There's a lot to talk about as NASCAR heads into the final four weeks of their season.
Before we get started, let me preface this edition by saying that I did not fill out any Chase grids. My only prediction, which was made during the last off-season, was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to win the Cup. Now he’s 15th in points. Smart move, I know.
Going out on a limb
Ladies and gentlemen, Denny Hamlin is my pick with four races remaining to win the 2014 Sprint Cup championship.
He has faced adversity over the past few years in Cup, from becoming one of only three drivers in the history of NASCAR to go into the season finale as the points leader and lose the championship, to breaking his vertebrae in 2013 and missing multiple races, to finally missing Auto Club this year due to an eye injury. He has been rather quiet since Auto Club, winning at Talladega under caution to lock himself in the Chase, and didn’t make much noise until the Charlotte fiasco a couple weeks ago. He has the best pit crew in the sport, he has a consistent team, and he is amazing at the last four tracks left in the season (Note that all stats are compiled from the last five years of these tracks)
Martinsville: If you’ve been at Martinsville like I have, you know that it’s Denny’s race. The nearby Chesterfield native considers this a home track-and as a flat short track, it seems to be almost tailor made for Hamlin. The only two drivers who come close to or pass Denny in terms of performance at the paperclip are Jimmie Johnson, who is knocked out of the Chas,- and Jeff Gordon, who is the defending race winner.
Texas: He is tied for the most victories here with two and his average finish of 10.1 is only bested by teammate Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, who has also been knocked out of the Chase.
Phoenix: This is the worst track for Hamlin, although that’s not saying much. He still has an average finish of 12.1, tied for fourth with Jeff Gordon, and is less than a position away from Ryan Newman and Carl Edward’s averages.
Homestead: Has accumulated the third most amount of points here and has won a race. There are Chasers better than him here but not everybody.
Handling the pressure
The only thing Hamlin has blocking him from winning this championship is himself. Losing the 2010 title has left him in a bit of a funk since then and he has shown an inability to keep cool under pressure, with many feeling he started the Charlotte fiasco a couple weeks ago. He needs to finally overcome it mentally if he wants to win the most coveted prize in NASCAR.
In some ways, he reminds me of Davey Allison ... A southern boy who lost the championship while leading going into the final race of the season and faced numerous hardships during his career (The 1992 Pocono wreck probably cost Davey the championship when all was said and done), and was known to be a bit bratty at times ... Just ask Ricky Rudd. Davey didn’t get a chance to recover from his heartbreaker of a loss. I think Denny will get that chance this year.
Rise of the underdogs, led by Landon Cassill
At Talladega, it’s always fun to see teams you normally don’t see up front near the end of the race.
Leading the charge of underdogs was Landon Cassill, who finished fourth in the carsforsale.com #40 Chevrolet; his first top five and top ten in Sprint Cup competition. He is a 25-year-old who might have been in the five car now if it wasn’t for a sponsor screwing him out of a full time JR Motorsports Nationwide ride in 2009. Cassill, who I’ve written about before, has done amazing things in the 40 car this season at the plate races, contending for wins at both ‘Dega races and being very competitive in both the Daytona 500 (Finishing 12th) and the Coke Zero 400 (Running great before being caught up in the final wreck).
The Iowa native has the talent and drive to be the next superstar in this sport, as he has taken the tiny Joe Falk team from missing races to finishing on the lead lap on non-plate tracks. And let's not forget what he has done for Johnny Davis in the #01 at the Nationwide level as well. I’d be shocked if a bigger team doesn’t make an offer within the next couple of years. He’s also my pick to win the 2015 Daytona 500 next season.
A great day for both Joe Falk-owned cars
Cassill’s 40 team wasn’t the only small team to have a great run at Talladega. Teammate Travis Kvapil in the #33 car (A reunion of sorts for the former BK Racing teammates) finished sixth. Casey Mears in the #13 got tenth, Reed Sorenson in the Tommy Baldwin #36 grabbed 14th, and the feisty redhead Cole Whitt held on for 15th in the BK Racing #26.
It wasn’t all rosy at Talladega this weekend, however. On Saturday, during group qualifying, many big name drivers waited until the last second before starting their lap. They did not make it across the start/finish line in time and many did not complete a single lap in qualifying. Names such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart had to take provisionals, and two full time, well-funded teams, the #17 and the #51, both missed the field.
The problem with group qualifying at Talladega and Daytona is that you need to have multiple cars go out with you in order to qualify well for the event, unlike tracks such as Bristol. It’s fairly obvious that this system needs to go before the 2015 Daytona 500. I could make a bunch of suggestions, like a return to single lap qualifying, heat races, etc., but I feel that it’s time that we stop listening to journalists, suits, reporters, and fans and start listening to what the drivers want.
Let’s see what the actual people who get into these cars want to do. Sure, the qualifying format is great, but the reality is that most fans won’t watch it no matter what you do. The important thing qualifying should accomplish is to make sure the fastest cars start up front and the slowest cars go home. That didn’t happen on Saturday.