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Track Smack: Smart saves, tight trucks and peeling back points

NASCAR.com

1. Did Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team save Jimmie Johnson's season at Kansas?

Joe Menzer:It's very possible. They were staring down the barrel of a 25th-place finish, or maybe worse, if they had taken that No. 48 car to the garage like they obviously thought they might have to at one point. Instead, they pulled together and fixed it on pit road and he got out there and drove the wheels off it to pull out a remarkable ninth. That's a big points swing for a contender.

Jarrod Breeze:Not so much. Rather, it's Kansas' repaved surface that saved Jimmie Johnson's season. Yes, the same track that nearly took away from Johnson gave right back, as well, as caution after caution after caution allowed Johnson to be no worse for wear. Honestly -- a repaved track during the Chase? The Chase won't be won on the track, it will be won in the pits and excessive cautions and wave-arounds and such.

Mark Aumann:Yes and no. Definitely, by getting the car repaired quickly -- and that thing was fast -- Johnson didn't lose any ground to Brad Keselowski. But when it all shook out, none of the contenders were able to gain or lose anything. Kansas was another wild card that really wasn't that wild after all.

Joe Menzer:Not to drop names -- I know how our former Smack Master, David Caraviello, hated that -- but I talked with Jimmie earlier this week at the NASCAR Hall of Fame (well, me and like five other reporters). He credited car chief Ron Malec with making the race-saving call that the car could be fixed on pit road. Of course, then Jimmie said Ron started pounding so hard on the car that he had to tell him, 'Hey, take it easy! You might break something else!'

Jarrod Breeze:Another big Chase track build up. Hey, Martinsville is a short track, and it's up next. Is it the next track in the Chase that we now can designate as the wild card?

Mark Aumann:Well, Track Smack is definitely filled with jokers, but JB, you make a great point. Every track will have to be repaved, but you hate for it to come into play in the Chase. That was the case with Phoenix last year. I'm not sure how you can avoid it, to be honest. After all the carnage at Kansas, I wonder now if Martinsville might actually be a little less rock 'em-sock 'em, just because none of the top four or five guys wants to lose the title there.

Joe Menzer:I think I disagree about Martinsville. The 48 guys took what could have been a disastrous day at Kansas and turned it into one that wasn't all that bad. But they're still seven points behind with only four races to go -- and Martinsville is a place where Denny Hamlin is great, as well as Jimmie. Keselowski doesn't really know how to back off completely. So I think you'll see those three near the front, slicing and dicing. I think it will be good stuff at Martinsville.

Mark Aumann:Yeah, Joe, I don't want to downplay what Johnson's crew did at all. I think the shot of Knaus on the pit box with his head down showed he believed the championship was gone. But it seemed like everybody not named Matt Kenseth was bound to have some sort of issue. Johnson just had more car to make up for it.

Joe Menzer:Guys, I think you're selling what the 48 team did short. Yes, it was a big-time mistake for Jimmie to get into the wall in the first place. He acknowledged that in our one-on-five interview the other day. So that part of it stinks for them. But to fix the car as fast as they did on pit road and then for Jimmie to drive the wheels off like he did to salvage the day, well, that's what champions do.

Jarrod Breeze:I'm not selling the 48 team short, at all. If any team could come back from the brink, it is that team. But without caution after caution after caution (and basically, that string of yellow came shortly after Johnson's misfortune) it gave the 48 team ample time to overcome it. And you give that team time, they will take advantage of it.

Mark Aumann:Yep, it's all timing. Greg Biffle's troubles came too late for him to salvage anything. And Aric Almirola deserved a heck of a lot better finish, for how well he ran.

Joe Menzer:Sort of like his season. Very good early, too much trouble late.

Jarrod Breeze:Funny how we all thought that Keselowski's great escape from a multi-car wreck might be the point in the season to look back upon if he is to end up winning the title, but just a few laps later we were all saying the same thing about Johnson.

Joe Menzer:Could be looked back as a turning point for either one of them -- when and if one of those two wins the title.

