The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Who Makes Their Mark With 250, 500... And 875 by Danny Peters -- Tuesday September 24, 2013

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ONE: And Then There Were Three

We are just two races into the 2013 Chase and already the top three drivers are starting to put some distance between themselves and the remaining nine (sorry, ten) Chase participants.

In both of the opening races the Joe Gibbs Racing tandem of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have finished first and second respectively with Jimmie Johnson following up a hard fought fifth place finish at Chicagoland Speedway with a solid fourth place run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Kenseth holds a 14-point lead over his teammate and an 18-point lead over Johnson. Carl Edwards, in fourth place, is 36 points in arrears with Greg Biffle (-38 points), Kevin Harvick (-39 points), Kurt Busch (-40 points) and Jeff Gordon (-42 points) the next group in the standings. After Gordon, the bottom five are already a full race’s worth of points behind — Ryan Newman (-47 points), Clint Bowyer (-48 points), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-62 points), Joey Logano (-69 points) and Kasey Kahne (-71 points) in the 13th and final position.

While it’s possible the middle group of Edwards, Biffle, Harvick, Busch and Gordon could put together a run, the distance between them and the top three is starting to grow and the reality is it will become as much about the top three screwing up as anything else. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, your 2013 Sprint Cup Champion will be one of the top three folks in the current standings.

Given the way Kenseth, Busch and Johnson have raced this year it would be hard to argue anyone else is particularly deserving. Should be fun to watch them battle it out these next eight weeks.

TWO: 250 Up for David Gilliland

Sunday’s race at New Hampshire was a statistical milestone for David Gilliland who completed his 250th race at the top echelon of the sport with a dispiriting 39th place finish after a wreck on lap 247 of the scheduled 300.

Gilliland has raced at the Cup level for eight seasons and given the relative quality of the equipment he’s piloted, his overall record is, unsurprisingly, statistically unimpressive. He’s never won a race but does has a pair of second place finishes: one pushing David Ragan to a maiden victory for Front Row Motorsports in April this year (a result that would have felt like a win) and a gritty second place run at Sonoma in 2008.

In total, he has just two other top-5’s, seven top-10’s and a pair of pole positions. Gilliland has led 51 total laps in eight years, holds an average start of 31.0 and an average finish of 28.4 and has finished on the lead lap 55 times – approximately 20% of the races he’s run.

Putting it another way, Gilliland is a journeyman driver, yes, but only 95 other drivers in the history of the sport have started 250 races, so even if the results don’t look impressive, to have been a part of the sport for so long is worth noting.

THREE: 500 Up for Matt Kenseth

While I’m on the subject of milestones, Matt Kenseth became just the 32nd driver in the history of NASCAR to record 500 starts. Appropriately, Kenseth marked the occasion with a win, and to make matters even better, it was on a track he’d never won at in 27 previous starts. He also joins Richard Petty as the only other driver to win on his 500th start.

“The 500th start, I’m glad to get the win. It’s really meaningful to me. Honestly starts are kind of like birthdays; when they start getting that high you kind of wish that people weren’t counting them anymore,” said Kenseth. “And the car and everything was kind of a surprise. To me I’m not sure whose idea it was or who approved it, which was really nice and really cool, and it was really special for me that Home Depot and Dollar General and JGR and everybody did that for me with that special paint job.”

This year Kenseth has already recorded the highest win total (7) and laps led (1344 and counting) of his career and there are still eight races to go. Given the way he’s running he’ll likely record career highs in other statistical categories, but for Kenseth only one thing will really matter and that’s the championship.

Opening the Chase with back-to-back wins is a good start. Could the man who top-10’d his way to a championship in 2003 – paving the way for the Chase format – snag a second title through the power of wins? At this rate, it would be hard to argue against him.

Mark Martin continues to set the bar for Sprint Cup competition with 875 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

FOUR: 875 Up for Mark Martin

Since I’m on a numbers kick this week, the ageless wonder Mark Martin recorded career start number 875 this past Sunday – good enough for fifth on the all-time starts list behind Richard Petty (1185 starts), Ricky Rudd (906), Terry Labonte (885) and Dave Marcis with 883 starts. If Martin finishes up the season in the No. 14 car, he’ll tie Marcis for fifth place in the final race of the season.

Given how tough Sprint Cup racing is nowadays, you wonder if anyone else will come close. Jeff Gordon (715) is the next nearest, but he’d have to race at least five more full seasons. Now that might happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Of course the question now becomes where will Mark Martin race in 2014? As of now, he has no firm plans and it was a point he addressed in mid-August.

“You know where I’m at, I don’t have [a deal for 2014]. A lot of times, when you wait until the last hour, that’s when the coolest stuff comes up, and if you commit in August, you might not be able to do the coolest thing in the world,” said Martin. “I’m kind of waiting for the landscape to change. The only thing I can tell you is I’m going to be involved in NASCAR racing. I’m as big a fan of it as all you guys. It’s been my life and I will be around, I’m just not in a hurry to even start to move forward about ’14 because there’s good racing to go, yet.”

Looking at the overall record, Martin would need 24 starts (assuming he completes the final eight races this year with no incident) to overtake second-place Ricky Rudd. I wouldn’t bet against him finding a way to do that. They don’t make them like Mark Martin anymore. I, for one, hope he finds himself a good spot in 2014

FIVE: Richie Parker Shows Us Anything Is Possible

Finally this week, I was sent this link by a friend earlier this week and I felt compelled to include it here.

It’s the story of Richie Parker who has worked for the last eight years at Hendrick Motorsports as a vehicle engineer designing chassis and body components for all four race teams. What makes Parker’s story remarkable is that he was born without arms, so he does all his work with his feet.

“Every step of the way in life, there have been people who said I can’t do things,” notes Parker in the above clip. “People said that I couldn’t ride a bicycle, that I couldn’t live on my own, couldn’t get a good job and support myself, couldn’t go to college and graduate. I don’t listen too much to people when they tell me I can’t do things. There’s not a whole lot that’s going to stand in my way.”

If Parker isn’t a lesson for all of us about what is and isn’t possible, I don’t know what is.

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09/24/2013 09:22 AM

If Kenseth finishes the season with the most wins and loses the championship to a driver with one or fewer wins, will The Brainless One get rid of the chase since it obviously isn’t working. It was Kenseth’s Championship that caused the chase in the first place. It would be ironic to say the least.

Fat chance! Brian would say he heard that the fan likes it.

Doug in Washington (State)
09/24/2013 04:38 PM

Mark isn’t going to run Talladega (Austin Dillon will), so it will take one race next year to tie Marcis.

phil h
09/25/2013 01:19 AM

didn’t Kenseth win the championship in pre-chase with only one win? How dare he do that!

there’s always an arguement no matter the side.

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