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

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIApril 9, 2014

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

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    Mic Smith

    Seven in seven.

    No, we’re not talking about the popular bar drink. It’s a reference to the seven different winners in the first seven races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

    Earnhardt Jr., Harvick, Keselowski, Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Logano. All are names from a Who’s Who list of the top stars of the Cup series. All are winners in 2014.

    Eight for eight? Why not? It’s a strong possibility now that winning is everything in Sprint Cup competition. Everything now means a ticket to the Chase. 

    The eighth different winner could come from a strong pool of candidates that includes Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer; all are itching to get their ticket punched for postseason play. 

    Next up it’s “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” Darlington Speedway in South Carolina didn’t come by that nickname when a marketing guru thought it up. And it didn’t come by way of a contest that let fans decide the track’s nickname. 

    This track came by its nickname the only way it could. From the drivers. Once you’ve raced on Darlington’s oddly shaped oval, with its high banks and track so narrow that it makes two-wide look scary and three-wide seem absolutely impossible, the nickname comes to you naturally.  

    She’s also been called "The Lady in Black" because at the end of every race, her outer walls, which are painted white prior to race day, bear the black scars of tire scuffs or body rubs—proof that someone needed the wall to make that next-to-impossible pass or to make his ill-handling race car work.

    There's also the "Darlington Stripe" that appears on the right rear quarter panel of most of the cars this weekend. That's from contact with the outside wall, sometimes a necessity when you're pushing the limits. 

    Call Darlington Speedway whatever works best for you. As for the teams of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, this week they'll call it "What's Next."

Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? Baloney!

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Some have dared to write that Joey Logano, based upon his win in the rain-delayed Duck Commander 500, is a “real contender” for the championship. 

    I’m not sure what they meant by the use of the term “real contender,” but I’m guessing that they’re making reference to the young man’s chances at beating the other 15 drivers who will be alongside him in the shark pool known as The Chase.

    But all this hyperbole about the young man's chances after only one race win? 

    Admittedly, Logano emerged from a rain-soaked Texas Motor Speedway Monday night holding a big trophy and an equally big check. But, it didn’t put him at the top of a tough class of competitors, many of whom had a rough afternoon fighting with a race car that was set up to run under far different conditions that were experienced when the race was finally run on Monday morning—a cold Monday morning that followed an all-night rain.

    Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, out-guessed his fellow crew chiefs, many of whom never found that all-important sweet spot for their drivers.

    His driver found his comfort zone well past the race’s halfway point.

    Logano was quick during practice, but that speed was not evident early in the race. Not until lap 226 did the Shell Pennzoil Ford come to life and allow young Logano to make the moves he needed to make to run at the front of the pack.

    Logano’s nickname of “Sliced Bread” might be better suited if accompanied by a rather thick slice of baloney.

Gordon: A Win Waiting to Happen

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    Jeff Gordon (l) with crew chief Alan Gustafson.
    Jeff Gordon (l) with crew chief Alan Gustafson.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    In the closing laps of Monday’s race, Jeff Gordon didn’t have anything for eventual race winner Joey Logano. 

    “We were really strong the first half of the race; then the sun came out and some guys kind of lost the handle and got real tight,” Gordon said in the post-race press conference. 

    And despite his well-practiced and steady demeanor, learned after years of racing disappointments, Gordon could not mask his frustration with another “close but no cigar” finish. Behind his smile during the post-race press conference there was evidence of dejection so strong that it might have consumed a less experienced driver.

    This season the four-time Cup champion has run up front with the race leaders at every race. And he’s actually knocked on the door to Victory Lane (at Fontana) only to have a late caution destroy his chances.

    At Texas, his car was good. It was better than 41 others. Just not better than the one in front of him.

    “That was an awesome race all day,” he said after the Texas race. (I) have to thank the fans for coming out and watching, and the ones at home.” 

    There he was once again, hiding disappointment while thanking the fans for staying over and watching the race on Monday.

    It told of his champion’s pedigree, as a lesser driver would have been so consumed by the loss his thoughts would have never strayed from feeling sorry for himself long enough to thank those who make his dream job possible.

    Gordon is a class act. 

    Except...during the heat of battle. 

A Rebound for Earnhardt Jr.? None Is Required

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lap 14 brain fade during the Duck Commander 500 will receive millions of views on YouTube—some for the “Oh no!” factor, others for its fiery outcome.

