So, did everyone enjoy Sunday off? Last weekend, Texas Motor Speedway held their first night race weekend with the NASCAR Nationwide Series race running on Friday night and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race following on Saturday night the next day. While this wasn’t the first time TMS had a race ending under the lights, it was the first official night race at the track and all the competitors enjoyed Sunday afternoon away from the racetrack.
I had a family member in town, so it was nice to be able to spend some time catching up. What did you do on Sunday without a race?
Ford Racing swept the weekend, with Roush Fenway Racing drivers Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth winning the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series races, respectively. But who else had runs worth mentioning (or not so much) this past weekend in Texas? Let’s find out…
*Elliott Sadler* – A Cup Series veteran, Sadler looked promising heading into 2011 after landing a ride with Kevin Harvick, Inc., and definitely hasn’t failed to live up to those expectations. Sadler’s fifth-place showing in Friday night’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 was his second fifth-place finish in a row and third consecutive top 5.
Sadler admittedly got off to a slow start, beginning the year 27th in points after finishing 38th at Daytona, then knocking out two 12th-place finishes in a row. He was 12th in points after four races and has since worked his way to the fourth position. Sadler gained three positions in the standings after the fifth-place showing, and now sits 30 points back from leader Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
As a bonus, Sadler was also the highest finishing Nationwide Series regular on Friday night. I know there are a lot of you that would like the “highest finishing regular” to actually win the race, but I firmly believe that will happen this year. Whether it will be Sadler, Stenhouse, or some driver we haven’t seen much of, seeing a Nationwide Series points eligible driver in Victory Lane this season is almost certain, especially as we head into the standalone portion of the season in late spring / early summer.
*Clint Bowyer* – I had Bowyer in the “warm” section last week, and his performance in Texas definitely deserves a bump up to “hot.”
Had it not been for Matt Kenseth’s dominating performance — Kenseth led 169 of 334 laps — Bowyer would have more than likely wound up in Victory Lane. Contact with Red Bull Racing driver Brian Vickers is what did him in, a mistake Bowyer admitted himself. Damage sustained with the contact — not to mention a helluva save — would hurt him in the long run, but he was still able to hang on for a runner-up finish.
The second-place showing bumped Bowyer up four spots in the standings to 12th place, putting him 55 points out of the lead and 12 points outside of the top 10 in points. While Bowyer is most certainly not running out of time to make the Chase, a slow start at the beginning of the season has kept him out of the top 10 through the first seven races of 2011. However, finishes of seventh, ninth, and second the past three weeks have shown the No. 33 Chevrolet returning back to its winning ways from 2010 — uh, minus the penalty of course.
*Honorable Mention:* Carl Edwards (finished third at Texas and grabbed his fourth top-5 finish of the season)
*David Ragan* – Did all the hype around Ragan’s Roush Fenway Racing teammates Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and their recent performance light a fire under Ragan? Or is he perhaps just a late bloomer?
It’s tough to say, but in the past two races he has shown up in a big way. An eighth-place finish at Martinsville Speedway — a track historically not very kind to RFR — showed promise. Ragan followed it up with a pole run at TMS this past weekend, after which I fully expected him to fade in the race and possibly not even lead a lap.
I was wrong. Ragan led the first 10 laps of the race and was running on average in the fifth position through the entire event. In fact, he spent all but one lap of the race inside of the top 15.
To clarify on the first statement (about Stenhouse and Bayne), Ragan has been considered to be on the hot seat at RFR for awhile now. Ragan, who still hasn’t lived down the “dart without feathers comment” from Tony Stewart back in 2007, is currently in his fifth full season with RFR. Though Ragan is signed through 2014, UPS’s sponsorship is up at the end of the season and thus far hasn’t been shown much reason to stick around. When sponsor money runs out, drivers have a tendency to lose their rides just as fast regardless of what the contract says on paper, right? Meanwhile, Bayne went on to win the Daytona 500 with Wood Brothers Racing and Stenhouse is leading the Nationwide Series standings. Why, many have asked, would Jack Roush keep Ragan in the Sprint Cup Series seat when their two developmental drivers are showing so much promise?
However, if Ragan keeps this recent performance up, there will be no need for a replacement. The question is, how long will it last?
*Justin Allgaier* – Allgaier has quietly put together a solid, consistent season that currently has him third in points in the Nationwide Series with an average finish of 12th. After moving from Penske Racing over to Turner Motorsports during the offseason, Allgaier has carried over the success and consistency as well.
Aside from a 27th-place showing in the season-opening race in Daytona, Allgaier has since finished no worse than 15th. Yet he’s gone virtually unnoticed since his top-10 runs haven’t translated into any laps led and the TV broadcasts typically focus only on the leaders. Sadly, it’s not surprising most haven’t noticed that last season’s only Nationwide Series regular winner is making a legitimate run at the championship early on in the season.
*Honorable Mention:* Reed Sorenson (finished seventh in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race and moved up to fourth in points)
*Tony Stewart* – Yeah, I know Stewart typically doesn’t start heating up until the summertime, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that a two-time Sprint Cup Series champion has been flying way under the radar lately.
Last Saturday night, anything that could go wrong did for Stewart. During a pit stop under a caution on lap 12, Stewart made contact with Dave Blaney on pit road and had to make a second stop to repair the damage. Stewart was able to work his way back up through the field, however, and was back in the top 15 by lap 121.
Afterwards, Stewart looked to possibly be a contender, even leading briefly a few times. Hanging around in the top 10, fuel mileage became the name of the game as he and crew chief Darian Grubb hoped to make it the rest of the race on one stop, stretching after the race’s final caution from Laps 216-221. But when Stewart made a green flag pit stop on lap 276, he was penalized for speeding entering pit road which cost him a shot at the win. To add insult to injury, he still ran out of fuel on the final lap and wound up finishing tenth.
Even with the disappointing finish, Stewart did gain a position in the point standings and is now tenth in points. He is 43 out of the lead.
*Mark Martin* – I’ve mentioned before how little noise Martin has made this year, and Texas certainly didn’t help any.
On lap 216, Martin Truex, Jr. got loose and crashed in front of Martin. Martin had nowhere to go and suffered a substantial amount of damage, retiring from the race 121 laps early and fell from 10th to 15th in points. The No. 5 car still has yet to lead a lap in 2011, surprising considering the 52-year-old is two years removed from a five-win season with the program.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this season is Martin’s last with Hendrick Motorsports and it would be a shame to see him finish it out with results like these. But maybe Talladega — where it’s better to be lucky than good — will be the “crazy old man’s” saving grace.
*Honorable Mention:* Trevor Bayne (finished 13th in NNS and 17th in NSCS, but more importantly was released from Carolina Medical Center University Hospital after being hospitalized for an insect bite)
*Brian Vickers* – For a driver that is returning from a long hiatus after blood clots sidelined him from the racecar last May, I expected Vickers to come out of the box this season and make some noise. I’m thinking he definitely planned on it, but so far that’s not what’s happened on a consistent basis.
Vickers only has two top-10 finishes through seven races this season and four of the other five finishes are outside of the top 25. Chalk it up to bad luck or whatever you want, but Vickers has done anything but make an entrance.
Vickers hasn’t been any higher than 24th in points this season, and for awhile was at risk of falling out of the top 35 in owner points. He’s currently 26th in the standings and his No. 83 Toyota has a 60-point advantage over 36th in owner points.
*Martin Truex, Jr.* – I don’t think anyone has had a tougher last couple of weeks than Truex. After a stuck throttle left him and Kasey Kahne with severely damaged racecars at Martinsville, Truex again got loose at Texas while racing with Kevin Harvick and slammed into the outside wall. Mark Martin and Regan Smith also got caught up in the accident and Truex wound up finishing 35th, 121 laps from the finish.
The last two weekends have really hurt Truex in the points. Before Martinsville, he was 13th. After Texas, he’s currently 21st and 96 points out of the lead.
If anything, Truex has been living proof that NASCAR’s safety initiatives are 100% effective, but I’m guessing Michael Waltrip Racing didn’t hire him to be a human test dummy.
*Honorable Mention:* Jamie McMurray (finished 22nd in Texas, his fifth finish outside of the top 20)
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