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Report card time? Who's leading laps, who's winning races...and who's overdue?

  Will Denny be smiling like this after Saturday night's race? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   So just how does Denny Hamlin's left knee feel, a week after surgical repair?
   It hurts.
   Hamlin, Martinsville winner, who has finished sixth or better in his last four runs here, may have a hard time toughing it out for three hours Saturday night.
   But then he was figured out of it on the eve of the Martinsville race, after complaining of pain and further damage since he tore his ACL in pickup basketball in January, and yet Hamlin had plenty of punch at that flat half-mile.
   "It's painful, as anyone who has had this surgery, or any similar surgery, can tell you," Hamlin concedes.
   "But I am working hard to get back my full range of motion."
   Since Hamlin is a left-footed braker, that is more than problematic.
   "The actual surgery went very well. No issues, no concerns," he said. "So I owe big thanks to Dr. Connor and the team. 
    "They took good care of me.
    "All I can do now is follow the rehab program and see how fast I can get back."
    A decision on just how Hamlin will handle Saturday's race is still up in the air. J. D. Gibbs, who runs the team, says Hamlin has been "making good progress.
    "We will have Casey Mears should we need him."

   Uh, Brian, are you sure your NASCAR license really okays you to fly the space shuttle? Brian Vickers on a NASCAR PR whirlwind tour of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in
Huntsville, Ala.
this week (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    This flat one-mile, like Martinsville, can breed frustration. And this event will be a little longer than usual, perhaps to help pump up ticket sales, perhaps just to force teams to change up their game plans.
   Kyle Busch, Hamlin's teammate, ran 12th last fall: "It's hard to pass -- like Loudon. 
    "Everybody runs the same lap time. Once you get to their bumper you can't ever really have enough to pass them."
  Mark Martin, who won here last spring, didn't have much problem. And teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have the same equipment that Martin has...so this should be a test for both men, who haven't had a great spring so far.

   Is it too early for report cards? Well, we've run Daytona, California, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol and Martinsville....
   The scorecard:
    Jamie McMurray got Chevy a win at Daytona over a fast closing Earnhardt and an ill-fated Greg Biffle, who actually made the winning move.
   Jimmie Johnson added three wins for Chevy, albeit with some good luck as well as good driving, at California (over dominant Kevin Harvick), Vegas and Bristol.
    Kurt Busch scored one for the Dodge boys and Roger Penske with a runaway at Atlanta.
    And Hamlin ignored an ailing left knee to win two weeks ago at Martinsville for Toyota.
   Jeff Burton, strong at Martinsville.
   Greg Biffle, strong but not quite lucky enough at too many races already.
   And Juan Pablo Montoya, McMurray's teammate.
   And maybe Martin too, whose average finish (8.8) at the flat one-mile Phoenix International Raceway is his best average finish at any oval track on the tour, over his legendary career.

    Over the first six tour events, the top-five in laps led looks like this:
   1. Kurt Busch, Dodge, 460
   2. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 324
   3. Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 211
   4. Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet  203
   5. Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 189.


   You don't think NASCAR's promoters are beating the bushes for fans this spring? Hey, to promote next week's Texas 500 here's Matt Kenseth strutting his stuff at a bowling alley (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Last season was a banner year for Martin, who once again came within a hair of that elusive NASCAR championship.
    But it was an off-season for Earnhardt. So team owner Rick Hendrick has paired Martin and Earnhardt, and their crew chiefs, Alan Gustafson and Lance McGrew. Earnhardt has won here, and he has a good record here (remember when he got 'flashed' after his last win at this track?)
    Martin had to battle Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart last time here, before winning, from the pole.
    "We had a pit stop sequence change that got us a little far back in traffic, and we had to fight back through those guys," Gustafson said. "We got concerned when we lost the track position and clean air.
    "But Mark was able to drive back through there and take the lead again.
    "We had a little drama with the late caution....we had to make that pit call, and fortunately it was the right one.
    "Last year we really needed that -- It was great timing. We had not gotten the finishes we had deserved up to that point."
    And Martin and Gustafson come here this spring in the same boat. They're 17th in the standings.
    "We all feel very frustrated, and feel like we're in a hole," Gustafson says. "We're all responsible for that.
     "It's very frustrating...but it's also motivating. We've had team meetings to discuss things we need to clean up.
     "We need the finishes, as well as we've been running. We've got to put those finishes together.
     "We just have to make sure we don't cause ourselves any issues. A lot of the problems we've had have been self-inflicted. We need to fix that."
     This will be the second test of the new 'old' flat-blade rear spoiler, and it looks like that might create more aero-push – the tendency of a car to get too tight to turn when behind another car. And the new spoiler could also change the approach drivers take with each other heading into the corners....
    "It is definitely going to have more of an effect at Phoenix than it did at Martinsville," McGrew says. "But we are going to see even more of a difference next week at Texas.
     "We are still trying to figure out how the spoiler is going to affect the car."
     On the Ford side of the garage keep an eye on Biffle of course. He's been running too well in Greg Erwin's cars not to finally get a couple of wins soon.
    And keep an eye on teammate Carl Edwards too. It's been hard to read Edwards since his Atlanta controversy with Brad Keselowski, hard to figure out how much it may have thrown him off his game.
     It's not hard to read Keselowski, though. He's one of the newest drivers on the tour, and he's determined to make it big. However that aggressiveness has aggravated many of his fellow drivers. Watching Keselowski work his way through this career dilemma should be interesting. Remember he was running a strong sixth at Atlanta when he crashed.
    Edwards, on the other hand, has become one of the sport's veterans, and he'll be making his 200th career start this weekend.
    However Edwards, like Biffle, is fighting through a losing streak. He won nine times in 2008 but went zip in 2009.


    Business results for the sport's first quarter are in, and the France family's International Speedway Corp reports total revenues down slightly over a year ago, $152 million compared to $166 million, and net income about the same, $25.4 million compared to $25.1 million in same quarter 2009.
    ISC says part of the drop could be attributed to dropping the early season Truck event at California's Auto Club Speedway.
    Lesa France Kennedy, head of the ISC, said Daytona's SpeedWeeks "exceeded our financial projections."
    And she said that gives her confidence in the rest of the season: "The success of our marquee event gives us tremendous momentum for 2010 and provides us the confidence to reiterate our full year financial guidance."
     Nevertheless, she pointed to a major issue for all tracks – "Our philosophy is to balance rewarding our loyal customers while providing attractive price points so new fans can experience NASCAR racing live for the first time.
      "Massive discounting late in the sales cycle not only hurts our most loyal fans that purchased in advance, but it devalues our events in the long term.
    "We continue to focus on various consumer initiatives to make it easier for fans to attend our events. Value pricing is an important part of this initiative.
    "But we are always mindful of maintaining price integrity for the longer term."

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   Paintball battles....bowling for fans...NASA testing.....even a burger eating contest: Justin Allgaier here, Bubba Burger in hand.....And I think there was even some product placement in the movie Alice in Wonderland....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Denny Hamlin's Knee

My only concern about Denny's knee is if his knee will hold together during a wreck when he is shifting quickly and should his feet slide off the pedals.

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