"Missed the top spot by thaaaat much." (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch After runs of first, third and third, Busch slumped to 16th in Texas, courtesy of a persistent loose wheel. It can’t be a good feeling to run 200 mph into a turn knowing that a wheel could come off.
2. Carl Edwards If Kyle is No. 1, Carl may be No. 1a. It’s a toss-up at the top really, as their stats are near-mirror images through seven races this season.
3. Kevin Harvick Looking for three wins in a row, Harvick had pit-road issues all evening, getting pinned in a couple times and receiving a penalty on a third. Not that it mattered — he didn’t have the speed anyway.
4. Matt Kenseth Suddenly, we’re all wondering where Kenseth came from. Truth is, his only finish outside of the top 12 all season was when he got caught in the Big One in the Daytona 500.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson is averaging a 10th-place finish this season — including a runner-up and two thirds — while quietly lying in wait for that first victory.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, this might be getting serious. Since a wreck at Daytona with six laps remaining, Junior has strung together six consecutive top-12 showings. Something’s working.
7. Kurt Busch To listen to him spew complaints and profanity on the radio during races, you’d think Busch was driving a Pinto. In actuality, he’s tied with little brother and Edwards with five top 10s this season.
8. Clint Bowyer Bowyer has finally found “it,” having racked up three consecutive top-10 runs, capped by a strong runner-up showing in a race at Texas that no one but Kenseth was going to win.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya Montoya has developed a knack for restrictor plate racing, and next up is Talladega, where he finished third in both events last season.
10. Ryan Newman A four-race top-10 surge has given way to 20th- and 14th-place runs. This weekend will be big for Newman, who has made his dislike of Talladega no secret.
11. Tony Stewart Another sure-fire top 5 slips through his fingers. This is beginning to become a habit.
12. Paul Menard He’s not race-winning caliber yet, but Menard sure is showing improvement at RCR.
13. Jeff Gordon Throw out the Phoenix win and Martinsville top 5 and it isn’t too pretty for Mr. Gordon.
14. David Ragan Records consecutive top 10s for the first time since late in the 2008 season.
15. Greg Biffle Running fourth on a big intermediate is exactly what Biffle is supposed to do. A sign of things to come?
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin
So much has been made of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless skid and the just-broken streak of Jeff Gordon that Matt Kenseth’s 76-race bout of futility has largely been overlooked. Not that Kenseth complained — after all, who wants a losing streak advertised? No, Kenseth flies under the radar, so even if he pieced together a four-race victory run, it likely wouldn’t get much play.
Kenseth didn’t fly under the radar on Saturday night. Instead, he took the bull by the horns at Texas Motor Speedway, leading a race-high 169 of 334 laps en route to a win in the Samsung Mobile 500 — his first since back-to-back triumphs that kicked off the 2009 season.
“We’ve had a couple (wins) like this, but not a lot,” Kenseth said. “Vegas is one that comes to mind, and that was a long time ago. It was, I think ’03, where we felt like we were a straightaway ahead all night, and the car was just about perfect.
“You don't get a lot of days in today’s competition level where you can lead that many laps and dominate a race and get a win.”
It wasn’t just a dominant performance by Kenseth, but by his Roush Fenway Racing team in general, as its three other drivers — Carl Edwards (third), Greg Biffle (fourth) and David Ragan (seventh) — all led laps and finished in the top 10. A fifth driver — Marcos Ambrose — registered a sixth-place run in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, which receives engine and chassis support from RFR.
Richard Childress Racing’s Chevrolet entries of Clint Bowyer (second) and Paul Menard (fifth) were the only two finishers in the top 7 not under the Ford Racing banner.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do in 2011,” team co-owner Jack Roush said. “You know, we tuned up our engineering program with Ford’s help over the winter and we got a new Ford nose. Everybody got a new nose this year, but our new nose was better than our old nose, I think. And we’ve had our FR9 engine really up to speed.”
Ford’s FR9 engine was phased in last season to initially disappointing results. No Ford-supported team won until Biffle’s No. 16 bunch went to Victory Lane in August. He won again in October, but it wasn’t until Edwards took the last two races of the season that the kinks appeared to be worked out of the powerplant.
The 2011 season finds the Blue Oval brigade off to a flying start, having won three of the first seven races — including the Daytona 500 with the Wood Brothers’ iconic No. 21 entry.
That’s not to say that the Ford gang — led Saturday by Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig — were never challenged. Roger Penske’s Dodges of Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 82 laps. Busch, along with Tony Stewart, also tried to stretch their fuel mileage in a race that was slowed only five times for 24 laps. In fact, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb appeared to have played the gas game to a tee, but were busted for speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit stop on lap 277 and had to serve a pass-through penalty, handing the lead back to Kenseth.
Kenseth held serve during the final round of pit stops and drove away nearly unchallenged over the event’s final 40 laps to record his 19th career Cup Series win.
“Those kind of races are fun when you’re the leader and the first one on pit row as long as there’s not a caution, because us know every lap they stay out there, you’re eating their lunch pretty bad,” Kenseth said. “Even if they pit a lap after you, you usually make a whole second on them.”
The Cup Series visits Talladega next weekend for a white-knuckle extravaganza before taking its annual Easter weekend vacation.
From the Spotter's Stand
After perfecting the Texas two-step, Denny Hamlin joined Carl Edwards (2008) as the only drivers to sweep at Texas since the track became a biannual stop in 2005. Cousin Carl (3) and Jeff Burton (2) are the only other multi-win drivers in the 20-race history of TMS.
In April, Hamlin beat runner-up Jimmie Johnson to the line (.152 seconds) after pole-sitter Tony Stewart (74 laps led) lost control and started a nine-car pileup that also wrecked Jeff Gordon (124 laps led).
The other boot dropped in November, when Hamlin earned his second spurred trophy and series-best eighth win of the year — leaving Ft. Worth in first in the Chase, 33 points ahead of JJ with two races to go.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Texas is all about downforce, and generating it in race conditions — with cars all over the track — is tricky, yet paramount. Speed at Texas is important, but so is a good shock and suspension package that allows the car to handle the bumps that have formed in Turns 1, 2 and 3. The exit of two and the entrance of three are the trouble spots, both from a driver’s and a mechanic’s perspective. It’s one of those places where, in my mind, strange things happen. I’m always extra wary when we go there.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: It’s hard not to like the way Carl Edwards has performed on the big intermediates thus far this season. Pretty Solid Pick: Two wins and a runner-up in the last three Texas Cup starts for Denny Hamlin. Good Sleeper Pick: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has only one finish outside the top 12 this season (Daytona), and actually runs well at Texas, where he got his frist career Cup win. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya averages a 25th-place finish here. Insider Tip: At some point, Kyle Busch’s Nationwide domination at TMS will translate to Cup, right? Until then, it’s best to stick with Edwards, Hamlin, et al.
Classic Moments at Texas
Texas Motor Speedway’s first two Cup dates are brutal affairs. The 1997 Interstate Batteries 500 and ’98 Texas 500 are plagued by savage wrecks — one that nearly ends Greg Sacks’ career and another that sidelines Mike Skinner for weeks — and weepers that cancel practice and qualifying sessions. The mayhem even leads to whispers, though not verified, that Texas would have its single date stripped.
Therefore, following the ’98 race, track owner Bruton Smith purchases a share of North Wilkesboro Speedway to move one if its two dates to his track in Texas. He has the track repaved and reconfigured and installs a new drainage system. The results are immediate, as TMS stands as one of the great facilities on the circuit.
In sports, as in life, success and failure have an undeniable history of rotating in cycles. But for superstars, like MLB’s Derek Jeter or even NASCAR’s own Jimmie Johnson, they stand out by clinging to a bright side continually balanced in their direction more than most. The key? It’s an innate ability to keep believing in themselves in the worst of times, even when the majority of others are convinced their best days have simply passed by for good. Like clockwork, they use intense, internal motivation to get the most out of everyone around them, pulling out of slumps faster than most faced with adversity.
