1. Did Jimmie Johnson's win at Martinsville, which put him in the lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, pretty much seal the championship deal given his history and the fact that he generally runs well at the three tracks remaining on the schedule?
Mark Aumann:The consensus is that Jimmie's in the driver's seat for a sixth title, and there's not much based on previous history to refute that. Brad Keselowski has not done much at Texas in the past. But based on how well the No. 2 has run at intermediates this season, I'm willing to throw past performance out the window. I think Keselowski will stay in the hunt the rest of the way.
Joe Menzer:It's easy to say yes, but that No. 2 Dodge being driven by Keselowski has shown staying power and consistency all season long -- and it's only two points behind Johnson heading to Texas this weekend. My ample gut says yes, this is now Jimmie's title to lose and he won't lose it. But BK might still have something to say about it. He has a tenacity that other pretenders to the throne seem to have lacked in past years.
Jarrod Breeze:I'll answer that by asking this: Did anyone have the feeling, even before Martinsville, that Keselowski was chasing Johnson? I really think Keselowski is one of the best drivers in NASCAR, but that 48 team is as close to a well-run machine as it comes. So to put it another way: One more closer to Petty/Earnhardt.
Joe Menzer:Wow. There you have it. And despite what I said earlier -- and I still think Keselowski will make it interesting -- I think I have to agree with JB here and say this will end in Jimmie (and Chad Knaus') sixth title.
Jarrod Breeze:I wouldn't go as far as saying Homestead is one of Johnson's better tracks, either. He's good everywhere, but he's never won there. Of course, in recent times he hasn't had to win there; all he had to do was just ride around to the championship. And that will be the case this year, too. That two-point lead will balloon to a comfortable margin by then.
Mark Aumann:We pretty much had this same conversation before Martinsville, particularly after how badly Brad qualified. But he salvaged a top-10 there -- and yes, he's behind by two points -- but I still have a feeling there's something special going on at Penske. Is it destiny for Dodge to go out a winner?
Joe Menzer:So wait a minute. Who are you picking, Mark? JJ or BK?
Mark Aumann:Keslowski. I'm not ready to etch Jimmie's name on the trophy just yet. Honestly, if there's a track where Jimmie could have a misstep -- isn't this where he got clipped by Sam Hornish Jr.? -- I think Texas is the place.
Jarrod Breeze:Jimmie will make sure he knows where Sam Hornish Jr. is on the track at all times this weekend. He's got a better chance of retiring to the garage with a vibration, or handling, or rear gear, than getting run into by Sam this week.
Mark Aumann:If you consider this a 10-round heavyweight bout, Jimmie won Martinsville -- but Keselowski took his best punch and is still standing. I think that says volumes about where the No. 2 crew is.
Joe Menzer:Well, while we're talking about that entire crew, let's give a tip of the Track Smack cap to crew chief Paul Wolfe. What a job he's done.
Jarrod Breeze:I don't think you could call any championship battle in NASCAR a heavyweight bout -- most of these guys would be in the lightweight and/or featherweight categories.
Joe Menzer:I think we're going to see some fancy footwork, maybe in the form of a little backtracking, by Mr. Aumann when Jimmie throws his next round of punches this weekend in Texas.
Mark Aumann:True, JB. I think the helmet and driver suits weighs as much as some of the people who climb behind the wheel.
Joe Menzer:Too bad they can't say the same of us!
Jarrod Breeze:I guess Joe is calling us heavyweights. I certainly qualify, unfortunately, so let me land this jab: Why are we only talking about two drivers now? What at about Denny Hamlin? Oh, that's right; he's out of it. Seems someone said that last week, too.
Mark Aumann:Man, that had to hurt Denny as much -- if not more -- than Phoenix two years ago. In 2010, he still had the points lead heading into the season finale. At Martinsville, he came through the field twice to the lead, only to have a $40 part break.
Joe Menzer:I will give this to Hamlin. This year was totally different. He and his team didn't choke away the championship this time around. I truly believe if he had been able to get to the last two in the same spot as he did in 2010, he would have won it this time. But that's the Catch-22. Those chances don't come along very often and you'd better be ready to capitalize on them. You hear that, Brad Keselowski? Just ask Carl Edwards.
