_Editor’s Note: While Tom Bowles continues his hiatus from “Did You Notice?,” the fill-in carousel by some of your favorite Frontstretch staff members continue. This week, enjoy some analysis by NASCAR guru and truant slacker Doug Turnbull._
The 2011 season, at first seemed to embody a different vibe than years past. Trevor Bayne’s win in the Daytona 500, followed by Jeff Gordon’s long-awaited victory at Phoenix… with a few crashes mixed in for both… all set a dramatic tone as the Sprint Cup Series set out for Las Vegas. But in Sin City, reality set in for many of the sport’s “B” and “C” teams as long green flag runs left many cars multiple laps down and many fans longing for more of the action that they saw in the first two races.
After Kyle Busch took the Bristol crown for about the nineteenth straight time (actually fifth straight in NASCAR competition and second straight in Sprint Cup) with Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson in tow, the reality that the usual contenders are rising to the top became even more real. It’s just one of several, familiar trends that are starting to develop in the Sprint Cup Series; here’s a look at a few as 2011 hits full swing:
*Did You Notice… The Points’ Dividing Line?* The new points system may have changed the perspective of how teams should view bad finishes. Now, low ones are much harder to overcome, because in comparison to the old points system, the smaller amounts for bad results are a much smaller percentage of what the winner gets. That being said, some of 2011’s snakebitten Sprint Cup teams are already feeling the heat of their DNF’s, far down in the points through the first four races with a much bigger hole to dig out of than in years past.
The drivers in the top 19 in the standings are currently within 46 points of each other and no spot is separated by more than five points (five positions in one race) except for the 11-point spread from second to third. In other words, a slight change in luck for any of those drivers in just one race gains them at least one spot in the points. Furthermore, Jeff Gordon in 19th (-46) is almost a single race win’s points away from leader Kurt Busch. All of the drivers in the top 19 have at least one top 10. After Gordon, there is a big gap back to 20th in points, held by David Ragan and Brad Keselowski (-61), but then the same small progression of no more than five or six points (and usually less) separating each driver lasts all the way to just outside the top 30.
What does this spread mean? Four races is but a small barometer for a 36-race season, but it does show the separation between teams with serious contending aspirations and those that likely will middle their way through the long year. Of the 40 possible top-10 finishes available thus far in 2011, a staggering 35 have been accrued by teams in the top 19. That leaves a total of five top 10s in four races spread amongst approximately 20 other drivers that are running the full schedule for points.
The cream is rising to the top, as the Cup Series heads to another cookie-cutter track in Auto Club Speedway and left out of that elite top 19 ranking are these expected contenders: Greg Biffle (23rd), Clint Bowyer (24th), Jamie McMurray (26th), David Reutimann (28th), Jeff Burton (29th), Joey Logano (30th) and Brian Vickers (31st). Now it’s much too early for teams to be panicking, but considering only two of those drivers have a single top 10 this year, one has to wonder how nervous they are as the season is suddenly at the end of March.
*Did You Notice…Bayne’s Own Rookie Existence?* Trevor Bayne was the toast of the national media and especially the NASCAR world after his whirlwind, Cinderella, “Oh My Gosh! Did That Actually Happen? Are You Kidding Me?!” win in the Daytona 500. In fact, he is still riding that wave in popularity to each track a month later. The reality, however, is that Bayne’s results have sunk back to Earth in a big way since his life changed on February 20th.
His first race back in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford saw him crash and finish 40th at Phoenix. He did the same in the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix in the Roush Fenway No. 16 Ford, setting the stage for disappointment after disappointment that’s plagued him ever since. After mediocre results at Las Vegas (10th in NNS and 20th in Cup), Bayne struggled again on a shorter track in Bristol, placing 19th in the Nationwide race and 34th in Cup (after clobbering another car in an accordion-style late-race wreck).
Much of the buzz surrounding Bayne, the return of the Wood Brothers, the possibility of running full-time, and the chance of making the Chase wild card spot has rightfully died off. No one likes the Bayne story more than me, but realistic goals (you know, the ones that Bayne has been talking about all along) need to be what we hold for the youngster, too. Yes, his demeanor and talent are great for the sport and his time will come (very soon), but until then, do not hold him to the high expectation equal to that of winning a restrictor plate lottery race. (Interesting note: Bayne has cost the cash-strapped Wood Brothers three race cars in four races – the two he has wrecked at Phoenix and Bristol and the one NASCAR took for winning the 500).
*Did You Notice…Front Row’s House of Cards?* Front Row Motorsports, for all the flack they took for employing rent-a-ride rookie Kevin Conway last year, was a great 2010 success story. The team took a shoestring budget, funded only by owner Bob Jenkins’ Taco Bell and Long John Silver’s franchises’ money and the partial season of ExtenZe and Conway, to run three full-time teams and qualify for most of the races. The results were not pretty, (33rd, 34th, and 36th in owner points), but at least the team survived.
Since two teams were guaranteed spots in the first five races this year and since only 44 teams would compete most weeks for 43 spots, the team decided to run all three cars again in 2011. This decision was a dangerous choice, as the team now has less funding without Conway and ExtenZe and is stretching their finances accordingly. The likely scenario that could play out after race five, at least the one I see is to keep the No. 38 and No. 34 teams of Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland going while using the No. 37 team’s owner points for Kvapil’s team. That car, the No. 38 has had terrible results and has to make up four positions to get into the top 35; if that happens, it will shut down Tony Raines’ No. 37 or simply transfer it to another owner willing to purchase or buy into the program.
But how far can Front Row make it with even two cars? Kvapil has wrecked some, eating into the team’s short supply, and he is not even competing the full season (remember, he is running the full Camping World Truck Series schedule for points). Gilliland finished an astonishing third in the Daytona 500 (a great payday of $818,171 for the team) and kept himself in the top 10 at Bristol for a green flag run before running out of fuel and ending the day 27th. Aside from the Daytona 500, though, Gilliland’s team has run where many have expected them to – far outside the top 20.
Tony Raines and Robert Richardson have turned no heads in the No. 37 car, which leads me to wonder how far and how long this team can spread its resources. We will find at least part of an answer to that if the No. 37 does not come to Martinsville. That would be a shame; teams like Front Row Motorsports need to exist in Sprint Cup and for the good of the sport, so here’s to hoping FRM can keep at least two cars afloat.
Listen to Doug on the Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Speedshop with Captain Herb Emory Saturday’s from Noon to 1 PM on News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and wsbradio.com. You can also read Doug’s “WSB Race Blog.”: http://www.wsbradio.com/weblogs/doug-fireball-turnbulls-race-blog/
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