Tag Archives: Ryan Newman

Re-Evaluating Chances of Chase Contenders

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Buescher’s victory at Pocono may have completely changed the game in the quest for the 2016 chase.

Two weeks ago I looked at the drivers not yet locked into the chase field with a victory and gave my appraisal of their chances at the time to manage to make NASCAR’s sixteen team playoff field. The world of NASCAR is a strange place, because a lot has changed in those two weeks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr seems no closer to coming back from concussion related symptoms, so the chances of him pointing his way have disappeared. Chase Elliott’s tumble has continued to where it’s bordering on epic collapse, and Jamie McMurray’s bad decision at Indianapolis has left him vulnerable.

Oh yeah, then there’s Chris Buescher raining on everyone’s parade at Pocono and throwing a very unforeseen monkey wrench into things. Though, if you recall, two weeks ago I mentioned the possibility of a well timed rainstorm getting someone buried deep in the standings an upset victory and an invitation to the party.

While Buescher still has some work to do to get in the top 30, for the sake of prognostication purpose, we’ll assume he gets there, so more on him in a moment. Obviously, if Buescher does not make the top 30, then that changes things a great deal, but for his sake, I hope he does, and for the sake of discussion, we’ll assume so.

Austin Dillon +41 (65% two weeks ago at +41)

Dillon had a car that seemed capable of winning on Monday at Pocono and teammate Paul Menard was fast all weekend. That’s got to give the entire Richard Childress team some confidence. What also has to give them confidence is that Dillon is in the exact same place he was two weeks ago, and there now even fewer races in which to see his lead evaporate. Of some concern to Dillon might be that they finished 20th or worse at Sonoma, Bristol, and Richmond earlier this year, and a repeat of that performance would leave the team little room for error at Darlington and Michigan. At this point, it would probably take two bad races or another surprise winner to keep Dillon out of the chase, but as we’ve seen, anything is possible. The upcoming schedule is the only thing keeping Dillon from really being a slam dunk at this point.

80%

Ryan Newman +29 (50% two weeks ago at +50)

While the speed at RCR is promising for Newman, an average finish of 21.5 over the last two races is not. Newman should be in position to be on cruise control into the chase, but instead he’s left to sweat it out. It’s a bit difficult to put too much stock into his performance at Richmond because RCR as a whole is better, but it’s notable how much the entire team struggled at the track that will wrap up the regular season. If Newman gets to Richmond needing to fight his way in, you have to wonder how confident they’ll be. Then again, if you “need” to accomplish something like that, there are definitely worse drivers than Ryan Newman to have wheeling the racecar.

90%

Chase Elliott +25 (85% two weeks ago at +52)

Speaking of going the wrong direction… Elliott suddenly finds himself in real trouble, especially if someone outside of the top 16 wins a race in the next month *cough A.J. Allmendinger cough*. The problem isn’t the speed of the racecar, aside from Indy and Sonoma. The problem is finishing races. It seems pretty simple, based on the speed that’s been in the 24, just stay out of trouble and you’ll be fine. Elliott made a serious rookie mistake Monday that cost him big time. Instead of being 50 points to the good fresh of a top ten run getting some momentum back, the team heads to a road course with zero margin for error the rest of the way. Another bad finish and Elliott is likely to find himself on the outside looking in. And that’s regardless of whether someone behind him in points snares a victory. With a road course, Bristol, Darlington looming, finishing these next five races in one piece and on the lead lap is a daunting enough task. Putting together enough good finishes to hang on to his spot in the chase might be a bit much. If no more than one driver on the outside looking in steals a victory, Elliott would have like his chances if he can string together four top 15 finishes and a top 20. If he can post some top eight finishes like he was doing the first half of the year, he could be in a much more comfortable position when they arrive to Richmond. The pressure is on right now, and so far Elliott and the team aren’t handling it well. A bad weekend at Watkins Glen and the wheels might fall off.

50%

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Monday’s rookie mistake has Chase Elliott in the danger zone and his chase hopes getting closer to being on life support

Jamie McMurray +9 (55% two weeks ago at +27)

An average finish of 19.5 over the last two weeks compared to a 5.5 for his teammate Kyle Larson, and Jamie McMurray suddenly finds himself in major trouble as the regular season winds down. While Larson has five top ten finishes and three top fives in his last ten races, McMurray only has three non plate top ten finishes, and zero top fives at a non plate track all season. While consistency and staying out of trouble have him in contention for a chase birth, the inability to run up front and post strong finishes may very well keep him out. McMurray’s saving grace may wind up being the free falling Elliott who, despite out running McMurray on a weekly basis, has fallen back into McMurray’s clutches by not doing the one thing McMurray manages to do as well as anyone, finish the race. I don’t expect McMurray to hold off his teammate, and if Allmendinger wins this week, or someone else nabs an upset later on, I don’t think McMurray possesses the speed to race his way back in. His hope will be that Chase Elliott continues to struggle.

30%

Kyle Larson -9 (43% two weeks ago at -25)

Even facing a pretty sizable gap two weeks ago, I liked the chances for Larson based on the speed shown in his Target Chevy. Larson certainly has done anything to make me reconsider that confidence. While he’s currently on the outside looking in, and doesn’t need to see Allmendinger get a victory this weekend, few competing for a spot have to feel as confident as Larson and his team does right now. Not only that, Darlington and Bristol are both tracks that he himself could snatch a victory and lock himself into the chase by means of a win. On the flip side, because he’s doing the chasing, he can ill-afford a bad race, certainly in the next couple because he needs to keep the pressure on McMurray and Elliott. So the question will be, how hard does he push it to win a race, and where is the line where he takes what he can get and settles for the points?

