Saturday, June 25, 2011

Winds of change blowing through NASCAR?

Sonoma, California – Change is in the air in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Can you feel it?

I can. Or maybe it’s just me.

When NASCAR’s top series came to Infineon Raceway here at this time last year, I had the distinct feeling that Jimmie Johnson was on his way to a record-shattering fifth straight series championship. Those feelings were confirmed just before turkey was served at our house last Thanksgiving Day.

And while JJ title No. 6 certainly is in reach as Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 approaches, I’m seeing cracks in the Car 48 team’s armor this time around.

Johnson stole one at Talladega in the springtime, and he’s in a solid No. 4 position in the current Chase points standings. He’ll be among those racing for the big prize come fall.

But frankly, Johnson’s team has looked far from razor-sharp this year. A litany of errors in 2011 includes on-track miscues, bad calls in the pits, sloppy work by the pit crew and late-race engine failure. Granted, the Car 48 team has been functioning on such a high level for so long that some of these mishaps – common to all teams – get blown out of proportion.

But they’re undeniably there. It’s hard to ignore them.

My preseason pick to dethrone Johnson, Carl Edwards, has been humming along in the points lead, but he too has stubbed his toe along the way. Kevin Harvick is right there, as is Kyle Busch. And despite the constant hasn’t-won-a-race-since-forever count the media keeps running on Dale Earnhardt Jr., he is likewise in great shape in the points with the summer racing venues coming up.

At this rate, the season-concluding “playoffs” among the top drivers promise to be quite a show. And yes, Johnson could still win it all yet again. He has been counted out before – last year, for example – but he has managed to rally when it counts most … aka trophy-hoisting time.

Still, my gut says Edwards. He seems to have the package this year. Confidence is definitely not lacking. And he drivers the mix of remaining tracks with high skill. That’s a pretty strong hand when all the chips are in the center of the table.

Sunday’s race here on the permanent road course could play a major role. The twisting turns of Infineon have a way of shuttling top drivers to the back and cutting down once-sizable points leads. Truth be told, I’m guessing that most Sprint Cup drivers have a simple goal when the green flag starts tomorrow’s race: Just survive baby!

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