Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, March 30, 2009

Johnson pushes past Hamlin, wins Goody's 500

Jimmie Johnson pushed his way past Denny Hamlin with 15 laps to go Sunday en route to winning the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin, who led a race-high 296 laps, finished second, while Tony Stewart finished third.

Polesitter Jeff Gordon came in fourth, while Clint Bowyer finished fifth.

Heading into Turn 3, Johnson was on the inside of Hamlin. Hamlin came down the track, and in trying to avoid contact, Johnson's car hit the yellow curb. That shot Johnson back up the track and into Hamlin's left rear. Hamlin got caught in the marbles, leaving Johnson to motor by for the lead and leaving the driver of the No. 11 to hold on for second.

One would think Hamlin would be angry, feeling like a victim unfairly robbed of his shot at victory. Rather, Hamlin was smiling, content to call it a simple racing incident and admitting that had the tables been turned, he would've likely done the same.

"I had to nudge a lot of guys to get around them at points during the race," he said. "So it's hard for me to fault [Johnson] for what he did. With 20 to go, that's part of racing. It really is. It's short track racing at its best."

If the maturity surprises you, you're not alone. Hamlin, along with just about every driver Joe Gibbs has employed not named Bobby Labonte or Dale Jarrett, has had maturity issues, but if the sentiment on Sunday was genuine (and frankly, I'm not convinced), Hamlin may just be turning the corner.

Hell, Johnson was more upset over the incident, and he wound up in Victory Lane.

You think Kyle Busch would let such an incident slide? No ... we'd probably see an episode eimilar to the one at the end of last weekend's Nationwide race at Bristol or Monday's Camping World Truck Series event at Martinsville.

Either that or he'd haul off and go after the guy.

Johnson's win came on the 25th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports' first Cup Series win, which also came at Martinsville courtesy of Geoff Bodine in 1984. A pre-race ceremony marked the occasion, with Bodine and the car he ran sitting on the front stretch. It was a nice moment commemorating a historic moment for one of NASCAR's most successful teams.

Johnson's win was also his fifth in the last six races at Martinsville -- Hamlin the lone exception in this race one year ago -- and Johnson now has six checkered flags at the .526-mile oval in his career. Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins at Martinsville.

Gordon holds an 89-point lead over Bowyer as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. Despite not having won in the last 47 races and fading from the lead on Sunday, Gordon is already leaps and bounds over where he was last year -- which is important when one considers Texas isn't one of Gordon's best tracks.

In fact, it's one of only two tracks on which Gordon has never won. Homestead-Miami is the other.

Could Gordon break that pattern this weekend? Possibly, but he'll have to fight off a host of other drivers -- including Carl Edwards, who won both races there last season -- to do it.

All I know is ... even though we're done with the short tracks until Richmond at the beginning of May, the fireworks are just starting.

Pictures from Martinsville coming in the next post, either today or tomorrow.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500
1. Jimmie Johnson*
2. Denny Hamlin**
3. Tony Stewart
4. Jeff Gordon*
5. Clint Bowyer
6. Ryan Newman
7. Mark Martin
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
9. A.J. Allmendinger
10. Jamie McMurray
11. Kevin Harvick
12. Juan Pablo Montoya
13. Michael Waltrip
14. Marcos Ambrose
15. Jeff Burton
16. Bobby Labonte*
17. Reed Sorenson
18. Kurt Busch
19. Kasey Kahne
20. David Reutimann
21. Casey Mears
22. David Stremme
23. Matt Kenseth
24. Kyle Busch
25. Paul Menard
26. Carl Edwards
27. David Ragan
28. Greg Biffle
29. Martin Truex Jr.
30. Scott Riggs
31. Elliott Sadler
32. Joey Logano
33. Brian Vickers
34. Sam Hornish Jr.
35. John Andretti
36. David Gilliland
37. Aric Almirola
38. Jeremy Mayfield*
39. Scott Speed*
40. Robby Gordon
41. Joe Nemechek
42. Dave Blaney
43. Todd Bodine

* led a lap (5 bonus points)
** led most laps (5 more bonus points)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 Preview

For the second time in as many weeks, the Sprint Cup Series will be running on a short track -- this time, the .526-mile paper clip Martinsville Speedway. The oldest track on the circuit, Martinsville is also the smallest, and a fan favorite. Though its flat corners don't allow for the same speeds we saw last week at Bristol, the tight grooves will all but guarantee a lot of bumping, rubbing and side-by-side action -- the sort of thing NASCAR fans love.

