After six straight weeks of racing to open the 2012 season, the Sprint Cup circus takes a brief pause this weekend in observance of Easter before embarking on a stretch of races that includes trips to Richmond, Darlington, Talladega, Charlotte and Texas. For me, it might just be the best couple of months of racing on the entire ten-month slate. But before that excitement begins, it’s time for another edition of Five Points to Ponder from picturesque Martinsville.
*ONE: Martinsville – the Original and Still the Best*
Thank the good Lord above for the little paperclip that could; venerable old Martinsville Speedway. Whatever else may be wrong with Cup racing today — flagging attendances, slipping TV ratings, mind-numbing, soul-crushing cookie cutter parades, poor broadcasting, you name it — there’s pretty much nothing a weekend at Martinsville can’t fix. As always, the grand old track delivered an absolute classic of a race this past weekend, with Ryan Newman holding off AJ Allmendinger for his first win of the season.
I can’t say it often and loud enough, but in a sport that changes so much, year to year, keeping the illustrious and rich tradition of two races a year at Martinsville alive has to be a number one, grade A, top of the chart priority. We’ve lost Labor Day at Darlington already; we can’t afford to lose another piece of NASCAR heritage. Plus, when was the last time a race at Martinsville was anything but excellent? How often can you say that about certain other tracks on the schedule?
*TWO: Michael Waltrip Racing Firing on All Cylinders*
It is fair to say that things have not been easy for MWR since they helped debut the Toyota badge back in 2007. At times, it’s been the proverbial comedy of errors with pitchman extraordinaire Michael Waltrip barely managing to keep everything shipshape and under control.
This year, though, the picture is significantly brighter. Both full-time drivers, Martin Truex (6th place, -12 points) and Clint Bowyer (ninth, -34 points) have started the season in fine style running up front. Meanwhile, Mark Martin, with just four races run, sits in 25th place, 36 points ahead of 31st place Kasey Kahne and 13 points up on Kurt Busch (26th) both of whom have run all six races. Even fill-in driver Brian Vickers has looked racy, finishing fifth at Bristol in what was his first race of the season.
Much of this success stems back to a decision made around this time last year to significantly invest in the organization’s equipment and resources, bringing the team more in line with Toyota’s flagship team Joe Gibbs Racing. The simple fact is that competition at the very highest of levels requires investment, time and the right personnel in place. After what can be politely described as a fiasco of a start to Sprint Cup racing, MWR is finally firing on all cylinders and moving on up. Let’s see if they can sustain it through the stretch run to the Chase. On the early evidence, so far there’s no reason to suggest they can’t.
*THREE: Hendrick Lite Showing Up the Parent Company*
Ryan Newman’s somewhat unexpected victory at Martinsville means that the Stewart-Haas organization — or Hendrick Lite, if you prefer — has now won half of the six races run this season. Both drivers sit safely in the top 10 in points, as perhaps you would expect: Tony Stewart is twelve points in arrears in fourth place, while Newman’s 16th career victory elevates him to eighth place, 24 points behind points leader Greg Biffle. By comparison, the Hendrick Motorsports varsity team’s quartet of drivers has zero wins, just five top 5’s and nine top 10s in total with Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne accounting for just one solitary top-10 run between them.
Skip back to the preseason media tour for a minute and in particular to team owner Rick Hendrick’s bullish statement of intent. “I can’t remember having four teams this solid, this strong, at the beginning of the year,” said Hendrick. “I think we’re as prepared as we’ve ever been and if we don’t get it [the championship] it’s going to be our fault.”
Now, I’m not going to sit here, with 30 races to go, and wax lyrical on why the champion won’t come from the Hendrick stable, but on the evidence so far, the SHR outfit are just that little bit ahead. And just that little bit ahead is all that matters in a sport where a tenth of a second can be a long time.
*FOUR: A Much Needed Career Best Finish for AJ Allmendinger*
What a weekend it was for AJ Allmendinger, who recorded his best ever finish (second) in 158 races at the top echelon of NASCAR racing, and just his fifth overall top-5 run. For a driver with much to prove in 2012, especially with such fine Penske equipment underneath him, the second-place performance was a critical result, especially after a sluggish start to the year with two terrible finishes (34th, Daytona; 37th, Las Vegas) and three other ho-hum runs (15th, Fontana; 17th, Bristol; 18th, Phoenix). A good run at Martinsville, prior to the two-week break, was critical.
“Ultimately for me, I put a lot of pressure on my shoulders, because I know these guys that are on this No. 22 car…,” said Allmendinger after the race. “They are used to running up front every weekend and they are used to having a chance to win races or used to winning races. I put that on me to go out there and step up to the game.”
And stepping up his game is a tenet AJ would do well to hold onto with a vice-like grip. He only needs to look at the fine early season form of last year’s breakout driver and teammate Brad Keselowski to know it can be done. The jury is, however, still out on whether AJ can make a similar breakthrough.
Either way, he’s a driver who is fun to watch both on and off the track.
*FIVE: Another Great Week for Junior*
Speaking of good weekends: another week and another top-5 effort for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leaving NASCAR’s most famous and most favorite son just a few ticks (six, to be precise) behind points leader Greg Biffle. A second straight third-place finish to go along with his best loser effort in the Daytona 500 plus three other solid finishes (10th, Las Vegas; 14th, Phoenix; 15th, Bristol) sees Junior off to his best start in a long, long while. Yes, he still has the win monkey (should that be an 800lb gorilla?) on his back and until he finally wheels the Hendrick-powered No. 88 car to Victory Lane, there will still be questions to answer. But from what I’ve seen from Junior so far, he appears to be very much for real in 2011. Whether he can parlay his early season form into yearlong consistency and a true title tilt is still in question, but the pieces, parts and relationships — especially with head wrench Steve Letarte – appear to all be in place.
If and when the long awaited victory happens, don’t be surprised to see Junior really take off. It goes without saying that a championship for Earnhardt, Jr. would be one of the most popular and compelling stories in the sports’ illustrious history. This year, a Junior championship might just be a real possibility.
Enjoy your off week, folks. Happy Easter.
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