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NASCAR at Loudon: Cup Teams Feeling the Pressure of “Crunch Time” at NHMS

With nine weeks left to qualify for The Chase in 2010, a lot of Cup teams are feeling the pressure to improve their positions and it’s definitely “Crunch Time” for them, especially at NHMS this weekend. Of course, one does have to wonder if there won’t be another type of “Crunch” going on this weekend after several drivers left Sonoma last weekend feeling they had been the victims of overly aggressive driving from some of their fellow competitors. Taking all of this into account could make for a very interesting time on this fast flat track they call the “Magic Mile.”

It is true, the race at Sonoma last weekend was filled with hard charging aggressive driving that resulted in some not doing as well as they’d hoped. Among those feeling the most pain (at least vocally) were Martin Truex Jr and Elliot Sadler. Although there were others, because of their run-ins with a more aggressive than usual Jeff Gordon, they were the ones that took the biggest hits in points compared to where they were going to finish and the points they would have come away from Sonoma with.

It is interesting to me that so much has been made of these situations this year, because situations like this surface every year at the road courses and not so much is made of it, (well, at least from this fan’s view.)

In my opinion, it is more dramatic this year for several reasons and one of the biggest is the changed economy. Performance has become even more important because sponsors are spending a lot of money and want better results rather than just visibility in NASCAR. They want to be up front and on camera and not just getting honorable mentions for running in the top twenty or so.

In reality, no one can blame them (and no one really does) but it has made it tougher on every team competing in NASCAR simply because, in this economy, the sponsors have to even more closely account for, and justify, their expenditures to their stockholders. In fact, not even the front runners are guaranteed they can keep their sponsors either and all of this pressure carries right on down to the teams’ performances on track.

This weekend at NHMS in Loudon could be the week of the unexpected winner. I really do think those that have performed well in the past will perform well again this time, but this time there seems to be more incentive for those that have just been trying to scrape through and make it into The Chase to be more aggressive.

In listening to Martin Truex, Elliot Sadler and several others, it appears to this fan they have decided it is now or never if they’re going to have any chance at getting into The Chase and they are going to have to be not only aggressive but smart. They are going to have to pull out all of the stops and take chances they may not have taken in the recent past and that may mean not being such a nice guy when it comes to those running around them.

I believe (or maybe I should say it is my opinion) several of the drivers have tried to be too cautious and that is what has put them in the position they are in this season. In listening to Juan Pablo Montoya in interviews earlier this year, it seems they tried to be cautious and points race like they did to get into The Chase last year. Last year, that strategy worked for them. Unfortunately, it is pretty obvious where that strategy has gotten him and the #42 team this year.

Even though competitively you’re trying to be cautious, you never know when an extra position or two in a race could have changed your whole year in the standings. I’m not saying Montoya’s luck would have been any different and that he wouldn’t have to be fighting so hard to get into the top twelve, but I am saying there is the possibility had he not been carefully points racing, trying to stay near the front and ease into The Chase, things could have been totally different for him right now. As it is, he is struggling right now even though he is sitting on the pole for tomorrow’s Lennox Industrial Tools 301.

So far, this year has been one of the most competitive seasons NASCAR has had (at least from this fan’s view), and I think it is for several reasons. NASCAR has made several rule changes that have added more to the competition on a weekly basis than even they  hoped they would. The double-file restarts would be at the top of my list for being the biggest game changer. Add to that up to three tries at a green-white-checkered finish and you have two of the things that have made the greatest impact in who finishes where in a race this year. It has totally changed race strategy at the end of the race.

Will either one of those have something to do with who wins at Loudon on Sunday? Yeah, probably so, but this weekend at the Magic Mile has a lot more going on than just another race with double-file restarts and green-white-checkered finishes. This weekend several more drivers and teams have even more to prove, not only to their sponsors and competitors, but to themselves. This is “Crunch Time” for many and their performance over the next few weeks will tell whether they have what it takes to run for first place and the Cup Championship, or just thirteenth…

See ya next time… Rusty

All views expressed are strictly the opinion of the writer

© June 26, 2010 – all rights reserved

Rusty Norman and

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By Rusty Norman

Amateur writer, NASCAR Fan, musician and former local Stock Car racer.