Five Things We've Learned So Far in the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season
With seven events completed in the 36-race in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the 2009 edition of America's most elite stock car racing series looks to be one filled with a healthy dose of storylines.
From the resurgence of 37-year-old Jeff Gordon's career to the surprising seasons of David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose, and A.J. Allmendinger, it's hard pressed to think that this year's action on the tracks have lacked in the entertainment department.
First of all, we've learned that the usual contenders prior to the start of the season are so far hitting on all cylinders.
Of the 12 drivers who made up the 2008 Chase field, only Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are outside the top 12 in this year's standings, mired in 15th and 16th spots respectively.
Second, we've seen how Hendrick Motorsports has currently dominated the headlines in the circuit.
From Speedweeks at Daytona with Earnhardt, Jr.'s epic struggles on the track and pit road to Gordon's long-awaited conquest of Texas Motor Speedway, the Chevrolet organization knows a thing or two about grabbing the headlines.
Despite Earnhardt, Jr.'s maddening 2009 campaign filled with competitive inconsistencies, car owner Rick Hendrick has two aces in Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and a staying power in Mark Martin, who's steadily climbed up the points standings ladder into 19th position.
Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have to be all grins with their latest and long awaited win at Texas.
With their well-publicized winless streak now put to a merciful end, the No. 24 DuPont contingency look to repeat their historic moment of two years ago, when the pride of Vallejo, Calif. tied Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the all-time wins list with 76 victories.
Johnson made his mark in the season with his late-race victory in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway after a sluggish start this season.
The No. 48 Lowe's Chevy team has reeled off four consecutive top-10 finishes of 9th, 3rd, 1st and 2nd, showing that the three-time defending champions are a force to be reckoned with for the duration of the year.
With Phoenix next on the horizon, it may just be another Johnson win in the making, as the El Cajon, Calif. driver has taken the last three events at the track.
Once looking like a driver on the "Endangered Qualifiers" list in the Cup ranks, Martin and his No. 5 Kellogg's/Carquest team have stepped up their program a notch with three consecutive top-10 results.
Having overcome their bad luck streak in the first four races of '09, Martin's team needs to continue with their consistent finishes to build on a season that finally shows some hope for a Chase seed.
Although Martin has not won at Phoenix International Raceway since Halloween of '93, the Arizona track has treated the cagey veteran from Batesville, Arkansas well with an average finish of 9.6 in the past five races run at the mile-long facility.
Third, it's safe to say that Team Red Bull Racing must be kicking themselves after letting go of Allmendinger, who is currently situated in the top-20 in points.
Scott Speed, who replaced Allmendinger in the final five races of '08, has been less than spectacular.
Not looking "up to speed" in his rookie season, the 26-year-old Californian must pick up the pace to show the executives of the popular energy drink why he replaced NASCAR's most underrated drivers on the circuit.
Meanwhile, Allmendinger has been performing solidly for Richard Petty Motorsports, with four top-20 finishes thus far.
However, the No. 44 RPM Dodge efforts have struggled mightily on the intermediate tracks, looking lost to sea with their high point only being a 17th place result at Atlanta.
Fourthly, it seems like the "abolition" of open testing at any NASCAR-sanctioned facility has made the racing in 2009 seem more wide-open than in years past.
Yes, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are the only repeat offenders who have been charged with winning two races a piece this year, but the competition this year has produced some rather remarkable finishes.
Gordon's win at Texas was made possible because his Rainbow Warriors busted off a phenomenal final stop that saw the No. 24 car advance from third spot to the lead, a command he never relinquished with less than 25 laps left in the race.
Johnson required a short-track flavored pass on Denny Hamlin with less than 15 laps remaining at Martinsville, while Kurt Busch made a successful pass on Carl Edwards to win at Atlana in a green-white-checkered finish.
Even with the Car of Tomorrow (or Today, for racing gripes!) and its trouble with the current generation of Goodyear tires made for the original, aerodynamic bodies prior to 2007, fans at the track and in living rooms have at least been treated to some dramatic closures to each race of this season.
Lastly, what's the most important thing we've learned so far in 2009?
It's that no matter how horrible the economy is, or how an animated gopher has given home viewers more reasons to throw a fit than be amused, racing fans still support their sport.
Racetracks are far and few able to reach full capacity crowds and hotels and facilities are working feverishly to ensure that fans traveling to the races have a place to lodge for the weekend.
Yet, the fans are still showing up in throngs, be it a Cup race, Nationwide event or a Camping World Truck Series show.
Is it the mere sight of seeing drivers trading some paint on the track fearlessly?
Or the antics of Kyle Busch that leave us either bewildered or amused?
Whether it's the reasons above or the fact that we simply love racing no matter what, we've learned that nothing will stop fans from ever caring about NASCAR racing.
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