When looking for someone to win, it helps to look at the usual suspects. Virginia native Denny Hamlin will be a threat -- he won the Goody's Cool Orange 500 last year -- as will Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Gordon has seven career wins at Martinsville, while Johnson has owned the track in recent years. Of his five career wins at Martinsville, four have come in the last six races at the track.

Mark Martin and Tony Stewart are the only other active drivers to have more than one win at Martinsville; they each have two checkered flags. Martin could possibly take the momentum from his top-10 effort at Bristol last week and propel himself to another good finish on Sunday, and look for Stewart to continue his early-season consistency.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the most laps in the March race last season, but he faded late and finished fifth -- it would become a pattern the No. 88 would experience again and again last season, and considering the start that team has gotten off to this season, don't be surprised if Junior isn't a factor this week.

What of Kyle Busch? He's never won at Martinsville, and his best finish of fourth came in both races in 2006. In eight career starts at the track, Busch has four top-10 finishes ... but he also has three finishes of 29th or worse. If he can keep himself out of trouble, Busch will be a factor on Sunday, but he's still shown a propensity for putting himself into questionable situations on occasion.

Martinsville thrives on questionable situations.

Expect a lot of cautions in this race -- much like the Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday, weather permitting -- which could really throw a monkey wrench into things. Thought Martinsville has become predictable in recent years in terms of who visits Victory Lane, being at the wrong place at the wrong time can spell potential doom. This track is still somewhat of a wild card on the Sprint Cup circuit, and that's why the fans love it.

That and the world famous Martinsville hot dogs. Two bucks apiece and so good crews and drivers eat them for breakfast, no trip to the paper clip is complete without having a few. I'll be there this weekend, enjoying the racing action -- and I'll be sure to have a few hot dogs while I'm at it.

I'll also be taking a lot of pictures. They'll be in my next post.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No. 88: Time For a Change?

With each weekend that passes without Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane, the pressure and the speculation mounts. NASCAR obviously wants the sport's most popular driver winning races, but aside from a fuel-mileage win at Michigan last June, that's become a rarity -- to the tune of two wins in the last 103 races.

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Junior's teammate Jimmie Johnson have been collecting checkered flags like they were baseball cards.

With the pressure and scrutiny surrounding Earnhardt -- NASCAR's most popular driver alligned with the sport's most successful team in Hendrick Motorsports -- the blame has to fall somewhere. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin, has become the prime target, leading to speculation as to whether such criticism is justified.

I think it is, and the numbers back me up. Consider:

In 209 career Sprint Cup races with someone other than Eury Jr. on the pit box, Earnhardt has visited Victory Lane 16 times. In the 123 races with Eury Jr. calling the shots, Earnhardt has won just twice.

What's worse ... countless times Earnhardt has had a car capable of dominating and winning races, only to have in-race adjustments and strategies take the No. 88 out of contention. Earnhardt led the most laps in several races last season, only to wind up not winning those races. Some races, like Eury's pit gaffe at Watkins Glen, are indicative of Eury's shortcoming: the man simply cannot function during a race.

I'm not suggesting Eury Jr. be fired; he served as Earnhardt's car chief when Tony Eury Sr. was crew chief for the No. 8 at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Fifteen of Earnhardt's Cup wins came with that combination in place, and it's no coincidence Junior hasn't had much success behind the wheel since Eury Sr. stepped off the pit box.

(Eury Sr. is still a crew chief, though, serving in that capacity for Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series. Keselowski has two career wins and finished third in the points last season in the No. 88 for JR Motorsports.)

If I'm Rick Hendrick (and alas, I'm not), I'd strongly consider finding another crew chief for Earnhardt and put Eury Jr. back in his comfort zone by making him the car chief. Eury Jr. has repeatedly shown he knows how to set up a car in the shop; it's during the race where he stumbles, and Earnhardt will never have the success his fans crave and the media demands as long as Eury Jr. is his crew chief.

To Earnhardt's credit, he's taken full responsibility for his slow start (19th in points, one top-10 on the season). Daytona in particular was Junior's fault (on a number of levels), and while it's admirable that he's falling on the sword for his cousin, Eury Jr. deserves just as much blame, if not more.

Hendrick and Jeff Gordon have also spoken out in favor of Eury Jr., saying there are no plans to make a change; Gordon even said no one else would be equipped to deal with everything that comes with being crew chief for the sport's most popular driver. But how genuine is that sentiment, and how much of that is company-speak? Could it be the dreaded vote of confidence coaches in other sports always get before they're axed?

I appreciate Junior's loyalty to his cousin, but at some point, someone around him with some pull has to realize Eury Jr. is holding him back. Earnhardt, 34, isn't getting any younger, and that window is closing fast. I don't know who to put on the box instead (I heard rumors of Chad Knaus coming over from the No. 48, but Hendrick just isn't going to mess with a magical combination like that), but I do know Eury Jr. isn't cutting it.

Now if Earnhardt could just see it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kyle Busch dominates Food City 500

So much for wishful thinking.

A Busch did visit Victory Lane on Sunday at Bristol, as Kyle Busch dominated the Food City 500 for his second win of the season. It also keeps the family's win streak intact, giving the Busch brothers the last three Sprint Cup wins.

The win was redemption of a sort for Busch, who dominated the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, only to finish sixth after his crew made a mistake and let a tire get away on the final pit stop. Busch was overly critical of the team ("screaming "Y'all suck!" over the radio after the race), but that did little to affect the No. 18 team's effort on Sunday, as they got Busch out front on the final stop and the driver did the rest.

I know a lot of fans came into the 2009 season hoping Busch would have a letdown, that last year's eight-win campaign was a flash in the pan. After Busch wrecked at Daytona, that looked to be the case. But now, Busch is picking up where he left off before the Chase last season, and I think the fans better prepare themselves for more of the same.

Like Busch or not (and a lot of people don't) ... he's for real. For whatever reason, Busch works so much better at Joe Gibbs Racing with crew chief Steve Addington than he ever did at Hendrick Motorsports with Alan Gustafson. Then again, the atmosphere at Hendrick was night-and-day from JGR, which is used to temperamental drivers after the likes of Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.

Give Joe Gibbs credit for a lot of things -- three Super Bowl trophies, three Sprint Cup championships -- the man is a master of dealing with people and massaging personalities.

Can Busch be more of a title threat this year? All signs point to yes; last year's dive-bomb in the Chase wasn't Busch's fault. Mechanical failures happen, sometimes a car just breaks. No reason, no fault of the team.

People call Busch's performance in the Chase last season a choke-job, which isn't entirely accurate. Sure, Busch could've handled it all better, and I think he ran the last few races accordingly, but I wouldn't say he choked.

And, as Darrell Waltrip says, sometimes you have to lose a championship in order to learn how to win one. Jimmie Johnson finished second in the standings twice (in 2003 and 2004) before winning three in a row.

I won't come right out and say Busch will win the championship -- there's still a lot of racing to be done, and anything can happen between now and Homestead -- but to outright dismiss him out of wishful thinking would be foolish at best.

