoya who stepped over the line.
“I'm sure [McMurray] is going to say, 'Oh, I didn't mean that,'” he said after heading to the garage early. “Every time I'm around him, he wants to run the s--t out of me. I don't know if it's OK to say that but I just did [laughing]. He's just trying to prove to people he can drive a race car and I guess he isn't doing too many favors on this team.”
Montoya’s wife, Connie, even went a step further, insinuating in Spanish that McMurray “drives like a giant chicken” on Twitter. The two have supposedly made up since, but when your co-worker says that to you is it really so easy to forgive and forget?
Brad Keselowski Montoya’s disgust with Keselowski began earlier this year at Sonoma when the No. 2 Dodge used the No. 42 for “Target practice” en route to a fifth-place finish.
“We (went) through the corner and I just got on his bumper a little bit and moved him a little,” Montoya said of the pre-wreck contact. “Got a good run and I guess he didn’t like it. I mean, it is just hard to run with people who have never run well on road courses or have no experience at it.”
As expected, Keselowski hardly waved the white flag of surrender in response.
“The body language of Juan’s car said he was going to wreck me,” he explained. “I just made sure that didn’t happen.”
Kasey Kahne Just laps earlier in that same Sonoma event it was Kahne who ended up wounded after Montoya drove through his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota. That caused the Washington native, normally as quiet as can be, to get personal.
“Montoya just drove through me at the top of the hill … that’s just obvious,” he said. “Last year when [the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing] cars were really, really good and Jamie McMurray was the man, Juan still couldn’t win a race. That shows about what he can do here in NASCAR anyways.”
Mark Martin For years, Martin’s been known as one of the cleanest drivers this sport has ever seen (although I’ll admit 2011 has been a black mark on that reputation). But try telling that to Montoya, who’s complained at times that the gray-haired veteran becomes a moving obstacle on-track.
“He didn't like the way I passed him there on the last lap,” Martin said after the two had issues in Chicagoland last year. “[Called it] borderline stupid driving and suggested I take some smart driving lessons from him.” Montoya also complained about Martin’s driving style when — gasp! — the No. 5 car held its winning line during the closing laps of a fall 2009 Loudon race where the No. 42 wound up second.
Tony Stewart It’s been awhile since Smoke, err … blew his top. But remember the 2009 Homestead season finale? He turned racing with Montoya into a high-speed game of bumper cars with disastrous results. The two haven’t exactly been friends since.
Montoya and Joey Logano. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Kyle Busch In the days before “New Kyle,” the old version would rant about literally everything that happened to him on-track. The July 2010 Coke Zero 400 was no exception, but this time Busch had evidence to back it up, claiming Montoya flat out wrecked him while battling for the lead at Daytona on Lap 104.
“The replay shows I turned right across the nose of the 42, so apparently I wanted to wreck myself,” he said. “Some people don’t understand what happens in these cars. With the old tires like that, I’ve got no grip, I’m barely hanging on sliding around as it is out there.”
Joey Logano The typically mild-mannered “Sliced Bread” nearly sliced Montoya in half after the two made contact at Homestead last year. How bad did it get? Felix Sabates, Montoya’s co-owner, literally threatened J.D. Gibbs title contender Denny Hamlin would wind up wrecked if Logano didn’t cut it out. Apparently, the youngster (are you sensing a theme?) was upset about the way he was being raced, retaliating after the first incident so both men would end their day with time spent inside the garage.
“I gave him plenty of room,” Logano said. “I just felt like I got hooked. That’s two times with him this year. I don’t know what the deal is.”
“It just seems like he runs over somebody every week,” Harvick said that day, and he should know, as these two have made contact several times over Montoya’s five years in Cup, averaging to about once a season. Perhaps RCR’s most heated intra-Cup rivalry until …
Clint Bowyer See Atlanta. Tuesday. And a Cheerios car that looks like mush.
Ryan Newman The No. 1 anti-Montoya suspect. These two tangled both on the track and off this spring, after a series of Richmond incidents inciting a meeting in the NASCAR hauler where Newman supposedly socked Montoya. It was a prizefight no one would actually confirm happened, even though when reached for comment it was the Colombian who said, “Newman punches like a girl.”
Frankly, these two have had it out for each other ever since Montoya’s Homestead Cup debut went up in flames after they tangled in 2006. It got so bad this time around, the “suckerpunch victim” threatened legal action unless NASCAR dished out one of those “secret fines” to his Stewart-Haas Racing rival.
Jimmie Johnson Where do we begin? The latest tiff between the two occurred in July, when contact up in New Hampshire sent Johnson spinning and forced the No. 48 into hyper-aggressive mode simply to claw back up to fifth by the finish.
“The No. 42 — I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional,” said Johnson. “But he’s out of mulligans. I’ve had enough of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, and you’re spun out.’ It’s happened way too often.”
Apparently, that’s the case with everyone. So far, we’ve listed 10 drivers, nearly a quarter of the Sprint Cup field each week, with whom a Montoya feud has gone public — and that’s not including the private scrapes even the media can’t get hold of each week. Even those drivers some might classify as underdogs — like Regan Smith, who was a Montoya victim in May 2010 at Charlotte — have developed a grudge. But how could you now when the Colombian responds to an accident like he did after that one?
“It's just hard when you have guys that don't belong there running there,” Montoya said of Smith, who has now won just as many races (one) on the Cup level during the past two seasons. “He never gave me any room … I wanted to run the middle and he just turned down. That's what happens when you start by a lottery and not by performance, and he just doesn't have any [talent]."
The irony of it all is that it’s Montoya’s performance that has suffered the most. All of the drivers on this list, save Logano and Smith, have more career victories while more than half will make the Chase this season. Compare that to an ugly track record for Earnhardt-Ganassi’s top team, which will miss the playoffs for the second straight year and fourth time in five, currently sitting 21st in points and armed with just two top-5 finishes in 25 starts. But don’t expect Montoya himself to take the blame for that, as his crew chief Brian Pattie was axed in July after playing “anger management” on top of the pit box for three seasons.
Bowyer may have stepped over the line in calling Montoya names. But when will Montoya utter the two most important words all these drivers want to hear?
An “I’m sorry” would go a long way, right? But I guess the first problem with that is you actually have to believe that something was your fault.
If you were a NASCAR crew chief on the hot seat, chances are this summer was brought to you by the color pink — as in pink slip. The roster of head wrenches this week underwent a major shift, with two additional replacements bringing the total up to four since June 5: Greg Erwin (No. 16), Pat Tryson (No. 56), Brian Pattie (No. 42) and Mike Shiplett (No. 43) have now been shown the door. That’s over 10 percent of NASCAR’s fully-funded programs, pulling the equivalent of firing their head coach mid-year with roughly two months of “regular season” races still to go.
It’s the earliest we’ve seen such turnover in several years, ever since sponsorship combined with a change in philosophy put the in-season pressure on the pit box, not the driver. (For those newer fans out there, turn the clock back to the mid-1990s and wheelmen’s jobs were about as safe as Rupert Murdoch’s these days; Mike Chase, in fact, once got fired from his ride just one race into the season). And while all of these crew chiefs were winless on the year, none found their drivers completely outside Chase contention. Truex, at 21st, was the lowest in points among the four programs that pulled the plug.
So why do it now? Why make a change while others having terrible seasons — like David Reutimann (24th in points), Jeff Burton (25th) and Jamie McMurray (29th), keep their crews and chemistry intact? Simple: NASCAR’s “wild card” playoff system has changed the game both on and off the track, providing extra incentive for teams willing to take a chance.
Let’s take Juan Pablo Montoya as an example. At 17th in points, he’s 59 behind 10th-place Denny Hamlin — and a Chase spot — with seven races left in the regular season, meaning there’s no margin for error if sneaking inside the top 10 is a possibility. In the past, teams would rely on the experience of Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie, hoping they can pull a rabbit out of their hat, catch fire and sneak into the playoffs the only way they could: by scoring points, not wins. Any changes, if they were going to be made, wouldn’t happen until the Chase field was set in early September, in preparation for the next season’s run.
Greg Erwin and Greg Biffle by ASP, Inc.
But now, with NASCAR granting two playoff “wild card” spots to drivers with the most wins that are ranked 11th-20th, both Montoya and owner Chip Ganassi smell opportunity. Last season, Montoya was the top-performing car at Indy — the circuit’s next stop — and he enters Watkins Glen in August as the defending champ. Win those two races, and it’s virtually irrelevant how he does in the other five — the No. 42 has earned itself a postseason bid via wins. That means if Ganassi feels a jolt is needed, why not try to catch lightning in a bottle? If Pattie’s replacement, Jim Pohlman, proves the answer there’s still a chance for the organization to contend for the championship now, not next year. Pattie, considering the No. 42 had led only 99 laps on the year, may only have been able to guide Montoya to a top-5 finish in the aforementioned events. Pohlman’s fresh approach could be the energy needed to push the team over the top.
Of course, there’s a chance Pohlman proves to be the wrong move for Montoya, turning the last 17 races into a disastrous ending while turning an already mediocre year into a failure. With 17 races being a more-than-ample trial period, there’s a justified sample size to give Pohlman the axe for 2012 should things go south. By comparison, would the 10 races after Montoya missed the Chase under the old system (and philosophy of doing things) be enough to make the same decision? Possibly not.
This type of theory applies to Biffle, Allmendinger and even Truex. For Biffle, he’s the defending champ at the upcoming Pocono race and has the equipment to make it to Victory Lane — just ask 2011 winners and teammates at Roush, Carl Edwards, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth. As for Allmendinger, while winless in NASCAR, he had a fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen last August. The possibility exists for a new crew chief with fresh ideas to take a chance and improve on that promising run. Even Truex, now a month into working with Chad Johnston, is close enough to the top 20 that a win changes his postseason prospects. And already, his team has three top-10 finishes in six starts with Johnston at the helm.
For crew chiefs, this means the job is more tenuous than ever. Erwin, for example, saw a four-year relationship severed after just four months of struggle. But if there’s a silver lining to what’s been a difficult season for the sport, it’s how the buildup to the postseason for over half the field has turned the focus back to where it should be: winning races instead of settling for a “good points day.”