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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Curse of the frontrunner hitting Denny Hamlin as reliability issues continue

After his near-championship in 2010, Denny Hamlin was widely picked as the guy who will come out in 2011 and topple Jimmie Johnson. But just as prior anointed ones have done, he is falling flat on his face so far this year.

And unfortunately for Denny, it may not be anything he can change. The biggest concern for him has been reliability of his cars. (which is odd considering how well teammate Kyle Busch is running.)

"It looked like something in the valve train,” Hamlin said after his car troubles took him out of race Sunday and dipping him way down in the points. “Obviously, we've got pistons beat up pretty good. It's tough to say what
exactly came first, what problem came first but it's definitely internal where it ended our day."

Rightfully so, Hamlin said he is concerned about the engine reliability issues coming from the Gibbs cars this season.

"At this point, yeah, now it's starting to affect me. I'm worried a little bit more. It's frustrating because you want to do the best you can each week and Mike (Ford, crew chief) and the team did a great job setting up the car and we had a fast car. It doesn't matter in the end if you can't finish the way you're supposed to. … We definitely need to get some solid finishes. We need to prove at this point we can finish a race."

If these issues continue to come up, with the new points system it’s harder to climb in the points, so Hamlin may end up relying on wins to make the Chase. If he can come through at Martinsville, Pocono and other places where he traditionally has been strong, he would be able to get in the Chase as a wild card via those wins even if he’s nowhere near 10th in points.

That’s all far away of course, and a string of good runs would get Hamlin in the Chase the traditional way, but I know one thing – Hamlin is probably wishing he wasn’t anointed the front-runner by so many people – it only shines more of a light on his disappointing 2011 start.

Roush teams find way to get good finishes
While they weren’t the class of the field and didn’t make the headlines, several Roush drivers did a solid job of ending the day well at Fontana, finishing 4th (Kenseth), 6th (Edwards) and 11th (Greg Biffle).
Edwards, who is still the points leader, seemed surprised with how well he finished.

“For our Aflac team to come out of here leading the points is big considering how we ran all day,” Edwards said. “We really weren’t that good. Congrats to those guys that battled up front. They put on a good show.”

Kenseth said his crew chief had a big part in his top-5 run.

“The last two weeks Jimmy and these guys have made some great adjustments and had our Crown Royal Ford the best it has been all day at the end of the race which is important. It is a good day for us. You are always greedy and want more. I was the first guy on tires and I didn’t do probably as good a job as I needed to on the restart. It just took awhile to get there.”

Stenhouse in Nationwide points lead
Under the new points system in Nationwide, even though the Cup guys are still winning all the races (correction; Kyle Busch is still winning all the races), the points go to the Nationwide guys. And the winner so far is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose 2010 was quite the opposite of good.

Young Ricky is putting on a great show in the #6 car, despite not having full sponsorship for the year, and is leading Jason Leffler, Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola, Elliott Sadler, Trevor Bayne, Reed Sorenson, Kenny Wallace, Brian Scott and Mike Bliss.

Stenhouse said he’s a fan of the new points setup, which he says helps the Nationwide regulars push even that much harder
“The Championship format, I like it. I think Nationwide Insurance has done an awesome job of making our own identity. I feel like looking at the races, I don’t know if it is the new points system getting in our minds that a Nationwide regular is going to win the championship, but it seems like the regulars have been in the top five and running strong. I think it has upped the competition and everyone is trying a little harder,” Stenhouse said.

Fun fact of the week
This is pretty crazy, considering that 43 drivers take to the track every week, but apparently Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win the last NINE races at Martinsville. Quite frankly, this is pretty nuts … if you have a fantasy team, I would definitely go with one of these guys … or both if possible.

Trevor Bayne talks about ‘Idol’ experience
Since winning the Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne has done a lot of cool things, and he can add a visit to ‘American Idol’ to that list.

“Man, that was awesome. I have gotten to do some really cool things recently but last night ranks right up there. I was so excited when I found out that I was getting to go and check it out,” Bayne said. “We got to sit in the front row right behind the judges and witness it. I got to see Stevie Wonder perform and Hulk Hogan was there and then the judges used their save deal to save Casey and the whole thing was so dramatic, it was crazy.”

Bayne said he got to meet some of the judges, too, which was a bit of a surprise.
“I got to meet Jennifer Lopez and her husband Marc Anthony, which was really awesome. I got to meet Randy Jackson too. The cool part to me is not that I got to meet them, but that they actually wanted to meet me. That blows my mind. I mean that is Jennifer Lopez and she wanted to meet me? It is just crazy,” he said.

Logano, McMurray struggling
The biggest surprises in the standings continue to be some guys who should be much higher, but have struggled mightily so far in 2011. Both Jamie McMurray, who won all those big races a year ago, and Joey Logano – who has yet to live up some people’s expectations – are hovering near 30th in the points. These guys were expected to contend for the Chase, and they’re nowhere near that level of performance so far. Barring them getting some wins and making the Chase that way, it’s not looking good for either of these drivers in 2011.

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