If I hear one more person say fuel mileage races aren’t “real racing” (as opposed to what, exactly?!), I’m going to blow my stack. Fuel mileage races are strategy races, which have been around for, ya know, _ever_! This year, 2011 has had an excess of fuel mileage races, which has given us some unexpected winners such as Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski, and Justin Allgaier. Or would you rather see the “regulars” in Victory Lane? You know, the drivers everyone starts whining about because they “win too much.”
Wait! I know! Maybe those saying fuel mileage races aren’t “real” races would rather see one driver dominate an entire race and win by a 2-3 second margin, which would then provide further ammo for the “NASCAR is ruining their own sport!” crowd.
I’m glad I’m not NASCAR. They just can’t win. Personally—and, call me crazy—but I’d rather watch an unpredictable fuel mileage race which involves various strategies, rather than one driver leading nearly every lap and winning by several seconds over the rest of the field. Sure, they won’t all end like the Coca-Cola 600 where the leader runs out of fuel coming to the checkered flag, but not every race can be a classic. Instead, we had an unexpected, yet controversial figure in Keselowski in Victory Lane on Sunday, and a Nationwide Series regular in Justin Allgaier on Saturday. I thought that’s what we wanted?
Regardless, fuel mileage or not, certain drivers have some definite momentum on their side following the Midwestern weekend of racing while others, well, not so much. And, once again, it’s my job to crunch the numbers and reveal the drivers you may or may not have noticed have been on their own streaks as of late.
*Carl Edwards* – A home-track weekend for Missouri native Carl Edwards was yet another race in a long line of strong showings for the driver that has held the Sprint Cup Series points lead since early April. In fact, only once all season has Edwards been outside of the top three in points. Following the season opening Daytona 500, Edwards had the points lead, but lost it until the race at Auto Club Speedway in late March. Edwards once again relinquished control of the points lead a week later following a mediocre showing at Martinsville Speedway, but once again found his way to the top following the seventh race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway. He hasn’t looked back since.
Since Texas, Edwards only has one finish outside of the top 10 (a 16th-place showing in Charlotte), and has led double (and even triple!) digit laps in the last five events. The only thing missing from Edwards’s stat sheet is another victory, with his only win of 2011 coming in the third race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. However, it’s only been through bad luck and poor timing that has kept Edwards from again doing his trademark victory performance, which includes (but is not limited to) a celebratory backflip and a run through the grandstands. Occasionally, he might even find the one dip in the infield grass and tear up the front end of his car, though I’ve heard rumors that this particular move isn’t very much favored by team owner Jack Roush. However, replays and YouTube will allow that All-Star moment to live on forever.
Even if we don’t see another rowdy post-race celebration from the No. 99 crew for a while, it’s safe to say Edwards has solidified himself as a championship contender this year. That’s a good thing, considering that five time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson is right behind him.
*James Buescher*- 5th in Nashville, 8th in Dover, 4th in Charlotte, and 4th in Kansas. Need I say more, or can we move on?
Buescher threw a giant monkey wrench into his champion hopes when he failed to qualify for the second Camping World Truck Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. The foul-up knocked him from fifth to 24th in the standings, and though he was able to rally to 11th the following race at Darlington, the damage was already done.
Or so I thought. Other than a 35th-place run at Martinsville that saw his race come to an early end in a violent crash with Jeffrey Earnhardt, Buescher has since laid down an impressive streak of strong finishes that have seen him jump from 20th to seventh in points in the last four races. It probably won’t be enough for him to make a run at the championship, but a top 5 showing in the points come Homestead would definitely be something worth writing home about.
*Honorable Mention:* *Trevor Bayne* finished third in Saturday night’s Nationwide Series at Chicagoland Speedway in his first race back since Nashville in late April. Bayne was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic and kept from racing for several weeks for symptoms thought to be related to a spider bite, including double vision, nausea, and fatigue.
*Aric Almirola* – I was rather disappointed in Almirola’s performance in the Nationwide Series at the beginning of the year, where several mediocre finishes had him getting outrun by younger and more inexperienced drivers such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne (when he was around), and Reed Sorenson.
Ever so slightly, though, Almirola has begun to pick up the pace. For the first time all season, Almirola finished in the top 5 with a fourth-place showing at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend. Almirola’s previous best finish was a ninth (three times- Fontana, Dover, and Charlotte).
With JR Motorsports teammate Danica Patrick’s return to the series, Almirola will need to start laying down some more impressive finishes in order to keep from being overshadowed by the IndyCar superstar/crossover. Oh, yeah, and that whole “championship” thing too.
