1. Brad Keselowski won the Chase opener at Chicagoland. Regular-season leader Denny Hamlin ran out of fuel on the final lap and fell to fourth in the standings. Which is the bigger championship threat heading to New Hampshire?
Joe Menzer:I'm going to stick with Hamlin. I said before the Chase opener that he's showing a level of maturity and determination I haven't seen previously, plus the fact that he's paired now with Chase-tested and defending championship crew chief Darian Grubb make it seem this might be his year. You know teams will be tested during the Chase. Well, they're being tested right now. I think they will respond positively and I still like Hamlin's championship chances slightly over Keselowski's.
David Caraviello:OK, this is not meant as any offense to Brad, who is clearly the points leader now and is in all likelihood going to be in this thing down to the final weeks. But I still think it's Hamlin. He's 15 points back, which isn't a lot at this point, and when you look at what he might be capable of at places like New Hampshire and Dover ... it still makes me think Denny is the bigger threat. Now, we get two more weeks in and things haven't changed, and maybe I'll think differently. But just one race in, with things being what they are .... I'm not ready to unload the regular-season leader just yet.
Mark Aumann:I know Denny's average finish at Loudon is significantly better than Brad's overall, but Keselowski's past two trips to New Hampshire have resulted in finishes of second and fifth. I think Bad Brad is the real deal here. Of course, you can't predict the unpredictable -- mechanical failures or bad luck -- but I get the feeling he's going to be in the thick of this all the way to Homestead. It's not like Keselowski is coming out of the swamp grass here. That was win No. 4 this season -- and he finished fifth in 2011.
*Behind the Wheel: Keselowksi won rest on Chicagoland laurels
Joe Menzer:I will admit this: I think the situation that Brad's in with Dodge might actually work to his advantage. I'm sure they would have been throwing "everything they had" at this even if the manufacturer wasn't leaving the sport. But now I think that from top to bottom everyone involved in Dodge Motorsports that is upset it's getting out wants to put an exclamation point on it and go out a champion. They're really motivated.
David Caraviello:Mark, I don't doubt that at all. That was a serious shot across the bow that Brad delivered at Chicagoland, especially with the way he won in outrunning the No. 48 team. I wouldn't sell the guy short at all, but I think Hamlin is far from finished here. But I will give you that Joe Gibbs Racing tends to suffer these postseason mistakes perhaps more regularly than any other team, and they can't afford many of those in this case. If failing to get all the fuel in the car on the final stop of the first race is the worst of it, they'll be fine. But they really can't afford any more than that.
Joe Menzer:And by the way, Mark, no one is suggesting Bad Brad is suddenly emerging "from the swamp grass." I wrote a column two weeks ago where I said four guys clearly stood above the rest as championship contenders -- and not surprisingly, it's the four guys who have won the most races this year: Denny, Brad, Jimmie Johnson and defending Cup champ Tony Stewart. And I happen to think Stewart is the biggest threat to win this week at Loudon.
*Menzer: Keselowski delivers first blow | 11 has something to prove | Chase favorites
Mark Aumann:I think that's a great point, Joe, but playing devil's advocate -- Penske's two-car operation doesn't have the ability to pull data from as many resources as say, Hendrick or Roush -- or perhaps even Gibbs. But the kid has been good all year in a season where there hasn't been a real consistently dominant performance, other than maybe that stretch by Jimmie Johnson.
David Caraviello:Do they even have swamp grass in Michigan? I have no idea.
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Joe Menzer:Mark's lived everywhere -- Florida, where they actually do have swamp grass, Michigan, California. He gets confused sometimes. Oh, and I forgot about where he lives now. Who knows what they've got in the middle of those woods in northern Georgia? I mean, besides bad TV reception.
Mark Aumann:Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filet gumbo, sonofagun we're having fun on the Soo Locks bayou. That's why they had to build the Mackinaw Bridge so high, to get the cars over the swamp grass.
