Things got tight and dicey on Texas' pit road last time around. Danica Patrick (green) made it difficult on Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
FORT WORTH, Texas
Okay, six races into the season, at a potpourri of stock car tracks -- Daytona, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, California and Martinsville -- and things are starting to look a lot clearer on the Sprint Cup tour.
Since that follow-the-leader Daytona 500 and a flat Phoenix 500 and so-so Las Vegas 400, things have picked up considerably.
Bristol, California and Martinsville, all solid events.
And now Texas Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT).
Greg Biffle won here a year ago. Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski put on a dazzling show here last fall, so much so that Tony Stewart hyperbolized that Keselowski 'must have a death wish,' he was racing so hard.
It's Biffle's best NASCAR track, and only one man -- former Roush teammate Matt Kenseth -- has led more laps here.
History says the top five drivers here are Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Biffle, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch.
As hot as Kenseth has been with his new team (he just won at Las Vegas, remember, over Kasey Kahne), he could easily win again here.
Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth's crew chief, points out "Texas is one of the fastest tracks on the circuit... which typically you don't always think about. But the corner-entry speeds are so fast.
"Being a Saturday night race, I think it's going to be one of the faster, more action-packed races this year."
BTW: Has Home Depot, long-time sponsor of Gibbs, simply dropped quietly off the NASCAR circuit this season? Are Kenseth and Gibbs doing any Home Depot promotions? Is Home Depot doing any NASCAR marketing?
Hope all these drivers had fun and got well rested during their Easter break...because the tour runs nonstop from now through mid-July.
Surprises so far?
The raucous California 400 certainly. The best race ever at that place, and a good crowd too. A big turnaround for Gillian Zucker's place, and a big plus for NASCAR in the key Los Angeles market.
Matt Kenseth's performance last weekend at Martinsville, for one. And Danica Patrick's Martinsville run too.
Feisty Joey Logano, sporting an aggressive image this spring.
Carl Edwards' five Daytona crashes....followed by victory at Phoenix.
Tony Stewart's mediocre start....and then he went ballistic at California, why? Was that a mea culpa at Martinsville?
The Ricky Stenhouse-Danica Patrick romance? The two rookies have been generally struggling, despite running for high-profile, well-financed operations.
The long-running slump by Chip Ganassi's two teams shows no signs of abating. And what seems increasingly curious are the continuing struggles by ex-F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya. Just two tour wins in his 223 races since his debut in 2006?
Meanwhile Paul Menard continues to lead the Richard Childress pack, showing that crew chief Slugger Labbe knows something.
Ford's newest team, Roger Penske, with Brad Keselowski and Logano, are leading the Ford pack.
However Ford, though this season clearly stronger with the addition of Penske, is still playing behind its two corporate rivals.
Let's look at lap leaders, by manufacturer: Chevy and Toyota are neck-and-neck, 842 and 823 respectively. Ford, not so much -- only 318 laps led.
No surprise that Jimmie Johnson is the tour's leader, with 430 laps on point. Toyota's Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are right behind, 319 and 264.
For Ford's Jack Roush in particular, Saturday night's Texas 500 could be a bellwether event.
This has long been a Roush track. His teams have dominated here nearly every time since it opened in 1997, with nine wins.
How have the three car makers fared so far at the two mid-sized tracks, Las Vegas and California?
Again Chevy and Toyota have far outperformed Ford. Toyota drivers have led 211 laps, Chevy drivers 201 laps, Ford drivers just 55 laps.
If Ford men get waxed again, it may be time to take a closer look at some aspects of these new 2013s and see if there is disparity.
Things aren't all hunky-dory in the Chevy camp, though. Ask Kurt Busch. He's had speed this spring, in Todd Berrier's cars. He's just mired in a run of bad luck, such as hit Kasey Kahne last year. A fourth at Bristol and a fifth at California...and four other finishes of 20th or worse, including Sunday's fiery DNF.
"Our problem is we're making this more difficult than what it should be," Busch says. "We haven't had a clean race this year -- due to a combination of bad breaks, mechanical issues, and mistakes.
"We managed to work through some of those problems in Bristol and California, where we had strong finishes.
"But it caught up to us in Martinsville; there were too many issues to overcome. We were running as high as seventh....then the calamity started. We had a flat tire, got spun out, had a fuel pump issue, and then ended the race in a fiery blaze due to a brake failure.
"Bring on Texas! Can't wait to get to that fast oval."
How are the sport's top team owners doing six races into the season?
Let's add up how well each owner's drivers are doing and average things out, to see who's on top of the game and who's not.
