Fontana? Boring? Say it ain’t so!
Alright, so Sunday’s race was about as exciting as watching dandelions grow until about 50 laps to go. However, Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race was a bit more competitive since Kyle Busch wasn’t near as dominant as he was in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event (when was the last time you heard THAT?!), and Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick were slicing and dicing for the lead for a majority of the race. Plus, who didn’t love seeing Ricky Stenhouse Jr. running with and _beating_ the Cup Series regulars?
Eventually, Busch won the Nationwide Series race thanks to a brilliant two tire call by crew chief Jason Ratcliff on the final pitstop. Busch looked to be well on his way to his second weekend sweep in a row after leading 151 of 200 laps in the Auto Club 400 on Sunday, but a late race caution brought Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson right to his back bumper and he would finish third. Meanwhile, Harvick used a last lap shove down the backstretch to show five-time champion Johnson how it’s done. Harvick won his first race at his home track, while Johnson had to settle for second.
Johnson, Harvick, and Busch are obviously “hot” after Fontana, but let’s take a look at some of the less obvious drivers who had good (or not so good) runs in this weekend’s races at Auto Club Speedway.
*Ryan Newman* – Newman’s fifth place run in the Auto Club 400 was the driver’s third fifth place finish in the last four weeks, after knocking off fifth place runs at Phoenix International Raceway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season.
The top five run didn’t come easy, though. During a late race caution, Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson opted not to pit for fresh tires, though Gibson started sweating the decision a bit when almost every car behind Newman headed to pit road.
Ah, Tony, you worry too much! Newman gained one more position before the end of the race to grab an eighth place finish, moving up two spots in the standings from fourth to second, putting him eight points behind leader Carl Edwards.
While Newman’s teammate and owner Tony Stewart was visibly frustrated with his own 13th-place run after some tire strategy failed to come through, Stewart-Haas Racing has gotten off to an uncharacteristically strong start in 2011. Stewart, who is known to be more of a summertime driver, is currently 6th in points and has contended for the win in almost every race this season. Newman’s points run is especially impressive, now sitting second in points as opposed to last season when after five races he was only 26th.
Could SHR be a possible championship contender in 2011? Who knows, but right now Newman is on his own hot streak heading into Martinsville.
*Carl Edwards* – Edwards was surprisingly quiet Sunday at a track that historically has been very kind to Roush Fenway Racing. Edwards ran just outside of the top 10 for most of the day, opting to stay out during the final caution of the day to grab his fourth top 10 finish in five races this season. In fact, aside from a miserable day at Phoenix International Raceway, this is Edwards’s first finish outside of the top five.
The strong start to the season has given Edwards the Sprint Cup Series points lead, with his closest competitor Newman sitting nine points back. RFR now has the points lead in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took the points lead from Jason Leffler in Saturday’s Royal Purple 300.
Clearly, Edwards hasn’t lost any momentum from last season after he won the final two races of the 2010 season. Edwards continues to sing the praises of Ford Racing’s new FR9 engine, a change that seems to have helped all Fords across the board. Matt Kenseth is 10th in points right now and has quietly finished fourth the past two weeks, while sour luck has put Greg Biffle 20th in points.
*Honorable Mention:* Tony Stewart’s temper (Stewart refused to talk to reporters after a botched tire strategy and ill handling car took him out of a top 10 finish. He wound up 13th.)
*Aric Almirola* – Hasn’t quite lit the world on fire just yet as some expected he might with a team like JR Motorsports, but this driver is no slouch. He has yet to finish outside of the top 20 this season and finished in the top 10 for the second week in a row this weekend in Fontana.
Largely overshadowed so far in 2011 by JRM teammate Danica Patrick, Almirola is currently fourth in points, 26 points back from leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Almirola drove a full season for Billy Ballew Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series last season, winning two races and finishing second in points. Though preseason picks for the Nationwide Series championship didn’t peg him as the “favorite”, predictions (including my own) generally had him higher in points by now with some stronger finishes. In Almirola’s defense, the season is only five races young and there is more than enough time to secure some more top 5 finishes before we get into the thick of the championship battle.
*Kasey Kahne* – I’ll be the first to admit my preseason predictions for Kahne weren’t all that optimistic. I figured a one season commitment to Red Bull Racing would wind up hindering his performance, with the team putting more resources into long-term driver Brian Vickers. In fact, Kahne is in the top 12 in Sprint Cup Series points right now while Vickers is mired back in 24th. Vickers’s lack of strong results has been a result of incidents not of his own doing in previous races this season, though, not due to a lack of performance.
Kahne’s ninth place finish this weekend was his second ninth-place showing in a row and third top 10 in the last four races. His worst finish in five races this year is a 25th at Daytona.
Let’s be honest. Red Bull Racing is _not_ Hendrick Motorsports, the powerhouse Kahne will be jumping to once 2011 is over. If Kahne is able to finish this well in equipment that only has one victory in six full time Sprint Cup Series seasons, he should do just fine at the juggernaut that is HMS.
*Honorable Mention:* Juan Pablo Montoya (finished 10th in Auto Club 400 after starting on the pole)
*Mark Martin* – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in top 10 form, Jeff Gordon broke a winless streak to win at Phoenix, and Jimmie Johnson is , well, a five time champion!
So where is Mark Martin?
Martin is the only Hendrick Motorsports driver that has yet to lead a lap and really hasn’t made any noise this year. He only has one top 10 finish (10th at Daytona) and since then hasn’t finished any better than 12th. He finished 20th last weekend in Fontana.
This is Martin’s last season with Hendrick Motorsports, as Kasey Kahne will become the fourth car at the organization in 2012. Martin has yet to make anyone aware of his plans for 2012, though he says he will be racing in some form next year and has said he is even open to moving to an owner/driver role.
Martin was one of three HMS drivers that saw some major changes over the offseason, after crew chief Alan Gustafson moved over to the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon. Lance McGrew, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief in 2010, is working with Martin this season. Whether the early season struggles are due to the changes is cause for speculation, but the last thing Martin wants to do is go unnoticed in his final season with HMS.
*Reed Sorenson* – After leading the points in the Nationwide Series for a couple of weeks at the beginning of the season, Sorenson has since fallen by the wayside. Sorenson finished fifth in the first two races of the season, but his last three finishes have been 11th, 34th, and 14th.
Sorenson is by no means out of the championship title hunt yet, sitting 30 points back in the fifth position from leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Sorenson wasn’t usually among those discussed during the preseason title picks for the Nationwide Series championship, but he can change that if he can get back the early season strength he showed at the beginning of the season.
*Honorable Mention:* A.J. Allmendinger (finished 14th in Auto Club 400)
*Joe Gibbs Racing* – To be more specific, Joe Gibbs Racing _engines_ are cold right now. All three of their drivers—Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano—have had engine failures at some point so far this season.
Hamlin and Logano were the latest victims of this trend this past weekend at Fontana. Logano had to start at the rear of the field due to an engine change for the morning of the race, and Hamlin retired from the race just past halfway because of an engine failure. He had expressed concern over the sound of the engine several times throughout the race, especially around 80 laps into the race when the car slowed up drastically and trapped Hamlin a lap down.
Post-race analysis from Hamlin and reports have indicated that it may be a problem with the valve trains, a problem they need to address quickly if they want to be championship contenders again this season.
*Brad Keselowski* – Of all the changes made over the offseason, Keselowski is the one that I cannot adjust to no matter how hard I try. I can’t watch that blue deuce without automatically thinking “Kurt Bu– … Oh wait, no, that’s Brad Keselowski!”
But that’s not the reason he’s in the cold section.
Last year’s Nationwide Series champion has yet to finish in the top 10 this season in the Sprint Cup Series, with his best finish of 15th coming at Phoenix International Raceway.
This is only Keselowski’s second full season in the Sprint Cup Series, but when will he start showing some results? He didn’t have one top 5 finish all season in 2010, and only finished in the top 10 twice. Aside from his win at Talladega Superspeedway in 2009, Keselowski really doesn’t have much to brag about on the Cup Series side. It’s not like Penske Racing has mid-pack equipment either, especially after Kurt Busch led the series standings for so long.
Keselowski may think Kyle Busch is an ass, but at least Busch has the results to back it up.
*Honorable Mention: Jennifer Jo Cobb* (Cobb finished 38th at Fontana, one week after walking away from a start-and-park ride at Bristol. The reason listed for her early retirement from the race after just 38 laps? Handling.)
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