David Caraviello:Wait, Joe, didn't we hear that kind of thing for years when Penske was a standalone Dodge operation, and it worked so well that the team is leaving for another manufacturer? I don't buy the less is more theory. No question, Dodge is motivated to prove something. But there's also a reason Hendrick wins so much. Maybe that's why Roger Penske is leaving for Ford -- he feels like the swamp grass is greener on the other side.
Joe Menzer:He left for some more green, all right, but I'm not sure it was grass!
Mark Aumann:Back to semi-seriousness ... I still think the majority of drivers think things will shake out over the next five or six races -- and we'll get three or four guys with a legitimate chance. And I think Kes will be one of them. This season, he has as many wins as Hamlin, as many top-fives as Hamlin and three more top-10s than Hamlin.
Joe Menzer:Agreed on that point. He's great especially on the 1.5-mile tracks, and there are four of those races left.
David Caraviello:Really, aren't Brad and Denny kind of in the same situation here? As far as the Chase goes, they're both lone wolves, so to speak. I realize there are more Toyota teams and everything, but in terms of help it would seem like the competition would have the advantage in both cases.
Joe Menzer:I disagree there, DC. The fact is that Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing have never worked more together, or in unison with Toyota Racing Development, than they have this season. So I think that group will continue to do what its done all season -- to a point. When you get to three or four races to go, you're on your own (unless, of course, you have a teammate or someone from the same manufacturer not in the Chase or already out of the championship hunt in the Chase to help you out). That's where Hamlin will have an advantage, I think.
Mark Aumann:DC, there's the rub. Six consecutive championships have been won by the same organization (if you consider Stewart-Haas to be under the Hendrick umbrella). Lots of cars in the Chase, lots of data to pore through. And that dang Jimmie Johnson seems to run pretty good about everywhere in the next nine weekends.
David Caraviello:There you go, Mark. Anyway, I predict this is going to shake out during the next nine races. At least that's what I get from reading the swamp grass leaves!
* Fantasy: Two in a row for Keselowski? | Preview Show: 'Opportunity' knocks for Hamlin
2. Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman each finished in the top five at Chicagoland. Which driver not in the Chase shapes up as the biggest threat to win a race in the playoff?
Joe Menzer:Kyle Busch. That's your answer. Although I will concede that I expect both Stewart-Haas Racing cars to be good this weekend at Loudon, where they have been very stout recently. But of the drivers not in the playoff, Kyle Busch remains the bigger threat to win races during the Chase.
David Caraviello:Watching Sunday's event at Chicagoland, I couldn't help but think -- boy, where was this run from Kyle Busch a week earlier at Richmond? Of course crew chief Dave Rogers took the fall for how things shook out that night, but a similar result would have gotten Busch into the Chase. We usually see Chase drivers dominate in the win column from this point forward, but given how many strong drivers missed the playoff this year, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see one of them in Victory Lane before the year is out.
Mark Aumann:Logically, it's Kyle Busch. But I'm going to take a different tack. Mark Martin comes out of the swamp grass to win at least one -- and perhaps two -- races before the end of the season. The No. 55 has been right on the verge of breaking through all season, and with the Chase guys trying to outmaneuver each other, he's going to see Victory Lane.
|10 or more career wins|
David Caraviello:Whoa, look at Mark Aumann taking a page out of the Joe Menzer playbook and predicting multiple victories for someone who has none all season. Except in this case, I might be inclined to agree with you. Boy, Martin stealing one would be a great story.
Mark Aumann:Would that be an NFL playbook? Replacement refs. Replacement Menzer. But I honestly could never replace Joe Menzer, the king of the man cave.
Joe Menzer:Thank you, Mark. But I am still waiting for Fence Sitter to answer the question that was asked. Which non-Chaser has better chance of winning in the Chase -- Newman or Kyle Busch? How does it feel, sitting on that fence, Caraviello?
