If Bristol held a racing weekly series, Kyle Busch would probably be the five-time champion rather than Jimmie Johnson. Busch has won five straight races at Bristol Motor Speedway across all three of NASCAR’s national series, leaving countless Busch haters pounding their head against the wall repeatedly and flushing their M&M’s down the toilet.
No question, Busch is obviously the “hottest” driver in the sport right now. But with so much written about him, let’s go ahead and take a look at a few of the drivers who have flown under the radar a little bit in 2011.
*Kurt Busch -* Busch has yet to finish outside of the top 10 through four Sprint Cup Series races this year, the only driver who can so far claim that feat. While younger brother Kyle went on to sweep the weekend, Kurt (who only raced in the Cup event) finished seventh. Because of the strong start to the season, Busch is currently leading the points by one over Carl Edwards despite 51 laps led, a total good enough for only eighth-best on the circuit.
Moving forward, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Busch keep mowing ’em down with the top-10 consistency that defines points championships. Busch won at Auto Club Speedway while he was still racing for Roush Racing back in 2003 and has finished in the top 10 in three of the last four races in Fontana. In fact, Busch has been running at the finish of every single race he’s ever competed in at ACS.
*Jason Leffler -* Leffler grabbed the Nationwide Series points lead this weekend after finishing eighth at Bristol in Saturday’s race. Leffler, who is competing for Turner Motorsports this year after Steve Turner bought out Braun Racing last season, has finished no worse than 11th through four races while keeping his car in one piece.
Even with the points lead and his strong finishes, though, Leffler has remained largely unnoticed. He has yet to lead a lap this season, never running any higher than second after starting on the front row Saturday alongside Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. But the Cup guys won’t be infiltrating the lower series forever, and when the series championship takes center stage the driver of the No. 38 has quietly put together a solid, consistent season in the Nationwide Series. If he can keep it up, this driver and team may be a good pick to take home the title.
*Honorable Mention:* Paul Menard (finished fifth in the Jeff Byrd 500, off to the best start of his Cup Series career – fifth in points)
*Matt Kenseth -* How Kenseth manages to finish so well and remain unnoticed is beyond me, yet he does it all the time. Kenseth finished fourth on Sunday for his first top 10 this season, even though he never led a lap in the race and in fact never made it any higher than fourth. On average, Kenseth was running in the 13th position after starting 11th and didn’t even work his way into the top 10 until around 50 to go.
Kenseth seemed to make his initial push with 100 laps left, driving forward from 13th to very slowly and quietly work his way up into the top 5. Kenseth still has some work to do in the points, sitting 13th, 33 behind leader Kurt Busch, but there’s hope on the horizon. Next up is Fontana, where both he and his teammates at Roush Fenway Racing have shown quite a bit of prowess on that intermediate track. Kenseth alone has won there three times, including the site of his last victory coming in 2009.
*Elliott Sadler -* Like Kenseth, Sadler’s first top 10 finish of the season also came in a fourth-place finish at Bristol last weekend — this time in the Nationwide Series. Though Sadler’s somewhat slow start to the season has been a bit surprising, his two 12th-place finishes prior to Bristol were nothing to sneeze at, either. Also, like Kenseth, Sadler never actually led a lap in Saturday’s Scott’s EZ Seed 300, but he ran as high as second for about 30 laps, challenging leader Kyle Busch at several points.
That’s promising for a team once considered to be this year’s title favorite. Sadler’s fourth-place finish bumped him up four positions in the standings, up to eighth, and he now sits 32 points away from leader Leffler as we start heading into the meat of the Nationwide Series season.
*Honorable Mention:* Kasey Kahne (finished ninth in Jeff Byrd 500, two top-10s in four races have him 12th in series points)
*Joey Logano -* Though Logano’s engine has actually lasted until the end of the race the last couple of weeks — unlike at Phoenix, where his Toyota motor let go after 213 laps — he has yet to even finish inside the top 20 this season after a cut tire during a round of green flag stops ruined his day. For a driver that ended last season on a “7-6-5-4-3” finishing run before a season-ending crash at Homestead, the 2011 slump is a head-scratcher for a third-year driver expected to challenge for the Chase.
In fact, shockingly enough, “Sliced Bread” has yet to even finish on the lead lap, has yet to lead a lap, and has an average finish of 26th so far this season. The lackluster start to 2011 has Logano mired back in 30th in the points, 76 out of the lead. In fact, the No. 20 car is falling closer and closer to falling out of the top 35 in owner points, which will officially be used following this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway.
Right now, the No. 20 car owned by Joe Gibbs is 23 points ahead of the No. 36 car owned by Tommy Baldwin, which is currently in the 36th position. While it’s unlikely Logano’s No. 20 will fall out of the top 35 — and if they do, should have no problems getting in on time — it will still be something to keep an eye on this weekend if he has another poor performance off the lead lap.
*Ryan Truex -* After skipping Daytona, the younger Truex has finishes of 14th (Phoenix), 19th (Las Vegas), and 20th (Bristol). On the surface, considering he ran seven of the 35 races in the Nationwide Series last season Truex’s finishes could be looked at as fairly impressive.
However, last season, Trevor Bayne had this seat with Diamond-Waltrip Racing and had finishes of 41st (Daytona), 11th (Fontana), and sixth (Las Vegas) in his first three races last year. Later on, he contended for victories at tracks like ORP, ran inside the top-10 in points but still wound up losing his ride – so whatever they were looking for in Bayne (sponsorship?) Truex had probably better provide fairly quickly.
*Honorable Mention:* Brad Keselowski (finished 18th in Jeff Byrd 500, without a top-10 finish so far on the Cup circuit)
*Clint Bowyer -* Bowyer couldn’t catch a break in Sunday’s race, his blown engine becoming more of a mercy killing than anything else. Bowyer was involved in a crash on lap 438 when teammate Harvick went around in front of him, Jamie McMurray checked up in front of Bowyer, and Bowyer crashed hard into McMurray.
On lap 459, Bowyer’s engine let go and he would retire from the race 41 laps early. This race became Bowyer’s first DNF of the season, dropping him six positions to 24th in the standings. He is 66 points back heading into Fontana, a far cry from where pundits expected him after such a strong finish to the 2010 Chase.
*Brian Vickers -* Vickers’ 36th-place finish at Bristol over the weekend was his third finish of 30th or worse in four races this season, the poor performance coming as a result of getting caught up in the first crash of the day on lap 29. Vickers was able to return to the track after spending a significant portion of the race in the garage— including some major front end repairs.
But even limping around to finish the race still didn’t help his cause in the points. Vickers fell seven positions to 31st and is now 81 out of the lead heading into Fontana. Unless he turns it around quickly, the Chase is already a virtual impossibility at this point.
*Honorable Mention:* Casey Mears (finished 37th in Jeff Byrd 500, a distant 33rd in the standings – 98 points behind Kurt Busch)