NASCAR

As the wheel turns

CHASE BOUND?
Joey Logano celebrates in Victory Lane at MIS.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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I have always said NASCAR is like a great soap opera. It’s an ongoing, week in, week out, sometimes day in,day out, kind of saga. There are storylines all over the place. The action you see on the track is mirrored by all the action behind the scenes that you don’t see. There is so much going on all the time that it’s sometimes hard to keep up with. That’s why I call it “As the Wheel Turns.”

Ok, but before I go further into that, how about Joey Logano Sunday at Michigan? I always tell you that in NASCAR it is amazing the difference one single week can make and Joey is living proof of that. He entered Sunday’s race with no wins and back there in 16th place in the points.

Now he’s 13th place in the points. He has a win and he is clearly in the 2013 Chase picture. Remember, there are only three more races to go in our regular season. When the checkered flag falls at Richmond the first weekend of September, the Chase field is set. Then it’s 12 drivers, 10 races and one champion crowned.

As strong as that No. 22 team is right now it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see them make the Chase by making it into the top 10 in points. If they do that in these next three races then they can leave all the wild card drama to the others who are scrambling to still make it in.

FOX Sports 1 debuted at 6 a.m. last Saturday. With this nail-biting fight to the finish of who is in or maybe even more importantly, who is out of the championship picture, it sure is a perfect time for this new network to debut. I honestly think it is going to change the landscape of how sports are covered.

The thing I have always admired about David Hill when he founded FOX Sports for Rupert Murdoch and now under the leadership of Eric Shanks and Randy Freer is they go out and hire former athletes who have played the game and have the credentials to be calling the action. Coach Joe Gibbs told me long ago, “If you are going to listen to someone, be sure to listen to someone that’s done something successfully in the sport.” FOX Sports is that way and now they are doing the exact same thing on FOX Sports 1.

I am really excited about FS1 – if you haven’t given it a try, I encourage you to. I think you are really, really going to like it. There will be plenty of NASCAR plus other sports as well. Last Saturday alone there were eleven and a half hours of NASCAR and UFC programming alone and the ratings were awesome. So the new network is off the ground and you’ll want to be sure to tune in because they have a lot of things in the works that you are going to love.

One person who loved leaving Michigan had to be Jimmie Johnson. Talk about a lousy weekend. He wrecked his primary car in practice. Then it went from bad to worse when he blew the motor during the race. Believe me, the tale of Jimmie Johnson at Michigan is a sad one. Unbelievably, it’s one of the few tracks that he hasn’t won at in his illustrious career. Quite honestly, the way he has run there the last few times we’ve been there, I wonder if he will ever win there. It’s not that he doesn’t run well there, but that place certainly has Jimmie’s number and seems to reach up and bite him every time he goes there.

The other group that has to be thrilled that not only is Michigan behind them but that Michigan isn’t in the Chase has to be Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin struggled there in June and I thought maybe he and crew chief Darian Grubb would have something figured out for this second trip, but evidently not.

On a whole, JGR isn’t peaking like I thought they would as we close in on the championship run. Sure Matt Kenseth has four wins, but they came earlier this season and he just doesn’t seem to be the threat he once was. Kyle Busch has three wins but he had his hands full Sunday at Michigan. Naturally, the Denny Hamlin situation with his early season injury is well documented.

Early in the season they came out of the box so strong. So strong in fact that I thought we might be seeing an organization that could take on Jimmie Johnson and the powerhouse that is Hendrick Motorsports. As I mentioned earlier, now is the time that you want your teams to be peaking but I just don’t see it yet over at JGR.

Now back to what I was saying about “As the Wheel Turns”, there are any number of storylines to follow right now. It’s official, Tony Stewart is done for the season, unfortunately. I had talked to Smoke a couple times and he had told me it really didn’t look promising.

Kyle Petty and I were talking about this on Sunday as we have both suffered broken femurs. The big difference obviously in my case was it was I shattered my left leg and not my right like Tony’s. I was able to come back in three months. I had a removable cast. Once I was able to get back into the race car, I obviously used my right leg for everything.

