Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Charlotte and Las Vegas Storylines

As enjoyable as they are to make, predictions often toe the line that separates "good ol’ fun arguments" and "plain ol’ absurd."

Jimmie Johnson has proven that during this season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – one that’s only four races old, yet must feel like an eternity for the five-time defending champion.

After opening the Chase with finishes of 10th and 18th and falling to 10th in the points, murmurs of "he’s done" began to surface. Then Johnson ripped off a runner-up (Dover) and a win (Kansas) to catapult to third in points, only four points off the lead. Those grumblings have ceased.

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Fall race awaits this Saturday night with the Bank of America 500 – another strong venue and race for the five-time champ. Once complete, we’ll be at the Chase’s half-way point – five down, five to go.

Elliott Sadler chipped away at Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s NASCAR Nationwide points lead this past weekend at Kansas, and now trails by 20 points. His comeback tour continues in Friday night’s Dollar General 300 Miles of Courage, a race in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series returns to action this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Smith’s 350. Only three points separate leader Austin Dillon and second-place James Buescher, with Johnny Sauter still stalking, 19 points back.

And now, to the storylines…


Johnson: Remember Me?
Not like anyone really forgot, but Johnson’s Kansas win reminded everyone of his dominance during the Chase, especially at 1.5-mile tracks such as Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

A few notes of interest from Johnson’s second win of the 2011 season.
- It was his 55th career win, moving him into a tie for eighth all-time with Rusty Wallace.
- It was his 20th Chase victory, far and away the most of any driver (second-best is eight wins).
- He has now won at least one race in all eight editions of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the only driver to do so.
- It was Hendrick Motorsports’ 199th victory.

Beyond those historical nuggets, the max-points victory moved him to third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, four points behind leader Carl Edwards with six races remaining.

Don’t count on him slowing down. After a runner-up finish at Dover and the win at Kansas, a similar outcome seems likely at Charlotte on Saturday night. Johnson boasts six wins at Charlotte, tied for most all-time with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and Hall of Fame nominee Darrell Waltrip.

Some optimism for his competitors: He finished 28th in May’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte because of engine problems.

Keselowski Continues To Surprise
Though no longer a surprise, Brad Keselowski continues to impress.

Keselowski entered the Chase as the perfect dark horse championship candidate. He was white hot, coming into the Chase with three wins and top-10 finishes in six of seven races. He tacked on another two top fives to open the Chase – at Chicagoland and New Hampshire – before a 20th at Dover.

But Keselowski recovered nicely at Kansas a third-place finish this past Sunday.

The finish moved the 27-year-old to fourth in the standings, 11 points out of the points lead.

Though he finished just 19th in May’s Charlotte race, Keselowski earned a strong Driver Rating of 96.4 in the event.

Edwards Shows Championship Mettle
Patience, determination, talent – and a little bit of luck.

All those attributes were needed from Carl Edwards for a fifth-place finish at Kansas, and even that doesn’t come close to explaining how it happened.

Edwards, the only driver in the top five who scored a sub-100 Driver Rating, battled back from a bevy of issues to score the unlikely finish.

Afterward, Edwards likened the finish to a win.

The non-win win gave him his first points lead since early August, and most importantly put him at the top of the list of "Drivers Who Can Dethrone Jimmie."

Still Anyone’s Championship As Chase Closes In On Halfway
The first four Chase races have whittled down the championship contenders to an eight-driver field.

Those drivers are the top eight: Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch.

Just 20 points separate eighth-place Kyle Busch and points leader Edwards.

Will We See An Unlikely Hero?
Of the 74 Chase races, only 13 of them have been won by a non-Chase driver.

The last one? Charlotte, last year. Jamie McMurray won that one, the only non-Chase driver to win one of the final 10 races last season.

Could there be a repeat? It’s certainly possible, with Kasey Kahne as the prime candidate. Kahne has been the top finishing non-Chase driver in each of the last two races, and has three wins at Charlotte, including a sweep there in 2006.


Vegas Provides Wild Card Factor to Championship Hunt
The championship battle in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is down to a mere three points separating Austin Dillon from James Buescher with five races left.

Upcoming races at Talladega and Martinsville are already being pegged as the wild card events, but this weekend’s event at Las Vegas should not be overlooked. It will be the first daytime race at the 1.5-mile tri-oval since 2002.

So, who holds the advantage?
• Only three drivers who competed in the 2002 event are expected to race this weekend – David Starr, Brendan Gaughan and Matt Crafton.
• Dillon comes into the event as the defending winner and current standings leader.
• Johnny Sauter – who sits 19 points behind Dillon in the championship fight – captured his first NCWTS victory at Las Vegas in 2009 and finished second last season.
• Buescher finished third in 2010 behind Sauter, but is still searching for his first series victory.

Rookie Contenders Battle For Bragging Rights
This season’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year class is one of the most competitive in series history, but the bragging rights are still left up for grabs.

Who will be the first to visit victory lane?

Joey Coulter is the highest rookie in the series standings in sixth followed by Cole Whitt in seventh, two points behind Coulter (four-points back in the rookie standings). Coulter has captured three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes with Whitt bringing home three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.

Parker Kligerman and Nelson Piquet Jr. – currently ranked 10th and 11th in the series standings - both lead the way in top-five finishes with four each followed by seven top-10 finishes.

Lofton, Carmichael Stay Busy In the Desert
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitors Justin Lofton and Ricky Carmichael have a busy week planned in the desert this weekend.

After driving 146 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Lofton will head south to Parker, Arizona, to compete in the final leg of the Best in the Desert Racing Associations BlueWater Desert Challenge on Sunday.

He will be splitting seat time in the off-road event with his father, Bob.

Immediately, following the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race Carmichael will travel down the road to Sam Boyd Stadium to commentate LIVE on SPEED the running of the Monster Energy Cup Supercross event. Carmichael designed the track with former competitor Jeremy McGrath.

Gresham to Make NCWTS Debut in Vegas
Max Gresham – the recently crowned 2011 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Champion – will make his NASCAR national series debut at Las Vegas.

He will compete in the No. 66 Chevrolet fielded by Turn One Racing.

Gresham scored two wins and nine top-five finishes this season in the K&N Pro Series East Series.

No comments: