Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Martinsville Speedway
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Back to the scene of the (original) crime
With the he-said, he-said war of words and fenders that Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin have participated in during the last three weeks, it's been easy to forget that the final laps of Martinsville's spring race one year ago was the ultimate catalyst for last season's most-talked about rivalry.
After Jeff Gordon (329 laps) and Jimmie Johnson (111) combined to lead well over four-fifths of last year's event, the inevitable happened when a caution flag waved with just two laps remaining. The race now headed for a green-white-checkered overtime finish, Johnson and Gordon both hoped to scoot away on the restart and battle for the win amongst themselves.
They didn't even make it through Turn 1.
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman charged low on the restart with Bowyer trying to block Newman. The move shot Bowyer over the Turn 1 curbing and directly in the side of Gordon. The contact forced Gordon into Johnson, sending both spinning into a mess of wrecked race cars piling in from behind.
Newman eventually found his way to improbable victory while Gordon, especially, steamed at Bowyer's late race antics. Those emotions, of course, boiled over in Phoenix many months later when Gordon took exception to another round of contact from Bowyer and intentionally wrecked the No. 15 to instigate a garage-area fracas. Logano was also collected.
Martinsville could serve as the next best place for Bowyer to return Gordon's favor — if he's still thinking retribution — or a great place for Logano to ruffle even more feathers with a payback to the No. 24. Whatever happens, perennial Martinsville favorite Johnson is concerned that the rough 'em up style Martinsville is known for could cause more problems than normal.
"With the new race cars, I think contact is going to be a question mark for me," Johnson says. "We have fiberglass panels and stuff, now, where it used to all be steel. I’ve seen some crash damage after just a small impact where they had to cut the nose completely off the car. So that could be the issue come race time there. Some minor contact could cause major cosmetic damage."
We'll have to wait to see if his concerns ring true.
Defending race winner Ryan Newman. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
2. Short tracks? Sounds good for Ryan Newman
Would you believe that last year's surprise win for Newman at Martinsville was just his third in the Sprint Cup Series since he won the 2008 Daytona 500? Or, if you include Daytona, just Newman's fourth win since the fall of 2005?
Admittedly, those numbers are a bit shocking when considering that Newman scored 11 wins during his first three seasons in the sport. The decrease in total winning has also produced another interesting nugget on where Newman has found his best results: short tracks.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has 11 career wins on tracks 1-2 miles in length, but since 2008 he's scored top-10s on short tracks at a 58 percent clip. On all other tracks? Newman's top-10 finish rate is just 34 percent.
"I like the short tracks. I like having the character added to the program of modulating the brake," Newman says. "In my opinion, the driver has a little more of an impact on the end result at short tracks than some of the bigger racetracks, and I like that.
The more the drivers are involved, the more I think you get to race and, from that standpoint, I think it’s more fun.”
Fun or not, also note that his two wins since the Daytona 500 triumph outside of last year's Martinsville win came at Phoenix International Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway — both tracks requiring braking and finesse instead of raw speed and aerodynamic handling.
3. Rick Hendrick could become winningest Martinsville owner
With Johnson and Gordon spinning out of the lead on that late restart a year ago, Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick also watched his organization lose out on tying Petty Enterprises as the winningest Sprint Cup Series organization ever at the small Virginia track.
Of course, Johnson took care of that in the fall with his win that tied the organizations at 19 each. HMS will offer more shots at breaking the long-standing record Sunday.
Petty Enterprises, which folded into Richard Petty Motorsprots in 2009, actually scored its 19 wins at Martinsville in fewer starts (158) than Hendrick (182) but took considerably longer. Lee Petty first won at Martinsville in 1954 and John Andretti scored No. 19 for Petty in the spring of 1999 — a span of 45 years.
Hendrick's Martinsville dominance has been much faster after Geoff Bodine scored the organization's first ever win there in 1984. Johnson or Jeff Gordon have won 11 of the last 20 races at Martinsville alone.
Few would bet against Johnson again Sunday. A big reason is that Johnson just seems to have a knack for NASCAR's oldest venue.
“Martinsville is just a quirky track. Once I figured out how to drive it – and, frankly, once Tony Stewart lapped me there in my sophomore year – it just made sense how to drive the track and I’ve had it ever since," Johnson says.
4. Please welcome back the long last NASCAR Truck Series
Remember way back when, at Daytona, before Jimmie Johnson sprayed champagne and before Kyle Larson's wicked crash left us gasping? Do you remember there was a race just before that, a Friday night affair? Do names like Paludo, Sauter or Hornaday ring a bell?
If any of that brings back memories, what you remember is the last time the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was on track. Yes, as a matter of fact, NASCAR's third-tier national series has started its 2013 campaign. I certainly can't blame you if you forgot, though.
When the CWTS takes the green Saturday as the lone support race for Sunday's Sprint Cup festivities, it will have been 43 days since the last time those drivers and that series competed in anger. For perspective, back at Daytona North Korea wasn't blatantly threatening us, baseball's spring training was just days old and Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were on slightly more amicable terms.
Johnny Sauter won February's CWTS race and will likely face the stiffest test to continue his winning ways from Kevin Harvick. One of three three-time winners at Martinsville in CWTS, Harvick could be trouble if he finds the lead. In his three wins (2009, 2010 and 2012) there have been a total of 11 lead changes.
5. Kurt Busch aims to match quirky stat from 2005
Speaking of threes, Kurt Busch and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team will look to do something the 2004 Sprint Cup champion hasn't done since 2005.
Busch, now with his third team since departing Roush Fenway Racing after the 2006 season, hasn't pulled together three consecutive top-5 finishes since the second-place, third-place and third-place finishes he reeled off to begin the 2005 season. Of course, Busch hasn't been bad since then — he's scored 54 more top 5s since that streak along with 13 victories — but that he has a chance to match that streak in his first full season at FRR is a testament to the stable success he's seems to locating at the Colorado-based team.
Busch picked up a fourth-place finish at Bristol two races ago and a fifth-place run in the most recent outing at Auto Club Speedway.
“We’re not concerned about statistics,” says Busch. “We just want to continue our momentum and keep plugging forward.
Busch, who has led just one lap this season, won at Martinsville in 2002 after leading 111 of 500 laps. With FRR to close out 2012, Busch scored a 15th-place finish at the short track.