Mark Aumann:Exactly. That could be the turning point, although there are still four races left. Based on the first 26 races, Biffle seemed poised to break through. Shows how just a couple of bad breaks can ruin your Chase.

Jarrod Breeze:Look at Kenseth: two wins in this Chase and still nowhere to be found among the points leaders. Wins may count for more nowadays, but apparently not enough.

Joe Menzer:Sort of like one or two bad comments can ruin someone's Smack session. So, be careful, you two.

Mark Aumann:Track Smack, wild-card edition.

2. Ty Dillon leads James Buescher by one point heading into Martinsville. Who will win the Truck Series championship?

Mark Aumann:Here's that "wild card" thing again. Martinsville is the type of track that could create a big swing in points, just because you don't know who might get caught up in what. Buescher's been lights out since Iowa. But Dillon's been the same since Bristol. I give the advantage to Dillon, only because he's so good on tight bullrings -- and because he's got the same equipment his brother, Austin, used to win the championship last season.

Jarrod Breeze:I say Ty Dillon. Although Buescher has more wins and top-fives, no one has been as consistent as Dillon. And, as we've seen last year with Tony Stewart and this year with Matt Kenseth, it takes more than a couple wins to overcome another driver's consistency. It takes a bunch of them. The chances of Dillon's consistency trumping a final flurry of wins by Buescher are greater.

Joe Menzer:I tell you what, it's a good race to the finish. Just like in the Nationwide Series, where it's a three-man battle, this Camping World Truck Series championship tussle has the potential to be something special.

Mark Aumann:Sort of like this Track Smack. We just have to live up to the expectations.

Camping World Truck Series
Standings
1. T. Dillon Leader
2. J. Buescher -1
3. T. Peters -26
4. P. Kligerman -34
5. J. Coulter -50

Jarrod Breeze:I will contradict myself a tad, however. Buescher's Series-leading four wins all have come on 1.5-mile tracks; there are two of those remaining on the schedule. So, I don't expect a big swing in points one way or the other. Who knows, it could go to the finale separated by that one point.

Joe Menzer:And since you two seem to be all about Ty Dillon -- and you make some decent points -- I'll take Buescher in this two-man battle.

Jarrod Breeze:The Trucks always seem to put on a good championship battle. Too bad not that many people seem to care.

Joe Menzer:Sometimes they get a decent crowd for the Trucks at Martinsville, where I believe the weather this Saturday is supposed to be spectacular. They usually put on a real good show there, too, so if anyone's thinking about going, it would be well worth it.

Mark Aumann:I love seeing the Trucks at Martinsville -- particularly if you stand in the infield across from the turns. It looks like they're going by at parking-lot speeds -- when you know they're still going at a pretty good clip. It's a place where there's a lot of traffic and a lot of lapping going on. You have to be careful to get around as quickly as you can, even if you have to use the bumper to root your way past.

Jarrod Breeze:Don't you mean, at a pretty good (paper) clip, Mark?

Joe Menzer:Now that would be fun. A race between the three of us in the parking lot at Martinsville! Think we could get going at a pretty good paper clip in our rental cars?

3. Brad Keselowski still leads the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But is Martinsville the place where Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin can make up crucial ground?

Mark Aumann:Johnson and Hamlin are exceptionally good at Martinsville, so this could be the spot where we see if the No. 2 Dodge falters. Brad's best finish in five Martinsville starts is ninth -- although that came this spring.

Joe Menzer:Absolutely. I think they are each counting on it. That, to me, is what makes this such an interesting Cup race coming up. I disagree with what one of you said earlier about them being careful and laying back, not wanting to dash their Chase chances. I don't think that's going to happen. I think Johnson and Hamlin each think the other is going to go all-out for the win, so that's the way they both have to think. And I'm not sure BK really knows how to back off if he sees the other top championship contenders up near the front for much of the race. Nor will he want to.

