For the first time this year, the winner of the race was actually eligible for points… in the Sprint Cup Series at least. Jeff Gordon broke a 66-race winless streak, whilst keeping Kyle Busch from sweeping another weekend (he became the first driver to sweep an entire weekend across all three national series last August at Bristol Motor Speedway). Busch finished second and holds a three-point advantage over brother Kurt Busch heading into their hometown of Las Vegas, Nev.
Reed Sorenson gained control of the Nationwide Series standings after finishing fifth in the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 since Landon Cassill was without a ride this weekend. He has a five-point advantage over second-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
In the Camping World Truck Series, Matt Crafton moved up five positions in the standings with a seventh-place finish. He now leads by one point over second-place Clay Rogers.
Reed Sorenson: As mentioned above, Sorenson is the Nationwide Series points leader, but it wasn’t just because of Cassill’s inability to land a ride. Sorenson finished fifth for the second week in a row, though he still hasn’t led a single lap in the first two races of 2011.
To be fair, though, no one other than Kyle Busch led any laps in last weekend’s race. Still, Sorenson is getting more attention than he has in a long while. The last time he led the points was in the Nationwide Series in 2005 after the Meijer 300 presented by Oreo. He ended up finishing the season fourth in points that year, but has only finished in the top 15 in points twice since then in any of the three national series.
Sorenson wouldn’t be leading the points with NASCAR’s new points system and so far it’s working well for him and other Nationwide Series regulars.
AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger is off to a much better start than last year, with an 11th-place finish at Daytona and a ninth-place finish last weekend in Phoenix. Last season, he finished 32nd at the Daytona 500 and 25th at Fontana (which lost one of its dates after last season). While looking at points this early in the season is a bit premature, the top-15 finishes have put Allmendinger fourth in points so far this year.
After the on-and-off track struggles Richard Petty Motorsports faced last year, a strong start for them is important. So while early season success doesn’t always turn to mid- and late-season success, it doesn’t hurt to get a good head start with the new points system.
Honorable Mention: Kyle Busch (won the Camping World Truck and Nationwide races, finished second in Sprint Cup)
Matt Crafton: Crafton has finished in the top 10 in both races so far this year (10th at Daytona, seventh at Phoenix) and completed every lap, but has yet to lead. However, he has the points lead by just a mere point over second-place Rogers. The first two races have been won by drivers ineligible for points, so his consistency has allowed him the strong start in the points.
ThorSport Racing has come a long way since its humble beginnings and both of its drivers (Johnny Sauter also drives for the team) are usually very consistent drivers and have potential to be championship contenders. How long Crafton will maintain the points lead is unclear at this point in the year, but so far he’s off to a great start in 2011.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse took a lot of heat from NASCAR Nation last year for wrecking way too many cars. He had five DNFs at the end of last season and only finished on the lead lap in 18 of the 32 races run in the Nationwide Series last season.
I can’t emphasize enough how early in the season it is, but it’s also been emphasized routinely that the new points system makes it crucial to get a strong start. Stenhouse has done that. He finished eighth at Daytona and seventh at Phoenix. Like the other people on this list, he has yet to lead a lap but he has still completed every single lap of both races. It was definitely a start in the right direction since in 2010 Stenhouse didn’t finish on the lead lap of the race until he was six races in. Now, Stenhouse is second in points and five points behind leader Sorenson and has some good numbers to go with it.
Honorable Mention: Kurt Busch (finished eighth in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race)
Johanna Long: Long was mentioned as someone to watch for the Rookie of the Year battle in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but so far her season has been less than stellar. After getting caught up in a crash at Daytona and finishing 32nd, she finished 20th two laps off the pace at Phoenix. That puts her average finish at 26. That’s not terrible, but it’s also disappointing. Maybe expectations were placed too high for Long.
Long is 26th in points right now, but thankfully she has plenty of opportunity to improve herself and soon enough the series will head to some of the short tracks which are more Long’s expertise.
Aric Almirola: I might be being too harsh on Almirola, but I expected him to start much stronger than this. I fully expect Almirola to contend for the Nationwide Series championship this year and he’s not off to a terrible start. Right now he’s sixth in points, 22 points back from leader Sorenson.
His 13th-place finish at Phoenix was kind of lackluster. Yes there were several Sprint Cup Series regulars there for him to go up against, but JR Motorsports has very good equipment and I was expecting Almirola to finish in the top 10.
My expectations are still high, though, and he has more than enough time to move from sixth to first.
Honorable Mention: Brad Keselowski (finished 15th in the Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix)
Trevor Bayne: I expected Bayne to lose most of the spotlight this weekend. I didn’t expect him to fall from the very top to flat on his face in the course of one week.
After winning the Daytona 500 last weekend, Bayne raced in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series races at Phoenix and didn’t finish either one of them.
After crashing in practice for the Sprint Cup Series on Friday, things went from bad to worse. Bayne’s starting position of seventh in the Nationwide Series race seemed to foreshadow good things to come, but it wasn’t to be. Bayne went 164 laps until his right front tire gave and sent him careening into the outside wall. His race would be over.
In the Sprint Cup Series race, Bayne only made it 40 circuits before he turned up into Travis Kvapil and ended up backing into the outside wall on the frontstretch.
Surely Bayne can rebound before the year is over, but he put it perfectly after the Sprint Cup Series race, “This sport can humble you pretty quickly.”
Joey Logano: Sliced Bread has gone stale. A blown engine knocked Logano out of the race prematurely at Phoenix, completing only 213 of the 312 laps in the Sprint Cup Series race. A 23rd-place finish at Daytona isn’t helping matters, putting the third year driver 29th in points.
Thankfully for Logano’s sake, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide Series program continues to excel. He finished 12th at Daytona and sixth in Phoenix.
Honorable Mention: Kvapil (36th in Truck Series race, 39th in Sprint Cup Series race)
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