Dangerous at worst. Like it or not, here comes Wild Thing.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500
1. Kyle Busch**
2. Denny Hamlin*
3. Jimmie Johnson*
4. Jeff Gordon
5. Kasey Kahne
6. Mark Martin*
7. Ryan Newman*
8. Jeff Burton
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Marcos Ambrose
11. Kurt Busch
12. David Reutimann*
13. Clint Bowyer
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
15. Carl Edwards
16. A.J. Allmendinger
17. Tony Stewart
18. Travis Kvapil
19. David Stremme
20. Elliott Sadler
21. Robby Gordon
22. Bobby Labonte
23. Reed Sorenson
24. Casey Mears
25. Paul Menard
26. Martin Truex Jr.
27. David Ragan
28. Scott Speed
29. Brian Vickers
30. Kevin Harvick
31. Sam Hornish Jr.
32. Michael Waltrip*
33. Matt Kenseth
34. John Andretti
35. Aric Almirola
36. David Gilliland
37. Jamie McMurray
38. Joey Logano
39. Greg Biffle
40. Sterling Marlin
41. Joe Nemechek
42. Todd Bodine
43. Dave Blaney

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led most laps *5 more bonus points)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Food City 500 preview

Quick show of hands: who here's convinced Kurt Buach can't go back-to-back this weekend as the Sprint Cup Series at Bristol?

If you're hand's in the air, then you're wrong.

I'm not saying Busch will win his second straight race this weekend in the Food City 500, but it's certainly within the realm of possibility. Busch has five career wins at Bristol Motor Speedway ... and no, they didn't all come when he was still driving for Jack Roush. Busch is a new man this season, and his No. 2 Miller Lite team is a new team -- it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see Busch hoisting the trophy Sunday afternoon.

Nor would it surprise me to see brother Kyle Busch doing the same. The younger Busch has shown he can win anywhere the series races -- and he led the most laps last August before Carl Edwards bumped him out of the way for the win with 30 laps to go.

Somehow, though, I don't see a Busch winning Sunday's race. Maybe it's a little wishful thinking, but there are plenty of other contenders -- not to mention, Bristol is such a crapshoot that it's hard to get a handle on who will or won't win. Bristol is perhaps the series' biggest wild card track ... aside from Daytona and Talladega, of course.

Edwards has been a master of the Tennessee bullring since its repaving three years ago, while Richard Childress Racing finished 1-2-3 in the spring race a year ago. That means if you've got Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer or Kevin Harvick in your office pool, you should be all set.

Jeff Gordon will obviously be a factor, not just because he's good at Bristol (he also has five career wins there), but because of the season he's had so far. Leading the points behind the strength of three top-10s and two second-place finishes in the first four races, Gordon is knocking on the door to Victory Lane, and it's only a matter of time before he breaks that winless streak dating back to October 2007.

Will it be this week? Quite possibly.

Of potentially greater concern this weekend, though, is how the Top 35 in owner points is unfolding. After next weekend's race in Martinsville, NASCAR will start using this year's standings to determine the 35 drivers guaranteed a spot in the following race. That means anyone hanging around the 35th-place bubble needs good finishes at both Bristol and Martinsville to secure a spot.

Good luck with that, guys.

Heading into this weekend, the No. 5 of Mark Martin sits 35th in owner points, nine points ahead of Aric Almirola's No. 8 car. Rookie Scott Speed sits 37th in owner points, while Joey Logano is 33rd in the standings. If these rookies want to avoid having to qualify for races on speed, they're going to need to do well at tracks at which rookies usually don't fare all that well.

The Nationwide Series also returns to action at Bristol, running the Scotts TurfBuilder 300 on Saturday. The Camping World Truck Series won't return until next weekend, when the series runs at Martinsville on Saturday, March 28.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kurt Busch dominates Kobalt Tools 500

Kurt Busch (yes, you read that right ... Kurt Busch) led 234 laps on Sunday in winning the Kobalt Tools 500 in Atlanta, more laps than the 2004 then-Nextel Cup Series champion led all of last season. Though restarting second for the green-white-checkered finish, Busch made quick work of Carl Edwards (who had just two tires) and held of Jeff Gordon for his first win of the year.

Kurt had faded into relative obscurity in recent years, thanks in part to his team's performance. Roger Penske's No. 2 Dodge hasn't been one of the series' premeire rides since Rusty Wallace retired, and even though Kurt's won a few races in that car, he hasn't come close to the success he had with Roush Fenway Racing.

Not to mention little brother Kyle Busch has been so strong the last year-plus that anything Kurt does, short of dominating the way he did Sunday, gets lost in the shuffle.

Sunday's win was a far cry from Kurt's lone victory last year, which came in the June race at New Hampshire. There, Kurt took what was probably a 20th-place car and played strategy to get in front before a massive rain storm hit, cutting the race short. Though Kurt was named the winner, that was the highlight of his year.

To go out on Sunday and dominate the way he did, to be the class of the field for an organization that has been anything but over the last couple seasons ... if there's such a thing in NASCAR as a statement win, Kurt's on Sunday was it.

Whatever's changed for the No. 2 team this season, it's helped -- Kurt has mentioned that a little bit of everything, from a new Dodge engine to a new nose for the Charger to minor shifts and philosophy changes within the team. Whatever it is, I'm not convinced Sunday's beatdown of the field was a fluke, and I think Kurt's going to, at the very least, make the Chase.

I'm still going with Jeff Gordon, who holds a 43-point lead over Clint Bowyer heading into the season's first off-week, as the early-season title favorite because of his consistency (and the fact that he's going to win a race very soon ... and when he does? He might go on a Kyle Busch-like tear). He was probably the only car on Sunday who had anything for Kurt Busch -- aside from Brian Vickers at the end -- and Gordon's second runner-up finish in four races can't be ignored.

We also can't ignore the event on Sunday that dramatically changed the complexion of the race -- we'll go ahead and call it Tiregate. During a series of green-flag pit stops on lap 67, a tire from the No. 47 of Marcos Ambrose escaped the pit box and rolled onto the grass heading toward the race track. The gas man for the car, Jimmy Watts, ran into the infield to retrieve the tire, prompting NASCAR to throw the caution flag and leave just six cars on the lead lap.

At one point in the race, Bobby Labonte spun coming off Turn 4, and his car skidded through the grass, close to where Watts gathered the tire. Jeff Burton also cut through the grass at near-full speed later in the race to avoid the wreck. Watts created a massive safety issue when he went after that errant Goodyear, and NASCAR suspended him for the rest of the race.

More penalties could be on the way. Stay tuned later in the week.

But the damage had already been done. With Kurt Busch setting such a blistering pace, there weren't many cars on the lead lap in the first place. But with the caution coming out when it did and pinning so many good cars a lap or more down, a lot of would-be contenders were left trying to fight just to get a decent finish.

A bad turn of events for a race that already had way too many empty seats. Another occurrence like Sunday's, and there might be even more next time the series comes to Atlanta. Not a good sign for a track that would like to keep both its Sprint Cup dates.

Matt Kenseth had the best quote of the day, talking about Watts' error: "Maybe he's new. Maybe he hasn't seen us drive, but we tend to wreck a lot."

Some more than others. Right, Robby Gordon? Paul Menard? Anyone?

Also ... Martin Truex Jr. is a straight-up man. If that wasn't already evident, by the fact that he drives 200 MPH for a living and actually puts up with Teresa Earnhardt as a person and car owner, Truex proved it again over the weekend. Practicing and qualifying in extreme pain, it turned out Truex had a kidney stone.


After Happy Hour on Saturday, Truex was given an IV and taken to a local hospital, where he reportedly passed the stone aroun 10 p.m. Normally, doctors would give strong pain medications to someone with a kidney stone -- vicodin, mainly -- but Truex couldn't have such drugs because he had to drive in Sunday's race.

How did Truex respond? By finishing 10th and looking like the picture of health afterward.

Martin Truex Jr.: MAN.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500
1. Kurt Busch**
2. Jeff Gordon*
3. Carl Edwards*
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Brian Vickers
6. Clint Bowyer
7. Kasey Kahne
8. Tony Stewart
9. Jimmie Johnson*
10. Martin Truex Jr.*
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12. Matt Kenseth
13. Denny Hamlin
14. Jeff Burton
15. Jamie McMurray
16. Casey Mears
17. A.J. Allmendinger
18. Kyle Busch
19. David Ragan
20. Elliott Sadler
21. Aric Almirola
22. Ryan Newman*
23. David Stremme
24. David Gilliland
25. Michael Waltrip
26. Robby Gordon
27. Juan Pablo Montoya
28. Paul Menard
29. John Andretti
30. Joey Logano
31. Mark Martin*
32. David Reutimann
33. Reed Sorenson
34. Greg Biffle
35. Scott Speed
36. Bill Elliott
37. Sam Hornish Jr.
38. Marcos Ambrose
39. Joe Nemechek*
40. Bobby Labonte
41. Dave Blaney
42. Travis Kvapil
43. Mike Bliss

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led the most laps (5 more bonus points)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Kobalt Tools 500 preview

The Sprint Cup Series returns to the east coast this weekend, invading Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. Kyle Busch, who won last weekend in Las Vegas, took the checkered flag a year ago, giving Toyota its first-ever Cup Series victory.

Atlanta is a source of excitement for everyone ... except engine builders. Drivers love the fastest track on the circuit, as do the fans. High speeds and multiple grooves make for exciting racing, and if one were to look at the closest finishes in NASCAR history, several of them came in Atlanta.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. edged Bobby Labonte by a fender in 2000, and Kevin Harvick's emotional win over Jeff Gordon in 2001 immediately springs to mind.

But engine builders have to be sweating. Typically engine-friendly Fontana and Vegas were not kind to motors, with a combined 12 failures at those two tracks. Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing were hit hardest, but given the speeds run at Atlanta, everyone's motor will be fair game on Sunday.

Hendrick's failures at Fontana were blamed on bad parts; I haven't yet seen a reason for Roush's failures in Las Vegas. Toyota also had engine issues in Las Vegas, a by-product of a lubrication problem with all of the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) engines. TRD supplies engines for Team Red Bull and Michael Waltrip Racing; Joe Gibbs Racing builds its own engines.

I think these engine failures are a result of the testing ban. Engine tuning for horsepower and RPM output occur largely during a test session; sure, most teams have simulation rigs in their shops, but it's not necessarily enough. The No. 82 ran such a test on its engine for Las Vegas in its shop; the test came back normal. But once the car unloaded at the race track, the team noticed things weren't right, and they had to change the engine.

All those simulations and programs at the shop are great, but there's no substitute for getting the car out on the track and logging laps.

I expect at least five engine failures this weekend; with cars barrelling into the corners at over 200 MPH, turning all those RPM, the engines are going to endure a lot of wear. Weather is also expected to be cool and dry -- which spells even more horsepower and ever faster speeds.

The story of last year's race, aside from Busch winning, was the Goodyear tire compound. Because the tire didn't wear, grip was an issue and passing was nearly impossible. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all criticized the tire after the race, but don't look for a similar problem this year.

Goodyear brought a fantastic tire to Las Vegas last weekend, one that held up to the high speeds and wore enough that the drivers could race on it. Though Atlanta and Vegas don't share many commonalities, look for Goodyear to bring a similar tire compound that should hold up to the high speeds and let the drivers go side-by-side in the corners.

Can Busch make it two in a row? One would be foolish to say he can't. Busch is literally a threat to win everywhere NASCAR races, but I think this is Jeff Gordon's weekend. Gordon has started 2009 about as well as one can without visiting Victory Lane (and he even did that, if you count his Gatorade Duel race).

The No. 24 team is back -- last year, the damage to his left front fender would've relegated Gordon to a mid-pack finish. This year, he turned that into a sixth-place effort. I think Gordon will win five races this season, and his first will come Sunday in Atlanta.

Look for these guys to have good runs as well: Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya.

Enjoy this weekend's race; afterward, the Sprint Cup Series will take its first weekend off before heading to Bristol on March 22. I don't know about you, but I'm not a fan of off weekends -- especially since the Nationwide Series won't run again until Bristol, either.

Oh well, at least we're coming up on March Madness ... that'll help.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Nationwide Series Roundup

With the Nationwide Series off for the next two weeks, what better time to take stock at what's happened so far this season. Three races into the 2009 campaign, Carl Edwards holds a 48-point lead over Brian Vickers, thanks to top-5 finishes in all three events.

Edwards finished second in the Sam's Town 300 on Saturday at Las Vegas, .391 seconds behind teammate Greg Biffle. The 2007 series champion, who finished second last year to Clint Bowyer, was expected to battle it out all season long with Kyle Busch, who wrecked out early on Saturday and fell to fifth in points.

Saturday's race was anything but uneventful, with 12 cautions for a race-record 60 laps and a combined 32 pit-road speeding violations. The tire compound Goodyear provided made coming off Turn 4 difficult on fresh rubber, especially when one was trying to make a pass on the low side. Busch found that out early on Saturday, when he tried diving underneath Kevin Harvick, only to have his No. 18 snap around coming out of Turn 4 and pummel the outside wall -- and polesitter Scott Speed.

Edwards nearly found out on the last lap; he was underneath Biffle in the final corner, but he broke loose and decided to lift off the gas rather than push the issue and risk wrecking both himself and Biffle.

That tire compound, which was also used in Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race, didn't seem to respond well to the Nationwide cars, which aren't as wide and had less horsepower. Las Vegas being one of the fastest tracks on the circuit didn't help, either.

Three races into the 2009 season, and we've seen three different winners: Tony Stewart at Daytona, Busch at Auto Club Speedway and Biffle Saturday at Las Vegas. Busch had a car capable of winning on Saturday, but the wreck knocked him out and precipitated his fall in the standings.

It's still early, though, which means Busch has plenty of time to catch up and wage that expected duel with Edwards for the title. Considering the interest generated last year when these two tangled in the Cup Series race at Bristol, it should be one heck of a battle.

Brendan Gaughan deserves recognition in the early going, sitting fourth in points in the No. 62 Chevrolet with Rusty Wallace Motorsports. Gaughan, who finished fourth on Saturday, has two top-10s this season, and his worst finish was a 16th-place effort at Daytona.

Nice to see Gaughan, long a fixture of what was then the Craftsman Truck Series, back at the track.

One guy not having the start he would've liked is Brad Keselowski. He finished third in the series standings last year, the highest-finishing non-Cup driver, and despite having fast cars every week, Keselowski sits 22nd in the standings, 244 behind Edwards. Keselowski is only one point ahead of his older brother, Brian, in the standings.

Keselowski had a top-5 car at Daytona before a cut tire late relegated him to a 21st-place finish. A top-10 run in Fontana was thrown away late thanks to a wreck with Biffle, and Keselowski limped home 17th.

Saturday's race was an adventure; Keselowski suffered major damage when he and Mike Bliss collided trying to avoid a spinning Denny Hamlin in the opening laps, and when the crew thought they had the damage repaired, Keselowski cut a left front tire.

Keselowski, who also ran Sunday's Cup race and finished 38th, came in 22nd on Saturday.

He has time to turn it around, and with the combined power of JR Motorsports and Rick Hendrick behind him, there's no reason to think Keselowski can't still be contender and win a few races this season. But the start of the season hasn't been what Keselowski wanted, and when the season ends, he might just look to Daytona, Fontana and Las Vegas and see why he wasn't the one hoisting the championship trophy.

The Nationwide Series will return Saturday, March 21 at Bristol Motor Speedway. The race will be telecast on ABC at 2 p.m. EST.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Kyle Busch takes Shelby 427, Kenseth denied history

That Matt Kenseth failed to make history Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and win his third straight race to open the 2009 Sprint Cup season isn't a surprise -- it's hard enough to win one Cup race, let alone three in a row.

No, the surprising part is he only lasted six laps, thanks to a balky engine that left everyone else at Roush Fenway Racing nervous. Kenseth finished 43rd, just the second dead-last finish of his Sprint Cup career.

Kyle Busch took the checkered flag in the Shelby 427, collecting his first Sprint Cup win of the season after moving to the rear following an engine change on Friday. Busch, who was still recorded as the pole winner, called the win the biggest of his life, since he and brother Kurt grew up in Las Vegas, watching LVMS being built as they went through high school and ran local late model races at The Bullring.

Hardly a fan favorite or media darling, Las Vegas was probably going to be the one place where a Busch win would be met with applause and adoration. Instead of bowing to a cascade of boos -- though there were plenty of those -- Busch did so to cheers before kissing the start-finish line and sharing hugs with his big brother and mother in Victory Lane.

The win doesn't necessarily make Busch a title contender, because he was already one heading into the season. Busch might very well have won the Daytona 500 had he not been caught up in The Big One (he led a race-high 88 laps) and he finished third at Auto Club Speedway. With a little luck, Busch could've started the season win-third-win.

Scary thought for everyone else. Even scarier? Jeff Gordon saying Busch has the most talent he's ever seen; that with the right car, Busch is uncatchable.

David Ragan and Carl Edwards also lost motors on Sunday, as Roush suffered the same engine bug that seemed to plague Hendrick Motorsports in Fontana (where Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both blew motors).

Martin blew another motor on Sunday, while Earnhardt had a relatively quiet day and picked up a much-needed 10th-place finish.

Side note: What's with all the speeding penalties on pit road? There were nine such infractions on Sunday, and 32 more during Saturday's Nationwide Series race. Maybe LVMS officials need to look at the configuration, because entering pit road off turn 4 under green is so difficult, a penalty for speeding coming onto pit road is almost a guarantee.

One thing I've noticed after three races this season: maybe Jimmie Johnson's run is coming to an end. Granted, we're early in the season, but the three-time defending champion has looked uncharacteristic so far. He dominated early in Fontana, only to have the handling fall away at the end (how often does that happen?).

On Sunday, Johnson again was the early favorite. But a pit road mistake and a late spin doomed Johnson to a 24th-place finish. When was the last time you saw Johnson, who sits 19th in points, make a mistake in the pits and just lose the car on the race track?

I'm almost hesitant to say this, since everyone counted out Johnson last year and he still won the title, but I think someone else is going to win the Sprint Cup championship this year. It might be Kyle Busch.

But don't count out Jeff Gordon. He has something to prove after last season's struggles, and he leads the points after finishing sixth on Sunday, despite a pit road mishap and a blown left front tire. Gordon still hasn't won yet (unless you count his Gatorade Duel race), but finishes of 13th, second and sixth have the four-time champion atop the heap.

Don't look for him to fall anytime soon.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Shelby 427
1. Kyle Busch*
2. Clint Bowyer*
3. Jeff Burton*
4. David Reutimann
5. Bobby Labonte
6. Jeff Gordon*
7. Greg Biffle*
8. Brian Vickers
9. Jamie McMurray
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
11. Kasey Kahne*
12. Kevin Harvick*
13. Joey Logano*
14. David Gilliland
15. Robby Gordon*
16. Sam Hornish Jr.
17. Carl Edwards*
18. David Stremme
19. Regan Smith
20. Marcos Ambrose
21. Scott Speed
22. Denny Hamlin
23. Kurt Busch*
24. Jimmie Johnson**
25. Ryan Newman
26. Tony Stewart
27. Michael Waltrip
28. John Andretti
29. Elliott Sadler
30. Casey Mears
31. Juan Pablo Montoya
32. Martin Truex Jr.
33. A.J. Allmendinger
34. Reed Sorenson
35. Paul Menard
36. Max Papis
37. Todd Bodine
38. Brad Keselowski
39. Aric Almirola
40. Mark Martin
41. Joe Nemechek
42. David Ragan
43. Matt Kenseth

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led the most laps (5 more bonus points)