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Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Charlotte Preview: Can Tony Stewart cut into Jimmie Johnson's lead?

By Mark Garrow
Jayski.com

From time to time, people have poked fun at Tony Stewart about his weight. However, I've got a bigger gut and it's telling me the Indiana driver is poised for what would be an upset Saturday night in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Let's get the negative out of the way first. I know he hasn't finished top-10 in his past five Charlotte starts and has but a single win on the 1.5-mile track (this race back in 2003), and his average finish is over 13. I get all that, but he's done a lot for me lately. Stewart has won two of the past six races, including Atlanta, which is laid out similar to Charlotte. Smoke also grabbed his first win at California, proving you can throw his stats out the window. Plus, in his past 17 starts in 2010, Stewart has eight top-5 and 12 top-10s.

Also factor in Charlotte is considered to be Jimmie Johnson's house, and Stewart knows that if he can take him down and make up a few more points in the Chase, it might undermine Johnson's confidence a little bit. And remember, Stewart has the same engines and chassis as "Four Time."

You can be sure, however, that Johnson won't go away quietly Saturday night. He's been top-10 in five of the past six Charlotte races, with three wins and an average finish of 4.2. The California driver will certainly be up on the wheel, knowing a victory could demoralize his four closest title challengers and leave him an easier path over the final five playoff races.

Let's not forget Kurt Busch, who won the Coke 600 in May by leading 252 of the 400 laps and was 10th here last October. A couple of other factors could also work in his favor. First, if he wins Saturday night, he would become the first driver to sweep the Sprint All-Star race and the two points races at Charlotte in the same season. Secondly, the last three times the Las Vegas native visited victory lane, it was on a 1.5-mile track.

His brother Kyle should rebound big from last week's bitter pill. Ninth in the points and out of contention, the Joe Gibbs driver will turn it loose under the lights at a track where he's finished in the top-eight in six consecutive races, including three third-place finishes.

Another guy who figures to spend a lot of time running up front is Jeff Gordon, who's been one of the most consistent drivers on the intermediate speedways this year. Plus, he won this race in 2007 and has finished top-10 in all six Chase races run at Charlotte. He was also fourth last October and sixth in May, giving him five top-10 finishes in his last six starts here.

Like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards took a big hit at California but should bounce back at Charlotte. Only an electrical problem kept Edwards from finishing top-10 or better last week, which would have made it 13 straight races in which he would have been 12th or better. There was nothing wrong with the way Edwards' car was running, so I figure he'll run up front at Charlotte.

As for my favorite "B" drivers, Ryan Newman heads my list. He's been solid as a rock lately, finishing 11th or better for seven seven races in a row. In that streak were finishes of eighth and ninth on the last 1.5-mile tracks -- Atlanta and Kansas -- and he's coming off a fifth-place run at Auto Club Speedway. Newman was ninth at Charlotte in May and a runner-up in the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 as well.

Kasey Kahne finished right in front Newman at Fontana, and has emerged as another "B" boy you need to watch this weekend. Kahne was 12th at Charlotte in May, his only run outside the top 10 in the past six starts. During that stretch, he conquered Charlotte for a third time and also had a runner-up. In his last nine starts, three wins, five top-5 and seven top-10 finishes.

Kahne's teammate AJ Allmendinger should also get some serious consideration. Other "B" drivers to keep an eye on are Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, David Reutimann, and Jamie McMurray.

Scoring leaders and season statistics

Segment three

Second a week ago by only one point, Vickie Buie has climbed to the top of the ESPN Stock Car Challenge's segment three, 81 points ahead of Ed Rich, who was eighth after Kansas. Sitting third, 97 back is MAC ATTACK 55, who's making his first appearance in the top 10, as is fourth place scarles, who's down 102 points. Chrisuga 1, a newcomer to the top 10, holds down fifth. There's a three-way tie for sixth with Angie081977, chunkdog2553 and Nicky G Motorsports sharing that honor. Those three have 3,018 points, which puts them only 32 out of second but 113 out of first. Rounding out the top 10 are ctreynol and topgroove.

The average score for Fontana was 653 with a high score of 850, which is only 15 points away from perfection.

Overall

Proving the ESPN Stock Car Challenge title fight won't be over until the checkered flag falls at Homestead, longtime leader Webbys nightmare scored a measly 550 points at Fontana and saw his lead slashed from 238 to 122, losing 116 points in a single race with six to go this season. Second-place Muletrain didn't exactly set the world on fire with a devilish 666, but it did get him within shouting distance of the leader. Moving up one to third was Coweyes, who's down 165 points and still in contention.

Jumping up a couple of spots to fourth is 48Fan, seven points out of third and 172 out of first. Six points back is payam711, who is 178 behind the leader and only 13 out of third. Up two to sixth is S. McCarthy, with dspelz seventh, Jimmiedo5 eighth and Nick Zelenski ninth after taking a big hit this past week, plummeting from third with Iron Lungs making a first appearance in the top 10.

With a disappointing 599, "Guru" fell back to 3,517th overall after climbing to 2,857 last week out of the 170,000 teams. Still a far cry from when I was 552nd with a bullet.

