Danny Peters · Tuesday March 15, 2011
As a proud Brit, albeit one who’s lived in Manhattan for the best part of a decade, I always like to slip in references within my columns to the motherland and this week I have the perfect opportunity. There’s an old English expression — “start as you mean to go on” – and as we look ahead to the ear-splitting din and unfettered bumpin’ and bangin’ at Thunder Valley this weekend, it’s a phrase that springs to mind when you consider the fast start Stewart Haas Racing has made to their third year of operation.
We’ll start with the standings. Tony Stewart sits in second place, level on points with Kurt Busch who sits at the head of the class by dint of his three straight top 10s. Ryan Newman isn’t far behind in fifth place some ten points back from his boss following two fifth place efforts in the second and third races of the season: So far so good, then, for the veteran driver duo.
But it’s not just the points; Smoke has led a series best 222 laps some 81 more round trips than the next highest — Jeff Gordon, 141 — and way ahead of “new favorite to topple Five-Time” Carl Edwards who’s led the pack to the stripe 90 times. And Stewart, in his own words, threw a chance at a 40th victory in a grand total of 431 starts at Las Vegas, saying post race: “I probably should [take solace at being in contention to win at all three races], but that’s not in my makeup. I mean, I just — it kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven’t won at yet. This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it, you — I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but just man, it does not sit good right now.”
And it’s the longer-term prognosis for his season, with the initial crushing disappointment now faded that is the bigger picture point here. Smoke absolutely dominated at a cookie cutter track; and with five mile-and-a-halfers on this year’s Chase schedule — Chicagoland, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Miami Homestead — that ain’t such a bad thing at all.
For Ryan Newman, in particular, a fast start is both hugely welcomed and something of a sweet relief given the past couple years. In 2010 he opened with 34th, 36th and 18th-place finishes. Although he won the seventh race at Phoenix, he never quite managed to dig himself out of his early predicament and missed the cut for the Chase after making it in SHR’s first year of operation. Newman did, in fairness, have a similarly horrible start to his maiden year with the team opening with finishes of 36th, 28th, 25th and 22nd and managed to make the Chase after a blistering stretch over the following ten races that year.
The overall point is not so much that it can be done, it’s more that you don’t want to start slowly and face an uphill climb right from the start: something that the likes of Jamie McMurray (29th in the standings) and Greg Biffle (32nd) must no doubt be thinking ahead of race number four in 2011, not least with the “potential for disaster” quotient pretty much maxing out at the venerable coliseum of NASCAR that is Bristol.
Getting off to a positive start seems to be even more of an important factor this year based on two early season observations. First up, drivers are complaining about aggressive maneuvering especially in the early stage of a race. As a fan that’s exactly what you want to hear (especially with races of such length) but as a driver it suggests there is little room for error. The second, and perhaps the even more crucial factor, is that the level of competition seems to have kicked up a notch.
Ford are clearly much stronger than in 2010, as evidenced by Carl Edwards and the results for the other so called “mega teams” of Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, while not perfect, don’t exactly scream weakness. But it’s not just the big teams. Montoya (part of a two man EGR tandem) has looked back to his best and Kasey Kahne has shown Red Bull Racing will also be strong. Martin Truex, Jr. is also in the top 10 as is AJ Allmendinger, albeit at this nascent stage of the season.
Add those names to Stewart and Newman and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (no pun intended) to see that the race for the Chase will be more congested then ever. It will be interesting, too, to see the importance of race wins to this equation with places 11 and 12 in the big dance being decided on race victories. That, though, is discussion for a later date. For now, the boys at SHR are off to a strong start. I see no reason why it won’t continue as we head into a great stretch of racing.
One final point: I struggled this week a little for a column topic so I asked a NASCAR loving friend. Said friend suggested writing about how Kasey Kahne should maybe switch to running trucks full-time. Given in four races, Kahne has won three and finished second in the other she might just have a point – albeit somewhat tongue in cheek.
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