*1. Which driver needs a win the most at Kansas?*
It’s true that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. needs a win badly-it’s been 105 races since the 18-time Cup winner has seen the inside of Victory Lane, but it’s not imperative _right now_. Yes it would be great for fan morale and ratings, but Junior needs to win more to prove something than anything. He’s a solid fourth in points and running strong just about everywhere, with top ten finishes in half the races this season-which is about what his Kansas stats suggest will be the result this week-a nice, solid top 10. Life is solid, if not brilliant, in the Earnhardt camp.
Not so for Tony Stewart. Stewart sits ninth in points heading to Kansas, has the fewest top 10 finishes of any of those in the ten Chase spots, and is a handful of points from losing that points position. Stewart is a notoriously slow starter, but he usually heats up by now. But Kansas could be the place where Stewart turns it around. He’s got two wins in ten races; only Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon can also lay claim to multiple wins at the track. Stewart’s average finish is 12th, and only Gordon has more top 10 runs there than Stewart. The 12-place average is deceptive as well. A crash that left him 39th in 2007 and another issue that relegated him to 40th in 2008 are the only blights on his stellar record.
In his other eight races, Stewart has finished no lower than 14th, his only other finish outside the top 10. Stewart needs the win, but as importantly, he’s in great position to do it at Kansas.
*2. Is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. really on the verge of a breakthrough to victory lane?*
As the green flag flew after a caution with just five laps remaining in the Coca-Cola 600 last weekend, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. joined Kasey Kahne on the front row for what was the final restart of the night. Shortly after crossing the start / finish line, then-leader Kasey Kahne ran out of fuel, leaving Earnhardt seemingly free and clear on the way to his first Cup Series victory since winning the LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway in mid-June, 2008.
But it wasn’t meant to be. as the No. 88 Chevrolet ran its fuel tank dry on the backstretch of the final lap. The development allowed Kevin Harvick to come from behind and snag another win while Earnhardt was left to settle for a solid seventh-place finish. Though losing a race he was so close to winning after not visiting Victory Lane in so long had to have been heartbreaking, Junior took the time to look at the positives of the night–and the season thus far.
“To be honest, I know there will disappointment about coming so close [Sunday night], but our fans should be real happy about how we are performing and how we are showing up at the racetrack; how competitive we are,” he said. “We’ve definitely improved things and we want to keep getting better and better, but this is going in the right direction. I felt like a true front-runner tonight. I’ve felt like that several times this season, but the 600 is a true test of our team and we performed well all night long.”
And he couldn’t be more correct. After a dismal 2009 season where Junior scored just five top-10 finishes in 36 races–he had eight in 2010–any improvement can be seen as a good thing. But the No. 88 team under the leadership of Steve Letarte has done better than that, collecting six top-10s already in just 13 races to date. Assuming the team continues in the direction they’re headed, Earnhardt is likely to see that number climb into the double-digits for the first time since 2008–his first season with Hendrick Motorsports–when he had 16 finishes inside the top 10.
That said, top-10s aren’t the same as wins, but they’re certainly what the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet needs. After frustrating 2009 and 2010 seasons, Earnhardt needs the chance to regain his confidence. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that noticed the frustrated, defeated attitude Junior had over the last couple of seasons, and it’s refreshing to see a renewed bounce in his step after their performance this year.
But is he truly ready to finally snap the winless streak everyone seems to think is so important? Certainly, but I have my doubts that it’ll be this weekend at Kansas considering that he has zero top-5 finishes and only four top-10s in ten starts at the mile-and-a-half track, and his last two finishes have been outside the top 20.
However, Junior’s renewed confidence in himself and his team combined with his ability to clearly communicate the car’s condition to crew chief Steve Letarte has me convinced it’s only a matter of time before the sport’s Most Popular Driver heads to Victory Lane again–and what a celebration that will be.
*3. Does Kansas Speedway really need a second race date?*
This year NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series will for the first time visit Kansas Speedway twice, but are two trips to the track really necessary? The big draw and the reason the track was chosen over others for a second date is the new Hard Rock Casino Hotel slated to open outside the track in 2012. Seriously? A new casino is a reason to give a cookie cutter track a second date? The best reason to visit a race track twice should be that it provides an exciting race for the fans who have spent their money to travel to the track. Kansas Speedway has yet to distinguish itself from the other mile and a half clones. The casino reason might carry more weight in reference to Las Vegas, a town filled with casinos that provides endless activities for race fans visiting the city when there is no on track action to keep them occupied.
But one casino is not quite the same thing. Dover has one casino and it hasn’t been pulling in fans in large numbers if the empty seats are any indication. As for the cookie cutter aspect of the track, we all know how well a second date went over for a similar speedway located in Fontana, California. One thing you can probably guarantee though. If having two dates has the Fontana effect of giving them partially filled stands twice instead of full stands once, for this year anyway NASCAR will come up with an excuse, most likely that the casino that is supposed to bring the fans has not opened yet. After all, it took several years of visiting Fontana twice before NASCAR admitted they may have made a mistake.
*4. A Short Field for a Standalone Race?*
Less than 48 hours from the drop of the green flag on Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland Speedway, only 42 entries are on file. Unless another car pops up, it will mark the first short field for a standalone NNS race since Milwaukee back in 2006.
The field will not include the owner point standings leader, the No. 20 of Joe Gibbs Racing, which was withdrawn from the field for lack of sponsorship. Go Green Racing’s second entry, the No. 04 of Charles Lewandowski, was also withdrawn earlier this week.
The first time in half a decade the field isn’t full of those trying to break into the Nationwide Series on a weekend the Cup guys have business elsewhere. The leader in the owners’ championship race can’t find a sponsor. And start-and-park entries are being pulled, even with a guaranteed cut of the purse on the line.
It seems this question must be asked every week, but here it goes again; when is NASCAR going to wake up and smell the coffee? YO! Your minor league series is sick! Fix it!
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