70%

Kasey Kahne -29 (32% two weeks ago at -22)

On the positive side, Kahne opens this five race stretch at a road course, where he finished 9th at in Sonoma earlier this year, and he closes it out at Richmond, a place he’s won before and posted his best finish of the year at with a 4th place earlier this season. On a less positive note, Kahne is 29 points out, and stands 45 points behind Elliott, meaning a winner coming out of the top 16 could effectively doom his chances. Kahne has pulled his own rabbit out of a hat before, winning at Atlanta in 2014 in what was a must win situation, so if the situation calls for it, and Kahne is in contention, he’s shown he has what it takes to go and get it. The question will be if this team can find the speed to put him that situation. Nothing would seem to suggest that they can, and with the team sharing a shop with them struggling in their own right to salvage their chase spot, there may not be much teamwork between the two going forward. Kahne doesn’t have the speed to just catch McMurray, and McMurray doesn’t finish poorly enough for Kasey to feel confident he’ll fall back to him. And even if he did, there’s still the matter of Kyle Larson to deal with.

25%

Ryan Blaney -37 (40% two weeks ago at -16)

Perhaps no one has suffered as much in the past two weeks as Blaney. At Indianapolis Blaney was looking at a possible top ten finish, and certainly a top fifteen, before being taken out in a wreck that wasn’t his doing and relegated to a crushing 36th place finish. While they rebounded Monday with a solid 11th place, that’s not going to be good enough, and they know it. Based on McMurray’s average finish, Blaney is in a difficult spot of basically needing to finish inside the top ten in each of the next five races to be able to chase McMurray down, and that’s not even considering that he also finds himself 28 points behind Larson. In other words, Blaney needs the Ganassi cars to suffer problems over the next five races, and he can’t afford any himself. Or, he can go win a race, which isn’t out of the question. Blaney was very strong at Bristol in the spring and the Wood Brothers have a knack for that track. They might be circling that one as their hail mary shot to make the chase.

19%

Trevor Bayne -37 (20% two weeks ago at -14)

Let’s face it, Bayne was fortunate to be as close as he was at that point. Nobody that’s listed as contender runs worse than Bayne on a week to week basis and Bayne’s only real shot was for there to be no more surprise winners, and for those in front of him to continue to have trouble. There is nothing in the way this team has run anywhere besides the restrictor plates to make you think they’re going to suddenly start running in the top ten, much less contending for victories. While a lot can still happen over the next five races to those they’re chasing, let’s be real here, Bayne doesn’t run well enough to really even take advantage of that. Progress has been made at Roush, but not enough has been made with the 6 team.

.25%

Ricky Stenhouse -45 (3% two weeks ago at -41)

Stenhouse is further back with fewer races to go than he was two weeks ago. In other words, his chances were slim, and slim has headed for the door. Bristol is a track that’s been good to him in his career, and depending on what happens at the half mile, a top five run while misfortune striking those in front of him could at least put him in the mix over the final three races of the regular season. Or something really wild could happen and he could win at Thunder Valley. For Stenhouse, they need to get through Watkins Glen without losing any more points, and hope they can make some serious ground at Bristol. If not, their playoff dreams will be vanquished.

2%

From here down, getting in on points isn’t happening. Earnhardt is 56 points out and won’t race this week, so he’ll be even further behind, and let’s face it, at this point, a 56 point deficit with this many drivers to leap frog as well is too much to ask for. So it’s all about getting a win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr’s immediate future is cloudy, and really, perhaps his long term future is. The priority is getting Junior healthy, and this season may be one they’ve already decided to put on the shelf to get ready for 2017. If Junior does come back, Richmond is a place he’s been victorious before. And you know NASCAR loves a good story. He also has stopped long losing streaks at Michigan before as well, so if he waits until after Bristol to return, those are two tracks where a victory is still a possibility.

3.5%

A.J. Allmendinger circles two races each year and those are his chances to make the chase, and he knows it. He missed at Sonoma and now comes to Watkins Glen with one last swing at things. The unfortunate thing is that Allmendinger has run well enough and with enough speed that he should be in contention to get in on points. But it’s been a year from hell in terms of the luck and misfortune for Allmendinger and its lead to immense frustration at the racetrack. Nothing would erase all of that like a win this week at Watkins Glen. Not only would it propel Allmendinger into the chase, it would create a bigger mess and more pressure for a slew of others.

25%

Greg Biffle and his Roush car have been showing more and more speed each week. Enough to win? Doubtful. But don’t count him out at Darlington, a track he experienced great success at back in the mid 2000s, or at Michigan, where fuel mileage and strategy could certainly factor in. Is it likely? Of course not. But hey, neither was Chris Buescher winning.

2%

Others. Okay, I put this at like 0.5% two weeks ago, and low behold an “other” won. So maybe I’ll bump it up this time around. The great thing about NASCAR is that truly, anything can happen.

3.25%

As for Chris Buescher, he’s still six points out of the top 30, and it would be an awful shame to win a race and miss the chase because of that. Six points is barely over one position a race, something that can be done if he simply stays out of trouble. Also assisting him is the fact that he is able to concentrate on two tasks each race, beating Regan Smith and David Ragan, as no two other cars out there matter for this team until they get thru Richmond. Is he a slam dunk to do it? No, and if he doesn’t, it obviously greatly increases the chances for guys like Kahne or Blaney to get back into the chase.

75%

 

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Handicapping the Race to the Chase

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The 2016 race to the chase will be altered greatly depending on when Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to the track.

So it’s time to get down to it for the Sprint Cup Series in the race for the Chase. With only seven races remaining, we’ve essentially reached the stretch run and the wildcard race is on. And thanks to some massive storylines regarding the Hendrick Motorsports cars of Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr, the race for the Chase has some perhaps unexpected spice.

Elliott’s tumble in the standings thanks to four bad finishes in a row (though three of them were not of his making) and Earnhardt’s absence from at least one, and possibly more, races has injected some drama into the chase run and welcomed some new players to the party that otherwise might not be there.

As of New Hampshire, and the 19th race run, there are 11 drivers who have scored victories, leaving five spots up for grabs. Obviously, the easiest way to wrap up one of those spots will be to win a race, but here we are over halfway through the season and to this point only Elliott, Earnhardt and Larson have shown to have the ability to pull that off.

But that’s the thing with Sprint Cup racing, you never know who might steal one. So while I’m going to focus on those who can still have at least a puncher’s chance of pointing their way in, drivers like Paul Menard, Danica Patrick or Aric Almirola could still steal a victory through fuel mileage or perhaps even a well timed rainstorm. So they aren’t completely out of the picture, but let’s face it, the odds are very much against them.