Tony doesn’t have that luxury. Working the gas, working all the pedals you have to have the flexibility and movement of your ankle. So to have a right leg injury, which is the dominant leg for gassing and braking the car in most cases, is critical. So Smoke is done. He’ll rest up, begin rehabilitation and come back for the Daytona 500. As they have on his race car #Smokewillrise.

The other storyline is Mark Martin. What an amazing man. I’ve known him since he was a kid. Heck, that was his nickname way back then “the Kid.” Actually he was a little scrawny kid by the way. Here he is now 54 years old and people fighting over him.

After Michael Waltrip Racing announced last Monday that Brian Vickers would be in the No. 55 car full time, the question then became what was Mark going to do. Would he go over to Tony’s? Would he go over to Earnhardt-Ganassi? I am so happy for Mark that people were fighting over a 54- year-old guy. I love the guy.

He is such an intense competitor. His workout ethic is second to none and as a result, he has been able to enjoy the longevity in our sport that he has. Now we know that Mark will finish he season driving the No. 14 car except at Talladega where Austin Dillon will be behind the wheel like he was Sunday at Michigan.

Mark is dedicated to being in that gym and it’s paid him huge dividends. He is in the greatest shape of his life and I’ll put him up against any other driver in that garage area when it comes to endurance. So it’s a good move for Stewart-Haas Racing to put Mark behind the wheel. Mark will help that team. Mark has helped every team he has gone to. He did it for Michael Waltrip Racing and he’ll do it for Smoke’s team.

“As the Wheel Turns” continues for Juan Pablo Montoya. Will he be back next year in NASCAR? I think it’s doubtful and I hate that because he’s been great for our sport. He says it has to be a winning caliber team but the problem is all those seats are full. Personally I can see Juan going back to IndyCar. He’s been great for NASCAR and NASCAR’s been good to him, but my gut just tells me he is ready for a series change. So I can see him moving to IndyCar or even a GrandAm car.

So there really is a lot of moving parts going on right now in our sport, again both on the track and behind the scenes. Ryan Newman’s future is still up in the air. He’s got 13 more races with Stewart-Haas Racing and then he’s a free agent at the end of the season. Unfortunately even though he finished 13th Sunday at Michigan, he lost an overall spot in the points falling back to 15th.

That didn’t help his Chase chances at all. There are now three drivers – Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr. and now Joey Logano, ahead of him not only in points, but more importantly they each have a win. So Ryan has to do something in these next three races to turn things around if he hopes to run for the championship in his last ride for Tony.

PHOTOS!

NASCAR's Sprint Cup, Truck and Nationwide series in action at Bristol. See the best scenes from the weekend.

The other big storyline in this soap opera we call NASCAR is Kurt Busch. People are talking to him about going to Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. I’ll tell you what – I beg Kurt to stay where he is. I just can’t see him simply walking away what they all have done over there collectively. It’s been nothing short of phenomenal.

Does their pit crew need to be improved? Sure it does but what he and crew chief Todd Berrier have done this season is something I just don’t think you can walk away from. No matter what track they show up to, that car is capable of winning almost every week. What else could you ask for? Things are going really well over there and I don’t see how life could get much better for Kurt. So why mess with it?

I say Kurt needs to stay where he is. There is so much potential and up-side there that he needs to see that through. Who knows, maybe they can get a second car going. He and his teammate could turn Furniture Row into a powerhouse. That’s what I’d like to see Kurt do.

So were off to Bristol – the House DW built. OK, OK the house I helped to build. “Follow me in Tennessee” is what I always told folks when we went to Bristol. It’s a magical place in my mind. The 12 wins and 42,000-seat grandstand in my honor hold a special place in my heart.

So coming out of Michigan, Joey Logano shook up the Chase picture by taking his first checkered flag of the season. Will that same scenario happen again this Saturday night at Bristol? It might so be sure to tune in for another exciting episode of “As the Wheel Turns!”

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, Joey Logano

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