Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

Find out what's really going on in NASCAR. Look here to find out why your driver really lost his ride, or the real reason those two drivers can't stand each other. Learn about the hidden motives and reasons for the things that happen in NASCAR, from the drivers to the team owners.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jimmie Johnson shows why he’s always the favorite for the championship

This is what champions do.

When Jimmie Johnson struggled early, he didn’t panic. He ran mid-pack for a while and told crew chief Chad Knaus what was going on. The necessary adjustments were made and, slowly but surely, he crept up the front.

Now that it was back in the driver’s hands, a classic Martinsville bump-and-run pass was pulled off with precision, with nobody ending up in the wall, and at the end of the day Johnson was in Victory Lane for the fifth time in the last six Martinsville races.

Pretty soon he’s going to run out of room for those grandfather clocks.

With the win, Johnson jumped all the way up to 4th in the point standings, and you’d be crazy to bet against him reaching the top of the point standings at some point in the near future.

There are very few things you can count on in life.
The sun will come up each morning and set each night.
The government will want more taxes from you every year.
And no matter who else is running strongest in the Cup Series early in the season, Jimmie Johnson will always surge at the right time and have the best chance at winning the title by the time November comes.

For everyone other than Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick, this is a very annoying thing. I would love a world where the Chase began and there were 12 legitimate title contenders competing each week for the crown. I would love not knowing that Jimmie Johnson will finish in the top 3, probably 1st.

Unfortunately that’s not the case, and the great team performance by Johnson and Knaus on Sunday is the perfect example of why he is always your best bet to win the Cup title.

Almirola running out of time
Earnhardt Ganassi’s Aric Almirola is done after Texas, barring sponsorship showing up. I’m not sure what to make of this kid. Early in his career he put on some strong runs and showed some promise, but lately he’s done nothing but bring out cautions.

Robby the riddle
Robby Gordon caused so many cautions it was silly on Sunday. It continues to amaze me that a guy who’s among the best ever when it comes to road racing can be so terrible so often in a Cup car. It’s really one of the true mysteries of the racing world.

Jeff Gordon isn’t winning … but who cares, he’s leading the points

Some people in Jeff Gordon’s situation might be annoyed. He led a ton of laps early in the race, and for a while it looked like he was going to win his first points race since 2007.

Then the race got away from him. He ended up finishing fourth.

While he would have preferred to win, I’m guessing Gordon wasn’t too upset.

Why, you ask? Well, beside the fact that the’s married to a supermodel, he is also leading the Cup point standings. He’s 89 points ahead of the surprising Clint Bowyer, and has been by far the most consistent driver this season.

While NASCAR has made some weak attempts to increase the reward rate for winning races, the fact remains that the driver who is most consistent will be atop the standings, even if he isn’t winning.

So there’s no reason for Gordon to be upset. He can run fourth every week for the rest of the year and probably win the championship, assuming he does it all the way through the Chase.

That’s the system NASCAR has set up, so this is what they get -- a guy who hasn’t won with a comfortable points lead.

And that’s why Jeff Gordon is still smiling despite not being able to seal the deal on Sunday.

Jr. finally has a solid showing -- Can he back it up?
Dale Jr. ran up front on Sunday and got a solid finish, and that’s good news for him. But he needs to continue running that way if he’s going to make the Chase.

On a Jr. side note, The silliest thing I heard all weekend was when one of the elite NASCAR media types said that Rick Hendrick had told him the key to Dale Jr. doing well was him getting more physically fit.
While I’m sure losing a few pounds wouldn’t hurt, I have a better idea: Give him good cars that are capable of winning races. At that point, if he’s a good enough driver, he’ll begin to see the success his championship-winning teammates have had in the past.

What’s up with Roush cars?
If Jack Roush wants to win the championship, he needs to work on his short track program. For the second straight week, his cars were junk, with only one good finish out of five teams.

Allmendinger is on verge of entering Chase territory … So where’s the sponsor?

I’ll never understand the business side of NASCAR.

There are drivers like Casey Mears and Reed Sorenson racing every week and never distinguishing themselves in any way, which would seem like a detriment to a sponsor. But they have something on their hood for the whole season.

Meanwhile, A.J. Allmendinger is doing a tremendous job racing better than the equipment he has, getting top-10s when he probably shouldn’t be able to do that, yet he is only sponsored through the end of May.

The Dinger is only 34 points away from being in Chase territory, yet there is a chance he won’t be able to race in June.

Calling all sponsors … I know times are tough, but considering some of the drivers who are sponsored, I hope someone out there has the cojones to step up and ensure A.J. can run the full season. If he continues the hot streak he is on, he has a legitimate shot at making the Chase, something that would almost guarantee the investment would pay off for a sponsor.

The problem, of course, is the economy. As a member of the newspaper business and a resident of the automotive-driven metro Detroit area, I’m painfully aware of what the recession has done to the ability of advertisers to promote their products as much as they’d like.

Logic would dictate that if Allmendinger continues to finish like he did at Martinsville, a sponsorship deal (or many small sponsorship deals) will come in the near future. But then again, logic sometimes loses out to real-world craziness.

Another concern is that A.J. is on the short list of drivers being considered for the U.S.-based Formula 1 team that will run starting in 2010. If NASCAR fails to provide him with a full-time ride for this season or next, you may see him make his way out of the stock car world, which would be a shame because he is a solid young driver who wants to be here.

It’s a case of bad timing, but I hope it works out for A.J. A driver performing as well as him shouldn’t have to worry about funding, especially considering how many less talented people have full sponsorships.

What rookie battle?
Joey Logano and Scott Speed continue to struggle, making the rookie battle a snoozefest as they both battle to be in the top 35. At this point, I wonder whether either one will step up this year.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rainy weekend gives advantage to Hendrick's dynamic duo

Much has been made of the fact that no driver from Rick Hendrick’s super-duper four-man team has won a NASCAR Cup race yet this season, after five races have been completed. We likely won’t be able to say the same thing after Sunday’s race at Martinsville.

When you add up the facts that practice time was basically nonexistent for the Cup drivers this weekend, and the field was set by points after qualifying was rained out, only one conclusion is logical: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be battling for the win Sunday.

Gordon is the points leader and starts on pole. He has more wins at Martinsville than any other current driver at the track. Look for Gordon to take no prisoners from the start, and begin to lap cars on the tiny .526 mile track within 60 laps or so. Jimmie Johnson has won four of the past five races at the track, and will no doubt be hunting his teammate on Sunday.

This is one track Kyle Busch has yet to really figure out, but considering how impressive he’s been this year, I don’t think you can ever count him out. If he’s going to compete, he’ll have to jump on Gordon early because playing catchup won’t be a recipe for success.

