Great race, crazy finish last Sunday at the Talladega Superspeedway (TSS) in the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500. My race recap details all the wild, last lap details, along with the finish. And while there was really only one big piece of news this week, namely Dale Earnhardt Jr and the concussion that will sideline him for two weeks and likely remove him from Chase contention (covered below), we’re back in the action at the Charlotte Motor Speedway tonight for the Bank of America 500. Race 31 of 36 in the 2012 season, Chase race 5 of 10. We’ll be halfway to Homestead, and the NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) Chase is tightening with each succeeding week.
Saturday night under the lights is where we’ll be, at CMS just north of the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina, at NASCAR’s true “Home Track”. Today’s pre-race television coverage begins at 5:00pm EDT with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, the NASCAR Pre-Race show on ABC, with PrimeTime race coverage on ABC starting at 7:30pm EDT. Dan Nevins, executive Vice President of The Wounded Warrior Project, will serve as Grand Marshal and will give the Command to Fire engines, with the National Anthem performed by Gospel Music Association Dove Award winners NewSong, and a scheduled pre-race flyover of four U.S. Air Force T-38 Talon aircraft (the same type that did the flyover last week at Talladega) from the 47th Flying Training Wing, Laughlin AFB, TX. The Green Flag flies at 7:46pm EDT for 334 laps around this 1.5-mile quad oval track for just over 500 miles. Only one driver will have to start at the rear of the field, and that’s Ryan Newman and his #39 Quicken Loans Chevy, due to an engine change.
As for the NSC standings, technically none of the drivers have been eliminated mathematically from contention. But realistically speaking, my take is there are only about six or seven of the top twelve drivers who have a legitimate chance: Points Leader Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson (-14), Denny Hamlin (-23), Kasey Kahne (-36), Clint Bowyer (-40), Jeff Gordon (-42), and Tony Stewart (-46). But after Talladega last week, and based on expectations this week, drivers toward the rear of this list will have to put up strong runs, and hope those at the top falter.
Best Bets: Two Hendrick Motor Sports teams lead my BBs this week.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 MyLowe’s Chevy)- “Five Time” has excelled at this track, formerly named for his primary sponsor, Lowe’s. Jimmie has six wins, ten top-five, and fourteen top-ten finishes here, averaging 11.8 in those finishes. While only ninth overall in points earned in the last four races at CMS, Jimmie is fourth overall in points earned in the last four Cup races. So far this season, he’s got three wins, fifteen top-five, and twenty top-ten finishes, and continues to run second in NSC points, only 14 behind NSC leader Brad Keselowski. He may not have done the best over the last four runs at CMS, but Johnson and his team are doing what they do best: Peak at the right time. He’ll start fifth, and was fourth-fastest in final practice Friday.
Kasey Kahne (#5 Time Warner Cable Chevy)- Having won here in the spring, Kasey is looking for a sweep of the 2012 Cup races at Charlotte. He’s got four wins, seven top-five, and nine top-ten finishes, and has scored top-four finishes in the last two races here. Kahne has placed in the top two positions in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks, and if fourth in the last four Cup races overall. He’ll start tenth, and was ninth-fastest in Happy Hour. Kasey sits fourth in the NSC standings, only thirty-six points back.
Probables: Two strong, young drivers trying to make their own mark this week.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Brad stretched his lead over Jimmie Johnson at Talladega with his seventh-place finish last week, and he currently seems to be the driver to beat overall (yeah, I know, he’s in first so he IS the one to beat). While still winless here at the CMS, he’s got one top five and one top-ten finish. But even though Bad Brad is on a run: he’s currently first in points earned in the last four Cup races, and first in the last four 1.5-mile track outings; he only placed fifth here in the spring. That said with five wins, twelve top-five, and nineteen top-ten finishes this season, Keselowski has shown he’s got the mettle to win it all. He’ll start back in twentieth Saturday night, but was eighth-fastest in final practice. I’m betting crew chief Paul Wolfe has more than just Miller Lite up on the War Wagon…he’ll likely have a couple of rabbit in his hat.
Kyle Busch (#18 M&Ms Toyota)- Kyle managed to avoid the melee’ last week at Talladega and put up a third-place finish, one he sorely needed to stay as the “best of the rest” in 13th position. Kyle is also still winless here, but has put up seven top-five, and ten top-ten finishes at Charlotte. And despite his troubles this season, Rowdy has put up top-three finishes in three of his last four runs at CMS, is first in CMS points earned over the last four races here, is third over the last four 1.5-mile tracks, and fifth in the last four Cup races. I’ve been hesitant to list him in my top four picks much in the majority of this season, but this could be a breakthrough week for him at CMS. Busch will start eighth, but won final practice, so I’m expecting him to stay strong in the front most of the night; that is, unless he manages to have yet another engine failure or run-in with the SAFER barrier.
Dark Horses: Two Toyotas with legitimate shots.
