Who’s in the headline – There are multiple story lines in play over the first two months of the Cup season. Kevin Harvick has picked up where he left off the 2014 season as the dominant car on the circuit. Penske Racing is still carrying the banner for the Ford contingent while Toyota was finally able to break back into Victory Lane at Martinsville after more than a year drought on non-restrictor plate tracks. Brian Vickers has once again been taken out of the racecar due to blood-clot issues while Kurt Busch is back in the car after not being charged for domestic violence against his former girlfriend. Kyle Busch suffered a broken leg at Daytona International Speedway in the Xfinity Series race that has finally been the impetus for all of the speedways on the schedule to commit to putting SAFER barriers on all racing surface facing walls.
What happened – Harvick started the season with five consecutive top-two finishes, including two wins, to cement his place in the Chase and an opportunity to defend his series championship. Joey Logano started the season with a triumph in the Daytona 500 and followed it up with several hare performances, where he sat on the front row and led the race early before fading slightly at the end. Jimmie Johnson scored his 71st victory of his career at Atlanta but has struggled in two races that has led to an average finish, so far this season, of 17th, which would be the worst of his career for a full season if he finished the year with that kind of average. Brad Keselowski made a late-race pass on Kurt Busch to lead his only lap of the race, the final lap, and secure his first career win at Fontana. Denny Hamlin found the feeling he’d been missing for the last four years at Martinsville Speedway to put his No. 11 back in the Winner’s Circle at the venerable track for the fifth time in his career.
Why you should care – The competition in the Cup series is as close as it has ever been. Five drivers scoring wins in six races, with all three manufacturers represented gives most fans something to cheer about. The series is still too aero dependent but the tires are getting to a point where they are giving up and providing crew chiefs with strategy calls late in races. NASCAR is cutting down on the tires allotments for the teams at some tracks which might force teams to have to focus on tire management for the first time in a long time. Anything to give the crew chiefs some areas to innovate is welcomed with the expansive rulebook that currently stifles most of the potential areas for innovation with the cars.
What your friends are talking about – With the success of Harvick and his No. 4 team coupled with the strong runs by Kurt Busch after climbing back into the seat would make it appear that Stewart-Haas Racing is on top of the sport right now. However, team owner Tony Stewart is off to a horrendous start after two consecutive seasons of sub standard performance from the three-time champion. Stewart’s average finish through the first six races is nearly 30th, and he finds himself behind Brett Moffitt, Kyle Larson and Busch, who have all competed in one fewer race. One of the best drivers in the history of the sport will, most likely, find the feel that he is searching for and put the No. 14 back in Victory Lane after failing to win a race last season for the first time in his career. Stewart is not a fan of the new rules package but he has long been able to figure out how to make anything he races go fast enough to win races. Odds are he’ll do the same thing with the 2015 Cup car.
Vickers is out of the car for the third time in his career due to blood clots. As much as Vickers wants to be in racecars, and his fans want to see him competing, there comes a point where the health of an individual needs to override the desires. The second occurrence of a clot should have been a red flag to indicate the propensity for clot development. The fact that he has dodged a bullet several times should tell Vickers that he needs to step away for good. The next time it may end up in his head which would have far more catastrophic consequences than in his leg or lung.
Kurt Busch was taken out of the car before the Daytona 500 when a Commissioner for the Family Court of the State of Delaware issued his findings in the no contact order hearing between Busch and his former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. Busch was suspended indefinitely when the full findings were issued by the commissioner and he agreed to enter a NASCAR mandated program to be reinstated. After his appeals were denied and Busch entered NASCAR’s program, the Attorney General of Delaware declined to charge him in the case. Six days later NASCAR lifted the suspension of Busch, stating he had complied with their mandated steps to reinstatement to that point and was deemed to be ready for reinstatement by a behavioral healthcare expert. Busch still had additional steps to complete to fully comply with his program but was allowed to get back into a car for Phoenix. After being reinstated, NASCAR acknowledged that Busch would be eligible for the Chase, waving the requirement that a driver must attempt to qualify for all of the “regular season” events in order to be included in the Chase, provided the driver has enough points or wins.
Speaking of being Chase eligible, in addition to Busch, Vickers was already informed he would be Chase eligible assuming he was able to qualify for the post-season. With Vickers out of the car for a second time this season he is a long shot to qualify for the Chase but, assuming he could win a race and climb into the top 30 in points, NASCAR stated before the season that he would be eligible even though he would not start all 26 of the pre-Chase events. NASCAR has made it rather clear that, provided you are a popular name in the sport and have a snowball’s chance of winning a race, they’ll grant a Chase waiver to you. There has not been an announcement on Larson’s eligibility at this point but you can rest assured it is coming.
The Richard Childress Racing camp is pushing the outer bounds of the rule book in 2015. In fact, it appears as though they stepped to the other side of the bounds. The No. 31 team has been penalized for illegally modifying their tires at Fontana. They were reported to have drilled pin holes into the tires to allow air to bleed from the tire, thus maintaining a more consistent air pressure and ultimately race platform for their car. The violations came on the heels of Slugger Labbe being suspended from the No. 33 car after a truck arm was declared illegal at Fontana. The team is a combination effort between RCR and Circle Sport Racing, owned by Joe Falk. Labbe has a history of pushing the envelope and it appears as though this was no different. Falk is appealing the penalties for his team and Labbe, admitting there was fault but that the penalty is too severe. RCR, like most every other long-established race team in the Cup Series, has a history of innovating that sometimes is viewed to be outside of the rules. This pair of instances doesn’t appear to be any different, although intentionally drilling holes in race tires is pretty blatantly outside of the rulebook.
Who is mad – After Martinsville it certainly would seem like Johnson and Chad Knaus would fall into this category. The second most successful driver/crew chief combination in the history of the sport was exchanging barbs that clearly indicated they were not happy with each other. Most likely it stemmed from the fact that one of the most successful drivers ever at the half-mile track was heading to his second consecutive finish of worse than 30th in Martinsville. It isn’t the first time that the two have sparred over the airwaves, and it has always worked out in the end. The reason they are so successful is that they are both incredibly competitive individuals and are completely dissatisfied with mediocrity, let alone failure. Look for the duo to come out with their guns blazing at Texas to put the rumors of their demise to bed once again.
Kurt Busch has maintained his innocence in the domestic violence allegations levied against him from the beginning. After the Attorney General declined to charge him he was quickly reinstated by NASCAR. The sanctioning body had their hand forced thanks to the Ray Rice situation in the NFL but Busch has every right to be pissed off after having to sit out the first three races, go through the appeal process and then complete the necessary evaluations and counseling to be reinstated. Busch has run like a scalded dog since he jumped back in the seat and is already 24th in points. He has shown that he can compete with his teammate Harvick at the front of the field and most likely will put his ride in Victory Lane before the start of the Chase.
Everyone at Roush Fenway Racing should be on the mad list. One of the power teams in the sport is in their third year of struggling to compete with the other big boys. None of their three drivers are in the top 20 in points. The organization has five wins since 2012, four of which were by Carl Edwards, who has moved on to Joe Gibbs Racing. Greg Biffle, the senior RFR driver has scored one top-10 run this season, the only one by the entire team. At one time RFR was the dominant team in the sport, putting five teams into the Chase and causing NASCAR to limit the number of teams for an organization to four. There is no question that the RFR contingency works as hard as every other team in the garage, but they need to find another gear to catch up to the rest of the series.
Who is happy – Harvick is leading the the points by 24 over Logano. While that is basically meaningless at this point in time, the fact that he has been a car to beat in every race this year has the rest of the series on notice. If they don’t step up their game and rein in the No. 4, they’re going to be running for second place.
Many people would think that Kyle Busch should be in the mad category, after his accident at Daytona snapped his leg and put him out of the car for several weeks. Instead, Busch is spending some time with his wife as she prepares to give birth to their first child and at his race shop. The time away from the sport will most likely also flame the fire that drives Busch even more and bring him back with a greater focus than ever before. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also makes the right foot even heavier.
While so much focus during the controversy at Richmond two years ago was on Clint Bowyer for his intentional spin, Martin Truex Jr. was the person who suffered the most. Truex lost a spot in the Chase that he raced for that entire season. He also lost a sponsor and ultimately a job. After switching to Furniture Row last season it seemed like every race held some new disappointment for Truex. Then things turned from bad to worse when Truex’s longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This season has started out like gangbusters with Truex having speed at Daytona and contending for the win at Vegas. He has finished in the top 10 in all six races this season and feels as though the team is ready to contend for the Chase again.
When the checkered flag flew
As mentioned before, the series has seen five winners in the first six races this season. Harvick is the only two time winner, locking himself into the Chase already. Logano, Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin also have the inside track to a Chase birth. Assuming there are fewer than 16 race winners, then all of the race winners will make the Chase. At this point in time, the other drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase are:
What is in the cooler – Some may look at the glass half full, others see it half empty. The racing with the new rules package has not been significantly better than it was last year but the tires are wearing out and the teams are having the opportunity to make strategy calls as races wind down. Questionable caution flags and the adaptation of the new pit-road officiating system have resulted in some head shaking through the first 1/6th of the season but the pit-road calls have at least seemed to be more consistent and evenly applied. Different people have different opinions of what makes for good racing. One thing is for sure, the product can be improved but it also is providing some compelling action every time the green flag flies. As we throw the checkered flag on the first off-weekend of the season, we’ll enjoy three cold Pabst Blue Ribbons and see what happens over the next few weeks.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – This weeks the schedule swings through Texas where you can see the action on FOX on Saturday, April 11th at 7:30 p.m. It is also available on your local PRN affiliate and NASCAR SiriusXM radio.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.