NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Who Desperately Needed This Weekend Off
Finally. Some time off.
After a non-stop run of ten race weekends in a row, the teams of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series get to spend a weekend away from the race track.
It’s also Easter weekend, which has traditionally been an off weekend for all of NASCAR’s national touring series .
What do drivers and team members do with an extra day or two that they can use to break up the helter skelter lifestyle that is NASCAR Sprint Cup racing?
Answer: A little bit of everything.
For starters, Kevin Harvick (above) the recent winner of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, is likely to take time in the next week to reflect upon his second win of the season—a win that gives him a secure lock on a spot in the 2014 Sprint Cup Chase.
Unfortunately, there are many other drivers whose time off will be spent examining what’s gone wrong with their 2014 season.
That’s particularly true with…
Denny Hamlin What The...Is Going on Here?
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver came out of the box in Daytona smoking hot—winning both the Sprint Unlimited and the second of two Budweiser Duel races.
He nearly made it a clean sweep at Daytona, but fell short to race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Since then, this team has been in a funk. There was a brief moment of clarity during the Bristol race weekend, where Hamlin started from the pole, ran strong all day and finished sixth.
Then, this driver and team went back to sleep.
Hamlin may be struggling with the new ride height rules change which has taken a toll up and down pit road.
Or maybe it’s just that Hamlin needs more focus, something he may have admitted by posting this tweet after finishing a disappointing 13th at Texas:
Stupid driver!!!!! 😏🔫— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) April 7, 2014
Darlington wasn't much better. Hamlin finished 19th in the Southern 500, a race he's won before and has seven top-10s.
This Darian Grubb-led squad is a solid team. But the burden here may be on the Joe Gibbs Racing organization as a whole. All three drivers are having soft seasons so far, with Kyle Busch's win at California a singular bright spot.
But since we're speaking of Hamlin's teammates...
Matt Kenseth Still Searching for the Win
The photo of Matt Kenseth (above) is a reminder from earlier in the season when Kenseth won the first of two Budweiser Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedwaty.
Since then, Kenseth’s Sprint Cup team has been good, but not good enough to score their first points race victory of 2014.
Going winless so far isn’t keeping Kenseth or crew chief Jason Ratcliff awake at night. After all, they do have a back up plan—of sorts. Kenseth is second in points.
Nevertheless, this time off might be just what the Joe Gibbs Racing squad needs to come back rested and ready to score that all-important must win of 2014.
Martin Truex Jr. a Season Lost
Martin Truex Jr.
We all know the story of how Martin Truex Jr. went from being one of Michael Waltrip’s golden boys to being expatriated to Barney Visser’s lone wolf organization out of Denver—and not the one in North Carolina. The one in Colorado.
At the time of his signing, Truex Jr. told the media he’d been “blessed” to have the opportunity to sign with Furniture Row. Or maybe he meant to say “lucky to find a ride.”
Or maybe it just came from his breathing all the thin air in Colorado.
Nowadays “cursed” might be a better word to use.
What was expected to be a smooth transition for Truex Jr. in 2014 has turned into a classic “throwaway” season for a driver, who at 34 years of age, can’t really afford to have one.
Besides bringing several of his former teammates from Waltrip’s organization to make it feel a bit more like home, nothing much has changed with this team—the same one that put its driver, Kurt Busch, in the Chase in 2013.
Nothing much changed except for the driver.
The crew chief, Todd Berrier, stayed the same. And the team continued to run out of Colorado, with key technical support coming through a deal with Richard Childress Racing.
Is Busch a better driver than Truex Jr.? That’s hard to say, although Busch is a former champion and he’s already won a Cup race in 2014, with his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing.
So maybe this group could use the time off for a little soul searching to figure out why so much talent and a reasonable racing budget from Furniture Row is producing so much of nothing in 2014.
Jamie McMurray Plays It Mr. Cool
McMurray is a “marquee” driver.
When it’s a major race, you’re sure to find him running up front and good enough to win.
His Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 (both in 2010) wins are proof of that.
Seven Sprint Cup wins over a 13 year career is a pretty good achievement. It’s even more impressive when you consider he did it for much of his career in Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR equipment.
In 2013, McMurray claimed one victory, again it came in a major race, on the superspeedway at Talladega. His win there last October certified McMurray as a true big league driver (as if the previously mentioned Daytona and Brickyard wins weren't proof enough).
However, since racing is a “what have you done for me lately” sport, it’s worth taking a look at McMurray’s 2014 results. They’re not very pretty. His two top-10s at Phoenix and Fontana are the sole bright spots in a very dull season so far.
Could it be that his rookie teammate, Kyle Larson, has become the face of Chip Ganassi racing, as Chris Owens with PopularSpeed.com predicted back in January.
Time off is just what McMurray needs. He'll come back refreshed and ready to take his team to the next level.
There’s another major race just around the corner, at Talladega on May 4. The 2.66-mile superspeedway in Alabama is one of McMurray’s best tracks. In fact, it might be his best track, with two wins, six top-fives and seven top-10s.
Rest up Jamie. You can still play it cool for another week or two.
Kurt Busch Is Outlaw Looking for Payback?
The “Outlaw” needs some time off.
He’s got two “feuds” to contend with.
Brad Keselowski and Busch have some unfinished business from Martinsville in March. And more recently, Clint Bowyer took Busch out during the first attempt at a green-white-checkers finish at last weekend’s Southern 500.
He was not pleased with the outcome at Darlington Raceway and sent out this tweet after the race:
It sucks to race 500 miles having a decent night to getting hit & spun out in GWC & finishing 31st. #TFS & in don't mean thanks for sharing— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) April 13, 2014
How much fun he must be having during the weekend off, thinking about the wheres and the whens on how he'll deliver payback to these two!
Clint Bowyer Rested and Ready
Despite going winless in 2013, Clint Bowyer did deliver 10 top-fives and 19 top-10 finishes—a strong season by any measure.
His team’s performance was good enough to put Bowyer back in the Chase for the fifth time in 2013.
This season however, has been a slow starter for the No. 15 Toyota team. Bowyer scored his first top-10 finish of the season in Martinsville (ninth), following that up with another top-10 (eighth) at Texas.
Darlington’s finish was…well, we all know the Kurt Busch story.
Bowyer is about to get hot. This weekend is a good chance for him and his team to catch their breath and get ready for the long stretch of racing until the next weekend off in July.
Richmond is the next stop on the schedule and the Five Hour Energy driver has two wins on the short track in Virginia.
And of course, there was that other episode at Richmond last fall...
Marcos Ambrose Is He Trying Too Hard?
Leading the charge for the resurgent Richard Petty Motorsports alongside his teammate Aric Almirola, the “Wonder from Down Under” almost seems to be trying too hard.
Ambrose is always amongst the fastest drivers during practice and then he’s sure to go past the opening round of qualifying—making it to the final round several times this season.
However, on race day, Ambrose becomes an over achiever, driving a car that’s good, but not quite good enough to hang tough with the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. He is a tough competitor who is willing to get in there and fight it out against anyone.
You want to say its the car—good, yet not good enough. But Ambrose was a rock star on the short tracks at Bristol and Martinsville, two of the toughest tracks the Sprint Cup Series races on.
Maybe Ambrose will use the time off to figure it all out. We know this team will be in the Chase. Ambrose has pretty much figured out how to dominate at Watkins Glen. He’ll do the same at Sonoma, if he’s got the car.
But until then, he’ll need to focus on the next race—a short track, where this driver seems to do well on. Ambrose already has his first oval win (Michigan). But winning on a short track, now that would be something else!
Kasey Kahne the Forgotten Man
The forgotten man at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has been overshadowed this season by his teammates, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
All three drivers are having killer seasons. Gordon is leading the driver points. Earnhardt Jr. has a win in the bank and a seat at the Chase table. Johnson and Gordon are both wins waiting to happen.
And then there’s Kahne, struggling to get noticed and struggling on the race track. Perhaps if he and his team were doing better on the race track they might get noticed.
This team seems so far out of sync, that one weekend off might not be enough to fix the problem. Kahne is a good driver with 16 career Sprint Cup wins. Last season Kahne won at Bristol and Pocono, two very different tracks. It shows a depth of talent on the No. 5 team.
But this season, they seem to be missing something. It’s hard to put one’s finger on it. They’re good, but just not good enough. And we know it’s not the equipment.
A weekend off might just be the right medicine needed to point this group in the right direction. Richmond, the next stop for the Sprint Cup Series is the place where Kahne scored his first career Cup victory. That win in 2005 remains as his only win on the .750-mile track.
Richmond could be the place where Kahne scores his first win of 2014, places his team in the Chase and gives them the shot in the arm of confidence that they so desperately need.
Is It Time for Danica Patrick to Get Serious?
I’m not saying that Patrick isn’t serious, but now is the time.
Jimmie Johnson was quoted several years ago as saying "it takes five years to figure how to race at the Cup level."
Patrick is in her third year, driving the best equipment in the field and surrounded by two former Cup champions (her boss Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch) and a Daytona 500 winner (Kevin Harvick). Not to mention that those three are all future Hall of Famers.
Yet, we find Patrick week after week playing footsie on race day with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. near the back of the field. Her car is always fast during practice and she’s made it past the first round in knock out qualifying.
Maybe Stenhouse Jr. is teaching her how to drive Cup cars and keeping them both out of harm’s way while he does so.
No. That’s not what’s happening. What is happening is that the No. 10 car is edging close to being a joke, despite the support its driver gets from the NASCAR fan base and from the mainstream sports media—that immediately latches on to a Patrick angle whenever there’s a NASCAR story floating around, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with her.
The NASCAR media long ago stopped paying much attention to Patrick. She’s become another one of those drivers who drives around the middle of the pack and collects a good paycheck.
The time is now. Patrick has what it takes to make it in the Cup Series. Her team owner says so. It’s time to show it with some top-10s and maybe a top-five. We know those kinds of results are in the race car.
The question remains: Is she able to pull them out?
Will Bad Brad Be Back Soon?
What in the world has happened to the No. 2 team?
They win a race and then…nothing?
Keselowski was on fire for the first three races of the season. Third at Daytona, third again at Phoenix—after winning the pole—and a win at Las Vegas, after starting on the front row and his team was smoking hot.
Then, once they had an all-important win in the bank, and a seat for the Chase: 14th at Bristol, 26th at Fontana, 38th at Martinsville (we know why here), 15th at Texas and 17th at Darlington.
What is going on here? Are they working on some exotic new setups that just have them out of contention for awhile, but ready to rock come Chase time?
Let’s hope that’s not the reason. Keselowski can be fun to watch, when his car is good. Richmond isn’t a good track for him, but Talladega the following weekend is. The Michigan native has two wins there. He likes the big tracks and the big speeds.
Maybe Keselowski’s team needed this week to regroup, wash their hair and buy some new shoes. (That last part always makes me feel better.)
Until then, we’ll be waiting for Bad Brad to return.
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