Sprint Cup team owner standings
(average finishing position for all teams)
1. Rick Hendrick (Chevrolet) 10.958
(Jimmie Johnson 7.333)
(Dale Earnhardt Jr. 7.667)
(Kasey Kahne 11.833)
(Jeff Gordon 17.0)
2. Roger Penske (Ford) 11.917
(Brad Keselowski 7.167)
(Joey Logano 16.667)
3. Jack Roush (Ford) 13.833
(Greg Biffle 11.0)
(Carl Edwards 12.667)
(Ricky Stenhouse 17.833)
4. Joe Gibbs (Toyota) 14.444
(Kyle Busch 11.5)
(Matt Kenseth 16.833)
(Denny Hamlin 16.0, Mark Martin 10.0, average 15.0)
5. Michael Waltrip (Toyota) 17.666
(Clint Bowyer 14.333)
(Martin Truex Jr. 23.0)
(Mark Martin 18.75, Brian Vickers 9.5, average 15.666)
6. Richard Childress (Chevrolet) 18.541
(Paul Menard 14.5)
(Kevin Harvick 17.333)
(Kurt Busch 20.167)
(Jeff Burton 22.167)
7. Chip Ganassi (Chevrolet) 22.25
(Jamie McMurray 17.167)
(Juan Pablo Montoya 27.333)
8. Tony Stewart (Chevrolet) 22.611
(Tony Stewart 21.667)
(Ryan Newman 21.833)
(Danica Patrick 24.333)
Questions still surround the Joe Gibbs-Denny Hamlin team, with Hamlin sidelined probably another four weeks.
Brian Vickers is subbing for Hamlin this week; Mark Martin finished 10th for Hamlin at Martinsville.
But under NASCAR rules, the team doesn't get Sprint Cup championship points unless Hamlin himself is in the car for the green. So the team's chances of making the playoffs and running for the title are all but over, though it's only early April.
What effect this all has on Hamlin's team? Crew chief Darian Grubb is trying to make the best of the situation.
Having Hamlin on the pit box instead of at the wheel, Grubb says, "is entertaining. He said he learned more in one hour watching practice (at Martinsville) than he typically learns in three or four months of practice himself. Just being able to watch other drivers and scan radios.
"I hope it's going to be a positive for us in the long run."
However 'the long run' may be 2014.
It's a major bummer for the sport that one of its big stars won't be running for the championship.
But even Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s medical sidelining last fall didn't prompt NASCAR executives to rethink its medical rules.
However it may well be time.
Why does NASCAR have an owner's championship and a driver's championship anyway?
It seems quite illogical. A driver cannot win the championship without a good team and team owner; NASCAR racing is certainly a team sport. The National Football League allows teams to substitute quarterbacks; why doesn't NASCAR allow substitute drivers?
Well, back in the 1950s Carl Kiekhaefer, the Mercury team owner, used NASCAR's then-loose driver rules to win championships in 1955 and 1956, basically by mixing up his team drivers, back when NASCAR had more than one weekend points race.
Big Bill France didn't like that, so he changed the rules: one driver per team car.
However NASCAR championships, and various strategies for winning titles, weren't really much of an issue in the sport until R. J. Reynolds decided to promote the championship so heavily in the 1970s. As a driver's championship.
That focus has become increasingly controversial, since the rules give only points to the driver actually starting the race, rather than the team.
It's not just academic: Consider the sponsors, who are pumping millions of dollars into this thing. Having its team taken out of playoff contention so early in the season probably won't set well inside FedEx offices.
And it's not just been about the men running for the championship, but also for the entire points structure for post-season payoffs.
And it has led to ludicrous sights such as injured Mark Martin being lifted by his crew into his car once to start a race.
Darrell Waltrip, after a hard crash at Daytona, suffered a concussion but still ran at Richmond the following weekend, even though he conceded he was in a fog the whole time.
Brad Keselowski, Ricky Rudd and Sterling Marlin are three more who probably should have sat out and mended.
Drivers have worn special flak suits to protect broken ribs while racing, rather than lose points by sitting out to heal.
Playing with pain is one thing; playing stupid is something else.
But until NASCAR comes up with a better medical substitution policy, drivers will continue to suck it up and race, regardless of the consequences.
Too little has been made of Earnhardt's situation last year, when he kept on racing after that hard crash in August while testing at Kansas, trying to tough it out. If NASCAR had been more on top of that situation at that point, and if NASCAR had a medical substitution policy, Earnhardt might have recovered enough to make a run at the championship last fall.
With teams testing continually, and heavy testing coming up in the next few weeks -- and with Earnhardt's skipping a hospital check-out last summer at Kansas as a warning -- drivers, and NASCAR officials, may want to scrutinize more carefully any similar possible medical problems.
Perhaps the NFL's current high-profile legal battle with players over head trauma issues may lead to NASCAR rethinking some of these medical issues and policies.
NASCAR's foot-dragging on something as simple as 'baseline' mental testing seems ill-advised, particularly following the loss of Earnhardt from last fall's title chase.
By the way, maybe it's time for a medical update on Michael Annett. Has anyone figured out just what went wrong in his Daytona crash?