Archive for October 25, 2012

Pressure may be on, but patience is of utmost importance in remaining Chase races


By Jerry Bonkowski – For

There is one word that is of utmost importance, not just for the four remaining races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but particularly for this Sunday’s race at Martinsville Raceway.

That word is: patience. And it is important not just for the rest of the field – both those in the Chase and those that failed to make it – but especially so for the top three drivers in the standings heading into this weekend’s race, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Keselowski leads Johnson by seven points and Hamlin by 20 points. That’s the good news for the driver of the No. 2 Dodge.

The bad news is between the two of them, Johnson and Hamlin have 10 total wins at the half-mile bull ring in southern Virginia. Keselowski has just five career starts with his best showings being a pair of top-10 finishes.

Perhaps more so than any of the other races remaining on the schedule, Martinsville is the most crucial race for Keselowski if he hopes to win his first career Sprint Cup championship. Because of Hamlin’s and Johnson’s outstanding records there – Johnson’s average finish at Martinsville is an outstanding 5.6, while Hamlin’s average finish is almost as good at 6.4.

Keselowski’s average finish at Martinsville: 10.2. That’s obviously not bad in five races, but Johnson’s average finish is over 21 career starts there, while Hamlin’s is over 14 starts at his home state track.

Thus far through the first six Chase races, Keselowski has handled the inherent pressure that has mounted with each passing race with aplomb and little hesitancy.

But when we start going back to tracks where he has not had the greatest performance in past races, it’s human nature to wonder if a chink in Keselowski’s armor will develop. All it takes is one mistake, one poor pit stop, one blown tire at the most inopportune time, and Keselowski’s reign atop the Sprint Cup standings over the last four weeks could quickly become history.

And if there’s one thing he does not want to do is give up the lead to Johnson, in particular. As we saw during Johnson’s record run of five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010, the second half of the Chase invariably was when he shined the most and performed the best.

While Johnson is unquestionably within striking distance of Keselowski, being just seven points back, the one thing Keselowski cannot afford to do is let Johnson get past him in the points and assume the lead at any point in the four remaining races.

For as hard as it is to keep Johnson at bay in the standings, it’s much harder to play catch up to him than leading him. A perfect example of that strategy was seen last Sunday at Kansas. While Johnson led 44 laps and looked like he could potentially win, his car eventually faded to a ninth-place finish.

But to his credit, Keselowski had a marginal car, yet took it to an eighth-place finish, one spot ahead of Johnson – not to mention maintaining his hold on the standings.

And you can’t discount Hamlin. Even though 20 points is the difference between a win and 20th position, per se, you can bet he’ll be thinking just one thing at Martinsville: to earn his fifth career win there.

Besides needing increased patience in light of the resulting increased pressure with each passing race, the top three points leaders need to drive with their brains and not their feet. If they try to do something they don’t usually do, or take chances they normally wouldn’t take, it could come back to haunt them the rest of the Chase.

Most importantly, and I go back to patience one more time, is for the three leaders to not overdrive their cars and if they realize they don’t have a winning car on any particular race day, the mot important thing is to get as strong a finish as they and their car can handle.

Remember how last season’s Chase championship came down to one point? You can’t get any closer than that. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards tied for the title based upon points after the season finale at Homestead, but Stewart ultimately was awarded the championship by one point, that being the tiebreaker based upon the difference in number of wins between both drivers (Stewart had five, Edwards had one).

Ever since the Chase began, I’ve been saying that Keselowski could potentially be the dark horse of dark horses, and thus far, he’s lived up to that.

As for Johnson, you know he can never be discounted or overlooked, especially with the incredibly consistent season he’s had thus far in 2012. He’s as hungry as ever for championship No. 6 as he was for the first five titles he won.

And Hamlin, it may be coincidence – or potentially fate – but he celebrates his birthday on the final day of the season, Nov. 18, at Homestead. If the incentive of winning your first career Cup championship on your birthday – and having the crew chief who led last year’s champ to the title in Darian Grubb – isn’t enough, I don’t know what is.

So don’t be surprised if the top three leaders right now play defense in the remaining four races and exercise patience more than aggressiveness. On the flip side, the other drivers that are still mathematically within the Chase will be doing the exact opposite, touting aggressiveness over patience and prudence.

The most important thing is that Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin stay out of the way of the other Chase contenders who will be giving it all they got in these last four races, even if the attempt ultimately proves futile, lest the top three make even one mistake that costs them the championship.

Trust me, by the time we crown this season’s champ at Homestead, it will be the driver who has not only shown consistency, but more importantly, incredible patience in the light of almost overwhelming pressure.

Wins help, but it’s how you combat pressure with patience that becomes the distinction and difference between a champion and a runnerup.

Best thing for Junior: Sit out the rest of the season


By Jerry Bonkowski For

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is missing NASCAR and NASCAR is missing Junior. There’s no argument there.

And I understand why Junior and his sister, Kelley, said Tuesday that they hope he’s back behind the wheel of the No. 88 next week at Martinsville.