Mark Aumann:Yeah, looking at Martin's career stats: four wins at Dover, four at Charlotte, two at Martinsville. Those are places where he could easily score the victory.
Joe Menzer:Well, I believe Brian Vickers is driving the No. 55 at Martinsville.
David Caraviello:OK, let's be honest -- these guys missed the Chase for a reason. I don't think the light bulb is suddenly going to come on and these drivers outside the playoff are going to suddenly start making multiple trips to Victory Lane. And looking at the standings, you have wonder how many of these non-Chasers are really capable of winning at this point. For one of them to break through, it's going to have to come down to the right combination of driver and track. Newman at New Hampshire, maybe. Martin at Dover. You have to take it week by week rather than making a blanket statement.
* Behind the Wheel: Newman's goal the same -- win | Rogers owns up
Joe Menzer:It's got to be hard, sitting on top of that fence this long.
David Caraviello:I brought a padded seat cushion. Listen, Carl Edwards, Busch and Newman are all great drivers capable of winning, but clearly they're missing something, and their primary goals right now are probably to help their respective teammates in the Chase. I don't know if Carl's going to win this year, given that he's had so few opportunities to really challenge for a victory. Now, Newman and Busch? Absolutely. But the situation has to be right. And I wouldn't at all rule out Mark's choice, Mark Martin.
Mark Aumann:That's the question for another Smack: Can Edwards get a win before the end of the year? I'm inclined to say no. But of the two in the original question, I think Kyle's got the better chances. He led a bunch of laps at Charlotte. He led a bunch of laps at Phoenix. And don't forget, Kyle was on the pole at Loudon and led 72 laps earlier in the year.
Joe Menzer:So you are totally dismissing Kyle Busch? I think that's a mistake.
David Caraviello:Who dismissed Kyle Busch? In what language does the Man Cave King read? Of course, this is coming from the same guy who a few weeks ago was all but guaranteeing Kyle would be in the Chase.
Joe Menzer:Let's go back a minute. Kyle Busch actually did have a solid run for most of the night at Richmond. It wasn't until Lap 275, when Dave Rogers thought rain was coming and gambled on it, and then it didn't come, that their night and their Chase hopes were doused. So it's not that they didn't run well that night. Rogers made a mistake, admitted it and owned up to it later like a man, and they paid a dear price. But now they move on.
David Caraviello:But none of that changes the result, Joe. And teams on the borderline are there for a reason, and they seem more inclined to take chances and make mistakes like that. Next year, Kyle Busch and Dave Rogers could win 10 times and be the Chase's top seed, and no one would be surprised. But don't use one pit call to mask what's been a disappointing season for them. They lost their Chase berth well before that Saturday night.
Mark Aumann:Yeah, the back-to-back engine failures put them in that spot, in my opinion. And they gambled where they didn't need to.
Joe Menzer:Finally, we agree on something! Yes, they lost their spot in the Chase because of a culmination of events -- many of which were beyond the control of both driver and crew chief. But it did also in the end come down to one bad pit call -- yes, when they gambled for no need and raced for a good finish instead of simply trying to stay ahead of the 24 car.
David Caraviello:Mark, does Joe realize that was two weeks ago? I'm worried he's been digging too deeply into the swamp grass.
Mark Aumann:Or swamp gas.
Joe Menzer:Don't joke about gas around me. Touchy subject.
3. Tony Eury Jr. was relieved this week as crew chief on Danica Patrick's Nationwide Series car at JR Motorsports. Was this a move that had to happen?
Joe Menzer:Speaking of touchy subjects ... wow, I didn't expect it to happen and I'm not certain I understand what will be gained with so little of the season left. I think they could have and should have waited until the end of the year and evaluated everything then. But geez, this is family we're talking about.
