ONE: Double J Has Nearly A Full Race Lead
Much of the talk in the early part of this week has been of the seamless transition of Matt Kenseth to Joe Gibbs Racing following his ruthlessly dominant second win of the fledgling season – and rightly so. Kenseth has looked mighty impressive showing the form you would expect from a champion driver of his caliber, leading multiple laps at six of the eight circuits we’ve visited to date.
However, lost just a little in all the hype for the driver of the No. 20 car is another great third-place finish for old “Five Time” Jimmie Johnson, who now leads the standings by 37 – nearly a full race’s worth of points. In addition, Double J has finishes of first (Martinsville), second (Phoenix) and sixth (Texas) at the three other Chase tracks we’ve run at thus far. Johnson’s two solitary finishes outside the top six came at Fontana (12th) and at Bristol (22nd), where he blew a tire. Those are tracks that won’t matter in the long run, though.
Yes, Kenseth looks super strong and The Robot will be a factor in the title tilt this year, but for my money Johnson’s relatively quiet fine streak of form should be of bigger concern. If Johnson’s this far ahead already, what will he be like when he heats up in the Chase? It’s a scary thought.
TWO: Stenhouse Showing Improvement
In just his 13th start at the Cup level, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. equaled his best ever finish (11th). Perhaps more encouraging than that, he took the lead and paced the field for 26 laps around the race’s three-quarter mark.
“It was fun. We started up front, ran up front, lost our track position and then got it back and [were] able to lead some laps,” said Stenhouse post-race.
Pitting from P1 with fifty laps to run, the Olive Branch, Mississippi native (what a wonderful name for a town) was caught out by a horrendously timed caution flag that still managed to “rescue” his day in terms of providing his best finish of the season. The really good news for Stenhouse is that he showed speed all weekend: in practice, in qualification (started third) and in race trim. That consistency is just what he needs to accomplish as he learns how to ply his trade with the big names.
His girlfriend – and Rookie of the Year competition – might have the best finish of the season so far, among the two of them but if Stenhouse continues to run like Sunday that will change sooner rather than later.
THREE: Back-to-Back Top 10s for Almirola
This week’s shout out goes to Aric Almirola, who finished eighth in Kansas for his second straight top-10 finish of 2013: the first time in his 79-race Cup career he’s managed the feat.
But that wasn’t the only thing to smile about. As my colleague Mike Neff pointed out in his excellent race recap, “It had no bearing on the race, but it was very cool to see the STP colors on the No. 43. Anyone who has been a fan for a long time had to love seeing the Petty blue and STP orange circling the track.”
Most important of all, for the journeyman driver in just his second full season, Almirola is just two points behind the Chase cutoff of 12th place. Now, I’m not suggesting the Tampa native is going to make the big dance just yet. But given he scored just four top 10s all last season, to be halfway there already, with just eight races in the books, is a solid sign.
“Todd Parrott did a great job rallying our guys, making good adjustments and making great pit calls to get some track position,” said Almirola post-race. “Right there at the end, our guys gave us a great pit stop when it counted, and we got another top 10. That’s two top 10s, two weeks in a row, and I’m proud of that.”
Parrott, who led Dale Jarrett to a title in 1999 is clearly having an impact on the youngster; they’ve been competitive ever since he returned to the fold last Fall. Expect big improvements to continue at the No. 43 for the foreseeable future.
FOUR: IndyCar at Long Beach
This past weekend, I attended the Long Beach Grand Prix, the third race of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. The race was won by Takuma Sato; it was his first top echelon victory in 52 attempts, the first ever by a Japanese driver in the series. Continuing the theme of firsts, Sato’s win was the first for AJ Foyt Racing in a decade and the team’s first road/street course success since the team principal himself won the Formula One race at Silverstone all the way back in 1978.
I was standing on pit road behind Sato’s crew when the victory was confirmed, and it really was fantastic to see the team celebrate with such exuberance their long-awaited victory. It’s a shame AJ, in Texas for sciatica surgery this week wasn’t there to see it himself.
But exuberance is the word that would best describe the phenomenal crowd, spread out across the entire race weekend at Long Beach. Coupling the IndyCar event with a potpourri of other racing series (American Le Mans, Pirelli World Challenge Championship, Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge and even a Pro/Celebrity race, won by SPEED TV host Rutledge Wood) is a recipe for a successful weekend, and so it proved. So if you get a chance to attend next year or sometime in the future, don’t even think twice: just go to this California Beach town. You won’t be disappointed.
FIVE: Next Up: Richmond
And finally this week, I can’t wait for the Series to hit Richmond International Raceway this Saturday night for the start of a terrific stretch of the schedule. After the three-quarter mile gem of a circuit, it’s the big, bad high banks of Talladega, then the Lady in Black (Darlington) before heading to NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte for the All-Star festivities and the 600-mile Memorial Day race weekend.
Saturday will be race number 114 at Richmond, with the first race being held all the way back in 1953. The maiden event was won by Lee Petty in a ’53 Dodge. A few years back, I wrote a piece on the best racetracks in the sport in consultation with Frontstretch’s staff; this one, in my mind tops my list.
Our longtime columnist Matt McLaughlin, a writer known for his forthright opinions, has been effusive in his praise of Richmond, describing it as, “Perhaps the perfect race track configuration, a short track with enough room for multi-groove racing.”
I couldn’t agree more. Bring it on.
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