Earnhardt’s Points Lead Breaks New Ground
Being No. 1 is nothing new for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But becoming the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader, which he accomplished with a second-place finish on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, broke new ground for Junior.
It’s the first time the 10-time Most Popular Driver has headed the standings in consecutive seasons. Earnhardt last held the points lead after last August’s race at Pocono Raceway. He also sat atop the points in 2004.
Retaining the ranking, qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ and winning an elusive championship definitely are in Earnhardt’s sights.
Sunday’s finish kept a magical season rolling. He’s now finished second twice, at Auto Club and behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt is the only competitor to have finished among the top 10 in each of this season’s five races.
That Earnhardt overcame several problems – notably a 22-second pit stop – and still contended for the victory is further proof that his Steve Letarte-led No. 88 Chevrolet team is solid over the long haul.
“Yeah, we had a little problem on pit road on one of our stops and lost a lot of positions,” said Earnhardt in his post-race interviews. “But we’ve always, we just stick together and everybody was just kind of, patted each other on the back and we were going to get another chance to redeem ourselves on pit road.”
A late caution flag and the chance to mount fresh tires gave Earnhardt the chance to close strong – something he’s not always been able to do.
“[That was] something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” he said. “[We’re] just riding the wave; just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Earnhardt’s best championship finish, third, came in 2003. He has two more top fives and a top-10 championship finish – seventh in 2011 – his best since joining Hendrick Motorsports.
Last season might have been “the one” until a concussion forced Earnhardt to sit out Chase races at Charlotte and Kansas. Since his return at Martinsville, Earnhardt has finished seven of nine races among the top 10 and completed all but two laps.
Next week’s STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville will mark Earnhardt’s 475th NASCAR Sprint Cup start. Although he’s never won at the 0.525-mile track, Earnhardt has finished in the top five on 10 occasions, including third in last year’s spring race. He has finished second on two occasions, both times in Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets.
Keselowski Contends Again But Ending Different
All good things come to an end, as Brad Keselowski learned on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
Starting from the rear of the Auto Club 400 field because of an engine change, Keselowski quickly charged to the top 15, slapped a barrier while sliding in another competitor’s fluid and later served a pit road penalty, but still stood fifth on the race’s final restart.
The Yo-yo-esque afternoon, however, ended with his No. 2 Penske Racing Ford limping to a 23rd-place finish, the victim of overheating. Gone was Keselowski’s four-race, top-five streak in which he led every race and held the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings lead.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe was philosophical.
Asked if his team was capable of starting another streak – perhaps on April 7 at Martinsville Speedway – Wolfe smiled and said, “Absolutely.”
Keselowski’s last two trips to Martinsville produced track-best finishes: ninth in the spring and sixth last October.
Keselowski knows there will be weeks when things don’t go your way. The competitiveness of the series – from potential winner to out of the top 20 in just 10 laps – means you get up, dust yourself off and regroup.
“It was a great streak,” the reigning series champion said. “We had a shot at winning the race if the 32 car (of Timmy Hill) doesn’t blow up in front of us. But eventually they’re going to throw circumstances at you that you just can’t control. That happens to everybody.”
Busch Brothers Say Don’t Forget About Us
Double trouble – again. Brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch head into Easter week as legitimate championship contenders following seasons each would rather forget.
Kyle Busch broke a 31-race winless drought at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. After missing the Chase a year ago, he ranks a solid sixth in points.
“We worked so hard last year, and we missed the Chase by three points. And then it sort of defines your season as missing the Chase,” said Busch, who recently extended his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing. “And then we go off and rattle off great finishes throughout the Chase but we never win.”
The current season appeared to be more of the same as the No. 18 Toyota team boasted strong cars at Daytona and Phoenix, where circumstances led to finishes outside the top 20. Busch then rebounded to fourth in Las Vegas and second in Bristol before Sunday’s win.
Elder sibling Kurt Busch fashioned back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since September 2011 as the fortunes of single-car Furniture Row Racing continue on an upswing. The consecutive top fives are unprecedented for the Denver, Colo.-based team owned by Barney Visser.
The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has climbed to 13th in the standings, eight points out of the top 10.
Busch, who overcame a pit road infraction to go door-to-door for the lead with his younger brother, credits the tight-knit management of Furniture Row Racing for rebooting his career. It begins, he said, with general manager Joe Garone and extends to former NASCAR touring series champion Rick Carelli, the spotter that guided him through Sunday’s final-laps mayhem.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have somebody you respect, somebody that you looked up to as a legend helping you, telling you, ‘Hey, you’re a legend.,’” said Busch of Carelli. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m just Kurt driving around in circles.’ The chemistry between us is awesome.”
Intrigue At The Break: Points Tell Fascinating Tale
Storylines galore pepper the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings. You have the usual suspects, the return engagements, the surprise dark horses. Heading into the first open week of the young season, a number of nuggets stand out at the top of the charts …
Usual Suspects: As discussed on page 1, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tops the charts in consecutive seasons for the first time in his career. He’s followed by defending series champion Brad Keselowski and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Also in the top 10 from last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup: Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin.
Return Engagements: Some major comebacks are brewing early on, in the name of Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch – both of whom have won this season. Edwards, a winner at Phoenix, has scored top-five finishes in three of the last four races, which has launched him to fourth in the standings after missing the Chase last year. Busch, who broke a 31-race drought with his victory at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, has shirked the “worst season ever” label that plagued him in 2012. Aside from winning three of the five races in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Busch has piled up three top fives in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition to climb to sixth in the points after barely missing the Chase last season.
Surprise Dark Horses: Two drivers currently in the top 10 – Paul Menard and Joey Logano – have yet to make a Chase appearance. A third, Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr., is 12th and currently in position to earn a Chase berth. Few predicted this kind of early season success for the three young guns. Menard, currently eighth in points, has been in this position before. After five races in 2011, he was seventh in points; he finished the year 17th in points. Joey Logano, ninth in points, is enjoying the best start to his career. He’s never been this high in points after five races. Stenhouse has been a picture of consistency befitting his predecessor in the No. 17, Matt Kenseth. Though he has yet to score a top-10 finish, he also has dodged trouble. All five finishes have been in the top 20, and he’s one of five drivers who have finished on the lead lap of every race.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
On Deck: After the first open week in the 2013 schedule, the NSCS heads to Martinsville Speedway, the series’ shortest track. The trio of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin set up a monopoly on Victory Lane at Martinsville, winning 12 of 13 races there from 2004-2010. Then, for a short time, they were shut out. Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman won in 2011 and the spring of 2012, before Johnson righted the ship in last year’s Chase Martinsville race. … Johnson once had a streak of 17 straight top-10 finishes at Martinsville (2002-2010), one short of the all-time record. … Not to be outmatched, Gordon had a 15-race Martinsville top-10 streak of his own, from 2003-2010. That included a span of 11 consecutive top fives. … There have been five different winners over the first five races in 2013, only the second time that’s happened in the past eight seasons. It last happened in 2011, when there were 18 different winners over the course of the entire season, one short of the all-time record.
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