ONE: Five Winners in Five Weeks
So that’s five winners in five weeks, with Kyle Busch joining Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards among those locked into the Chase — or so goes the conventional wisdom.
But there’s a bit of trouble brewing with that philosophy. History had shown us that with 16 drivers guaranteed a spot in this year’s playoffs, chances are that come Richmond, we won’t have more than that number with a win. But if we carry on with this pattern, unusual for this early in the year we might end up with more winners than Chase places after all. Given the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle are all still winless (to name but a few) it is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Last year, by comparison, we had 13 winners prior to the Chase but another four different drivers drove to Victory Lane during the postseason — making 17 in total. In 2011, we actually had 18 total winners, but three drivers picked up their first wins during the Chase. So all the talk of “win-and-you’re-in” might just prove to be rather premature. This one should be an interesting trend to follow as the season plays out.
TWO: Fontana Should be a Chase Race
What a weekend of racing it was at Auto Club Speedway, both in the Nationwide and Cup Series. Seriously, if you didn’t enjoy those races I’m not sure what will please you. Over the years, I’ll admit, I’ve bashed the track time and again — usually with great gusto and plenty of vehemence. In fact, dissing Auto Club Speedway has become something of a low-hanging-fruit type of deal for me in my weekly columns.
But let’s place credit where credit is due. The weathered surface at Auto Club Speedway has started to produce some of the best racing on the circuit — real Days of Thunder stuff, to quote Kyle Busch, a driver who should know a fair bit about that sort of thing. I can’t believe I’m actually typing this, but I really think Auto Club Speedway should get back its race in the Chase. The worn pavement with the huge seams and the unpredictability with tires would make for an absolutely compelling race and with a sellout crowd adding to the sense of occasion, a mid-Fall event could quickly become a playoff highlight.
Is it going to happen? Well, no, the change seems very unlikely, but it’s worth putting out there. Anyone else agree with me? Surely, I can’t be the only one.
THREE: Horrible Weekend for Hamlin
If there was one race Denny Hamlin would have done anything not to miss, last Sunday’s race would have been it. But Hamlin ended up sitting out due to a sinus infection affecting his vision, with Sam Hornish, Jr. filling in with about an hour’s notice and finishing a very creditable 17th.
Some of the comments I saw on Twitter post-announcement suggested Hamlin was something of a wimp, but nothing could be further from the truth — as Marty Smith of ESPN tweeted, “Hamlin’s toughness is not in question.” And he’s right. This is a driver, remember, who has raced less than two weeks after ACL surgery (an excruciatingly painful procedure) and just six weeks after breaking his back at Auto Club Speedway last year. Let’s not forget, too, that it was NASCAR who prohibited him racing on Sunday; it wasn’t the driver who said he couldn’t go.
Released from the hospital after an evaluation, Hamlin is expected, but not confirmed, to be racing at Martinsville Speedway this coming Sunday. Hamlin’s a genuinely tough race car driver, whatever the haters on social media say, and my bet is he runs at the front and challenges for the win.
FOUR: Return of IndyCar Season
This Sunday marks the return of the Verizon IndyCar Series, with the first race of the season in St. Petersburg, Florida. The 2014 season is a five-month, 14-venue, 15-track, 18-race affair, and if the racing is anything like it was in 2013, it should be a can’t-miss series to watch.
Just like last season, the doubleheader races return with Saturday-Sunday events in Detroit, Houston and Toronto. In addition, the series will run an inaugural race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in the first week of May, prior to the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500. On the driving side, Juan Pablo Montoya returns to the sport after a 13-year absence, after stops in both Formula One and NASCAR. Expect the irascible Colombian to be a factor from the drop of the green, alongside his teammates Will Power and last season’s points runner-up, Helio Castroneves.
Following a vicious wreck in the penultimate race of last season, four-time champion and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced his retirement from the sport, with his great friend and defending Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan taking over driving duties in the coveted No. 10 Target car. Those changes, along with promising young talent give this series the perfect mix on the grid.
Perhaps most importantly, the series has a new title sponsor, Verizon, which is already a longtime partner of Team Penske and Will Power in particular.
“I think of [announcing the sponsorship] as a game‑changer for IndyCar,” Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., the parent of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said when giving the news. “For the series, for our fans, the teams, our drivers.” I, for one believe that to be exactly the case. I look forward to seeing what Verizon brings to the sport not just in 2014 but also in the years to come.
NOTE: Come back to Frontstretch Wednesday where our open-wheel experts start our 2014 coverage with a full season preview roundtable!
FIVE: Kyle Larson: The Real Deal
Finally this week, a quick word on the phenom that is Kyle Larson. Plenty has already been written both here on Frontstretch and elsewhere about his maiden win in the Nationwide Series, his ridiculous steering wheel out-of-the-window burnout and his runner-up effort in the Cup Series Sunday.
“Long race and definitely didn’t expect to run second,” Larson said then. “So I’ll take it and head back to North Carolina with a smile on my face.”
CREED: Larson’s Coming Out Party
Smile he should, because this kid is absolutely the real deal. It’s something that a Ganassi team insider said to me at the end of last season when I asked if he was ready for the top echelon. In fact, it’s fair to say I’ve never heard a NASCAR team official be so effusive about a rookie in my ten years involved with the sport. Sure, there’s a long way to go but on the evidence so far, there’s plenty more to come from Kyle Larson and it certainly should be fun to watch.