The beginning of NASCAR season is usually the best time of year for most fans and drivers. The biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500, kicks things off and everyone is on a clean slate, erasing any bad memories from the previous year. However, it doesn’t take many weeks for some to endure hardships early on while others experience highs that they didn’t get enjoy the previous year. With that said, even though we are only two weeks in, there are already several drivers who should be optimistic about the weeks ahead while others need to be concerned.
This year could not have started off any better for Hamlin. In “this column last week”:https://frontstretch.com/ghorton/37408/ I mentioned how the competition should be worried about him for the rest of the year after a strong showing at Daytona. He and the rest of the No. 11 team backed it up by winning at Phoenix. Just two races in, it’s clear that the signing of Darian Grubb has paid off. Grubb certainly hasn’t lost any momentum from last season – he has now won half of the last 12 races going back to Chicagoland in 2011. Grubb has also won with every driver he has been on the pit box with since 2006.
What also is important to note is Hamlin’s comments in victory lane. Going into the race, he would have taken a top-15 finish. He ran better than that all day, but was really only a top-10 car at best in the early stages. The team was able to make the correct pit calls as the day went on, and by the end of it, Hamlin was better than everyone else.
Logano is doing exactly what he needs to do remain in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota beyond 2012. Two top-10 finishes in the first two weeks has Logano eighth in the standings, matching the highest the 21-year-old Connecticut native has ever been. There is still a lot of racing left for Logano to falter, but with many people speculating that another lackluster year would have him ousted from his ride, he has to feel very good with the way 2012 has started.
*Martin Truex, Jr.*
Prior to the start of this season, Truex had reason to be excited about his year. With everyone focusing on Tony Stewart’s hot streak in last years final few races, not many took notice of Truex’s stellar performance. In the last six races going back toMartinsville last October, he has scored the fifth most points of any driver, taking one top-5 finish and four top-10’s in that time span. At Phoenix this week, crew chief Chad Johnston made some very aggressive gambles, opting to keep Truex out on the track as long as possible during green flag stops and having his driver stay out on a lap 229 caution when he knew they could not make it on fuel. While it was not a race winning call, the gamble paid off in the end, as Truex eventually pitted on the next caution, and with fresher tires made his way all the way back up to seventh at the end. It appears this driver-crew chief duo could be one to surprise many people this year and be Chase contenders. With the addition of respected veteran Mark Martin as a teammate, car owner Michael Waltrip looks to have made all the right moves to make Truex the contender he was expected to be when he moved up to the Cup Series after winning two straight Nationwide championships.
Remember the last time the 48 team had a significant penalty at Daytona? It was back in 2006, the week before the Daytona 500. Crew chief Chad Knaus got suspended for four races, but it didn’t slow down Johnson, as he won two of the four events that Knaus was out for, including the 500 (also kick-starting Darian Grubb’s run of winning with four different drivers) and Las Vegas. That year eventually turned out to be the start of a dynasty, as Johnson won his first of a record-breaking five consecutive Sprint Cups.
Taking that into account, why should Johnson be worried this time around? For starters, Johnson did not lose any points for 2006 penalty. This time around he got hit with a 25-point reduction, sending him into the negative heading to Phoenix after a 42nd place showing at Daytona. Second, not only is Knaus suspended again, but so is car chief Ron Malec, and this time, they face a six race suspension.
Think about that one for a second. There are still 24 races left until the Chase, but if Johnson loses Knaus and Malec at the track for six weeks, that is one fourth of the regular season he will be racing without his two most important people. The penalty is being appealed, so there is chance the suspension and/or loss points could be reduced, but if the penalties are upheld, Johnson will be facing an uphill battle.
Performance wise, Stewart doesn’t need to panic. He nearly won the Budweiser Shootout and won his qualifying race at Daytona. He appeared to be waiting until the end of the Daytona 500 to make his move before getting spun out by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Stewart had a fast car at Phoenix but was robbed of a potential top-5 finish when his car would not re-fire under caution when Stewart shut the engine off to save fuel. These first two races resulted in finishes of 16th and 22nd; despite these problems and mediocre finishes Stewart is tied for 12th in the points.
Stewart’s biggest concern – and everyone else in the world suspected it would be a problem hours after the 2011 season concluded – is the firing of Darian Grubb. Anytime Hamlin wins a race this year, Stewart will have to be second guessing that decision. All the momentum he had in the final ten races is gone while Grubb continues his hot streak with a different team.
Of course, Stewart has always been known as a slow starter who doesn’t get hot until the summer months, but his new crew chief, Steve Addington, has been the exact opposite. As crew chief for both Kyle and Kurt Busch, Addington’s teams have tended to start off strong while fading towards the end of the year. Whether or not that was a driver issue remains to be seen, but we will know for sure by the end of this season.
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