The first three races of 2009 have yielded surprising results at both the top and bottom of the point standings. Some drivers, like Mark Martin, are left scratching their heads after having fast cars at each race, but no top finishes to show for that. Likewise, teams like Michael Waltrip Racing in the top 12 and some of the startup teams near the brink of emergence in the Top 35 are among other early surprises in the points. That being said, here are the best of both this week.
HOT: Kyle Busch – Get used to this. His win at his home track in Las Vegas this week is already his third amongst NASCAR’s top three divisions this season. The fastest on qualifying day, the No. 18 had to change motors and start from the back. Wasting no time gaining positions, Busch was seen making four-wide passes on the apron early in the race. After hanging in the top 10 for much of the race, Busch finally nudged his way past Clint Bowyer to claim the win. The M&M’s team and crew chief Steve Addington also got Busch in and out of the pits as quickly and anyone and repaired the right side of the No. 18 adequately, after wall contact in Happy Hour practice. If a chink had to be made in Busch’s armor, it would have to be the impatience he showed during the Nationwide Series race, where he wrecked his Toyota trying to race too hard in the early laps of the Sam’s Town 300. That impatience loses championships for drivers.
HOT: Bowyer – Whatever magic Bowyer developed with the No. 07 the past three seasons followed him to the No. 33 team. Not known as a driver to lead a bunch of laps, Bowyer made up a lap and used clever pit strategy to pass teammate Jeff Burton late in Sunday’s race, leading a few laps before giving way to Wild Thing. Bowyer has kept his nose clean and has unspectacularly found himself second in the points, just 18 markers behind leader Jeff Gordon.
HOT: Greg Biffle – If you read the column last week, you would have seen that the driver of the No. 16 ran into everything but victory lane in California, and missed victory lane because he nearly missed his pit box in the Cup race. This week, Biffle finds himself on the hot list, as he won Saturday’s wreck-filled Nationwide Series race (his first Nationwide win since February 2006) and led 40 laps and finished seventh in the Shelby 427. Biffle also sits fourth in points, reminding fans of his breakout year in 2005.
WARM: Jeff Gordon – The No. 24 team is deserving of some major props leaving Sin City. A blown tire and significant right side damage looked to be doomsday for the DuPont team, but the damage turned out to be a blessing instead. Gordon flat-spotted the tire as he missed pit road during one the last green-flag pit sequence, causing the tire to go flat and damage the car. If the race had stayed green, Gordon would have been relegated to a dreadful finish. Instead, the damage and debris brought out a caution, allowing Gordon to not only stay on the lead lap but also buying time for the team to do a miraculous job repairing the car. Gordon rebounded to finish sixth and now leads the points with no finishes outside the top 15. Luck like Gordon’s is reminiscent of the luck that kept Kurt Busch off the pit wall in Homestead in 2004, after losing a tire. Busch ended up barely winning the championship over a streaking Jimmie Johnson by finishing in the top five in the race.
WARM: David Reutimann – It is hard to believe that Reuti’s best career finish before Sunday was ninth. Indeed, the No. 00 Aaron’s car has been a top-10 machine since the waning months of last season. Reutimann’s top five on Sunday was his first Top 10 of 2009, but his other two finishes are respectable top 15s, leading the third year Cup driver to fifth in the standings. Just two years ago, Reutimann’s Michael Waltrip Racing team was missing races and running at the back of the ones it made. Now, it looks like The Beak has the perfect pairing with crew chief Rodney Childers and may be poised to make a run at the Chase.
WARM: Bobby Labonte – Labonte is like Matt Kenseth in the fact that whatever he does, he does it quietly. Many drivers and teams have begun this season with combinations of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Kenseth won the first two races and then blew a motor, finishing 43rd. Kevin Harvick finished second in the Daytona 500, then got a DNF in California, before running better in Vegas. Elliott Sadler finished fifth and AJ Allmendinger third in the 500, but each have not run well since. Labonte guides his car to the tune of The Ranconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes.” Finishes of 22nd and 20th in the first two races did not turn many heads, but his fifth-place effort in Vegas elevates him to 10th in the points. Points-totaling is not a practice that needs to be done at the top of the points this early in the year – but they still stack up pretty well for the 2000 Sprint Cup champ.
COLD: Casey Mears – Maybe we should give this guy a break. He has started the past four seasons with new teams and has started out slow the past three seasons, wondering if he even would be in the Top 35 after Bristol. Nonetheless, finishes of 15th, 24th, and 30th have to make one wonder if chemistry is the problem… or the driver. Mears’ mediocre run got turned into Burton’s California run on Sunday, after the No. 07 got clocked at a tenth of one mile per hour over the pit road speed limit, during a green flag sequence. Mears spent the most of the rest of the race as the only driver on his lap, wondering if he was going to stay on an island at Richard Childress racing performance wise, like he was during the race.
COLD: Aric Almirola – The No. 8 Chevy has been on the wrong side of the eight ball in 2009. Almirola has finishes of 30th, 35th and 39th, wrecking at Daytona and Vegas and blowing a motor at Auto Club Speedway. The team is searching for a sponsorship package to run the whole year and will have an even tougher time than before finding one, if they are outside the Top 35 and missing races. Almirola sits 37th in points, behind David Gilliland and Regan Smith, each who have started one less race than him are driving inferior equipment.
COLD: Ryan Newman – This guy cannot catch a break. After wrecking a slew of cars in Daytona and having in-race issues during both the 500 and at ACS, Newman seemed to be making lemons out of lemonade in Las Vegas. The driver of the No. 39 was caught a lap down early in the race, but got the Lucky Dog and was poised for a good top-15 run. A caution in the middle of a green-flag sequence trapped Newman and owner/teammate Tony Stewart way back in the pack, however, permanently ruining a good run for both teams. Newman now sits 33rd in points and is likely one wreck away from finding himself outside the Top 35 after Bristol.
Here are some more HOT and NOT bits from this week of NASCAR racing:
HOT: Jamie McMurray’s save – Did you see that four-wheel slide through an entire turn that McMurray pulled off through an entire turn early in the Cup race? That was unreal. As much as there is to complain about NASCAR theses days, we sometimes forget that these Sprint Cup boys do know how to drive. McMurray has executed some awesome saves in the last couple of races alone. By the way, McMurray was suffering from some flu-like symptoms Sunday, making the save even more incredible. With the CoTs being so difficult to drive, saves like McMurray’s may not be a rarity down the road.
NOT: Teresa Earnhardt – The new Nationwide Insurance commercial with Dale Earnhardt Jr. aired many times this weekend and there was something very strange about it. When Junior started talking about Earnhardt family tradition, there were pictures of him and his grandfather Ralph, but NONE of the Intimidator himself. This is only speculation, but I imagine that Teresa Earnhardt, the head of what is left of the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated empire that Dale Sr. built almost 30 years ago, has something to do with the lack of Big E in the commercial. She likely would not release rights of the images of Dale Earnhardt to appear in a commercial with Junior since she and Junior are not exactly buddy-buddy. That aside, how cold does one have to be to separate a father and a son? She already failed to make the concessions necessary to keep The Namesake in the No. 8 (a mistake that she is paying for now). The dream of seeing Junior with a tribute paint scheme to his dad someday down the line is deader now than it was before.
HOT: Small Cup teams – Look who is knocking on the door of the Top 35! Gilliland has started only two of the three races this year, yet sits 37th in points, two spots behind Smith, driver of the part-time No. 78 Furniture Row ride. Gilliland’s No. 71 TRG Motorsports team attempted and did not make the Daytona 500 with Mike Wallace. They signed Gilliland for four races and he has a modest debut at his home track in California. In Vegas though, Gilliland brought a stone and a slingshot to a fight with Goliath and practically won, finishing 14th. He legitimately outperformed over half of the Cup field with a team that had never run a Cup race until two weeks ago. TRG entered the Truck Series last year and actually scored a victory with rookie Donny Lia, so making a quick impression is nothing new for the team. Also making the “Wow!” list is Todd Bodine who, before he blew a motor and finished 37th in Vegas, was running around 30th and ahead of at least one team each from ECR, RPM and RCR. That was Bodine and the No. 64 Larry Gunselman team’s first made race of the year.
NOT: Scott Riggs, Jeremy Mayfield, Travis Kvapil and Dave Blaney missing the race Sunday – The four drivers just mentioned each had made the season’s first two races (Blaney was only in one race, but his team made the Daytona 500 with Terry Labonte) and are planning to run full seasons. But they were supplanted from Sunday’s race by the part-time teams of Brad Keselowski, Max Papis and Smith. Those part-time teams have just as much right to the race as the non-Top 35 teams that are trying to run the full year, but the rags to riches stories of Tommy Baldwin Racing and Mayfield Motorsports sure are nice to hear. Interestingly enough, Smith’s part-time is the only one of the mentioned teams “inside” the Top 35 to date.
Next week, the Sprint Cup Series travels to the circuit’s fastest track, Atlanta Motor Speedway. Turn here to find out who heads to Bristol with a full head of steam and who leaves Atlanta sputtering out.
Listen to Doug live at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend on the WSB 120 with Captain Herb Emory this Saturday from 12-2 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta or online at wsbradio.com.