Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: 33 & a Third

Traditionally I’ve always divided the (way too long) NASCAR Cup season into esters. You have the Opening Drive of 12 races starting at Daytona where fans get to see who is running to be in contention for a title. Usually the cream rises to the top, but every year the Opening Drive offers up a few surprises. I call the second trimester of the season the Summer Stretch. As the temperatures heat up, the on-track action typically cools off. Legitimate title contenders try to solidify their positions as the Cup Series visits some of the worst tracks that host events.

There’s a reason TNT can only afford to host part of this section of the season. No other network wants it. Every year a couple drivers who seemed locked into playoff contention will falter and a couple who seemed hopelessly out of contention will rise to the occasion and grab a playoff berth. I’m not wild about the new points system, but the wildcard scenario for 11th and 12th place may see some talented drivers whose season’s have gotten off on the wrong foot rally to the challenge.

As hard as it might be to believe, the World 600 was the 12th race of the season and we’re now a third of the way done. A season that started in the brutal cold of February with seeming trice weekly snowstorms, at least in these parts, has given way to May and a brutally hot Memorial May weekend with temps in the 90s. Southeastern Pennsylvania was denied spring this year. We went from winter to summer and a Charlotte zip code on my business card is looking better every year.

This season has been chock full of surprises, but two of them stand out. First of course is Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 victory driving for the fabled Wood Brothers team in only his second Cup start. That was the kind of feel good story you normally need to turn to Hollywood to find. Unfortunately, not too long after there was less happy news. Young Master Bayne took ill and even the august Mayo Clinic can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong with him.

That’s worrisome, bordering on frightening. The staff here at Frontstretch, including myself, wish Bayne a speedy and full recovery, but also hope that the people closest to him will not allow him to return to the track until he’s 100%. Bayne had too much promise and too many good years (no pun intended) ahead of him to risk long-term health issues or injuries.

The second shocker came on the eve of Mother’s Day when Regan Smith won at Darlington. (I don’t care about the official name of the race. It ain’t going to be the Southern 500 again until they run it on the afternoon of Labor Day weekend.) Smith’s team, one of the smallest on the circuit and based out of Denver, Colo., is a hard-working outfit but hardly a favorite with the oddsmakers in Las Vegas every weekend. For just that one magical evening the old adage, “In any race, any team can win” proved true. It’s been a long, long, time since I believed it.

See also
Going Green: Is Regan Smith's Darlington Victory the Greatest Upset in Recent Memory?

We’ve already had a bit of controversy this year. Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya had their little tiff. Anyone who was surprised hasn’t been paying attention. Newman and Montoya have been running into each other since JPM’s first Cup start. For whatever reason, as the old line goes, these two just piss each other off. What was a little more surprising is that Newman apparently got away with throwing a punch at his rival in the NASCAR trailer while series officials tried to mediate a truce between the two.

Of course, we’ll never know. The official NASCAR line is, “We don’t know if it happened, even if we watched it happen, so our official position is someone is going to have to tell us what we saw and no one else was there.” Last time I remember fists being thrown in a NASCAR trailer is when Junior punched Tony Stewart for talking bad about his momma in Denver after one year’s Busch race.

Then of course we had a little post-race altercation between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch after Darlington. Maybe Joey Logano was surprised it wasn’t Delana Harvick in her firesuit trying to land a haymaker on his younger rival, but I wasn’t. These two sons of bitches can’t seem to get along with anyone and have had numerous instances of ill behavior before.

God bless ’em for it. I’d rather watch Busch and Harvick duke it out than watch Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have a well-mannered post-race discussion over who will pick up the tab for dinner. Busch had been trying hard to reform his sullied image, sounding quite reasonable and even humble in defeat or victory most of the year, but of course that all imploded when he got pulled over running at 128 mph in a residential area.

Sadly enough, it was not far from where 1989 Busch Series champ Robbie Moroso killed the driver of an oncoming car and himself speeding home from a bar. (Let me hasten to add that there wasn’t the slightest insinuation that Busch was intoxicated when pulled over. Some people need beer to be stupid… raising my hand here. Others are just born that way.)

