Well, last weekend's AAA 400 at Dover just gave us more of the same, as Jimmie Johnson won what feels like his thousandth career race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and appears ready for a fifth consecutive championship.
Of course, that wasn't the only major story of the weekend—tensions between the Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress camps blew up after Denny Hamlin attacked Clint Bowyer's team over a purportedly illegal car that took the victory at Loudon. Kevin Harvick, who was frustrated all weekend, took matters into his own hands, beating on Hamlin in practice. Meanwhile, witnesses say Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus just stood there, smiling. Is the competition going to beat itself?
This week's Chase slideshow will take on a Wizard of Oz theme, as we examine what the 12 Chasers head into the Emerald City (i.e. Kansas Speedway) in search of to keep their Chase hopes alive.
You can't blame Hamlin for his comments about Bowyer and RCR in the wake of their whopping 150-point penalty for a car outside of rear-end tolerances. To say that you can't blame a team for going for every bit of performance they can is simply a true statement, which nobody can fault him for making.
But to rub things in the way he did—saying he had the "fastest legal car," that RCR had been doing this sort of thing for "months" now, and generally acting as if the No. 33 team didn't deserve to be there—is going to cause him nothing but problems. He's got three Chase rivals against him right now, and you can bet that teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are going to want to stay out of this one.
Come on, we all know that it's cool to bring your infant daughter into victory lane for the first time. That aside, what Johnson does, year after year, is amazing—coming into the playoffs the way he does with Chad Knaus, and taking care of business in a way that we all envy.
The problem with Johnson is that he's too vanilla at the racetrack. Scuffles like the Hamlin-Harvick thing simply do not happen with the No. 48 team. I guarantee you that if they did, at the expense of even a single championship, that team would sell even more merchandise at the trailer on any given weekend. NASCAR fans may hate Kyle Busch, but they still respect the fact that he can put on a show. Johnson is like the regional manager of an accounting firm—things get done with very little flash. BO-RING.
"Happy" was living up to the sarcastic side of his nickname all weekend at Dover. From the well-documented battle with Hamlin in the garage after practice, to a miserable qualifying effort, to falling off the pace at the end of the race, it was the latest in a series of "bad" races for the No. 29 team.
Harvick may have rewritten the book on profanity this weekend. It's clear that the past few weeks' struggles have gotten to him, regardless of how relatively strongly they've finished. His team has been the best on track all year. If they can simply keep from beating themselves and nip this potential slump in the bud, they'll be fine.
The younger Busch brother began the Chase with two decent finishes—a ninth at New Hampshire despite a car that bothered him all race, and a sixth at Dover where he led 46 laps. They're both solid points runs that will help keep them towards the top of the standings.
But a top-10 isn't enough when the two drivers ahead of you are generally able to rip top five finishes with ease. With only eight, Rowdy actually has the fewest top five finishes of the first five drivers in the standings. Meanwhile, eighth-place Jeff Gordon has 10 top-five finishes, and non-Chaser Jamie McMurray is tied with Busch at eight. His consistency has improved remarkably, but perhaps the win-or-go-home mentality with which he races his trucks and Joe Gibbs' Nationwide cars needs to make the occasional appearance in this Chase.
Roger Penske's three-car squad seemed to do just fine at the beginning of the season carrying the Dodge banner all by themselves, but the older Busch brother can't be blamed if he'd like a teammate running up front with him. Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. are not big names in Sprint Cup. They don't provide the same sort of help that Mark Martin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. can to their Hendrick teammates, or even that Joey Logano can to his Joe Gibbs Racing peers.
Hornish and Busch run the same setups in practice every weekend, while Keselowski runs a different one; the teams then work together to determine what's going to work best for the race. Of course, this puts a lot of experimentation on Hornish, but to have a well-respected, race-winning driver able to go to bat for you might make all the difference in the world in Busch's case. If only Hornish could do in NASCAR what he did in IndyCar.
Kudos to the Mayor for a solid Dover performance. Remember that he won this race a few years ago, which helped establish him as a championship contender, though his run ultimately fell flat. It also kept up RCR's momentum as a team after Clint Bowyer's win at Loudon.
But you can bet that Burton is wishing even more right now that he hadn't run out of fuel with two laps to go in that event, bumping him from a top five run to a so-so 15th place finish. It'd have put him much closer to Hamlin and Johnson in the standings - assuming he'd have racked up an extra 30-40 points or so in that event, he might be second or third in points right now.
Remember a couple of years ago, when a member of Carl Edwards' team vowed not to shave until his driver won again? Remember how long that poor dude's beard got when the No. 99 team suffered through a winless season?
I would HATE to be making that same vow right now.
The winless streak approaches two full seasons for Edwards very quickly. Regardless of his performance as of late, running up front just about wherever the team goes, he hasn't yet sealed the deal and gone to victory lane. Just one win would do wonders for that team, assuring them that they can run up front in the final few races of the season and steal a championship from the grasp of Johnson, Hamlin, or Harvick. Like much of this year's Chase crowd has learned, solid finishes without victories just do not cut it.
Once again, Gordon posted a reasonable, but by no means championship-caliber, finish at Dover, placing 11th when the checkered flag waved. It was just more of the same, as Gordon sits in a long stretch of so-so finishes on the fringes of the top 10.
You can't blame the guy for wishing this new-fangled Chase phenomenon would just go away. Without it, he'd have six championships right now, the last two coming in 2004 and 2007. A lot of the Chase tracks have never been Gordon's best—the meat and potatoes of his career have come with mid-season wins that allowed his No. 24 team to build massive points leads and coast to the title with decent runs toward the end of the season.
Bowyer came into Dover livid with NASCAR after a 150-point penalty basically negated his Loudon win, and for good reason. RCR's explanation, that the car's rear was put out of tolerance after post-race bumps, is reasonable, and they passed inspection at the track the first time while others (namely, the current top two in points) had to go through twice due to ride height issues. Worse, Jimmie Johnson had the same sort of problem last year but got off with a simple slap of the wrist. I'd be angry too.
The effects of the penalty threw the team off at Dover, as they could only muster a 25th place finish, three laps down. Bowyer is now 235 points out of the Chase lead, whereas he and his team feel they should be only 85 out. If they lose their appeal, crew chief Shane Wilson will be out for much of the Chase, and they'll be very much the 12th place team they were before the Loudon win. Funny how luck changes.
Losing the Loudon win on fuel mileage hurts even more after Dover. Smoke finished 21st after spending much of the day off the lead lap. Combining that with his 24th place run at Loudon, he's now 10th in points, 162 off the pace of leader Denny Hamlin.
What bum luck for Stewart, and by extension his Stewart-Haas team. First, Ryan Newman's Michigan incident, for all intents and purposes, kept them from putting both of their cars in the Chase. Now, coming off a summer in which he scored more points than anybody, Smoke has a poor Chase start, its magnitude amplified by the fact that he was almost certainly hoping to parlay some strong runs into finding a new sponsor for next season. Let's hope that long-rumored Mobil 1 deal goes through for them.
Biffle has been the most anonymous driver in the Chase through the past two races. Two mid-pack finishes with little fanfare have left him a quiet ninth in points, over 100 markers behind the leaders.
At least some sort of spectacular failure would bring this team a little recognition in a season where they've generally been an afterthought. Biffle's Pocono win in the wake of team owner Jack Roush's place accident has been the only Ford victory all season, but other than that I challenge you to name some classic races from the No. 16 team this year. I sure can't come up with any.
The No. 17 has taken the torch from the No. 33 as the most mediocre team in the Chase, failing to show us anything even remotely worthy of playoff consideration. It's too bad, because putting three cars in the Chase is an achievement for any organization, but look at the stats. Kenseth hasn't won anything, has Chase lows with five top five and only 10 top-10 finishes, and hasn't led a lap since the middle of June.
I don't care if Jack Roush himself was calling the shots on top of the pit box for Kenseth, I'd be on my knees in Robbie Reiser's office at Roush Fenway begging him to come back to the team for 2011.
That's all I've got for this week, folks—enjoy the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas!