1. It's time to head for Talladega Superspeedway, where Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer have combined to win four of the last seven races. Should we anticipate a big swing in points at the big Alabama track?
Joe Menzer:Depends on how you look at it. Will there be a big swing at the very top, as in Keselowski faltering badly? I doubt it. But somewhere within that top six to eight group of Chasers, there are going to be some big winners and some big losers -- and therefore big swings in points for at least a couple of the guys, even if they don't gain ground on the leader.
David Caraviello:Predicting something like that seems about as crazy as trying to predict a winner at this place. At Talladega, we've seen wild races, relatively sedate races, races where several of the Chase guys found trouble and races where most of them came out all right. I guess it's safe to say that the potential is certainly there, as much as anywhere. But I don't know if even the Big One is capable of completely upending the status quo in the championship race at the moment.
Mark Aumann:I think everybody looks at Talladega as one of those places where you can get caught up in a wreck totally not of your own doing, and lose a ton of points. But if you look at the most recent Chase races there, that really isn't borne out by the stats: Jimmie Johnson finished sixth there in 2009, and seventh in 2010, and Tony Stewart was seventh last season. I think we all remember Carl Edwards getting into Greg Biffle in 2008 and starting off a huge pileup, but that has been more the exception rather than the norm.
Joe Menzer:Yet Jimmie hasn't finished a restrictor-plate race yet this season. ... Which is precisely why I expect him to do so this time around. Law of averages; and he's too good to keep crashing out of these things, crapshoots though they may be.
David Caraviello:Yeah Mark, and, if anything, this scenario seems to set up fairly well for Brad Keselowski, who knows his way around Talladega. And his position at the top of the standings also gives him a little bit of a cushion -- you have to think he wouldn't get completely buried in points even if the worst-case scenario happens. The real danger here is for those guys just hanging on -- as we saw for a few of those guys at Dover, a little bad luck in any form can come with a hefty price.
Mark Aumann:I'd be shocked come Sunday evening if all of the three main contenders -- Keselowski, Johnson or Hamlin -- get through unscathed. And yet, I don't think a bad race at Talladega will necessarily eliminate any of them over the rest of the way. I think Bowyer needs to keep up what he's done here in the past to stay in contact with those guys, however.
Joe Menzer:I'm not sure I agree with Mark on this one. I think Kes will do well this weekend, and I think Jimmie and Denny will, too. They may not win, but they're smart enough to know that this race for them is about staying out of trouble and being there at the end more than ever. They can't win the Chase this weekend, but again I'll disagree with Mark, they could lose it.
David Caraviello:Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- those are the guys who need to be really worried here, more so than the leaders. Sure, trouble befalling the guys at the front can leave them an opening. But those are the kinds of drivers who can have their Chase completely ended by one guy going sideways in front of them in traffic.
Mark Aumann:Exactly, DC. If you're near the top of the standings, you might take a points hit if you get wrecked Sunday. But if you're on the edge of losing contact with the points leader, your season could be over real quick.
David Caraviello:Yeah Mark, this is perhaps a swing race for Clint. He's within reach of that lead triumvirate of Brad, Jimmie and Hamlin. He's also capable of slipping back into the pack. I really believe the championship race begins in earnest once we get to all those 1.5-milers on the other side of Talladega, and it will be interesting to see what group Clint winds up in when we get there,
Mark Aumann:Yep, this is a big speed bump in the road. But I don't think it's the kind of bump that can knock one of the top three guys into the weeds. The Chase gets going for real after this.
Joe Menzer:Hello? Are you two done with your love-fest? I can see you guys agree on everything, but the fact of the matter is that they do count the points from this race in the Chase. So it does matter, and if any of the guys near the top do slip up, it could cost them dearly. Seems obvious to me. Having said that, I think the top three will survive. I'm not sure I'd pick any of them to win, though. I think someone like Jeff Gordon might be more inclined to pull a risky move at the end and pull that off. Then again, I can't see Keselowski backing off if he's in position.
David Caraviello:You look at the guys most impacted by trouble at Talladega in recent years -- Kurt Busch last season, Stewart in 2009, Hamlin and a bunch of other guys in 2008 -- they weren't really the leaders. They were the guy trying to keep pace with the leaders. The filtering process in is full effect here, and regardless of whatever Menzer is mumbling about, your real title contenders are going to be the ones left standing.
Joe Menzer:Finally. ... You come around to my way of mumbling, err thinking. Thank you.
Mark Aumann:Johnson finished 24th here in 2006 and won the championship. He also finished 26th here in 2011 and never got back into contention, but that only proves Menzer's point.
Joe Menzer:Thank you again.
David Caraviello:The interesting thing is: it doesn't take something like the Big One to completely reorder things. I mean, that caution at Dover after J.J. Yeley shredded his tire was as costly to a lot of title contenders as any crash. Last year, Dale Jr. and JJ's title hopes were effectively ended at Talladega because of their drafting strategy. There are a lot of moving pieces here, and a lot of things to manage, and winding up a wad of crumpled sheet metal is only one of them.
Mark Aumann:Joe, look over there! It's Frank Robinson! Did I deflect your attention?
Joe Menzer:Hmm. Even I'm not old enough to remember Frank in a Cincinnati Reds uniform.
David Caraviello:Well, that 2006 championship comeback that Johnson pulled off is one of those feats we may never see again. Much like Stewart's run in the Chase last year. Or the exploits of this Frank Robinson fellow you two keep mentioning. What car number did he drive again? I can't remember.
2. Stewart-Haas Racing is considering moving crew chief Tony Gibson and the rest of Ryan Newman's current crew over to Danica Patrick's program for next season. Is this the right move for Patrick and Newman?
Mark Aumann:You know, I'm wondering where this is all going. I've not heard a thing that would lead me to believe that Ryan's on the hot seat at Stewart-Haas. And at the same time, I wonder if he should be buying fresh vegetables for the company refrigerator. The good news was the sponsor announcement this week. But losing his crew chief and team? He and Tony have a great relationship, so I can't imagine there's anything more to this than trying to get Danica off to a better start when she gets going full-time in 2013. Still ...
Joe Menzer:Yet Newman is signed for next season, so he's not going anywhere -- for a year, at least.
David Caraviello:Listen, SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli has two championships, and his boss has three, so far be it from me to question their personnel moves. But here you have a No. 39 program that made the Chase last year, that barely missed it this year ... and you've decided it's time to tear it all down and start over? Maybe they've figured that group has done all it could do together, and that Newman needs some fresh faces around him. I don't know. It didn't seem that broken from the outside. But then again, this is a guy who fired his crew chief mid-Chase and still won the title, so what do I know?
Mark Aumann:Yeah, here's a guy who is one year removed from finishing 10th in the points. And he'll be basically starting from scratch in February.
Joe Menzer:Newman has a great relationship with Tony Stewart or Tony Gibson? Or both? I think both ... but also the results haven't quite been there this year with Gibson as his crew chief, so maybe this is part of a plan to shake up Newman's team, too. I don't see how you can say it doesn't seem all that broken from the outside. They've underachieved for sure this season, and would be the first ones to admit it.
David Caraviello:Ryan Newman doesn't have to worry about his job. The guy has re-upped, they've made the first steps toward getting a sponsorship package put together, and I get the sense that all is well on that front. It just comes down to performance, and I guess Zippy and Tony feel Ryan and Gibson have reached their potential together. And, goodness Joe -- if you scuttled a program every time it had one underachieving year ... you'd have a bunch starting over every season.
Joe Menzer:Hey, Dr. Caraviello, don't sell yourself short. You're a bona fide Track Smack expert. We value your opinion, if you can muster one up and stand behind it.
David Caraviello:By Joe's lofty standard, I guess Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson should have been broken up after last season. What a bunch of underachievers they were. I guess it's also time to break up Dave Rogers and Kyle Busch. And Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson. Man, Menzer is running rampant throughout the garage! Hide the women, children and crew chiefs!
Joe Menzer:Yeah, you never see teams scuttling a program when they have one underachieving year. Didn't we spend the last Track Smack last week talking about how Furniture Row ditched Regan Smith for Kurt Busch after less than one mediocre year on the heels of a promising one?
Mark Aumann:Newman had made the Chase in two of the last four seasons. Perhaps they look at 2010 and 2012 as years where they missed opportunities, and assume there's more potential there than what Newman has shown. And, hey, no calling for laterals in the middle of a play.
David Caraviello:Menzer... come on, man. Comparing Furniture Row to Stewart-Haas? That's more of a stretch than your usual attempts at argument. Wait, I forgot -- Greg Biffle and Matt Puccia have fallen to 11th in points. More underachievers!
Joe Menzer:Ryan Newman has won three races in four years, guys. If you think the owner of Stewart-Haas Racing is happy with that, well, you guys are nuts! And wait, you guys are underachievers. You're out!
Mark Aumann:DC, after Rick Hendrick went and did the crew chief shuffle two years ago, it's hard not to think owners are beginning to lose patience when it comes to on-track performance. It seems to be the first thing you do to try and shake up a team, sort of like hiring new managers in baseball. Who have we seen this season? Kevin Harvick?
Joe Menzer:Thank you again, Mark. Finally, someone talking sense. Besides me, of course.
David Caraviello:Sorry Joe, but you do not have that kind of authority here. And yes, Mark, you are correct that this does have a Hendrickian (is that a word?) overtone. And the big benefactor in all this will be Danica, given that Gibson is a not just a really solid crew chief but a great guy to work with. Those two should fit like a glove.
Joe Menzer:See, that's the thing. I'm not calling for these guys' heads. I'm just pointing out that some of the team owners are not as patient now as maybe they used to be. They can't afford to be, because if you don't perform at a high level, you risk losing sponsors who aren't so easily replaced these days. That's the crux of it.
David Caraviello:OK, so where does Ryan Newman's new crew chief come from? SHR doesn't have a Nationwide farm team to pull from. Do they go outside the organization? Find a promising engineer at Hendrick? Coax Matt Borland into going back on the road?
Mark Aumann:Who's been pitting Danica in Cup? Does Tommy Baldwin slide over?
Joe Menzer:What about Zippy? Maybe he wants to return to a pit box? I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. Judging by all these questions for answers, I'm guessing we really don't know at this point. And maybe they aren't sure yet, either, or they would have announced it.
David Caraviello:I don't think Zippy's getting back on the box, Menzer. A year ago, I would have wondered about a guy like Chris Heroy, but he's now at Chip Ganassi's shop. Do you pick up Tony Eury Jr.? Make a play for someone like Mike Kelley? No clue. All I know is, they better not be underachievers, because in one year Menzer will be calling for their jobs!
Mark Aumann:I think Frank Robinson is available. Or Chris Sabo.
Joe Menzer:I can see clearly through my (Pete) Rose-colored goggles.
David Caraviello:Ah, yes. Must be October.
3. After Sunday's race, Kurt Busch heads to Furniture Row Racing to get a jump on the 2013 season. Who should Phoenix Racing use as a replacement?
Joe Menzer:Regan Smith is available.
David Caraviello:Whoever it is, they better not underachieve, because Menzer is evidently holding them to the same standards at Stewart-Haas. Title or bust, baby!
Phoenix Racing's No. 51
Joe Menzer:You are unbelievable. I'm the one who said last week -- and I stand by it -- that they shouldn't have made the move to Kurt Busch, that they should have given Regan Smith more time!
David Caraviello:Goodness. I think Menzer is taking this move harder than Regan is.
Mark Aumann:I've heard AJ Allmendinger's name mentioned, too. It'd be a good seven-race audition for someone heading into 2013. But whether Jim Finch has money to come back with new bodies next season would be the issue. And there's just not a lot of places looking, unless you're a crew chief, apparently.
Joe Menzer:All I'm saying today is that teams are impatient and obviously aren't going to wait as long for teams to produce -- and that SHR expects more from Ryan Newman's team than three wins and two Chase appearances in four years.
David Caraviello:You know, Phoenix Racing could do a lot worse than Regan Smith. The guy is a careful driver who knows how to race cleanly and has a good reputation for taking care of equipment. In truth, he might be a better fit for that organization than Kurt was, because he probably wouldn't try to overdrive the car as much. But I really wonder if this is a perfect opportunity for a guy like AJ Allmendinger to get back into it, given that James Finch seems to have a thing for giving guys second chances.
Joe Menzer:So David, you agree with me. No, wait, you agree with Mark. No, wait, you are sitting on the proverbial fence again! Now that's a hard place to sit, but you do it so often you must be comfortable with it.
Mark Aumann:By putting kids like Keselowski and Landon Cassill in that seat, James Finch has shown that he's not averse to trying out raw talent. Is there anyone sitting in the Nationwide garage right now with that kind of a pedigree?
David Caraviello:Oh, there has to be, right? I mean, there are always guys somewhere in the national divisions just waiting on a break. But I wonder if a lot of this hinges on whatever plans Phoenix has for beyond this season. We hear all kinds of rumors about that team's future, and we might not know for sure what they're doing in 2013 until they show up for Speedweeks (or not). Does Finch need a guy for seven races, or for the remainder of this season plus next year? That could certainly change the equation.
Joe Menzer:Hmmm. What about a guy like Justin Allgaier?
Mark Aumann:You know, there are a bunch of guys struggling with underfunded cars. Michael McDowell. Dave Blaney. Reed Sorenson. Once you get past the obvious choices -- Smith and Allmendinger -- then we're just throwing out names.
David Caraviello:And Joe, I'm not sitting on a fence. I'm discussing options. Regan Smith would be a good fit for this team for a lot of reasons, but I would expect he'd want more than just seven races. Allmendinger, I think, would jump at finishing out this season as a chance just to get back in the game.
Joe Menzer:Well, I don't want to call those guys Mark mentioned retreads ... but they've had their share of Cup shots, right? Especially when you're talking about a guy like Reed Sorenson. I notice I was the only one who said anything about Allgaier -- but perhaps y'all are right for once. Smith and/or Allmendinger appear to make more sense.
David Caraviello:It's real tough to put yourself in James Finch's shoes, given the lack of sponsorship, and the kind of year-by-year shoestring they operate on. Really difficult to know what he's looking for and what me might be willing to pay a guy. All that would of course play a role in this.
Mark Aumann:And obviously not knowing what the future is for that team is another consideration a potential driver must think about. But I'm starting to lose my patience here. I may need two new Smack compadres next week. You just haven't performed up to your potential.
David Caraviello:I will say, Mark, that Menzer is showing some serious signs of underachieving in this session. Might be time to make a change.
Mark Aumann:Does anyone have Frank Robinson's number?
Joe Menzer:Please! Take me out of the game, Coach!