Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Hamlin’s Replacement and Dale Jr’.s Dream Season

It’s a very rare occasion this week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season. The stars and cars of the Sprint Cup Series are currently enjoying a very rare off week, as there will be no race this Sunday. Of course, just because the teams have a week off doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to talk about. In case you missed it, one of the best NASCAR races in the past decade happened last week at….Auto Club Speedway of all places. I will gladly eat the words I wrote in this very column last week in which I ripped the 2 mile facility for being one of the least raceable tracks on the circuit. I was quite wrong, and anyone who watched the race knows why. As per usual, we have much to cover this week, as we have a star driver out for the next 6 weeks, other drivers feuding, and many more storylines to liven up this rare week off.

1. How will Joe Gibbs Racing handle the Denny Hamlin situation?

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few days or returning from a voyage into space, you probably are already aware that Denny Hamlin injured his L1 vertabrae on the last lap of the race at Fontana and will be unable to pilot a stock car for at least the next 6 weeks. Setting aside the obvious blow that this news is for Hamlin’s Chase hopes, the most pertinent take away from this news is as such: who will be replacing Denny Hamlin in the interim?

In a surprising development, it looks as though Mark Martin will drive the No. 11 on loan from MWR while JGR driver Denny Hamlin recovers from his back injury.

The seemingly obvious answer is Elliott Sadler. Sources told Fronstretch.com earlier this week that Sadler was the frontrunner to fill the vacancy, but breaking news on Wednesday morning suggested that a new candidate has emerged in the #11 team replacement driver sweepstakes. The hottest rumor around the garage is that MWR driver Mark Martin will be loaned to Gibbs for the 5 races that Hamlin is set to miss. Brian Vickers would then slide into Martin’s seat in the #55 car while Martin ran for Gibbs. The rationale behind such a move is sound: Gibbs gets a capable veteran in Martin to keep the team afloat in the owner’s point standings, while MWR is able to give Vickers 5 consecutive races in the #55 to get an idea of what he could do on a week-to-week basis should he take over the ride full-time in 2014.

So who is going to get this ride? Look for Mark Martin to be piloting the #11 car once the series hits Martinsville. As much as I’m sure Joe Gibbs Racing would like to let their Nationwide driver, Elliott Sadler, have one more opportunity in the Cup Series, the simple fact is that Martin is the better and safer pick for the team. The sheer fact that JGR is even seeking out Martin’s services should tell you that they would prefer to give him the ride instead of recruiting from within the team.

2. Will blocking continue to be an issue amongst drivers in the Cup Series?

Simple answer to this one: the drivers need to strap in and shut up. Tony Stewart’s childish and whiny rant after the end of the race in Fontana brought a new issue to the table that has been lurking for quite some time: is blocking fair game in NASCAR? Yes, of course it is fair game. NASCAR, unlike most other forms of motorsport, is a full contact endeavor. When you fasten yourself into the seat of a stock car, you are doing so with the understanding that contact and blatant defensive driving are a part of the game. Drivers have an absolute right to defend their position, and blocking is a perfectly acceptable way to do that. If you aren’t fast or cunning enough to outwit someone blocking you, then you don’t get the spot. Tough nuggets.

Apparently Mr. Stewart hasn’t quite figured any of this out yet, because he couldn’t have been more wrong in his assessment of Joey Logano’s late race defensive maneuvers in Fontana. Logano was driving his heart out and doing everything possible to secure the win; he did nothing wrong. This whole ordeal is even more laughable considering Stewart has been one of the most aggressive blockers in the sport for the past decade and a half. It was Stewart who drew the ire of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 1999 Diehard 500 at Talladega for blocking. It was Stewart who aggressively blocked Matt Kenseth and others in the 2006 Daytona 500 and ended up getting himself embroiled in controversy in the process. It was Stewart who junked 25 cars last year on the final lap of the Fall Talladega race.

Logano obviously isn’t the only culprit of aggressive defensive driving here. Blocking is not going away, it will never go away, and it will persist even when drivers who get blocked complain about it. Blocking is simply one of those things where it sucks when it is done to you, but if you are in a position where blocking can help you win a race, you would be a damn fool not to at least try to do it. For those reasons, expect to see plenty of blocking happening on the parts of many drivers for the rest of the season, and the ones who don’t like it? They need to just suck it up and realize that it’s a part of the game.

3. Will the Gen-6 continue to impress as the season pushes ahead?

After the absolutely fantastic race we saw this past Sunday in Auto Club, it is clear that this Gen-6 race car has what it takes to put on a good show. This season has been something of a rejuvenation for NASCAR, as each track that the Gen-6 has raced on this year (with the exception of Daytona and Phoenix) has seen the quality of on-track racing improve greatly, due mostly in part to the Gen-6. The big question mark of course is whether or not the car will continue to put on such excellent racing.

I believe it will continue to improve, but NASCAR still can not rest on it’s laurels here. While it appears that the Gen-6 races MUCH better in traffic than the Gen-5, the clean air advantage still is in play to some extent for the leader, and this was made abundantly clear at the end of the Vegas race. Whether or not such an advantage persists as the teams continue to improve these cars remains to be seen, but if the clean air advantage is still highly prevalent at Texas, NASCAR will need to take look at what needs to be done to further alleviate it.

The racing should only get better going forward as teams continue to make the Gen-6 cars racier, but it would be unwise to expect every single race to play out like Auto Club did. If the Texas and Charlotte races play out similarly to the Vegas race (which could best be described as “good, but still needs improvement”), don’t be surprised if NASCAR makes some small tweaks to work on the clean air advantage. Anything from speed cutting maneuvers (such as the introduction of the tapered spacer), to downforce adjustments is fair game as NASCAR attempts to make the Gen-6 a continued success.

4. Is Dale Jr. for real?

It’s been lost in the news cycle due to the Logano/Hamlin/Stewart fiasco, but something rather newsworthy occurred after the race at Auto Club that many in the media have chosen to ignore this week: we have a new point’s leader, and his name is Dale Earnhardt Jr. If all were right in the world, a new points leader would be major news, but this is the NASCAR world we are talking about, where feuds and Twitter-conflicts routinely take the spotlight away from the actual on-track racing.

Of course, not having to deal with the spotlight might just be the best thing for Junior, a driver who has notoriously struggled when the pressure was at its strongest. Ever so quietly, Dale Junior has gotten off to perhaps the best start of his career, racking up more top 5s than anyone (5), and delivering 2 runner up finishes. But the most striking aspect of Junior’s success thus far has been he and his team’s ability to improve his car and turn up the wick when it matters most: at the end of the race. Seemingly every week thus far, the #88 starts the race as a 12th-15th place car, then suddenly comes to life at the end of the race to drive into the top 5. Credit for those late-race improvements certainly has to go to Crew Chief Steve Letarte (who, if there was such an award, would be the leading candidate for Crew Chief of the Year), but Junior’s ability to give solid feedback and methodically work his way to the front race after race has been impressive, to say the least.

All signs point to Dale Earnhardt Jr. being a true championship contender this season. He is in the best shape of his life, he appears mentally more focused than ever, and his team is as effective as ever. Dale Jr. is for real, ladies and gentleman, and this could very well be the year he finally brings home that elusive Sprint Cup championship.

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