It’s surprising to me to think back to last year’s race at Homestead and realize we are already coming up on one year since that race between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. This year has flown by and already so much has happened, including last weekend at Kansas. Now, we head into Martinsville for yet another chapter in what is turning out to be the same exciting battle – albeit it between two different drivers.
However, there is one driver everyone will be paying attention to heading into the weekend and that’s where we’ll begin:
*1. How will Dale Earnhardt Jr. do in his first race back in the driver’s seat?*
After a concussion sidelined him for a couple of weeks, Earnhardt is back in the driver’s seat this weekend at Martinsville and suddenly everyone is a doctor. While a _real_ doctor is saying that it’s totally fine for Earnhardt to be racing this week, there are plenty of “sky-is-falling” naysayers who think that it is best for Earnhardt to sit out the rest of the season. Right, because NASCAR would be totally fine with letting their most popular driver get back in the driver’s seat with health problems in the wing. The only reason he was in the car at all was because no one else knew.
However, being back in the swing of things might be the jolt needed to get that No. 88 car back in victory lane before the end of the year. Statistically, Martinsville is one of Earnhardt’s best racetracks. He has more top five finishes there than any other track (10) and is tied for the most top 10s at any other track with Daytona. His average finish is better only at Atlanta and he’s led more laps there than any other track.
Add all of those statistics to drive and determination that have built up over the past couple of weeks and I think Junior Nation has a lot to be excited about this week.
*2. Can Keselowski avoid the pitfalls of Hamlin’s 2010 season?*
I can’t help but notice some of the similarities between the Keselowski of 2012 and the Hamlin of 2010. Confidence and what can be called cockiness were abundant throughout most of the regular season and into the first few races of the Chase. Then all of a sudden the tone changes and a more cautions, calm, and cool tone overtakes the previous persona.
Keselowski has changed that tone quite a bit and he isn’t taking near as many shots at Jimmie Johnson as he has before. Though his results are still pretty good, Johnson is breathing down his neck and one slight slip from Keselowski will give Johnson the advantage.
Martinsville will be important to Keselowski. He has only two top 10 finishes in five races there and an average finish of 13th. But his championship run will have to extend beyond that and he’ll have to dodge the mind games better than Hamlin did. For the sake of excitement, I hope he’s able to stay in it as well as Hamlin and maybe a couple of others. But historically, Keselowski will need to lose this one before he can win the next one.
*3. Does Allmendinger deserve this second chance?*
Phoenix Racing decided that the camaraderie that the team had with Allmendinger that wasn’t there with Kurt Busch was something that needed to be maintained and it was decided that Allmendinger will be in the No. 51 car the next two races. Regan Smith will take over at Phoenix and Homestead.
This has been a rollercoaster ride of a year for Allmendinger. Failing a drug test and then completing a recovery program through NASCAR just a short time afterward had a part of the driver in the spotlight no one seemed to know even existed. Some might argue that he did what he had to do to make it right, but was it enough?
I think so. Sure, he made a mistake. Whether it was the supposed “friend of a friend” pill he took on a whim or some other story that might not ever make it out, he immediately remedied the situation instead of taking the Jeremy Mayfield approach of trying to beat a juggernaut like NASCAR singlehandedly.
People make mistakes. Some are worse than others. But Allmendinger didn’t hurt anyone (other than maybe himself) and he went through a program to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. I’m a big believer in second chances and, let’s be honest, Phoenix Racing isn’t exactly top tier. He should have the chance to at least show that he learned his lesson. Honestly, after writing story after story and being bombarded with the Mayfield court dates, I was relieved at how quickly all of this was over.
*4. Will we see any retaliation at Martinsville?*
Opponents of retaliation aren’t always opponents. They only oppose it on fast tracks like Atlanta, Kansas, and Daytona. Short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville? Fair game.
So when Kyle Busch vowed revenge on Ryan Newman last weekend in Kansas, everyone looked at the schedule, saw Martinsville, and got a head start on popping the popcorn. A simple bump and run at a track like Martinsville is not just expected … it’s demanded! Let’s not forget Busch’s history with retaliations either.
There are some who have said that Busch won’t do anything because of concern about having an impact on the Chase. Because Busch always has respect for championship contenders in all three series, right Ron Hornaday?
My hang-up isn’t with the Chasers. It’s with the fact that he was so obvious. I think it would be more likely that he would wait a few weeks and try something when Newman was least expecting it. Again, I know his history shows that he’s not smart enough to wait that long, but with his newfound calm we might see him try some different strategies when it comes to earning respect.
Or he might just send him careening into the wall on Sunday. Really, you never know with this guy.
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