Hendrick at Martinsville could bring end to drought

Busch gets first top-10 with Phoenix Racing; Truck Series back after long layoff

By NASCAR.COM
March 29, 2012 4:53 PM, EDT

1. Hendrick Motorsports now has gone 11 consecutive weeks without a victory since Jimmie Johnson won at Kansas in 2011. Is Martinsville Speedway the organization’s best chance to break that slump and score No. 200?

Track Smack

Dave Rodman: I’d say 11 weeks is too
long for a team like Hendrick. I know it’s going to happen sometime. But
honestly, there have been several places already — including this past
weekend at Auto Club Speedway when what, all four Hendrick cars were in
the top 12 at one point — where I thought it would have happened by
now, and it still hasn’t.

David Caraviello: It’s as good a place as any, given how strong Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon
have been there at different points in their careers. But … we
thought California was the perfect place for a breakthrough, too, given
Johnson’s track record in Fontana, and look what happened. The bottom
line is that with the exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr.,
this organization is searching a little bit right now, and a lot of its
struggles have been of its own doing. The potential clearly is there —
but stuff needs to stop breaking, and people need to stop making
mistakes.

Jill Erwin: It’s not quite as hot there
as it was in the mid- to late-aughts (always love a good “aughts”) but
Martinsville is a great opportunity for this team. Jeff Gordon and
Jimmie Johnson know how to drive at that track, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
is running so well right now. Is it a guarantee? Absolutely not.
Nothing’s guaranteed at Martinsville. But is it its “best” shot to this
point? Dang skippy.

David Caraviello: Here’s the thing about
Hendrick — the cars are good. That much is obvious, and that goes a
long way. It’s just the only driver who’s been able to consistently
parlay that into good finishes has been Junior. But even Jeff Gordon,
who’s had everything go wrong, has had great cars almost every week.
Johnson was up there until the oil line was severed at California. Good
cars are more than half the battle here, and Hendrick knows it has them,
and that means this team should sail along once it weathers this patch
of bad luck.

Dave Rodman: To David’s point, with the
exception of Junior, the only thing consistent to this point in the
season seems to be its inconsistency. Some other people are consistently
better. And obviously, since no one’s going to hand it anything, it is
going to have to execute a perfectly crafted 500-lap race to win this
weekend. Then again, that’s no different than any other weekend —
though the lap count certainly is.

* Caraviello: Junior is for real; nothing is guaranteed | Earnhardt carrying Hendrick flag

Jill Erwin: Fontana is a good point, David. Happiest guy not named Tony Stewart
when that red flag came out? Jimmie Johnson. And also agreed on your
second point … cars are everything. I could get in a good car (well,
if I could drive worth a lick) and be competitive in this series. And
with Tony’s performance and the strength of the Hendrick shop in
general, things will right themselves. And when they do, watch out!

Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon celebrate a Martinsville win in 2003. (Getty Images)

Hendrick at Martinsville

Jeff Gordon (7) and Jimmie Johnson (6) have combined for 13 of
Hendrick’s 18 wins at Martinsville, its best track in many statistical
categories.

Stat No. Rank
Starts 174 T-9
Wins 18 1
Top-5s 62 1
Top-10s 100 1
Poles 14 3
Laps 82,529 1
Laps Led 7,080 1
Avg. Start 13.8 6*
Avg. Finish 12.5 1*

* Active tracks

Dave Rodman: Again, DC, great point.
Having potential race-winning cars is a great start. Obviously, they
have four race-winning drivers, but then that circles it back around —
how has it taken 11 weeks to not get No. 200?

David Caraviello: And Dave, here’s the
thing … Johnson isn’t “Mr. Martinsville” anymore. He hasn’t won there
since 2009. Gordon hasn’t won there since 2005. It’s one of Hendrick’s
best tracks, to be sure, but lately everyone’s been chasing Denny Hamlin
in southwest Virginia, and Tony Stewart won the most recent event
there. Boy, what if Smoke notched a third win already. That would send
some shock waves.

* Fantasy Preview: Three stand out at Martinsville

Dave Rodman: I tell you what, a Stewart
score or another Hamlin win is a lot more likely than Hendrick’s No.
200. Denny’s been a little off-and-on but I think he knows what he needs
this weekend, and Darian Grubb obviously is a pretty sharp cookie. But
David, as you wrote, I think it was last week, Stewart could be the
ultimate bulldozer this season. Ten wins might not be out of the
question, and in this era that is somewhat unprecedented — though Carl
did almost get there a couple years ago.

