AJ Allmendinger: what a comeback (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
James Finch is one of this sport's real and honest good ol' boys, a NASCAR team owner for more than 20 years, and one of the funniest men in the stock car garage.
Unfortunately the cruel economics of this vastly overpriced sport may force him right out of the game.
Without sponsorship Finch is, again, ready to pack it in. He says he's got a couple more weeks to try to get something going. Otherwise if you want to buy a race team, he's got one for sale, in Spartanburg, S.C.
That puts a lot of pressure here on Finch's driver, AJ Allmendinger...who took up the challenge, posting the fastest lap of Thursday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, in drafting, while prepping for Saturday night's Coke 400 (730 pm ET).
Pole runs are set for 410 pm Friday. Danica Patrick, who has been under increasing criticism the past month for seemingly doing more PR than real racing, won the Daytona 500 pole in February at 196.434 mph, in much cooler weather than expected this week.
One of the most curious events Thursday was the discovery by NASCAR inspectors that 31 cars -- 16 in the Sprint Cup garage, 15 more in the Nationwide garage -- had altered safety roof flaps, the aerodynamic foils that deploy like flaps on an airplane to slow a car that gets turned around in a crash and keep it from flying. Eight Ford Cup teams, six Toyota Cup teams, and one Chevy Cup team were caught. The tweaks were apparently designed to 'hide' air from the rear spoiler and boost speed.
NASCAR officials said any penalties would be announced Tuesday.
The issue follows a harsh rant by Ryan Newman at Talladega after a May crash, with Newman castigating NASCAR for not working hard enough to keep these stock cars from flying.
Teams cited: Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush, Michael Waltrip, Roger Penske, and Chip Ganassi.
At least one top driver says he expects NASCAR to issue some harsh penalties, since the violation is a significant safety issue.
What to expect in this 400 is not clear. The 500 was a boring, follow-the-leader race, Jimmie Johnson avoiding mistakes and winning, with no one making moves down the stretch, on what was essentially a one-groove (high) track, for whatever reason.
The Talladega race in May, on the other hand, was much different.
Kyle Busch says the tight corners here, coupled with the high speeds (faster than last year), probably means the 400 will be more like the February event than the Talladega event.
On the other hand, there are a number of complicating factors, outside the technical aspects. First, several teams are working desperately to find sponsorship, and the window is likely these next three weeks. Second, the battling for one of those final playoff spots could be heating up; the top 10 after the Sept. 7th Richmond 400 earn spots in the chase, plus the next two drivers in the top-20 who have the most wins.
Jimmie: can he handle Matt? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Forget the points.
The only two men you really have to pay close attention to the rest of this season, in the NASCAR championship picture, are Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
Sure, the smart money has to be on Jimmie. He's on his A-game, he's got one of the fastest cars on the tour nearly every week, he's a great 'closer,' and he's fired up.
Maybe crew chief Chad Knaus has made a few too many mistakes lately, maybe Johnson should have won a few more races by now.
But Johnson is clearly the smart money pick for the Sprint Cup title.
However Kenseth has matched Johnson nearly step for step through the first 17 events of this 36-race season.
They've been, week after week, the strongest and most consistent on the stock car tour. Kenseth has led more laps so far than anyone, 960; and Johnson isn't far behind, 926.
Sure, someone might get hot, and these two might cool off. But no rival is showing any signs of gearing up tough enough for a title challenge.
Surprisingly, Kenseth and his new team, led by crew chief Jason Ratcliffe, came out of the box hot:
"I'd sit around and daydream and think about things like this happening this season, but I never really realistically thought that before the halfway point we'd have four wins and be leading all those laps and run as good as we have been," Kenseth says.
Matt Kenseth is getting to like this victory lane thing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One man who should be in the title mix is Kyle Busch, Kenseth's teammate. But it looks like something's changed the past few weeks.
Busch has led a bunch of laps, 955; but with a blown engine at Charlotte (and one at Daytona), and the Toyota management shakeup four weeks ago, something appears to have happened in the Joe Gibbs camp -- Busch didn't lead any laps at Pocono, didn't lead any laps at Michigan, didn't lead any laps at Sonoma, didn't lead any laps to Kentucky.
Another man who should be in the mix is Kasey Kahne; but he's hit a wall, and Kahne has only two top-10s since late April.
Check all those power ratings, laps led, and passes. Johnson and Kenseth are neck and neck, week after week, and no one is even close.
