Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Texas

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIApril 1, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Texas

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    From the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ slowest track, teams head south and west this weekend to race at one of its fastest—Texas Motor Speedway.

    They say everything is bigger in Texas. And while that may not always be true, if Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) president Eddie Gossage is involved in any way shape or form, he’ll have you believing that whatever it is, it is the biggest and baddest of all, because it is in Texas.

    Gossage’s latest boast is truly a sight to behold. Big Hoss TV, billed as the world’s largest high-definition LED video board, has been built on the back straightaway of TMS to provide fans in the grandstands with a unique viewpoint of the action.

    “This is a big place, and you could be watching somebody race down into Turn 1 and 2 and something occurs up in Turn 3 and you completely missed it,” Gossage told the crowd gathered for the official unveiling earlier this month. “Or you could miss something on pit road. Now, with the big screen, you’re not going to miss a thing.”

    TMS offers teams the next opportunity to try out car setups for 1.5-mile tracks, which is critical to success not only during the regular season, but, more importantly, during the Chase, which has five 1.5-mile races. TMS is also a Chase track.

    Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon will be in search of that all-important first win of the season. As will Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.

    And will fans see a seventh new winner in seven races? It is possible. One theory floating around the NASCAR chat rooms is that the teams that already have a win are playing it safe, thus letting someone else get a shot at winning—especially if he's a teammate.

    Balderdash!

    Kurt Busch's win at Martinsville did raise a curious thought: There might be so many winners this season that it could take two wins to be securely in the Chase. That scenario seems very likely at the rate this season is producing new winners. Maybe everyone currently in the top 20 in points will get a win. Now that's a thought!

    Odds are we’ll see another new face in Victory Lane this Sunday.

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases, unless otherwise stated.

I'm Kurt Busch and You're Not

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    “That's a punk‑ass move and he will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back.”

    That’s Kurt Busch talking about his former teammate Brad Keselowski.

    The two raced and worked together at Penske Racing (now Team Penske) in 2011, but there’s apparently no love lost between them now. Until this past Sunday, there had not been a problem between them.

    What started as a typical Martinsville pit road incident involving Keselowski, Busch and Kasey Kahne was blown completely out of proportion by Keselowski, who was emotionally charged up from having his car wrecked early in the race and was expressing his raw emotions in a television interview—one that was obviously was seen by Busch’s pit crew and relayed to him via radio, leading to the above comment.

    Meanwhile, in telling his spotter about the incident and the damage, Busch felt it was so severe that “they were likely done for the day.”

    Boy, did he miss the mark with that statement!

    Both men were wrong on both accounts, yet both have vowed revenge on the other. Hopefully this “feud” disappears before one or the other wrecks anymore cars or, worse, hurts someone. It will only have legs if the media and, more specifically, the television media at the track, keeps pushing them about it.

    Let's see how they handle it. Want to bet they push it while the drivers want to forget about it?

    Until it does go away, we might end up being treated to two grown men acting like sixth-graders. It might end up being resolved like all elementary school fights are—after school, next to the swings.

Hottest Team in NASCAR? It's Stewart-Haas Racing

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    With two of its drivers already winners in 2014, Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) is starting to looks like the NASCAR powerhouse owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas had envisioned it would one day be. 

    Daytona was forgettable for the organization. Then came Phoenix and SHR driver Kevin Harvick showing early on why his good friend Stewart wanted him working with him and not against him every weekend. Harvick’s win was a bright spot amongst a dismal weekend for the rest of SHR.

    After tasting success at Phoenix, the organization appeared to be lost at the next two events—Las Vegas and Bristol. At those two races, Danica Patrick ended up with the best car amongst the four drivers. That tells you how lost they were when Patrick does better than two former Cup champions and a Daytona 500 winner. 

    To be honest, Harvick’s woes during this time were due to mechanical issues that plagued his team, some of which were not of its doing. However, the performances delivered by the other three teams were unimpressive.

    This group was acting as if they couldn’t find their bottom with their own two hands.

    After Bristol, Stewart may have marshaled his troops, giving them all “the pep talk of pep talks” (or maybe he threatened the lot of them with pink slips) in an effort to turn things around. Whatever may have happened, the following weekend at Auto Club Speedway, both Stewart and Busch suddenly became serious contenders, finishing fifth and third, respectively. 

    This past weekend, Busch won, Harvick was seventh and Stewart finished 17th, exactly what you would expect from this trio. Busch’s win was even more important in that it validated team owner Haas’ decision to hire the driver who calls himself “The Outlaw.” 

    This weekend marks a return to a 1.5-mile track. Las Vegas was a disaster, with Patrick’s 21st place the best of the four. It will be interesting to see if the organization has improved on its setups for these critical race tracks.

Which Way Is Roush Fenway Racing Headed?

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    Jack Roush (l) with Carl Edwards
    Jack Roush (l) with Carl EdwardsJohn Raoux

    This photo of team principlal Jack Roush and driver Carl Edwards was taken at the season opening race in Daytona. The photographer obviously caught the two in a lighthearted moment. Unfortunately, these two haven’t had a whole lot to laugh about in 2014.