Clearly one of the top stories in the opening part of the season has been Carl Edwards. He is after all leading the points and not by just a little. In fact the gap between Edwards and his pursuers is rapidly approaching a full race’s worth. Edwards has won one points race and the All-Star thingie. His Roush teammate Matt Kenseth has won two races this year. To put that in perspective in the entire 2007 and 2009 seasons Kenseth won just two races (each) all year. Last year he didn’t win any. In his 2003 championship season Kenseth scored just one win. (Which is apparently why we are now saddled with the Chase).

David Ragan has been running notably better much of this season, including his unlikely second-place finish in the 600 last weekend. Ragan already has more top-five and top-10 finishes this season than he did all of last year. Greg Biffle has had a wildly uneven season and the stress is showing, but he’s still ranked 11th in points.

Yes, the new Ford FR9 engine is apparently coming into its own and restoring a little parity into NASCAR racing. This year Ford has won four races to date (plus the All-Star Race if that amounts to a hill of beans). Last year it wasn’t until the 21st race of the season, Pocono in August, that a Blue Oval rang the bell.

While I am not privy to the numbers, I am told in a recent NASCAR dyno comparison test the FR9 put up the best numbers, but not by a huge margin. The apparent difference is the new Ford engine runs cooler. That allows teams to run more tape on the front end, increasing front downforce. That’s all important in the current Cup climate where front downforce trumps newer tires, a topic I plan to expand on in the near future. Here’s a preview. It’s ruining racing.

The trickle down effect of the cool-running FR9 has been felt by the few other Ford teams outside of the Roush organization. Satellite organizations one and all. Roush apparently got tired of playing by the rules while the Hendrick organization and its Stewart-Haas partners and others met the letter but not the spirit of the law.

Obviously Bayne won the Daytona 500. Almost as remarkably AJ Allmendinger in his Petty Motorsports Ford finds himself 13th in the points. RPM teammate Marcos Ambrose is 17th and perhaps a road course victory or two out of the title hunt. This is with a team that looked ready to flat-line late last season.

Kevin Harvick is second in the points and has won a series-leading three races this season. He’s off to yet another credible drive for the title. Paul Menard has been having his best season to date and discrediting folks like me who feel his Daddy’s big bucks bought him a ride. Clint Bowyer hasn’t been doing terribly. But he has just two top-five finishes all year, less than Harvick has wins.

See also
Kevin Harvick Wins 2011 Coca-Cola 600 as Others Run out of Fuel

Jeff Burton’s season can be considered nothing less than horrific. He’s still searching for his first top 10, much less top-five finish. He’s averaging a 21st-place finish, he’s mired 24th in the points and has led just 29 laps. I’ve been watching Burton race for a long time and consider him one of the most talented drivers in the garage area. Something is bad wrong here.

Johnson is third in points and has won just one race. Already some folks are kicking up dust and saying JJ’s streak of five titles is over. Not so fast my friends. Winning races pays good. Winning championships pays way better. This is a team that has the Chase formula down. For 26 races you keep yourselves in contention near the top of the points, experiment with some new stuff, try various strategies etc. and then with 10 to go you grind your competitors faces into the ground and take the top prize.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been running remarkably better this year. He’s ranked fourth in the points compared to 18th last season at this juncture. He had his heartbreaker at Charlotte last weekend. He’s finished second twice (and probably could have won at Martinsville with a tad more testosterone). Hey, NASCAR needs Junior to win. I’ll admit that. Maybe the day is getting closer. But like Danica and the Indy cars, it seems preposterous for the fortunes of a sport to hang on a single driver.

Gordon snapped a 66-race winless drought at Phoenix, a drought made remarkable only by the lofty standards Gordon himself set early in his career. As of late he’s been decidedly off song, with just one top-10 finish in the last six races. The No. 24 team’s new hallmark seems to be taking a car that’s competitive in the first part of the race and adjusting it into a state it’s hopeless. Wasn’t that the habit of the No. 88 team last year before the crew chief swap? Class, discuss.

