By Vito Pugliese – One week ago I fearlessly declared that the 2013 Sprint Cup was indeed a three man contest, and that any suggestion to the contrary was merely wishful thinking. Following last weekend’s race at Kansas, I am reminded of the words spoken so eloquently by motivational speaker, Matt Foley:
“Sometimes I wish you’d just shut your BIG YAPPER!!!”
Kansas – the unlikeliest of places for the current Big Three to suffer a number of maladies – for three straight days. The quintessential 1.5-mile tri-oval cookie-cutter down-force track was just that – a total downer for Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and most of all, Kyle Busch. Kenseth could just never get his car comfortable, spinning in practice on Friday, and riding around to an 11th place race result. JJ also spun out by his lonesome in Friday’s first practice session, then Kyle Busch goes and walls it in Turn One, then on Sunday, just augured it right into the SAFER Barrier. Johnson got caught on a pit road caution for debris, but still managed to finish sixth.
Okay, so if you finish 11th and sixth, I guess that’s not too bad – but it does mean that you did give up some positions and points this weekend. While Matt and Jimmie are still the odds-on drivers to decide the title between themselves, they did open the door for some potential challengers this weekend.
3rd: Kevin Harvick – 25 points Think Harvick is having reservations about leaving RCR now? Sure Austin and Ty are the future of the company, but ever since reuniting with crew chief Gil Martin this year – and the presence of his son Keelan at the majority of the events, Harvick has quietly had one of the most successful seasons of his 13-year career. Three wins, including Kansas from the pole bodes well for him, particularly with Talladega, Martinsville, and Phoenix on the schedule – all tracks he’s won at since 2010. Oh and Charlotte is this weekend too – and the No. 29 just so happened to win there in May this year – and in 2011.
4th: Jeff Gordon – 32 points While he got into The Chase under dubious, unprecedented, and the unlikeliest of circumstances (guy who owns sport said he’s in), Jeff Gordon has made the most of his opportunity and then some. Gordon has only finished worse than seventh once since Bristol – and that was at Loudon where he led 36 laps. Gordon slid just a tick through his pit box while leading late in the going, and there just wasn’t any time to catch back up. Had Gordon managed to have maintained his position or managed second that day, he’d be 15-18 points out of the lead in third place right now. But he didn’t. And he’s not. Which is why he wasn’t safely into the Chase to begin with. Not picking on him 24-fan, but such is the precarious position of a driver on the Chase bubble in 10th-11th, with no wins pre-Chase.
5th: Kyle Busch – 35 points Well its October and the Chase is in full-swing, so you know what that means: it’s time for Kyle Busch to completely unravel and lose it. Let’s run down the list of familiar offenses: gets involved in avoidable confrontation in lower-tier series? Check. Keeps hitting wall at Kansas? Check. The only thing left to have happen is either a blown engine followed by audible anti-TRD tirade, or flipping off local marching band at Martinsville in a couple of weeks. Oh, and getting caught up in The Big One at Talladega. The stress cracks were beginning to show at Dover post-race a couple of weeks back. He was grinding his teeth, resisting with every fiber of his being from going off about how fifth-place was garbage, not good enough, and that the car wouldn’t turn. Each year we hear how “The New Kyle” is all-in and ready to contend; each year the same thing happens: avoidable incidents keep occurring and a man-made meltdown imminent. Not saying he’s out of it by any means, but the fuse has been lit – and it’s only a matter of time before it goes off in a big way.
Now before you go and feel all good about yourself for knowing all along that The Chase was never a done deal and that obviously there’s six or seven guys in contention, those numbers listed above are a bit deceiving. Yeah 25 points doesn’t sound like a lot – but it is. Unless the 20 or 48 blow an engine or wreck, that is not going to be made up in one race. Under the prior traditional points system, Harvick’s current 25-point deficit would be the equivalent of a 100-point deficit; no easy feat to overcome in just a few weeks against the two teams that are consistently the fastest and least error-prone.
Charlotte is a bit of level playing field this Saturday for everybody in the Top 5, but the next two races are polar opposites, but will likely end up determining who will really be racing for the Cup come Homestead. The entire field can be wiped out at one corner at Talladega, while brake problems, flat tires, and losing two laps in the pits during a green flag stop at Martinsville are the likely scenarios that will be played out for some unfortunate soul.
You know what? Screw it; I’m sticking to what I said last week. It’s still a three-man championship race; just not yet…