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Hot/Not: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne Face Serious Battle for NASCAR’s Chase
Kasey Kahne's first season in the white chariots built by Hendrick Motorsports could have started worse – he did finish on the lead lap Sunday at California's Auto Club Speedway – but not by much. Jeff Gordon, 26th after Sunday's rain-shortened race, probably feels about the same.
Both failed to finish the Daytona 500. Both tore up good race cars in crashes at Bristol. Kahne wrecked at Phoenix. Gordon missed a sure-fire top-5 after two pit mistakes in Fontana.
Now they neatly sit deep in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings, Gordon holding the 25th spot and Kahne taking 27th. Respectively, they trail leader Greg Biffle by 91 and 108 points after five races. In a series where each position counts as a point (and wins a slight bonus more), their gap to Biffle is huge.
But Biffle, of course, isn't the real target for the Hendrick duo as they prepare to mount their comeback effort, one still possible thanks to NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup point system. Wins are.
Gordon and Kahne trail the current 10th-place transfer spot (now occupied by Ryan Newman) by 51 points (Gordon) and 68 points (Kahne). And while it’s still early, history says rallying to finish the regular season inside the top 10 is already a longshot.
Just take a look at the final two qualifiers to last year's Chase.
Both Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski struggled at the outset of the 2011 season, with Hamlin sitting 21st in the point standings and 45 points behind the tenth spot after last year's fifth race also at Auto Club Speedway. Keselowski was faring worse in 23rd overall and 50 points behind tenth. Both, however, qualified to compete in the Chase courtesy of their race wins over the summer months – two for Hamlin and three for Keselowski – despite never crossing the 10th-place threshold.
It's impossible to predict, obviously, because plenty of variables can (and often will) be vastly different from season to season. However, 2011 showed that even winning and maximizing points during two or three events isn't enough to counteract several races of bad luck or bad finishes. For a great example, look no further than Tony Stewart's five-win performance in last year's Chase that left him with exactly the same amount of points as Carl Edwards, despite Edwards not winning a single Chase race. One poor race at Dover nearly derailed Stewart's five-race outburst.
Gordon and Kahne have both shown speed this year that should, in most seasons, make them sure-fire Chase contenders. But five races in and several moments of bad luck/ill fortune have changed the way they can attack their season. Running up front consistently will be vastly important from now until Richmond in September. But picking up two or more race wins a piece may well be the determining factor if we're to see each of them in the 2012 championship fight.
Let's dive in to a few more hits and misses from a rain-shortened California weekend.
HOT: There's no denying that Tony Stewart and his No. 14 team have found something in their race car that's pushing it toward the front. It's fast right now – just as it was during his virtually untenable run to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. In the 15 races since Stewart declared his race team an also-ran in last year's championship fight, the No. 14 has been to victory lane seven times. Hot streaks like that are pretty rare in NASCAR, but two of his current on-track foes have been winners at similar or better clips during their careers.
Jeff Gordon has managed it twice in his career, taking seven wins in 15 races during the 1997 season. That was just a prelude to his 13-win 1998 season that included a summer stretch with wins in seven of nine races. The two races Gordon didn't win featured finishes of third and fifth, and Gordon finished second in three consecutive races after the nine-race stretch. The 1998 season may be one of the most solid performances by a race team in NASCAR's modern era.
The other driver, obviously, is five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. In 2007, Johnson reeled off seven wins in 11 races. During a stretch between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Johnson just edged Stewart's current run with seven wins in 14 races. Such runs are a prodigious indicator of a driver adding some more weight to the trophy cabinet, as Gordon, Johnson and Stewart all have won championships in seasons that featured rapid and repeated victory lane visits. At this rate, it'd be no shock to see Stewart grab championship No. 4 – though Homestead is a long, long way off.
NOT: Remember when AJ Allmendinger was everyone's closet pick to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in this, his first season at Penske Racing? Well, it looks like he'll be taking the same route in to NASCAR's championship fight at Gordon and Kahne – if he makes it. Allmendinger finished 15th Sunday at California and sits 26th in the Sprint Cup point standings. That's a long road to travel on a team that demands Chase appearances.
HOT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. deserves this because Sunday's race may have been his most complete race in a long, long time. Earnhardt started 14th at Auto Club, a track that has long haunted him with bad crashes and bad finishes, and steadily moved to the top five. His reward when the rain came? Two spots picked up thanks to ill-advised pit stops by Hamlin and Johnson that placed him third.
HOT: If you saw Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Fontana, you witnessed Kenny Wallace making some pretty daring moves en route to a seventh-place finish. It was his first top-10 of 2012, but the finish joined his 11 top-10s in 2011. Wallace, 14th in the Nationwide Series standings, has shown a bit of a resurgence in his career while racing on some shoestring budgets and sponsorship shortages. That's pretty cool to see.
NEUTRAL: Kurt Busch finished ninth on Sunday, but his early-season struggles mean he's still 24th in the Sprint Cup standings. Such a finish, though, has to mean only good things for his Phoenix Racing team for the rest of the season on NASCAR's fast 1.5- and 2-mile ovals.
HOT: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished second in Saturday's Nationwide Series race. He's got a race win already in 2012 and trails only two-time winner Elliott Sadler in the point standings. It won't be long until someone, pending sponsorship, moves him to the Sprint Cup Series. If that should happen, my limited research shows he'd be the first full-time Cup Series driver from Mississippi since Lake Speed left the sport in 1998. Someone call up SPAM and/or the Cartoon Network.
NOT: Chip Ganassi asserted that the efforts last season by the drivers and teams of his No. 1 and No. 42 cars (Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya) was "pathetic" and that drastic improvement was needed this year. Five races in, we're still waiting to see that in earnest as Montoya sits 18th in points and McMurray is 22nd. They finished 17th and 32nd, respectively, in California.
NOT: Pop quiz: Name the winner of the season-opening NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona. If you don't know off-hand, well, I can't blame you. The winner was rookie John King – still a virtual no-name in the sport – but even a win in that crash-filled race by Ron Hornaday or Mike Skinner would be tough to remember now thanks to the 37-day gap between the season's first and second race. They'll throw the second green flag for the trucks Saturday in Martinsville for the 22-race season – a break that is far too long for that series.
Opening the year at Daytona is smart, but isn't there a short track somewhere (say, a Friday night race at Bristol?) that could re-engage fans a bit sooner?
HOT: My complaints aside, the two best races of the truck series season may be the next two. Martinsville is, well, Martinsville and just two weeks later the series will mark NASCAR's long-awaited return to Rockingham Speedway. The venerable track chews tires and demands multiple lanes of racing – perfect for a group of young racers and solid veterans in vehicles that aren't afraid of contact. Consider that race on April 15 a must-see.
On to Martinsville.
Geoffrey Miller has written about NASCAR and other internal combustion racing since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at your own risk, http://www.twitter.com/GeoffreyMiller.
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