It’s not every weekend you see an underdog head to Victory Lane — unless it’s 2011. While this season’s NASCAR Nationwide Series continues to be the same ol’ same ol’, filled with Sprint Cup drivers dominating the headlines (and Darlington was no different), the Cup Series itself has seen winless streaks broken and underdogs finding their moment in the spotlight.
Flaring tempers are also nothing new this year, though it’s taken a lot longer for the “Boys, have at it” mantra that began last season to rile drivers up. Friday night, we finally saw the fire lit as Nationwide Series championship contender Aric Almirola was none too happy with Cup regulars Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin, steaming after an incident involving the three of them ruined Almirola’s night. That was all child’s play, though, compared to the mix-up that took place on Saturday night between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Seriously, if you missed it, “YouTube it.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYh7BhiDYxY No recap you will read is going to accurately portray the meltdown put on display by this duo after the race.
So between all the commotions in both Darlington races this weekend, not to mention Mother’s Day, several drivers flew under the radar with stellar (or sour) performances left unmentioned. Here are some drivers you may or may not have noticed on hot or cold streaks heading out of Darlington and into Dover:
*Regan Smith* – Chances are, you _did_ notice Smith winning his first career Cup race* (I’ll explain the asterisk in a minute), but chances are you also got caught up in the post-race drama between Harvick and Busch and weren’t able to fully soak in the moment. Poor Smith; despite a Cinderella ending, he didn’t stand a chance against the usually over-dramatic and temperamental pair of drivers. Put them together, and you have the perfect recipe of controversy, trash talk, and vexatious smirks. Seriously, Harvick’s wife DeLana even tweeted about Busch smirking while heading into the NASCAR hauler for a post-race “meeting” with Harvick. The nerve!
Anyway, back to Smith and the asterisk next to his win. Ask Smith when his first Sprint Cup Series victory was, and he’ll probably tell you it was Talladega in the fall of 2008. To recap, Smith was in a last-lap battle with Tony Stewart for first place when, coming to the checkers Smith moved below Stewart to make a pass, going even further down onto the apron to avoid contact when Stewart moved to block. Smith proceeded to pass his rival below the yellow line, then crossed the start/finish line just inches ahead of Stewart. But NASCAR ruled that Smith had made an illegal pass, awarded Stewart the victory, and placed Smith at the tail end of the lead lap, 18th in the final running order.
This season, Smith appeared on a mission early, running up front for most of the Daytona 500. In fact, it looked as though he might finally redeem himself of the Talladega loss, pulling off the underdog story of the race until Trevor Bayne stole the victory instead. Smith finished seventh that day, then slipped into a surprising slump; until last weekend, he hadn’t finished any better than 17th through the rest of the season. The only other laps he led were at Talladega, but then again everyone else led laps there, too. In other words, Smith could run up front at a plate track, but hadn’t been much of a factor anywhere else.
That is, until Saturday night. On lap 357, Jeff Burton’s No. 31 Chevrolet’s engine blew, dumping oil all over the racing surface and forcing NASCAR to call a caution. While most of the leaders pitted, Smith, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart gambled to stay on the racetrack with older tires. It was a move that paid dividends for Smith, as clean air and track position had been essential all night long.
The race resumed on lap 362 of what was a scheduled 367 laps (the race would eventually extend to 370 for a green-white-checkered finish.) The reason? The final caution of the night came out for the aforementioned Harvick/Busch tangle just one lap after the race had gone back green. Edwards had worked his way up to second in that one lap, and would start alongside Smith on the front row when the race resumed. But somehow, Smith was able to hold off Edwards who, by the way, was on fresher tires. It was a finish no one saw coming.
So while it might be unfair to say that Smith is actually on a hot streak, if anyone has any momentum heading into Dover, it’s him.
*Brad Keselowski* – It’s amazing what late-race strategy can do for a driver. Keselowski, as mentioned above, was also one of those to gamble as the laps wound down in Darlington and go for track position instead of tires under yellow. The gamble paid off, as it had for Smith, and Keselowski wound up finishing third, his first top-5 finish in the Sprint Cup Series since emerging victorious at Talladega back in April, 2009. It was also his first top-10 result of this season.
So Keselowski has momentum now, too … but where, exactly, has he been all this time? I mean, sure, Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch isn’t exactly laying down spectacular finishes either (and we’ll get to him a bit later), but whatever happened to the “next big thing?” After all, Keselowski was able to run with the Sprint Cup guys the last few years as a Nationwide Series regular with JR Motorsports, even winning the championship last season after moving over to Penske Racing. He should be able to run up front in the Sprint Cup Series, too!
Apparently not. Prior to Saturday night, Keselowski’s highest finish was a 15th-place run at Phoenix International Raceway. What’s more, he had only led laps in three events — including 32 laps led at Texas, the most Keselowski has ever led in a single race in his Cup career.
More than likely, last Saturday night’s strong finish will not carry over to Dover unless that race comes down to fuel mileage as well. It’s not as if Keselowski had been a contender for the victory up until gambling on tires and fuel. He never even led a lap! Still, Keselowski and company deserve a mention for outsmarting all but two drivers in Darlington.
*Honorable Mention:* Steve Wallace (finished fifth in the Nationwide Series race, his first top-10 result of the year)
*Reed Sorenson* – Sorenson is probably one of the more underrated Nationwide Series regulars but doesn’t seem to mind flying under the radar. Sorenson led the points standings for a couple of weeks earlier this season, but a run of mediocre finishes kept him from maintaining that lead. However, Sorenson has yet to fall out of the top 5 in points this season and currently sits fourth, 18 points back from leader Justin Allgaier.
Sorenson’s eighth-place finish at Darlington was his fourth top 10 in the last five Nationwide Series races, although surprisingly enough, the Turner Motorsports driver has only led six laps this year — all at Talladega Superspeedway. Still, expect him to stay at or near the top of the standings all season long.
*Greg Biffle* – Biffle had a rather difficult start to the 2011 season, finishing 20th or worse in four of the first six races of the year. However, beginning at Texas, Biffle has since been on a hot streak that has seen him jump from 20th to 12th in the standings in the last four races.
With Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards already visiting Victory Lane this year, it’s only a matter of time before we see Biffle returning to the winner’s circle. In fact, his first win of the season could come this weekend at Dover International Speedway, a track where Biffle has triumphed twice.
Biffle has been a Chase contender the last three seasons, but has needed that extra “something” to propel himself to championship contender. Getting back to Victory Lane a few more times will definitely help that, but a little bit of consistency is what is needed at this moment. Biffle is on a streak right now where it’s looking he might be picking up on the “consistency” part — now, it’s time to grab some wins.
*Honorable Mention:* None
*Kevin Harvick* – Harvick’s temper was definitely not “cool” following Saturday night’s race, but his results column certainly is. After starting off the season with four top-5 performances in the first six races, including back-to-back victories in Fontana and Martinsville, Harvick has had mediocre finishes in three of the last four races.
Last year’s third-place finisher in the Cup standings has obviously had some trouble with consistency this year, but has still been competitive enough to stay in the top 5 in points and contend for wins. Harvick could have very well been in Victory Lane on Saturday night had Kyle Busch not decided to enact some vigilante justice.
Harvick isn’t by any means in trouble in the standings, but his finishes recently don’t exactly spell championship contender at this point.
*Mark Martin* – Martin is one driver I cannot figure out. After absolutely shredding the competition in 2009, winning five races and finishing second in points to teammate Jimmie Johnson, Martin has since gone winless and had a hard time even staying competitive. He missed the Chase last season and is so far sitting 14th in points with only three top-10 finishes.
Even more astonishing is the fact that Martin has led only one lap all season—lap 94 at Talladega.
Martin has Lance McGrew as crew chief this year, which might be part of the problem. But that doesn’t explain the horrible season he had with Alan Gustafson last year, who as crew chief for Jeff Gordon this year has already won a race.
This is Martin’s last year with Hendrick Motorsports, as Kasey Kahne is taking over his ride next season. If he keeps this up, no one will even notice when he’s gone!
*Honorable Mention:* A.J. Allmendinger (finished 20th on Saturday and only has two top-10 finishes this season)
*Kurt Busch* – Busch has been paid quite a bit of attention this year, but it’s not for his on-track performance. Actually, it’s because of his scanner feed, full of language so offensive it would make Saturday night TV hosts cringe.
I can’t fault Busch for being frustrated with his performance, but completely ripping apart your crew members every weekend isn’t going to fix things. Problems with handling again threw a monkey wrench into the No. 22 team’s night at Darlington (they ran 27th), and Busch was again yelling expletives over the scanner in a rage of frustration only a mother could — well, no, probably not. But Busch’s mother _was there!_
Busch is a former Sprint Cup champion but hasn’t done a lot to remind you of it this season. In fact, Penske Racing as a whole has been uncompetitive for a large portion of the year and shows no signs of improving, despite the fact Busch has held on desperately to eighth in points. As I said before, maybe a little bit of team cohesiveness would help the morale of the program. Instead, Busch is taking little if any responsibility for the struggles of his team, leaving them all to suffer for it.
On the bright side, it does make for some entertaining scanner chatter!
*Paul Menard* – I really had some high hopes for Menard this season, but it looks like the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing driver is returning to form. After some strong performances at the beginning of 2011 kept Menard in the top 10 in points for the first several weeks of the season, Menard has since seen a streak of poor finishes knock him all the way down to 18th.
Just as all the “Daddy’s Money” comments were starting to quiet, Menard again starts slipping into mediocrity. What a pity.
*Honorable Mention:* Brian Scott (finished 29th in the Nationwide Series race at Darlington, has only two top-10 results and an average finish of 17th in 2011)
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