NASCAR at Phoenix: Top Three Dueling It Out in the Desert

Rusty NormanThe problem with being in the top three in points with two races to go in the Chase is there are more than three cars on the track, about twenty of them could win on Sunday and only three of them have anything to lose, (uh, between the three of them that is.) Those three are dueling in the dessert for the top spot in the points for the 2010 Sprint Cup Championship. The rest just want to win and don’t care too much about where those three finish, as long as it’s behind them.

All eyes, (maybe I should say, cameras and microphones), are focused on the three and many of the others actually look like they will be the ones running up front at the Kobalt Tools 500 on Sunday at PIR. Honestly, (at least from this fan’s view), the only interesting thing about those top three so far this weekend is the (media perceived) mind games they are playing with each other. It sure hasn’t been about how fast they’re running so far this weekend because they haven’t been at the top of the speed chart. It wasn’t where they qualified because the three qualified 17th or worse.

So where is the interest this weekend? Well, according to the media, it is in the mental sparring taking place between leader, Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, and the other two in the top three. Yeah, I know that is an over simplification, but from all the talk around the sport this week, you would think there is a lot of mental anguish being felt by the two teams in the top three that were beaten by Hamlin last week.

I’m sorry folks but I disagree…

From my view it appears the “rhetoric” is just smack and the intention is just one crew chief trying to focus the media attention on performance to the other teams and away from himself. One thing he does have going in his favor though; the #11 JGR team did win last weekend and did take over the points lead and the perception is the four time champ, Johnson, is on the ropes and Harvick is just running third.

If you listen to Jimmie Johnson, his #48 Hendrick team is just using the “rhetoric” as motivation to improve their performance in Phoenix this weekend. (Nothing like a little verbal nudge from your competitor to bring your focus back on center.) Contrary to what others may think, or say for that matter, Chad Knaus is not panicking or pulling at straws. (Once again from my view), he is working to make it through a little bit of a rough spot and give his driver the best possible circumstances to work with in the race. If he and the team do their job, their driver, Jimmie Johnson only has to be concerned with his performance on the track, not trying to make up for shortcomings that are out of his control. In other words, it puts it back in the driver’s hands where it should be. Chad’s pulling and replacement of the over-the-wall crew last week in the middle of the race, (when the opportunity arose), just shows me he is thinking outside the box and on top of his game.

Kevin Harvick is just doing what he’s been doing all season long; mostly flying under the radar and finishing consistently near the top every week, no matter how it looks like he might do when practice and qualifying are taken into consideration. He has to perform, yes, but he can also hold back a little, (maybe be patient would better state it) and wait for the other two to mess up, either in the pits or on the track. It doesn’t matter which place it happens for them because he is going to be there ready to pounce on their miscues. He’s been doing it with consistency all year and it has been working for him, too.

So… how’s the race going to shape up between them this weekend? Let’s just look at the obvious, (for a change). Last week, I stuck my neck out thinking the top three would play it a little safe and opt for not making mistakes by pressing the envelope. I was wrong and, if things had gone just slightly different at the end, all three would have probably finished in the top five. This week, they are all starting in the middle of the lineup and all three will have to work their way through traffic and hope they don’t get caught up in someone else’s problem.

Denny Hamlin has a little bit of that thing called the “Big Mo” going for him, based on the win last weekend and just general performance in the Chase. Things have been going the right way for him and it “appears” he is in good shape. Appearances can be deceptive though and, in racing, things can turn against you just as fast as a glance in the mirror or a flat tire. The possibility of him having some challenges is always there.

Lately, Jimmie Johnson has been playing catch-up for one reason or another, which is a little out of character for the #48 team, especially at this time of the year. One could say he’s just been having some bad luck and leave it at that, (but of course you know I have a hard time doing that.) The way I see it, the competition in the Cup series has definitely tightened up this year between all the teams and the #48 team has not been performing at 100% every week. They absolutely have to perform at 100% this weekend and let the cards fall where they will. Just as things haven’t quite gone the way they would like, this could be the week they step it up on the competition and take the points lead to Homestead.

Now that I’ve said all of that, I can’t forget the fact there ARE forty other cars on the track as well and more than one of them looks like they could take the trip to Victory Lane this weekend. It won’t really matter all that much if they do, because all eyes (uh, cameras and microphones), will be focused on Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and next week at Homestead…

See ya next time… Rusty

All views expressed are strictly the opinion of the writer

© November 13, 2010 – all rights reserved

Rusty Norman and

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