National Series News And Notes 2011-04-21

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NASCAR weekly news and notes

They’re Baaack: Powerhouse Hendrick Reminds Foes Of Strength

Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Mark Martin, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Mark Martin, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Ashley Dickerson, ASP Inc.

Mum has been the word for much of Hendrick Motorsports’ 2011 season thus far.

Until Talladega. Until the mega-team dropped all four of its drivers in the top 10, including race-winner Jimmie Johnson. Until the team started the Talladega race 1-2-3-4, becoming only the third team in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history to sweep the first four starting spots.

Prior to Talladega, Hendrick has lurked in the background, almost playing a rope-a-dope of sorts.

Only one Hendrick Motorsports driver had won a race – Jeff Gordon at Phoenix – and 16 of its 28 finishes had been outside the top 10. Three of its drivers – Gordon, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – finished outside the top 20 in the Daytona 500.

But seemingly one race cures all ills. At Talladega, Johnson won; Gordon was third; Earnhardt fourth and Mark Martin eighth. All were within .145 seconds of Johnson at the stripe.

All four drivers have an interesting subplot within their team:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: With his fourth-place finish, Earnhardt vaulted to third in the points standings, his highest standing this late in the season since 2008. He now has two top fives and five top 10s, which match the total he had all of 2009.

Jimmie Johnson: His season is on a similar course as past years. He sits second in the points, and has now been the points leader or second after eight races in three consecutive seasons.

Jeff Gordon: The Phoenix win aside, the four-time champion has mostly struggled. Only once has he had a worse points position after eight races than his current rank of 13th – in 1994 when he was 14th (He was also 13th after eight races in 2008.).

Mark Martin: An accident at Texas derailed Martin’s season a bit, but otherwise the veteran has been holding steady. Though his 14th-place points position is his lowest after eight races since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, five of his eight finishes have been in the top 15.

No Bet: 2011 Season Anybody’s Guess

Throw all analysis out the window. This season remains wide open.

Seven different drivers have won the first eight races this season. That’s the most competitively balanced start to a season since 2003, when nine different drivers won the first nine races.

That stat is part of a handful of interesting numbers, facts and figures this season. For instance…

• Four of the eight races have either set or tied a lead change record, including Talladega which tied an all-time NASCAR record of 88 lead changes.

• There has been an average of 14.6 leaders per race, most through eight races in series history.

• There has been an average of 38.5 lead changes per race, most through eight races in series history.

• There has been an average of 4,511 green flag passes all around the track per race, most through eight races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.

• There has been an average of 54 green flag passes for the lead all around the track per race, most through eight races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Ashley Dickerson, ASP Inc.

Put On A Happy Face: Positive Attitude Has Montoya Back In Title Contention

Call it a tale of two seasons. Three, actually.

Juan Pablo Montoya put in two full seasons of hard work before finally qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2009, in which he ultimately finished eighth.

It was effectively a break-out season for the native Colombian.

Then there was last year. Despite winning his second career race at Watkins Glen International and adding three Coors Light Poles, Montoya was up and down in yo-yo fashion.

A Driver Rating of 90.9, 11th best among all drivers, couldn’t offset the reality of eight DNFs – just one fewer than 2008 when he finished 25th in the standings. Last season’s struggles landed him 17th in the final points standings.

Some of Montoya’s travails could be assigned to bad luck of the wrong-place, wrong time variety. But the driver agrees that a bit of anger management has helped return him to his current ninth-place championship ranking.

“I said ‘If I can get out of here without screaming on the radio or screaming at somebody, I did a really good job,’” said Montoya prior to the most recent race. “That is what we are doing. Trying to run smarter. Learn to pick your battles.”

You might consign Talladega Superspeedway’s race to the character-building category. Montoya appeared headed for at least a top-10 finish until contact with a competitor damaged his car’s right-front suspension.

Still, Montoya can point at a pair of top fives – the best a third at Las Vegas – among four top 10s along with laps led in three races as proof the new approach works.

“I think I put myself, a lot of times, in bad positions and it didn’t help [last season],” said the 39-year-old Miami resident. “[Now] even if we get bad breaks in a race, we are like ‘Don’t worry about, we’ll go through this … make it work.’ And we always do.

"I think when things go wrong, you start over-doing things and it keeps getting worse and you are making the hole bigger. I did that last year, at least personally.”

The bottom line? The points confirm that Montoya and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team are back on track.

Deep Breath: No Need To Panic…Yet

There’s reason for optimism for the likes of Denny Hamlin, who – if the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup began today – would fail to make NASCAR’s playoffs.

The season has yet to reach the quarter pole. Read: It’s still early.

In 2005, Matt Kenseth charged back from 28th-place after eight races to make the Chase – which was then made up of only 10 drivers. That’s the furthest back after eight races any driver has come to make the Chase.

Hamlin knows a few things about charging up the standings after a slow start. In his rookie year of 2006, Hamlin sat 18th in points after eight races. By regular season’s end, he made the 10-driver Chase, finishing third in the final standings.

But an even juicer Chase angle – the Wild Card spot.

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Ashley Dickerson, ASP Inc.

After race No. 26 at Richmond, the top 10 drivers in the points standings will earn Chase berths. Spots 11 and 12 will go to the drivers with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20.

Hamlin has nine career victories at the remaining tracks between now and the Chase (see adjoining graphic). And two of his favorite tracks – Pocono and Richmond – lie in wait. Both tracks have two races apiece between now and the Chase’s start.

NSCS Etc. … Up Next: Richmond International Raceway

NASCAR will make its first of two stops this season at Richmond International Raceway for the Crown Royal Presents The Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 on April 30. The event provides ample opportunity for teams to prepare for the next time the series stops at Richmond, which is inarguably one of the most important races on the schedule – the cutoff race before the Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup. … There have been 109 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races held at Richmond International Raceway. Richard Petty leads the series in wins (13), and among active drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson are all tied for the most wins with three each. … While Chevrolet leads the series in wins at Richmond with 34, Toyota has won the last four consecutive races at the 0.75-mile track. … Three drivers have an average finish of 10th or better at Richmond: Kyle Busch (5.2), Denny Hamlin (8.0) and Clint Bowyer (9.8). … Several NASCAR drivers are making an early return to Richmond International Raceway in preparation for the Thursday, April 28 Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown: Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Hermie Sadler. Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell, Curtis Markham and Jason White are confirmed to hit the track Wednesday from noon to 6:00 p.m. Grandstands are free and open to the public by accessing Gate 70. … Country music artist Rodney Atkins will honor military hero United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant (SSgt.) Matthew Hansen in an hour-long concert prior to the Crown Royal Presents The Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday, April 30.

Stand-Alone Season Opens Door For Series Regulars

The next stop on the schedule is Nashville Superspeedway for the Nashville 300. The event marks the first stand-alone race of the season and a solid chance for the series regulars to get their first win of the season.

There are eight races this season where the series is either the main attraction or shares billing with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (as it does this weekend) or one of NASCAR’s touring series.

Fewer double duty drivers could mean better opportunities for series regulars to nab the thus far elusive 2011 win. Not since 2008, when Brad Keselowski (then driving for JR Motorsports) won the fall event at Nashville, has a series regular been able to capture the checkered flag at the 1.333-mile track. Two-time series champion Kevin Harvick is the defending winner, however he isn’t entered this time around. Instead, Richard Childress’ grandson and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular Austin Dillon will run the Kevin Harvick Inc. No. 33 car.

Of the series regulars this season Reed Sorenson is cut above the rest at Nashville. He has the best average finish amongst series regulars with a 9.1. He has made six starts at Nashville posting one win (2005 – his first career series win), three top fives and four top 10s. He is the highest-ranked series regular in the pre-race Driver Rating with 109.5.

There are five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regulars making double duty appearances at this first stand-alone race. Of the four, Carl Edwards has had the most success at Nashville, posting a series-high three wins (2006-’07). Brad Keselowski is not far behind Edwards with two wins (2008, ’10), followed by Kyle Busch with one (2009). Joey Logano and David Reutimann are also running this weekend at Nashville.

Jason Leffler
Jason Leffler

Photo by: Ashley Dickerson, ASP Inc.

Leffler Back On Top Of Standings With Teammate Allgaier Nipping At His Heels

Turner Motorsports continues to command the driver standings. This week Jason Leffler sits atop the standings just two points ahead of his teammate, Justin Allgaier. This is Leffler’s second time as the points leader in 2011. Thus far, he has an average finish of 10.7, having posted three top-10 finishes.

Leffler has endured an up-and-down career at Nashville. With an average finish is 18.1, Leffler has made 12 starts posting one win (2004 – his first series career win), four top fives and six top 10s – to go along with four DNFs.

Allgaier has a pole and two top-five finishes in his last two races at Nashville. This is the closest he has been to the lead this year, having fought back from his 18th-place ranking – 24 points behind first place – following the season-opener at Daytona.

Allgaier has posted one top five and four top 10s this season.

Veteran Joe Nemechek Continues To Shine Amongst Young Stars

While a lot of the focus has been put on the new faces of the series this season, veterans like Joe Nemechek continue to shine. The 1992 series champion, who is one of many veterans making a run at the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship this season, is 10th in the points, 64 points behind Jason Leffler. It is the fourth time this year he’s been ranked in the top 10.

Two weeks ago at Texas, Nemechek started his 900th national series race, one of only 10 drivers among that select group. And now, Nemechek, 47, comes off a third-place finish at Talladega. It was Nemechek’s best finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series since 2004 when he won at Kansas.

“It was really fun,” Nemechek said. “It has been a long time since I have had a good run like that. It was good to get back up front and run with the guys who are winning every week. I had a blast, it was a lot of fun, one for the old guys,” said Nemechek.

This season Nemechek has posted one top five and three top-15 finishes. He has an average finish of 20.0 after the first seven races of the season. His season-to-date Driver Rating is 63.9 which is up 2.7 points from his 2010 season-to-date Driver Rating (61.2) after the first seven races.

NNS Etc. – Nashville Superspeedway

After posting his 47th NASCAR Nationwide Series career win this past weekend at Talladega, Kyle Busch, finds himself just two wins shy of Mark Martin’s all-time series wins record of 49 victories. … Only two drivers have won at Nashville Superspeedway from the pole: Kyle Busch (2009) and Reed Sorenson (2005). … Nashville Superspeedway will play host to a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series driver autograph session scheduled for Friday, April 22 at 1 p.m. in the Expo area located outside Gate 3 at Nashville Superspeedway. … The Countdown to 500 continues. Kenny Wallace will be making his 496th series start at Nashville Superspeedway this weekend.

We had a long talk over the winter with everybody (on the team) and let them know everybody is expecting us to stub our toes (in 2011)

Rick Ren

KBM’s Goal: Avoid Sophomore Slump

Nobody wants to be seen as a one-hit wonder.

As Kyle Busch Motorsports heads into the anniversary of its first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at Nashville Superspeedway, General Manager and Competition Director Rick Ren believes – so far, anyway – the team is avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump.

“We had a long talk over the winter with everybody (on the team) and let them know everybody is expecting us to stub our toes (in 2011),” said Ren, whose team became just the second to win the series owners’ championship in its first season.

There’s no sign the organization has stumbled into the current season. Busch won February’s race at Phoenix International Raceway. Kasey Kahne repeated as a winner at Darlington Raceway last month.

No surprise: KBM is the owners’ championship leader heading into Friday night’s Bully Hill Vineyards 200. The No. 18 Toyota has a 14 point lead over Kevin Harvick Inc.’s No. 2 Chevrolet team.

Ren admitted the team lost some good personnel over the winter but promotion from within has kept the organization on track.

“Everybody’s focus is on winning races in 2011,” he said. “We’ve achieved that and it’s a pretty good thing.”

Only one other owner has won consecutive titles: Steve Coulter in 2002-03, with Mike Bliss and Travis Kvapil.

No Doubting That Four Nashville Winners Are Favorites Again

You don’t have to dig to pick a favorite for Friday night’s Bully Hill 200 at Nashville Superspeedway. Three have won NASCAR Camping World Truck titles. The fourth is the hottest driver across NASCAR’s three national series.

• Ron Hornaday Jr. won the race in 2009, which was his record-setting fifth consecutive NCWTS victory.

• Todd Bodine is the 1.333-mile concrete oval’s latest winner, in August of last season.

• Travis Kvapil won in 2007 driving for Roush Fenway Racing.

• Kyle Busch won last spring’s Bully Hills Vineyards 200 and already has posted six NASCAR national series victories in 2011. Busch, who’ll be doing double duty this weekend, won the NASCAR Nationwide Series summer race in 2009.

Hornaday and Busch can call themselves kings of concrete having won NCWTS races on all three concrete-surfaced tracks: Nashville, Bristol Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway.

The series’ three championship leaders – Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Timothy Peters – have yet to win at Nashville. Peters has finished fourth in his last three Nashville starts while Sauter owns a pair of runner-up finishes in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. David Reutimann is the only driver to score his first NCWTS victory at the track.

Previous Guaranteed Starters Now On Outside Looking In

With four races in the book, the 2010 season is officially closed. The locked-in teams for Nashville rank among the top 25 in current owners’ championship points.

Nine teams previously guaranteed starting positions under final 2010 points are ranked 26-34 in Nashville.

It’s quite likely this week’s race will see more changes. Positions 26 through 28 – the No. 23 of Steve Urvan, No. 39 of Susan Bates and No. 51 of Billy Ballew – are within two points of the current final locked in team – Ballew’s No. 15.

NCWTS Etc.

Friday’s race marks the 200th broadcast of NCWTS by SPEED. The network came aboard for the 2003 season opener in Daytona. …Only two rookies, Kurt Busch and Scott Speed, have won series races on concrete surfaces, both at Dover. … Three drivers, Busch, Austin Dillon and Elliott Sadler will compete in both NASCAR Camping World Truck and NASCAR Nationwide series races in Nashville. … Sauter’s start this week will mark the 500th NASCAR national series race with which former California Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, president of Curb Records, has been affiliated. Curb has fielded winning entries with Sauter (in NNS and NCWTS) and Richard Petty (NSCS wins No. 199 and 200). … Friday’s race sponsor is no stranger to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series having presented 1999-2000 races at Watkins Glen International won by Ron Fellows and Greg Biffle.

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Series NASCAR-CUP , NASCAR-NS , NASCAR-TRUCK
Tags earnhardt jr. mark martin, hendrick, jeff gordon, jimmie johnson, montoya, nationwide, sprint cup