And here's an interesting point to consider, averaging finishing position, the truest measure of how a team is performing: Johnson's 9.4 finishing average is easily tops. But if you scratch Kenseth's three DNFs -- the blown engines at Daytona and Dover, and the crash at Bristol -- and average his other 14 races, Kenseth has an even better finishing average, 8.85.
That also says that if Kenseth wants to win this championship -- which would be Toyota's first, and Joe Gibbs' first since the Tony Stewart days -- his team, and Toyota's Los Angeles-based engine department, will have to tighten up quality control.
Kenseth, even with his four tour wins, points to Johnson as the sport's benchmark.
"When you look at what they've done, how can you argue they're not the best ever," Kenseth says. "With the numbers they've put up the last eight or nine years....
"You know if you're going to have a chance to win a race or a championship you always have to go through the 48."
Nice weather in Daytona.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Throw into this equation the guys who are still winless:
Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Kurt Busch, principally.
And consider that Tony Stewart's comeback looks to have run out of steam (28th at Sonoma, 20th at Kentucky).....
Plus, it's still unclear just what is going on in the Ford camp. Sponsorship questions are getting louder. And Ford drivers still aren't leading enough laps: Toyota (2,572 laps led) and Chevrolet (1,948 laps led) have been leaving Ford (566 laps led) in their dust.
No wonder Toyota and Chevy drivers are dominating the scoreboard, with seven wins each, to Ford's three.
Ford drivers have been complaining for two months now, at least, about not having enough to run with the Toyotas and Chevys. And that doesn't bode well for title challengers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
Saturday night's Coke 400 here will likely be Denny Hamlin's last best shot to make a bid to make the playoffs. And many are already writing him off.
Hamlin, who was sidelined four races after that California crash in March, hasn't really shown that much since his return, aside from strong runs at Darlington (2nd) and Charlotte (4th). In his eight races since returning, he's averaging only a 21.25 finishing average, and four times he's finished 30th or worse.
To make the chase, Hamlin has to crack the top-20 by Richmond Sept. 7th....and win two races, probably. And that looks highly improbable at this point. He's 25th in the standings, 104 points -- essentially that many finishing positions -- behind the man in 20th.
This Johnson versus Kenseth battle could be one of the great ones.
Johnson is the known factor; Kenseth, with a new team and a new car maker, after 14 years with Ford's Jack Roush, is the relative unknown.
Kenseth, at 41, has changed his driving style, dramatically. For years he was dubbed the Stealth Bomber, for flying under the radar and then charging into contention late in the day. This season he's been a front runner, lightning fast, and at many tracks where he hasn't been known for prowess.
Kenseth could be the man to beat here Saturday night.
"The season has obviously been really great for us...better than any of us could have imagined," Kenseth says, with a nod toward his league-leading four victories.
"Had a really strong car in the 500; I think we led the most laps and were leading when we broke."
And Kenseth had the car to beat, and the best position on the track, at Talladega in May for the year's second restrictor plate event. But a surprising charge by David Ragan and David Gilliland provided the upset.
The Daytona 500, the first race for these new 2013s, was a boring, follow-the-leader affair, with only one groove, up high.
"Talladega was a totally different race, which honestly really surprised me," Kenseth says. "I expected it to be exactly the same, and it was not at all. You had to do a lot of things a lot different.
"I'm not sure why Talladega was different, other than people learning more about the cars, figuring out how to put them in different positions, in situations to make more passing and more side-by-side.
"In February the groove was right around the top, and you couldn't really do much different."
Saturday night here? "My confidence level is high," Kenseth says. "I've been really spoiled the last year and a half, the last six plate races. Our cars have been unbelievable.
"We've been in front, I think, five out of the last six plate races...which, if I'm not mistaken, have ended in a green-white-checkered.
"I think four of them we were probably leading.
"It's just hard when you do green-white-checkers. Being the leader sometimes is even harder, because people hang back and get momentum, and you can only see so much around you. Like Talladega, with David and David, when they got teamed up, there was no way to know five rows back that they were going eight miles an hour faster.
"There's really no way to protect that, or really to do anything about it."
Of course there is always the Tony Stewart defense.....but that can get messy. And the winner that particular afternoon, when the smoke cleared -- Matt Kenseth.
Doesn't look like Smoke has much of a shot at this year's championship.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)