If I were in Vegas, my money would have to go on Gordon taking his first win in a points race since 2007. The points leader is on a tear this season, and the elements have given him the perfect setup for a win.

Now he just has to take the baton and run, and hope his teammate doesn’t spoil his victory party.

Truck race postponed
For anyone looking for something to watch Monday, the Truck series race has been moved to noon Monday due to all the rain, and will be broadcast on SPEED. Considering it’s a Truck race, plus it’s Monday, I’m guessing attendance at the track will be pretty close to zero. That’s too bad, though, as the trucks usually put on a good race and fans will miss a good show.

Bodine a title contender, but money woes may shut team down
Todd Bodine has been a great competitor in the Truck series this year, but unfortunately his team is running out of money. Bodine is second to Kyle Busch in points right now, but since Busch is not running the full season Bodine is the legitimate points leader in the series.

To think that someone leading the points in a major NASCAR series could be without a sponsor is pretty illogical, considering how many teams hit the wall every week and still have something on their hood. I’m rooting for Bodine to pull together a miracle, because he’s a great racer in this series and it would be a real shame if his 2009 title run ends this weekend.

Don’t be surprised if Scott Speed bolts NASCAR for new Formula 1 team

The recipe is there for a quick exit from Cup racing for Scott Speed.

First, he’s struggling tremendously with his racecars at Red Bull Racing.

Second, the U.S.-based Formula 1 team started by Peter Windsor is looking for two American drivers to drive for them in 2010.

Third, Speed is the only guy who is American and has F1 experience, and he is on the short list of drivers the team might want.

Unless Speed has decided he’s absolutely committed to stock car racing, I don’t see how he would turn down a chance to return to Formula 1. If he was doing well, he might have a tough choice. But hitting the wall each week isn’t much fun, not to mention he seems like the kind of guy who quite enjoyed the Formula 1 jet-setting lifestyle and probably has some fond memories he’d like to rekindle.

Some fans don’t think Speed has the goods to compete in Formula 1, but who knows? Maybe a new team will be the trick he needs to get a little closer to the podium.

I can’t think of too many other drivers who would be qualified for the ride. Big stars like Kyle Busch or Danica Patrick aren’t legitimate contenders for a variety of issues, from contracts to road racing ability.

A.J. Allmendinger is on the short list, but he’s shown enough skills in NASCAR that he’ll probably want to stick around, despite all his sponsorship woes.

Graham Rahal would be a good choice for one of the seats, but the other seat is probably Speed‘s if he wants it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Another Earnhardt will take a shot at NASCAR glory

When your last name is Earnhardt, it’s not too hard to predict what your career path will be. From Ralph to Dale Sr., to Dale Jr. and Kerry, racing is in the family’s genes. Even Jr.’s sister Kelley is involved in the sport behind the scenes.

Now, another Earnhardt is set to take the NASCAR stage … Kerry’s son Jeffrey.
Watching him being interviewed is almost eerie. Just like his father Kerry, Jeffrey looks like a carbon copy of The Intimidator when he was young.

Jeffrey, who is only 19, will run 7 races in the Nationwide series this season, then compete full-time on the circuit in 2010, driving for Rick Ware Racing. Kerry will also run some races for the team, and will be there to coach his son through what is going to be a highly scrutinized entry into the big leagues. Jeffrey will debut at Dover in May.

Having the last name Earnhardt will have both a positive and negative impact on Jeffrey. On one hand, he’s more likely to get sponsorships because of his name, and will have an instant fan base. But the name also comes with expectations … just ask Dale Jr., who has endured endless criticism this week after yet another mediocre run. If your name is Earnhardt, fans expect you run up front … period. No excuses or explanations will make them happy.

So what will become of Jeffrey Earnhardt? Will he grow into a stud racer like his grandpa, will he achieve the moderate successes of his uncle, or will he fail to break through like his father?

Only time will tell, and I won’t make any predictions until I see him on the track on the big stage for a while.

I just hope people aren’t expecting him to immediately break out as a top runner. First of all, he’s not running with a top team. The 7 races this year and his rookie season in 2010 will probably be filled with lots of DNFS and struggles, as is the case with most young drivers entering the Nationwide Series. He will be developing his racing skills in the next few years, and with that comes some tough days regardless of the equipment you are driving.

This experience may also be a good thing for Kerry Earnhardt, who never achieved the success his father, grandfather and brother have achieved in NASCAR. Perhaps these next couple years will show Kerry is a better coach than he is a racer, and his son can have the success he never saw. All fathers want to see their kids succeed in life, and I bet Kerry would gain more happiness from watching his son succeed than he would from having successes of his own.

One interesting thing is that another driver that is planning a full-time Nationwide run in 2010 is Austin Dillon, the grandson of Dale Sr’s longtime team owner Richard Childress. The fact that both Dale Sr. and Childress’ grandsons are going to compete against each other for Rookie of the Year is a pretty cool coincidence, considering the long and storied history between their families.

I wish Jeffrey luck, as there will be lots of pressure on him to live up to his last name.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TRG Motorsports deserves kudos for getting #71 into top 35

After barely missing Daytona, with Mike Wallace as the driver, the TRG Motorsports team could have gone into collapse mode. They could have fretted about the future and faded into obscurity.

But owner Kevin Buckler can breathe a little easier heading into qualifying day at Martinsville, as the team somehow has locked in at 35th in owner points despite making only four races.

Red Bull Racing’s Scott Speed, Earnhardt Ganassi’s Aric Almirola and Yates Racing’s Paul “I brought a sponsor with me” Menard all are employed by bigger organizations than TRG, yet will have to qualify on speed at Martinsville, where five cars will miss the race.

It’s pretty impressive, and I’m very surprised by the solid performance of David Gilliland. Perhaps losing his ride with Yates lit a fire under Gilliland, who has exceeded the expectations of this tiny team by getting them into the top 35. His four runs include 14th-place and 24th-place finishes, numbers that are pretty impressive for a new team like TRG this early in the season.

While they’re in the race at Martinsville for sure, the team still isn’t quite out of the woods. If they have a repeat of the terrible performance at Bristol, TRG will find themselves on the outside of the top 35 when they get to Texas. When you’re on the borderline like this team, there’s no time to celebrate this small milestone because the focus must remain on moving up in the points and getting into a safer position.

With short track action known for its bumping and banging, Gilliland recognizes that he’ll have to be careful.

“A lot of things can happen that are out of your control. You still have to be there at the end,” he said.

Buckler said this past weekend that the team is “doggedly searching for” sponsorship, which is still needed at some point if the team is going to run the whole season. But I believe that at least some smaller sponsors will be drawn to a feel-good story like the TRG team, especially if Gilliland can rack up some solid finishes in the next few weeks.