So as we head to the final six races of Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Bristol, Michigan, Darlington and Richmond, how do we handicap the race for these final five spots? Which of these contenders is most likely to get a victory and put the points talk to bed, which will need to rely on points, and who can spoil the party with a victory somewhere and leap frog the competition?

Chase Elliott +52 – Elliott looked like a lock a month ago, but despite having top ten runs going at Daytona, Kentucky, and Loudon, Elliott hasn’t finished better than 31st over the past three races.

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This accident between rookies Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott at Kentucky while the two were both in the top ten had major chase implications.

The good news is he still is over a full race and then some to the good, and they return to Pocono and Michigan where Elliott led laps and contended for a win, as well as Bristol, another place he contended for a victory. The bad news is that should someone off the chase grid win, theoretically that lead would dwindle about a third of the way down. However, the Dale Earnhardt Jr. situation could very well offset that somewhat. Additional bad news comes in the fact that Richmond and Sears Point were two of the most uncompetitive races Elliott has run in the first half, and with a return trip to Richmond being the finale before the chase and another road course looming, there’s cause for concern. While historically drivers who run well at Michigan and especially Pocono typically do well at Indy, Elliott’s Xfinity Series history suggests it’s not a track he’s incredibly comfortable with. Throw in Darlington which is, well, despite his victory in his first Xfinity Series start back in 2014, no small task for rookies, and the potential landmines are everywhere. Elliott’s bad luck at some point you think will end and the team will get back to finishing where they run. But with potential pitfalls ahead, they’ve lost their margin for error and must capitalize on the tracks that are their strengths. Should they run into misfortune at Pocono, Bristol, or Michigan, the pressure will really mount at Darlington and Richmond. The best thing Elliott can do is get the pressure off with a win over the next month, which of all the drivers without a win, he’s the one most likely to score one.

Chances of making the chase- 85%

Ryan Newman +50 – While Chase Elliott has led laps and contended for wins, he’s only two points ahead of Ryan Newman for highest in points without a win. And the reason for that is Newman only has one finish outside of the top 30, while Elliott has five. Newman is doing what Newman always does. He rides around in mediocre equipment, running mid pack, and then survives the carnage of late race restarts (or causes some) to wind up finishing around the top 15. Over the last 15 races Newman only has one finish of worse than 18th and has 10 finishes inside the top 15. It’s a formula that has worked for Newman in the past, and is on track to work this year. While there is little reason to think Newman is going to win a race (just a single lap led and one top five finish to date), there’s arguably even less to think he’s not going to make the chase. The key at this point as much as anything is avoid really bad finishes, and that’s the M.O. of this Luke Lambert led 31 team.

Chances of making the chase- 90%

Austin Dillon +41 – Newman’s teammate at Richard Childress Racing is in a slightly less comfortable boat than Newman, as Dillon, while comfortably in as of now, is one bad race away from fighting for his chase life, or, he’s one win away from a guy like A.J. Allmendinger (more on that later) from having to sweat it all the way to Richmond to secure his place in NASCAR’s chase. Dillon has been less consistent than Newman, posting more strong runs where he looked like a potential contender while also having a few more finishes out of the top 20. At times, especially early in the year, it looked like Dillon was knocking on the door of getting that first win and securing his spot in the chase. However, he hasn’t qualified better than 8th at a non plate track since his pole at California and he has only led four laps all season. It’s difficult to look at that and think he’s going to have a shot to win a race in the next seven, which can make for some high pressure, especially if they have a bad race in the next couple of weeks. Dillon, like Elliott, struggled at Sears Point, so you have to wonder if they’re already peeking ahead at Watkins Glen with a little bit of dread. On the other hand, they do go to Michigan, and at California and Michigan earlier this year they’ve shown some decent speed. They might need to circle their trip to the Irish Hills as one to try to create a buffer before the back to back night races to end the regular season. Dillon only has four top ten finishes in his last dozen starts, and two of those came on the plate tracks. Dillon may wind up one driver who benefits greatly from Earnhardt’s misfortune as Dillon may need that buffer in case a guy like Allmendinger or Kyle Larson grab a win over the next two months.

Chances of making the chase – 65%

Jamie McMurray +27 – Jamie McMurray’s average finish the last three years has been 16.5, 16.2 and 14.9. Thus far in 2016 it’s 16.1. In other words, Jamie McMurray is being Jamie McMurray. He hasn’t led a lap all year and the only top five finish he has came at Talladega. The speed to contend for wins simply hasn’t been there, which is par for the course. But McMurray is a heady veteran who gets his equipment home and finds a way to salvage something decent most race weekends. A couple of positive things pointing his direction are the fact that the team seems to be trending upwards as of late with three top five finishes in the last five races, and one of those that was not was at Daytona where he was involved in an accident while contending for a solid finish, and maybe more. This couldn’t come at a better time as McMurray will return to Indianapolis where he has been victorious before. With Earnhardt likely to sit out at Indy, McMurray looks at the situation like his lead is 29 points over Ryan Blaney, with Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, along with Earnhardt, still nipping at his heels. McMurray is in a good spot, and if he just soldiers along the next seven races, he should make the chase. However, seven straight races without a bad finish under the spotlight and pressure of racing for the chase is a tall order, even for the most accomplished of teams. McMurray’s nightmare would be for Allmendinger to win at Watkins Glen and then someone like Earnhardt, Larson or Kahne to win one of the other six races. Would McMurray be able to chase down the RCR duo and rookie phenom ahead of him? Have they shown the speed to be able to make up points? I’m not so sure. And even if they avoid trouble, they are just a couple of top five runs from Larson or Kahne away from having those two breathing down McMurray’s neck coming down the stretch. It’s going to be serious nail biting time for the Missouri native as we head towards Richmond, and much of his chase future may depend more on what those around him are or are not able to get done over the next two months.

Chances of making the chase – 55%

Dale Earnhardt Jr +14 – There is no murkier chase future than that of the sport’s most popular driver, and perhaps some clarity will come this week when we find out for sure if he’s going to miss Indianapolis, and also perhaps how much more time he will be out of the 88 car, if any. If Earnhardt is a go for Indianapolis, then you probably have to feel good about their chances. While they have been anything but a picture of consistency, one can point to the plate tracks as the reason they are in chase peril in the first place. Three races where top fives were expected and instead Earnhardt only accumulated 27 points, opposed to the 138 he gained in those three events last year. That’s a massive difference, such a difference that were he to have even gained 100 points in plate races this year, Earnhardt would be sitting 8th in points and firmly entrenched in the field of 16. As it is, he may have to sweat it out. The good news is that Pocono and Bristol are left in the regular season and Earnhardt finished 2nd at each earlier this season. Finishes like that can make up a lot of points in a hurry against the group of drivers he’s competing for a chase spot with. So even if he does not race at Indy, which I don’t believe he will, if he’s able to get back in the car at Pocono, you still have to feel pretty good about his chances. He has shown the speed on more than a couple of occasions, especially early in the year, to be considered a contender to win, though aside from Pocono, he really hasn’t shown much of it since early spring. Until we know what his status is going forward, it’s very difficult to handicap his chances. For the sake of argument we will assume he’s back after Indianapolis, because if he isn’t and misses two races, including a Pocono track that might be his best chance for a win and massive points accumulation, then that will probably be all she wrote.

Chances of making the chase (if he only misses one more race) – 40%

Trevor Bayne -14 – Trevor Bayne hasn’t finished worse than 28th all season, and only twice has he finished worse than 25th. Should Bayne finish 25th this weekend and Earnhardt not compete, Bayne would surpass Earnhardt in the standings and into the chase grid, depending of course on what those immediately behind him do this weekend. This is where things get interesting. The gap between Bayne and A.J. Allmendinger (with Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse all in between) is only 29 points, which is barely above four positions a race. More importantly though, for a collection of drivers with average finishes in the 15-18 range, any one finish in the top five can make up a large chunk of ground in a hurry, meaning if one of these teams can just hit the right combination once, especially twice, over the next seven races, it could be the difference in being a chase participant, and being a chase observer. For Bayne, he has to be looking towards Bristol to try to create some separation, where he finished 5th in the spring after qualifying 10th. The problem for a guy like Bayne, or any of these is that if another member of this group wins a race and locks themself in, or worse, two of them do so, do they have enough speed and ability to string together enough top five type runs to make up the ground they trail McMurray and Dillon by? It doesn’t seem particularly likely, so much of their chase hopes rest on either being the one to steal a win, or having no one in this group accomplish the feat. While 2016 has been a vast improvement for Roush, one has to wonder about the pressure of the chase race, something Bayne and his team have not dealt with in the past, and how that will impact them coming down the stretch. The good news is inexperience in this situation is high among a couple of their competitors. But you have to think there might be a big edge for Kasey Kahne in this regard, and a slight one for Allmendinger and Larson as well. It’s major strides for the program and Bayne that they are even in this conversation. Are they going to be able to nail down a playoff spot? My gut says likely not, but, if they keep riding around staying out of trouble knocking off top 25s, they won’t eliminate themselves, and will leave themselves a chance heading to Darlington and Richmond.

Chances of making the chase – 20%

Ryan Blaney -16 – No one on this list besides Chase Elliott has shown the consistent speed that Ryan Blaney is, and that makes him a really interesting wildcard in all of this. As of today, he would miss the chase. But if the Brickyard 400 starts and Dale Earnhardt isn’t in it, Blaney essentially finds himself two points out of the final chase spot, and with the speed to threaten to catch guys like McMurray and Dillon. The key for Blaney will be to quit making the costly mistakes this team and driver have made that have resulted in finishes that don’t represent the way they team ran. Blaney’s recovery for an 11th place last week might be looked at as a season saver if this team goes on to make the chase. Despite as well as they have run, and the speed in the car, they’ve only finished better than 10th on four occasions this year, but the potential is there, and everyone knows it. Bristol in particular was an example of bad fortune as getting caught in the wrong restart line relegated him to a finish outside of the top ten, despite a car that some thought might have a shot to win. With finishes outside of the top 15 in over half the races run thus far this year, the 21 team knows it needs to tighten up over the next seven races. Having not run a full season in years, even being basically a Penske organization now, you wonder if that inexperience might have been a bit of the culprit in their inconsistencies and you wonder if it will rear its ugly head over the next two months. What we do know is the Penske cars have speed, and Blaney has had it too, even if on pit road a bit too often. If Earnhardt can’t go on Sunday, Blaney finds himself in a good spot. If he can finish the deal a couple of times down the stretch and knock out three or four top tens with a couple of top fives, he should be able to join fellow rookie Chase Elliott in the chase, and should be able to get in even if a couple of the guys behind him grab a win. If he can’t, and execution continues to be a problem, then he’s going to have to hope nobody pulls an upset and steals a victory, and he might need a little help from his competitors struggling to get in the field of 16.

Chances of making the chase – 40%

Kasey Kahne -22 – No one, besides possibly Chase Elliott following the giant cushion he once had, has near the pressure on them that Kasey Kahne does as we enter the stretch run. Kahne was in position for a solid points day at Loudon until Ryan Newman’s impatience turned a top 12 finish into a 25th place. That finish is the difference in being knocking on the door and the next in line after Earnhardt, to being on the outside looking in. Also hurting Kahne is a 15 point penalty assessed for failed post race inspection. It will be interesting to see how he feels about this should Matt Kenseth suffer no consequences for failing after winning this past weekend. Granted, Kahne is only 8 points behind Trevor Bayne, and 22 behind Earnhardt. So if he can finish 17th or better at Indianapolis, he should at least jump ahead of Earnhardt. Kahne has been awfully similar to Bayne in that, aside from a couple of plate finishes, he’s avoid finishes in the 30s. The problem is, he’s also avoided finishes in the top half dozen as well. With just eight top five showings over the past 92 races, speculation over Kahne’s future with Hendrick Motorsports has gone from whispers to conversation, and missing the chase would put the driver in a very precarious situation going into 2017, which would be a contract year, should he even make it that far. Kahne needs to figure it out, and fast. Fortunately for him, he’s won at four of the seven tracks left in the regular season, and has a road course victory to his credit. Indianapolis has been a place that Kahne has run well at in the past, and his team needs a boost and some momentum. If they can run like many think they still are capable of this Sunday, they can firmly reinsert themselves into the race for a chase spot. The problem is that success Kahne should be able to fall back on seems so long ago. There are two things they have going in their favor that give them a definitive advantage over their direct competition. One, they’re still a Hendrick Motorsports team, and two, they have a huge edge in experience. In 2014 Kahne went to Atlanta in a must win situation and delivered a clutch win to advance into the chase. It may take something like that again this time around, and despite their struggles, there is too much talent and potential with this team to dismiss it as not possible.

