Todd Parrott: His father is a NASCAR legend, and so is Todd, with that 1999 NASCAR championship with Dale Jarrett as his crowning achievment. Now Parrott is crew chief for Marcos Ambrose, the newest Sprint Cup tour winner. Can Parrott take Ambrose to the championship chase? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
While the men getting those spots aren't likely to have great shots at actually winning the championship, it is a badge of honor, particularly in the sponsor's eyes, to make the chase.
Remember, the men still to beat in the championship chase appear to be the top six: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch. A successful title run by anyone else seems rather far-fetched.
Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart fill out the top-10, but none of the four has been convincingly solid and consistent enough to be a serious title contender…particularly considering how strong the top-six have been up till now. Even if two or three of the top-six falter, it's difficult to imagine all six taking a dive.
So this 'wild card' thing is probably just an academic exercise, something to puff up for the sponsors.
Still, it makes for an interesting parlor game.
With Sunday's Michigan 400, then Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond the final four races of the regular season, this is the way things look now:
The two wild cards are to be the tour's top two 'winners' who are not in the top-10 in the standings at the end of the Sept. 10th Richmond race, providing they are in the top-20 in the standings.
So a man either needs to hang into a spot in the top-10 or to win one of these next four Sprint Cup events.
Looking toward the Richmond cut, the players right now – the men with wins, and not in the top-10 -- are:
-- Brad Keselowski. Two wins.
He just won Pocono and finished second at Watkins Glen. He's now 14th , and his two tour wins loom large in the wild card chase. Of course as strong as he's running right now, Keselowski might even blow into the top-10.
-- Denny Hamlin. One win.
He's had a ragged season, and Monday's crash (36th) didn't help his playoff chances. He's fallen out of the top-10 (to 12th), so he may have to play for a wild card slot. He's got one win, and Michigan this weekend should give him a good shot at a second; however, he's been plagued with engine problems this season and has been somewhat critical of the engine department. So instead of an engine out of Mark Cronquist's in-house department at Joe Gibbs', Hamlin could have a straight Toyota-built motor.
-- Paul Menard. One win.
He's got a win, Indianapolis, and he's 15th in the standings.
-- David Ragan. One win.
He's got that Daytona 400 win to work with, but with Monday's crash (28th) he's fallen to 23rd and all but out of the chase, so he's under a lot of pressure
-- Marcos Ambrose. One win.
Now that he's got a win, he has a shot at a spot in the chase if he can crack the top-20. Currently he's 22nd.
But not everyone in the top-10 is solid.
Tony Stewart, for example. He has to be sweating things out. No wins, 10th in the standings. One bad day and he's out.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. too. No wins, ninth in the standings. One bad day and he too could be out.
Stewart and Earnhardt seem to be the men under the most pressure not to mess up and fall out of the top-10….or under pressure to get a quick win and lock up a chase spot. Will either man be willing to gamble to make the chase?
Their chief competition -- the men 11th – 20th going into Sunday's Michigan 400:
Clint Bowyer no wins
Denny Hamlin one win
Greg Biffle no wins
Brad Keselowski two wins
Paul Menard one win
AJ Allmendinger no wins
Joey Logano no wins
Mark Martin no wins
Kasey Kahne no wins
Juan Pablo Montoya no wins
So it appears that part of the race to make the chase could boil down to which man – Menard, Hamlin, Ambrose or Ragan – can get that second tour win in one of these last four events before the cut. Hamlin, Menard and Ragan are better choices in this than Ambrose.
Chase Clinch scenarios: Four drivers have a mathematical chance of locking up Chase berths. Traditionally, Michigan is the scene of the first driver Chase clinch. Every Chase year (2004-Present) except 2004 and 2006 has seen a driver clinch a spot at Michigan. Kevin Harvick did it last year, and could do it again in 2011.
Leaving this weekend, a clinching driver has to have a 145-point lead over 11th place. Those who can mathematically clinch this weekend: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Harvick. Busch and Edwards are currently 118 points ahead of 11th. Johnson is 112 and Harvick is 104.
Then there's a Wild Card clinch possibility: If Kyle Busch or Harvick win this weekend, either driver will have four victories, which will lock them into the Chase as at least one of the Wild Card spots.
Meanwhile, yes, Monday's win was a great one for Marcos Ambrose. But it was a big one too for Todd Parrott, his crew chief.
Parrott, son of potential Hall of Famer Buddy Parrott, has become something of a legend on the stock car tour in his 20 years. And that championship with Dale Jarrett in 1999, plus his famous touch at Talladega and Daytona, may help put the second generation Parrott in the Hall of Fame too.
However Monday's win at the Glen breaks a long losing streak for him. Parrott's last tour victory was in 2005, at Talladega, with Jarrett.
Parrott, now with 29 races in his time on the circuit, is a classic old-school crew chief, who has crewed Matt Kenseth and Elliott Sadler the past few years.
Being an old-school crew chief these days has its plusses and minuses. Just being a good engineer isn't enough to make things happen; a crew chief has to motivate and organize….and even then it's not easy.
Look at the last 10 years of championship crew chiefs: Chad Knaus, Greg Zipadelli, Jimmy Fennig, Robbie Reiser, Robbie Loomis, Jimmy Makar, Todd Parrott. All old-school men. None engineers.
Parrott has been a Jack Roush Ford man for several seasons, but this is Parrott's first season with Ambrose, who is new to the Ford camp.
Ambrose, remember, despite his prowess on road courses, is still trying to learn NASCAR's ovals.
