ONE: The Lady In Black
There are few tracks that quicken my blood quite like the venerable Lady in Black – Darlington Raceway. This will be race number 111 at the 1.336 egg shaped track, a record that stretches all the way back to 1950: the second ever season for NASCAR and just the 21st race in the history of the sport. That number in itself is appropriate since the all-time record winner at the track NASCARHall of Famer David Pearson won seven of his ten races driving the famed Wood Brothers number 21 car. For me, one of the most intriguing features of the track is that drivers consistently talk about racing the track not their competition. That right there tells you everything you need to know as to why this track must – repeat must – stay on the schedule. I’m still sad there aren’t two dates a year at Darlington but one, as they say, is better than none at all. Given the way this season is going, I’m expecting we’ll see an eighth winner in the eighth race. Regardless of who does eventually take the checkered flag, I’m pretty certain we’ll see another great race at a legendary venue for stock car racing.
TWO: Team Penske’s Strong Start
It’s been an excellent start to the 2014 season for Team Penske with both principal drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano having already picking up wins and with it the provisional Chase berths. The stat lines thus far for both are necessarily impressive with the 2012 Cup champion at 1 win, 3 top-5’s, 3 top-10’s an average finish of 14.3, one pole position, 232 laps led; good enough eighth place overall. Don’t forget, either, that these numbers would be even better had he not picked up a late speeding penalty at Texas when he entered the pits in second place. Logano, meanwhile, has an even better line with 1 win, 4 top-5’s, 4 top-10’s, an 11.9 average finish, one pole and 276 laps led sitting fourth in the standings. With another 19 races still to run before the Chase begins, Team Penske has some rare breathing space (at least in terms of the Cup schedule) to experiment with set-ups and hone plans for the final ten races. Throw in Will Power’s win in the first IndyCar race of the year at St. Pete’s and overall it is fair to say things are looking good for the Captain and his entire organization.
THREE: Feast Or Famine
Kevin Harvick has become something of a poster child for the up and down nature of Stewart Haas Racing in 2014. On Monday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway, Harvick was running up front and looking strong early after qualifying second behind his owner Tony Stewart, when a loose oil pump destroyed his engine just 28 laps into the contest. So alongside his win and provisional Chase place at Phoenix, Harvick has four awful finishes —Las Vegas 41st, Bristol 39th, Fontana 36th and Texas 42nd — a 7th place run at Martinsville and a 13th place finish in the Great American Race. All told, Harvick sits in lowly 26th position in the overall standings, just 31 markers out of 31st place. In any other year there would be legitimate cause for concern but in this season under the new rules Harvick just has to stay in the top 30 which he still should be able to do even if this string of terrible results continues provided he sprinkles in some solid runs here and there. The other piece of good news for Harvick, despite his woeful luck, is that he had looked racy at a mile-and-a-half track and we all know their prevalence on the schedule. The Jimmy John’s Chevrolet was really fast.” Said Harvick of his abbreviated race in the Lone Star State. “It’s frustrating. I don’t know what else I can say.” And while there isn’t really much to say I do feel safe in saying this bad luck won’t last much longer – the team and the driver are both too good for that.
FOUR: Truex In Need Of A Turnaround
Sitting one place south of Kevin Harvick in 27th in the overall standings is Martin Truex Jr. who is yet to record a top-10 finish in 2014. After an engine failure and dead last 43rd place finish in the Daytona 500, Truex has continued the season with finishes of 22nd (Phoenix), a season high 14th (Vegas), 36th (Bristol), 23rd (Fontana), 21st (Martinsville) and 18th last Monday in Texas. The one bright spot so far for Truex has been his pit crew, a point he was quick to make on Monday. “We didn’t nail it today, but our over-the-wall crew sure did with consistently quick pit stops. They are a big asset to our team.” But the good news for Truex is that the next track on the schedule is something of a favorite. “I absolutely love Darlington Raceway, it’s probably my favorite track on the whole circuit,” said Truex and it is reflected in his results there to date. With an average finish of 11.4 he sits third among active drivers and in eight attempts he has one top-5 and 3 top-10’s and a worst finish of 19th. More impressively, he’s completed 2939 of 2940 possible laps – an extremely impressive record at a track that is, as the moniker goes, too tough to tame. Here’s hoping he bounces back with a solid finish this Saturday night to kick start his sputtering season.
FIVE: The Week Off
And finally this week, we’re headed into a week off for Easter after what has been an intriguing start to the 2014 season. Yes, weather has played a part with a number of lengthy delays not least in Texas, but with the exception of Phoenix we’ve had some pretty fine racing with the Daytona 500, Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville races being especially stellar. The NASCAR fan base (and media corps) can be lightning quick to criticize on all manner of issues but if the season continues in the same vein we’re in for a great year. Is it perfect? No of course not. Far from it. Are there folks that hate the new Chase qualifying format? Definitely. But is the racing fun to watch and is there enough to keep up all talking? Yes abso-flipping-lutely. Long may that continue. Enjoy the Lady in Black, folks.