Early-season favorites emerge as NASCAR hypes Gen-6 car
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas
By: Athlon Sports | 3/11/13, 10:18 PM EDT
Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. (ASP, Inc.)
If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.
The numbers? 3-3-3-3.
Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.
Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…
FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.
Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.
Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.
The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.
SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.
“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”
Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.
So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.
Junior Nation: Loud and ... green. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt’s loss could be Gordon’s gain
This theme of “three” brings up the ghost of the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s late father, who is likely smiling down on how well his boy is handling the new Gen-6. Sitting third in points and joining Johnson and Keselowski as the only drivers with three top-10 results, the No. 88 car has shown a habit of improving consistently throughout an event. Part of that has to be the benefits of top equipment — after all, this team works in the same shop as Knaus and Johnson.
But for Earnhardt, there’s more at play. From the first day I arrived at Daytona, you couldn’t help but notice Earnhardt’s enthusiasm for 2013. It’s clear the Gen-6 chassis for him was considered a prime opportunity for redemption; he’s perhaps the only one unconditionally harping on its success every time the camera lights go on (or off). I remember, in particular, an unsolicited rant in the media center about how great the season would be after this year’s Daytona 500. It was something you would never have heard from him even two years ago, when crew chief Steve Letarte was just the last-ditch experiment and a slumping driver had lost his confidence. Now, Earnhardt has begun to believe, pushing forward mentally in a sport where the smallest edge can make the biggest difference.
Compare that to Jeff Gordon, whose success with the Gen-5 (a record 30 top-10 finishes in 2007, the first year it was introduced) was expected to repeat itself. Instead, three races in the fourth member of the Hendrick stable looks a level very much below his mates. What’s troubling here is the opposite of Earnhardt: Gordon goes backwards the second the green flag drops. His average start is 5.7, one of NASCAR’s best, yet the difference between those spots and where he finishes is a disappointing -37. He and Gustafson aren’t on the same page with adjustments, and that needs to change before it’s too deep a hole from which to recover.
FOURTH GEAR: The real Gen-6 grade: Incomplete, no matter how much NASCAR tries to push the issue
The official statistics say 22 lead changes, an increase over 2012. And the loop data for Vegas had 2,342 green-flag passes, the highest number in seven years. But despite the drivers trumpeting praise, seemingly as a result of Hamlin’s $25,000 fine for even suggesting the Gen-6 still needs some work, Sunday’s race was far from an A-plus. It wasn’t bad; clearly, the end-of-race battle alone with Kenseth and Kahne was worth the price of admission. But it still seems, as the cars settle in after a restart, passing 20 to 30 laps into a run is a risk drivers seem afraid to take.
One issue that might help continues to be the tires. Goodyear’s latest compound, while safe on Sunday, was so rock hard speeds didn’t fall off quickly enough. Considering Vegas’ surface is one of the more abrasive, there was a missed opportunity for a more “Atlanta” or “Rockingham” style race where that type of management came into play.
Instead, what we were left with was a race that had a few stops and starts but wasn’t the A++ version NASCAR covets. And a simple point in the wake of the Hamlin discipline remains: if things were so peachy with this new Gen-6, making everyone from fans to television partners happy, why feel the need to even control perception? Stepping in, managing a comment mostly forgotten gives the impression there’s something wrong even if those concerns are overblown.
NASCAR PR. Gotta love ‘em.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
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