Olive Branch, Mississippi's best known stock car racer: Ricky Stenhouse, on the Atlanta 500 pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Ricky Stenhouse may be just a NASCAR rookie with a big cowboy hat and a very famous girlfriend. But he's been picking up speed the last few weeks on the stock car tour, and Friday evening he and teammate Carl Edwards swept the front row for Sunday night's Atlanta 500.
Ford drivers have complained all season -- quietly yet persistently -- about needing more speed to be able to compete against those butt-kicking Toyotas and Chevrolets.
So what to make of Ford's sudden display of speed here? Stenhouse was clocked at 189.688 mph. That's nothing close to the record 197 mph when the track was last repaved, in 1997. But it's the fastest lap here in several years.
Word of warning: this track eats tires at an alarming rate, and lap speeds fall off a good two seconds a lap over a fuel run. And the last time a man won from the pole was back in 2006, Kasey Kahne. And the fastest men here on extended runs Friday were Chevy teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Even Edwards was wary of putting too much stock in Friday runs. And he joined the chorus of Ford men questioning, albeit subtly, what looks decidedly like an unbalance of power on the Sprint Cup tour with these new 2013s.
Two more points to keep in mind:
-- Of the tour's six 1-1/2-mile tracks, Toyota's Matt Kenseth has won four of them, Las Vegas, Kansas, Darlington and Kentucky. Toyota's Kyle Busch won Texas, and Chevy's Kevin Harvick won Charlotte. (Ford men Greg Biffle and Joey Logano swept two-mile Michigan, but that's a special case this season, with stunning speeds and tire questions.)
-- Ford has won here only once in the past eight years, Edwards in 2008.
A hot, muggy day at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But Ricky Stenhouse makes it a good one. And he nearly won Kansas, remember (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"It's finally good to get something accomplished this year," Stenhouse said with a laugh after the first Cup pole of his career. "The last few weeks we've been running better than we were earlier this year."
More than that, Stenhouse has been exuding a clear sense of increased confidence the last few weeks.
And Edwards pointed out Stenhouse came close to his first tour win back in April at Kansas.
While drivers and engineers ponder the new Goodyear right-side tires here, hybrids, there are other story lines to follow too:
Like Kyle Larson, soon to be NASCAR's newest Sprint Cup driver...
Like the still uncertain futures facing Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya...
Like Jimmie Johnson's slump, and Matt Kenseth's rebound...
And, well, this curious subject, just raised:
Is NASCAR safer than the NFL?
Is racing safer than football?
Interesting questions...raised by Jimmie Johnson.
Apropos, just after Tony Stewart's savage sprint car crash -- not in a NASCAR stocker, it should be pointed out.
The 2011 death of Indy-car star Dan Wheldon is certainly a headline in this debate.
Maybe PBS' Frontline will do an investigation into safety aspects of racing, after it finishes its documentary on the NFL.
Certainly NASCAR executives -- with their own extensive library at NASCAR Images -- should be eager to showcase their many safety advances since Dale Earnhardt's death 12 years ago. Particularly since that could show drivers at lower levels what they could do to make their part of this sport safer.
At the NASCAR Cup, Nationwide and Truck levels, racers may well be safer than NFL players.
There are two aspects here, the serious injuries/deaths, and the less serious but still painful injuries that can keep a player or driver out of that next game or next race.
Certainly at lower levels, both sports may bear closer examination.
HANS designer Jim Downing himself weighs in on this HERE
Jimmie Johnson: safety. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Racing may be safer than football, as Johnson contends. But it's still not injury-free, as Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. can attest.
Hamlin and Truex both injured their right wrists in Saturday's night crash at Bristol. However both are expected to race here this weekend.
Truex has the more severe injury, a break, which should take about six weeks to heal. He'll be wearing a special cast. Truex is fighting for a spot in the chase, and
Hamlin will be wearing a splint on his right thumb. He tested Monday and Tuesday at Chicago; Hamlin won't be in title contention when the playoffs open at that track in two weeks, but teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch will be.
Hamlin says both he and Truex will have a rough go of it the next few weeks.
Hamlin was sidelined for several weeks earlier this season when he fractured his back in a hard crash at California.
Truex says "I was a little bit nervous coming here, not real sure what it was going to be like. I've never drove hurt before. I've never been hurt in a race car before. But the first lap out on the track I felt really good, and everything has gone well today, so so far so good."