Jarrod Breeze:Unless Keselowski goes out early with an engine, or vibration, or handling ... then no. Of course, Johnson doesn't need to make up crucial ground. Hamlin does, though. He's closer to fourth and fifth place than he is to first and second. Not sure right now why's he's part of the conversation. Oh, and that would be Mark Aumann who made that earlier laid back comment.

Mark Aumann:That's interesting, JB. Twenty points doesn't seem like a lot, but with just four races remaining, that's looming like a larger and larger deficit to overcome. However, Martinsville is a place where he could make a significant dent in that.

Joe Menzer:This is the place where both Johnson and Hamlin know they're markedly better than BK. If they don't contend for the win or at least put him far in their rear-view mirror, their championship hopes could take a big hit. The only way to make certain of that is to go hard for the win.

Sprint Cup Series
Chase Standings
1. B. Keselowski Leader
2. J. Johnson -7
3. D. Hamlin -20
4. C. Bowyer -25
5. K. Kahne -30

Jarrod Breeze:I will play both ends to the middle, here. Hamlin desperately needs to make up ground here and will have to go all out. Johnson can play it cool, and like we concluded earlier, no team plays it cool like that 48 bunch.

Joe Menzer:And thank you, Jarrod, for throwing Mark under the bus. But I will point out that you, too, are wrong for thinking Hamlin shouldn't be part of this conversation. If he wins at Martinsville, where he's won four of the past nine races, he's right in this thing.

Jarrod Breeze:But unless Keselowski lays an egg, how much ground will Hamlin make up with a win. Again, let's go ask Matt Kenseth. How much have those two wins done for his Chase hopes?

Joe Menzer:Eggs? Now you have me thinking about food again. From Kansas, where they have some of the best BBQ in the land, to Martinsville. How many Martinsville hot dogs will Mark Aumann consume this weekend?

Jarrod Breeze:How about a BBQ dog with a little egg salad off to the side?

Mark Aumann:I base my opinion on how Martinsville has played out through the years. Last year was perhaps the craziest race I've ever seen there in all these years, right from Dale Earnhardt Jr. trying to dive-bomb the field right from the green flag. But there have been Martinsville races where the strategy has played out differently. It's been more of a chess match than a football game.

Joe Menzer:And Clint Bowyer trying to dive-bomb it at the end, right?

Mark Aumann:Exactly. And Brian Vickers being involved in half a dozen yellows. If we get a race like that, the supposed advantage Johnson and Hamlin have there could be negated somewhat. It just becomes survival then.

Jarrod Breeze:Keselowski's never been put in a situation where he's had to "back off" before. I'm sure he's been getting an earful this week -- beginning with his owner -- about doing just that and racing for points. Can he do it? Who knows? But I don't think he's ever tried before, so it's hard to say.

Joe Menzer:Yeah, I think that's a good point. (Oh, and one I made earlier, too!) I don't think it's in Keselowski's racing DNA. And that could be what comes back to bite him at some point over these final four races, if he gets too aggressive in a situation where he doesn't need to.

Jarrod Breeze:Mark, you bring up a great point. Jimmie Johnson's day at Kansas was saved because of other drivers not being able to handle the repave. So it could very well come down to some driver running 41st, nine laps off the pace, who decides who wins this championship.

Mark Aumann:Interesting point, because I don't know that you can "points race" at Martinsville. I think you have to stay aggressive there. It's easy to get caught up in someone else's mess -- or get lapped -- by trying to be conservative there.

Joe Menzer:Don't be conservative with the hot dogs, Mark! Go for it!

Mark Aumann:I'll tell you what, Clay Campbell's certainly pleased that Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s been cleared to eat hot dogs this weekend.

Joe Menzer:No doubt about that. Good to see NASCAR's top dog (in terms of filling seats) back at the track.

Jarrod Breeze:Hear, hear. As for other the three other top dogs (in terms of the championship -- and yes, Joe, I'm including Hamlin just for you) I think someone from this Track Smack panel is going to have egg all over his face after this weekend. I wonder who?

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