Tight group in battle for Cup title

BY Larry McReynolds • September 30, 2011

We now have two of our 10 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup races in the books. I don’t know that anyone is panicking, but for some folks, the reality of having little or no chance at the title has set in.

The most notable of those is Denny Hamlin. The race in New Hampshire on Sunday was pretty much the proverbial nail in his 2011 championship coffin.

Neither Hamlin nor his Joe Gibbs Racing team have blinders on. Hamlin said as much in his postrace interview. He said the team isn’t even worried about the championship anymore. It is going to focus the remaining eight races on turning its program around and, hopefully, get some momentum going for 2012.

I don’t think Hamlin has totally conceded his hope for a championship is over, but the young man is definitely realistic. He’s now 66 points behind leader Tony Stewart, which is basically a race and a half. If that wasn’t a steep enough hill to climb, he would have to leapfrog 11 of NASCAR’s best drivers to even get to the lead. I think we can all agree, short of a miracle, that isn’t going to happen.

When I look at drivers such as Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, the points separation is pretty slim. In that group, Kyle Busch is one who sticks out to me as operating under the same script as in the past few years.

Kyle always seems to have a hot hand during the regular season, but once the Chase starts, he and his team can’t seem to perform and close the deal out like everyone expects. They are sixth in the points and 26 points back this year. Dover is a good track for Kyle, so I see the race this weekend being sort of a crossroads for him. Will he repeat history and fade into the Chase sunset or will he break tradition and go on to make a bunch of noise in the Chase?

Kenseth has had some pretty good runs. I think he and his Roush Fenway Racing team have to be very happy with how Loudon turned out. I doubt Kenseth would tell you he thought they had a top-10 car at Loudon. As with Kyle, Dover is a good track for Kenseth. In fact, remember that Kenseth won the spring race there.

Earnhardt is 26 points back and in the eighth spot. I have to say I am pretty impressed with how he and his Hendrick Motorsports team are running right now. Loudon hurt to a certain extent, but I would bet they felt pretty lucky to finish even as high as 17th after suffering through two blown right-side tires. Despite the tire woes, they are running really consistently right now.

You also can’t overlook the fact that there are some really good tracks coming up for Dale Jr. He ran really well at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished second at both Kansas Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. You also can’t forget his favorite track, Talladega Superspeedway, is still ahead in late October. So he has to be feeling pretty good about where he is sitting right now and the shape his team is in.

When it comes to Kurt Busch, well I just think his negative attitude has to change and change immediately. His negative attitude, outlook and his negativity on the radio during a race have to go away if he wants to have a legitimate shot at the championship. What he does over the radio doesn’t do one thing to make that race car go faster. All it does is rip people apart.

Crew chief Steve Addington can take it. Every person who takes the crew chief role knows that kind of abuse comes with the territory. I am more worried about the guys on that crew. This kind of beating they get from Kurt has to take a toll. So something has to change there, and in a hurry. It all starts with the driver and his outlook on things.

The biggest question mark for me this weekend is the guy back in 10th. He goes by the name of Jimmie Johnson. Dover, to me, is a crucial weekend for the entire Johnson team. I don’t think you can count Johnson and that team out, but I think they have simply encountered some things this year that they’ve never had to deal with before.

They are not qualifying as well as they need to be. They are not performing like they need to perform. I can see the frustration in Johnson. We’ve seen it with him and Joey Logano and with him and Kurt Busch. Then throw in the chatter we are hearing between he and crew chief Chad Knaus over the radio right now. So I am putting a big wide question mark on the No. 48. As with Kyle, I think this is a very critical weekend for Johnson, too. On the good side of things, Johnson has won six races at Dover, including the event a year ago.

Newman will run well, but I just have my doubts he and that team are ready to win a championship just yet. There still is that little bit of inconsistency they have to eliminate in their performance week to week.

Now for our current frontrunners, nobody can predict if they are going to stay there. As we have been saying, this is the year of surprises. This has been the year that the unpredictable has happened. I really believe there is still a surprise or two coming out way before the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is history.

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