Chances of making the chase – 32%

Kyle Larson -25 – Larson is another very interesting wildcard, and difficult to gauge, while also being one who benefits greatly from Earnhardt’s absence. On one hand, outside of Elliott and Earnhardt, he’s the only one to legitimately contend for a victory this season, and if you take away the points penalty incurred to failing post race inspection earlier this year, he’d be within 10 points of Earnhardt, regardless of whether he missed another race or not. But on the other, Larson’s seven finishes off the lead lap are the most of any viable contender for the chase. Larson hasn’t finished worse than 19th over the last eight races, and that has been what’s enabled him to creep back into the points picture and still have a chance to advance without a win. The upcoming schedule also would seem to favor Larson. While he didn’t finish well at Bristol, he had a very fast racecar and spoke gleefully about returning in August and has shown to be fast on concrete. He’s finished in the top ten in each of his two starts at both Indianapolis and Darlington, and was third behind Elliott and Joey Logano at Michigan earlier this year. The trick for Larson will be to figure out how to balance between going aggressively for a win to lock himself in, and being smart and taking care of his car and consistently gaining points to get in that way. Where he stands in the points will dictate his approach, but I expect him to get to Richmond needing just to survive with a top ten finish and hope someone behind him doesn’t pull a Jeremy Mayfield and win and get in. However, his margin for error is small, he can’t afford to crash out of another race, and if he has a top five finish, he can’t afford to fade late to 15th from driving too hard trying to win the race. The speed is there at times for this team, and if Larson just takes care of things the rest of the way, he should be able to overcome the deficit he faces in the points standings.

Chances of making the chase – 43%

Ricky Stenhouse -41 Even with his top ten finish at Loudon on Sunday, the 40th place showing at Kentucky after an early crash might have been the nail in the coffin to Stenhouse’s chase hopes. As with Bayne, the improvement at Roush is very evident, but a day like that when you don’t post enough top tens and fives to make up for it is difficult to overcome this late in the game. Stenhouse has 11 finishes of 16th or better, the only problem is 8 of those are in the 12th-16th range, and that just won’t get it done when you’ve got three finishes of 25th or worse over the last five races. While he benefits if Earnhardt can’t go at Darlington, it’s still not going to be enough to give one confidence that he can run down and out perform the likes of Larson, Blaney and Kahne over the next seven races. His best hopes are to hope the pressure forces some of his competitors into some mistakes over the next few weeks to give him a window, but at this point, there are just too many teams to jump without winning a race, and despite all the improvements at Roush, this team just isn’t there yet.

Chances of making the chase – 3%

A.J. Allmendinger -43 – This pretty much all comes down to one race, and one race alone. And this one particular race will have huge ramifications across the board. Since failing to win at Sonoma, Watkins Glen has been circled by this team. Allmendinger’s year started more promising with the team showing more speed on ovals at the beginning of the year, but the season has quickly spiraled out of control and confidence and momentum appear to be shot. The only way they’re getting in is to win at Watkins Glen. And truth be told, to a man, many might tell you they like having a track they’re that good at being their one shot deal, and like the odds of pulling that off more than pointing their way in. Considering the deficit he faces, and especially factoring in the way he’s run lately, Allmendinger and everyone in this chase battle knows it’s all or nothing at Watkins Glen. The pressure on him and his team will be immense, and recently they’ve succumbed to such pressures on road courses and have not handled it well. Can they get it together at Watkins Glen? My gut has told me yes, and it’s me told me yes for a couple of weeks now. There are a lot of drivers in this battle for the final chase spots that don’t want to see Allmendinger reduce the number of available spots from five to four, but it’s very possible he does that. If you wonder why I may seem a little less than confident in Dillon and McMurray getting into the chase despite healthy points leads, it’s because I think there is a really decent chance Allmendinger goes to victory lane in the Finger Lakes region of New York and takes away one of those spots. Assuming Elliott and Newman get in, which, they absolutely should, we’d essentially be down to two spots should Allmendinger win at Watkins Glen. I almost considered doing two different chase odds for each driver, one if Allmendinger wins, and one if he doesn’t, because it’s that big a game changer. If Allmendinger doesn’t win at Watkins Glen, his chances of making the chase drop to essentially less than 1%, even if he gets a second place finish and has a nice points day.

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A repeat performance of 2014 for A.J. Allmendinger could flip the race to the chase on it’s ear and create havoc over the final races of the regular season

Chances of making the chase – 25%

Greg Biffle  -51 – It’s the case of too little too late for Greg Biffle. The good news is the team has put together three top ten finishes in a row. The bad news is that 11 finishes of 18th or worse over the first 16 races dug a points hole that is more than likely going to be too difficult to climb out of. A lot can happen over seven races, and a couple bad races by some of the guys Biffle is pursuing, and potentially a longer absence by Earnhardt, Biffle could find himself still holding on to a chance as they near Darlington and Richmond. And much like Kasey Kahne and the 5 team, Biffle’s team holds a definitive advantage in experience. Do they have the speed to win a race and secure a spot that way? Likely not. And if anyone in front of them were to win a race, it would almost certainly spell the end of their quest. However, considering where this team was, that they’re even on the outskirts of the discussion is a testament to the fight and drive from both the driver and team. If Biffle can sniff the chase when they arrive to Michigan, don’t be surprised if he makes things very uncomfortable for the guys he’s chasing.

Chances of making the chase – 1.5%

Other (must win) – There really isn’t anyone here you think might be able to steal a win, but you simply never know, so we much acknowledge the possibility. One potential candidate would be Clint Bowyer perhaps getting a win at Watkins Glen or at Bristol. Aric Almirola has run better lately, but thinking a win is possible is still an extreme reach.

Chances of making the chase – 0.5%

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No Ordinary Rookie

 

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Past meets future as Jeff Gordon passes the torch to a new generation, and a new legacy for the 24.

Coming into a big time sport as a rookie with enormous hype is one of the tougher challenges in sports. The pressure, the change in lifestyle, the new found fame, it’s no wonder so many rookies have crumbled under such expectations, some to the point of no recovery.

But imagine the challenge when not only you are hyped up to be the next great thing, BUT you are also the immediate successor to a legend. And by legend, I mean legend. I’m not talking about trying to replace an all-star like Jason Heyward in your lineup, or Joe Johnson on your basketball team. I’m talking about trying to replace Babe Ruth or Kobe Bryant.

Jeff Gordon is in the argument for the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time. Not just of his era, but of any era, and his three year stretch from 1996 thru 1998 is still one of the most dominant periods in modern American sports, but that’s another story for another day. Being tabbed to replace Jeff Gordon, with Gordon going out while making NASCAR’s version of the Final Four and competing for a fifth championship, has few valid comparisons in sports history.

While similar to replacing Joe Montana in San Francisco, or Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, it’s still different. In football you still have 52 other guys on the roster. You still have the same team, with the same logo, and many of the same players. You still have the same history of an organization that existed before that particular legend became a part of it. At the end of the day, you’re still one of many people to play quarterback for the 49ers or for the Colts.

What Chase is doing replacing Jeff Gordon is almost unparalleled. The only person to ever win a Sprint Cup race in a car numbered 24 is, for the time being anyway, Jeff Gordon. The commercial isn’t hyperbole or inaccurate in anyway, 24 is more than a number. It is a legacy all on it’s own, and it’s a legacy created by one man.

But within the past five to seven years it began to dawn on us all that at some point, that one man would no longer continue to drive competitively at this level. So what then? Would Rick Hendrick, the owner who took a chance on the fast but crash happy 20-year-old kid back in the early 90s retire the number? Or would he look for a successor? And would it be an established veteran or would he try to repeat history with another young hotshot?

In February of 2011 the plan began to take shape when Rick Hendrick signed a 15-year-old high school freshman from Georgia to a multi-year driver agreement.

The driver? Chase Elliott. You know, son of another NASCAR legend, Georgia’s favorite son, Bill Elliott.

By 2013 Elliott was winning races in the truck series, and by 2014 was running full-time in the Xfinity Series, where as an 18-year-old rookie he not only won three races, he also took home Most Popular Driver, Rookie of the Year, and the series championship.

By January of 2015, with Jeff Gordon announcing that 2015 would be his last season of competitive racing, Elliott was tabbed with the most pressure packed responsibility since Kevin Harvick slid into the seat of Richard Childress’ GM Goodwrench Chevrolet in February of 2001 following the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Fast forward to 2016 with Elliott coming off a 2015 season in which he followed up his championship by finishing second in points and winning another race. For the first time since November of 1992, a premier series NASCAR event was set to take place without Jeff Gordon in it.

However, the 24 car would be there. But with a new look, though the number kept it’s same font and style, new sponsors, and more importantly, a new driver.

All eyes were on the 20-year-old who promptly went out and won the pole for the biggest race of the year. Typically, the fastest qualifier is awarded the Coors Light Pole Award. Only Elliott isn’t of legal drinking age and ineligible for such an aware, or to carry such a decal on his racecar.

So here we are, hot shot 20-year-old kid considered the next big thing, replacing one of the greatest to ever participate in the sport and taking over a car number that’s a legacy and as iconic as almost any number in sports, on the pole for the biggest race of the year, and, oh yeah, in addition to the huge shoes of Jeff Gordon to fill, there’s the small matter of being Bill Elliott’s son.

Nobody can sustain these kind of expectations and possibly live up to the hype, right? Surely the kid is going to crumble. Maybe not beyond repair, but we should be pumping the brakes a bit on his rookie season, no? Give him a couple of years to really get his feet wet and settle into his role, right?

No, not this rookie. Not this rookie who, well, really doesn’t seem like a rookie.

We know what happened at Daytona, the 500 turned into a disaster early. Immediately the criticism began, and it looked like maybe the moment was too big right now. It was too much pressure. Maybe Rick Hendrick had brought him along too soon.

Or maybe any such notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Elliott rebounded from that 37th place finish with a strong top ten run at his home track of Atlanta the next week, only to have a very questionable pit strategy decision by crew chief Alan Gustafson cost him multiple positions late in the race at Las Vegas and leave him mired back in the pack after running up in the top ten all race long. Eventually Elliott would get collected in a wreck not of his own making and finish 38th.

In an interview following the Las Vegas wreck Elliott seemed extremely frustrated, and placed a lot of the blame, needlessly I might add, on himself. He knew what was happening. He had wrecked in two of the first three races, and the naysayers were going to get louder.

Well that’s as loud as they’ve gotten. Since the wreck at Vegas Elliott has done nothing but silence even the most skeptical of critics. Over the last six races Elliott has an average finish of 8.5 and has moved himself solidly into playoff position. But that doesn’t even tell the whole story. He has established himself as a viable threat to win races.

Over the last four races Elliott has finishes of 6th, 20th, 5th, and 4th. In three of those four races he found himself in second position at some point in the race’s final 15%, and without late cautions at California, Texas and Bristol, could very well be looking at a streak of three runner-up finishes in his last four races, though many would argue without a caution at Texas, he may very well have won.

But to truly appreciate what Elliott has done so far this year, you have to put it into perspective by comparing it to the debuts of some other stars in recent, or not so recent, memory.

The chart below illustrates how some of NASCAR’s top drivers and strongest rookie campaigns compare to Elliott’s after the first eight events of their first full-time season. With rookies being rookies and apt to putting cars into fences, the chart also looks at their average finish by taking away the two worst performances in the season’s first eight races, to give a better indicator of how they finished when they, well, actually finished.