    Edwards' win at Bristol two weeks ago, while likely assuring him a spot in the Chase, was not what one might call “impressive,” although he admittedly did lead 78 of the 500 laps, including the most important one—the last one.

    His Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) teammates, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., have been delivering what might best be described as mediocre outings every weekend. Could we easily write them both off as slow starters? After all, we are only six races into a 36 race season, and there is a lot more racing to go. That’s certainly one explanation for their poor start.

    Or should we be a bit more critical and wonder why this organization, which is considered to be one of the more well-financed in all of motorsports and whose namesake is synonymous with high performance excellence, can’t put all three of its teams into the top-10 on any given race weekend?

    Does Hendrick Motorsports have better engineers? Does Joe Gibbs Racing? Or is Team Penske, which gets its engines from Roush-Yates engines, doing a better a job with the same Fords that RFR races?

    One would expect to see a former champion like Biffle running up front every weekend, yet that’s not happening. Biffle sits in 18th place in driver points. A couple of top-10 weekends might turn his season around. Stenhouse Jr., mired back in 24th place, has no chance of making the Chase at this rate unless he wins a race.  

    Texas has been one of Roush’s better race tracks ever since it opened. This could be the breakthrough weekend for Biffle or Stenhouse Jr. Of all the organizations to watch in Texas, RFR has to be the one that will be under the gun to perform and place another of its drivers into the 2014 Chase. Keep your eye on the Nos. 99, 16 and 17. Expect them to all be at or near the top of the charts all weekend.

Does Hamlin's Medical Issue Bring Back Some Old Questions?

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    When Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought into question the way that Denny Hamlin’s last-minute withdrawal from the race at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago was handled by his team and NASCAR, it reopened the discussion of how medical issues such as Hamlin’s are currently being handled. Junior said:

    I thought that the lack of a statement from Denny’s point of view left him vulnerable and unprotected. I just felt like it was important for him to have a very simple statement that sort of cleared up any kind of assumptions or whatever you have for him personally. 

    For years, competitors in the NASCAR garage have asked about having a permanent medical unit that would travel to every race, in much the same way IndyCar and Formula One handles their medical needs. NASCAR has kept personal driver records on hand at every race, but in cases of medical emergencies, each track is responsible for providing a complete medical facility on the grounds, with care being administered by a local physician, usually one with a long association with the race track.

    The Hamlin situation also brought suspicion as to the real reasons behind his last-minute withdrawal. Earnhardt felt it raised more questions than it answered.

    NASCAR’s race cars are the safest they’ve ever been. We’ve become accustomed to seeing big wrecks and have drivers literally walk away from them and then walk into an ambulance for further evaluation. Because of this, the subject of driver safety and health has been on the back burner. 

    The Hamlin affair may have changed that. This is one storyline worth watching over the next few weeks.

Yes, It's True, Junior Is Your Points Leader

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    HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing

    Earnhardt Jr., seen here earlier in the season with a few of his buddies, is back on top of the drivers standings.

    A third-place finish at Martinsville, which came after the Hendrick Motorsports driver had issues early in the race, was the result of good driving and smart pit strategy by crew chief Steve Letarte. It catapulted him back into the lead over Matt Kenseth by nine points.

    "(I’m) real happy with the job the guys did on the car,” said Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race press conference. “We weren’t happy Friday at all with the car.  We made the car a lot better.”

    Any time a driver says his team made his car better during the weekend, it is a good sign that the communication between driver and crew chief is working well. These two have always gotten along, from day one. But this season, there's a confidence in this team that's obvious in everything it does. Earnhardt is walking and talking like a man who would be champion.

    Earnhardt also credits team owner Rick Hendrick for setting the bar high for his employees, then giving them encouragement and all the tools necessary so that they can succeed:

    Obviously Rick (Hendrick) has an influence on his employees. Everybody really strives from the top to the bottom to give their best. It’s a cliché but it’s so true when you actually get to work there and get behind closed doors and see the influence that he has just on individuals.  Everybody just pushes so hard to do something good every day. It makes everybody else’s job that much easier. It’s just good reflection of his influence on the company as a whole, but yeah it’s fun being a part of it.

    The Hendrick “magic” has worked for many years with both Gordon and Johnson. Perhaps some of it has rubbed off on the No. 88 team this year and Junior and Co. will truly be contenders for the title.

    It is early in the season, but right now, they sure look like contenders. 

Dillon Leads RCR Effort

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon was expected to be the top dog at Richard Childress Racing (RCR) in a year or two. Few could have predicted that the young man would be the organization’s top driver only six races into his debut season in Sprint Cup competition.

    Dillon has quietly moved himself into ninth place in driver points, using consistency to get himself there. He has only one top-10 finish so far this season, but he has finished every race—a good thing for any rookie, but especially this rookie, who was expected to do well.