As someone who was a former athlete, I get it. When you’re sidelined due to injury, you miss the competition, the camaraderie, the attention and notoriety from the fans and media. I can understand why Junior can’t wait to get back behind the wheel again.

But let’s look at logic, something that a lot of people are either forgetting about or trying to ignore – and I’d put Junior and his sister in that category.

If Junior goes to Martinsville, granted, there’s a lot of beating and banging, albeit at much slower speeds than the 200 mph jolt he took at Talladega two weeks ago, incurring the second concussion he suffered in a six-week period.

The jostling at Martinsville would definitely not be good for someone who is recovering from a concussion. But, honestly, I’m not worried all that much about the little half-mile track and what it might do to Junior.

What does concern me – greatly, I might add – is the race after Martinsville. Concussions aren’t like water faucets that can be turned on and off. And even if Junior gets through Martinsville relatively fine, then he’s faced with the huge challenge that’s known as Texas Motor Speedway.

Depending on who you listen to, TMS is either the fastest or a close second-fastest non-restrictor plate track on the Sprint Cup circuit. Drivers typically close in on 200 mph heading into the turns, something that is definitely not conducive to someone recovering from not one, but two concussions.

Remember several years ago when Indy cars ran at TMS, reached 225 mph and drivers began blacking out, prompting cancellation of the race for safety reasons?

Have we not learned something from that?

What if, hypothetically, Junior is zipping around the 1.5-mile TMS racing surface and suddenly gets an excruciating headache because of the speeds and blurred vision that could result?

Even worse, and this is the absolute last thing he needs, what happens if Earnhardt gets into a wreck with another car or cars at close to 200 mph? The resulting carnage would be unfathomable. What would happen if Junior became permanently injured? What if he suffers brain trauma that would affect him for the rest of his life?

On the flip side, what if Junior gets through Texas unscathed and appears fine? Well, there’s still the fast one-mile track at Phoenix and the season finale at Homestead-Miami that could also exacerbate a condition that is already bad and serious enough.

Let’s put Junior’s situation in a light of a different kind: how many of you know of NHL star Sidney Crosby? He suffered a concussion on Jan. 1, 2011 in one of the league’s premier events, the Winter Classic. And that particular game, between Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the arch-rival Washington Capitals, ultimately became the most-watched regular season game (4.5 million viewers) since 1975.

That concussion was no case of small potatoes for Crosby. In the early stages, it was considered career-ending by some. He would miss the rest of the season and it would be close to a year before he came back – and at nowhere near the type of player he was before the concussion. And what happened? He suffered yet another concussion that sidelined him for a good part of last season, as well.

If that isn’t food for thought for Earnhardt – and especially his die-hard fans – I don’t know what is. Are Junior’s fans so thirsty for a first career Cup championship – which obviously won’t come this year now, anyway – that they’d rather see him get back into a race car and drive, even though there is not one good reason left to return behind the wheel for the rest of the season.

Let’s look at another example – not a concussion – but similar in context to Earnhardt’s plight.

Go back to 2002, when Sterling Marlin led the then-Winston Cup standings for much of the first 29 weeks. Then he was involved in a frightening wreck at Kansas, one that did severe damage to his neck. Doctors didn’t pull any punches with Marlin when he asked if he could resume racing in the remaining seven races after Kansas.

The doctors’ response? If Marlin tried to get behind the wheel and suffered one more serious impact, he ran the risk of partial, if not full and permanent paralysis. Something like that can scare the hell out of someone, and it did so with Marlin, who quickly made the decision – his season was over, not by anyone else’s choice, but by his own.

Sure, racing provides a good living and is a great sport, but at what price is the cost of continuing racing if you run the risk of potentially losing a great deal of your quality of life – if not lose your life completely. And that’s something Junior, perhaps more than anyone in Sprint Cup, can understand with what happened to his late father on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Maybe Junior should call up Marlin to pick his brain. At least it’s still intact because Marlin made the right decision to park himself, not waiting for anyone else to tell him to go home for his own good.

Sure, some cynics might say that with a reported worth of nearly $300 million, Junior would be okay financially, even if he does suffer some brain malady that is permanent.

Those kinds of folks don’t get the point, if that’s the tact they take.

Rather, it’s pretty plain and simple what the real decision should be – and it’s a decision that neither Junior, crew chief Steve Letarte, team owner Rick Hendrick, Junior’s family or anyone else should make.

With his chances of winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup over for Junior, primary sponsor Diet Mountain Dew should step up to the plate and say that, while they obviously are paying multi-millions of dollars to have Earnhardt drive a car emblazoned with their paint scheme, they would rather see him sit out the remainder of the 2012 campaign.

For his own good. For his own health. It’s the best thing – and solution – for him.

And if Diet Mountain Dew officials are the only ones not afraid to speak up to sit Junior down for the remainder of the season, think about the resulting publicity – in most instances, completely positive. It would show the corporate world cares about people, not just making money.

We all know how much NASCAR needs its sponsors for financial survival. This could be the best opportunity of a sponsor showing its care and concern for a driver. That would really be putting Diet Mountain Dew’s money where its mouth is.

And most importantly, it would give Junior more than enough time to recover from his injuries and come back in 2013, potentially stronger, bigger and better than ever.

Does Dale Jr. still have chance in the Chase?

By Jerry Bonkowski For -

As we prepare for Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there’s no question that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has enjoyed his best Sprint Cup season since 2008.

With one win, 10 top-fives and 18 top-10s, Earnhardt has returned to the form he displayed earlier in his career when he was winning races and contending for championships.

But much of the forward progress Earnhardt has made was suddenly derailed when he found himself in the 25-car wreck at Talladega this past Sunday. Instead of leaving the track where he’s had the most career success in good shape, not only was Earnhardt’s car battered, so was his status in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

By virtue of finishing a disappointing 20th in a race that he likely would have wound up with a top-10, if not a top-five, had it not been for the massive wreck, Junior heads to Charlotte this weekend having dropped four positions in the standings.

He’s now 11th, 51 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski, and with six races remaining in the Chase.

Needless to say, much of the hard work that Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and the rest of the No. 88 team have put into this season, not to mention the successes they’ve enjoyed, may all be close to being for naught.

Sure, including Saturday’s race at Charlotte, there are still six events for Junior and his team to get things turned around.

But at the same time, with the start to the Chase that Keselowski and his two closest challengers, five-time champ Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, have had in the first four playoff events, Earnhardt suddenly finds himself with his back against the proverbial wall.

Having celebrated his 38th birthday on Wednesday (Oct. 10), Earnhardt is now another year older, wiser – and closer to the end of his racing career. And with the recent turn of events in the standings, one starts to wonder if whether he ever will indeed win a Sprint Cup championship – something that many were predicting would happen this year.

If Earnhardt were to rally back in the half-dozen races left in the Chase, it would be one of the most monumental comebacks in NASCAR history (of course, that would also be a great storyline, as well).

Given how far back he is now, Earnhardt would essentially have to go out and win at least two, maybe three, of the remaining races left in the Chase.

For a guy who has won just two races in the last five seasons, that’s a pretty tall order.

And that’s only to have a fighting chance. Two or three wins doesn’t guarantee anything other than potentially tightening up the championship battle.

In addition, Earnhardt would need Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin to have utter mechanical failure or be wrecked out in at least two or three of the remaining races to further enhance his now-slim chances.

While such a downward turn of fortune could happen to maybe one or two of the current top three drivers in the Chase, to have all three drivers go in the tank for several races each has never happened in the nine-year history of the Chase.

Right now, the only thing Earnhardt can hope to do is regain some of the outstanding consistency he showed earlier in the season and try to make at least some gains in the remaining six races.

In the first four Chase races, he’s finished eighth, 13th, 11th and 20th. That’s a far cry from the 16-race stretch between Fontana and Indianapolis, where Earnhardt racked up eight top-fives and five other top-10s.

Earnhardt came into the Chase seeded in seventh place, the same position he remained in through the first three playoff races. Now he’s fallen to 11th.

Not looking good at all, is it?

Unfortunately, I have some even worse news for Junior fans. In the six tracks left, Earnhardt has yet to win at four of them.

Here’s the breakdown: has never won at Charlotte, Kansas, Martinsville or Homestead.

The other two tracks are Phoenix, where he’s won twice earlier in his career, and Texas, where he earned his first career Cup victory in 2000. As an aside, who can forget the memorable celebration in victory lane between Junior and father Dale Sr.? It still seems as if it was yesterday.

Face it, there’s no magical formula that will allow Earnhardt to make a big rally in the final six Chase races. But at the same time, mathematically he still has a chance.

And that’s where you can potentially pin some hope upon.

One need only look at Johnson, Junior’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. Following the fourth race of the 2006 season, Talladega, Johnson was just over 150 points out of the championship battle, mired in eighth place. He and crew chief Chad Knaus already began making plans to get a head start in preparing for the following season.

Then a funny thing happened. Johnson went on one of the biggest tears in NASCAR history. After wrecking out at Talladega and finishing 24th, he would go on to finish second in four of the next five races, and win the fifth. By the time the Sprint Cup series left Texas four races after Johnson’s finish at Talladega, the driver of the No. 48 had reclaimed the top spot in the standings, and then went on to win what would be the first of a record five consecutive Cup championships.

Can Earnhardt do the same? In this sport, anything is possible. Sure, the points format is different now than when Johnson pulled off his nearly superhuman rally.

But at the same time, the new points format (which was adopted last season) actually lends itself to making it easy for a driver deep in the Chase pack to still come back, even with the standings where they are right now.

Many observers are already saying Junior is done in the Chase, and they very well may be right.

But let’s not forget that’s the same thing so many people said about Johnson in 2006 – and look what happened to him.

So keep the faith, Junior fans. His Chase hopes may look bleak right now, but anything can still happen.

Who knows, six weeks from now, instead of saying “It’s sure sad about what happened to Junior in the Chase,” we may very well be saying “he just pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in NASCAR history.”