Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Genius Of Hendrick, Gibbs, Martin And McMurray?

ONE: Hendrick and Gibbs Ahead of the Game for Now

One thing is clear: Hendrick and Gibbs know how to make the Gen-6 car work!

We’ll start off this week with a simple review of the facts: Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have won five of the six races so far and occupy positions one (Jimmie Johnson), three (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), four (Kyle Busch), five (Kasey Kahne), 10 (Matt Kenseth) and 12th (Jeff Gordon) in the standings. Denny Hamlin would undoubtedly be in that mix too had he raced at Martinsville. The point is this: Gibbs and Hendrick are ahead of the game with the new Gen-6. We saw how Johnson parlayed that early advantage with the introduction of the COT car in 2007 into a championship and right now you’d be hard pressed to argue against a title for at least five of the seven drivers I’ve just named. The one big but in this equation is the current champion, Brad Keselowski, who sits in second place just six points in arrears with a pair of third place and a pair of fourth place finishes. In short, Brad’s not missed a beat, even with the engine switch from Dodge to Ford: just as you would expect from a true champion. What he doesn’t have yet is a win. Once he gets it the rest should look out. But for now though it’s the big boys of Hendrick and Gibbs who are on top, the rest are playing catch up.

TWO: Cautious Optimism for Jamie Mac

A seventh-place finish at Martinsville Speedway wouldn’t typically be much to write home about, but in the case of Jamie McMurray and the beleaguered Earnhardt Ganassi Racing it might just be a glimmer of hope.

After a 2011 season team owner Chip Ganassi described as “pathetic” and a 2012 season perhaps best characterized as “pathetic 2.0”, expectations heading into 2013 for EGR were not especially high. So it’s encouraging to see McMurray already pick up two top-10 efforts in six races and five straight lead lap finishes—not least given he had just three top-10 efforts all last year. Yes, these are just baby steps but the signs are that McMurray (if not his hapless teammate Juan Pablo Montoya) could author a half-decent year and even contend for a Chase berth. Making McMurray’s run more impressive was the fact that his car was damaged in the big wreck on lap 180.

“We had a really good car at the beginning of the race. Even if we fell back I could get back in the top five and then after that little incident we got in,” said McMurray post-race. “Made a good pit call at the end and got a couple of extra spots. That was a really good day for us.”

He’ll need a fair few more good days in 2013, but so far so good for one of the sport’s good guys.

THREE: Mark Martin. One of a Kind

While I’m on the topic of good guys, I wanted to offer up a quick shout out to the irrepressible, ageless wonder that is Mark Martin who finished an extremely hard fought 10th place on Sunday; having started from the rear of the field in 35th and got off to a tough error-strewn start. Making matters more remarkable Martin, who made his 49th total start at the l’il old paperclip, didn’t even run at the sports smallest track in 2012 choosing to skip both races in his shortened schedule. He also sustained damage in the same wreck that nearly accounted for Jamie McMurray on lap 180 and had a pit road miscue when the jack man dropped the car before the left front was bolted on properly. And yet still, somehow, Martin finished up with a top-10 run.

“I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much. He is the master,” Martin said of his day. “I enjoyed this opportunity – it was fun.”

And that’s just the sort of response you would expect from a man who has consistently done things the right way with great class and quiet dignity.

Hamlin, who cut a frustrated figure on the pit box, was also quick to recognize Martin’s sterling effort tweeting, “Proud of Mark Martin today. He did my team well today. Jimmie Johnson won’t have it that easy in the fall I promise. Congrats to them.”

The Command

My biggest NASCAR “bucket list” wish is to give the command at a Sprint Cup race. Most people I tell this to just smile, slightly bemused, and tell me to keep dreaming. Good for them. I’ll show them one day when I get my chance, I tell you. I already have my inspiration, too, starting with these two simple but classic approaches from Brendan Fraser and Kevin James. Then of course there’s perhaps my favorite all-time command, albeit excessively over the top, from Kevin James (again) and his buddy Adam Sandler.

You’ll notice there’s a common theme here and that’s great enthusiasm. Not something we saw this past Sunday when it was the turn of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, producers of the History Channel’s excellent new series “The Bible.”

After an introduction of, well, biblical proportions we finally got to the key moment and Downey, who was holding the microphone, muttered all too meekly “Drivers please start your engines.”

Quite why the “please” was necessary, I’m not sure. All in all it was a disappointing effort and I’m surprised someone like Mark Burnett (who knows a thing or two about drama) didn’t have something more exciting up his sleeve. Burnett and Downey were at least saved (somewhat) by host Chris Myers, who quipped that their intro would be the “last polite words you’ll hear today.”

FIVE: Texas could be Terrific

I’m really looking forward to the race this Saturday night. Our first points paying race under the lights in 2013 on the often treacherous always fast high banks of the mile-and-a-half Texas Motor Speedway. After six races on a variety of tracks, the drivers and teams are well and truly getting to grips with the capabilities and characteristics of the Gen-6 car and that knowledge will only continue to grow. Sure, the Daytona 500 was processional and there have been strung out follow the leader segments in other races but for the most part NASCAR has made great viewing so far this year.

Fontana, for example, was one of the most exciting races in years (no question the best race at that track ever) and despite Jimmie Johnson’s dominance at Martinsville the race was more than enjoyable. So if my excitement proves to be misplaced and Saturday’s race is a clunker, I’m still more than optimistic the best is yet to come in 2013; and that’s a great place for the sport to be.

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