Monday, April 2, 2012

NASCAR Storylines During an Off Week

F-18's fly above Martinsville prior to Sunday';s race (Getty)
With the traditional Easter bye week in place, it’s time for everyone in NASCAR’s national divisions to collectively exhale – especially those in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage who have been busy on-track since the third week of February.

All continue to chase Greg Biffle, whose revamped team under direction of crew chief Matt Puccia has been the "steady Eddie" of the 2012 season. Biffle took over the points lead after finishing third at Las Vegas and, with three top-five and four top-10 finishes, has refused to relinquish the spot he hadn’t held since mid-2005. Biffle, Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth and last year’s championship runner up Carl Edwards give Roush Fenway Racing three spots among the top 12.

Biffle isn’t the only driver wearing a smile. Stewart-Haas Racing has won three times in six races, two by defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Tony Stewart and one by Ryan Newman.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winless streak reached 135 at Martinsville but his third-place performance moved Junior to second in points – his best ranking past the first race of the season since 2008. His teammate, Jimmie Johnson, has climbed to 10th in points after finishing 42nd at Daytona.

Likewise, it’s been a remarkable turnaround at Michael Waltrip Racing: Martin Truex Jr. and newcomer Clint Bowyer solidly among the top 10 and a third entry shared by veteran Mark Martin and Brian Vickers also in the top 10 of the owners’ championship standings.

The pause is welcome for several who have struggled – at least points-wise. Jeff Gordon is 21st – 90 points behind Biffle and 53 points outside the top 10. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, despite winning two Coors Light Poles, is 31st. The focus of both would appear to rest on winning races to gain a "Wild Card entry" into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.™

NASCAR Nationwide Series fans are applauding the solid performances of its core drivers. Elliott Sadler has won twice; defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. once as NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars have been able to claw out just one victory in the season’s first five races.

"Youngsters" also are starring in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series where Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender John King, 24, won in Daytona and became the first rookie to head the points after multiple races. Ty Dillon, 20 and younger brother of 2012 champion Austin Dillon, finished second at Martinsville Speedway – the first rookie to do so since 2005.


SHR's Emphasis on Winning
Three wins in six races for Stewart-Haas Racing (Getty)
Stewart-Haas Racing has three wins in the first six races with Tony Stewart third and Ryan Newman, the winner at Martinsville, eighth in points. Neman’s crew chief Tony Gibson talked about how SHR operates as one team with the confidence that either driver could win each week: "We know we are working hard as a company to make sure both these cars are as close as we can get, other than what the two different drivers need, little things. We have everything there we need to win every week. It's hard to win every week, but we have got the equipment and the drivers to do it. We just have to execute and make sure it happens."

SHR has won eight of its past 16 starts dating to the beginning of last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.

Steady 88 Leads Fast Hendrick Group
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has three top-three finishes, and the rest of Hendrick Motorsports has had bad luck despite having some of the fastest cars as a group. As Dale Jr. said, "I'm happy with the way our car is running. I can't believe the 5 and the 24, they have been fast, the 5, sitting on the pole and he has been fast everywhere. He was killer fast at Phoenix. The 24 has been lightning fast at a lot of places. Jimmie is always quick everywhere. So they just had really bad luck. I think we actually have more speed as a group, as a whole, than we did last year."

Earnhardt, who moved to second in the points standings – six behind Greg Biffle – hasn’t ranked this high this far into the season since 2008.

Hendrick Motorsports continues to seek its 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory.

Roush Ready for the Chase
Roush Fenway Racing has two cars in the top four and all three in the top 12. Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth (along with Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.) is 12 points behind teammate and points leader Greg Biffle while last season’s standings runner up Carl Edwards is 12th. Kenseth and Biffle are two of only three drivers to have three top-five finishes. (Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the other.)

Mikey Likes It
Michael Waltrip Racing still has three drivers in the top 10 in owner points and two in the top nine in the driver standings. Martin Truex Jr. is one of four drivers with four top-10 finishes, along with Biffle, Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.

Truex’s surge shouldn’t surprise many. The New Jersey native finished the 2011 season with five top 10s in the last six races.

Good News And Bad For Kasey Kahne
Great cars every week, bad luck every week (Getty)
Kahne’s second Coors Light Pole of the season at Martinsville moved him ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates with the most fast qualifying performances – 18 – since 2006. Jimmie Johnson has 17 and Jeff Gordon 16. Unfortunately for Kahne, fast on pole day hasn’t translated to finishing well on race day. He failed to lead a lap at Martinsville, just as he did at Las Vegas.

"I am upset that we haven’t run great this year, but we are great on Friday and Saturday, we were fast again today, and we have the speed so when it’s our time we will be ready to take advantage of it," said Kahne, who slid to 31st in NASCAR Sprint Cup points following his engine failure at Martinsville.

Kahne isn’t the only "big name" driver outside the top 20: Gordon is 21st, Jamie McMurray is 24th and Kurt Busch is 26th.

Bonus Points So Far This Season
Bonus points can be the difference between qualifying for the Chase and missing the cut after race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway in September. The top four drivers in the bonus point category after six races represent four different manufacturers. They are Tony Stewart, 11 and Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski with eight points apiece. Keselowski is the only one of the quartet outside the current top 10 (12th) but has a leg up on a "wild card" qualifier with his victory at Bristol Motor Speedway last month.

Speaking of wild cards, Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate AJ Allmendinger got painfully close to tossing his helmet in the ring as he finished second at Martinsville. The finish did move the Los Gatos, Calif. driver into 20th in points - a ranking that would make Allmendinger eligible to exercise a "wild card" should he get to Victory Lane.

One Position The Difference Between Locked In And Qualify On Speed
The No. 83 owned by Thomas Ueberall and driven by Landon Cassill is in the field at Texas Motor Speedway on April 14 by the slimmest of margins: one point and one finishing position. That’s the difference between the 35th and 36th positions in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series owners’ championship standings following the season’s sixth race at Martinsville Speedway. The No. 10 owned by Tommy Baldwin and shared by David Reutimann and Danica Patrick is 36th and must qualify its way into the Samsung Mobile 500.

The ongoing battle over a top-35 ranking currently is a three-way battle. Richard Childress’ No. 33 Chevrolet is four points to the good in 34th – but that’s good enough, at least for now.

Tires Ready To Turn On Michigan’s New Surface
Five drivers, including three who have combined for five wins at Michigan International Speedway -- Jeff Gordon (2), Matt Kenseth (2) and Kyle Busch (1) -- are scheduled to test the repaved track this Tuesday and Wednesday. Michigan native Brad Keselowski and Juan Pablo Montoya round out the group.

"We don’t know what to expect at Michigan. I love Michigan," said Gordon. "We want to play our role and help Goodyear develop the best tire for that track. If we can gather some data that is beneficial to us then we certainly are going to try to take advantage of that as well. It kind of comes at a price. You are giving up a couple of days that you could be developing things at the shop and your key guys that could be resting."

- NASCAR Media Services

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