Mark Aumann:Yep, Joe. Edwards is proof positive that you may only get one shot at this. Carpe diem. Or something Latin.
Joe Menzer:Although I will admit that it's not like Carl choked last year. Tony Stewart just went out and won the dang thing in dramatic fashion. But if I'm laying odds for this year, I've got Jimmie back at the head table at the post-season awards banquet in Las Vegas. That's the bottom line.
Jarrod Breeze:At least you guys aren't throwing the hats of Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne into the ring this week.
Mark Aumann:Thirty points right now -- with three races remaining -- is insurmountable. You're talking about finishing 10 positions better than two guys three races in a row. Yeah, Hamlin's day at Martinsville tells you it could happen to Johnson or Keselowski, as well. But the odds are very long that'll happen to both.
2. Now that Richard Petty Motorsports has officially re-upped with Ford and shuffled its crew chief lineup, what's next for RPM in 2013?
Jarrod Breeze:The same as 2012, and 2011, and 2010, and ... how far do I need to go back here? RPM is an also-ran in the sport today, and it's really sad to see for the team's namesake.
Mark Aumann:I can't disagree with that statement, Jarrod. It's hard to believe anybody under 40 seriously considers the No. 43 to be anything but a mid-packer at best. Richard Petty's legend is fading with every passing year.
Jarrod Breeze:True that, Mark. Although he's not behind the wheel, it's sort of like watching a Hall of Famer in another sport hang on a season or two too long. Don't get me wrong, NASCAR needs Richard Petty, but not as a car owner.
Joe Menzer:Hold on here. Marcos Ambrose has won back-to-back Cup races at Watkins Glen. I believe he will be back in the car and that the No. 9 will be close to possibly upping the ante by finally winning on an oval next season. Ambrose is a heck of a driver, no matter who is the crew chief is.
Mark Aumann:They need to figure out how to keep their driver lineup intact. Marcos Ambrose is the No. 1 road-course driver in the series. Plus, he's pretty darn good on concrete ovals. And Aric Almirola has impressed the heck out of me the past two weeks. The team has the potential to be better than it's showed in recent seasons. I don't know what it needs to get there, though. Cash? Personnel? Equipment? Luck? All of the above?
Joe Menzer:I think they're getting closer to being more competitive with Almirola in the 43 car, too. But if you get right down to it, I'm not sure Drew Blickensderfer is a major upgrade at crew chief over Mike Ford for Ambrose in the No. 9. Maybe, but I'm going to call that a wash at best.
Jarrod Breeze:Every so often you get a surprise winner, or maybe a first-time Chase entrant, but mostly it's the same circle of guys -- and teams -- winning races and competing in the Chase. And RPM is outside that circle. I have no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon.
Joe Menzer:I also have to disagree with JB about one point he made earlier. I absolutely think NASCAR is much better off with Richard Petty as a car owner. How else is he going to stay so involved?
Jarrod Breeze:Well, Joe, in rebuttal, Petty is still an iconic name with an iconic image. NASCAR loves its PR. What better face with which to lead?
Mark Aumann:Here's the deal. RPM has one more victory this season than Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. So "underperforming" isn't just a Petty thing.
Jarrod Breeze:I don't know if you can call it underperforming with Richard Petty Motorsports. After all, how much expectation did anyone have for them coming into the season?
Mark Aumann:Is it me or does it just seem like Petty Enterprises/RPM got caught in permanent rebuilding mode? Seems like not that long ago it was Bobby Labonte who was going to turn things around there.
Joe Menzer:Yeah, well, I like Bobby Labonte and all ... but when's the last time he was competitive behind the wheel?
Mark Aumann:On the other hand, to see where this team is now from two years ago -- when there were serious concerns that the team wasn't even going to load the haulers for the final few races of the season -- there's hope.
Jarrod Breeze:I mean, it's good RPM is in business and folks have jobs, but to think anything drastic in terms of improvement on the race track is around the corner is just being naive.
Mark Aumann:Two good young drivers. Some sponsor interest. Enough cash. Those are ingredients on which to build. Will they ever get back to being a team equal to Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs? Hard to imagine. But weirder things have happened.
Joe Menzer:The better question -- or at least the more intriguing one -- might be who has the better future in NASCAR, the RPM shop with its Roush Fenway Racing alliance, or Earnhardt Ganassi?
Jarrod Breeze:Earnhardt Ganassi hit a major speed bump this season, and while many probably didn't predict the depths to which they have sank, no one expected them to be among the best teams in the sport, either.
Joe Menzer:Two years ago it looked as if Earnhardt Ganassi was on the cusp of perhaps challenging some of the mega-teams. They've really fallen off. Of course RPM is wondering if it will be hurt now by receiving fewer resources from Ford -- who will be giving the lion's share to Penske Racing and RFR (not necessarily RPM, which is "RFR proper").
Jarrod Breeze:Who's the winningest owner in open wheel? Penske or Ganassi? Or either? Reason I ask is, how about a Penske-Petty pairing to give Ford a second super team with two of the most iconic names in auto racing. Of course, that hasn't done much for Earnhardt Ganassi. Then again, that team is more Ganassi than Earnhardt.
Mark Aumann:Penske's had the better success, long term. But Ganassi's been as good or better recently, Will Power not withstanding. And what a great racing name: Will Power!
Jarrod Breeze:Let's face it, guys. This is a five-, six-team sport at best. Everyone else is just filler. And no amount of willpower is going to change that.
3. Of the three races left on the Nationwide schedule -- Texas, Phoenix and Homestead -- which one will play the largest role in determining the champion?
Mark Aumann:If I'm Elliott Sadler, Phoenix is the one that concerns me the most. He saw his title hopes disappear there last season. Is that the place where he worries about a case of deja vu?
Jarrod Breeze:I've got to say Homestead, since I think the Nationwide Series will have the closest championship race of the three series. Stenhouse and Sadler have been pretty equal all season; can't see that changing now.
Mark Aumann:Stenhouse won at Texas earlier this season, so you have to believe he'll cut into Sadler's lead this weekend. But Sadler won the week before at Phoenix. So it's even-steven heading to Homestead.
Joe Menzer:OK, I guess that leaves me to take Texas. And I'll do it just to be different. I have a feeling not only Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will be good there, but also Austin Dillon. He's 26 points out with three to go. Is he still in it?
Mark Aumann:Joe, I think the same rule applies in Nationwide as it does in the Chase question earlier. No, because you might get one contender to stumble, but not both.
Joe Menzer:I think you're right about Austin, Mark. But I do think he'll get up front to mix it up with those guys at Texas -- and he'll have to be super-aggressive. It's his absolute last shot to shake things up and stay even on the fringe of the championship battle conversation.
Mark Aumann:Despite the win at Kentucky and a second at Kansas, Austin's pretty much been stuck in about the same points position for some time.
Joe Menzer:This really looked like it's going to come down to Sadler and Stenhouse -- and despite my politically correct comment about Texas being the most important race, I think really that it's going to come down to what those two do at Homestead.
Mark Aumann:The big difference in Sadler's season, compared to Stenhouse? Sadler's had more consistency, while Stenhouse has been aces on intermediate tracks but had a terrible stretch of races early in the summer. Since then, he's been the equal of Sadler.
Jarrod Breeze:Well, what are Texas and Homestead? If Stenhouse can take two out of three, the championship is his.
Mark Aumann:Exactly, which is why I think the championship hinges on the flat, 1-mile oval in the desert. Although "flat" is a relative term with the little backstretch dip they built in during the repave.
Joe Menzer:Which means more -- Sadler's failure last year in the final race at Phoenix, or his win at the same track earlier this season?
Mark Aumann:I think the win bolstered his confidence. Remember, he failed to win a race in 2011, despite being in championship contention. That win really jump-started his season.
Jarrod Breeze:The question is, can he finish what he jump-started?
The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.
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