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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Kurt Busch in Championship Form, Sonoma Strategies, More

_Welcome to another edition of “Did You Notice?” This week, I will be subbing for Tom Bowles… but don’t worry, loyal readers, Tom will finally be back for good next week. Until then, here’s some things about last Sunday’s race at Infineon Raceway that you may or may not have noticed._

*Did You Notice* … Kurt Busch’s impressive performance marked the official one-eighty turn-around of the Penske organization after their early season woes. Ever since the Coca-Cola 600, both Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski have turned a corner performance-wise in 2011. The fact of the matter is that Team Penske has won two of the last three races. They have employed fuel strategy and pit strategy in those wins, but the performance has picked up by leaps and bounds. Busch has gone from a driver struggling to stay in the top 10 in points to a legitimate championship contender while Brad Keselowski has made an equally impressive metamorphosis from somewhat of a Sprint Cup disappointment into becoming a legitimate force to be reckoned with, not to mention being a driver with an outside shot at a wild-card berth in the Chase for the Cup in the past few weeks.

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Kurt Busch and Penske Racing have turned their season around lately and now have a legitimate shot at the championship if they can keep the forward momentum going.

The big question is can Team Penske keep this momentum going for the rest of the season? It’s too soon to say if Team Penske can keep up the proverbial King Midas role or if their golden carriage as of late will turn into a pumpkin. However, all signs point to another strong showing at Daytona. Back in February, Kurt Busch had a strong Daytona showing, winning the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel Race before running up front in the Daytona 500. As for Keselowski, his team has built up a great deal of momentum in recent weeks and could very well be a sleeper pick to win at Daytona. Plus Keselowski has a plate win (albeit a controversial win) at Talladega back in 2009. One thing is for certain, the eyes of the NASCAR world will most certainly be on Team Penske at Daytona this weekend.

*Did You Notice* … At Infineon, there were a number of teams that tried to employ the strategy of bringing in a road course “ringer” in order to boost their status in the top 35, or to potentially break into the top 35 in owner points. At the end of the day, there wasn’t a great deal of success by the ringers. For one team, Infineon Raceway was a crushing blow to their hopes of cracking the top 35. The No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team had pulled themselves within striking distance of the top 35. In a bit of strategy to try and lock themselves in the top 35, they hired road-course specialist Tony Ave to drive their car with the idea that Ave might be the key to a locked-in starting position each week.

All fine in theory, but in fact, the plan back-fired and Ave failed to put the No. 38 car in the field, being the only car to miss the show. To add salt and lemon-juice into the team’s open wounds, one team that had been within their grasp, Robby Gordon Motorsports, had a top-20 finish and pulled themselves into the top 35, thanks, in part, to the Wood Brothers skipping Infineon. While Robby Gordon’s team has to be experiencing euphoria, anguish is the word to describe the emotions of Front Row Motorsports following the No. 38 team’s failure to qualify at Infineon despite the team’s best-laid plans. Now they find themselves having to scale another uphill climb just to even hope to get back in striking distance of the top 35.

*Did You Notice* … A few quick notes of interest.

– The news wasn’t entirely dismal for Front Row Motorsports as David Gilliland put together one of his finest performances of the 2011 Sprint Cup season. The team ran consistently in the top 5 to top 10 range much of the afternoon before fading back to 12th in the closing stages. Coming up this weekend is the site of Gilliland’s 3rd place finish back in February. This top-15 finish has to be an encouraging sign for the team and one has to wonder if lightning will strike twice for Gilliland, who not only ran well at Daytona in February, but also earned a top 10 at Talladega back in April. Gilliland might be a good pick as a dark horse this weekend, given his results on plate tracks to date in 2011.

– Carl Edwards has continued to put together a championship-worthy effort in 2011. But the tell-tale sign that Edwards seems to be focused on his Sprint Cup efforts this season was when he decided against racing at Road America last Saturday. This decision came about due to Edwards’ struggles at Infineon during practice and qualifying. Edwards decided instead of padding his bank account and victory total in the Nationwide Series, that it was more important to focus on his Cup efforts than to travel halfway across the country for a Nationwide Series race. The Nationwide team picked Billy Johnson to fill in, but engine troubles forced him to retire to a disappointing 33rd-place finish. As for Edwards? His decision to focus on the Cup side of things paid dividends with a third-place finish at Infineon. Decisions like this make it at least seem as if Edwards is completely focused on his efforts on the Cup side of things.

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