    It was one of those times when you just wish no one was watching.

    But people were. And they will continue to watch it over and over and over again.

    If only it didn’t happen. 

    It made for a short day for the No. 88 team. And his 43rd-place finish dropped Junior from a short-lived points lead down to sixth. 

    Rebound? None required. This driver just made a mistake. He is, after all, only human.

How Much Is Too Much?

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    Kyle Busch winning NNS race at Phoenix.
    Kyle Busch winning NNS race at Phoenix.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    This Friday night, the day before the Southern 500, Kyle Busch will again race in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) race for his Cup team owner, Joe Gibbs.

    And it's likely that once again Busch will dominate and win against a field of nameless NNS regulars and maybe a few Cup drivers.

    Some fans are up in arms. Most simply don’t care about Busch's domination of the NNS. But the fans who are incensed with Busch’s domination of the minor league stock car series claim that each of his victories takes one away from an NNS regular. It's as if that victory was an NNS driver’s to have. It isn't.

    If I remember correctly, you still need to finish first to claim the victory, and Busch does it more than most of the NNS drivers. In fact, he does it more than all the rest combined.

    Take away the Cup drivers from the “day before” show, and you rob those fans who can’t afford or can’t attend the big show the following day a chance to watch Cup stars like Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth race.

    Team owners say that if you take the Cup driver out of the equation, it becomes very difficult to sell sponsorship for the minor league series, which is second only to the Sprint Cup Series in popularity amongst motorsports fans in the United States.

    How often does LeBron James go back and play in a college game? And how often does Peyton Manning play quarterback for his college alma mater, the Tennessee Volunteers, during college football season? 

    That’s how a whole lot of fans equate Cup drivers racing in the NNS.

    The truth is, Cup drivers in the NNS usually have better equipment and better engineering than their NNS-only counterparts. 

    NNS regulars will admit, when asked, that they enjoy racing with the Cup regulars. It offers them a chance to learn from the masters so to speak. But, while that in itself stands as a good enough reason to keep the Cup drivers in the series, it’s time for NASCAR to limit the number of races they can race in. 

    Limiting a driver to competing for only one championship in a season was a bold and necessary step. The time is now to limit the number of races a Cup driver can compete in a lower series to 15 per season, less than half the total number of races in the NNS schedule and slightly more than half of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. 

    It makes sense, and it’s only fair, so that if an NNS regular can tell a potential sponsor, “I finished third, after Busch and Harvick,” he should also be able to say that he finished first—when there were no Busch and Harvick.

Please Don't Use That 'P' Word

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    Denny Hamlin winning at Daytona.
    Denny Hamlin winning at Daytona.Terry Renna

    Some have dared use the “P” word when speaking about NASCAR competition.

    Has parity arrived in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series? Ask Denny Hamlin (above), and he'll likely tell you that it has not. The hottest driver at Daytona, his season has gone nowhere despite being with one of the sport's top organizations.

    A quick look at the standings since the start of the 2014 season shows a fairly even distribution of the seven wins amongst five of the six “major” teams.

    Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske both have two wins. Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing each have one win. Only Richard Childress Racing is winless in 2014. (In stick-and-ball sports RCR might be described as having “a building year.”)

    Of the remaining "major" Sprint Cup racing organizations, Chip Ganassi Racing would be at the top of anyone’s list of “next to win a race” given the exceptional performances by rookie Kyle Larson since Daytona (three top 10s, two top fives and 15th in points).

    Back to the original question. Is there parity? Maybe. Amongst those top five or six teams, it seems as though there is. 

    But in the NFL, which is the leader in major league sports when it comes to equality (what other sport can boast that on any given game day either team is likely to win?), parity is a desired situation.

    NASCAR doesn’t need parity to make the racing entertaining. It would make it even more boring during those long races than it already is, according to some fans.

    Parity is like this: Imagine a cooking competition where every week, the chefs have to cook the same meals, week-in and week-out. It comes down to who can make the perfect steak and baked potato every week.

    That’s NFL football.

    Now imagine a cooking competition where every week, all the chefs have the same ingredients but are allowed to cook it in whatever way they want as long as they use the exact same ingredients as everyone else.

    That way, the competition amounts to not only who can execute the best, but also who is the most creative.

    That’s NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

    So, what do you think? Is there parity in NASCAR?

