ONE: Triple Century for Hamlin
Denny Hamlin joined an exclusive club of drivers this past Sunday, not just for his first win on the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway but also by becoming only the fifth driver to win his 300th start at the Cup level – his 24th overall victory. The previous four were an impressive lot, both past champions and Hall of Famers. You had Ned Jarrett and Rusty Wallace along with two contemporaries of Hamlin: Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne. For Hamlin, the win was just the tonic he needed after frustrating races at Martinsville, Texas and Richmond, tracks at which he usually excels. Despite the victory, his form is still a work in progress, a point he attested to in the post-race winner’s press conference.
“Even though we’ve had two wins since, we still aren’t at that level that we were [in 2012]. We know we’ve got to work hard to get there. A lot of it is we’ve had a Generation 6 car change. I haven’t been as competitive in the Generation 6 car as I was with the old car,” said Hamlin. “There’s some driving things that I’ve got to start doing different. Restarts have been killing me here lately, got to get more aggressive on those. It’s just going to take a little time to get better.”
What the W does give Hamlin is a much-needed shot of momentum. Now, he’s got the Chase bid locked up, allowing the team to tinker with setups over the late Spring and early Summer to get the No. 11 competitive week-in and week-out once again.
“He’s a great leader. He’s a great driver,” said team President J.D. Gibbs. “But he has to have that confidence and I think he has it now.”
I agree, as Hamlin’s performance is mood-sensitive more than perhaps any other driver on the circuit. So with that in mind, as Hamlin heads to race number 301 at the top echelon this Saturday night, don’t be surprised to see him win a few more this season.
TWO: Baby Bowyer
Another driver about to hit the 300-race milestone is Clint Bowyer, who will achieve that prestigious mark this Saturday night at his home track of Kansas Speedway. It’s been an excellent couple days for Bowyer after finishing dead last on a horrible night at Richmond International Raceway a week ago, when everything that could go wrong did. On Sunday afternoon, Bowyer finished a season-best third at Talladega, notching his first top-5 result of the year.
“Any time you finish on the podium at Talladega, you’re somewhat excited but any time you’re that close to the front and taking that checkered flag, it’s pretty easy to get greedy in this sport,” said the driver.
Following up on a solid day in Alabama, Bowyer had two huge announcements on Monday. First up was the news that he had signed a multi-year extension with Michael Waltrip Racing, alongside crew chief Brian Pattie and also his primary sponsor 5-Hour ENERGY. Then, to top it all off he announced that he and his wife were expecting their first child, adding to the growing ranks of drivers with children in the Cup garage. “Boy I’ve had a helluva day!” he tweeted yesterday, which summed up a fine short stretch very nicely.
THREE: JTG-Daugherty’s Best Finish Since 2011
After finishing in sixth place at Richmond the previous week, AJ Allmendinger went one better on Sunday at Talladega, ending up in fifth place for his first top 5 of the year. In 201 Cup races, Allmendinger has just six top 5s, with the last coming in April 2012 at the smallest track on the circuit at Martinsville. The Los Gatos, California native sits in 15th place overall in Cup points with an average finish of 16.3 – impressive for a one-car team with limited resources when compared to the giant multi-car organizations he competes against each week. For JTG-Daugherty, it was just the eighth overall top-5 finish in 190 races and six years of operation, along with their first such result since Bobby Labonte ran fourth in the 2011 Daytona 500.
“We are slowly getting there, each step, day-by-day. I am just proud to be on this team right now,” said Allmendinger and the stats would suggest that this result is indeed the case.
Last year, Bobby Labonte had an average finish of 28.9 and no top 5s or top 10s. Allmendinger, by comparison already earned one top 5 and two other top-10 finishes in just ten races, showing that the signs of forward momentum are there at JTG. But, as always when edging towards the top tier, the odds are stacked against the single-car teams.
“We’re going to have our ups and downs,” said Allmendinger. “We could go to Kansas Speedway this weekend and possibly struggle or go to Kansas and dominate the race. That’s the questions we have each week. There’s light at the end of the tunnel and we’re getting closer.”
FOUR: Saturday Night Lights
And speaking of this weekend, next up for the Sprint Cup circus is indeed a trip to Kansas Speedway for a Saturday night race. This weekend will be race number 17 at the one-and-a-half mile tri-oval and the inaugural under the lights race, following the switch in dates with Darlington in the schedule from last year. The Cup circuit last visited this venue in race number 30 of the 2013 season, and it was an event marred by a whopping 15 cautions.
“It was an interesting weekend, to say the least,” said race winner Kevin Harvick of that particular afternoon. “Everybody was battling the tires and the track, and I think it was like driving on a razor blade.”
Both Kyle Busch, who traditionally struggles at Kansas, and Matt Kenseth, winner of the two previous Kansas races prior to Harvick’s win last October, described the surface as treacherous: strong words, indeed. So it will be fascinating to see what transpires this weekend in what has been a compelling season so far. And if you want a tip, look no further than the local boy Clint Bowyer, who will race for the 300th time in the 5-Hour ENERGY car in the 5-Hour ENERGY sponsored event.
FIVE: Camping World Re-Ups With the Trucks
And finally this week, in heartening news for the sport as a whole, Camping World has re-upped as title sponsor for the Truck Series for another seven years, extending the partnership through 2022.
“The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has one of the most consistent and durable audiences in all of sports, averaging approximately 800,000 or more television viewers per event over the past six years,” said Steve Phelps, avid Tweeter and NASCAR’s chief marketing officer. “Camping World’s seven-year continued commitment to our sport demonstrates its confidence in our on-track product and strength of our brand loyal fan base.”
Since taking over title sponsorship duties, Camping World has expanded its number of stores by some 35 percent with the company making over three billion dollars in annual revenue last year. And after the news that Nationwide Insurance will not return as title sponsor of the sport’s second series, this extension was excellent news for Truck Series aficionados and the financial future of NASCAR in general.