Dustin Long predicts the best fantasy drivers in Martinsville so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit treks back east to quaint little Martinsville for the STP Gas Booster 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Martinsville ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Won at Martinsville last fall from the pole and has seven career victories there. Scored 12 top-5 finishes in his last 15 starts there. Johnson has led 430 laps in his last four Martinsville starts. He has the best average running position (7.2) in the first five races of the season. He also has the best driver rating (110.2) at this point in the season.
2. Jeff Gordon
Has seven career wins at Martinsville. Appeared headed for No. 8 last spring when wrecked after contact by Clint Bowyer on a late restart and finished 14th. Gordon has 15 top-5 finishes in his last 20 Martinsville starts. Has led 534 laps in the last three races there. Has led an average of 113.4 laps in his last 13 starts at that track.
3. Brad Keselowski
Has scored seven consecutive finishes of sixth or better at ovals 1.1 miles or less, dating back to last season (that includes a sixth at Martinsville last fall, a career-best finish at the track). His 23rd-place finish at Auto Club Speedway ended his streak of four consecutive top-5s to open the season. That also was the first race this year he had not led. Dating back to last year’s Chase, he’s led laps in 11 of the last 15 races. Has an average finish of 12.1 in six starts at Martinsville.
4. Clint Bowyer
Finished fifth last fall at Martinsville and 10th in the spring. He led 154 laps last fall and had an average running position of 3.6 in that race, second only to race winner Jimmie Johnson’s average running position (3.2). Bowyer has four top 10s in his last six Martinsville starts.
5. Kasey Kahne
Placed third at Martinsville last fall. That ended an 11-race streak of finishing outside the top 10 there. Has recorded the fastest lap (149) more times than any other driver in the first five races of the season. He’s tied with Matt Kenseth with most laps led this year at 223 but has led only 31 laps in 18 career starts at Martinsville.
6. Matt Kenseth
Has placed in the top 10 in the past two spring races at Martinsville with a fourth last year and a sixth in April 2011. Those are his only two top-10 finishes in his last eight overall starts at the track. Tied with Kasey Kahne for most laps led this season at 223, which is 15 percent of all laps run.
7. Kevin Harvick
Won at Martinsville in April 2011 but since has finished fourth, 19th and 32nd there. Since being in a crash and finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500, Harvick has placed between ninth and 14th in each Cup race this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has placed outside the top 20 in four of his last six Martinsville starts. In the other two races there, he won and finished seventh. Stewart has led only 15 laps in his last 11 starts at that track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List 1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts at Martinsville. Has led 110 laps during that stretch. Is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the first five races of this season. He’s made more green-flag passes for position (588) and more quality passes (passing a car running in the top 15 under a green flag) with 354 than any other driver this season.
2. Brian Vickers
Making his second Cup start of the season in the No. 55 car. Started fourth and finished eighth at Bristol last month. Started second and placed eighth at Martinsville last fall. Tied winner Jimmie Johnson in that race for most laps run in the top 15 (495 of 500 laps).
3. Kyle Busch
Finished second at Martinsville last fall, part of his feast-or-famine routine at the track. In his last 12 starts there, he has six top-5 finishes. In the other six races, he’s finished outside the top 20. Has finished fourth (Las Vegas), second (Bristol) and first (Auto Club Speedway) in his last three starts this season. Has led 208 laps in those three races.
4. Ryan Newman
Hot and cold. Has three top-10 finishes this season. Other two races he failed to finish (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas). Won last spring’s race at Martinsville after leaders were taken out in a late restart. Has an average finish of 11.1 in last eight Martinsville starts.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Has two top-10 finishes in last three Martinsville starts. Has led one lap at that track in 14 races.
6. Greg Biffle
Has placed in the top 15 in each of his last three visits to Martinsville, a track he’s acknowledged is far from his best track. Last time he led there was in Oct. 2009 when he paced the field for six laps.
7. Carl Edwards
Has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four Martinsville starts. Has led 31 laps in 17 career starts at that track. Coming off a fourth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway. That’s his third top-5 finish this season.
8. Mark Martin
Driving in place of the injured Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. Martin did not race at Martinsville last year. In 2011, he finished 10th in the spring race there and 28th in the fall race.
9. Aric Almirola
Finished in the top 10 in both Martinsville races last year, placing fourth in the fall and eighth in the spring. Those are his only top-10 finishes in eight starts there.
10. Paul Menard
Enters this weekend with three consecutive top-10 finishes after placing eighth at Auto Club Speedway. Martinsville has not been kind to him. Finished 12th there last fall, his best finish at the track. Has finished outside the top 20 in seven of his 11 career Cup starts at Martinsville.
11. Joey Logano
Coming off his third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway — his first top-10 finish in his last 10 races, dating back to last season. Has run 68.5 percent of his laps in the top 15 this season, a higher percentage than for Kyle Busch (67.2 percent), Mark Martin (66.1) and Jeff Gordon (61.1). Has finished between 13th and 23rd in his last four Martinsville starts.
12. Kurt Busch
Heads to Martinsville after back-to-back top-5 finishes. Martinsville, though, has not been kind to him in recent years. His last top-10 finish there came in Oct. 2005. He has placed in the top 20 in four of the last five races there.
13. Jeff Burton
Has an average finish of 23.0 this season with one top-10 finish (10th at Phoenix). Has two top-10 results in his last nine Martinsville starts.
14. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has finished between 19th and 22nd in four of his last five Martinsville starts with the exception a fourth-place result in April 2011 race. His best finish this season is a 12th at Phoenix. He’s placed 30th or worse in three of the other four races this year.
15. Jamie McMurray
Has one top-10 finish in his last six Martinsville starts. Finished 10th at Bristol for only top-10 finish of this season. Has placed inside the top 20 in each of the last three Cup races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Since placing 15th in the Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 24th this season. Took ninth at Martinsville last fall, breaking an 11-race stretch there without a top-10 finish.
17. Marcos Ambrose
Has never had a top-10 finish in eight Martinsville starts (best finish is 11th in March 2010). Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 17 Cup races, dating back to last season. Average finish this season is 22.6.
1. Regan Smith
Career-best Martinsville finish is 13th in eight starts there.
2. Casey Mears
Best finish is 12th in last seven Martinsville starts. Has three top-15 finishes this season. He had only one top-15 finish all of last season.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Will be making his first start at Martinsville among any of NASCAR’s top three national series.
4. Dave Blaney
Has three top-25 finishes this season. He had seven such finishes last season.
5. Landon Cassill
Finished 19th at Martinsville last fall, his best result in five starts there.
6. David Ragan
Has four top-15 finishes in 13 Martinsville starts but has an average finish of 27.7 in last three races at that track.
7. Ken Schrader
Placed 34th at Phoenix and 37th at Las Vegas in his only starts this season. Finished 29th in last fall’s Martinsville race and was 32nd in the spring event there.
8. Danica Patrick
Making her Martinsville debut. Since placing eighth in Daytona 500, she has not finished better than 26th this season.
9. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 27th this season.
10. David Reutimann
Has an average finish of 29.4 this season.
11. Travis Kvapil
Has an average finish of 33.0 this season.
12. David Stremme
Has not finished better than 30th in his last five Martinsville starts.
13. David Gilliland
Has an average finish of 31.2 this season. Has an average finish of 32.4 in his last five Martinsville starts.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never had a top-25 finish at Martinsville in seven starts.
15. Josh Wise
Has an average finish of 35.2 this season.
16. Scott Speed
Was not entered for Auto Club Speedway. After finishing 23rd in Daytona 500, he has not placed better than 40th.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish the last nine Martinsville races (best finish 38th).
18. Scott Riggs
Best finish this season is a 41st at Auto Club Speedway.
19. Mike Bliss
Has failed to qualify for two races this year and finished no better than 42nd in any of the three races he’s made.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads NASCAR point standings, enjoying momentum
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It’s said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his 14-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
The 38-year-old has recorded top-10 finishes in each of the first five events, averaging a 4.4-place finish, and leads the point standings heading to the circuit’s sixth stop, in Martinsville, Va., on Sunday.
“When I hear people talking about the fast start, I feel like you’ve got to take a lot of different factors into the equation,” Earnhardt says. “We’ve had good fortune. (Certain) scenarios have been working in our favor ... and they don’t always work in your favor. You’re not always gonna come out on the better end of those deals, but we have.”
It’s not like this is unexplored territory for the 10-time most popular driver. Last season’s full slate of top 15s through the first five races found him third in the standings. And in 2004 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., he enjoyed his finest season to date, when he notched two wins in the first five events, though a 35th-place run in Las Vegas dropped the average finishing position to 10.4.
Earnhardt also scored the sole Daytona 500 victory of his career that season, and runs of fifth, first and 10th surrounded the Vegas dud. So technically, the start of that six-win season was his finest to date.
But you’ll excuse his legion of fans if they choose to ride the momentum 2013 has brought. And the fact that Earnhardt is the only driver in the series that has yet to see 11th-place (or worse) at the end of a long Sunday afternoon finds his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team feeling upbeat as the circuit embarks on a trek of 15 straight race weekends through mid-July.
“We’re feeling confident — the mood’s good,” Earnhardt says of his team. “We see where we need to improve. We feel like we’ve got pretty decent speed in the car in race trim.”
For a driver and team that once struggled to make the car better over the course of a race, the in-race improvement has been striking. In fact, that 4.4-place average finish is a full 15 positions better than where they’ve managed to qualify on average — a testament to the communication between driver and crew chief Steve Letarte.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” Earnhardt says. “(We’re) just riding the wave — just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Still, qualifying further up the pylon may change those second- to seventh-place finishes into wins.
“We’d love to qualify better, to feel more dependable when we put the car in qualifying trim,” says Earnhardt.
It’s a sentiment Letarte echos, though he realizes that the team has put itself in position to win numerous times. And if they do it often enough, those wins will come.
“You can’t win from 15th; you can’t win from 10th, the sport’s too difficult,” Letarte says. “You have to run in the top 5 or top 7 to win races — and we’ve done that all season. And we think that’s the formula for success that will get us to Victory Lane throughout the year.”
That brings Earnhardt and crew to Martinsville, a quaint .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval that’s as much of a throwback venue as one will find on a schedule saturated with 1.5-mile intermediate clones. It’s a racetrack that has treated Earnhardt well in the past — he has showings of seventh or better in four of his last five starts — though he has yet to earn the coveted Grandfather Clock trophy awarded to the winner.
At this rate, though, Earnhardt is happy to have gotten out of the gates quickly, knowing the points earned early are insurance for the potholes that speckle an arduous season, wrought with trial.
“It’s a long year,” he says. “You’re going to have some bad luck — nobody runs the whole season perfectly — but we’re just trying to get as many points as early as we can so when that bad luck comes it doesn’t hit us as hard.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has assumed the top spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings, but it's defending champion Brad Keselowski who finds himself atop the Athlon Sports Horsepower Rankings.
1. Brad Keselowski
If not for an overheating issue late in Fontana (while running fifth), Keselowski would most likely be five-for-five in the top-5 finishes category. The defending champ has come out swinging.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior has a quintet of top-10 runs thus far in 2013. He will not ascend to the top of this list until the No. 88 team proves it can win on a consistent basis.
3. Jimmie Johnson
You just know ace crew chief Chad Knaus has used the off-weekend to widen the chasm between teams that have and have not figured out the nuances of the Gen-6 car.
4. Matt Kenseth
Not surprisingly, the veteran Kenseth has comfortably made the transition to Joe Gibbs Racing in a seemless manner. In fact, he may be ranked a bit low on this list.
5. Kyle Busch
Busch is riding a three-race streak that has witnessed finishes of fourth or better, punctuated by a dramatic win at Auto Club Speedway. This bunch is going to be hard to handle this season.
6. Kasey Kahne
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have a full season under their belts at Hendrick Motorsports. The duo has led the No. 5 team to consecutive showings of second, first and ninth.
7. Carl Edwards
Somewhat of a feast or famine team, the No. 99 bunch has a win (Phoenix) and two additional top-5 runs in 2013. Those showings are offset by 18th- and 33rd-place stinkers.
8. Greg Biffle
Going about things the way only Biffle can. Through five races, he has zero top 5s and two top 10s, yet finds himself fourth in the point standings. He’s nothing if not consistent.