Denny Hamlin was seemingly predestined to acquire that lesson in 2010. During the first four years of his career, the knock on Hamlin was that he was too emotional, prone to either inappropriate outbursts or breakdowns in self-esteem that wouldn’t allow sustenance of the 10-race success rate NASCAR’s championship format requires. There was the infamous dustup with Kyle Petty at Dover, a disastrous shouting match en route to a last-place Chase debacle in 2007. The next season there were the summer doldrums of dysfunctional engines, a public confidence crisis in which his crew was called out on its way to an eighth-place points finish without a hint of championship contention. And then in 2009 — the kicker — Hamlin’s self-inflicted wound came courtesy of a spin while leading at Fontana before two additional mechanical failures finished off his ailing postseason bid.
So a NASCAR life of unfulfilled expectations is where Hamlin stood heading into Texas one year ago, saddled with the unrelenting pain of ACL surgery just three weeks earlier. There had been some bright spots — like an unlikely Martinsville victory before going under the knife — but after slogging through a painful 30th at Phoenix the Saturday prior, simply making the postseason was a legitimate question for his short-term future. Clearly, labeling him Johnson’s next rival for the championship was about as likely a proposition as Butler putting the ball in the basket against UConn.
So when Hamlin qualified 29th the next weekend at Texas — and with substitute driver Casey Mears still on standby — some wondered whether the 500-mile distance would be too much for his recovering body. As Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart led the majority of the race, little thought was given to a driver behind them that spent the first 450 miles having an eye-opening, albeit behind-the-scenes, run towards the front — despite still struggling to walk outside the car.
But after a field-decimating, multi-car wreck on lap 319 of 334 changed the scope of the race, it was the No. 11 FedEx Toyota that became the best car still standing, so to speak. Leading the final 12 laps, the emotional trip to Victory Lane was as shocking as it was strong enough to turn the table on that cycle of life; suddenly, a career of failing to overcome adversity had been halted, a two-tire call by crew chief Mike Ford creating the perfect synergy for this prizefight between driver and team.
“We’ve never hit the panic button,” Hamlin claimed that day. “We’ve never been down on ourselves because we haven’t gotten to the expectations a lot of people put on us at the beginning of the year and I put on myself.
“My expectations, where I thought I could be at the end of this year still can happen.”
Suddenly, the internal motivation the superstars use with regularity had appeared. Hamlin had a bum knee, painkillers and at Phoenix, even went against the proper medical advice of doctors on his comeback. But he also had the Texas trophy to prove them wrong, along with the respect of a crew that now stood behind its driver’s every move.
Fast forward to the fall race at Texas, where the 2010 season had become Mr. Hamlin’s playground. Five victories had followed that April renaissance, sending the No. 11 team soaring into the Chase combined with the consistency and experience needed to contend. Playing the postseason perfectly, Hamlin survived the wild card of Talladega, maximized opportunities at his best tracks (Loudon and Martinsville) and put the pressure on a No. 48 team that had nearly forgotten the meaning of the word.
Texas, Part Deux, seemed to put the final touches on what would be the crowning masterpiece of taking this career to the next level. Starting 30th, Hamlin’s march to the front was as methodical as Johnson’s team collapse proved mesmerizing. Poor pit stop after poor stop facilitated Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, to actually replace part of their championship crew in-race, simply to salvage ninth as Hamlin blew by Mark Martin, dominated the last 29 laps and pulled off the season sweep going away. Leaving the speedway, his lead stood at 33 points over Johnson, the title firmly within his grasp if only the team could make it through the next two weeks unscathed.
It was then that ugly cycle-of-life thing, which separates established superstars and hope-to-be ones, turned the wrong direction. Mr. Johnson was in his down cycle, attempting to overcome adversity when it was Hamlin’s own organization that chose to mess with that seesaw.
“We saw them making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard, and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes, so I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention,” crew chief Mike Ford said of Knaus’ move to change the pit crew. “That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so. I think it was kind of a desperation move.”
