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Sprint Cup Roundtable: Winless drivers, NASCAR athleticism and more

Sprint Cup Roundtable
Racing writers Lars Anderson, Cory McCartney, Bruce Martin, Brant James and Tim Tuttle weigh in on the season so far. (Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)
 
Will any winless driver make the Chase?
 
CSM/Landov
Anderson
Yes, but only one: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is currently ninth in the standings. His consistency has fallen off in recent weeks -- he rarely runs well in June and July -- but I think he'll rip off several top-10 runs over the last seven regular season races and cruise into the Chase.

James
No. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s recent regression does not trend well for him either winning for the first time in 112 races or holding onto a Chase berth, meaning a season that once held much promise could ultimately end unsuccessful. Tony Stewart's recent mini-surge bodes well for his prospects, however, especially with a spate of tracks ahead on which he excels. Stewart tucking in and Earnhardt Jr. ducking out seems a likelihood.

Martin
No. The way it is looking it could be the first time in Chase history that all 12 drivers that make the field have a victory. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver in the top 10 without a win and he is falling fast. If he sinks outside of the top 10 by the cutoff race at Richmond, he's toast because the final two positions will be wild-card entries going to drivers from positions 11-20 with the most victories. As of now, David Ragan, 13th, is the only driver that would meet that requirement so Tony Stewart, 11th, would get the 12th spot and Bowyer, 12th, would be out. But if Brad Keselowski can make up the 21-point deficit that separates him from the 20th position he would earn one of the wild cards because he drove to victory at Kansas in June. Unless Earnhardt turns his fortunes around in a hurry, I see him dropping out of the top 10 and that would put him out of the Chase. Expect to see Stewart and Bowyer not only win a race between now and Sept. 10 but also one of them will get into the top 10 with Earnhardt dropping out.

McCartney
Yes. If the season were to end today, we'd have two, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart. With only one of the one-win drivers fitting the wild-card criteria that they still be within the top 20 (David Ragan in 13th), and the next in line (Brad Keselowski in 23rd) headed the opposite direction, there's a distinct possibility that one, if not both of the winless drivers could get in ... just so long as there's not another one-race winner in the next seven weeks.

Tuttle
No. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver in the top 10 in points without a win and he's fading going into a stretch of racetracks -- Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen -- that he's not been very good at in his career. Junior needs a win to have a chance. Tony Stewart sits 11th and Clint Bowyer 12th (and out of the Chase if it were to begin today) and they need wins too, because there are threats like Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano and Juan Pablo Montoya inside the top-20 that could win and knock them out.
 
Which winless driver will end his streak first?
 
UPI/Malcolm Hope/Landov
Anderson
Tony Stewart. Stewart easily could have as many as four wins this season if not for some horrendous luck on the track and failures in the pits. I think he'll notch win no. 1 on Aug. 14 at the Watkins Glen road course, a place where Stewart has five career Ws.

James
Tony Stewart. Two wins at Indianapolis, two wins at Pocono, five wins at Watkins Glen, one win at Michigan, one win at Bristol, three wins at Atlanta and three wins at Richmond. Those are the only venues left on the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule before the Chase begins. It's like a month of home games for Stewart.

Martin
Tony Stewart. He will get a victory between now and Richmond because he still has several of his better tracks coming up, including Michigan, Bristol and Richmond. Stewart has the drive and tenacity to put together a victory in time to turn around his 2011 season.

McCartney
Kasey Kahne. He's been getting tantalizingly close to bringing Red Bull Racing its first (and potentially its last) Cup victory since 2009. Since Richmond, Kahne has four finishes of sixth or better and he's qualified in the top 10 seven times in that stretch. Also working in his favor: Kahne has a win or multiple top-five finishes at every remaining track except for Watkins Glen.

Tuttle
Tony Stewart. He always heats up in the summer and he's won a Sprint Cup race at each of the seven tracks remaining before the Chase. His best prospect is Watkins Glen, where Stewart has five victories.
 
Seahawks WR Golden Tate recently said: "Driving a car does not show athleticism." How would you respond to Tate and other skeptics?
 
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMI
Anderson
I'd invite him to go for a ride on the track with, say, Denny Hamlin, and see if his stance changes. I've done that, and after the experience there's little doubt in my mind that piloting a Cup car at 190 mph for three hours in extreme heat requires off-the-charts hand-eye-foot coordination, stamina, and -- perhaps most important -- an ample portion of guts.

James
Everyone has played touch football with the family in the backyard on Thanksgiving morning. That doesn't mean we can all play in the NFL. We all drive to work and the grocery store and soccer practice every day. That doesn't mean we can be race car drivers, no matter how good speeding on the highway makes you feel.

Martin
Race drivers are definitely professional athletes because driving these cars requires strength, skill, reflexes and tremendous agility. I have not only been a passenger in several two-seater programs in both NASCAR and IndyCar, but I also drove a Hendrick Motorsports stock car at Charlotte in the mid-1980s during a media promotion by Humpy Wheeler. Also, I have participated in the Bridgestone Racing Academy at Mosport in Bowmanville, Ontario in 2008, and after a day of driving a race car, the ligaments in my wrists and the muscles in my back and neck became incredibly fatigued. The racers that compete in NASCAR are top athletes such as Carl Edwards, who goes on grueling cycling expeditions and 30-mile hikes to stay in shape. These athletes also compete in long races where the temperatures inside of the race car can approach 150 degrees. Try muscling a car around for four hours in those kinds of conditions and you will quickly realize that it requires endurance and athleticism.

McCartney
All you need to do is see how physically exhausted drivers are after a race to know there's more than a little athleticism involved in NASCAR, though it may not be the same as running an out route. We're talking about withstanding 150-plus degree heat inside a car, while also dealing with G-forces and the mental stress of racing within inches of other cars. Going over the middle and being hit by Ray Lewis is only a few seconds of anguish; the drain of driving in the Coca-Cola 600 takes four and a half hours.

Tuttle
Golden Tate and other skeptics have obviously never driven a race car at any level, much less in the most competitive racing series in the world, or they wouldn't make such foolish statements. They should try handling the pressure of leading into the final two turns at Bristol with Kyle Busch or Tony Stewart a foot from their rear bumper. Race car drivers have exceptional depth perception and hand-eye coordination, the same physical skills needed to hit a baseball, but drivers have to hit turn-in points at 200 miles per hour at some tracks. Cup drivers need strength and endurance and, unlike football players, they don't get a break after every lap or play. Dale Jarrett was a star quarterback, point guard, shortstop and golfer in high school and turned down college scholarship offers for football and golf to follow his dad into racing. Derrike Cope was a top baseball prospect in the Pacific Northwest, who was scouted by major league teams and played on scholarship in college before a knee injury ended his baseball career. He had a racing background, too, and won the 1990 Daytona 500. I ask Golden Tate and others: Are Jarrett and Cope athletes? The answer is clearly yes and they applied their talents successfully to another form of competition.
 
Which driver has surprised you most in 2011 and why?
 
Bill Streicher/Icon SMI
Anderson
Kevin Harvick. Despite not having the fastest car week and week out, Harvick leads the series in wins (three) and, from where I sit, has been the most mistake-free driver in the Cup series. He appears primed to seriously challenge Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards for the 2011 Cup championship.

James
Jeff Gordon. A decade from his last championship, approaching 40 and well aware that there are fine things in life beyond NASCAR, he could easily have slinked away from the Jimmie Johnson Era and into a next phase, but he seems reinvigorated with new crew chief Alan Gustafson. A two-time winner and more of a championship threat than at any time since 2007, Gordon possibly ending the five years of championship domination by his friend/teammate/protege would be utterly Shakespearean.

Martin
Matt Kenseth. Few probably thought he would be sixth in points with two wins in 2011. Kenseth is one of the fly-under-the-radar drivers in NASCAR that doesn't seek publicity and drives with such a smooth and steady pace that he is often overlooked. But Kenseth is having one of his best seasons in years and is a lock to make the Chase.

McCartney
David Ragan. You could argue no driver was under more pressure to deliver this season than the Ringo Starr of Jack Roush's Beatles. His sponsor has been used to a certain degree of success and then there was the matter of a younger driver in his own organization, Trevor Bayne, capturing the sport's imagination in the season opener. But Ragan is working on a career year that should earn him his first Chase berth.

Tuttle
Jeff Burton. His season has been a disaster and inexplicable. He's 25th in points and doesn't have a top-10 in 19 races. Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick is fourth and has two wins; Clint Bowyer is having a typical Bowyer season, 12th in points with five top-fives and eight top-10s; and newcomer Paul Menard is 19th with three top-fives and five top-10s. Burton has the same equipment and access to information as Harvick, Bowyer and Menard and his season doesn't compare well to any of them. It's surprising that Richard Childress hasn't changed crew chiefs to bring some new ideas and energy to Burton's No. 31. He's been in the Chase four of the past five seasons and the year he didn't, 2009, none of his teammates did either. Burton, 44, is like a baseball pitcher who has lost his fastball from one season to the next and can't get anybody out.

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