Reflections on the Auto Club Speedway Race, Season to Date, and Parity in NASCAR

Joe M.Correspondent IIFebruary 23, 2009

Quick, can we just freeze the current Sprint Cup standings now?

Now, it's not what you are thinking. I'm no Matt Kenseth fan, but I do love the intrigue of eight different teams that would currently be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup if the season ended today.

Roush Fenway Kenseth (1), Biffle (5) Ragan (8) Edwards (9)

Richard Petty Motorsports Elliott Sadler (11)

Michael Waltrip Racing Waltrip (7), Reutimann (12)

Hendrick Motorsports Gordon (2)

Stewart-Haas Stewart (4)

Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing Montoya (10)

Penske Championship racing Kurt Busch (3)

Richard Childress Racing Bowyer (6)

Notably absent from this list should be Joe Gibbs racing whose highest member is currently Denny Hamlin sitting at 18th but just 13 points behind Reutimann for the final spot.

What can be said about Gibbs' apparent lack of competitiveness? Are we seeing the economic equalizer as I predicted before the season? About as much can be said of Roush-Fenway's dominance. It's simply too early, but should be seen as a welcome change from the four team monopoly we saw from last year's Chase that featured just Gibbs, Hendrick, Childress, and Roush team drivers.

Of these eight teams only three can be considered big market teams—Richard Childress, Hendrick, and Roush-Fenway. Since Stewart-Haas can be seen as an arm of Hendrick because of their working relationship, we could discredit them too. However, if Tony Stewart wins anything this year, I am pretty sure he's not going to start his script-like victory speech with:

"I just want to thank all the guys back at the garage, my crew, my crew chief, Darian Grubb, uh, Office Depot...The car ran really well today. We thought we could catch Jeff off turn two and when we did, we knew we had the win! Whooo! Also, uh, (catches breath) Hendrick Motorsports, Rick and the guys for the parts, where was I? My team mate Newmie for letting me get a good run."

No its going to be more like "Uh, I want to first thank myself for the way I drove today. (he is part owner so this isn't arrogance!), the guys back in the garage, my crew for the good pit stops, etc."

Another thing is for sure. When it all comes down to it, he's going to try and beat Jimmie Johnson and Gordon and not let them by as Jimmie used to be accused of doing to his boss/teammate Gordon in the past. He's going to run them into the wall if need be and probably laugh and divert blame as only he can do, not that I have a problem with that.

  • It's now 18 races and counting since Kyle Busch has spun around in Victory Lane.
  • It's also 43 and counting (Lowe's 2007 if you can believe it) since Gordon last tasted Victory. He's only got that one victory since being married. Hmmmm.

There was a time when Gordon chasing someone down in the waning laps like he tried to do versus Kenseth was only a formaity. He almost toyed with his opponent knowing he was better than him. Now I am not so sure. I believe time may have passed him by.

Sure, he finished second, but Dale Sr. famously said, "Second place is just the first loser" and Gordon historically has been good at California. The Fox announce team tried to note this in the final laps along with the possibility of Gordon sizing up Kenseth or possibly "finding something on a high groove" as Darell Waltrip implied. But it was simply a lame attempt to gauge viewer interest. It wasn't meant to be.

The most impressive driver not named Kenseth this year has to be Kurt Busch who quietly has placed himself third in the standings after back-to-back top 10 finishes for small time, mid-pack, Penske Championship racing. But that's not all. All three Penske drivers got top 25's and all three are currently locked into the top 35 with Hornish being the lowest at 29th.

The most disappointing driver to date has to be Richard Childress' Jeff Burton who had to earn his 32nd showing. Some people are starting to think sponsorship issues seeing how this is his first year with CAT after long time wireless provider AT&T (Cingular) was forced out by NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a blown engine, and DNF had his second consecutive finish outside the top 25. He now sits 35th overall in the Cup Standings. Might he have to race himself in as a go-or-go-homer?

Brian Vickers got a much deserved top 10 after having to start from the back after winning the pole due to basically an illegal engine modification (I have him in the Chase anyway).

Thank God, for Matt Kenseth. He saved us from having to see Johnson dominate 220 of 250 laps in this follow the leader bore-fest like usual. The same can be said for Carl Edwards. We've seen enough back flips to last a good half season.

Juan Pablo Montoya looks a lot more focused this year and he along with Kasey Kahne got themselves top 15 finishes for their teams.

Finally no list of improved teams would be complete without the mention of Michael Waltrip Racing.

Their standings, if they can hold them, will be key in three weeks if the rain comes and the field is frozen. To consider how far Mikey has come in two years from not even qualifying his first year as owner to now—as in right now—being as comfortable as you can get into the Chase after only two races is remarkable. And to think he said he might have retired had he not been competitive.

I for one look forward to his sticking around as owner once that day does come, along with his returns to Victory Lane as owner/pitchman should he ever be so fortunate. He needs to stick around.

You know, I kind of like these standings.

A good start to the '09 season.