Brett Poirier · Monday March 19, 2012
Brad Keselowski’s win at Bristol not only marked the fourth different winner in four races, but it marked the fourth different organization to visit Victory Lane. In all these events, all four manufacturers have scored wins.
There are six different teams represented in the top 10 in points, while Hendrick Motorsports — winners of 10 of the last 17 Sprint Cup titles — has three of its cars currently sitting outside the top 15 in the standings. Nothing in the NASCAR garage is hotter than parity.
But what about the drivers? Here is Who’s Hot and Who’s Not after Bristol:
Matt Kenseth always sneaks under the radar somehow, but the Roush Fenway driver is proving to be a championship contender this season. Kenseth, who finished second on Sunday, earned his third top-5 result in his last five trips to Bristol, and if it wasn’t for Brad Keselowski, he would have been looking at his second victory in 2012.
Kenseth didn’t look like no slouch at Las Vegas, either. In fact, he has actually led laps in all the races in this year and currently sits third in the standings. The season should only get better for the No. 17 team come Sunday at Fontana, where he has won three times.
In 2011, Martin Truex Jr.‘s averaged a finish of 17.72. So far in 2012, it’s 9.75. Michael Waltrip Racing figured something out at the end of last season and the results are coming fast and furious in 2012. Truex Jr. scored his second consecutive top-5 finish at Bristol to move himself up into fourth in the standings.
No one predicted Truex Jr. taking up a spot in the 2012 Chase when the season began, but because of the current strength of Michael Waltrip Racing, this guy might be here to stay.
Greg Biffle didn’t wow anyone with his run at Bristol. Biffle put his Ford on the pole, but after losing track position on the first pit stop, he was unable to get it back and ended up 13th. While the performance wasn’t stellar, Biffle kept his championship lead intact — albeit whittled down to nine points — and much like his teammate Kenseth, Biffle should be strong at Fontana.
Brad Keselowski had back luck at Daytona, and then again at Las Vegas, resulting in 32nd-place finishes in both races. When on the track, he has been tough to beat. He finished fifth at Phoenix and led a race-high 232 laps in a victory at Bristol.
This team has some work to do at a handful of racetracks, however, if they want to prove they are championship contenders. Keselowski was 26th last season at Fontana and 19th and 17th, respectively, in the two Martinsville races. The next couple of events will be tests to see exactly how far the No. 2 team has come in the last year.
I mentioned last week that Jeff Gordon seemed like he was fighting for top 10s and top 15s instead of wins so far this season. But after contact with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. late in the running on Sunday, Gordon didn’t even get that chance.
Gordon’s mired back in 23rd in the standings and has finished in the top-15 in one of his last three trips to Fontana. It doesn’t look like the odds are in his favor to improve in the near future.
Choosing between a pair of Gibbs drivers for this spot was too difficult, so I selected both. Denny Hamlin’s win at Phoenix proved not to be a sign of things to come. Since the victory, Hamlin has earned a pair of 20th-place finishes for his troubles. Darian Grubb failed to put a competitive setup under Tony Stewart last season at Bristol, and it appeared he also failed with Hamlin, who was two laps down on Sunday.
Kyle Busch has certainly shown more consistency than his Gibbs teammate, but he doesn’t have the results to show for it. Three of Rowdy’s four finishes have been outside the top 15, and after being the victim of an early accident at Bristol, Busch’s mounting frustration could be seen when he punched the roof of his Toyota.
A.J. Allmendinger qualified on the outside pole at Bristol and led 54 laps. It seemed that the No. 22 team was finally turning a corner with its new driver — then he fell off the map.
While Keselowski was just starting to shine in the middle of the race, Allmendinger began to plummet. By race’s end, the ‘Dinger had slumped to two laps down in 17th place. Penske Racing clearly has one team on the right page right now, and another that’s not even close; the No. 22 car that won two races and made the Chase in 2011 has yet to finish on the lead lap in 2012.
Kasey Kahne kept the streak alive on Sunday. Unfortunately, we aren’t talking about a consecutive starts streak or a string of top-10s. This streak is nothing to celebrate. A crash on lap 25 at Bristol means Kahne has wrecked in every car he has driven for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.
Some of the blame can be placed on Kahne’s shoulders, but bad luck has played a significant role as well. Either way, the pressure is on Kasey more than ever to stay out of trouble. After four races, the No. 5 car sits 34th in the owner standings. Another wreck next week could knock this team out of the top 35.
The good news is the series heads to Fontana on Sunday, where accidents are few and far between because of the amount of room to race. If there is a track where this intermediate specialist can finally turn things around, it’s Fontana.
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