Jill Erwin: That Smoke guy is on some
kind of tear. I thought last year was lightning in a bottle. Then he
fired Darian Grubb and I figured, “Oh, he’ll be fine by his summer
streak.” But Heavens to Betsy if that guy hasn’t come out firing on all
cylinders from day one. Whatever is in the water at Stewart-Haas, he
should bottle it and sell it for millions.

David Caraviello: Rick [Hendrick] jokes all the time about hauling around all those “200 win” caps. I’ve heard a story about how Alan Kulwicki‘s
team once carried around big foam “No. 1″ fingers with their sponsor’s
name on them, in anticipation of their next win. They went so long
without one, they left them at home — and finally won again.

Jill Erwin: Sounds like my kind of luck, David.

David Caraviello: Ten wins! Dave, my man,
let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I still think Stewart and Hamlin are
going to go toe-to-toe a lot of this year, adding some personal drama
(because of Darian Grubb) to the championship picture. Either way, it
should be fun. I also love how everyone is agreeing with me. This Track
Smack is off to a great start!

Jill Erwin: I miss the halcyon days of
Denny Hamlin’s youth in this series, when Tony barely tried to hide his
disdain for the brash young driver crashing the JGR party. “Little
Denny,” he called him. Now, if Denny can best Tony head-to-head? Man,
I’d love to see that battle come down.

David Caraviello: And one more thing to
remember when it comes to Hendrick and Martinsville — Dale Jr. led this
race near the end last year until Kevin Harvick
passed him at the end. A double streak-buster in the south Virginia
hills? Oh, they’d rip out the grandstand seats in jubilation.

Dave Rodman: “Dramatic” wouldn’t quite cover it.

Hendrick Motorsports

2012 Season Results
Driver Top-5s Top-10s Laps Led Avg. St. Avg. Fin. Lead Lap Fin. Pts. Rank
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2 3 72 14.0 8.8 5 3
Jimmie Johnson 2 4 92 10.0 13.4 4 9
Jeff Gordon 0 1 8 17.4 24.2 2 25
Kasey Kahne 0 0 0 9.2* 26.6 2 27

* One pole | Video: Watch 2012 season highlights of Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers

2. Kurt Busch earned his first top-10 of the season with Phoenix Racing. Is that an aberration, or is it a sign of things to come?

Jill Erwin: The top-10 itself is an
aberration, absolutely. Kurt was happy with his 15th until other cars
pitted and moved him up in the order. Now, is that kind of run an
aberration? I still think yes, but I’m not as sure.

David Caraviello: Kurt’s been overlooked
a little bit since Daytona, and he’s been caught up in a few crashes.
No question, it was a pit call at California that gained James Finch’s
boys some track position and helped them move up to ninth, where they
eventually finished when the race was called due to rain. But hey,
that’s part of the game. Nobody says Tony’s win was an aberration
because he stayed out of the pits, as well. The car was in good enough
position, they used a little strategy, and got a pretty good finish out
of it.

Kurt Busch (Getty Images)

Phoenix Racing

In 18 years prior to Kurt Busch, only four drivers had made 10 or
more starts in a single season for James Finch: Johnny Sauter (10) in
2003; Mike Bliss (11) in ’09; Bobby Labonte (14) in ’10; and Landon
Cassill (29) in ’11.

Stat Total Busch in ’12
Starts 196 5
Wins 1 0
Top-5s 3 0
Top-10s 12 1
Laps Led 86 2
Avg. Start 29.3 21.8
Avg. Finish 30.8 23.2
Lead Lap Fin. 42 2

Jill Erwin: Right, and I’m not
disagreeing with you, David. But is he consistently enough of a top-15
car where they can take advantage of things like that weekly? I say no, a
lot more definitively than I did in my first response. I think they can
become a top-15 car, but it’s going to take time and work. So right
now, aberration. But also a sign of things to come. I Rodmanned that!

Dave Rodman: Kurt’s another one who
has had a couple of decent cars, but crappy luck. California
specifically might have been an aberration, but it’s a fact that
sometimes, that’s how you win races and score good finishes. The
positive is that Kurt and crew chief Nick Harrison got themselves into
position to execute the call — and when the time came, Mr. Harrison
pulled the trigger and earned the finish. Bravo!

Jill Erwin: I haven’t been listening
to the radios as much this year. Is Kurt still Kurt on the radio?
Because if not, if he’s not off the handle as much, then I think that’s a
good sign for the team’s future. If he’s still ranting and raving and
threatening and insulting, I think that’s a lot harder for a team like
Phoenix to handle.