Many people do not realize that TRG knows about winning, having taken a win in the Truck series last year with driver Donny Lia. Also, Buckler has a sports car racing team that has won at the 24 hours of Daytona, plus Le Mans.

While I recognize that a team like TRG isn’t on par with the big boys in Cup, if the team can stay in the top 35 all season and have quality runs on a regular basis, then Buckler, Gilliland and the entire team (all dozen or so of them) will be the happiest guys in the garage.

Considering how things started in 2009 at Daytona for this team, so far it hasn’t turned out too bad.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bristol notebook

Roush cars terrible
I hope Jack Roush has some spare cars lying around, because the Roush cars were absolutely horrendous on Sunday at Bristol. If he shows up at Martinsville with a similar batch of cars, his drivers are going to continue to slide in the points. With teams like Joe Gibbs and Hendrick performing so well this year, this superteam can not afford to be slackers on a regular basis if they want to compete for the title.

Great run for Ambrose
An unusual name made an appearance in the top 10 throughout the Bristol race … Marcos Ambrose. The man from Down Under hadn’t done much to distinguish himself in NASCAR outside of road courses up until now, but now that he’s made a splash on the oval side let’s see if he can provide a repeat performance in the near future.

Martin has good run -- finally
After a terrible first four races, Mark Martin finally had a solid run and moved off the edge of dropping from the top-35. He’ll have to repeat that strong performance almost every race this year if he wants to make the long climb up to the top 12 and Chase territory. It’s not impossible, but it’s not going to be a walk in the park either.

Points rumblings
Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin leaped into the Chase after strong performances, while Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers fell out. David Reutimann showed he’s not a fluke, running near the front all day and moving up one position to 11th.

Creeping up on the top 12 are Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger, who ranks 16th in points, ahead of teammates Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson, yet still only has sponsorship covered through the end of May. If Allmendinger is in Chase contention come May and has to stop driving due to lack of sponsorship, that would be about the silliest thing ever. I’m confident though that, piece by piece, the Richard Petty team will get the funding to make sure A.J. can run all the races this year.

If Jeff Gordon was Wonder Boy, then Kyle Busch is Superman

When a young Jeff Gordon set the Cup world on fire in the 1990s and began to win what seemed like every race, he was dubbed “Wonder Boy“ by rival Dale Earnhardt.

15 years later, It appears Kyle Busch is determined to set a torrid pace for race wins that could make Gordon look like an amateur. By the time this season is over, he most likely will have far surpassed Gordon’s record of 15 Cup wins before age 25.

If Gordon was Wonder Boy, then Kyle Busch is Superman … because the potential for what he can accomplish is straight up scary.

In reality, he should have won both races this weekend, but a miscue by his pit crew on the final pit stop allowed Kevin Harvick to take the win.

Last year, the knock on Busch was that he wasn’t mature enough to legitimately compete for the title. That prophecy came true, as he fell to pieces after having some bad luck in the first two races of the Chase. It’s clear that at least part of Busch’s struggles in the Chase were mental, as he got down on himself after the rough start.

This year, that’s not something that can be said. Sure, Kyle can still be a bit immature at times, such as when he threw a mini-tantrum after the Nationwide race in frustration, but he appears to be even more determined to win than ever. He’s won something (either a Cup, Truck or Busch race) every single weekend this season, and that streak might continue on for a long time unless somebody can step up and knock Busch off the podium.

I’m the first to admit that there is a lot not to like about Kyle Busch from a personality standpoint, but at this point in time I don’t see how any person using his brain could deny that Kyle is the hottest driver in the sport … not just because of this weekend, but because of how he’s taken NASCAR by storm over the past year.

It appears the other drivers on the circuit … including great ones like Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards … are going to have to schedule their wins this year around the many more that Kyle Busch is most certainly going to claim.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen this year for sure, but I do know that if you win that often and that consistently, eventually they’ll come at the right time of year and you will win a championship.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saturday Night Special was a blast … Let’s do it again

As the old Saturday Night Live character would have said, I’m feeling verklempt.

Watching a race on ESPN with Ned Jarrett in the booth, with Rusty Wallace on the track, I had fond flashbacks to the 1990s. For the older viewers watching, seeing people like Cale Yarborough on the track at Bristol must have been a real treat.

My hat is tipped to the people at Bristol for putting together such a great race. Though many feared the Saturday Night Special could disappoint, I’m glad to say it didn’t.

Sterling Marlin led from the start and held off Rusty Wallace, the favorite heading into the race. Wallace had even taken his car to the wind tunnel, but his expectations of a win were dashed by Tennessee native Marlin.

The biggest surprise was 70-year-old L.D. Ottinger, who was the least recognizable driver in the field and hadn’t driven in a race in 10 years. Ottinger charged through the field to finish third. He had a legitimate chance to win if a caution had come late. It goes to show that talent is something you always have deep down.

‘Handsome’ Harry Gant started off strong, and could have battled for win if he hadn’t lost a hood pin. I’ve met Harry several times and he’s a great guy who has moved past racing and settled into a calmer, rural life. It was a thrill to see him back in a racecar, doing what he does best.

Seeing Ned Jarrett in the booth announcing the race with his son was a treat. Ned was always one of my favorite NASCAR announcers, and I’ve been missing him for a while, especially with the weak lineup FOX offers for its broadcast team. I don’t think Ned would ever have reduced himself to pimping a cartoon gopher named Digger. The man has integrity.

It’s too bad Junior Johnson got wrecked in practice (thanks, Jimmy Spencer) and we didn’t really see what he could do. The man hadn’t driven in a race in 40+ years, but he still kept out of the wall during the actual race despite the car being bent out of shape.

I’d like to see the Special become an annual tradition, but there need to be some rule changes. Marlin still competes part-time in Cup (including this weekend‘s Bristol race), so drivers like him need to be taken out of the mix. The rules should only allow for fully retired drivers.

A full series like this is probably not likely, as it probably would have materialized already if it were going to happen. But it would be great to see occasional one-off events like this. There are many drivers such as Dave Marcis, Dick Trickle and others who might want to take part. I’d love to see David Pearson compete in one of these races. I’d bet Pearson can still hold his own.

Sadly, many new fans don’t recognize the history of the sport, and don’t know about all the greats that have paved the way for the Jimmie Johnsons and Kyle Busches of today. It can’t hurt to remind them once in a while.

Bristol news and notes

Future on display
During the Nationwide race Saturday, there was a moment where drivers Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Justin Allgaier were all battling each other for a spot toward the front of the pack. These three young drivers are names you will be hearing about for many years to come, and I envision that same battle happening countless times in the future during Cup races.

Everyone knows about Logano’s reputation, and once he settles into Cup I think he’ll start living up to it. Keselowski is another rising star, and assuming Mark Martin ever retires he has a spot waiting for him at Hendrick Motorsports. Allgaier will become a star at the Penske team and be in Cup very soon.

Quick downturn for Riggs, Mayfield
After being such success stories at the Daytona 500, it’s sad to see what has become of Jeremy Mayfield Motorsports and Tommy Baldwin Racing. Both Mayfield and Scott Riggs failed to make the field for the third straight week, after qualifying the first two weeks.

Having just been created in January, these teams making Daytona was a miracle. Now, if they continue not to qualify, it will be a miracle if they survive the year, and that would be a shame after their promising start.

Kvapil likely done
Another driver who probably won’t be around at Martinsville is Travis Kvapil, who doesn’t have any more sponsorship for the #28 Yates Racing car. His story is just further proof of how the economy’s troubles are affecting NASCAR. Last year, that team cobbled together enough sponsors to do the whole season, but it’s not going to happen in 2009.

First misstep for Brian Keselowski
The Michigan-based K Automotive team had met its goals in the Nationwide Series up until this weekend. But Brian Keselowski had his first setback at Bristol when he missed the race. As a result, he is now out of the top 30 in points. He has one more race to do well enough to get back into the top 30 so he will have a guaranteed starting spot in future weeks.

Pole-winner Gaughan struggles on race day
Congratulations to Brendan Gaughan, who earned his first Nationwide pole. The bad news is he couldn’t translate that to a strong finish. Gaughan is clearly talented, but too often he is snakebitten once the green flag drops.

Another Cup guy wins
Kevin Harvick was thrilled to get his first win driving for his own team. I, on the other hand, can never get too excited when a Cup guy wins the Nationwide race.

Martin retirement issue grows sillier each year

At this rate, I’ll retire before Mark Martin does.

A story broke this week that Mark Martin, who had said this was his FINAL year of running full-time in Cup (really, he was serious this time … wink, wink) may talk with Rick Hendrick about doing it again in 2010, when he’s currently scheduled to share the #5 with another driver.

When asked about the story, Martin attacked the story but did absolutely nothing to deny its contents. With an extreme amount of wavering in his voice, he said he has not YET talked to Hendrick about coming back full-time in 2010, but didn’t say he wasn’t going to do that at a later date. In essence, he called the story premature, but not false.

Don’t get me wrong here. I love Mark Martin as a driver and rooted for him from the time I started watching the sport. He’s well-respected and among the most talented drivers in the garage, and no one can question his character.

But come on Mark, make up your mind already.

It seems like ages ago that he did his first farewell tour while still with Roush Racing, only to come back for another year at Roush and then part-time schedules with other teams. I’ve lost track of how many times he’s set his plans to leave the sport.

I’m aware that 2009 hasn’t exactly started off how Martin had hoped, and that it’s highly unlikely he’ll make the Chase unless he immediately begins an awesome streak of top-10 finishes and begins to catch up. This isn’t exactly how Martin wanted his final full year to turn out, and I don’t blame him for wanting one more shot at a title, especially since he came so close so many times.

But Martin needs to realize that the cycle of retiring, coming back and retiring that has been done in the past by players in other sports like Michael Jordan almost never ends well (see Brett Favre’s New York Jets mishap). In the end, it almost always diminishes the legacy of the athlete and they don’t end up achieving any more glory in their returns.

Besides that, I believe Brad Keselowski should be given the keys to the #5 for 2010, as it’s time he gets his shot as a full-time Cup driver. What’s the point of leaving him in Nationwide for another year? But with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. locked into their cars, the only open seat at Hendrick is the #5. Instead of another run for glory by Martin, Keselowski should get the chance to make his mark in Cup. If Martin sticks around, Keselowski could be snatched up by another team, and letting him go would be a mistake on Hendrick’s part.

At some point this year, the discussion will take place between Martin and Hendrick. Whatever they decide to do, I have just one request for Mark.

Please make the decision final. I’m seeing more waffling here than I did from John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

F1 chickens out
Formula 1 has decided to wait a year to impose its new system of awarding the title to the driver who wins the most races, after teams complained the change came too close to the start of the season.

It’s too bad, and I hope F1 doesn’t cave and drop the idea completely during the year. When it takes effect, it will make the races more exciting and crown a true champion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Win the most races, win the title … Let’s bring it to NASCAR

It’s so simple, it’s amazing it took so long for a motorsports series to do it.

Win the most races, win the championship. That’s the plan Formula 1 will follow in 2009.

Some will call it radical, and argue that it’s not fair to the drivers who are consistently running up front all year but don’t win on a regular basis.

But they would be missing the point. Racing is about one thing … winning. When 43 cars line up each Sunday, one thing is on each one of their minds -- taking that checkered flag. Even the backmarkers are hoping lightning will strike, and it will start to rain during a set of pit stops and they’ll be the beneficiary and take the win. Nobody goes out there just because it’s fun.

First things first: I doubt this experiment will be tried in NASCAR any time in the near future. The long-standing NASCAR model is that the most consistent driver should win the championship. Even in the new Chase setup, the most consistent driver over those ten races is the series champ after Homestead.

It would require a major overhaul of the basic philosophy behind the sport, and I don’t see the France family as being anywhere close to visionary enough to attempt this.

But bear with me here, because this is a great idea that would have an excellent impact on the sport’s competitiveness. Take this scenario: Carl Edwards is chasing someone down for the lead, but is having trouble passing him. Currently, he’s thinking big picture, about how he needs to accumulate as many points as possible and won’t do a move too risky because it could come back to bite him if he wrecks in the process.

Under a biggest-winner-takes-all scenario, Edwards would know that he has to win as many races as possible to have the best chance at the title. Therefore, he will most definitely make a move for the win because it becomes the most important thing -- in a way, the ONLY important thing -- each week. I can guarantee you we would see more exciting finishes almost every week throughout the season, something that has been missing pretty often lately. Drivers would take more chances, both in the pits and on the track, in an attempt to get those oh-so-important wins.

For those who worry the track would turn into a demolition derby, the F1 plan still keeps a tally of points, and in the case of a tie in number of wins, the champion would be determined by whoever has the most points. So while drivers would be more aggressive, they would not be stupid. A driver who drove like an idiot to get wins would likely catch the wall many times and ruin his points standing, which would cripple him in the event of a tie at the end of the year.

Applying this system to the past (which admittedly, is flawed, because races would likely have turned out different) nets a different champion in most years. For instance, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman would have titles in the years they broke out with a large number of victories.

I respect the opinion of people who prefer crowning a champion based on consistency, as I recognize the importance of that. Drivers like Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick who run in the top 10 but don’t win all the time would essentially be removed from championship contention under this system.

But that’s the breaks. Those drivers would have to catch up to the Edwards-Johnson-Busch level if they wanted a shot at being champ.

This system, though it’s unlikely ever to cross the Atlantic, would be a brilliant way to increase interest in the sport and create more exciting races.

Some drivers might not like it … but letting the guy who wins most be the champ just makes sense.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Everybody loves Bristol … except the drivers who end up in the wall

If I had to make up a list of the three best tracks in NASCAR, Bristol would definitely be on it … possibly at No. 1.

There’s just something about this just-over-a-half-mile concrete track that makes it so special. Maybe it’s the unique setup, as it’s complete surrounded by 160,000 seats. It’s like the University of Michigan's Big House on a massive dose of steroids, and is truly one of the most unique venues in motorsports.

Any fan who’s ever been there will tell you it’s among their favorite tracks to visit, and there’s a reason it’s one of the hardest tickets to get in the sport. This year is the rare time tickets are still available, which is a sign of just how tough the economy has gotten. In previous years, families with season tickets wouldn’t even discuss the possibility of not making the trip to Bristol. They would have considered losing a kidney first.

Maybe it’s the fact that you can bet your last dollar the racing will be exciting. With a healthy dose of banking, these cars are practically racing in a soup bowl. They’ll be side by side, nose to tail for all 500 miles of Sunday’s race. There will be doors banging throughout the race, and many drivers will end up turning around or hitting a wall along the way.

That’s Bristol, and that’s the way it should be. It’s a throwback to the short-track excitement all these drivers enjoyed so much as they were making there way up the ladder to the Cup level. Almost every driver you ask will say that they can’t wait for the Bristol weekends to arrive.

From fans to drivers to team owners, Bristol is a great weekend for everyone involved … except of course the unlucky ones who will end their day in the garage. It’s a cruel twist for the drivers on the edge of the top-35 in points that the race where those points are finalized for the new year is Bristol. If Mark Martin, Ryan Newman and rookies Joey Logano and Scott Speed catch a bad break at Bristol, it’s possible some of them might be forced to qualify on time when the series heads to Martinsville.

And trust me when I say it’s not hard to catch a bad break at Bristol.

So I hope the drivers rested up well during the off week … this week they’re going to need to keep their eyes and ears wide open. Because at Bristol, anything can happen and it probably will.

If I ran this sport, I’d create a new “cookie cutter” to base tracks on … and it would be shaped like Bristol.

Past meets present
The highlight of Saturday for anyone in attendance at Bristol will be the “Saturday Night Shootout,” featuring drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Junior Johnson, Harry Gant, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Jimmy Spencer, Jack Ingram and others … competing in late model stock cars.

As a big follower of the sport’s history, I can’t wait to see so many legends out there battling. This may seem just like a fun little race, but my bet is that Rusty will do whatever it takes to get to the front, even wrecking legends like Junior Johnson if necessary. Whatever happens, I’m sure it will be a phenomenal event and I’d love to see these type of things become more common.

Bruton Smith needs to sip a pina colada and be quiet
Rumblings came this week from the untamable Broton Smith, who was complaining about the season finale being at Homestead instead of Atlanta. He said the track was in “that godforsaken area that is north of Cuba”.

Everyone knows Bruton is a character, so I’ll just give him credit and say he was being cute with the Cuba comment. But regarding where the final race should be, it’s fine right where it is.

As much as I love Atlanta, Bruton, you have two major problems with this scenario. First, nobody goes to that track anymore, it’s half-empty most of the time. Second, I remember going to some of those fall finales an Atlanta where I woke up in my tent with damn-near frostbite on my toes.

No offense, Bruton, but I’d much rather be spending the final weekend of the Cup year in the sunny Miami-area, in a sold-out racetrack, sipping a pina colada (or whatever tropical drink the track may be offering). I suggest you do the same.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Mears, Hornish, Sorenson among drivers on the hot seat in 2009

Casey Mears
Blessed with a famous name, Casey Mears has long failed to deliver on the racetrack. Through his NASCAR career, he has failed to excel and now is his time to show he can hang with the big boys. He’s in RCR equipment, driving for a team whose drivers all made the Chase in 2008. If he hangs around mid-pack all season and doesn’t live up to the equipment he is being provided, Richard Childress may begin to second-guess his decision to hire Mears and open his eyes to any big-name free agents after the season ends.

Sam Hornish Jr.
First things first … Sam Hornish is a talented racecar driver. His IRL championships are proof of that. But NASCAR is a whole new ballgame, and so far Hornish has yet to figure out how to compete. The success of teammate Kurt Busch is proof that the Dodges can compete with the right driver, but Hornish has spent more time sideways than any other driver I can think of since he made the leap to Cup last year.

Roger Penske recognizes Hornish’s pure racing talent and is patient, but that patience could wear thin if Hornish continues to spin out every week and tumbles further down the standings and out of the top-35. Having to watch Hornish once again struggle to qualify for races would get old for the Captain, who at that point may realize that this Indycar star may never translate to NASCAR and belongs back doing what he knows best.

Reed Sorenson
This new addition to the Richard Petty Motorsports team was once viewed as a star of tomorrow, but has fallen into mediocrity. Sorenson needs to put together some good runs as the year goes on or the team may be looking for a hot free agent to take his place on the team. Better yet, they could just let him go and put A.J. Allmendinger in his seat if full-season sponsorship doesn’t come through for the #44 car. The Dodge camp has become the weakest of all the car makes in Cup, and they need to get serious about building a stable of drivers that can contend for top-10s and wins. I don’t envision Sorenson will put up numbers this year that fit that description.

Jamie McMurray/David Ragan
As I’ve noted in the past, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan are basically fighting each other to keep their ride at Roush Racing. Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards are not going anywhere, and the four-team limit per owner takes effect in 2010. Unfortunately for McMurray, who has shown flashes of greatness this year, the younger Ragan has more upside to sponsors and probably a brighter future, so I don’t see McMurray surviving at Roush. He’ll likely be shipped over to Yates Racing, or he could be scooped up by a non-Ford team looking to adjust their lineup after 2009.

David Stremme
Forced out of his ride with Chip Ganassi a few years ago, Stremme went back to the Busch Series and has made his way back to Cup driving for Roger Penske in the #12 car. But if he doesn’t have a solid season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up right back in the lower series after 2009. There’s a young driver named Justin Allgaier who I’m sure Penske is just itching to bring up to Cup. And when he does come up, he’ll have to replace somebody.

Michael Waltrip
Waltrip put himself on the hot seat before the season began, saying he’d quit driving and focus on running his team if he wasn’t competitive in 2009. He started strong, but has fallen back some. Depending on how things go and whether he keeps his word, Mikey’s driving days may be numbered.

Sponsor-limited drivers
There are several drivers who may soon lose their ride through no fault of their own. The dollars just aren’t there for the cars driven by Yates Racing’s Travis Kvapil, Earnhardt-Ganassi’s Aric Almirola, and Richard Petty Motorsports’ A.J. Allmendinger, among others.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crew member’s 4-race suspension may be harsh, but so is life

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way.

Jimmy Watts, the gas man for the #47 Cup team, has been suspended for the next four races for his now infamous tire-chasing performance during Sunday’s race at Atlanta.

I can already hear the critics saying, “That’s too harsh! He just was following his instinct and trying to retrieve the tire. Cut him a break.”

While I know Watts regrets his decision now and have nothing against him personally, this is one of those times in life someone has to learn their lesson the hard way.

Instincts are not always right, and when they are wrong bad things can happen.

In this case, Watts’ instinctual decision to chase that tire halfway to the racetrack resulted in just 6 cars being on the lead lap instead of 30+. While he may not have changed who won the race, he certainly changed where a lot of the drivers finished.

For those who think NASCAR is being too hard on Watts, picture this scenario. Let’s say there’s a driver who had a strong car but finished several spots lower at Atlanta because Watts’ decision trapped him laps down. Let’s say that driver finishes 10 points out of 12th place and making the Chase. In theory, Watts’ decision would have cost that driver a shot at the Cup.

I know that’s an extreme example that probably won’t happen, but it illustrates how the actions of everyone on the track, including the crew members, can impact everything from race outcomes to championship winners.

Everyone, including the drivers who were very critical of him after the race, knows Watts meant no harm and was just trying to do the best job for his race team. But just as in everyday life, when you make a mistake you must pay the consequences. I’m sure as he sits home watching the next four races on his TV, Watts will be reciting the NASCAR rulebook in his head so he doesn’t ever have a similar impact on a race in the future.

A slap on the wrist would not have gotten the point across, and this suspension serves not just to punish Watts. It serves as a reminder to all crew members in the sport that they must follow the rules so they don’t influence the race in ways they are not supposed to.

To some, it still may look as though NASCAR is being too harsh and picking on a guy when he‘s down.
But life is harsh, so there’s no reason NASCAR should be any different.

I really feel for the guy, as he is now permanently recorded in NASCAR’s history for this error in judgment. But in the long run, it may be a positive influence on Watts if he takes it as a life lesson.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Running toward traffic, Martin needs four-leaf clover and other notes

I’ve heard about deer running onto the racetrack at Pocono, and there are the insane but true stories of fans running onto the track during races.

But a pit crew member damn near running onto the track to retrieve a tire? I don’t want to crack on the guy, as I’m sure he’s heard plenty already, so I’ll be nice and say that was not a very good decision. For the safety of the crew member, a yellow flag was thrown.

Jimmy Watts, gas man for the #47 car of Marcos Ambrose, was suspended for the rest of the race, but the real damage was done to all the drivers who got trapped down a lap or more because the yellow came out toward the end of a cycle of green-flag pit stops. Some of the drivers affected, such as Kyle Busch, probably could have changed the complexion of the race if they hadn’t been trapped laps down.

It’s not likely it really mattered, as Kurt Busch clearly had the best car on Sunday, but this incident shows that a race can be influenced by an endless number of unexpected factors, including something so random as a crew member running toward traffic.

Another rough day for rookies
Atlanta is pretty rough on young drivers, and Sunday was no exception. Both Scott Speed and Joey Logano had bad days once again, and it’s beginning to look like neither one of them is on a very fast learning curve. They’re both young and have long careers in racing ahead of them, but getting through this rookie Cup season will not be easy for them. Barring a sudden improvement by either driver, success this year will be measured in top 15 runs.

Martin needs some luck, ASAP
The biggest news in the points: Mark Martin had another rotten day. His team is now sitting 35th in owners’ points, and will be battling drivers such Scott Speed, Aric Almirola and Paul Menard to stay in the top 35. If he has a bad week at Bristol, he’ll have to race in at Martinsville.

In other points news, reality came crashing in on Bobby Labonte and Michael Waltrip, who dropped out of Chase territory. Waltrip’s teammate David Reutimann is barely hanging on in 12th place. Joining the top 12 are Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne. On the other end of the points standings, David Gilliland is doing an impressive job keeping the #71 car in contention for a top 35 spot, despite the team having missed Daytona. Jimmie Johnson is knocking on the door of the Chase group, sitting 13th in points.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Brian Vickers, Red Bull team proving they have the goods to compete for title

Earlier this season, when I was contemplating my Chase picks, the name Brian Vickers kept popping into the back of my head. I figured some new faces were going to make an appearance, but couldn’t nail down exactly who they would be.

But then I recalled what Vickers did last year for the Red Bull team, which entered 2008 without any expectations. Vickers took the team to the next level, threatening to make the Chase until just a few weeks before it began. He put together some amazing runs in 2008, and I figured that wasn’t likely to change in 2009.

So I chose him as a driver who would be competing for the title this fall. So far, I’m happy to say he is living up to the expectations I and others placed on him.

Vickers’ move from a big team, Hendrick Motorsports, to a brand new and untested team, Red Bull, raised many eyebrows at the time. So many people thought Vickers might have doomed his career with the move, and questioned whether he would have the goods to return to the front of the pack.

It was a very bold move that many young drivers would not have risked. But Vickers gave it a shot, and now he’s reaping the rewards.

At first, the critics were right. In 2007, the Toyota teams, including Red Bull, struggled mightily. Vickers made 23 races and did not qualify for 13 others. But once he got going, he became a contender on a regular basis in 2008, and so far in 2009 he has finished in the top 10 three times. If he hadn’t been wrecked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona, he might be 4-for-4 and battling for the points lead.

Not bad for a guy many people didn’t give a chance to succeed once he left Hendrick.

It must also be noted that much of the success is seeing is coming from the driver, not the car. His teammate Scott Speed is struggling mightily, and is currently out of the top 35 in points. Meanwhile, Vickers is battling for race wins. So I think it’s safe to say that the talent in the guy behind the wheel has a lot to do with the top-12 points position he can claim.

I’m glad to see teams like Penske and Red Bull putting up some good competition for the usual title competitors. In 2008, the Chase was fought between cars exclusively from Roush, Hendrick, RCR and Gibbs.

I’m looking forward to seeing a little more variety this year, including Brian Vickers.

Truex passes a kidney stone, then races. Ouch!
Here’s Martin Truex’s score card for the weekend.
Finishing position in race -- 10th
Kidney stones passed -- 1

Kurt Busch may have taken the checkered flag, and done a pretty cool backwards-Polish victory lap celebration, but the real champ this weekend was Truex. I’ve never had the (dis)pleasure myself, but from what I’ve heard, passing a kidney stone is one of the most unpleasant experiences one can endure.