    Meanwhile, teammate Ryan Newman climbed into the seat of the No. 31 Chevrolet knowing that just about anything he did would make his team look better than its previous driver, Jeff Burton, did. Newman has only two top-10s this season. Late-race maneuvering at Daytona left him with a 22nd-place finish. He followed the season opener with two seventh-place finishes in Phoenix and Las Vegas.

    Unfortunately, he's fallen a bit off pace in his last two races, finishing 20th at both Fontana and Martinsville. Still, he's capable of knocking off a string of top-10s and a win once he gets adjusted to his new surroundings.

    His pairing with Luke Lambert was an excellent choice and should pay off midseason. Until then, Newman will likely keep himself within catching distance of the top-10 drivers points with consistency and a few of those top-10s finishes.

    Paul Menard is in his fourth season at RCR and his fifth with crew chief extraordinaire Slugger Labbe. The two struck gold with a win in the Brickyard 400 in 2011, solidifying Menard’s status as a major league player. However, he’s never made the Chase, which is a huge disappointment given that he’s been in top-notch equipment for much of his Sprint Cup career.

    In 2014, Menard could find himself in position to win another race, in much the same way he won at Indy. That would be all that is needed to place him in the Chase. Once there, he’ll likely not embarrass anyone and could surprise everyone.

    Dillon is the odds-on favorite to win the ROTY title, and he’s on track to do just that. Competition from Kyle Larson—and later in the season from Justin Allgaier—will be serious threats to his chances. 

Gordon Getting Impatient

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon watched his teammate win at Daytona, Kevin Harvick win at Phoenix and even Carl Edwards win at Bristol. And we all know what happened at Fontana. All of those were races in which Gordon was a serious contender for the win.

    This man is getting very impatient. He knows what a win will do for his season. But he's thinking more than just wins. He’s thinking championship.

    “To me, it’s not just important to lock yourself in the Chase; we are all here to try and win the championship,” Gordon told the media last week at Martinsville. “And it is a huge step forward to winning the championship because of the mindset that you go into and how you approach each race after you have gotten a win.”

    It's obvious that getting that elusive win will make a tremendous difference to the No. 24 team every time the team unloads its race car:

    I think that there is such a huge advantage…to be relaxed and go about business a different way than the rest of us who haven’t won yet.  I think you always have to look at both sides of it.  They are looking at it as "okay, we can be more aggressive with setups and what we can do to prep for the next race or winning the championship," but you also have to remember there are a lot of other guys are out there that haven’t won yet and are really hungry to get that win because we see how important it is. 

    The four-time Cup champion has been talking about his “Drive for Five” (five titles) for several years, only to be thwarted by none other than his teammate, Jimmie Johnson,  or another competitor every year.

    With only a few years remaining behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car for this superstar, every race and every lap carry with them an added importance. The hourglass on his career continues to empty out.

Sprint Cup Rookie Report

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    Justin Allgaier
    Justin AllgaierRandy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    The Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition is the strongest it's been in over a decade. All eight rookies come into the Sprint Cup Series with extensive racing backgrounds.

    Austin Dillon has garnered the most preseason attention, as he’s the grandson of legendary team owner, Richard Childress and is behind the wheel of the equally legendary No. 3 Chevrolet in its return to competition in the Cup series in 2014.

    Kyle Larson attracted a good deal of attention at the end of last season when, as a virtual unknown, he was tapped to replace veteran racer Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing when Montoya decided to return to open wheel racing.

    Both drivers have yet to disappoint, although Larson’s runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway a couple of weeks ago put him in the center of the media spotlight. Dillon, on the other hand, has quietly delivered one top-10 (at the season opener in Daytona) and four top-20s in his last four races. Dillon is ninth, while Larson sits 19th in driver points standings.

    Of the other six drivers, Justin Allgaier has been the most consistent. He crashed out at Daytona, but he’s been running at the finish at every race since. His team is led by veteran crew chief Steve Addington who has stints with Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart on his resume. Team owner Harry Scott wants to see this young man succeed. He has three wins in the Nationwide Series, so he’s no stranger to Victory Lane in NASCAR. Allgaier sits 27th in points.

    Michael Annett drove in the Nationwide Series for Germain Racing and Rusty Wallace Racing before moving to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2012. He drives for Tommy Baldwin Racing in the Cup series, and he’s yet to crack the top 20 at the finish. Baldwin’s cars are good, yet not as good as those driven by the other three rookies, which could account for Annett’s slow start in the Cup Series. He sits 31st in points.

    Cole Whitt (32nd), Alex Bowman (35th), Ryan Truex (37th) and Parker Kligerman (39th) fill up the remainder of the 2014 rookie class, and none has been impressive. This is part inexperience and part driving for a lesser-financed team. Truex and Bowman are in their first season with BK Racing, and their enthusiasm should make their team better than it has been in the past several years. 

    Whitt has dabbled in Cup cars since 2011, but his team, owned by Brandon Davis, is the epitome of underfunded. Kligerman is in the same boat as his teammate. Both drivers will need to be up on the wheel at every race so as to make the best of their equipment and, perhaps, impress someone on one of the top-tier teams.