Ouch. Not exactly the words of endearment for a then-four-time championship team that awoke to the reality the No. 11 team hadn’t won anything yet – so why were they talking?
“I think in Texas,” Johnson would say two weeks later. “The gloves came off.”
The punches that followed were ones Hamlin struggled to absorb, betrayed by the team that had made the mortal mistake they accused Johnson of: focusing on others instead of themselves.
The following week, it was Ford who made a faulty call to pit for fuel at Phoenix, donating points to their rival and setting a championship finale everyone knows: the No. 11 team, not the 48, spinning and self-destructing on the public stage. There’s been zero victories, zero top-5 finishes and plenty of griping in the eight races since — from motor problems, to poor pit stops, to simply bad adjustment calls by the driver/crew chief duo.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us,” said Hamlin Sunday, after ugly Martinsville stops caused Ford to pull his front tire changer for teammate Joey Logano’s mid-race – copying the “desperation move” he saw across the way last fall. “At this point, I’m just happy we finished the race, being everything that’s going on.”
Which brings us full circle and back to Texas, where Hamlin has a chance to rewrite history once again. The time to salvage this season is ticking, problems mounting while rivals like Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and teammate Kyle Busch rack up wins and points. History, the type that loves to repeat itself, stands firmly against Hamlin’s resurgence. None of the five championship runner-up finishers to Johnson climbed higher than fourth in points the following year. So far this season, the 1.5-mile ovals have handed the No. 11 car a nondescript seventh (Las Vegas) and a 39th-place DNF (Fontana) after the engine went sour. The team, for all intents and purposes, seems to have never recovered from its late-season collapse — with the relationships in most need of mending centering around driver and crew chief.
So no, the only thing left right now to aid Hamlin’s recovery is that internal motivation, showcased by the superstars he aspires to emulate but has failed to match as of yet. To do it, he’ll need to start by taking a deep breath, remembering this race one year ago and what it meant to everyone around him.
“The choice (at Phoenix) to not get out of the car, that would be the easy thing to do,” Hamlin said back then of his ACL injury. “That would be the thing, you know, hey, our day's shot to hell. Easiest thing to do is just get out and let him (Mears) take over.
“But maybe the pit crew doesn’t give me the best stop, I don’t get out of the car and just say, ‘Hell with it. Someone else drive it.’ That’s not the way to be.”
But for much of 2011, that’s been the way it is internally at Joe Gibbs Racing, the type of attitude that perpetuates the cycle, not change its course.
There’s so much talk at JGR about the “new” Kyle Busch, who has changed his immature ways and currently leads the point standings. But really, the story now becomes whether the old, mature Hamlin can come back before it’s too late. That “superstar” label may depend on it.
1. Kyle Busch Young Rowdy nabs the top spot from Carl Edwards this week thanks to four top-3 finishes in the last five races. He’s led a race-high 151 laps in each of the last two, to boot.
2. Kevin Harvick Back-to-back wins make it hard to keep Harvick out of the top spot, but Kyle’s body of work over the course of the last month trumps the recent Harvick hot streak.
3. Carl Edwards Martinsville is one of Carl’s worst tracks, so it’s no surprise he faltered to an 18th-place showing. Things will be different this weekend ... he may just win in Texas.
4. Jimmie Johnson This ranking may be unfair, as Johnson probably would have won Martinsville had he not gotten busted for speeding on pit road. However, he did not because he did, thus he’s fourth.
5. Ryan Newman There’s a big drop off from fourth to fifth. Newman has been more consistent than the proceeding bunch, so he gets the nod — but it’s tenuous.
6. Juan Pablo Montoya Montoya is coming on strong with consecutive top 10s, including a surprising fourth-place run at Martinsville ... typically not one of his better venues.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Also coming on is Junior, who has only one finish outside of the top 12 this season — and that was a 24th at Daytona when he was swept up in a later wreck not of his making.
8. Matt Kenseth Kenseth seemingly lives under the radar. Bet you didn’t know he’s recorded consecutive runs of fourth, fourth and sixth.
9. Kurt Busch Dropping faster than a lugnut on a pit stop, Busch started the season strong but has limped to mid-teen finishes the last two races, looking lost in the process.
10. Jeff Gordon His two top 5s this season have come at Phoenix (first) and Martinsville (fifth) — two flat and relatively short tracks. The next flat track is at Pocono, a mere two months down the road.
11. Tony Stewart Not sure what’s going on here, but the last three weeks haven’t been pretty.
12. Kasey Kahne Kahne gets a pass this week for being the victim of someone else’s stuck throttle.
13. Mark Martin This is a 10th- to 20th-place team right now. That won’t cut it.
14. Clint Bowyer After a slow start Bowyer is gaining momentum with consecutive top 10s.
15. Paul Menard Menard is going the other way with 16th- and 38th-place runs the last two weeks.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers
Kevin Harvick’s new nickname, “The Closer,” is a well-earned moniker. Harvick rallied late in the afternoon at Martinsville Speedway to overtake Dale Earnhardt Jr. and win the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 on Sunday.
The victory was Harvick’s second straight, having taken checkers the week prior at Auto Club Speedway in similar fashion. The Bakersfield, Calif., native has led a total of seven laps — the final one at ACS and six in Martinsville — en route to career triumphs No. 15 and 16.
“I’m just glad we led more than one lap this week,” Harvick joked afterward.
A caution with 35 laps remaining on the historic half-mile track brought the lead-lap cars — led by Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson — in for a splash of fuel and fresh tires. Johnson, who had knifed his way through the field to challenge Busch, was nabbed for speeding on pit road, relegating his strong No. 48 Chevy to the rear of the pack on the restart.
That left Busch to settle the race with Harvick alongside and Earnhardt in arrears when the green waved with 30 laps to go. Earnhardt slid by Harvick with ease and then used the bump ’n’ run on Busch to take the lead with 21 circuits remaining.
“I was holding him up,” Busch said of the move. “I sucked, so it was good for him. I mean, he took the lead. No harm, no foul.”
Harvick’s hard charging No. 29 slid by Busch seven laps later and set its sights on Earnhardt. When Earnhardt wiggled coming off Turn 4 with four laps to go, Harvick squeezed by on the inside, taking the lead for good despite a bump from the No. 88.
“We slipped off into (Turn) 1 and he got under me — or we slipped into 3 and he got under me and I thought the only chance I had was a little bit of a crossover in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Earnhardt explained. “I tried to make it work but I couldn’t get really up under him enough. He crowded me the way he was supposed to do (in the) next corner down here in 3 and 4 and went on. And that was that.”
Busch challenged Earnhardt for the runner-up spot on the final lap but settled for third. Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5.
It was the second race in a row that Busch led a race-high 151 laps only to be denied during a late-race, short green-flag run.
“We had one of the best runs here we have ever had,” Busch said. “And I probably had the best car here today. Unfortunately, just didn’t win with it. Coming down to the last run of the race here, kind of a short run, and we just didn’t quite have the car to do it on a short run. Every time we had the lead off pit road, we lost it and took about 28 laps to get going again.”
Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, recorded three straight wins at Martinsville entering Sunday’s event. He led 89 laps through the first half of the race but a pit-road miscue cost his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team valuable track position.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us,” a dejected Hamlin said. “At this point you either work with what you’ve got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job. You just don’t know right now and we don’t know what to do.”
Poor fuel mileage also required Hamlin make a stop with 43 laps remaining — much earlier than other cars on the lead lap.
“Our mileage just sucks real bad,” he said. “It sucked at Phoenix (last year) and it sucks here. We just have to figure it out. All of the things we need to do to be a championship team, we don’t have all those parts together right now.”
The U.S. Navy SEALS have a certain code and mantra they live by: Not dead, can’t quit.
That came to mind when looking back on the storied carrier of one of NASCAR’s most recognizable personalities. This Sunday marks a milestone for one of the storied names in NASCAR history, as Mark Martin makes his 800th career start fittingly enough, at Martinsville. Not unlike Charlie Sheen’s antics of late, it’s been a run that would have killed most mortals, and truly embodies what “winning” is all about.
As humble a man as Martin is, it truly is a minor miracle that he’s gotten to 800 starts, which places him eighth on the all-time starts list. It is a career that has endured triumph and tragedy, smiles, tears and a never-say-die attitude that has seen him rise from the ashes of being virtually bankrupt and washed up as a 24 year old to one of the most respected and revered drivers in the sport.
Ironically, Martinsville is not one of Martin’s favorite tracks. He once remarked prior to a race that if he won, he’d run through the grandstands in his underwear. While Martin may not threaten to streak through the grandstands in his whitey tighties this weekend if he wins, he might just military press the now-familiar Grandfather clock to celebrate, as his last win came a while back, at New Hampshire in the fall of 2009. That particular weekend went quite well, but one of his other milestone races – his 600th consecutive start in 2003 – came at New Hampshire as well. That weekend he was honored with a special golden paint scheme, but he ended up laying a golden egg, finishing 33rd.
While Martin was able to shield the fans from the pale whiteness that go round, he brought some fire in 2005 when a cooked brake at Martinsville blew out a tire and sent him headlong into the wall, a crash that would signal the end of his title hopes that season. A year later, while sitting just 102 points out of the lead with five races remaining, he was in the catbird’s seat, running in the top 5 with 25 laps to go. However, a piece of debris shot through his grille and radiator, ruining the day with a 24th place finish – and crushing his title hopes yet again.
That isn’t to say his trips to everyone’s favorite paper clip have been completely fruitless. His first career top-5 finish came at Martinsville in September 1981, when he finished third. In April 1992 he won the Hanes 500, outlasting the competition on a day when virtually everyone was sheering axles and blowing out rear end gears from excessive camber settings. In 2000, a tire-strategy call by then-crew chief Jimmy Fennig propelled Martin to his only victory that season.
Martin’s luck turned a bit darker around 2003. A winless ’03 season saw Martin mired 18th in points in the final standings – the worst of his Sprint Cup career. Meanwhile, teammate and protégé Matt Kenseth was in the process of winning the final Winston Cup championship under the “traditional” points format.
A slow start the following season stymied by engine woes facilitated a scramble to make the Chase in the debut year for NASCAR’s new point system, as well as to help ensure sponsorship stayed secured on the side of the car. The stress of several sure-wins lost in the final laps through failed pit strategies the following seasons helped justify the actions of announcing a career change in late ’04.
It was then that Martin announced that 2005 would be his final full-time season in Cup competition. Regardless of what the media continues to purport, he is not the Brett Favre of NASCAR – his announcement specifically denied any rumor of retirement. It was simply an opportunity to take a step back and reassess things and spend some time with his son Matt, who at the time was in the midst of beginning a burgeoning racing career. After nearly 20 seasons of running wide-open and expending untold amounts of physical, mental and emotional energy (and misery), it was time to put his career in neutral while leaving the engine running.
During this breather from full-time competition, Martin nearly won the Daytona 500 in a controversial last-lap finish driving for a team that would cease to exist six months later. He helped keep Dale Earnhardt, Inc. afloat long enough for it to merge with Ganassi Racing following the departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Then, as luck would have it, Martin joined Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, returning to full-time Cup competition for the first time since ’06. His encore performance was nothing short of remarkable, notching five wins with his new No. 5 team — a mark bested only by his seven-win 1998 season.
Martin’s second-place finish to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase was a feel-good story for a sport that hadn’t had much to crow about in the midst of a ratings and attendance downturn, coupled with the economic struggles that plague virtually every industry that helps support it.
The 2010 season proved to be a difficult one for Martin’s squad as well as those of teammates Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. A three-way team swap that paired Martin with crew chief Lance McGrew brings us to start No. 800 in what is scheduled to be his final full season in the Cup Series.
Martin has stated since last summer that he has no plans beyond this year, though has a five-race deal with Turner Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, one that produced a win in his first start at Las Vegas two weeks ago. The all-time Nationwide Series wins leader now leads Kyle Busch by four victories overall, while in the Cup Series he sits 14th in points, just 10 markers out of ninth.
It isn’t often you find someone that has been doing the same thing for over 25 years, and certainly not to the standards set by Martin. He’s taught a generation of drivers how to compete with a code while helping launch the fitness and conditioning revolution that has swept through the garage, inspiring a number of drivers to eschew beers and burgers (and this weekend’s famous pink Martinsville hot dogs). He has done as much to shape the image of drivers as athletes as any one figure in NASCAR, and is a testament to preparation and clean living as the path to longevity and success.
Much of this has already been written about Martin, and for good reason, as it will most likely be retold when he makes his 1,000th starts at some point in the future. Yeah, even at 52 years of age you can pretty much bank on Martin getting to that point.
1. Carl Edwards One win, three top 5s, four top 10s, two poles, an average finish of 7.8 and leading the point standings. There’s really no doubt who the man to beat is through five races.
2. Kyle Busch A couple late cautions in Fontana prevented Kyle from scoring his second straight win. He, along with Jimmie Johnson, look like Edwards’ main threats thus far.
3. Ryan Newman Newman is not the fireworks-like driver Busch is, but his consistency is nearly unmatched, having not finished outside of the top 10 since the Daytona 500.
4. Jimmie Johnson Anyone realize that J.J. hasn’t won a race yet? Of course, he’ll find Victory Lane soon enough, and in the meantime he’s finished second or third in three of the last four races.
5. Kevin Harvick Notched his first win of the year showing up out of nowhere like Houdini on the last lap at Auto Club Speedway. More W’s to follow.
6. Kurt Busch Busch was out to lunch from the moment his team unloaded in California but managed a 17th. He was top 10 in the first four races, but it’s hard to be sold on the championship caliber of this group.
7. Kasey Kahne The performance with his one ’n done Red Bull Racing team keeps getting better, with four consecutive top 15s.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior and new crew chief Steve Letarte have been an eighth- to 12th-place combo thus far. You have to figure that’s only going to improve with time.
9. Tony Stewart Late-race pit miscues are killing this team. If they get that figured out, it’ll be back to top-5 showings for Smoke and Co.
10. Matt Kenseth Hasn’t finished worse than 12th since Daytona, with consecutive fourth-place finishes in the last two events. Look out Carl, there’s some competition in your own stable.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya It’s the “Every Other Weekend” theory for JPM. Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad ...
12. Paul Menard Menard has been 17th or better in every race this year. Nice start, now keep it going.
13. Jeff Gordon Throw out the Phoenix win and 2011 hasn’t been very pretty for the 24 gang.
14. Martin Truex Jr. He’s led 84 laps through five races this season after leading 88 laps total in 2010.
15. Brian Vickers He looks good on the big intermediate tracks. Not so much anywhere else.
Just off the lead pack: Marco Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin
As the saying goes, the only lap that matters is the last. And in no race was that more evident than Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Kevin Harvick pushed Jimmie Johnson into Turn 3 — loosening the five-time Cup champion — and burned by, using the high line as the duo came to the checkers, to lead his only lap of the day, giving Harvick his first win at Auto Club Speedway and first of the young season.
An accident on lap 187 of 200 set up a three-man, nine-lap dogfight consisting of Harvick, Johnson and Kyle Busch. Busch, who dominated the event to the tune of 151 laps led, led the field to green and, along with Johnson, sprinted away from the field. However, as the two battled side-by-side, Harvick caught them by keeping his momentum up working the high groove.
By the time Johnson slid past Busch with two laps remaining, Harvick was there. He quickly disposed of Busch and set his sights on the leader.
“We led the right one, that’s for sure,” Harvick said. “We were able to keep pace with them (Busch and Johnson) for a few laps. When they started racing side-by-side, we made up the ground. Kyle started to get loose (and I) drove around him.”
Harvick pulled flush with Johnson’s bumper on the backstretch of the white-flag lap, shoving the leader into Turn 3. He then sailed high and passed the No. 48 Chevy, which had led only three laps throughout the afternoon.