Time for Payback? Or It Ain't over Until I Say It's Over?

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Do you remember this little kerfuffle between Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski at Martinsville?

    Want to bet neither of them has forgotten about it either?

    Texas Motor Speedway isn’t the kind of track where you dish out payback. 

    Darlington Raceway is.

    Yes, it is fast. But not too fast. And it is the kind of place where your actions might easily be masked (but not too easily) by the track’s notorious treachery. 

    Now, I’m not trying to stir anything up; although, this pot has been on simmer on the back burner for a few weeks, and it could use a little bit of attention.

    I am saying that it might be worth watching these two. And don’t expect any payback (if there is any) to come during practice. There’s always the backup car. No, you want it to hurt. 

    Do it during Saturday night’s Southern 500.

Rookie Report Card

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    Austin Dillon (l), Richard Childress
    Austin Dillon (l), Richard ChildressChris Graythen/Getty Images

    Remember this guy? (above) Austin Dillon. Richard Childress' grandson?

    His fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate, Kyle Larson, continues to grab the headlines, yet Dillon has held his own in the driver points with cautious yet productive runs in the first seven races of the season.

    Texas wasn't one of his more memorable outings (he finished 21st). In fact, none of his seven races this season has been memorable. But, this young man with the 24-carat racing pedigree is carving out a long career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driving the No. 3 car.

    Currently 12th in driver points (he slipped three spots after Texas), Dillon is still trying to figure out his comfort level. And he and crew chief Gil Martin appear to be speaking the same language. A win this season? Perhaps, but that rookie win is more likely to come from his chief competition, Larson.

    Chip Ganassi’s latest "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," rookie Kyle Larson, had another stellar outing at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing fifth and reigniting his Kyle vs. Kyle battle in the race’s final laps before the green-white checkers.

    Larson seems to do well on the fast tracks. He finished second at Fontana. That is a surprise given that he cut his racing teeth on short tracks. Maybe it's the thing you know best that’s always the hardest to change when you move up to Sprint Cup competition. Larson’s not about to power-slide his Chevrolet SS into a corner anytime soon.

    Justin Allgaier continues to improve as does his Harry Scott Motorsports team. Both are essentially new to the series, and Allgaier, who has hundreds of laps in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS), is learning the ropes without the benefit of a teammate. The same applies for Michael Annett. Both drivers finished in the top 30.

    Cole Whitt (31st) and Alex Bowman (32) have been inconsistent, which is to be expected from two rookies. Give this duo a bit more time, and it'll show that it is capable of producing top-20 finishes. Of note: Whitt holds the track record for NCWTS qualifying at 28.273 seconds, 173.933 mph.

    Parker Kligerman unfortunately is struggling. It’s hard to say if it's the cars, the team or Kligerman, but this young man—who demonstrated viable talent in the NCWTS—isn’t showing it now. It's not fair to judge him by these first races. Hopefully his sponsor and his team owner stick with him for a while longer.

    Ryan Truex had another DNQ. It needs to be his last.

    Points: Dillon (12th); Larson (15th); Allgaier (28th); Annett (32nd); Whitt (33rd); Bowman (35th); Truex (38th) and Kligerman (39th).

Still Talking About Tires

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    Ralph Lauer

    As long as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup crew chiefs continue to use the Goodyear tires as an integral part of their car setup, there will always be some kind of discussion about tires. 

    Tires play a critical role in how a Sprint Cup car will perform, and team engineers make setup decisions based upon the expectations of how the tires will behave under actual racing conditions.

    Often those setups are spot on, and a crew chief will be able to make small adjustments during the race weekend that will satisfy his driver’s needs. Sometimes, the car comes off the hauler, and it's not close to making the driver comfortable enough to get the best speed from it. That’s when you see the difference between the good crew chiefs and the great ones. 

    You also see the difference between the good drivers and the not-so-good ones.

    Darlington Raceway used to be a track that was a nightmare for tires. Its original pavement was so coarse it would only take a few laps before the tires lost their efficiency, and for the rest of the run drivers would have their hands full. Darlington was repaved in 2007, but its surface is still coarse and rough, forcing Goodyear’s engineers to develop a stronger tire for Darlington.

    With the heavy camber and low air pressures needed to run fast at Darlington, you can expect that tires will play a very visible role during the weekend.