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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: Biggest Surprises of the 2010 Season

As the first off-weekend of the year approaches, it is a great time to take a look back at the first four weeks of the 2010 season. From the pothole that slowed the Daytona 500 to Jamie McMurray’s emotional victory, there have been a number of surprises, controversies and a lot of excitement already and there are 32 weeks yet to go.

Today we look at five things that have stuck out above all others: The resurgence of Richard Childress Racing, the fact Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have not missed a step, Paul Menard and Scott Speed are both in the top 12 in the standings, Denny Hamlin’s best finish is 17th and that NASCAR lived up to its promises when put to the test.

RESURGENCE OF RCR

When the 2009 season ended, RCR was left without a win, without a car in the Chase and without a sponsor for its fourth car. Poor performances by all four teams led to numerous crew chief changes, driver swaps and eventual frustration. Behind the ball all season long, RCR used the end of the 2009 to gain momentum and focus on the season ahead of them. Eventually scaling back to three teams, the organization showed up in Daytona on a mission to reassert their place among the sport’s finest.

Kevin Harvick started Speedweeks off right when he scored his second straight Budweiser Shootout win. The next weekend RCR was at the front of the field for the majority of the Daytona 500. Harvick led a total of 41 laps, while Clint Bowyer paced the field for 37. In the final stages of the race Harvick’s car appeared to be the strongest. A bold move on a late-race restart shot the No. 29 past Martin Truex Jr. and put Harvick in the position to earn his second Daytona 500 victory. The multiple green-white-checkered finishes, however, shuffled the No. 29 car to seventh, while Bowyer finished fourth and Jeff Burton 11th.

Headed into the first off weekend, RCR cars sit first (Harvick), fifth (Bowyer) and sixth (Burton) in points. At this point last season RCR had two cars in the top 12 in points and stumbled the rest of the year, but don’t expect this organization to repeat the same mistake twice.

JIMMIE JOHNSON HAS NOT MISSED A STEP

Call it luck, call it dominance, call it what you will, but the No. 48 team of Chad Knaus and Johnson are once again the team to beat. Coming off their record-setting fourth consecutive championship, Johnson showed the team meant business in Daytona when he held off a hard charge from Tony Stewart and the rest of the field to win his Gatorade Duel 150 on old tires.

During the Daytona 500, however, trouble struck the No. 48 team shortly after hitting the now infamous pothole between turns 1 and 2. After that incident, Johnson developed a problem in the rear end of the car and headed to pit road. With crew members confusingly walking around the back of the No. 48, Knaus ordered car chief Ron Malec under the rear end with a flashlight before telling his crew to simply push it to the garage. This incident showed a frustrated Knaus and a disorganized No. 48 crew, giving hope to the competition and the fans.

All disappointment associated with that incident went away one week later in Fontana. Leading a total of 101 laps, Johnson scored his first win of the season, in part thanks to luck and perfect timing. Quick pit work by the No. 48 team allowed Johnson to narrowly beat race leader Burton to the pit exit line when an untimely caution was thrown. By beating the leader to the line Johnson stayed on the lead lap and wound up leading when the race restarted. This led many to claim Johnson and his team had a “golden horseshoe” stuck in a very uncomfortable place.

With so much attention placed on the ‘luckiness’ of that win, Johnson showed up the next week in Las Vegas to steal the win from teammate Jeff Gordon. Leading only 18 laps on the day, Johnson celebrated his second win in as many weeks and basked in the glory of winning on performance, not luck.

Luck is what the competition is going to need if they want to beat Johnson and the No. 48 team once again this year. Despite miscommunication and a bit of a stumble out of the block in Daytona, the No. 48 team has showed in the first four weeks of the 2010 season that they are ready to rewrite history again this year.

PAUL MENARD & SCOTT SPEED IN TOP 12 IN POINTS

From wrecked racecars and battling for the Top 35 one year, to top 10s and a place in the top 12 in the standings the next. Who would have thought that within the first four weeks of the 2010 season that Menard and Speed would be higher in the points than five of the Chasers from last year (Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya and Hamlin)?

This increase in performance is no fluke either. Menard now finds himself in a better situation with Richard Petty Motorsports. Known to tear up race cars week after week, Menard is taking much better care of his equipment, racing smart and pushing the envelope when needed. Menard has completed every lap run in the first four weeks and scored a best finish of fifth last weekend in Atlanta.

Speed’s transition from open-wheel to NASCAR is appearing to be in its final stages. Already, Speed has led more laps than he did in all of 2009 (19 laps). He has kept his car clean and has had excellent communication with crew chief Jimmy Elledge that has allowed him to stay in contention instead of tuning himself out.

These two drivers are far from championship contenders just yet, but this early season strength shows improvement has been made and the potential for more success may be just around the corner.

WHAT HAPPENED TO DENNY HAMLIN

Going into 2010 most people in the media and the garage looked to Hamlin as the man who had the best shot at beating Johnson for the championship. In the final eleven races of the 2009 season, Hamlin scored six top-three finishes, including three victories. Three DNFs at Fontana, Charlotte and Talladega, however, killed any chance the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had at earning his first title. Ending the season with a win in Homestead, Hamlin appeared ready to move on to that next level in his NASCAR career… then came the offseason.

Just weeks before heading to Daytona, Hamlin tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) playing basketball. While he denied the injury would have any effect on his capabilities behind the wheel, Hamlin’s results in the first four races have shown otherwise. After four weeks, Hamlin is 22nd in points and has a best finish of 17th in Daytona.

The injury may be playing more of a role in his performance than he would like to admit, but Hamlin has also become a new business owner as well. A few weeks ago he opened a new nightclub in Charlotte called Butter. He is also frequently spotted courtside at Charlotte Bobcats basketball games and has received personal messages from the likes of Michael Jordan. Perhaps Hamlin needs to take this off-weekend and focus on getting himself back on track to the championship, instead of the many distractions he has pulling him away.

NASCAR KEEPS ITS PROMISE

During the preseason media tour, NASCAR explained the 2010 season would see harder racing, more driver emotion and less involvement from the sanctioning body. Vice President of competition Robin Pemberton casually let the words ‘Have at it boys’ roll off his lips and few could have imagined just four weeks into the season he would be asked to define those very words.

When Edwards purposely spun Brad Keselowski – who then flipped over and slammed into the wall – in Atlanta last Sunday, this new policy was put to the test. Many pundits expected the same old song and dance from NASCAR, while others called for a suspension of Edwards and a harsh fine or loss of points. Immediately following the incident, NASCAR parked Edwards for the remainder of the day and called him to the NASCAR hauler to discuss his actions.

Following the race, NASCAR gave little insight as to what was discussed and any further consequences. Tuesday, those consequences were made clear when NASCAR president Mike Helton announced Edwards would be placed on probation for three races and both drivers and their teams would meet with NASCAR as to how to go forward. Living up to their word prior to the beginning of the season, NASCAR viewed the issue as something the drivers could work out for themselves and the lightness of Edwards’s ‘penalty’ demonstrated their new way forward.

With so many surprises this early in the 2010 season, there is no telling what the rest of the year has in store. The rear spoiler will return in the next few weeks and with short tracks such as Bristol and Martinsville just down the road, the ‘Have at it boys’ policy may be put to the test again and again. Johnson shows no signs of slowing, yet Harvick appears to be on a mission.

Will Menard and Speed be able to keep their promising season together and will Hamlin be able to regroup and charge back to the front of the field week-in and week-out? There is no telling what can and will happen over the next 32 weeks, but one thing is for sure, if they’re anything like the first four weeks, we’re in for one hell of a year.

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