“SO close!” was the cry echoed by Junior Nation after Dale Earnhardt, Jr. saw the chance at victory slip from his grasp this weekend at Martinsville—but he still beat Kyle Busch, so that’s something right?
Earnhardt took the lead from Busch with 20 laps to go and held it until Kevin Harvick moved by him with just four laps remaining. Earnhardt barely beat Busch to the start/finish line for second place, with the two drivers finishing side-by-side and Earnhardt edging out Busch for the runner up spot. Both drivers were obviously disappointed, though Harvick was less than sympathetic after stealing the victory for the second week in a row.
Seriously, Harvick has only led a combined seven … SEVEN! … laps the past two weeks, yet he still managed to sneak through and force us all to hear the “Mr. Where-Did-He-Come-From” nickname that is way too long for a nickname and significantly more obnoxious than the usual “Happy Harvick”.
Harvick competed in the Camping World Truck Series race the day previous to his Sprint Cup Series victory, but didn’t have the same success. Let’s take a look at a few other drivers who had runs worth mentioning this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
*Johnny Sauter* – Sauter was able to steal the victory from both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on Saturday, becoming the first Truck Series regular to win a race in four races this season. His late-race pass on Busch—or should I say “bump and run”—was just enough to seal the victory, with an added bonus coming in the form of a newborn baby on Monday morning.
After finishing 17th in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, Sauter’s worst finish since then was a ninth place finish at Darlington in March. However, even with the strong finishes, Sauter hadn’t yet led a lap all season until Saturday’s race where he led 71 laps total.
The victory propelled him from fifth to first in the standings, now holding a five point advantage over ThorSport Racing teammate Matt Crafton. Sauter is already off to a better start than 2010, when he had yet to finish higher than 8th, had thus far failed to lead a lap, and was sitting 14th in points. He wound up finishing third in the final standings in 2010, and with the Cup Series drivers no longer eligible for points, Sauter might have an even better chance at making another run at the championship this year.
*Matt Kenseth* – Even with his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards getting most of the attention recently (and rightfully so), Kenseth has quietly been taking names the past few weeks, with finishes of 12th, 11th, 4th, 4th, and 6th in the last five races.
Ford Racing’s new FR9 engine has been well documented, and all the Ford teams and drivers seem to be happy with it. However, it’s not like Kenseth was all that terrible last season either. Sure, he failed to win a race, but Kenseth isn’t exactly the winning-est driver out there, winning 18 races total since entering the series full time in 2000. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but compare it to Kyle Busch who was won a total of 20 race wins in less than half as many starts.
Kenseth finished out the year fifth last season, and was second in points after six races. Right now he’s ninth in points, 24 points out of the lead. Again, his results this year are nothing to be ashamed of and it’s not like he’s anywhere near out of championship contention. Most likely, Kenseth will continue to knock off some solid results and possibly get a win or two before the year is out.
*Honorable Mention:* Juan Pablo Montoya (finished fourth at Martinsville, his second top-5 finish this season)
*Austin Dillon* – Dillon continues to prove he is no slouch when it comes to wheeling a racecar (or truck), finishing in the top 20 in all four races this season. Dillon’s seventh-place run at Martinsville last weekend has him seventh in the standings so far in 2011, though a little below expectations for some who had him winning the championship this year.
Dillon is expected to make his Sprint Cup Series debut later this season, and his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress has said he’s planning to move Dillon and his brother Ty up into the Nationwide Series in 2011. Dillon should probably start laying down some more top-5 finishes and wins before taking that next step, but the season is only four races young and there is more than enough time for improvement.
*Clint Bowyer* – Speaking of Richard Childress, it looks like Bowyer might be getting his mojo back. After starting the first four races of the season with finishes of 15th or worse (usually WAY worse), Bowyer has finished in the top 10 the last two weekends and even led a total of 91 laps this past Sunday in Martinsville.
After a penalty with nine races to go last season that left Bowyer with an insurmountable points gap and a 10th place finish in the points, Bowyer is looking for some vindication but hasn’t had the results yet. However, he’s slowly but surely working his way back up the standings again—he was 24th a couple of weeks ago. He’s 16th now and 61 points out of the lead.
Also of note: Bowyer actually beat Paul Menard for the second week in a row. Menard out-raced Bowyer in the first four races this season, somehow turning daddy’s money into some strong finishes. Slowly but surely, though, it looks like things are returning back to normal at Richard Childress Racing.
*Honorable Mention:* Jeff Gordon (finished 5th at Martinsville, his second top-5 finish this year)
*Joey Logano* – The good news? His engine held up. The bad news? He finished 13th.
The finish was actually his strongest of the season, but I didn’t see any celebrating coming from the No. 20 team this weekend. In fact, Logano’s previous highest finish in six races this year was 23rd (Daytona, Las Vegas, and Bristol)
People can throw out all the excuses they want about Logano: He’s still learning, he’s too young, he was rushed into the Sprint Cup Series too fast, etc. While there is some level of truth to each of those arguments (and perhaps to other arguments not listed here), the fact is Logano should at least be improving. Logano is currently 27th in points with no top-10 finishes, as opposed to last year when after six races he had three top-5 finishes and was 13th in points.
I’m going to try and give Logano the benefit of the doubt here, since admittedly he’s had some bad luck this year (tire failures, engine failures, etc.) With that said, however, he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire before any of that happened either. In fact, this past weekend in Martinsville, Logano was running on average in the 16th position and never ran any higher than third. He may have never ran that high had green flag stops not played a role in the race.
Logano isn’t a bad driver. He has some fantastic results in the Nationwide Series and has admittedly shown some flashes of brilliance in the Sprint Cup Series, finishing off the year at a tremendous pace in 2010. But where is that now and why is the driver known as “Sliced Bread” still failing to meet expectations? Yes expectations were incredibly high for Logano when he first entered the racing scene, but I expected at least some top-10 finishes by now. However, Logano could pick up the pace as we head into the summer months and have me eating my words by September.
Though I’m having my doubts about that right now.
*Greg Biffle* – Speaking of expectations … where the hell is Biffle? While his teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth are up in the top 10 in points and knocking off top-5 finishes, Biffle has one measly top 10 and is an embarrassing 20th in points.
To be fair, the 21st-place finish at Martinsville wasn’t very surprising for Biffle since the track is—let’s just say—not one of his best. Plus, Biffle had actually finished in the top 11 the past two weekends. The first three races of the season, though, saw finishes of 20th or worse, which is what has hurt him so badly in the points. 21st-place finishes, though, aren’t going to help him any, but maybe Biffle can do himself some good next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway where he took the victory back in 2005.
*Honorable Mention:* Travis Kvapil (finished 20th in Saturday’s Truck Series race)
*Nelson Piquet, Jr.* – The former F1 driver has had a rather slow start to the 2011 Camping World Truck Series season, finishing 30th in the fourth race of the season with Kevin Harvick, Inc. While no one expected Piquet to contend for wins or the championship hunt right out of the box, the results so far this year are disappointing compared to last season when in five total races he was able to grab three top 10s.
Piquet is in good equipment, and a sour engine at Daytona and some bad luck and driver error elsewhere have since kept him from a top-10 finish. What he needs is seat time, and with a full season scheduled with KHI this season, he’ll get plenty of it and hopefully improve some of these rather poor finishes.
*Regan Smith* – After showing so much strength in the season opening race at Daytona International Speedway, Smith has yet to lead a lap or finish any higher than 22nd. Following his 31st placing at Martinsville Speedway last weekend, Smith finds himself 30th in points and on the brink of falling out of the top 35 in owner points. He is 32nd in owner points, 28 points ahead of 35th.
Smith brought out the final caution of the day, with a broken right front rotor ending his day 33 laps before the scheduled distance of Sunday’s race. Right now, Smith needs to worry about finishing races rather than some of the early season prowess that seemed to spell good things for the season.
*Honorable Mention:* Martin Truex Jr. (finished 40th after a hung throttle sent him hard into the wall)
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