To follow that up with a top-10 is pretty impressive.

Will Kyle Busch ever become a fan favorite? Don’t bet on it

Every sport has a few guys like Kyle Busch.

They’re really, really good at what they do. The fans recognize this, and have respect for the athlete’s ability to dominate the competition on a regular basis.

But there’s one problem: They just don’t like the guy.

It all depends on how you view it as a fan. Are you rooting for the driver, about whom you have a positive opinion for whatever reason, or are you rooting for someone based on their level of driving ability.

In my experience, most of the time you become a fan because you like the driver personally, not what they do on the track. And when you look back at all the things Kyle Busch has said and done over the short number of years he has competed in the sport, it’s no surprise so many people curse his name.

It’s not just jealousy because he wins so much, because the number of people skewering 3-time champ Jimmie Johnson is far less than the number of people blasting on Busch every chance they get.

From what I can gauge, most fans view Kyle Busch as a smug jerk who is unnecessarily aggressive on the track and whose personality is everything but likable. They respect his ability to race and won’t challenge his talent level, but see no reason to ever root for him. It also doesn’t help in a popularity contest when you wreck the sport’s most popular driver, whether that’s fair or not.

Busch is not the first person to earn the dislike of so many fans. Darrell Waltrip was once viewed in similar fashion, after flapping his jaws one too many times.

Only those truly great at public relations can be both hero and villain. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was like this, as he both angered many fan with his aggressive driving and attracted many more with his engaging personality off the track.

Kyle has the aggressive driving part down, but the opposite of an engaging personality when he’s out of the car. This combination makes it unlikely he will ever be a fan favorite.

But then again, you never know. All these years since “Jaws” Waltrip was booed by so many people, that history has been erased for most new NASCAR fans who see him as the nice old guy who calls the races on Sunday.

When Kyle Busch’s career is done many years from now, 100 percent of fans will remember and respect his many wins and (likely) championships earned.

When they’re asked whether they’re a Kyle Busch fan, though, I’m guessing that number drops significantly.

Does Kyle even care whether people like him? Probably not. He’s making a good living and doing what he wants to do for a career. That’s more than many people can say.

But still, deep down, he probably wants more people to like him.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is Hendrick providing Mark Martin the tools to succeed? Only time will tell

Coming into 2009, Mark Martin was on a mission and thought he had the tools to achieve it.

A many-time runner up in the points standings, the well-respected Martin signed up with Hendrick Motorsports for one final year of full-time competition. His goals were clear: Win races and contend for the championship.

So far, things haven’t gone exactly as planned. Engine problems gave him two 40th place finishes the past two weeks and he is 34th in points, just a handful of points from dropping out of the top 35 altogether.

It’s safe to say that right now is the time for Martin to turn things around. Not next week, not the week after. By then it may be too late if wants to have a realistic hope of creeping up the standings and making the Chase.

He’s off to a good start, nabbing the pole for the Atlanta race. It was his first pole earned since 2001, and a message to his competitors that the past few weeks were an aberration. Now he has to back it up on Sunday.

No one doubts that Mark Martin has the talent and desire to compete for race wins and make the Chase. The question is whether the bad luck that has bit him his whole career will continue with his latest, and supposedly final, attempt at the Holy Grail. I had raised concerns prior to the season starting about whether the fourth Hendrick car, which has traditionally been an R&D car, would be adequately equipped for Martin for truly make a run at anything great. With the early failures, I’m afraid I may have been right.

I'm not saying Hendrick is sabotaging his own team ... that would just be stupid. But with three other huge names on the team that will be around much longer than Martin, logic would dictate that sometimes he's going to get the short end of the stick when it comes to choosing who gets the best parts.

I’m hoping I am wrong. I hope the early struggles are behind Mark and he’s ready to put on a great performance this Sunday and on many more weekends to come. If anyone can come back and string together some good finishes that put him on a path to the Chase, it’s Martin.

The question remains, though: Will the equipment allow him to do so.

Truck race a blast
The Truck race at Atlanta was won by Kyle Busch, but it was far from a bore. Throughout the race, Busch battled with Kevin Harvick and Todd Bodine, for the lead. The biggest shocker of all … there were occasions when someone actually passed passed Busch under green for the lead.

In addition to the great battle up front, the action was exciting through the field and the Truck Series proved once again that it’s some of the best NASCAR entertainment you’ll find. Assuming he can find sponsorship for the full year, it looks like Bodine will be among those battling for the Truck Series crown. On the other side, Johnny Benson has struggled this year, and will have to step up his game if he wants to defend his series title.

Busch should sweep weekend
Look for Kyle Busch to keep up his torrid pace in the early season and sweep both races at Atlanta. The defending race winner has momentum and one of the best cars on the track: That's a dangerous combination and I don't see anyone beating him on Sunday.

New girl in town
Competing in the Atlanta truck race was NASCAR’s next applicant for the Great Female Hope. Gabi DiCarlo, who has raced in the Hooters Pro Cup and ARCA series, made her second Truck Series start, finishing 24th. That follows up a 19th place finish at Fontana. Recent attempts by females to get successful in NASCAR, from Shawna Robinson to Chrissy Wallace, have all failed to take off. But you can bet that if DiCarlo starts to get closer to the top-10 with her finishes, the media will flock to her and so will sponsors. She’s young, female and attractive. If she can prove she has racing talent, she’ll have the full support of the bosses in Daytona as they hope a Danica-like figure will bring even more fans and sponsors to NASCAR.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Labonte, Reutimann show up big: Signs of things to come, or a fluke?

In the not too distant past, every time the Cup series went to Atlanta, there was one name no one counted out of contention: Bobby Labonte.

He has won six races at the track, and finished third three times. It is by far his best track on the circuit.

Now, coming off a surprise top-5 finish at Las Vegas that turned some heads, Labonte is heading back to the site of so much of his past success. He has struggled at Atlanta the past several years, missing the top-10 for the past five years, but this is a brand new era for Labonte.

If he can come out and put together another solid top-5 or top-10 run, he will be serving notice to the rest of the garage that he is not the driver who struggled mightily in a Petty Enterprises car the past few years. He is the driver who won a Cup championship in 2000 and is ready to get back to the business of competing for a trip to Victory Lane.

It will not be easy. The #96 Hall of Fame Racing was an anemic backmarker organization in 2008, and an alliance with Yates Racing was created this year to help change that. The addition of a top-notch driver like Labonte may have been the final piece of the recipe for success.