Jayski Junkies

48Fan will spend another week atop the Jayski Junkies league standings, but D.Pelz is really turning up the pressure. Before California the leader had an advantage over second place of 144 points, but with 48Fan scoring 633 points at Fontana and D.Pelz nailing 759, the gap is now just 29 points. Moving up two to third is K. Estep. The big mover, however, was M. Ostrom, who ripped a 783 to jump from outside the top 10 all the way up to fourth. Falling from second to fifth was T.Berkley. Making an initial top-10 appearance in sixth is T. Jessee, with S. Pendergrass remaining seventh for the third straight week. The rest of the top-10 are B. Napieralski, c.stilwell and T.Leahy.

After getting back to 128th in our league of more than 1,300 teams, that 599 dropped me back to 159th. It was maddening to have all five of my drivers last week at one point racing in the top-5, but wind up with Jimmie Johnson third, Kevin Harvick seventh, Greg Biffle 41st, Juan Pablo Montoya 14th, and Jamie McMurray 17th.

I also slipped a spot to 21st in the Virginia Connection league. S.McCarthy has increased his lead from 117 to 156 points over T.Berkley, who remains second. The rest of the top-5 remained the same too with J. Harris third, K. Boyer fourth and j. Hensley fifth.

Race for the Cup

Ninth a week ago, g. rose has risen into a tie for first with B. Wilson and k. stagg. They have all gotten 32 correct answers out of the 40 head-to-head match-ups we've had in the opening four weeks to Race for the Cup. We have four tied for fourth with 31 correct: E. Rivera, l. boyne, C. Nowak and J.Claude Sambira. Tied for eighth with 30 are B.Schaeffer E. Wall, and r. moon.

Getting seven out of 10 correct at Fontana, "Guru" is now batting over .500 with 23 correct.

California race day chat

The old crystal ball was a little cloudy last week with only four of our pre-race top 10 finishing that way. We did scout out a good run for Tony Stewart, but didn't see him winning. His crew chief told us they had a shot to win, so we ranked him fifth despite his 22nd starting position. Jimmie Johnson came through with a third-place finish, but we thought Kevin Harvick would challenge for the win and he mustered only a seventh-place finish.

The big misses were almost all mechanical related. Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch all lost engines, with the first two drivers ranked top-5 and Busch top-10. Electrical problems put Carl Edwards 34th, his worst finish in three months.

One driver, though, we didn't give enough respect to was Mark Martin. He finished sixth after leading the most laps and I had him figured in as a top-15. We also missed big with Kasey Kahne (4th) and David Reutimann (10th).

Our top two "B" drivers, Juan Pablo Montoya (14th) and Jamie McMurray (17th) did okay but we would have scored a lot better if we had picked Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman (5th) or Martin.

Note: Our race day chat from Charlotte will go live at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Plus, you can get updated by following my "Twitters" at GuruGarrow!

California history

Whether you're looking at who's scored the most points in the last two, three or four races at Charlotte, you'll see seven drivers in the top 10 of all three categories. Scoring the most points over the past two races is Kurt Busch (334), while his brother Kyle leads the three-race (472) and four-race rankings (637). Kyle has averaged from 156 points to nearly 160 over the last four on the 1.5-mile track.

Some of the other drivers who are top-10 in all three categories are Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, David Reutimann, and Ryan Newman.

Something else to think about

In the last two races on 1.5-mile tracks at Atlanta and Kansas, only Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart finished top-5 in both events. Meanwhile, only two other drivers were top-10 in each race, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards.

Six of the seven races this year on the 1.5-mile tracks were all won by Chase drivers except Chicagoland, when David Reutimann went to victory lane.

This has been a pretty tough track for a number of the current Chase drivers. Greg Biffle has finished 16th or lower in the last three starts at Charlotte, while Jeff Burton was 14th or worse in the same span. Carl Edwards is 16th or lower in three of the past four, while Denny Hamlin hasn't scored a top-10 in his past six attempts. Kevin Harvick, in the meantime, has not been top-10 at Charlotte in his past 13 outings, while Tony Stewart going without a top-10 in his last five starts in the Queen City.

Superspeedway Points: 2010 (Anything a Mile and up but not Daytona or Talladega)

This year, the Sprint Cup Series has run 20 races on tracks one mile in length and up, discounting the plate tracks and road courses.

With four wins, 10 top-5 and 12 top-10 finishes, Jimmie Johnson has scored the most points with 2,863, or 143 points per event, an eighth-place average finish. Just nine points behind him is Kevin Harvick (2,854) with Tony Stewart (2,813) moving up the charts to third. Rounding out the top-five are Denny Hamlin (2,741) and Jeff Gordon (2,702). The rest of the top 10: Kyle Busch (2,651), Jeff Burton (2,643), Matt Kenseth (2,594), Clint Bowyer (2,591), and Kurt Busch (2,556). And rounding out the top 20 are Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray, David Reutimann, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

California Pre-Race Top 30 Rankings

NOTE: The rankings are updated during the race day chats.
1. Tony Stewart
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Kurt Busch
4. Kyle Busch
5. Jeff Gordon
6. Carl Edwards
7. Denny Hamlin
8. Clint Bowyer
9. Greg Biffle
10. Kevin Harvick
11. Ryan Newman
12. Kasey Kahne
13. Matt Kenseth
14. Jeff Burton
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
16. AJ Allmendinger
17. Mark Martin
18. Joey Logano
19. David Reutimann
20. Jamie McMurray
21. Martin Truex Jr.
22. David Ragan
23. Paul Menard
24. Marcos Ambrose
25. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
26. Brad Keselowski
27. Regan Smith
28. Elliott Sadler
29. Casey Mears
30. Sam Hornish Jr.