It didn’t take Tony Stewart long to respond to the win at Phoenix by Denny Hamlin and his old crew chief Darian Grubb. A week ago, Stewart was being questioned for letting go of a guy who helped him to five wins in the last 10 races of 2011 and the Sprint Cup title. Now, after picking up his first victory in the third race of the season — Smoke traditionally turns up the wick much later in the year — he looks like a genius for bringing Steve Addington over as his head wrench. A week ago, he hadn’t had a top-5 finish. Now, he has a victory and finds himself in seventh in the standings.
How quickly things can change in the Sprint Cup Series. Let’s see who’s hot and who’s not after the third race of the Sprint Cup season.
Let’s talk turnarounds. None have been more glaring than points leader Greg Biffle. The Biff recorded his third top-5 finish of 2011 in the 34th race of the season at Texas. It turned out to be his last. On Sunday, Biffle recorded his third top-5 in the first three races of the season. In three starts in 2012, he has been third, third and third. No other driver has recorded even top-10s in all three races this season.
While it will be impossible to keep up with the level of consistency Biffle has established in the first three races, the No. 16 team is making fools out of those who thought they wouldn’t be Chase contenders this season — myself included.
Hendrick Motorsports should be a little less stressed about appealing Jimmie Johnson’s penalties from Daytona. They shouldn’t worry about the 25-point penalty at least because Johnson has already driven himself into Chase contention. The No. 48 team appears as strong as ever after leading laps and competing for wins in back-to-back weeks. After his runner-up showing at Las Vegas, Johnson moved up 14 spots in the drivers’ standings to 23rd. Don’t expect him to be outside of the the top 10 for too much longer.
Tony Stewart scored redemption on Sunday, winning at a track that he very well could have won at in 2011 if it wasn’t for a mistake on pit road. Unfortunately for Stewart, I’m not sure that momentum will carry over to the half-mile bullring that is Bristol. Smoke has one lead-lap finish in his last three starts there and a best finish of 19th. Last fall, he placed 28th and was three laps off the pace. Stewart and Addington proved they are capable of winning at Las Vegas, but performing well at Bristol could be a much bigger hurdle for the No. 14 team.
There are two ways to look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s run at Las Vegas. The pessimists will say Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team once again couldn’t finish the job with a race car capable of winning. After leading 70 laps, Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t make his way back through traffic and ended up 10th. The optimists will look at those 70 laps led and view it as progress. Earnhardt Jr. led more laps on Sunday, than he did all of last season (52).
The fact is that after a disappointing week at Phoenix, Earnhardt Jr. rebounded with a top 10 and finds himself fourth in the standings.
Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch are known as drivers that bring excitement and energy to the sport. So far in 2012, they have provided neither. Gordon and Busch have looked average at best.
After blowing up at Daytona, Gordon stole a top-10 result at Phoenix — I say stole because he ran more like 20th for most of the day. At Las Vegas, it might be fair to say he stole 12th because the No. 24 ran much worse than its finishing position would suggest. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have not been on the same page so far this season and instead of competing for wins, this team is fighting for top-10s and top-15s.
Busch has been just as quiet. While teammate Denny Hamlin competed for the win at Daytona, Rowdy — the Bud Shootout winner — was nowhere to be seen. Busch scored a top-10 at Phoenix and after qualifying second was expected to be at the front at Las Vegas, but it never materialized.
The good news is both drivers have had a wealth of success at Bristol and will have a chance to move from cold to warm this weekend.
Kasey Kahne and A.J. Allmendinger are back in the spots they were in for last week’s who’s hot/who’s not column. Unfortunately, it wasn’t either of their faults that there runs once again went bad at Las Vegas. These are two guys with new teams who just can’t catch a break.
After his working his way into the top five at the beginning of the race, A.J. Allmendinger ended up with his second finish of 30th or worse on Sunday after having fuel injection issues with the No. 22. After three races, Allmendinger’s best placement so far this season is one lap down in 18th at Phoenix. He finds himself mired back in 30th in the standings in what has been a season to forget thus far.
The ‘Dinger is finally getting his chance to compete in top-level equipment, but because of unusual issues at both Daytona — he ran into the back of Ryan Newman on pit road — and Las Vegas — the fuel pick-up problems, Allmendinger still hasn’t had a fair shot to perform and live up to the heavy expectations that have been placed upon him.
While Kasey Kahne’s with a new team, he probably isn’t feeling the pressure to prove himself like Allmendinger. The only pressure Kahne had to feel on Sunday was the pressure to bring the car home in one piece. Heading into Las Vegas, Kahne had been involved in an accident in every single car he had driven in 2012.
He was two laps away from having a clean top-10, or even possibly top-five run at Vegas when bad luck struck again for Kasey. After Carl Edwards got loose in Turn 2 on the final restart, Matt Kenseth and Kahne had nowhere to go but the wall. The end result was Kahne finished with another damaged car in 19th place.
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