9. Paul Menard
Menard’s No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team are off to their annual semi-hot start, with three top 10s and an average run of 13.6. The question this year, as it is every year, is can they sustain it?
10. Ryan Newman
Yes, he’s an uninspiring 20th in the point standings, but Newman is actually carrying the Stewart-Haas Racing banner with three top 10s. Like Edwards, this is a feast or famine group, albeit without a “W.”
11. Clint Bowyer
Can this team avoid the dreaded championship runner-up hangover? The thinking here is they can.
Riding dirty? Not in the classical sense, anyway. (ASP, Inc.)
12. Joey Logano
How about a nickname change, from “Sliced Bread” to “The Tempest.”
13. Tony Stewart
It’s been a tough go thus far for Stewart, but he’s too good to stay down long.
14. Kurt Busch
With two straight top 5s, Busch is delivering results to Furniture Row Racing’s potential.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The rookie has completed every lap thus far this season and is 12th in points. Nice start, kid.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray
In the 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that took place at Martinsville Speedway during the Car of Tomorrow era, two drivers won nine races: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. It is a track that rewards its best competitors more reliably than other tracks do with top-performing drivers, making the event somewhat of a cinch to prognosticate. Granted each race, especially in the current ultra-competitive Cup Series landscape, is subject to a heavy dose of randomness, past performance at Martinsville does, more often than not, indicate future success.
So a hint at who Sunday’s key players will be shines through past statistics. Here is a glimmer of what we all will be seeing — and in one notable case, missing — in this weekend’s rough-and-tumble race at Martinsville.
6.208, 1,111 and 4 What are we going to miss from Sunday’s race? A driver who ranks second at Martinsville in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) with a 6.208 rating, has led 1,111 laps and won four races.
Denny Hamlin’s absence impacts this race in a major way. Not only is he a race win contender, Martinsville is arguably one of his two best racetracks (Richmond is the other), in terms of production. With him sidelined due to injury, it opens the door for other good Martinsville drivers that have been on the cusp of winning in recent events there. One of them is a household name.
9 and 0 Jeff Gordon earned nine top-5 finishes in 12 CoT races. Zero of those finishes were victories.
Gordon ranks third in PEER with a 4.958 rating — PEER being a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario. That mark is crazy high considering he was unable to seal the deal in all those races. For the better part of the last six years, Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were bestowed the crowns as kings of Martinsville; however, Gordon, despite the lack of wins, is also befitting of the throne.
1,309 Gordon has led 1,309 laps across the last 12 races at Martinsville.
That is absolutely absurd. It means he has led just over 21 percent of all laps there the last six seasons. That kind of dominance isn’t for the feint of heart; in eight of those races he led at least 90 laps. Yes, when the lap counts are high — Martinsville is a 500-lap race — the laps-led totals are inflated, but his 1,309 total laps led is the second most in the series over that span and noteworthy because, again, he won nary a race in all those dominant outings. He may be overdue.
3.93 and 3.62 Clint Bowyer averaged running positions of 3.93-place and 3.62-place in last year’s races at Martinsville.
Disappointingly, Bowyer finished 10th and fifth, respectively, in those races. His attempted pass for the lead in the waning laps of last year’s spring race took out Johnson and Gordon, but outside of that, he has been a pleasant (and quiet) producer at Martinsville throughout his career. His 2.708 track-specific PEER ranks seventh out of 54 drivers and he is one of five drivers with at least eight top-10 finishes in the last 12 races there.
12.67 Mark Martin, replacing Hamlin in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing, has averaged just under a 13th-place (12.67, to be exact) finish in his six CoT-era finishes at Martinsville.
Hamlin he ain’t, but Martin is not half bad at a track that, in a perfect world (for him, that is a partial schedule), he would elect to skip each year. He finished as high as second during that time frame while driving for Hendrick Motorsports and also secured three other top-10 results. He’ll need to redeem himself from his most recent outing there, which was a 28th-place finish that saw him earn a poor 44.7 percent passing efficiency along with a 21st-place average running position.
Brad Keselowski: No Martinsville slouch, either. (ASP, Inc.)
55.1% Brad Keselowski’s passing efficiency at Martinsville was 55.1 percent across both 2012 races.
Remember when there was a mild freakout after Keselowski qualified 32nd for the Martinsville Chase race last year? And then he finished sixth, which apparently was a major surprise to fans and mainstream media alike? Well, any success regardless of track position shouldn’t be a shock when it comes to the reigning champ. Keselowski can move through traffic arguably better than anyone in the series and his Martinsville production, though in a smaller sample size than the majority, is beyond serviceable (2.583 PEER, ranks eighth). The lesson? Don’t count him out of Sunday’s race until the checkered flag falls.
4 of 6 Four of the last six NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race winners at Martinsville were Cup Series interlopers.
Those four wins are split between Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is entered into Saturday’s companion race in a third entry for NTS Motorsports, which also fields trucks for Ron Hornaday and Brennan Newberry. As of now, Harvick is the only Cup Series regular entered, which could open the door for a Truck Series point-earner to swoop in and collect a victory. Hornaday, Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters are former Martinsville winners that warrant your watching.
During his rookie season of 1999, we got an early glimpse of what lay ahead with Tony Stewart. After going back and forth at Martinsville with Kenny Irwin Jr. — who Stewart went way back with during their formative days in USAC — our hero ends up on the losing end of a physical day. This may have been the incident where Stewart decided to stop throwing heel pads in favor of the helmet.
by Vito Pugliese
9. Now that's one awkward interview
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We all know Tony’s never been one to mince words, but in 2004 during an early-season winless skid, Darrell Waltrip offered a little constructive criticism – and Toy returned it with a scathing critique of the three-time champion’s final years behind the wheel. What Smoke thought would have induced laughs instead brought crickets. I mean, yeah, he was pretty much right and DW’s shtick can get a little grating … but come on man, that’s a little harsh.
by Vito Pugliese
8. Come at me, Bro!
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Filmed at Indianapolis Raceway Park which begat O’Reilly Raceway Park which begat Lucas Oil Raceway Park but which everyone still refers to as IRP (follow?), Stewart got into it with the officiating crew during a Sprint Car race in 2008. I’ve never seen anyone toss another guy’s headset before. It’s right up there with the Kyle Petty “Visor Slam.” By the way, the sandals and socks is a great look for you, Smoke.
by Vito Pugliese
7. Going off ... in a good way
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In the midst of his improbable title run in 2011, Stewart reeled off five wins in the season’s final 10 races. The third came at Martinsville where, at the time, you had to go through either Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson to win – kind of like Clint Bowyer tried last spring. Tony’s exuberance after crossing the line cannot be contained. If you’re at work, earmuffs.
by Vito Pugliese
6. Rocket Scientist
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Kurt Busch once got off a memorable blast to his spotter by calling him “Einstein.” Smoke follows that up to ESPN’s Mike Massaro after tearing up his primary car before the Daytona 500. I guess calling him Wernher Von Braun would have been more Dennis Miller … and a bit obscure.
by Vito Pugliese
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(Clip starts at 6:54 with this URL)
When the CoT was in its infancy, Goodyear was in the dog house. Following the Atlanta race in 2008, Stewart had some choice words for the tire supplier and its past punch-outs. Being an open wheel guy you can expect that he’s probably partial to Firestone and Hoosier. Looks like things have been patched up a bit since Goodyear now features the 14 car doing a burnout in its ads with the caption “Smoke Show.”
by Vito Pugliese
4. The Bristol Night Toss
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One of the favorite and most enduring images of the 2012 season was this axe-handle chop delivery of his helmet at Matt Kenseth at Bristol. It’s not the first time these two have gotten together, and probably won’t be the last. If it’s going to perpetuate moments like these, let’s hope not.
by Vito Pugliese
3. I'm Just Really Curious What That Idiot is Thinking
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David Gilliland rose to prominence in NASCAR after an improbable win in a Nationwide race with a small, practically unsponsored car at Kentucky in 2006. This led to a ride with Robert Yates Racing in the Cup Series, which in turn led him to turn down into Tony Stewart at Michigan on the frontstretch in a not-so-happy-hour incident that tore the front end off the Home Depot Chevrolet.
by Vito Pugliese
2. "I Owe Ya One Now, Buddy."
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Tony Stewart was just in his second year in the series when he had this run-in with Jeff Gordon following contact on the first lap at Watkins Glen. Sift through the bleeps and bystanders(among them, a young Steve Letarte) and you’ll find some good one-liners from both Tony and Jeff. Particularly, Gordon’s, “Speed up and you won’t have that problem.”
by Vito Pugliese
1. The Talladega Incident
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Probably the best interview of Tony Stewart’s career. Stewart’s deadpan response to his feelings following a Talladega race that saw 19 cars left on the lead lap — the rest damaged from earlier incidents or mechanical failure. His stream of conscious delivery reaches its zenith when he comes out with the chief way to fix the problems of pack racing with a peculiar reconfiguration of Talladega. Irony of ironies, it would be Stewart who eliminated three-fourths of the field a few months later by, of all things, blocking.
This weekend provides a rare off day on the jam-packed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but that doesn’t mean analysis will stop. After five races, there is a litany of story-telling statistics in a series that continues to one-up itself, to the delight of news desks everywhere.
Secondary to all the controversial opinions, fighting and crashing, the most popular driver in the sport is the one sitting atop the NASCAR mountain. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the point standings, which, as you will read below, is well deserved.
4.4 and 2.3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team lead full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors in average finish (4.4) and finish deviation (2.3).
What does this mean? Earnhardt is the most consistent driver in the series right now — a zero deviation would mean the same finish over and over — while bringing home tremendous results. Junior Nation should be rejoicing, because that isn’t just the sort of thing that gets a driver to the Chase; what Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led race team are doing are habits of potential champions.
+54.2% Earnhardt’s finishes are an increase of 54.2 percent over his average running position with 10 percent of a race to go.
That plus-54.2 percent position retainment difference is another habit of a title contender. That increase is worth about 26 positions — think of that as 26 extra points — earned in the waning laps of each race. On fresh tires, Earnhardt navigated through a firestorm of activity last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, driving from 13th to second in the final 20 laps for his most lucrative home-stretch run of the season.
100% Four teams in the Cup Series have finished in the top half of fields in all five races for a relevance percentage of 100.
“Relevance” is finishing in the top half of fields (21st or better in the Cup Series). This is important because hitting the 80 percent mark through the 26-race regular season all but lands a team one of the 10 automatic Chase spots. Of the four driver-team combinations currently with perfect relevance percentages, two of them aren’t surprises (Earnhardt and the No. 88 team and Greg Biffle with his No. 16 team) and two sort of are (Paul Menard and the No. 27 team and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the new-look No. 17 team). It is no coincidence that all four teams are currently inside the top 12 of the point standings at this juncture.
41 The No. 16 team with Greg Biffle has gone 41 races without registering a DNF (Did Not Finish, a status frequently used in NASCAR box scores to indicate why a driver finished so poorly).
In today’s NASCAR, with Chase implications attached to every position gained or lost, consistency matters. That starts with finishing races, which is something Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia have done in their sleep over the last year. Their most recent DNF was an engine failure in the 2011 season finale at Homestead, so credit the Roush Yates engine department for holding strong behind one of Ford’s best entries. Biffle himself deserves a tip of the cap for being able to avoid accidents well enough to go 76 races without an accident-related DNF.
Casey Mears (ASP, Inc.)
3 Casey Mears and the No. 13 Germain Racing team have scored three top-15 finishes through five races this season.
That is an intriguing factoid considering this driver-team combo only secured one top-15 finish all of last year. The improvement should be attributed to Mears, who is finishing in the top 15 at a rate 54 percent higher than the amount of laps he is running in the top 15. This time last season, the No. 13 ranked 28th in average green-flag speed. They currently rank 27th on this year’s average speed chart, making it difficult to see any discernible improvement in regular on-track performance.
13.3 The average finish of AJ Allmendinger and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team, through three starts, is 13.3.
It’s a nice upgrade from the 26.1-place finish the team averaged in 2012 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel for the majority of the races. The team is currently ninth in the Cup Series owner point standings, after Regan Smith finished seventh at Daytona and Austin Dillon secured a 21st-place finish at Las Vegas. Is it early-season luck for the plucky crew out of South Carolina? Or do results change when the team isn’t crashing in just under half of the races as Busch did last year?
0.80 David Gilliland has a series-high 0.80 crash frequency.
The season has gotten off to a rough start for Gilliland, who has crashed four times in five races. He holds a -0.250 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (ranks 34th of 35 drivers), has a best finish of 24th (Bristol) and has his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team ranked 35th in the owner standings. If car counts for future events expand and his 27th-place average starting spot gets worse, he could be in danger of missing races.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana
Tony Stewart was not a happy camper after the Auto Club 400. (ASP, Inc.)
For 15 years, Fontana has played the role of weird aunt in the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. You know the one. It’s who you have to suck it up and speak with every reunion even though the hug creeps you out, she believes aliens live on the street corner and “didn’t you just do the cutest thing you don’t remember when you were four.” Extended conversation makes you sleepy … or suicidal.
That, in a nutshell, is what watching every race scheduled at this two-mile oval has been like. (The fact Jimmie Johnson, criticized for his cookie-cutter personality on camera, is the all-time winner here speaks volumes.) But Sunday, in the midst of NCAA basketball’s showcase weekend, stock cars created a miracle all their own. For perhaps the first time in an L.A. market dominated by movie stars, an unscripted Hollywood race car finish became the talk of the town. Suddenly, a track that lost one of its two dates on the schedule becomes — dare I say it? — a “must see event” in 2014, one that puts someone like Tom Cruise back in attendance and not just some “D” level star from a movie you never heard of dropping the green flag.
If NASCAR’s Gen-6 car can make the weird aunt normal and relevant in the midst of another sport’s heyday, then the potential is there for sustained success. Let’s go “Through the Gears” on how it got to this point …
FIRST GEAR: NASCAR rivalries make or break this sport.
Denny Hamlin. Joey Logano. A finish so impressive, we need to watch it again. For a first-timer, that ending is exciting enough. But anyone who watches a lick of NASCAR racing will tell you their heart was pounding, regardless of who they root for, long before the white flag. Knowing the two went at it at Bristol, sparking a soap opera week of light shoving, Twitter tantrums and unaccepted apologies, the last 10 minutes came paired with a strong sense of anticipation. You just knew something was going to happen, with drama down the stretch providing that “hook” which takes a fan’s interest another level.
The spark of those rivalries (what drives that other March Madness) is what had been missing from NASCAR in recent years. Sure, we’ve had Brad Keselowski, the reigning champ and his “I don’t get no respect!” routine, but his main adversary (Johnson) won’t even turn on the jets to respond until September. The sport needed an ending with this type of spark, a reminder its A-list stars won’t always “go through the motions” when they’re sitting with a good points day in the spring.
As for where we go from here? Clearly, Logano has been listening to everyone from Keselowski to the media who say he needs to stand up for himself. But while any wreck can turn tragic, there’s a major difference between speeds at Bristol or Martinsville and Fontana, where 200-plus mph is not uncommon. Sure, Penske Racing’s newbie was doing all it took, fighting for victory just like he should. But there was a point, in the midst of Turns 3 and 4, where the game changed and Logano made a choice. Hamlin, on the top line, had fresher tires and the angle off the turn — and was in position to take the checkers (or finish second to Kyle Busch). At that point, Logano could have backed off; a wreck did neither one any good. But he didn’t, causing the incident and the comments afterwards make it sound like the action was clearly intentional. “Now we’re even,” he said on the radio before following up with a “that’s what he gets” to a crowd of reporters while Hamlin was being loaded up in an ambulance.
Yes, I know we have to remember the guy is only 22 years old. Unfortunately, after three-plus years in the Cup Series and paired with one of the sport’s most prestigious owners, Logano doesn’t get the luxury of being immature. What would have happened there if Hamlin was seriously hurt … or worse? (He was kept overnight, for hospitalization complaining of back pain.) Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett is out for 6-8 weeks after being injured at these types of speeds; you can’t just “assume” the cars will be safe.
I see a classic case of overreaction here. A young driver reeling from comments he’s too passive and feeling he needs to make up for it immediately in one full swoop. Problem is, it doesn’t work like that. Earning respect is a gradual thing, and judging by Tony Stewart’s comments after the checkered flag — championed by many peers on Twitter — Logano just isn’t quite there.
“It’s time he learns a lesson,” Stewart said. “He’s run his mouth long enough … he’s nothing but a little rich kid that’s never had to work in his life. He’s going to learn what us working guys who had to work our way up (know about)how it works.”
SECOND GEAR: Smoke is blowing Smoke, well, everywhere.
Those comments from Stewart, a three-time champ, came 10 minutes after an interview peppered with enough profanity to spice up anyone’s Sunday. Somewhere in between the bleeps was a simple message for Logano: I’m going to tear you in two.
But the car owner, more than anything, is just frustrated. As we spoke about last week, his slow start is even slower than usual and a block by Logano on the final restart robbed the No. 14 car of its momentum. That left him drifting outside the top 20, on a day where a top-5 result could have kept him from digging a deeper hole. Now he sits 22nd in the point standings, 37 markers behind 10th-place Hamlin and with some tracks ahead (Martinsville, Texas) where he’s not a surefire favorite.
With that said, seeing the Stewart of old, the rogue entertainer who once got fined regularly for “telling it like it is,” was a refreshing sight to see — even if his thought process was irrational. I seem to remember a Chase wreck at Talladega last fall caused in part by a Stewart block. Wasn’t Logano doing the same thing, making a whatever-it-takes move to win the race? It’s hard to be disrespectful on a restart that late in a race when you’re running for first place.
Kyle Busch earned win No. 1 of 2013 in Fontana. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Kyle Busch is set to go on a roll.
In the midst of this mess, let’s not forget who actually won Sunday’s race. It was the first time in the last 10 events Kyle Busch has finished first after leading the most laps in a Cup event. Until the white-flag fracas, it was primed to be stolen from him again after pit strategy left the No. 18 a sitting duck down the stretch.
Instead, Lady Luck finally shined in Busch’s direction in what amounts to a hump race for this team. All year, Joe Gibbs Racing has shown the speed, just not the ability to finish (see: Daytona, two blown engines). But Busch, who has won three out of five times in the Nationwide Series in 2013, has the most momentum of the trio; now, he’s finally overcome adversity in Cup. With tracks in his wheelhouse ahead, along with more intermediates (Texas, Kansas and his best statistical venue of Richmond) don’t be surprised if he’s won three or four by Memorial Day.
FOURTH GEAR: NASCAR’s most popular driver is in position.
It’s easy to forget that five months ago Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sitting on a couch when the green flag dropped at Kansas Speedway. Now? He’s the Sprint Cup points leader. Fully recovered from a series of concussions, Earnhardt has charged out of the gate with no finish worse than seventh (Las Vegas). While only leading one of the five races thus far (Phoenix), consistency continues with the No. 88, which all sides hope will eventually put them in position for victories.
“We’re pretty good at closing races,” Earnhardt said after spending most of the day in Fontana virtually invisible until solid pit strategy — new tires at the right time — left him charging to second. “Something I never really was good at for years, and now we're doing it as good as anybody.”
Worries over more head injuries still loom, though. It was surprising to hear Earnhardt brutally honest over concerns Hamlim’s or Logano’s car would slide up in front of him (it was here, in 2002, where the driver got possibly his worst concussion). But the pieces are in place more than ever for this perennial underachiever to make a run at the title.
OVERDRIVE Cars continue to find the one spot on the racetrack where there isn’t a SAFER Barrier. That’s not always the fault of the speedway, but the inside wall leading to pit road? What, Fontana, you never thought that might be a tricky place? Cars hit there at Daytona all the time. Bottom line, soft walls should be in place. … Hendrick Motorsports pulled a rabbit out of the hat Sunday. Jimmie Johnson ran in the 20s, Jeff Gordon hit the wall, as did Kasey Kahne, while Earnhardt Jr. nearly got lapped at one point. All four were inside the top 12 at the finish, but HMS (particularly Gordon’s No. 24 team) has some catching up to do on intermediates. … Brad Keselowski’s bid for five top-5 finishes in five races came to an end when an engine went sour, the second one this weekend for his No. 2 team. Interesting to note that’s out of their control this season with the powerplants being manufactured by the Roush-Yates engine shop.
Kyle Busch wins Auto Club 400; Logano, Hamlin rivalry intensifies.
Kyle Busch in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
A frenetic final 20 laps in the Auto Club 400 concluded in a last-lap crash involving rivals Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, a surprise winner in Kyle Busch, and a fight on pit road between Logano and Tony Stewart. And it all happened at the most unlikely of venues: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The two-mile oval in Southern California has historically been known for its single-file, strung-out style of racing where aerodynamics and downforce — not tight-quarters beating and banging — are key. That all changed on Sunday.
A bevy of late-race three- and four-wide racing hit its crescendo on a restart with 11 laps to go. Race leader Logano threw a block on Stewart as the field took the green flag, killing the latter’s momentum and costing him valuable positions. That opened the door for Kyle Busch, who shot to the lead in the high groove.
As Busch built a cushion up front, the fight for second between Logano, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. intensified. The quintet sparred for three laps before Logano and Hamlin prevailed. They chased down the leader and overtook him in a physical fight in the tri-oval with five laps remaining.
The former teammates, whose rivalry has made headlines since Daytona and reached a new high in Bristol when Hamlin spun Logano, sparking a post-race confrontation and a war of words, ran nose-to-tail until the final lap, when Hamlin made his move as the white flagged wave.
Hamlin loosened Logano up in the tri-oval and powered by on the outside. However, Logano was far from done. He dove to the inside in Turn 1 and pulled alongside on the backstretch. As Logano’s car got loose in Turn 3, he washed up the racetrack, making contact with the No. 11 of Hamlin. That allowed a stalking Kyle Busch to skate by near the wall, charging to the lead as Logano and Hamlin wrecked.
Logano bounced off the wall but righted the ship for a third-place finish. Hamlin cut hard to the inside of the track and crashed head-on into a concrete wall devoid of energy-absorbing SAFER Barriers. Hamlin exited his car but quickly collapsed to the pavement as track safety personnel attended to him. He was airlifted to a local hospital complaining of back pain for what Joe Gibbs Racing officials called “precautionary reasons.”
“They forgot about me. I knew they were gonna,” Busch said of the two leaders as they parried for the win. “When they went to the bottom side of (Turns) 3 and 4, I thought, ‘Oh man, this golden — I got enough (momentum) up here to make this happen.’ Lo and behold, I put my foot to it and drove around the outside of them before they were crashing … or maybe as they were crashing, I’m not sure.”
The victory was Busch’s first of the season and 25th of his career.
Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Edwards and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5. Hamlin was credited with a 25th-place finish. Earnhardt assumed the lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after former leader, Brad Keselowski, limped to a 23rd-place showing.
Tony Stewart, following his pit road confrontation with Joey Logano. (ASP, Inc.)
As Busch celebrated in Victory Lane, Stewart confronted Logano on pit road, having taken exception to the block that dropped him from third to, ultimately, 22nd. A fight broke out between the two drivers and members of their respective teams, though no punches appeared to connect. The drivers were quickly restrained and separated.
When asked by a FOX television reporter about the incident, Stewart went on an expletive-laden tirade, taking Logano to task and promising retribution, then later referred to him as “a rich kid who never had to work a day in his life.”
Logano was unapologetic concerning his tactics, saying, “I had to throw the block there — that was the race for the lead. I felt like if the 14 (Stewart) got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race. I was just trying to protect the spot I had.”
As for the violent ending to his race with Hamlin, the Connecticut native again displayed little remorse.
“He probably shouldn’t have done what he did last week,” Logano said. “So that’s what he gets.”
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Auto Club Speedway
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Strong start, but when does Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?
Depending on how you judge these things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the most impressive start to a NASCAR Sprint Cup season in his career. The claim comes with Earnhardt, now second in the point standings, putting together his best average finish (5.0) after four races since he started full-time in 2000.
Or, you could say that it's just been a really consistent start for NASCAR's top-billed man that rivals the start he worked in 2004. That season, he won the Daytona 500 and the season's fourth race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a start only derailed by a miserable day at Las Vegas in the season's third race.
