You know, this season has had more twists and turns than Watkins Glen. Just when you think you have figured out who’s in a position to make a stretch run, someone new comes on, while another fades away.
Check out this week’s Top 10, and you’ll see what I mean. For those of you who may not be familiar, this is a total subjective mix of “Mr. Right” and “Mr. Right Now.” I’m likely to give a mulligan for an off week for a driver that has otherwise been successful, but you’ll also see where is I have a guy who is in the top 12 points standings who’s been off for a substantial amount of time, I’ll dump him for a guy who has caught fire as of late.
It makes for good debate. I welcome your agreement or disagreement. If you question my sanity, that’s fine. I’ve got people living with me who KNOW it.
Without further delay or commercial interruption…..
THE BIG 10
#10 Clint Bowyer (unranked last week)- Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about: I figured before the season began Bowyer would miss the chase because of my doubts about Bowyer’s team- RCR. Then, Bowyer catches fire before Bristol, and then I humbly admit I’m wrong. Then- Bowyer suddenly goes ice cold. Now- Bowyer joins Brian Vickers as doggone good possibility to make the chase, especially if the likes of Kenseth, Biffle and Martin keep stumbling along, or Kahne or JPM fall apart. With an average finish of 9.4 over his last 5 races, Bowyer’s numbers are right up there with Vickers, Tony Stewart, Kahne and Montoya. And guess what? Bowyer has tracks like Bristol and Richmond coming up that are right in is wheel house.
#9- Kurt Busch (ranked 6th last week)- You Blue Deuce fans may bust my chops over this, but if you break Busch’s season down in five race chunks, you’ll see how one may conclude he’s trending the wrong way. Saturday’s race at Bristol comes at a great time for Kurt- 5 of his 19 career wins come at Thunder Valley. While he’s gradually lost his steam since his win at AMS, I give Busch credit for his ability to bounce back.
#8- Kasey Kahne (unranked last week)- Finishing 11th Sunday is no real cause for celebration, yet Kahne gets the nod over Bowyer because, unlike the driver of the “33″, he has a 2009 win. When comparing K-Squared to Busch, he’s clearly had the better results. Though he finished 5th at Bristol in March, Kahne’s number aren’t especially awe inspiring there. Still, Kahne’s been reasonably solid and has avoided any prolonged slumps.
#7- Juan Pablo Montoya (ranked 4th last week)- Give him props for enduring a rough day to get a top 20. Not every racer can do that. At the same time, a 108 point lead is not a real comfortable cushion in a season like this, especially when the guys between you and 13th are established veterans who’ve mastered the art of dancing on the head of a pin. In his short career, Montoya hasn’t been a real short track ace, BUT…this year….he’s shown vast improvement.
#6- Denny Hamlin (ranked 7th last week)- Consistency and Denny Hamlin have not always been synonymous with each other, BUT check this out: Hamlin has 7 top 10s and 5 top 5s- including an emotional win at Pocono- in his last 9 starts. I don’t know his team has the consistency to run with the likes of Smoke and J.J., but Hamlin will be sure to have a seat waiting for him on awards night.
#5- Carl Edwards (ranked 5th last week)- Why would I rank Edwards ahead of Hamlin? Because right down the line, Cousin Carl has been just a bit more consistent than Hamlin, though not by much. Having said that, his season is way off the mark compared to 2008. He can still catch fire. Edwards will be in the chase, he can get hot, and though he’s more of an intermediate kind of driver, he doesn’t need a GPS to fins his way around a short track. I at least Edwards credit for keeping his cool and for not killing his chances with wrong-headed race maneuvers.
#4- Jimmie Johnson (ranked 2nd last week)- Am I being harsh? Perhaps, but consider this- over the last five races- Johnson has a lower average finish than Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Montoya, Edwards, Hamlin, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer. Sure, Johnson’s had a winning car most weeks. Experts will argue he’ll be good when it counts. More than likely, they’re right. On the other hand, bad habits get started this way and Tony Stewart is one good reason not to be screwing around come the stretch run.
#3- Brian Vickers (unranked last week)- Now before you tee off, consider this: Vickers now has a win and 5 top 10s in his last 6 starts. He is Mr. Right Now, the man of the moment. As we stand now, Vickers is 12 points out of 12th, and the Sprint Cup tour stops where Vickers has been weakest- a short track. Vickers was 29th at Bristol in March and has an average finish of 25.7 on short courses. Now would be a great time for a breakthrough in what has been something of a break out season for the 25-year old.
#2- Jeff Gordon (ranked 3rd last week)- Suddenly, no one’s talking about Gordon’s back anymore. Gordon was poised for a win if Vickers had stumbled Sunday and now he’s running at a track where’s won 5 times. While he’s not been nearly as spectacular as Stewart, Johnson or even Mark Martin and Kyle Busch for that matter, Gordon has hung right with Smoke in terms of consistency- even more so than the defending champion.
#1- Tony Stewart (ranked 1st last week)- While his 17th place finish at MIS breaks an impressive run of 10 top 10s, 8 top 5s and 3 wins since his run-in with “Billy Bad Butt”, Smoke is quite deserving of a mulligan. There’s no way in heck I can put anyone else in this spot. He’s won more than Gordon and he’s been far more consistent than anyone else. Bristol isn’t his best track (1 win), but let’s face it, Stewart is a threat everywhere and even at Michigan, Stewart was by no means awful.
FALLING OFF THE PACE
I don’t know what else to say concerning Kyle Busch, other than he’s a better racer than his numbers show. He’s not toast yet, but Shrub needs an epic run now. Bristol comes at a GREAT time for this team, and you can bet I’ll count Kyle among the favorites to win…Greg Biffle was my pick to win Sunday. The fact that he and his RFR teammates were as ordinary as they were on a track where they ordinarily dominate says quite a lot about the 2009 season…It would be a real bummer, in my opinion, to see Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch miss the chase, but Sunday really did nothing to help any of them. Interestingly enough, Kenseth, Buch and Martin all three have won twice at Bristol, though Martin’s wins came a long time ago. Biffle has been solid if unspectacular in Thunder Valley.
Matt Kenseth hangs around near the bottom of the top 12, and if anyone can make that work for him, that’d be Kenseth. As mentioned earlier, this track is money for the Killer Bees… Since finishing 5th in June at Pocono, Ryan Newman has been seriously off his game. A 66 point lead is hardly a comfortable margin over 13th place Brian Vickers…David Reutimann and his chase chances are being given a defibrillator, but it doesn’t look especially good at the moment.
A shout out is due to Sam Hornish Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Casey Mears for their top 10s. Logano is proving a quick study and Hornish shows signs of fulfilling his potential.