Well, we have now had five races in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup series and believe it or not, five different winners. That hasn’t happened in a very long time, and it really has been amazing to watch.
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The other really unique thing is the tracks themselves, because all five on which the races have been run are completely different.
We went from the two-and-a-half mile high banks of Daytona International Speedway, to the much flatter 1-mile track out in Phoenix, to the one-and-a-half mile Las Vegas track, then came the high-banked half-mile of Bristol Motor Speedway and then finally, last Sunday was the wide 2-mile track at Fontana, Calif.
There is one common denominator of these first five races and it’s what I call the Big Three. It looks to me like if anyone is going to win they will have to get around Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch first.
Now sure, Trevor Bayne won at Daytona and Jeff Gordon won at Phoenix International Raceway, but so far, week in and week out, Jimmie, Carl and Kyle are up front and consistent.
Those three try to win max points every weekend – that’s dominate the weekend by leading the most laps and winning the race. More drivers need to buy into that mentality. The new insurance policy of having wins will probably get you into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, that is a real unique factor we’ve never had before.
It’s a new year with a new points system. You have to alter your thinking and not just rely on how you did it in the past. The Chase field will now be set with the top 10 in points and two drivers with the most wins who are 11h through 20th in points will get the final wild-card slots. That’s why you are seeing so many guys go hard for wins so early this year. It is because winning is now more important than ever.
For example, Jeff Gordon is 16th in the points. However, because of his win at Phoenix, he would be in the Chase if they were to set the field right now since he is inside the top 20. Remember with this new system, the top 10 in points will make the Chase, with two wild-card slots rounding out the field to 12. So with his win, Jeff would get one of those wild-card slots and Kasey Kahne would get the other. Now Kasey doesn’t have a win yet this season, but because nobody else ranked 11th-20th has one, he is the highest driver in points and would get the Chase spot.
Now sure, it is a long way to go and the new tighter points system will make for big swings. Numbers from past years tell us that if you aren’t up front in the points after five races, the chances of making the Chase are slim. Now this added dimension of winning getting you into the Chase is so important.
Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman have impressed me so far this year with the way they bounced back from a mediocre 2010. Tony, in particular, has been in position to win a couple of races already, including last Sunday in Fontana. He was sitting there at the end of the race and I thought he had a good shot of winning it.
Unfortunately, just like at Daytona, when they dropped the green flag on that late restart, Tony went backwards. He ended up finishing 13th and that was really hard to believe when you consider how well he was running before that last caution came out.
His teammate, Ryan, has quietly put together a solid season so far. He already has four top-fivefinishes this year. Now what is impressive about that is Ryan only had something like five top-5 finishes in the entire 2010 season. So the Stewart-Haas teams are running really consistent now.
You’ve heard us talk about Carl Edwards. Jimmie Johnson is proving early on he is going to be as tough as ever. If you are a Kyle Busch fan, you have to be really proud of that young man. Not only is he up front and winning in everything thing he drives, but he has turned himself around 180 degrees.
You can see the change in his interviews. He is humble and considerate. He’s not complaining and always mad about something. He’s just a completely different guy. A lot of people want to give the credit to his new wife, Samantha. A good woman standing beside you will make a big difference in your life, trust me I know from first-hand experience.
I also think you have to give credit to his owner, Coach Joe Gibbs, J.D. Gibbs and crew chief Dave Rogers. I have seen a change actually since the fall Texas race. That’s when Dave Rogers came on the radio after Kyle had his meltdown on pit road and flipped off the NASCAR official. Dave told Kyle he was killing the team for as hard as they had worked for him and I think Kyle took that to heart.
You also can’t discount how team ownership has helped to round off some of Kyle’s rough edges. As you know, he has his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team that actually won the owner’s championship last year in its very first year of existence. I think having to work with potential sponsors constantly as he searches for sponsorship has shown Kyle how his behavior in the past has hurt him.
So I think the combination of the team, owner, wife and team ownership have sent a clear message to Kyle that he needed to change. I believe he has taken it to heart and I applaud him for that.
So again in my book you have Jimmie, Carl and Kyle. They seem to be the ones you have to beat every week. It will be an interesting storyline to follow to see if anyone can rise up to that level and join that club.
Overall, though, the racing has been great and the finishes have been extraordinary. You had 20-year-old rookie Trevor Bayne holding off veteran Carl Edwards. In Phoenix, you had Jeff Gordon banging on Kyle Busch to take the win and break a 66-race winless streak. Las Vegas saw Tony Stewart trying valiantly to overcome a problem on pit road and try to beat Carl Edwards. He didn’t quite get there but who didn’t love Tony’s postrace interview where he proclaimed, “Second sucks.”
The high banked half-mile of Bristol then gave us a classic battle between Kyle, Carl and Jimmie. That’s the kind of battle I love watching. Then last Sunday we were in Fontana. You had Kyle dominating all day but when it came to the end, you had Jimmie in the mix and out of nowhere Kevin Harvick comes out on top.
Now this weekend we head to the paperclip – Martinsville Speedway. That’s a track that Denny Hamlin has dominated. If ever there was a driver that needed one of those max-point weekends it would be Denny. He unfortunately let the 2010 championship slip away in the last two races last year and his luck this year has been nothing better than horrible.
I think that team is really struggling with its confidence right now and Martinsville simply might be just what the doctor ordered. Don’t forget that another of Denny’s favorite tracks – Richmond – is only four weeks after Martinsville, so that’s another positive thing the team can look forward to.
So my point to you is, don’t count Denny Hamlin and that No. 11 team out yet. They are too good from top to bottom to be kept from running up front too long.
Martinsville another different style racetrack this weekend, so I see no reason why we couldn’t go six for six in the winner category. Again, this is the most exciting start to a season I can ever remember and I just don’t see it changing.