*Johnny Sauter* – Sauter returned to the site of his lone 2010 Camping World Truck Series victory at Kansas Speedway last weekend, and definitely lived up to expectations. While he came oh-so-close to winning for the second year in a row, Sprint Cup Series regular and Kansas native Clint Bowyer was there to steal the show. Without Bowyer, though, I have no doubt that Sauter would have been the one in Victory Lane.
The second-place run was the ThorSport Racing driver’s first top 5 since winning at Martinsville Speedway earlier this season, and third overall, which was enough for Sauter to take back the points lead from rookie driver Cole Whitt.
I find it amusing that a veteran like Sauter is finding his biggest challenge coming in the form of a newbie like Whitt and a sort-of newbie in Austin Dillon (Dillon is third in points, right behind Whitt). I love the fresh faces at the top of the standings and so far experience has trumped youth—but not by much.
*Honorable Mention:* *Brad Keselowsk* won his second career Sprint Cup Series race in a fuel mileage gamble at Kansas Speedway. Since his third-place showing at Darlington Raceway, Keselowski has finished every race inside the top 20, something he struggled with through the first several races of 2011.
*Kyle Busch* – Though we’ve been hearing a lot more about Mr. Busch’s off-track antics than on, there is still that whole “make the Chase and win the championship” goal that everyone on the No. 18 team still has in mind.
Unfortunately for them, inconsistency has been a hurdle as of late, with every top five finish followed up by a run or two outside of the top 10. Following his win in Richmond, Busch finished 11th at Darlington. A 4th at Dover was a step in the right direction, but was followed by a 32nd at Charlotte and 12th at Kansas.
One could make the argument that all of the trouble Busch has gotten himself into—from the Darlington incident and penalties from Darlington, the “128 in a 45” speeding ticket, and now the tussle with Richard Childress—is a distraction for Busch when it comes to on-track performance. I’m not a driver, but I can imagine it certainly wouldn’t help your mentality! The best thing for Busch to do right now would be to lay low and mind his own business—unless he wins a (CUP!) race, of course.
*Clint Bowyer* – Bowyer looked to be making a statement from about the fifth race of the season (Fontana) onward, finishing in the top 10 in every race since one between Fontana and Dover. Unfortunately for Bowyer, that “one” was a crash at Darlington not of his own doing.
The last two weeks, though, have seen a significant fall-off for Bowyer. He failed to lead a lap in both Charlotte and Kansas, and finished 15th and 18th, respectively. Though the points falloff hasn’t been all that dramatic, top 10 finishes won’t do this team any good if they are followed up by sub-par results. New points system or old, consistency is the ticket to championship (or Chase) contention, and it’s a term they need to grab a hold of quickly.
*Honorable Mention:* *Ryan Newman* finished 15th in Kansas, his seventh finish of 14th or worse in the last eight races.
*Jamie McMurray* – For sentimental purposes, it would have been nice to see McMurray at least get a decent finish in his home track following the devastation of his hometown in Joplin, Missouri after an F-5 tornado wiped out countless houses and buildings.
However, McMurray just isn’t having the dream season he did last year. McMurray has finished outside of the top 20 in 8 of the 13 Sprint Cup Series races run in 2011, including finishes of 20th, 37th, and 29th in the last three races. In fact, McMurray’s only top 10 finishes of the year were in Martinsville and Darlington, the only track aside from Daytona where McMurray had a car capable of spending a handful of laps up front. Take out those three races, and McMurray has only led six laps all year.
Those bright spots aren’t nearly enough for McMurray to even be able to maintain eligibility to earn a wild card spot, let alone actually make the Chase based on points. In order for McMurray to be eligible for a wild card spot in the Chase, he needs to be in the top 20 in points. McMurray hasn’t been in the top 20 in points since Daytona, which means that last year’s dream season story has turned into something of a nightmare.
*Joey Logano* – Is Logano even relevant anymore? Talladega and Charlotte are the only bright spots for Logano this year, with finishes of 10th and 3rd respectively. Logano hardly has any finishes inside the top 20 (4 out of 13 races), and for some reason just can’t seem to get a hang of the Sprint Cup Series. Once thought to be NASCAR’s newest and brightest star, Logano has never come close to living up to the already high expectation placed upon him. Even finishing in the top 10 more than a few times a year might be enough to convince me he’s somehow relevant to the competition.
Like McMurray, Logano is more than likely going to miss the Chase again this year. Logano is also outside of the top 20 in points, and hasn’t even once this year shown he’s able to contend for wins. In fact, Logano has only led two-_TWO!!_-laps all year and has never been any higher than 21st in points.
Logano isn’t a bad driver, and he’s shown that in the past. But how long will Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing put up with this type of performance before they move on to the new “next best thing”?
*Honorable Mention:* *Juan Pablo Montoya* finished 17th in Kansas and hasn’t had a top 10 finish since Martinsville in early April.