David Caraviello: Listen, this is not
an elite team. Kurt wanted old-style racing, and he’s got it. Our Bill
Kimm found him helping to push the car into the garage area Sunday at
Fontana, a cold one in hand. That’s about as old-school as it gets. But
… the dude can still wheel a car, and it comes through sometimes. They
finished top-20 in Bristol despite being caught up in a wreck. They
finished 15th at Phoenix. In many races they’re hanging around, just
enough, to put themselves in position in case a scenario unfolds like
the one did at Fontana. And clearly, they took advantage of it.

Dave Rodman: I think the thing with
Phoenix is, it has been good in spot appearances and James Finch cuts no
physical corners. Getting Kurt meant it would race on a much higher
level, for complete races. That means everything else has to pull itself
up to Kurt’s level and it will do that, step by step. For the short
term, top-10s might be aberration, but it’s heading to where it will be
consistent possibilities.

David Caraviello: Dave is right. Kurt is
carrying this team on his back right now, and it’s going to have to
progress to his level. Now, is it capable of doing that? Maybe not in
the short term. That No. 51 car doesn’t look like it’s going to be able
to drive up there to the front on its own, at least outside of
restrictor-plate tracks. It has to lurk, and be prepared to take
advantage of situations, and get what it can. That’s exactly what they
did Sunday. Nothing wrong with that.

Dave Rodman: And Phoenix has always been a potential winner. Kurt ups that percentage considerably, too.

Jill Erwin: Whoa, whoa, whoa! I know you and Fincher are old-school, Rodman. But “Phoenix has always been a potential winner?”

David Caraviello: Well, maybe at
Talladega. We get there, who knows of what this bunch might be capable.
Daytona was a scramble for it with everything coming together so late
and a couple of cars getting wadded up in preliminary events. We get to
north Alabama in May, and heck yeah, it’s a potential winner. Anywhere
else … for now, barring a fuel-mileage scenario, I’d give it potential
top-10.

Dave Rodman: Please re-read transcript. In places — like Brad Keselowski,
Talladega, 2009 — it has always been potential winners. But
realistically, in the past those potential places were few and far
between.

David Caraviello: And that really hasn’t
changed, Dave. Kurt is one heck of a wheelman, but Phoenix can put only
so much underneath him. I don’t exactly expect him to drive to the front
and challenge Jimmie, Denny, Tony and whomever else at Martinsville on
Sunday.

Jill Erwin: I’ve read the transcript
just fine. There were no qualifications in your post. You said “Phoenix
has always been a potential winner.”

Dave Rodman: Said it. Meant it. Stand behind it.

David Caraviello: Much like Kurt Busch, Dave Rodman is not one to back down.

Dave Rodman: If it puts together good
road-course cars I’d add that to the list. I don’t think ol’ Nick is
short on smarts and Kurt for sure is a top-five wheelman in the Cup
Series. And to your point DC, no — Martinsville probably not a likely
place for a Phoenix breakthrough.

David Caraviello: But we all await the time when the Phoenix will rise. And we will say Dave Rodman predicted it!

Jill Erwin: And then I’ll let him buy my lottery tickets.

* Video: Watch Busch’s 2012 season highlights

3. The Camping World Truck Series is back in action after four weekends off. Who needs a good showing at Martinsville the most?

David Caraviello: That would be one Mr. John King.
There were people in this business, drivers on the national series
included, who had to look up the guy’s name after he won the
season-opening wreckfest at Daytona. Given how that event unfolded, a
lot of folks are going to wonder about King until he backs it up. Here’s
hoping he will, because I get the sense that maybe the guy is a better
racer than his limited national-series resume suggests. But you win that
kind of race, people are going to have a big asterisk in their minds
until you do it again.

Jill Erwin: The last time we were all together, my inner James Buescher
fangirl was laid out for all to see, if I remember correctly. So I will
refrain from picking him in hopes of avoiding the wrath of Caraviello.
Instead, I say Ron Hornaday.
Fourteenth at Daytona, and Martinsville is very much a veteran’s track,
as I so astutely pointed out in Head2Head this week, in a monumental
beatdown of Mark Aumann.

Timothy Peters (Autostock)

Head2Head

Mark Aumann and Jill Erwin disagree on the likelihood of a Truck Series driver scoring a first win at Martinsville.

Read arguments, weigh in

Dave Rodman: If you take a big-picture view, it wouldn’t hurt Todd Bodine
none. Red Horse has made an initial commitment to run three trucks, but
only has some sponsorship for one. Todd has some deals percolating and
man, he would love to win at Martinsville to even him up with his
brothers. He has a lot riding on a good run Saturday.

David Caraviello: We’ve only had one race, and it was a wacky one at that, so the standings
right now are kind of all over the place. But I can tell you who would
love to have a strong run at Martinsville — and that would be Jason White.
The one-time Virginia short-track whiz was Denny Hamlin before there
was a Denny Hamlin. That guy still is a legend in the Commonwealth, and
for him to back up a strong opener at Daytona with a good run this
weekend in his home state would be ideal.

Dave Rodman: And with his own team.
That’s a great call on Jason. He’s been creeping up on it, an inch at a
time, and it would be pretty fitting to have to step back to his own
operation this season and to finally flourish.

Jill Erwin: If we’re going on the “Virginia boys who would love to run well there” theme, I’m throwing Timothy Peters
back out there. Got his first series win at Martinsville, and I’m sure
he’d love to back it up. I only wish Waaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhd Burton was in
the truck this weekend so I could pick him. Instead it’s young Jeb.

Dave Rodman: Now that we’re out of the
insanity that is Daytona, I think James Buescher is a given, as I said a
couple of weeks ago in Smack. DC, I agree with your initial take on
John King, but he’s the classic case of an NBA “project.” He has so
little experience that the mistakes, like dumping Johnny Sauter
at Daytona, are going to continue to occur. But he has oodles of
potential so it’ll be interesting to see how far apart the glitches
occur. It’ll be a character-builder, for sure — but Daytona seemed to
show young Mr. King already has plenty of that.

David Caraviello: And as we know, Peters is a driver who could be in there for the long haul. You look at the standings right now, and you wonder — who can stay up there? King, of course, is a wild card. How good are Justin Lofton and Chris Fontaine? White and Clay Greenfield run their own teams. Ward Burton
— well, he’s Ward Burton, and I’m not going to overlook a Daytona 500
champ even though he’s not in the race this week. So it’s a jumble, to
say the least.

Jill Erwin: I’d love to see Lofton put
together a really good season. He’s 26 and pretty marketable, so I’d
like to see what he can do near the top of the standings for a while. I
think he could be a good thing for the series. But to me the biggest
question is Ty Dillon. All the talent in the world by all accounts … can he keep racking up the top-10 finishes?

David Caraviello: Jill, you beat me to
it: In my opinion, the one to watch is the driver currently in eighth
place in the standings — Ty Dillon. That kid can wheel anything. His
evasive maneuver in the Daytona race was awe-inspiring. He’s going to be
hot on the heels of his brother, last year’s Truck champion Austin, now
in the Nationwide Series. Ty just might replicate the feat.

Jill Erwin: Good to see you agreeing with me, David.

Dave Rodman: The first short-track race
of the year always is cool as heck. New drivers come out of the
woodwork. Teams — some of them new ones — run their first races of the
season. With Sauter, Hornaday, Bodine, [Matt] Crafton, Peters,
Buescher, White — heck, we’re forgetting Kevin Harvick, not to mention Nelson Piquet Jr., who won his first stock-car race at Bristol, and Miguel Paludo. It’s going to be an effort for newcomers Jeb Burton, Caleb Holman and Natalie Sather to get into the race, but if they do would be a great forum to catch some attention.

* Race Hub: Piquet, Paludo discuss journeys from Brazil to NASCAR

David Caraviello: At some point, though, these Truck standings are going to flip. Buescher, Sauter, Piquet, Hornaday, Paludo, Joey Coulter
— that’s a lot of strong drivers, not to mention potential
championship contenders, who came out on the wrong end at Daytona. Just
like with the Cup guys, the real season begins with the second event, in
this case this week at Martinsville. We just had to wait a little
longer to get there.

Jill Erwin: Very true. I know they had to
space out the schedule, but all that build up to Daytona, then a whole
month before they even sniff a race track again? I don’t like it! Also,
it’s no longer a new idea, but it doesn’t make it less true: Truck races
are the most entertaining things NASCAR puts on in a given weekend. So
much fun.

David Caraviello: Our most recent Truck
race at Martinsville, by the way, was loaded with Cup interlopers. But
Hornaday, Sauter and Coulter all finished in the top five. I can
certainly see that being the case again this weekend. And just admit it,
Jill — you’re going to be in the Martinsville grandstands on Saturday
eating one of those famous hot dogs and wearing your James Buescher
T-shirt.

Dave Rodman: I’d almost make a road trip from Florida for the Martinsville Truck race.

Jill Erwin: I’ll save you a seat in the Buescher grandstands, Dave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *