The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday March 13, 2012
Three races is a small sample size especially in a season that stretches 10 months and some 36 races. At this nascent stage of the year a poor start is just that, but it won’t take long for a poor start to become a deep hole, and deep holes – unexpected hot streaks notwithstanding – are very hard to climb out from. So with that in mind, here are two drivers to watch and three drivers who might just need to watch out as we head to Bristol Motor Speedway and the high-banked chaos of NASCAR’s coliseum – Thunder Valley.
We’ll start with the good news and two drivers to keep an eye on based on results so far.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
You may not have heard, but it’s been some time since Dale Earnhardt Jr. last went to Victory Lane. In fact it’s been so long I think the races were broadcast in black and white. (I kid, I kid before you destroy me in the comments). Put simply, Junior has had his best start to a season in a long while, finishing second at Daytona, 14th at Phoenix and 10th at Las Vegas, where he led the first 70 laps before being mired back in traffic. Now with a full year under their belts, crew chief Steve Letarte and Dale Junior are clicking, and the results prove this out. Eventually the win will come – maybe even at Bristol or Martinsville – but more importantly, Junior is making waves and not just because of his rather well known last name.
“We should have run better. The team feels we should have been better and we’re a little disappointed. It was more my fault than anything else because I didn’t give him enough information. I should have told Steve more about it, let him understand what was going on.”
When a 10th place finish (and 70 laps led) at a mile-and-a-half track isn’t deemed good enough, the overall prognosis is very good. Look for Junior to keep this early season form going over the next couple months.
Sunday’s ho-hum 20th place finish for Denny Hamlin was nothing to write home about. But a strong run in the Daytona 500 (fourth place, most laps led) and an early season win in the second race at a location that nixed his 2010 championship charge were worth penning a note. With 2011 championship crew chief Darian Grubb now atop the war wagon and the calming influence he has brought not just to the No. 11 team, but to the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization, Hamlin seems like a completely different driver.
While his driving abilities have never really been in question, Hamlin’s mental approach to the sport — and how he deals with adversity — certainly has been. Grubb should help smooth those peaks and valleys across the course of the long season, and provided they get the speed they need at the mile-and-a-half tracks, expect Hamlin to be a factor all 2012 and deep into the Chase.
And now three drivers who need to watch out…
During Sunday’s race broadcast at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, good old DW — who appears to be even more excitable this year than ever before…if that’s possible — made the point that AJ that is a driver the NASCAR community refers to as having great potential. And whilst this is true, indubitably the pay window to deliver on that potential is now wide open; it’s time for AJ to make the break through, win a maiden race, and start showing everyone he can run in the top-10 week in and week out.
So far in 2012 that has not been the case, with an underwhelming string of results: 34th in the Daytona 500, 18th at Phoenix and 37th at Las Vegas. Sure you can make the case that he was unlucky at Daytona and also at Phoenix, where he was caught up in a wreck, while last Sunday he had issues with fuel pressure. But the simple fact is that at some point, regardless if the problems are of your own or someone else’s making, bad results make for terrible points days. AJ is some 81 points – nearly two full races out of first and 22 points (about half a race) – from 20th place. Should AJ secure that elusive first victory the picture would be instantly rosier but after 155 races and a mere four top-5 finishes, now is absolutely the time for AJ to start turning that potential and promise into bona fide results on the track. If he doesn’t, 2012 will go downhill rapidly.
2012 was always going to be a tricky season for the first ever Chase format champion, but the first three races have really done nothing other than to hammer that point home with an instrument Thor would normally use. Busch wrecked three cars during Speedweeks and added another at Las Vegas after being caught a lap down in unlucky fashion. With a season high point of 15th at Phoenix, it’s swiftly becoming clear that 2012 is going to be a long, hard slog for a man not well schooled in words such as patience and fortitude.
After the opening to the season Busch has had, I’d say he was primed, Vesuvius style, to explode on some poor unsuspecting pit reporter or team member. Should be fun to watch, and what better place than Bristol (up next this weekend) for the fireworks to begin. At this rate, Busch might not even make it to the halfway point if for no other reason than he’s wrecked all the cars his tiny 18-person team has produced.
Jet Dryer Montoya:
Poor Juan Pablo Montoya – he literally can’t buy a break, can he? The incident in the Daytona 500 when he slammed into a jet dryer under caution might just go down as one of the top-10 most crazy incidents in sixty some years of NASCAR racing.
“I have hit a lot of things, but a jet dryer? I mean, no,” said Montoya after the race (and being cleared by the medical folks). When you start your season like that you have to wonder if, already, it’s just going to be “one of those years.” Trouble is for Montoya, all of 2011 was one of those difficult years for both the Ganassi drivers. (Jamie McMurray was all but anonymous after winning three of the biggest races in 2010 – Daytona 500, Brickyard and the Charlotte fall race.)
As Ganassi himself noted during the pre-season media tour, “Hopefully this is the last time I have to say we finished 21st and 27th in the points last year…. [That’s] pathetic for a team with our ability and resources.”
So far in 2012, Montoya has finished 36th, a respectable 11th at Phoenix and 25th this past weekend at Las Vegas. Whatever bizarre quirks of fate do befall him, one thing is for sure, he needs upward and positive momentum and he needs it fast.
One last thing: The last time a major race ran at Las Vegas, it was the final race of the 2011 IndyCar Series season: a race that never made it past lap 12 of the scheduled 200 due to a horrific 15-car wreck that saw the two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon tragically lose his life. I was there that day and I pray I’ll never see anything like that again at a racetrack. So on the one hand, this past weekend, I was just happy to see the races progress without major incident. RIP Dan. You are sorely missed.
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