Only four races into the 2011 Sprint Cup season and we have seen great racing, at four different track layouts, with four different drivers pulling into Victory Lane. Trevor Bayne at Daytona (the super-speedway), Jeff Gordon at Phoenix (1 mile tri-oval), Carl Edwards at Las Vegas (1.5 mile oval track) and the most recent winner, Kyle Busch at Bristol (short track).
As we move West to California, which drivers will stand out? Will Jimmie Johnson win back to back races at his hometown track or will another driver triumph. Here is an overview on how some of the drivers are doing thus far in the season:
Carl Edwards- After completing the 2010 season with back to back wins, Edwards came into the 2011 season with new found confidence. Edwards said in his interview following his Las Vegas win, “… this is the best start to a season I’ve ever had. You know, Daytona could have gone any way. There was a lot of luck involved with our good finish at Daytona. But Phoenix, that was a very strong performance from everyone. We had a little bit of bad luck there. Today I felt like we had a solid top-three car all day. That’s three different types of racetracks with success on all three. I’m really excited about this season. This is a great start.” Edwards finished 2nd in Bristol, putting himself 2nd in points trailing by just one point to Kurt Busch.
Kyle Busch- Kyle Busch began his season with an 8th place finish at Daytona and a strong running in Phoenix, finishing 2nd. The Busch brothers went into their hometown with the points lead, 1st and 2nd with Kyle leading and Kurt in 2nd. Busch was running strong in Las Vegas until a blown engine on lap 107. Kyle Busch bounced back at Bristol Motor Speedway by not only winning the Nationwide race, but also the Jeff Byrd 500 on Sunday for the weekend sweep. Kyle Busch is currently 6th in the Sprint Cup standings.
Kurt Busch- Kurt Busch is the only driver to score top 10′s at each of the first four races, giving him sole possession of the points lead. After winning both the Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade Duel, Kurt Busch has struggled to return to Victory lane and showed his displeasure over the team radio at Bristol. When asked why he was upset during the race, Kurt answered, “”We just want to get up there and try to win one of these things,” he said. “We’ll keep pushing hard.” Kurt Busch looks to maintain his points lead with a strong finish at the Auto Club Speedway, where his average finish is 12.7.
Paul Menard- Menard is quite possibly the most overlooked driver and finds himself sitting 5th in points trailing by only -14. Menard signed a multi-year deal with Richard Childress Racing (RCR), joining Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton. Newly acquired Menard is the highest ranked RCR driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings following his impressive 5th place finish at Bristol despite losing a cylinder around Lap 200.
Stewart-Haas Racing- Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are currently 3rd and 4th in the point standings, respectively. Stewart left Las Vegas with the points lead (tied with Kurt Busch but had the higher finish) after a strong 2nd place finish. In the interview after the Kobalt Tools 400, Stewart showed his dissatisfaction by saying, “I honestly think we had the car to beat today, we just gave it away…. just shot ourselves in the foot two weeks in a row now.” Stewart was referring to the penalty his team suffered on lap 151 for “removing equipment from assigned pit area.” Ryan Newman’s back to back top 5 finishes followed by a top 10 finish in the Jeff Byrd 500 put him in 4th place in the point standings. In just their 3rd year as a team, Stewart-Haas Racing is showing a very strong start towards not only an owners championship, but also a Sprint Cup series championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.- The fan’s favorite driver is back to his winning ways (well just about). During the off-season, Hendrick Motorsports swapped crew chiefs (minus Chad Knaus) and Earnhardt Jr. found himself working with Steve Letarte. This change immediately showed promising results with Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole for the Daytona race (which he later lost due to a wreck in practice). Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte have constantly improved their finishes, scoring their first top 10 of the season in Las Vegas and a 9th place finish in Bristol. Earnhardt Jr. is currently 9th in points heading into race weekend in Fontana, California.
Brad Keselowski- Keselowski arrived in 2011 with a new number and new sponsors. He is now driving the #2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger for Penske Racing (same team). With the new look, he was hoping for new results starting with Daytona. A late wreck involving Robby Gordon ended Keselowski’s day with a 29th place finish. At Phoenix, Brad Keselowski bounced back after suffering minor damage, going down a lap and ultimately receiving the “Lucky Dog” to finish 15th. In Las Vegas, Keselowski suffered a blown tire in the Nationwide race, turning his 1st place finish into a 3rd. The terrible luck continued on into Sunday as the team couldn’t get the car to handle properly. Keselowski finished 26th in Vegas and went on to finish 18th at Bristol after being involved in an early wreck. Keselowski currently sits 21st in the point standings heading into Fontana, which he will make just his 3rd start at the track in the Sprint Cup series.
Joe Gibbs Racing- It’s quite clear that Joe Gibbs Racing is experiencing early trouble in 2011, mainly due to engine failure. First it was Joey Logano’s engine in Phoenix, followed by Denny Hamlin’s engine having to be replaced before the start of the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas, Nevada. During the Las Vegas race, Busch’s engine blew up after running strong all race. Struggles for Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano continued in Bristol, with Hamlin being collected in an early crash (finished 33rd). Logano had constant power issues throughout the race but perservered until his wheel broke (finished 23rd). Joe Gibbs Racing must bounce back strong and have all three cars dialed this weekend in the Auto Club 400.
Richard Childress Racing- Looking at the points standings, the only RCR driver in the top 10 is Paul Menard, the newest edition to the team. Kevin Harvick now finds himself sitting 15th in the point standings after a hard fought battle in Bristol, finishing 6th. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton are 24th and 29th in the point standings, respectively. What is the deal with RCR? Just like Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing is having engine issues at each and every race. Whether it be Harvick at Daytona or Bowyer at Bristol, these engine malfunctions are putting them in a hole which will be very difficult to rebound from with the new points system.
Danica Patrick- Danica scored her career best finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Daytona (14th) and went on to finish 17th in Phoenix. Going into Las Vegas, Patrick had more confidence than ever and it showed. She finished 4th in Sam’s Town 300 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Highest finish by a female driver in any NASCAR national series). I’m not one to use her gender for or against her, simply because I feel that it is irrelevant to the sport itself as well as everyday life. My concern with Patrick has to do with her actions at Bristol this past weekend. While making her debut at Bristol, she was involved in a wreck with Ryan Truex, and didn’t handle it appropriately. First of all, Truex got loose, simple as that. To avoid making contact with the wall, he moved down on Patrick slightly and made contact with her, sending her into the wall. She immediately got out of her car to show her dissatisfaction with Truex (Before looking at any monitors/replays). The passion she showed was admirable (no one wants to get wrecked), but was this the right time to show it? My second issue with Patrick is the fact that she is returning to Indy Car after competing in only four races in the 2011 Nationwide season, when she was finally beginning to show potential. Does she expect NASCAR fans to support her and respect her as a NASCAR driver if she constantly goes back and forth?