Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: NASCAR Rivalries Unleashed And A Champion Returns

ONE: This One Isn’t Over

I think it’s safe to say that erstwhile teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano will not be sharing a gentle game of hoops anytime soon. The acrimony between the two began – in public, at least – after the Daytona 500 in a Twitter war about the final restart of the Great American Race. The situation revved up to full-on animosity at Thunder Valley this past weekend after an on-track incident and a post-race altercation of sorts.

Denny Hamlin will want to avoid Joey Logano on track for a while, and on Twitter, too.

Hamlin, who could do with a quiet week or two at the track, essentially ignored Logano’s initial attempts at confrontation post race. However, he was much more acerbic later on Twitter.

“Last time I checked he had my cell and direct message button to choose from if he’s got a problem. Otherwise hush little child.”

It’s a line almost as good as Logano’s own firesuit comment at Pocono in 2010#! after Kevin Harvick spun him out on the final lap. The real question is what comes next? I’m betting this one is far from over, at least for Joey Logano. I can’t believe Logano would be stupid enough to try something on the high-speed two-mile Fontana track but absolutely expect some “contact” between the two at Martinsville after the Easter break, and at a track where Hamlin traditionally excels. This one isn’t over—not by any stretch of the imagination.

TWO: Play it Again Sam

What a phenomenal start to the Nationwide Series season it’s been for Team Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr. After a second place run in the carnage of the Daytona race, Hornish nursed a car that was damaged early to an excellent seventh place effort at Phoenix. He then won the race at Las Vegas in the dominant car; just his second win in 70 Nationwide Series starts. This past weekend at Bristol, Hornish picked up a fourth place effort; enough for an early 22-point lead over second placed Justin Allgaier.

The three time IndyCar champion and 2006 Indy 500 winner has not had the easiest of transitions to NASCAR; losing his full-time Cup ride after three tough and statistically terrible years. In 106 races, Hornish managed a solitary two top-5’s, 8 top-10’s and a meager 53 laps lead. But, as is appropriate for a man from town called Defiance, Hornish has remained resolute. He ran one Cup and 13 Nationwide races in 2011 before establishing himself again in 2012 in a full time Nationwide ride finishing a solid fourth in the overall standings, 105 points behind winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This year he appears primed to go ever better and challenge all the way for a series title.

THREE: IndyCar Goes Green this Sunday

The green flag drops this Sunday afternoon on the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series in sunny St Petersburg, Florida: the first of 19 races that stretch from this weekend through the first week of October.

For the first time in six years the series has an American champion in Ryan Hunter-Reay who won a thrilling first championship at Auto Club Speedway last September. Back on the expanded schedule for the first time since 1989 is Pocono Raceway. A move, which will no doubt please the long-time fans of open wheel racing. The Series will also trial three double header weekends in Detroit, Toronto and Houston, running full points races on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons. With the final double header at Houston coming before the last race of the season, you can’t help but feel these three weekends could be pivotal in what is likely to be a closely and keenly contested championship.

2012 saw the introduction of a new chassis and new engine manufacturers – a huge upheaval for the drivers and teams – but coming into the season there are no significant changes to the car or engine package, which should only promote even better racing. If you’ve not given the Series a chance before, you really should. You won’t be disappointed.

FOUR: My “Favorite” Track

This is my sixth full season as a weekly NASCAR columnist and for the most part I like to write about and accentuate the positives in the sport. There’s enough negative already. But if I’m honest, there’s no track I’ve bashed quite like I have Auto Club Speedway.

As always in any kind of sports journalism, the easy target is not the easy target for the wrong reason. For the most part the racing at the low banked, two-mile D-shape oval hasn’t been great. It is not, then, the ideal next location after a momentum building weekend at Bristol in terms of on-track action. (Despite all the empty seats in the stands: a truly sad sight to see.)

With the first off weekend the following week, NASCAR needs a good show on Sunday. The truth is, it’s not likely to happen. What you will hear, however, on good old shouty WE ARE FOX SPORTS is lots of chatter about four wide on restarts. That will be true, as Fontana is one of the widest surfaces in all of NASCAR racing. It’s cool…but it’s not as dramatic as it sounds. I’m not expecting much this Sunday, so I can only hope I’m pleasantly surprised.

FIVE: The Paul Menard Empire

After four races in 2012, following a solid top ten effort on the high banks of Thunder Valley, Paul Menard sat in ninth place in the standings, just 34 points behind then points front runner Greg Biffle. Menard finished 19th the following at Auto Club Speedway, slipping out of the top ten for the first and last time that season.

Four races into 2013 and it’s an eerily similar situation as the driver of the No. 27 Chevy once again finds himself in ninth place, 48 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, following a top ten run at Las Vegas and a ninth place at Bristol.

Will history repeat itself and Menard will return to mid pack obscurity? Or will the much-maligned driver finally show he belongs in the Chase with a strong regular season run?

Judging by the evidence so far, it seems unlikely. Menard has garnered half of the entire team’s four top tens. After a poor 2012 season, it’s not been the start anyone at RCR would have wanted. The good news is it’s still early.

But as the Yankees great Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra once said, “It gets late early out there.”

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