It’s possible the Vegas finish was a fluke and Labonte will return to mediocrity for the rest of the year, but I’ll be rooting for him. It’s always a nice story when a guy many have written off for dead sees a career resurrection, and Labonte may be on that path.

Another surprise at Vegas was the 4th-place finish for Michael Waltrip Racing’s David Reutimann, who is now ranked fifth in points. Reutimann has shown promise in the past, including some very solid runs at the end of 2008, but it’s looking like this could be his breakout year.

The success of MWR is one of the most surprising stories this season. The team struggled mightily when it first began competing in Cup, but it appears things are getting on track at Waltrip’s organization. If Reutimann can continue to put up solid finishes, there’s a chance he could spoil the day for one of the bigger teams (Roush, Hendrick, etc.) by knocking one of their drivers out of the Chase.

But it’s far too early to tell if that will happen. In order to be in that top 12 come the end of the fall Richmond race, you have to be consistently good. By setting such a high standard for himself this early in the season, the pressure is now on Reutimann to prove he belongs at this party and shouldn’t be kicked out.

I wish him luck, as it won’t be easy.

Good finish for Jr.
There was very little talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday, and he’s probably fine with that. With an endless stream of wrecks happening around him, Jr. was able to end the day with a top-10 finish and move up from 35th to 29th in points. It’s not where he wants to be, but at least he’s on the way up after a disastrous first two races.

Hell of a save, Jamie
I have to give a shout-out to Jamie McMurray for the awesome save he pulled off during the race on Sunday. After getting a little nudge, his car was so sideways for so long I thought I was watching a World of Outlaws race. I guarantee most drivers would have ruined that car in that situation, but Jamie somehow kept it off the wall.

Rookies rebound
Both rookie contenders, Scott Speed and Joey Logano, got their seasons stabilized with their best runs of the season. Logano clocked in 13th and Speed was 21st, much better than the terrible runs the two had in the first two races. Maybe now the early-season jitters are going away we’ll see them start to compete with each other and the rest of the field on a more regular basis.

Bad week for motors
Jack Roush’s cars are usually among the cars dominating at Vegas, but something else happened Sunday: His motors were blowing up. First, Matt Kenseth’s quest for history was derailed by a bad motor, then David Ragan exploded. Finally, with the race a couple laps from being over, Carl Edwards’s motor expired.
The remaining two Roush cars were able to salvage top-10 finishes.

Last week it was Hendrick motors blowing, and that was determined to be due to faulty parts. Considering how rare it is for Roush motors to blow, perhaps they were victims of a similar situation.

Even Toyota had motor issues this week, but their trouble came during qualifying and practice, and it appears they figured out the problem and got it fixed by race time.

Points watch
What’s the benefit of winning the first two races of the year? You can finish dead last in the next race and still be third in points, like Matt Kenseth.

Tony Stewart has his first weak run of the year, but still stayed in the Chase, dropping to 8th place.

Jimmie Johnson is still out of the Chase after wrecking Sunday, but don’t worry: He’ll be there soon enough.

Some of the biggest surprises are up top. Jeff Gordon, winless last year, leads the points. Clint Bowyer climbed to second in points after a bold move not to pit toward the end of Sunday‘s race.

On the other end, Joey Logano jumps into the top 35, while Scott Speed is lurking in 36th, poised to jump in with another solid run next week.

Meanwhile, Mark Martin’s bad day left him on the brink of falling out of the top 35. That’s not exactly what the man expected, considering he thought he could be a title contender. Also, Ryan Newman is still struggling mightily and hasn’t had a good run yet.

Morgan Shepherd, Brian Keselowski are good surprises in predictable Nationwide series

When the year started in the Nationwide Series, and it became known that both Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch would complete full series runs in both Cup and Nationwide, there was little doubt among fans of the sport that this once exciting series would once again become a playground for Cup stars battling for titles they don’t need … and Busch or Edwards would become the Nationwide champ.

But if you look a little further down in the standings, there are stories worth following in the series. It appears some Nationwide drivers will at least provide some competition for the Cup interlopers, most notably Brendan Gaughan, Rusty Wallace’s new driver this year, and the young but impressive Justin Allgaier, who looked at times like he had a car that could win on Saturday in Vegas.

Then there are the underdog success stories that serve as inspiration for anyone considering an attempt at a full season in this series. Most notably, the nearly 70-year-old Morgan Shepherd and the up-and-coming Michigan-based driver Brian Keselowski are both achieving a level of success that makes it hard to believe they’re doing it with just a handful of family and close friends.

Prior to the season starting, Brian told me his goals were to shoot for top 15 finishes, make all the races and reach the top 30 in the point standings so he’d be guaranteed a spot in future races. After three races, while he still has a couple more weeks where he’ll have to qualify on speed, Keselowski has lived up to those expectations, having gotten finishes of 25th, 29th and 19th. At Vegas this weekend, he managed to stay out of trouble on a day it seemed half the competitors forgot how to drive and a record number of laps were run under yellow.

The most amazing statistic: Brian sits 23rd in points, just one position (and exactly 1 point) behind his brother Brad, who drives a car that is fully sponsored, is tended to by a garage full of mechanics, and is owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick. Meanwhile, Brian has almost no sponsor support and went down to Daytona to start the season with just his father, his uncle and a few guys working for them. He may not be running in the top 5, but just reaching this level is an impressive achievement for Brian. If he can manage to make the next two races and stay clear of trouble, he’ll get that guaranteed starting spot and be able to breathe easier on qualifying day the rest of the year.

Not too shabby, I must say.

Meanwhile, an even bigger success so far this year is Morgan Shepherd, who was racing cars long before Brian Keselowski was even born. He is a former Cup star who was born in 1941, yet still has the racing bug and has no plans of quitting despite his advanced age. He also operates his own team, with a little help from family and friends, but nowhere near the support the big teams have each week. If you walk by his area in the garage, you’ll usually see his head under the engine, not an employee. That’s how it goes when you only have a few people working for you.

So where did Morgan finish Saturday in Vegas? -- 13th. That follows up a 19th place finish at California. In the points, he has climbed now to 19th place. Even if he struggles the next couple weeks, he’ll still have a shot at making the top 30 and getting that guaranteed spot. When Shepherd starting running in the series, many thought he was content to just ride around and relive his glory days. But this year has shown that Shepherd is no slouch on the race track, even though he’s racing against competitors up to 50 years younger than him. He is not just making laps … he’s battling just as hard as everyone else on the track, and working harder than all of them back in the garage.

Everyone should take the time to root for drivers like Shepherd and Keselowski in the Nationwide Series, as it gives you something to do besides watch Cup drivers like Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards dominate in a series where they really don’t belong. These underdogs put everything into their race teams, and it’s a very good thing when they finally achieve some solid results despite the odds they face.