David Caraviello:First of all, I don't know if we know the full story on this, and we might not until Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks to the media this weekend at New Hampshire. Did Eury leave on his own? Was he fired? The latter is tough to believe, given that Eury also had an ownership share in the team. But either way, this is a team in the throes of change, and sometimes it's been painful to watch. Are those changes necessary? Given JRM's performance in the past two years, you'd almost have to say yes.
Mark Aumann:I'm not sure who is more relieved at this point, the Eurys or the Earnhardts. I think once Tony Sr. was cut loose, it was inevitable that Tony Jr. would quickly follow. No matter what you think about Danica's transition, that team overall has underperformed. And Dale Jr. has said he's not going to put his own money in that team. It has to break even on its own. And to do that, it has to win races and run up front.
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|Full-time drivers only|
David Caraviello:Mark, I would agree that the situation with Pops perhaps made it difficult for Tony Jr. to be around. But I think this is also all much bigger than personnel. After the Tony Sr. decision was made, Dale Jr. talked about the tight time frame they have to put programs together in the Nationwide Series, which led me to believe they were doing all this with an eye toward 2013. Which meant waiting until the end of he year, Joe, would have been too late.
Joe Menzer:I don't think him leaving is that tough to believe when you consider the fact that he obviously wasn't happy a couple of weeks earlier when his father parted ways with the family company. What I hate to see is that a family owned and operated race team like that ends up doing the opposite of what it was intended to do in the first place, and that's bring the family closer together. Yes, you have to win races -- or at least contend for race wins -- along the way, but in the end you'd like to think family is more important than anything and everything.
Mark Aumann:I think about the Petty Enterprises deal and some of the other family run organizations. At the end of the day, there's family and then there's business. And sometimes decisions have to be made that concern the latter over the former. I've seen that in other family run businesses outside of racing. You have to put the family ties aside at times. Which makes for some stilted dinner conversation at Thanksgiving.
David Caraviello:Family or not, racing is a performance business, and that performance (or lack of it) is usually obvious, as is the case here. JRM simply isn't an elite Nationwide program anymore. It's almost certainly losing its biggest sponsor when Danica Patrick steps up to the Sprint Cup ranks next season. Its trying to line up pieces for 2013, and that might be tough to do with the kind of results it's turning in now. At least that's the way I read it.
Mark Aumann:Exactly. Certainly you have to think it's more than just a family disagreement. At some point, Dale and his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller came to the conclusion that they had to make a move to go forward, especially since Danica will be taking the GoDaddy money with her to Tony Stewart.
Joe Menzer:I get everything y'all are saying about them needing to do what it felt it needed to do to get the performance up. It's still sad to see, that's all. And I think maybe Tony Jr. said it best before he left. Didn't he say, well, if you want better performance in the Nationwide Series, hire some Cup drivers or former Cup drivers to haul the mail for you.
David Caraviello:No question, Joe. Tony Eury Jr. is one of the good guys in the garage area. Tony Eury Sr. is an institution. But nobody is immune when performance suffers, and given the results of the past two years, it's clear JRM had to do something else. Of course, finding another Brad Keselowski would certainly help. But remember, Brad wasn't a Sprint Cup driver when JRM found him.
*Related: Eury Sr. out | Pemberton in | Eury Jr. out | Jimmy's Take
Mark Aumann:Junior's been down that road, and he's adamant that he wants that to be an organization devoted to driver development. So I think that's why he's staying the course.
Joe Menzer:Honestly, it's been 51 Nationwide races for Danica Patrick now. She's running usually somewhere around 15th in these events, occasionally a little better, often wrecking out and finishing worse. Cole Whitt has been somewhat better, but neither has threatened to win races. In just about any other circumstance, we might be discussing a change of drivers here, as well.
Mark Aumann:So where do the Eurys land? Or does Tony Sr. take a well-deserved retirement?
David Caraviello:Those guys have won a lot of races and surely have something to offer to some team. I don't know that you'll see them walk off into the swamp grass just yet.
Mark Aumann:Let's just hope they don't sink instead.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.