Each, of course, has their merits. But only one — the incredibly consistent current campaign — matters now. It also begs the question we've asked of Earnhardt plenty in the last half decade: when he is going to win?
A trip to Auto Club Speedway for Earnhardt may provide that answer. It's a track that he both welcomes as a driver's venue and one where he's shown moderate past success. It doesn't hurt that four of the last nine races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports.
"You can run the bottom; you can run on the apron; you can run on the top. It’s a very fun racetrack to drive," Earnhardt said. "And so I’ve got a good attitude about it. I think Steve (Letarte, crew chief) is going to give me a good car. We ran good last year because Steve gave me a good car.”
Earnhardt was scored third last year when rain ended the race on lap 129, good for his fourth top 5 at ACS in 20 career starts.
"There are opportunities to pass when you run a guy down, you can change the line you’re running and get some clean air on your car," Earnhardt said. "You feel confident that if you do the right thing and drive the car well, that you can make a pass. I love that about that racetrack."
2. Toyota still waiting on the checkers to blow their way.
Another Sprint Cup entity hoping to break in to the win column Sunday is a bit larger than even Earnhardt. Toyota, winners of the last nine Nationwide Series races contested at ACS, has yet to find Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup car at the southern California speedway that stands closest to the Torrence, Calif.-based Toyota Racing Development facility where all TRD engines and other parts are manufactured for Toyota teams.
To do so Sunday, they'll have to break a five-race streak of wins held by the Chevrolet camp in NASCAR's top division. Helping the cause will be the addition of Matt Kenseth to the Toyota fold. The former Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver has three wins in Fontana. Kenseth, already a winner at Las Vegas two weeks ago, appeared on pace to grab another before Jeff Gordon's flat tire forced his exit at Bristol last week.
Kenseth will be pushed by his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin was running second last year until an ill-advised pit stop as rain closed in on the track dropped him back in the pack to finish 11th. Kyle Busch was also plenty strong a year ago at ACS, leading 80 of 129 completed laps before taking second to Tony Stewart.
“We’ve had really fast race cars everywhere we’ve gone so far. Fontana is another place where I’ve always fared well over the years, and I’m hoping we can finally get that victory we’ve been looking for this weekend," Busch said.
Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Stewart-Haas Racing ready for turnaround?
More than just a win, the drivers representing Stewart-Haas Racing are looking merely for a few doses of good fortune. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart are packed neatly together in the point standings at 23rd and 24th, respectively, and just ahead of rookie teammate Danica Patrick in 28th.
Already in 2013, Stewart has wrecked twice (a victim of a pack crash at Daytona and a flat tire at Bristol) while Newman has crashed due to a flat tire at Phoenix and a blown engine at Las Vegas. Stewart, at least, isn't worried. He thinks the finishes will come thanks in part to how well the Stewart-Haas organization has taken on the third full-time car with Patrick behind the wheel. He says the team has avoided alienating the new rookie driver in Patrick like he's seen others do in the past — to the extent that Newman and Patrick are akin to brother and sister.
They're also feeling some of the added home-track pressure usually reserved for racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Haas Automation, the company of team co-owner Gene Haas, is also located in southern California.
"(Newman and Patrick) get into conversation that I actually get uncomfortable with and I’m like, ‘Alright, you guys go ahead and talk about this, I’m leaving,'" Stewart said. "That’s hard to do with me, so she fits in really well with us as a group.'"
"I guess I give ourselves a better grade than where we were this time last year because everyone is working together a lot better and they’re a lot more comfortable with each other.”
4. Going’ back to Cali? Just fine for Jimmie.
The state of California, according a simple Wikipedia search, has been the subject of more than 390 songs recorded by a group of artists eclectic and diverse as the nation's third-largest state. A native son of The Golden State, Jimmie Johnson probably doesn't need even one of those for motivation to deliver results at Auto Club Speedway.
No, Johnson doesn't need any of The Beach Boys, Katy Perry or Notorious B.I.G. Even the Eagles can stay on pause. Especially the Eagles.
That's because the two-mile Southern California speedway could easily be argued as the very best track for Johnson and his No. 48 team. Johnson scored his very first Sprint Cup win in Fontana in 2002 (the first of now 61) and his since taken the checkered flag at ACS four more times. He has more wins at three other tracks, but Johnson's average finish at ACS is the best of any track outside of the two races he's participated in at Kentucky Speedway.
Johnson, 10th last year, hasn't finished outside the top-10 at ACS since 2006.
5. Championship race already taking shape?
Four races is entirely too small of a sample size to accurately pick title contenders when 22 races remain before the start this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. But in a year with a new car style, it's not outlandish to think the likelihood that those teams who are strongest to start the season will keep that pace through the end of it.
To that end, six of the top seven drivers in the current Sprint Cup point standings are the same ones who comprised the top six spots in the final rundown of last year's title fight. The seventh of that group — Dale Earnhardt Jr., now second in points — missed two races in the 2012 Chase thanks to concussion symptoms.
Certainly, nothing is a lock between Sunday's 400-miler and September's race in Richmond. But it's got to be ominous for the competitors of Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin to see how strong they've been to start this year. Of those six, only Biffle (down four spots in the standings year-to-year) and Hamlin (one spot back from post-Bristol 2012) have regressed from this time a year ago. Meanwhile, Keselowski is up 12 spots in the point standings from a year ago, Johnson is up 14 spots and Kasey Kahne is up an astounding 25 spots over last year.
Drivers who represented the back half of last year's final standings, though, are leaving their spots completely up for grabs as of now. Jeff Gordon, now 24th in the standings, is 17 spots lower than his finish a year ago. Tony Stewart is 15 spots down.
Sure, there's a ton of racing left. And sure, anything can and will happen. But when guys like Keselowski, Johnson and Bowyer are hot already, you have to wonder what everyone else is going to do to catch up.
The California Etc.
Five drivers have completed all 1,283 laps competed in the Sprint Cup Series so far in 2013, including Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. … Just as it did at Las Vegas and Bristol, Goodyear is bringing the same tire compound from 2012 to Auto Club Speedway. There was no test in the new Gen-6 car at the track … Sunday marks the 24th Sprint Cup Series race in Fontana, and three drivers (Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte) have started every race … Jimmie Johnson is the only current driver to finish on the lead lap in every start at Auto Club.