Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cookie Cutter

People talk about "Cookie Cutter" tracks, meaning a 1.5- mile "d-"shaped oval, implying that they are all the same. The track at Kansas City does greatly resemble the track at Chicagoland; after all, they have the same banking and the same distance in the front and backstretches. But they are not the same. The condition of the track surface is different--for that matter surface characteristics are unique to every venue on the NASCAR Cup circuit. There is also a difference in the transition between the stretches and the turns, as the banking progresses. These similarly small differences make a big difference in the car set up and handling characteristics.
Sunday's race at Kansas City will be the first race in the chase on a 1.5-mile track this year. The Chase itself has been so unpredictable so far, that we would almost hate to predict anything for the third race of the Championship series. We do know this; one of the top ten drivers in the Race for the Chase will finish in the top five. Maybe. Luck can make the difference between a plain shortbread cookie and a Supreme Devil's Food Double Fudge Chocolate cookie.
Jeff Gordon (chewy home style peanut butter cookie) has been the most consistent in the Chase thus far, with two third place finishes. However, over the full season, the #24 team's performance on 1.5-mile ovals has been less than spectacular. Since the tire-aero package changed in 2005, they have not been able to find the combination to make the car perform on these tracks as it should. Determination and skill do count, however, and The Gordon has both of these. He cannot be counted out of the top ten finishers on any track this time of the year.
Jimmie Johnson (plain graham cracker) does well on any kind of track, but if he has a specialty, it is the cookie cutter track. He needs a win here, as well as someone else's bad luck, to get back close to championship points. This time of the year has not statistically been good for Johnson--he has come close to the Cup trophy three times in his career only to have performance fall off in the last ten races. However, that doesn't mean his Chase is over, because, as mentioned before, he has one of the best teams that have the ability to come back from adversity.
The Chase is pretty much over for Kyle Busch (Pinwheel).. Two bad finishes in a row will not cut it. He has the consolation of finishing the season in the top ten, and he will be on the podium in the post-season banquet. He can still win races, however, and he has a car this weekend that can do just that. Personally, I like to watch the Schrub race, as long as he stays out of trouble with other drivers, which, it seems, he has learned to do.
The #8 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr hasn't had the best of luck, but hasn't had the worst of luck either. Tony Eurey, Jr will either get the max out of the final practices before the race, and find a good setup for KC, or he won't. He has a driver who has the ability to win races, but Dale Jr. needs the equipment to do so. Right now, without the equipment, Junior doesn't have the confidence to make the kind of moves he is capable of doing. I want to see that #8 car doing well, but the team still doesn't have a handle on consistency. Budweiser doesn’t go well with cookies.
Sentimentally, we all want to see Mark Martin (Gingerbread) win a championship this year. He worked hard to get into the chase, but, like Junior, his heart doesn't seem to be in it. You never know with Mark. The "old" man just may decide he has had enough of points racing and will surprise us by going hard for a win. We never know how he is going to play. I like to think that the #6 team has something up its sleeve.
Kevin Harvick isn't always showy on the cookie cutter tracks, but he isn't bad either. Kansas City isn't one of his favorite tracks. But the RCR team has been having a great run, and has gelled in a tremendous way this season. Team loyalty is at its best at RCR, and they seem to have the "All for one--one for all" mentality, which does a lot for attitude, which means a lot in winning. Both Harvick and Jeff Burton are going strong, especially Burton since he has tasted victory for the first time in five years. And to top it off, non-chase teammate Clinton Bowyer has been no slouch either. Racing is a team sport, and though Three Musketeers is a candy bar rather than a cookie, any one of the Childress drivers could see victory once again this weekend.
Trouble not of his making set the Cute Little Guy, Kasey Kahne (everything Keebler), back somewhat last week. But, this is not the end for him. Out of the next 8 races of the Chase, six are at 1.5-mile tracks, on which Kahne has won all five of his victories this year. He will be driving the car with which he won all five victories, and he took the Pole position in qualifying. Things look good for him this week, and he could very well be the man to take the Checkers this week.
Denny Hamlin and the #11 team are amazing. They get my double chocolate chocolate chip cookie for this week. Last week, at Dover, a track Hamlin doesn't like, they brought a twentieth place car home in ninth. Hamlin didn't qualify well for the race at Kansas City, but he has two practices in which to get the car set up, and crew chief Mike Ford and company have proven very good at doing that. Denny Hamlin is a remarkable driver, and it could almost be said of him that he doesn't even know how to finish outside the top ten.
The potential Supreme Devil's Food Double Fudge Cookie this weekend, however, should be Matt Kenseth. He finished second at Loudon, and finished tenth in one of the most exciting finishes of all time last week, due to a fuel mileage snafu. There is no doubt that Kenseth can work his way to the front, but, the way things have gone so far, he may have to work to get that first place finish This is my pick to win the championship, and two races in, he hasn't let me down yet. Bad luck aside, knock on wood, we will probably see yet another great race in the last few laps Sunday that will involve Matt.
As always, there is a lot of talent outside the Chase. Kansas City has a history of surprise finishes and surprise winners. Scott Riggs, driving the #10 car for Everham is starting on the front row, next to teammate Kasey Kahne. This is a driver who has a win in him, but it just hasn't found its way out yet. Don't be surprised if he gets his first victory on Sunday. There is also Tony Stewart, who, if he can just get through traffic without incident, could get his first Kansas City win . These are both excellent teams, with nothing to lose, and with strong will. But, again, there are Elliott Sadler, Casey Mears, Kurt Busch who is trying desperately to win friends as well as races, Clint Bowyer, whom I have already mentioned, who could all make a very good show for the finish.
Once again, I feel we will see a very exciting and entertaining race. Excuse me, now, I smell fresh cookies.

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