Age Top 5 Top 10 Avg St Avg Fin Best 6 Avg Points
Chase Elliott 20 2 5 12 15.8 8.5 12
Jeff Gordon 21 2 4 10.7 16.5 10.7 12
Kyle Busch 20 1 2 24.3 21.4 15.7 25
Jimmie Johnson 26 1 5 14.7 13.3 7.2 7
Tony Stewart 28 0 2 9.9 16.8 11.7 10
Dale Earnhardt Sr 28 2 3 9.1 11.8 8.3 8
Bill Elliott 27 4 5 11 11.5 6.8 5
Dale Earnhardt Jr 25 1 2 8.5 22 16.3 19
Ryan Newman 24 2 4 13.4 19.8 12.8 16
Davey Allison 26 1 2 7.4 18.8 18.8 21
Matt Kenseth 28 0 2 17.1 21.8 15.7 21
Joey Logano 19 0 0 25.4 29.1 25.3 33
Kyle Larson 21 2 4 16.4 16.1 10.7 14
Jeff Gordon 2015 1 5 11.7 16.3 9.3 9

 

*note, Davey Allison didn’t attempt races six through eight, but came back and won race number nine at Talladega, and won again at Dover, giving him two wins in his first eight starts of his rookie, but not within the first eight races of the season*

Elliott compares favorably to the majority on this list. In fact, factoring age, depending on which aspect you value more heavily, an argument could be made that his start to his career has been as impressive, if not more, than anyone on this list.

The only drivers on this list to have five top ten finishes among the first eight races are Jimmie Johnson and then the father and son duo of Bill and Chase and Elliott. Bill Elliott was the only one to finish in the top five on more than two occasions, and the only one sitting in the top five in points (he would finish 3rd and capture his first career win in the season finale at Riverside) at this juncture of the season. However, it should also be noted that the elder Elliott had run 21 races the year before (not a full season) and despite having never run 75% of the schedule, had started nearly 100 races before the 1983 season began, so he wasn’t exactly a rookie.

While the Elliotts are the only ones on the list with five top tens and more than one top five finish, the Earnhardts are the only ones who won a race this early in the going of their rookie season. There is a reason NASCAR is known as such a family sport, after all.

Elliott’s average finish of 15.8 is topped by the asterisked elder Elliott, and then only Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. I guess that’s not bad company. I mean, the two non Elliotts only combined to win nearly 150 races and 13 championships between them.

And just for good measure, I took the time to see how Elliott is doing through eight races this year as compared to that guy he took over for, that Gordon fella.

I’d say he’s doing a mighty fine job stepping into those shoes in the 24 car. And he’s only trending upwards.

I said weeks ago I thought Richmond would be Elliott’s first win. His career average finish in the Xfinity Series there is 2.5, having finished second on two occasions, won once, and fifth in his other appearance. With the trend of how the team has been running lately, that prediction may very well come true.

But even if it doesn’t, Elliott has proven Hendrick knew what he was doing, and that the 24 would be in good hands and Elliott is not only capable of simply carrying the number into the future, but he may very well be able to give that number a new legacy for an entirely new generation of fans.

 

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Gumby’s Gibberish: Daytona 500 Edition

  • First things first, what a race. If you didn’t like that kind of racing, which puts more control in the hands of drivers, driver skill, and strategy as opposed to just being in the right line at the right time, you should probably find another form of motorsports to watch.
  • The Trevor Bayne story is truly a remarkable one. I will write more about this later, but this type of story is what separates the Daytona 500 from other sporting events.
  • Not enough was said about the performance and finish of three of the sports veterans. Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, and Terry Labonte have combined for 4 championships, all former champs, and all came home in the top 15. Bobby Labonte led the charge with a 4th, even contending for the win, while Elliott and the elder Labonte stayed out of trouble and brought their cars home with outstanding finishes giving their teams a leg up on getting into the top 35 after race 5. This is huge.
  • Speaking of Bill Elliott, the Wood Brothers may owe him a thank you, as does Trevor Bayne. This team was at rock bottom a couple of years ago. They hired the experienced 44 race winner and former champion Elliott to come help get them off the ground floor. Elliott’s experience helped the team improve almost weekly it seemed, getting them to a position to field competitive racecars. It was proven with Elliott’s qualifying performance and run at the season finale at Homestead last year. Clearly it transfered over this year with Bayne. I hope this is not forgotten.
  • We need to give a call to Mark Martin. To come back from three laps down and be in position to win the race late, even if he fell back to 10th, one heck of a rally for the 5 team.
  • Also lost in all the surrounded the stunning upset by Bayne was the run by David Gilliland. That team has struggled since entering the Cup series, and to post a third place finish and to be sitting second in points is absolutely a feel good story. If not for Bayne, it would be one of the bigger stories of the weekend.
  • Regan Smith had an outstanding rally to come back and finish in the top ten. The 78 Furniture Row Chevy was fast all week, and Smith wheeled that car like a proven veteran who belonged.
  • Yes, David Ragan is to blame for making that mistake that ultimately cost him the Daytona 500, but so is his team. Bayne was committed to push Ragan, the race was his to lose, and he lost it. However, for Ragan, in that situation, the pressure, and stress, is enormous. He’s got enough to think about it, it is understandable that the technicality of a rule slips his mind. However, it is NOT understandable that nobody on the spotter’s stand, or in the pit box came on the radio to remind Ragan of the rules. His team let him down big time.
  • The new points system is going to be tested immediately. The new system makes recovering from a bad race very difficult. A lot of title contenders had a bad race, we will see how long it takes for them to recover. However, one thing to consider is that when you look at the top 15 in points right now, particularly the top ten, how many guys do you really expect to stay there?
  • Those guys in the ECR engine shop probably shouldn’t worry too much. Their powerplants were the best in the field this week, they just couldn’t last Sunday. But you won’t be seeing 9500 RPM being turned for 500 straight miles anywhere else this year, so they shouldn’t fret. They should be happy with how strong their cars were.
  • Is it me, or is Kyle Busch just constantly out of control? It makes him fun to watch, but constantly out of control.
  • We never found out of Junior’s tire was actually flat. I say this because drivers can get weird sensation in cars, they can run over things or pick up dirt and get a false sensation of a flat tire. Now, if I’m Junior’s team, whether it’s flat or not, I tell him that it was. Because if it wasn’t, and he cost himself a shot at the Daytona 500, and put himself back in the pack to be in position to get in that wreck for no reason, his already shoddy confidence will take another huge hit.
  • Ryan Newman, with his torn up racecar, was way too aggressive at the end, and that’s what caused the wreck eliminating Junior. Newman wasn’t going to get to the front with that car, he should have taken what he could get, not made some bonzai move and taken out other cars who were competitive and actually competing for a top ten or better finish. A very selfish, unwise move by Newman.
  • Tony Stewart is approaching Dale Earnhardt territory in terms of the Daytona 500. He’s tied for second in wins at Daytona, and has won everything during Speed Weeks, more than once, but not the Daytona 500. Stewart is the kind of personality that this sort of frustration will begin to really, really eat at him. He’s been in position so many times.
  • Speaking of being in position so many times, Kurt Busch has finished 2nd in the Daytona 500 three times, and was the favorite coming into this year’s event, and found himself in position to win late. However, he couldn’t get Montoya to stay on him enough to get the momentum needed to make a move.
  • Montoya wrecked, it seemed, about four times. To still come out of there with a top six finish was pretty impressive. Forutnately for him, he was one of the few ECR engines that did not have problems.
  • The story of the day was the underdogs and the underfunded single car teams. Consider that Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Regan Smith, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney and Brad Kesolowski all led a lap. At one point during the race, Bobby Labonte, Blaney, Smith, and Gordon all seemed as if they might have something to say about the winner of the race. Unfortunately the late race carnage claimed a few of them, but many still managed top 20 finishes. Not to mention the 12th for Bill Elliott, 3rd for Gilliland, and an impressive 20th place finish for Steven Wallace. For a guy with a reputation of tearing up racecars, to get a top 20 and keep his nose clean, it was a huge success for the son of 1989 Winston Cup champion Rusty Wallace. Oh yeah, and that Bayne fella winning the thing.
  • All told, it was a great show, great drama, great storylines. NASCAR couldn’t have asked for anything more.

