Monday, April 4, 2011

Texas Storylines: Harvick and Hamlin Going For Three Wins In a Row

Everything is Big in Texas except the point lead with Edwards 5 back
A race at Texas Motor Speedway awaits, and if the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are any indication, you might want to wait until the very end to make any victory assumptions.

Each of the last two races – both won by Kevin Harvick – were decided in the closing laps. At Auto Club Speedway, Harvick passed Jimmie Johnson on the final lap en route to victory. Last weekend, at Martinsville Speedway, he nudged past Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 497 of 500 for a second consecutive win.

The lead swap was the 31st of the race, a Martinsville record. It’s the third time in six races this season that a lead-change record was set at a track.

This weekend’s site is different. The intensity is not.

A pair of night races offers fans a unique setting for racing. It will be the first night events at Texas for both the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Up first, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will return to the track, in Friday night’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.

On Saturday night, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will run the Samsung Mobile 500.

Storylines follow…

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

‘Happy’ Harvick Has New Nickname: The Closer
Kevin Harvick can now shed that facetious handle, “Happy.” After his last two wins, “The Closer” might fit better.

Harvick used two end-of-race passes for the lead to capture consecutive victories – the second time he has won back-to-back races in his career (September 2006 was the first). He will attempt to become the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver to win three consecutive races since Jimmie Johnson won four in a row in 2007.

Loop Data backs up the proposed nickname. Harvick ranks second in the Closer statistic, which tallies positions gained and lost in the last 10% of races. He has gained 22 spots this season, second only to Juan Pablo Montoya’s 31.

Sunday’s victory launched Harvick to fifth in the points standings. Better yet, it puts him in prime contention for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Starting this season, the top 10 in points will earn Chase berths. Spots 11 and 12 go to the drivers with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20. Harvick now has two victories, the only driver with multiple wins.

At Texas, Harvick is winless, but has eight top 10s in 16 races.

Hamlin Needs Rebound …Now
If he can't win at Martinsville, maybe Texas is the place
Most assumed a race at Martinsville Speedway would cure all ills for Denny Hamlin. One knows what happens when one assumes.

Hamlin finished 12th, only his second finish outside the top 10 in 12 Martinsville events.

This season, he has an average finish of 20.5 – in three of the six races, he has finished outside the top 20 – and Hamlin now sits 19th in points. It is his worst points position after six races since his rookie year of 2006, when he was 23rd after six events. He finished third that season.

No need to panic just yet. This weekend provides another nice opportunity for Hamlin to right his season. He swept Texas last season, attempts to tie Carl Edwards for most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins at the track and his Texas Driver Rating of 99.5 ranks fifth in the series.

Optimism High In Junior Nation
Dale Earnhardt Jr. offered up a possible teaser of things to come. Just four laps from the checkered flag at Martinsville, he held the lead – and a 98-race winless nearly was erased. But, as previously mentioned, Kevin Harvick crushed the effort.

Still there’s reason for optimism. Earnhardt moves to eighth in points, and his runner-up finish was his best since the Daytona 500 last year. He hasn’t been this high in the points since after the April Talladega race last season.

And this weekend at Texas, Earnhardt returns to the scene of his first win, on April 2, 2000. He has eight top-10 finishes in 17 starts at the track, and he leads all drivers at the facility in Quality Passes (green-flag passes of top-15 drivers) with 481 since 2005. He joins Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon as the only active drivers with an average start in the top 10 (9.9), tied with Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Ryan Newman with most Coors Light Poles at Texas with two.

New Leader, The 18
With his fifth top 10 in six races, Kyle Busch regained the points lead, and now holds a five-point advantage over Edwards. Busch’s five top 10s – including a win at Bristol – lead the series.

Other at The Top
Montoya continues his rebound season after missing the Chase in 2010. He moved up one spot to seventh. The top seven in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver points standings are from seven different teams: Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing), Edwards (Roush Fenway Racing) Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports), Kurt Busch (Penske Racing), Harvick (Richard Childress Racing), Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Montoya (Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates).

After a three-race hiatus, Mark Martin returned to the top 10, moving up four spots from 14th to 10th.

And some interesting names outside the top 10…
A number of Chase favorites continue to struggle: Denny Hamlin (19th), Greg Biffle (20th), Jamie McMurray (23rd), Joey Logano (27th) and Jeff Burton (28th).

Major Milestones Set For This Weekend
Watch for two big milestones at Texas this weekend – one guaranteed, one probable.

Jeff Burton will become the ninth driver to start 900 NASCAR national series races on Sunday. The breakdown thus far: 589 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, 306 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, four in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

If Kyle Busch leads 117 laps this weekend, he will reach 20,000 in his NASCAR national series career. Conceivably, he can reach the milestone in the NASCAR Nationwide race on Friday, which is scheduled for 200 laps.

Texas Homecomings
The Labonte brothers – Bobby and Terry – will both race at their home track this Sunday. Natives of Corpus Christi, Bobby will make his 21st start at Texas; Terry his 13th. Terry won there in 1999.

Additionally, Leavine Fenton Racing, co-owned by Tyler, Tex. residents Bob Leavine and Lance Fenton, will attempt to make its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut. David Starr, a Houston native and current Flower Mound resident, will pilot the No. 95 Ford for the team.

- NASCAR Media Services

No comments: