Season so far a battle of heavyweights
It’s early but make no mistake, the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is a heavyweight battle of epic proportions as competitors head east for Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in eastern Tennessee.
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and current points leader Jimmie Johnson effectively threw down the gauntlet by winning the Daytona 500. This year’s start – first, second and sixth – is Johnson’s best since 2010 when the Californian won two of the first three races en route to his fifth consecutive title. It’s the first time Johnson has started the season with three consecutive top 10s since 2006, when he won his first Daytona 500 and followed it up with his first championship.
Johnson has a single Bristol victory – the 2010 Food City 500. Seven of his most recent finishes at the 0.533-mile track have been top 10s.
Nothing – not a new season or a new manufacturer – has slowed 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. The reigning Food City 500 and 2011 Bristol late-summer winner, Keselowski is the only competitor with three top-five finishes to start this season. Another top five at Bristol would put him in the same class as the man he’s chasing. The last driver to start a season with four top fives: Jimmie Johnson in 2005.
Keselowski, five points behind Johnson, has fashioned an amazing run of 20 top-10 finishes in his most recent 23 races beginning with last June’s victory at Kentucky Speedway.
Pleased, yes, but Keselowski remains hungry.
“I feel like we’ve had a shot at winning all three,” he told interviewers after finishing third in his No. 2 Penske Racing Ford in Las Vegas. “I want to win really bad, but I guess the consolation is starting out the year with three solid finishes … and just kind of backing up where we finished last year with solid runs.”
Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., the series’ 10-time Most Popular Driver.
Earnhardt is off to the best start of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career with finishes of second, fifth and seventh. He stands third in the standings, 10 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson.
Although not a factor for the Las Vegas victory, Earnhardt was thinking “big picture” after Sunday’s finish.
“We got a pretty good little start to the season,” he said.
A one-time Bristol winner (2004), Earnhardt has been just so-so since joining HMS: a top five and three top 10s with no finish worse than 18th in 10 starts.
Bristol can be a key component in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship season. A total of 24 different drivers have a Bristol victory during their title seasons. Three – Johnson, Keselowski and Kurt Busch – accomplished the Bristol/championship tandem during the Chase era.
Parity The Watchword As Gen-6 Rollout Continues
Competitors will see their fourth different track configuration of 2013 this week. After starting the 2013 season at Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile restrictor-plate layout, teams have visited a mile (Phoenix) and a 1.5-mile intermediate track (Las Vegas, which saw a Loop Data record 31 green-flag passes for the lead).
Now it’s on to a short track, Bristol, where the 0.533-mile high-banks are concrete surfaced. In a normal season, this would be no big deal. But this year is hardly that with the rollout of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Gen-6 cars.
The challenge of adapting the new cars to different tracks is obvious. But the construction of enough equipment – teams effectively have been “away from home” since mid-February – may be even more daunting. At least Bristol is in the neighborhood, a few hours west of the majority of the team bases in Charlotte, N.C.
In three races – and three track types – no team or manufacturer appears to have found an edge over its rivals.
Each nameplate has won a race: the Chevrolet SS and five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the Daytona 500; the Ford Fusion and Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards at Phoenix and most recently the Toyota Camry and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth in Las Vegas. Kenseth’s victory was the 50th for Toyota, which joined the series in 2007. Toyota has won five of the last eight Bristol races, all by JGR drivers.
Las Vegas and Phoenix saw one of each brand among the top three. Each manufacturer had a spot among the first four Daytona 500 finishers. Two organizations – Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Racing – boast top-five finishes in each of the opening trio of races.
Another indicator of how the drivers are adapting to the new car can be found among the top 10 finishers of last weekend’s Kobalt Tools 400. Seven of the 10 qualified for last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.
So far, there has been parity among series manufacturers with Chevrolet and Ford each claiming a victory. Last Sunday’s race in Phoenix found all three nameplates taking a spot in the top three.
Dark Horses Galloping Into Contention
Not every NASCAR Sprint Cup competitor got a vote of confidence in pre-season polling of likely qualifiers for this fall’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. So far, anyway, some of the so-called long shots are confounding the experts.
Aric Almirola stands 10th in the standings after three races – his best start ever in the series – with a trio of lead-lap finishes. He looks to continue the surprise party, and place the No. 43 in Bristol’s Victory Lane for the first time since 1975. Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ranks 11th on the strength of three finishes of 17th or higher. And Paul Menard, winless a year ago after collecting one of the sport’s biggest prizes in 2011 – Indianapolis’ Brickyard 400 – sits 12th with a solid 10th-place effort at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Three races hardly make a season but some big names have yet to grace the top 15 in points, though three (Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.) rebounded from points positions of 30th or worse with solid finishes at Las Vegas. Among a few marquee drivers looking to crack the top 15: Busch (17th), Tony Stewart (18th), Harvick (19th), Truex (22nd) and Ryan Newman (31st).
In fairness, mechanical and other incidents hampered the group at Daytona and Phoenix. Busch and Harvick were back on pace in Las Vegas with finishes of fourth and ninth. Stewart struggled early but raced his way back to 11th at the finish.
Busch, Stewart and Harvick are former Bristol winners. Truex and Newman have yet to score in Thunder Valley.
Kenseth And Company Have Gibbs Stayin’ Alive After Daytona Hiccup
After a bit of a rough start to the 2013 season, Joe Gibbs Racing’s trio of drivers is starting to find their rhythm.
Matt Kenseth held off the hard-charging Chevrolet of Kasey Kahne to win last Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas to bring Joe Gibbs and Toyota their first victory of the new season in NASCAR’s premier series. Kenseth’s teammate Kyle Busch finished fourth. The two top-five finishes help buoy the championship aspirations for the JGR organization.
In the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth and Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, paced the organization with a 14th-place finish. Busch and Kenseth finished 34th and 37th, respectively. The following week in Phoenix, Hamlin finished third, while Kenseth came home seventh. However, Busch didn’t fare as well, finishing 23rd.
Just two races into the new season, Hamlin found himself in good position, sitting fourth in the standings. Kenseth was 18th, while Busch was all the way back in 34th. After strong showings at Vegas, Kenseth moved up to seventh and Busch leapt to 17th, while Hamlin remained fourth.
All three JGR drivers hope to further improve their points standings in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol, a track at which they’ve all found success.
Hamlin won last year’s fall night race at the short track. Kenseth finished runner-up to Brad Keselowksi in last year’s spring race, and has two victories. In only 16 starts, Busch has found Victory Lane five times.
It’s Vickers, Baby: Nationwide Full-Timer Hops Back Into MWR Cup Ride
We now enter the part of the season where Mark Martin takes a step back and enjoys his semi-retirement. Martin, scheduled to drive 24 points races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season, takes his hiatus after putting his No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota sixth in owner points.
Now it’s Brian Vickers’ turn to pick up where Martin left off. Vickers, running a full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, will take the wheel of the No. 55 at Bristol on Sunday – a track at which he scored two top fives during a partial schedule last season.
Vickers finished fifth in the 2012 spring Bristol race, and followed that up with a fourth in the summer Bristol night race. He scored a Driver Rating of 120.4 in the spring race, leading a single-race career-high 125 laps. A two-time winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Vickers has started strong in his first full NNS season since his championship-winning 2003 campaign. He has led laps in all three races this season, with a top finish of third last week at Las Vegas.
Vickers is scheduled to run nine races in the No. 55 this season, with owner Michael Waltrip filling out the car’s remaining schedule (both Talladega races and the July Daytona race).
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Starting with Sunday’s race at Bristol, 2013 owner points will be used to determine provisional starting positions in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. … AJ Allmendinger returns to the seat of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, which sits a surprising seventh in the championship owner points after three races. Thus far this season, the No. 51 has been driven by Regan Smith (Daytona), Allmendinger (Phoenix) and Austin Dillon (Las Vegas) … Milestone Watch: David Reutimann, a two-time winner in the NSCS, will make his 200th series start on Sunday. … Jeff Gordon continues his quest for 300 top-five finishes. He’s two away from the magic number, and three from tying David Pearson for third on the all-time top-five list.
Hornish Seals The Deal In Sam’s Town 300 At Las Vegas
In only his second full-time season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Sam Hornish Jr. is finding his groove and serving notice to all that he’s a serious title contender.
After his victory in last Saturday’s Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas, it is evident that he’s on the championship radar now as the series heads to Bristol for Saturday’s Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300.
Hornish has finished in the top 10 in the first three races of the 2013 season, capped with his strong victory last Saturday, where he led 114 of the 200 laps to hold off NSCS regular and NNS career wins leader Kyle Busch at the finish line by 1.1 seconds.
In the season-opening DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona, he finished second to NSCS regular Tony Stewart. Hornish left Florida with a slim one-point advantage over Justin Allgaier. In the second race of the season, Hornish finished seventh in the Dollar General 200 Fueled by AmeriGas in Phoenix.
When the series arrived in Vegas, he was deadlocked with Allgaier atop the points standings. However, due to his runner-up finish in the season opener, Hornish held the tiebreaker. He surged forward on his Vegas win and now leads a trio of drivers (Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott) by 19 points.
If Hornish is to remain in his current position, he’ll need to finish higher than he has in any of his past three starts at the short track. While finishes of 14th, 13th and 10th aren’t bad, they could spell the difference between remaining the focal point on the radar and falling back among the other contenders.
Bayne Returns Home To Good Ol’ Rocky Top
There will always be added pressure when drivers return to their home state to compete at what they consider their home track.
Add that to the list of pressures facing Knoxville, Tenn.’s, Trevor Bayne when he arrives at Bristol Motor Speedway in the northeastern corner of the Volunteer State for Saturday’s Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300.
This season marks the first time since 2010 the driver best known for his 2011 Daytona 500 victory will compete full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Last year, Bayne only started six races, finishing 32nd in overall points. His best finish was fourth at Las Vegas.
Competing in front of family and friends and racing full-time, however, aren’t his only pressures. Bayne has some pretty big shoes to fill. He replaces two-time reigning Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was promoted to a full-time NSCS ride, in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
Mike Kelley, Stenhouse’s crew chief for both championship seasons, remains atop the pit box this season to help guide Bayne to what they both hope is a title-winning campaign.
Although he is facing pressure to perform and prove to everyone that he can be a title contender, Bayne is currently holding his own in the standings at eighth. A solid performance this Saturday could go a long way in relieving some of that pressure.
In eight visits to “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile,” Bayne has one top-five and two top-10 finishes. In last year’s spring race, he led 64 laps and finished eighth after starting second.
Trio Of Drivers Share Second In Points Standings
Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott all have one thing in common – they are all currently in second place in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings, 19 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr.
After three races in the young season, the trio of drivers has performed well – the worst finish among them is 15th – and they are ready to seize the points lead should Hornish experience any hiccups this weekend or further down the road.
In three races this season, Allgaier has finished seventh (Daytona), third (Phoenix) and 15th (Las Vegas). In eight NNS career starts at Bristol, he has one win, two top fives and three top 10s.
Sadler, who finished as the runner-up in the points standings each of the past two seasons to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has a 15th-place (Daytona) finish and a pair of fifth-places (Phoenix, Las Vegas) in 2013. At Bristol, he has two wins, five top-five and six top-10 finishes and one pole in 12 races.
Scott has finished no worse than 10th (Phoenix) in the first three races of 2013. He also has sixth-place (Daytona) and ninth-place (Las Vegas) finishes. In seven races at Bristol, he has one top 10.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
Brian Scott is the only NASCAR driver to have finished inside the top 10 in the last five races in any of NASCAR’s national series, going back to last fall’s Phoenix race. … Grammy award-winning comedian Jeff Foxworthy will be the grand marshal for the Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300. … Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are among the NSCS regulars who will compete in the Saturday race. … Milestone Watch: Sam Hornish Jr. will make his 200th NASCAR national series start on Saturday.
Crafton Seeks Redemption At Martinsville Speedway
Although he doesn’t have a win at Martinsville Speedway, Matt Crafton is one driver in particular who is ready to get back to the track and get to Victory Lane for various reasons.
Crafton has 22 starts at the historic 0.526-mile track located in southern Virginia – most by any full-time active driver in the series.
Crafton built his resume racing on short tracks throughout the West, and competing at Martinsville reminds him of his roots.
“We all grew up racing on short tracks and I look forward to going back to Martinsville each year,” Crafton said.
Crafton returns to Martinsville for the Kroger 250 feeling that he should already have had a win at one of his favorite tracks on the 2013 schedule. Crafton made it clear he wants a win at the track, a year after he lost the lead to Denny Hamlin in the closing laps during last October’s Martinsville race.
“We got one [win] taken away from us last year, so we definitely look forward to going back there and getting a little redemption.”
Crafton will pilot his No. 88 Toyota once again and feels his team has the right setup for the truck.
“We have some good notes on Martinsville and we will be ready,” Crafton said.
Another reason why Crafton wants a win at the track is for the well-known prize given to the race winner of each event held at the facility.
“It would be awesome to win and get that [grandfather] clock,” he said. “It would be so cool to bring that clock home for a trophy and with all the history of the track would make a win pretty awesome.”
Chastain Excited About Racing With New Team In Kroger 250
One of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers looking forward to returning to Martinsville Speedway on Saturday, April 6, is Ross Chastain.
Chastain, 20, picked up his first of four top-10 finishes last year in the spring race after he finished seventh at Martinsville, and the Alva, Fla., native feels the track suits his experience and driving style.
“I really enjoy racing at tracks like Martinsville,” Chastain said. “I grew up racing short tracks in Florida and I have more experience on short tracks more than the larger ones and I have been able to use that experience to collect some good finishes.”
Chastain returns this year to Martinsville driving for a new team owned by 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski and joins teammate Ryan Blaney. This new opportunity has Chastain excited to compete this season.
“My crew chief Chad Kendrick is putting a strong short-track package together for the race and with the support of Ford and resources of Penske Racing we feel good about our chances to have another solid showing at Martinsville in a couple of weeks,” Chastain said.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Several teams will be testing in preparation for the next race at Martinsville Speedway. Crafton will test next week at Sandusky Speedway in Sandusky, Ohio. … Jeb Burton competed at his home track South Boston Speedway last weekend in the season opener for Late Models and finished in the top 10.
New Faces Ready For Spotlight
With half of the top-10 drivers in the 2012 final NASCAR K&N Pro Series East standings moved on – including the series champion Kyle Larson – the 2013 season will open Saturday with the DRIVE4COPD 125 at the “World’s Fastest Half Mile” at Bristol Motor Speedway with a number of new faces and challengers ready to step into the spotlight.
Larson has moved up to the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season and runner-up Corey LaJoie also has his foot in the door for competition at the national level in 2013. That leaves Brett Moffitt – who was half a mile away from actually capturing the K&N Pro Series East title a year ago – as one of the frontrunners to stand at the champion’s podium this season.
The 20-year-old from Grimes, Iowa, has nine wins and eight poles to his credit since 2009. He’ll have plenty of challengers, though. Last year’s K&N Pro Series West champion Dylan Kwasniewski, from Las Vegas, has come east to compete full-time this year and looks to become the first driver to win a championship in both the K&N West and K&N East. Following Kwasniewski east and joining him at Turner Scott Motorsports is Malibu, Calif., native Austin Dyne, who captured K&N Pro Series West Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in in 2012. Rev Racing’s Bryan Ortiz, from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, was fifth in points as a rookie last year. And his new teammate, Daniel Suárez, from Monterrey, Mexico, posted six top 10s in 16 races the two previous seasons.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- The Race: Food City 500
- The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
- The Date: Sunday, March 17
- The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
- TV: FOX, 12:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 266.5 miles (500 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- The Race: Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300
- The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, March 16
- The Time: 2 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN2, 1:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 159.9 miles (300 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- The Race: Kroger 250
- The Place: Martinsville Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, April 6
- The Time: 1:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 1 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 250 miles (100 laps)