One of the biggest disappointments of the season to date is Mark Martin. He’s 14th in the points, having led a grand total of seven laps all season. Even weirder for the modern era’s most talented driver never to post a title. He had a stellar day at Dover to show he can still get the job done, but the weird part is that Martin, once considered the cleanest driver in the sport, is all of a sudden causing wrecks like he’s channeling Robby Gordon. It’s like Martin has decided to humiliate his legacy even worse than Darrell Waltrip did in the waning years of his career. As it stands written in the book of Bruce,

Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight
and I’m going to drink till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of,
well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister,
But boring stories of glory days

What’s going on at Joe Gibbs, Toyota’s primary invasionary force? Well looking at the schedule as a whole it’s hard to fault Kyle Busch’s performance to date. It’s gotten to the point when it’s a major surprise when Busch doesn’t win a truck or Nationwide race. It’s not good for either series but hey, he’s playing within the rules. On the Cup side, Busch’s success has been a little less domineering, with two wins at Martinsville and Richmond. He’s led a staggering 852 laps and posted a very impressive six top fives in the season’s 12 points races to date.

What remains troubling is despite Busch’s decided effort to comport himself better off the track so the world won’t think he’s the biggest bunghole in the world, just one of the top 10, when Busch gets frustrated he is prone to ruining his own chances. His patented move of sweeping from the top lane to the bottom after something goes wrong has triggered several major crashes this year in all three series. Then of course he had his high speed run-in with the law that once again cast him in a bad light. I’ll go on record as saying that Busch will win several Cup titles, maybe even an amazing amount of them, but not until he grows the Hell up.

Denny Hamlin has probably been the biggest disappointment to date this year. After leading the points going into the Homestead finale last year, Hamlin’s stats to date have been less than impressive. He has a single top-five result, a second-place finish at Richmond. By this point last year Hamlin had already won three times despite knee surgery early in the year. This wildcard scenario could still play into Hamlin’s hands. I am confident he can still rip off a pair of consecutive wins at any juncture of the season, but the clock is ticking.

So much was expected of Joey “Sliced Bread” Logano when he began his Cup career that perhaps it’s unfair to say he never lived up to expectations. Still, a single top five and one additional top-10 result in 12 races while driving for Toyota’s top tier team has got to be considered disappointing. Logano has led all of two laps this season.

Mired 23rd in the points maybe it’s time to change this kid’s nickname to “cold wormy crusts.” Maybe someday Logano and Casey Atwood will be shooting pool at a roadside bar listening to Martin and Waltrip belt out their karaoke version of Glory Days. The big difference would be DW and Martin actually did have some Glory Days.

What’s become of Stewart-Haas Racing? They showed such promise in their debut year maybe Rick Hendrick is giving them the used stuff the No. 88 team used last year. I’ll be fair. Stewart looked like a contender at Vegas. But as of late he’s just been dodging the start and parkers to stay out of the way of the leaders. Stewart himself has labeled his teams performance lately “embarrassing.” But then Stewart has always been a slow starter who comes on as the weather gets hot so there’s still hope for the No. 14. Ryan Newman has struggled far less with four top-five finishes but only one other top 10 all year.

This deep into the season most people may have forgotten that Kurt Busch opened the season with four straight top-10 finishes, the only driver to have done so. After that the wheels seemed to have fallen off of Penske South’s little red wagon. In increasingly profane and pointed terms Busch accused his team of providing him with uncompetitive mounts. Saturday night at Charlotte Busch stumbled into a fourth place finish but I doubt whatever is broken is truly fixed quite yet.

Busch’s teammate Brad Keselowski is floundering to date. Other than his third-place finish at Darlington, Bad Brad just hasn’t been running well all season. He’s led a total of 41 laps all season and is averaging a 21st-place finish. That has him mired back 25th in the standings and in desperate need of a win that just doesn’t seem in the cards if he is to make the Chase.

It’s been an interesting start to the season, but now we have to endure the Summer Stretch, typically the most boring part of the Cup calendar. Some may rise, some may fall, (to get to Terrapin, right?) but it seems obvious right now at least the three favorites in the title Chase are Edwards, Harvick and Johnson. Will RCR or Roush finally be able to unseat the No. 48 team? Could a darkhorse like Kenseth or Kyle Busch emerge from the pack to mount a serious title challenge? I don’t know. That’s why they run these races every weekend.

Stay tuned.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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