And Ambrose knows well that, given the financial woes the Richard Petty camp has struggled with the past few years, he came dangerously close over the winter to winding up without a Cup ride.
That puts an edge on everything for Ambrose.
So winning the Glen, and in such dramatic fashion, is certainly the high point of the season for both Ambrose and Parrott.
"It was just an incredible day," Parrott says, relieved as much as anything in snapping that long winless streak.
Parrott's car was one of the fastest, if not the fastest, all weekend.
However a Sunday and Monday of rain made strategy and tactics as important as pure speed and talent.
"It was crazy, because you have a rain delay, and you have rain coming, and you have all these scenarios, and all these things that go through my head for two days," Parrott explained.
"You can't sleep from worrying if it's going to rain at halfway. 'Do we do this?' 'Do we do that?'
"But we had a plan after we saw our fuel mileage on Friday, and we stuck with our guns.
"The rest of it -- pit stops, the way the cautions fell -- worked out.
"It's been a while for me, since 2005 with Dale Jarrett…so to get Marcos his first win in the Cup series is something very special, that I'll remember for a long time."
But the 'down-in-the-trenches' part of the sports business for the Petty operation isn't the only piece of this puzzle. There is the ownership/management piece, which has been more than a bit confusing the past few years.
Just where Richard Petty himself fits into all this, aside from his famous name, isn't all that clear.
And his wife Lynda has been fighting cancer for some time now, putting an even sharper edge on all this.
The two primary owners of the Petty operation are Doug Bergeron, an LA investment guy, and Andy Murstein, whose family made its name in the New York City taxi cab business. (Murstein would like to have those ubiquitous yellow NYC cabs fully sponsorship-decaled like NASCAR stockers if he can.)
"I told those guys to just hang in there and that win would come…and we finally got it done," Parrott says proudly.
"I remember being a kid here with Rusty Wallace back in the day (20 years ago, when Wallace was one of the sport's top road racers and championship-bound)," Parrott said. "It's a place I've never won at…so I can add this to my 'bucket list.'"
The key to making Ambrose a winner, Parrott says, has been teaching patience.
Ambrose' exuberance is, well, almost infamous.
"I knew his background, and the talent….and just 'be patient,'" Parrott says. "That's the thing about this sport -- if you're patient, and you keep working hard, sooner or later you'll be able to celebrate.
"The 'evolution' (of this latest iteration of the Petty operation) has just been the people having faith in the company. It's a strong team."
However piecing together a timeline, well, that's a tricky question, Parrott says.
For several years Parrott worked with the company when it was under the Robert Yates/Doug Yates banner. That company merged with Jack Roush….and then merged with the newest Petty deal.
Parrott worked with Travis Kvapil for a while, then Matt Kenseth, then Elliott Sadler…
"I thought we could win," Parrott said of his time with Kenseth and then Sadler. "But as things went away (late last summer) I wondered where I was going to fit in when all of this shook out.
"They told me I had done a good job and they were putting me with Marcos. I knew his history, he's a great talent. A guy that can run like he does on
a road course -- with the finesse it takes -- is the type of driver it takes to drive everywhere. Short tracks, intermediates, he's got the feel for a race car like no other, and he can do this everywhere he goes."
So let's see what Ambrose and Parrott can do for an encore here at Michigan. With a championship playoff spot now on the line….
An unofficial 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup tour schedule (tentative)
Feb 16 Daytona Media Day, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL
Feb 18 Bud Shootout, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL Sat. Night
Feb 19 Daytona 500 qualifying, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL
Feb 23 Gatorade Duels, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL
Feb 26 Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL (confirmed)
Mar 4 Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale AZ
Mar 11 Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas NV
Mar 18 Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol TN
Mar 25 California Auto Club Speedway, Fontana CA
Apr 1 Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville VA
Apr 8 Off-Weekend - Easter
Apr 14 Texas Motor Speedway, Ft. Worth TX Sat. Night
Apr 22 Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega AL
Apr 28 Richmond International Raceway, Richmond VA Sat. Night
May 6 Kansas Speedway
May 12 Darlington Raceway, Darlington SC (Mother's Day weekend) Sat. Night
May 19 NASCAR All-Star Challenge, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte NC Sat. Night
May 27 Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte NC Sun.Night
June 3 Dover International Speedway, Dover DE (confirmed)
June 10 Pocono Raceway, Pocono, PA (confirmed)
June 17 Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn MI
June 24 Infineon Raceway, Sonoma CA
June 30 Kentucky Speedway, Sparta KY Sat. Night
July 7 Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach FL Sat. Night
July 15 New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon NH
July 22 Off-weekend
July 29 Brickyard 400, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indianapolis IN (confirmed)
Aug. 5 Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, PA (confirmed)
Aug. 12 Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen NY
Aug. 19 Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn MI
Aug. 25 Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol TN Sat. Night
Sept. 2 Atlanta Motor Speedway, Atlanta
Sept. 8 Richmond Int'l Raceway, Richmond VA Sat. Night
Sept. 16 Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet IL
Sept. 23 New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon NH
Sept. 30 Dover International Speedway, Dover DE (confirmed)
Oct. 7 Kansas Speedway, Kansas City KS
Oct. 13 Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte NC Sat. Night
Oct. 21 Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega AL
Oct. 28 Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville VA
Nov. 4 Texas Motor Speedway, Ft. Worth TX
Nov. 11 Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale AZ
Nov. 18 Homestead-Miami Speedway, Homestead FL