Mark Martin (#55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota)- Mark continues his part-time run in the #55 car this week, where he’s run quite well in the races he’s participated in. Teammate and team owner Michael Waltrip nearly scored another victory at Talladega last week, until he was blocked by Tony Stewart (which seemed to be the cause of the Big One last week). Mark has four wins at Charlotte, with eighteen top-five and twenty-three top-ten runs. Also, twenty-seven of his forty wins during his distinguished career on intermediate-length tracks. “The Kid” will start on the outside of the front row alongside Coors Light Pole Award winner Greg Biffle (who set a new qualifying record at Charlotte Thursday), and was third-fastest in final practice.
Joey Logano (#20 Home Depot Toyota)- Joey scored his eighth win in NASCAR Nationwide Series competition of the 2012 season at Charlotte last night, in an amazing run for him in that series. He’s not had the same kind of success in NSC competition, but I’m expecting him to put up a serious run tonight. Logano has run in the top twelve in three of the last four races at Charlotte, having zero wins, two top-five, and four top-ten runs (although he averages 10.3 in his runs at CMS). He has, though, managed to be sixth-best in points earned at Charlotte over the last four CMS runs. Don’t be surprised to see him running up front. Logano will start twelfth, and was eleventh-fastest in Happy Hour.
A couple other drivers to keep on the radar are Jeff Gordon and Regan Smith. Gordon has five wins and an average 15.7 finish, and was 13th-fastest starting 13th (a bit lucky, perhaps?). Regan Smith, who should be in the #51 Phoenix Racing machine tonight, will drive the #88 AMP/National Guard Chevy for Dale Earnhardt Jr over the next two races. Even with limited experience in Cup competition and at Charlotte, Smith has a top-ten with an average 17th-place finish. Smith didn’t qualify well back in twenty-sixth, but was second-fastest in final practice. This could be a breakthrough week for Regan to show his driving ability with Hendrick Motorsports equipment under him.
Shoutouts: This week, I only have one shoutout (which in itself could lend itself to a Rumor Mill comment)– Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It takes a lot for NSC competitors to put up the levels of performance each week throughout the 36-race season, which is of course one of the longest sports seasons amongst professional sports in the United States (and perhaps the world). Dale Jr, in his coming forward and seeking medical attention for the concussion he suffered between the Kansas tire test a few weeks ago and the Talladega “Trashing” of half the field, has earned the respect of many drivers, teams, and fans alike. Junebug will sit out the next two weeks’ races, and will have Regan Smith driving the #88 Chevy for him (until he’s hopefully cleared back for action for the Martinsville race). I have a lot of respect for Earnhardt’s decision, although I know it prevents him from his first Chase Championship win.
While Jr Nation is disappointed (and maybe a bit pissed off) at the fact that Jr’s Chase chances are effectively over, you have to hand it to him for (naturally) putting his health ahead of his job (like any of us wouldn’t?). Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Former Cup driver Ernie Irvan, who suffered a head injury at Michigan in 1993, had made a comeback once cleared for action again, only to suffer a similar fate five years later at the very same track (and who subsequently retired in a tearful announcement in early 1999). I don’t want to be a potential harbinger of bad news for Jr Nation and other fans of NASCAR’s multiple-time Most Popular Driver, but there is always the potential that this injury could take Jr out of NASCAR competition permanently.
Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) are something that we all should take seriously, and unfortunately are nothing new to NASCAR or other professional sports around the world. Many former NFL players are currently engaged in lawsuits against the league because of their TBIs over their years of play, forcing the NFL to make adjustments to how the game is played and penalize many of the type of hits which lead to TBIs. NHL hockey players experience their own problems with concussions due to being checked into the boards on the rink and playing in an inherently physical game. Like the NFL, the NHL has had to address this issue and penalizes those who make the type of hit which can cause concussions.
In a similar manner, the sacrifices our men and women in uniform have made through their experiences, injuries, and suffering through TBIs, has brought the seriousness and life threatening (along with life-altering) ramifications of TBIs into the forefront of medical science and treatment. It is unfortunate that our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen have had to make these sacrifices to protect this great Nation, but these honorable sacrifices have also helped countless Americans with improvements in medical technology and ways to still live fruitful lives.
Perhaps it’s fitting that The Wounded Warrior Project, through it’s executive Vice President’s appearance this week, will continue to bring this subject even further into the spotlight so that we can best protect and treat our athletes and those our serve our nation.
Final Thoughts: The expected high temperature is only in the mid-60s today, with the thermometer dipping into the mid-40s tonight. There should be plenty of grip to go around, and the chances of cars overheating is pretty low. Also, since the air is cooler, it’s also denser, so the power put out by the engines will also be better. But thankfully, there is no chance of rain thanks to a high pressure system over the Southeast U.S. Should be a good night of racing, which will make for some interesting theories on how the Chase standings will be at the end of the night. The action will be on ABC, your local Performance Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for the racing action. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@speedglutton) for updates, analysis, and commentary.
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