One chapter down, the rest of the story to come
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
March 28, 2012 8:23 PM, EDT
Five weeks, it is clear, do not a season make. A lot of racing still remains during the course of this NASCAR campaign, and fortunes can change drastically, and making assumptions at this point about what the championship picture ultimately will look like seems short-sighted at best. A year ago at this time Tony Stewart was winless, Brad Keselowski was off the radar screen, Denny Hamlin was buried in the standings, and three drivers who ultimately would miss the Chase were inside the top 12. While there's no question the leading contenders are establishing themselves and patterns are forming, the real moving and shaking has yet to begin.
And yet, the five-week mark denotes the first real milepost of the season, that moment when owners' points switch from the past year to the current one, and teams are judged more off their recent body of work. After Sunday's event at Martinsville Speedway there's an off week, which struggling teams often use to make personnel changes or tweak things that aren't working. No question, things are just getting started. At the same time, there's no question that by this point everybody's working for the long term, trying to position themselves for where they ultimately want to be. It's not early in the season anymore, and before long it will start to feel very late.
Indeed, leaving Southern California and making the long haul toward southern Virginia is like finishing the first chapter in a rather long book. And that opening chapter has been an interesting one, to say the least. We've learned several things in these first five weeks, among them:
Sprint Cup Series
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is for real. Maybe it's a surprise that he's the leading driver at Hendrick Motorsports, given who some of his teammates are. But after what we saw from him last year, when he made the Chase and finished seventh in final points, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at how strong NASCAR's most popular driver has been to start this season. Earnhardt seems comfortable and confident, and those traits are manifesting themselves in the form of strong finishes.
No, he hasn't won in a long while, but runs like the ones he had at Daytona, Las Vegas and Fontana make it look like the breakthrough isn't far away. Earnhardt even talks occasionally these days about getting a win or two, which shows just how much faith he has in his current situation. It's easy to see why -- the cars being rolled out by crew chief Steve Letarte are good every week, a fact that unquestionably takes some pressure off the guy behind the wheel. Letarte's strengths have always seemed to be his demeanor and his ability to instill confidence within his driver, but it's time to give him credit for the vehicles he's turning out.
"I think all the credit to having consistent cars goes to the crew chief and his ability to work with his engineers, and the talent level of the engineers," Earnhardt said. "Those guys see patterns and see techniques within their setups that are repeating, that are providing them with good race cars and good speed. They will continue to build on what seems to be working, and start producing that every week, no matter the type of track they are going to. That is really where all the drivers in this series can pretty much run competitively at any race track, but the consistency comes within the depth of the organization and the engineering department."
Greg Biffle is back. The Roush Fenway mainstay, the one member of that organization's powerhouse triumvirate to miss the Chase last season, seems as competitive as he's ever been. The No. 16 car is solid almost every week at almost any kind of race track, and to this point the current points leader has only one finish worse than sixth. According to Biffle, much of the credit for the turnaround belongs to crew chief Matt Puccia, who last summer took over a program dogged by problems, most notably getting fuel in the car.
"There were a lot of things going against us last year," Biffle said. "We weren't really prepared as a company with the whole fueling apparatus, and we had a lot of trouble .... There were several races we weren't full of gas. We changed gas guys twice last season, and that stuff went under the radar because we weren't sitting in [the media center] talking about it. We had a ton of issues. Fuel mileage was another issue. You put those two together, not getting full of gas half the time, or 25 to 30 percent, and then not great fuel mileage. When you did get full you couldn't make it. It was like we couldn't win, you know?
"That wasn't all of it. That was the surface of it, but it went deeper. Man, the deck was stacked against us last year tremendously. Matt has prepared. There isn't a rock that is not unturned on that car. When you say he sleeps with them or babies them, he is at the shop late making sure these cars are 100 percent. He won't settle for everything not being perfect. He will make the guys go back and do it over again if he doesn't like it. He wants it to be perfect and they want it to be perfect, too. I am happy to have that group."
Stenhouse and Dillon (Getty)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon are stars in the making. OK, we knew the kids were good -- you don't just luck into national-series championships like the Nationwide crown Stenhouse won last year, or the Camping World Truck Series mantle that Dillon claimed. Still, it would be easy for skeptics to look at the rule NASCAR put in place limiting drivers to one title run, and contend that Stenhouse and Dillon did it against fields weaker than those other titlists had faced in the past.
That argument, thin to begin with, erodes further with every passing race. Each week, Stenhouse shows a degree of maturity beyond his years, his Pearsonesque ability to stalk opponents and be at his best near the end of races belying the fact that he's just 24. His past four finishes, on a 1-mile track, a mile-and-a-half, a short track and a 2-miler: third, first, sixth, second. To this point, he's shown few weaknesses. Stenhouse has written a textbook on how to develop in the Nationwide Series, and he should be a thrill to watch when -- assuming sponsorship eventually materializes -- he reaches the Sprint Cup level.
And then there's Dillon, who used to hear criticism because he's Richard Childress' grandson, but whose obvious natural talent has silenced the doubters for good. Dillon had 11 career Nationwide starts before he embarked on this, his first full-time campaign in the series, but you'd never guess it by his results. Four top-seven runs in five outings have him third in points, and positioned as a top contender to Stenhouse and stalwart Elliott Sadler. The kids are all right, indeed.
NASCAR racing is hard. It seems obvious, yes, but that absolute truism is reinforced again and again. "Racing doesn't really have a big conscience," Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood says, and the unforgiving nature of the sport is reflected by struggles faced at all levels. Champions, new drivers, powerhouse organizations, new teams -- they're all vulnerable, regardless of their status and past accomplishments -- make their living in a game that can chew people up even when they seem to have everything going for them.
Just take Jeff Gordon, who coming off a three-win season was seen as a solid contender for the Sprint Cup crown, and every week has been behind the wheel of some of the best cars on the track. But a wreck here, a freak accident there, a pit penalty mixed in -- suddenly he's buried in points and feeling pressure to turn things around. His struggles are reflected at Hendrick Motorsports, where newcomer Kasey Kahne also is trying to break out of an early slump. Nothing is ever guaranteed in NASCAR, even if the driver has obvious talent, not even if all the pieces seem to fit.
We see it over and over again, at all levels. BK Racing, the entity that took over the assets of the old Red Bull team, opened the season with dreams of top-25 finishes, and now is fighting to keep at least one of its cars in the top 35 in owners' points. Danica Patrick began her first full-time season on the Nationwide tour with talk of championship contention, only to see expectations scaled back further each week. On the opposite end of the spectrum but almost as unexpected is this spring surge from Tony Stewart, who has recorded the vast majority of his NASCAR victories much later in the season. Until the cars are on the race track, you never really know.
It's all part of what makes racing so occasionally maddening to those who compete in it, so compelling to those who watch it, and so gratifying to those who succeed in it. The first chapter of the 2012 season is complete. The rest of the story lies ahead.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.Related:
Kahne sees a turnaround on the horizon in 5 car
NASCAR history makes for messy predictions
Caraviello: Stewart sends signal with surprising spring surge