I have always maintained that Martinsville is the true litmus test for the opening months of the NASCAR season. Daytona is the Super Bowl of motorsports, and it is easy to get caught up in the hype of the grandest race on the schedule. A win can make a season or define a career (just ask Derrike Cope), but how many first-race finishes have we seen be a little more than a flash in the pan or a fluke of restrictor-plate luck? Just because you catch a pocket of air or get ran into from behind hard enough does not a season make.
By the time the series rolls around to the oldest track on the circuit, the .526-mile paperclip in Virginia situated by some railroad tracks and stacked to the rafters with pink nitride-cicles served under the guise of edibility known as a “hot dog,” the contenders and the pretenders are usually exposed for what they truly are. By this point in the season, there has been one superspeedway event, three downforce tracks and two short tracks. There’s a little something for everyone, and a verifiable sample to be used to draw conclusions from. No more guaranteed spots based on last year’s performance; now you have to walk on your own, or fall face first onto the asphalt launching pads of turns 2 and 4.
There are the obvious examples of who is going to continue to run well this season; Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson, teammate and Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch for sure, but there are some other trends that were confirmed this past weekend. Chief among them is Clint Bowyer. If there was ever a driver begging to be profiled as this seasons unqualified success story it is, “The Chin.” There were rumblings of dissent in the RCR camp last year when it was made known that Bowyer would be bounced from his familiar black No. 07 Jack Daniels still in favor of Casey Mears. Bowyer had been with this group since he got into Cup, scoring his first wins with them and making the Chase two years running. Now he was being saddled with the unproven fourth car in the stable, and his undeniably cool sponsor and rig were being replaced by a talking oven mitt.
They might want to add Old Milwaukee as a sponsor for a few races, because it doesn’t get any better than this.
Currently Bowyer is within 89 points of Gordon – easily striking distance of one race should Bowyer win or run well and the No. 24 team stumble. Four top 10s in the first six races, with a best of second at Las Vegas and a low of 19th at California, serve notice that the Emporia, Kan. pilot with Hamburger Helper stuffed in his frame rails (not really) is going to be a force to be reckoned with as the season wears on. It’s not a question of if the No. 33 will win as they say, but when and how often. My guess is probably a whole bunch.
Starting off strong is not always an indicator that a rolling stone gathers momentum. Often times, it rolls off a cliff… or a bigger rock.
Case in point… Matt Kenseth. I had predicted before the season started that the new field general in the No. 17 pit, Drew Blickensderfer, would be missing piece of the puzzle that would make the Killer Bees relevant once again. As I fall over patting myself on the back, the senior member of the Roush Fenway family (for the Cup side of things… settle down, Biffle-fan) was Herculean out of the gate, winning both the Daytona 500 and the next race at Fontana, Calif. After a rough weekend of practice in Las Vegas, the reciprocating innards of the USG Sheetrock Ford crumbled like drywall, relegating him dead last after just six laps.
So other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
The next few finishes were a 12th, 33rd and a 23rd at Martinsville following a comedy of errors involving pit-road penalties that would be funny if they weren’t true… or, you know, happening to them. While Drew Blickensderfer slips back into sweet obscurity (for the time being), Kenseth has fallen from first to 12th in points – the final transfer spot. While the glass half-full crowd will note he is only about 100 points from fifth in the standings, he is also on an equal amount from 23rd.
On the opposite end of this trifecta is the guy who is constantly under the microscope, and a team that honestly should be off to a better start then they have been. It’s no understatement to say that big things were expected from the No. 88 team this year. In his second year with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was under intense scrutiny to pick up the pace from the year before, in which his team started off strong, but showed a remarkable ability to shoot itself in the foot.
Well, not so much one round as Barney Fife, but more like emptying the entire magazine, like when Bruce Willis empties his Beretta into the guy standing on top of the table he’s hiding under in Die Hard.
One fuel mileage win at Michigan in June last year was not enough for the critics of NASCAR’s most popular driver. Many had piled on the bickering between Earnhardt and his crew chief cousin Tony Eury Jr. Things didn’t get much better this season as Junior appeared to be watching a different race than the one he was driving in at the Daytona 500, and an engine failure the following week and California was fresh meat for the press.
Since then, the No. 88 has ran well, but not great – a 10th at Las Vegas was followed finishes of 11th, 14th and finally eighth last week at Martinsville. It was a good story if anything; Junior running top five most of the day, until a broken shifter – the second one this year – meant some bungee cords were in order to preserve a decent finish. The performance of the car was not affected until the final pit stop, when once again, a late-race adjustment slowed what was once a very fast racecar.
While the big names traditionally get the lion’s share of the spotlight (since they are the big names), there are some other pleasant surprises that are sprouting up in the standings.
Among the brightest so far is AJ Allmendinger. It has to be sweet medicine for the driver who left burgeoning Champ Car career where he was winning races and carrying the stars and stripes for what has become a decidedly non-American series. Having no owner’s points with his start up Red Bull team and little experience – 2007 and 2008 were largely forgettable for Allmendinger, though when he did make the show, he would show flashes of brilliance – it has been the unlikeliest of seats that opened up late in the going at what is now Richard Petty Motorsports that has given AJ the chance to show that he really does belong here, He will be a household name in short order. With still only 50 career starts to his credit, he brought the King a third-place finish at the Daytona 500 and a ninth at Martinsville, placing the No. 44 Dodge solidly 15th in points, a mere 80 out of eighth.
When was the last time a Petty car was in that position? No seriously, when? I don’t have the stats on hand.
The only thing that can seemingly slow down Allmendinger is the economy. A familiar reason that is becoming long in the tooth, so too is the plight of decent race teams with potential, being shackled due to lack of sponsorship. Allmendinger has funding in place for the next three events at Texas, Phoenix and Talladega, but after that, it could be only static for the No. 44 team. It is somewhat ironic that he was carrying the colors of Charter Communications this past weekend – a company that just recently filed for bankruptcy. With the way he is running and the potential for a win that lies just around the corner, somebody needs to seriously consider swapping numbers on the cars at Richard Petty Gillett Evernham Motorsportsprises, and get STP on the horn to pick up the tab here for a few weeks.
So while Johnson reprised his title of, “Mr. Martinsville,” Gordon maintained his points lead, and Busch… well, knocked the wall down then ran out of the track like Usain Bolt after consuming some questionable White Castle the following day after the Truck race, there are a few other drivers who are working their way into contention to consistently compete for wins, run up front, and make their case for the Chase. There are some who are there now that will falter, and more yet who are only now starting to muster some steam and mount a serious charge towards the front.
Who do you see making an impact as we gear up for the next three decidedly distinct tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit?