NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happiness Is… a Full Weekend

The traditional NASCAR Easter break brought a sense of calm to the sport after what has seemingly been a frenetic start. With five straight weeks of Cup action, the early part of the season is coming to form with a recognition of which teams and drivers are sitting pretty and the others looking to close the gap.

One of the factors involved with this aspect is how the modified aero package for the 2016 has helped some and hurt others. The hope of the new package would be that it would bring better racing while also marking a return to the driver being an integral part of the car – rather than just a piece that the engineers had to work around.

The early returns look great for Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. Though they haven’t scored a win since the restrictor-plate madness of Daytona, the Joe Gibbs Racing crew looks to be in fine form. After them, however, it looks like there’s a more muddled picture.

The Penske Racing duo has looked great at times and not so much at others. Self-inflicted wounds have seemed to be their problem, something Brad Keselowski overcame to win at Las Vegas, but coupled with Joey Logano, their overall performance has been good, but unsteady.

As for the others, well it looks like having Rob Kaufmann on board has not changed Ganassi Racing noticeably. There’s probably all kinds of statements that could follow that observation but no need for the catalyst behind the charter system to… eh, whatever.

2016 Las Vegas CUP Ricky Stenhouse Jr John Harrelson NKP
So far this season, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a reason to be smiling (credit: John Harrelson NKP)

Perhaps the most intriguing team, or more specifically, driver is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Save for his 37th place finish at Phoenix, Stenhouse is putting together the kind of season that has been expected of him. He currently is holding down the 14th spot in the points. He may be the conflation of Roush-Fenway Racing finally beginning to turn itself around coupled with the new aero package being a good deal more suitable for his driving style.

Now in his fourth full year of Cup competition, Stenhouse is a driver that must finally perform or likely lose his ride. Questions, of course, remain. Can he keep up his performance throughout the year? Can RFR continue to give him equipment to help him excel? Is he no different than any other early season mirages that have happened over the years?

It’s a long season, but for now Stenhouse is holding a good spot. Now it’s time for his teammates to follow.

Happiness Is…Fantasy Sports. Playing fantasy sports if frequently a crapshoot. There may be sure-things every now and then, like so-and-so being good for so many homers, or Drew Brees throwing for 25 touchdowns, or Tom Brady being coiffed and dreamy. In NASCAR there’s a couple easy ones, like Kevin Harvick at Phoenix or Jimmie Johnson at Dover. But one of the easiest bets in NASCAR just retired.

Let’s remember that Jeff Gordon put together a sick set of stats at Martinsville. The wins are one thing but his consistency was amazing. Starting in 2003, he finished 20th or worse just once, and accumulated 23 top tens, with eight finishes of second or third. Ridiculous.

That leaves Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin as the ones to look toward as the series heads to the paper clip. But really, neither of them have put together similar stats to Gordon’s. So thank you Jeff Gordon for retiring – you just made Martinsville that much more interesting.

Happiness Is…Loathing. For all his merits as a driver, Kyle Busch seems to encourage one of the most polarizing and negative reactions in NASCAR. Of course, if he weren’t winning, no one would pay him all that much attention. Our S.D. Grady pushed the notion that maybe he’s just the target for the fanbase sport right now, and there’s some validity to that.

But isn’t there always someone who takes that position in NASCAR. It wasn’t so long ago that Jeff Gordon earned the fan’s scorn. And it looks like Joey Logano is working himself toward being the next easy target. For now, Busch is the one. So even in watching Busch lose at Fontana in the XFINIT series two weeks ago, there was no joy as he eluded his media obligations and opened himself to more vitriol. This week he’s trying to pile it on by running in the Truck series. Should he win…oh mama.

Happiness Is…Full Weekend. How’s your bracket? This Saturday there’ll be a lot of attention given to those collegiate athletes who will front the billion-dollar NCAA tournament and set up the championship game. If you’re not following that nuttiness, then there’s a full weekend of racing taking place.

While the Truck and Cup series will be circling Martinsville, one of the more interesting races will be happening Saturday when IndyCar returns to Phoenix for the first time in 638 years, or a decade, whichever you prefer. Sam Hornish Jr. but Tony Kanaan won the previous two times at the track and is one of a handful with experience there. It should be interesting to watch the drivers tackle the flat pseudo-speedway.

Then there’s the pinky-out crowd who will be racing in Bahrain. Nico Rosberg pipped his teammate at the season opener in Australia but Lewis Hamilton won the last time out at the track. The Ferraris looked strong to start in Australia but failed in their strategy. This track, with its wide sweeping turns and the challenge of sand on the track. It’s a full weekend indeed.

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