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NASCAR Screws It Up Again

Nobody really wants to see a driver wreck a competitor on the final lap coming to the finish line to win a race, and nobody really wants to see cars flying up into grandstands from said last lap accidents. Well, apparently nobody but NASCAR.

At least that is the message conveyed with their incredulous ruling Saturday night at the Budweiser Shootout.

Denny Hamlin made a late, daring, and pretty doggone good move heading to the tri-oval to take the checkered flag Saturday night. Unfortunately, it was too good of a move. Not only did he manage to get underneath race leader Ryan Newman, he managed to do so without turning Newman sideways. If you recall, Brad Keselowski was not able to execute a similar pass at Talladega a couple of years ago.

 

You tell me where there is room underneath Ryan Newman (39) without being underneath the yellow line.

The only reason Hamlin did not turn Newman sideways is because Ryan Newman crowded Hamlin, moving down the race track, eventually eliminating all the “in bounds” asphalt from Hamlin’s disposal. Newman’s actions forced Hamlin to drop beneath the yellow line in the tri-oval as he pulled ahead of and up in front of Newman while barely beating Kurt Busch to the finish line.

Or, well, I guess “forced” isn’t the proper word here. At least that’s apparently how NASCAR unbelievably saw it. I suppose Hamlin could have held his line, kept his car “in bounds”, and when Newman made his move to crowd Hamlin down the track, simply let Ryan Newman wreck himself, and likely several other cars.

So, Newman gave Hamlin two choices. Wreck Newman, or go below the yellow line, avoid an accident, and ultimately see a victory turn into a 12th place finish thanks to the forthcoming penalty from NASCAR.

That there can be such a choice is appalling.

Supposedly, as a part of the yellow line rule, there is also a rule stipulating that while you are not allowed to go below the yellow line and advance your position, you are also not to force someone else down there.

Well, I don’t know about you, but when one car is beside another, as Hamlin was with Newman, and when said car got underneath the driver in bounds at the outset, to then see Newman’s left side tires hugging the yellow line, all the way on the bottom of the track, it seems pretty cut and dry what took place. Where was Hamlin supposed to go at this point? He physically could NOT move up the track back in bounds, Ryan Newman occupied the very bottom line, despite the fact that Hamlin had the right to that part of the racetrack thanks to his move off turn four to get under Newman.

Now, this is not to bash Ryan Newman, or call him a dirty driver, or anything of the sort. However, it is to say that if a rule was broken here, it was by Newman.

Then again, I guess this comes back to “forced” not being the appropriate term. I suppose it’s the loophole NASCAR has in the rule to where they never actually have to penalize a driver for “forcing” someone below the yellow line, as they can always say, “well, he could have simply held his ground”. Technically, yes, Hamlin could have held his ground.

And we’d have wrecked racecars. I guess that’s what NASCAR wants.

I for one find the yellow line rule pointless and silly. However, I also understand why it’s in place. The problem is the enforcement of it is absolutely pathetic. In the very least, if it’s the white lap, I think the rule should be done away with entirely.

How many Daytona 500 wins would Jeff Gordon have with such a rule? Gordon’s daring 1999 three wide move on Rusty Wallace and Mike Skinner couldn’t happen under these rules, and that’s a shame too. It’s regarded as one of the finest Daytona 500s of all-time, and Gordon’s daring pass is considered one of the greatest moves the sport has ever seen.

Donnie and Cale in 1979? Couldn’t have happened, because they wouldn’t have ever gotten close to the grass.

This exciting race for the lead in the 1999 Daytona 500 would never have happened with todays rules.

Come next Sunday in the Daytona 500, what’s a driver going to do off of turn four? Are they going to be willing to risk being run down below the yellow line, and thus potentially losing 20 positions and all the points that go with it thanks to a penalty? Or will they just wreck whichever driver it is trying to crowd them out of room? Or will they just sit in line and take their 2nd place finish?

That one has to even question this is inexcusable, and falls completely at the all too often inept feet of NASCAR.

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