“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till Turn 4 coming to the checkered,” Harvick explained. “It was tight, but it was the right time to go.
“I really had a good run coming off of Turn 2 and he (Johnson) rolled up in front of me, so I just laid on the back bumper all the way down the back straightaway, gave him a couple seconds to think about what was going to happen going into Turn 3. The reason I did that, I just needed the one lane up top. I knew what I was going to do. I was hoping he would just roll through the middle of the racetrack or on the bottom or something.”
He did, and Harvick blew by and beat Johnson to the line by .144 seconds.
“Him (Harvick) being that close and kind of breaking the plane of our bumper, certainly affect(ed) how my car drove,” Johnson said. “When he got to my bumper down the back, I felt like if he turned into the bottom and followed me, I was in trouble. I kind of wanted to run the bottom coming to the checkered flag. Felt like that was the place to be.
“When I went off into (Turn) 3 with the extra speed, had my car kind of sideways getting in there, I couldn’t get a real good arc into the corner. I heard that he was looking outside near the middle of the corner. Once he got there and broke the plane of my bumper, spotter said, ‘Outside,’ I was dead in the water.”
Busch had been the only story of the day until the final dramatic laps. He first jumped to the point on lap 22, when he passed his Joe Gibbs Racing teamamte, Denny Hamlin. He lead 151 of the next 175 laps but took the loss as well as could be expected.
“Just real, real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing — all in one — that we weren’t able to seal the deal today,” Busch said afterward. “(It) just came down to the last few laps there with Jimmie first and then Kevin got into it, too, with us.
“You ask a little bit more from your racecar at the last moments, (and if) it doesn’t have anything left to give, you’re essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. Couldn’t get any more out of the car. That was it.”
From the Spotter's Stand
Jimmie Johnson’s first successful drive for five of 2010 came at Auto Club Speedway — the site of JJ’s first win of the season, first career win and 48th career victory. The 48 car led 101 laps and capitalized on a little pit road luck to claim Johnson’s fifth win of the first 21 races in the 14-year history at the Fontana track.
After the race, runner-up Kevin Harvick claimed that Johnson and Chad Knaus “have a golden horseshoe stuck up their…” uh, tailpipe — referring to a caution flag that gave the 48 valuable track position.
In October, Tony Stewart kept his Chase hopes alive with his first win at Fontana. But this year, the second Cup stop at “Cali-boring-ya” has been eliminated.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Getting the car to turn in California’s long, sweeping, flat turns after carrying a ton of speed down the straightaways is the real trick to winning. From a setup point of view, it’s hard to get a car dialed in there, and front end geometry equates to good finishes. Plus, it’s probably the hardest track on engines, hands down, and Michigan is the only track that’s even close. The difference is probably the California heat. Drivers like to run the high groove, but the stopwatches say the bottom is better, so you’ve got to persuade them to try that.”
Looking at Checkers: If you’re picking against the 48, you’re picking wrong. Three of those wins have come in the last five races. Pretty Solid Pick: Three of the four Roush boys (Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth) make fine picks this week. Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann has taken to the big intermediates. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Marcos Ambrose, no matter the sheet metal.
Insider Tip: Bottom line is they’re going to have to go through Jimmie and Carl.
Classic Moments at Bristol
A tense race weekend turns emotional at what was then known as California Speedway in 2001.
On Friday, rumors spread that defending Cup champion Bobby Labonte has been fatally injured in a plane crash. Putting those false reports to rest, Labonte goes out and wins the pole for the NAPA Auto Parts 500.
In the race, Rusty Wallace is clearly the man to beat, and the cagey veteran doesn’t disappoint. Wallace outduels Jeff Gordon by .27 seconds to win on what would have been Dale Earnhardt’s 50th birthday. Wallace salutes his fallen friend by flying an Earnhardt flag out the driver-side window on his cool-down laps.
Wallace’s 54th career win also marks his 16th straight season with at least one victory. That streak would come to an end the following year.