Scott Speed will stand by if Truex needs relief, but he says he expects to go all 500 miles.
Johnson makes the case for NASCAR safety just as the National Football League is making a $750 million settlement with players over the issue of concussions.
Concussions have been a sensitive issue in NASCAR too, particularly last fall when Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed he'd suffered two concussions in a short span and took himself out of his ride for a couple weeks to recover.
NASCAR officials have debated how to deal with the issue of concussions, which isn't that easy, since a concussion is frequently difficult to diagnose.
More hard luck, for Martin Truex Jr. (L) and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
AJ Allmendinger, quietly on the comeback trail this season, is expected to get multi-year contract to drive Toyotas next season on the Sprint Cup tour.
In his 12 Cup races, Allmendinger's best finish was 10th at Watkins Glen three weeks ago, for the Tad Geschickter-Brad Daugherty team. That's been Bobby Labonte's team the past three seasons, but Allmendinger this weekend could announce his new deal to replace Labonte. Allmendinger is in that car again here.
So how's the new ESPN versus Fox Sports 1 battle going?
Is it going to be worth an extra buck or so a month on your cable bill?
Just what America needs, more talking heads talking sports....
Just what does Regis Philbin really bring to this table?
And what is going on over at that new NBC Sports channel these days by the way?
AJ Allmendinger: Ford today, Toyota tomorrow? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It's Breast Cancer Awareness weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with Chevrolet making its annual to-do here, celebrating breast cancer survivors and raising awareness of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Sadly apropos -- this is Marcy Scott's track, and she's in a hard battle herself.
Marcy is director of marketing and promotion for Atlanta Motor Speedway, working over 16 years in the NASCAR industry, an Atlanta native, UGA graduate and pink warrior.
And she could use some cheering up. If you've got time, give her a shoutout @marcylscott
Marcy Scott (center, front): battling hard (Photo: Atlanta Motor Speedway)
Youth versus experience.
That's always a good question in any sport.
While youth may be a hot topic in NASCAR this summer, consider this, when debating youth-versus-experience: six of the 10 men in the first championship playoffs back in 2004 are again challenging for this year's chase, nine years later.
Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.
(The other four in 2004 were Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler, Mark Martin and Jeremy Mayfield.)
Maybe the question shouldn't be 'youth versus experience' but rather just 'talent.'
After all Mark Martin nearly won Michigan just two weeks ago.
A lot of familiar faces here, nearly 10 years later: this is the original 2004 championship chase class (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Back to age.....
In NASCAR once a driver didn't reach his prime till 35....and back then car owners didn't offer young drivers a ride.
Even the great Dale Earnhardt didn't get a full time ride until he turned 28.
Jeff Gordon changed all that, when Rick Hendrick signed him to a Cup ride in 1992, at just 21.
Ironically Gordon and Stewart, both now 42, are pushing back against the old shibboleth that once a driver hits 40, he's on the downside of his career. And of course so is ageless Mark Martin, still racing for the win at 54. Martin made his first NASCAR Cup start at just 22.
Joey Logano, running Cup at just 18, back in 2008, has been one of the most notable young newcomers...and he's seen both sides of the issue.
Now comes Kyle Larson, who may be getting the nod to step up to Cup for Chip Ganassi next season. He's just turned 21.
Age in NASCAR is an interesting topic, in several respects.
For one, NASCAR and some of its sponsors are looking for competitive racers who fit certain demographics.
But the longer drivers are successful, the older they get, naturally, and the more likely it is to get sponsorships.
-- The average age of the 15 drivers challenging for the playoffs here this weekend is nearly 35 years old. Only two are under 30; three are over 40.
-- The average age of the 10 playoff drivers in 2004 was 31-1/2. Half of them were under 30; only one (Martin) was over 40.
Maybe it's not age at question here, but talent.
Jimmie Johnson isn't the only racer wearing no. 48.
That's also James Hylton's number.
And Hylton will be in Newton, Iowa, next weekend racing ARCA at the Rusty Wallace designed track.
At age 78.
Hylton, a NASCAR racer for years and years and years, is finally hanging it up.
Or so he says.
And this is his farewell tour.
Or so he says.
Hylton, a native South Carolinian who raced NASCAR 30 years, first in 1964, is one of the sport's legendary independents. He is best known for his 1972 Talladega victory and for his 1971 championship run, in which he finished second to Richard Petty.
James Hylton: then, 1969 Talladega, and now (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)