Early-season field is wide-open in NASCAR

ASSOCIATED PRESS Jimmie Johnson, the defending Cup champion, is winless, but is not close to panicking.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Jimmie Johnson, the defending Cup champion, is winless, but is not close to panicking.
Posted: March 28, 2014

FIVE RACES into the new NASCAR Sprint Cup season and, to use a popular term, here's what is trending:

For openers, there are five different race winners: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. That's good for the series. Last year, five different drivers also won the first five races: Jimmie Johnson, Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch. In the 10-year history of the Chase, there have not been six different winners beginning a season.

Earnhardt's victory in the season-opening day/night Daytona 500 was a huge boost for himself and the sport. Even though he had only one win the previous 5 years, Earnhardt remains tremendously popular.

Another plus is Tony Stewart apparently curing his early-season racing blues with consecutive fourth- and fifth-place finishes. The series needs the three-time champion to be a factor for the championship. He is still recuperating from the broken right leg he suffered in a racing accident last August.

Include Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon as other positives. They are leading members of an unusually large class of eight rookies. Larson won the Nationwide race Saturday at Fontana, Calif., then finished second in Sunday's Cup race. He is 16th in points.

Dillon, the polesitter for the Daytona 500, is ninth. After finishing ninth at Daytona, his average finish in the last four races is a more-than-respectable 15.5. Dillon has the attention of Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans, because he is driving Earnhardt's famed No. 3 Chevrolet.

Johnson, the defending Cup champion, is winless, but is not close to panicking. Only 2 years ago, Johnson went 10 races without winning; he finally won in race No. 11 at Darlington. Johnson won four more races that year and finished third in points when Keselowski collected his first title.

Now, Johnson is sixth in points, 21 behind leader Edwards. The top five drivers are separated by only seven points.

"It would be great to get the win and get ourselves locked in to the Chase," Johnson said before the Fontana race. "But I think we are in a good spot, we've been very competitive. We have had a shot to win a couple of races.

"It's not even close to [panic] time yet. When you look at the stats and you have 16 different winners in a year [2013], it's a pretty rare occurrence. I still think that points are every bit as important as they have been until you get to Homestead [the season finale].

"We have been able to win multiple races a year with a certain mindset. I am not going to chase home runs. I'm looking at a smooth and consistent 26 races and when we get a look at a home run we are going to swing for it. But we are not stepping up to the plate every time trying to hit it out."

One of the most curious finishes of this season involved Jeff Gordon at Fontana. He was stalking Johnson, the leader, when a flat tire took out Johnson's No. 48 Chevy with eight laps remaining. Then, with three laps to go, Clint Bowyer spun, bringing out a caution.

Following pit stops Gordon was eighth on the green/white/checker restart. He finished 13th.

"The closing laps were pretty much typical restart for me," Gordon said. "I got the inside lane, which was absolutely the worst lane for me. I got actually a decent restart [but] it just didn't go well. I went to the inside of the No. 18 [winner Kyle Busch]; he swerved left that put him in the middle, me on the bottom three or four wide and it just went downhill from there.

"[My team] gave me the most incredible race car today, and it is just so disappointing for it to end like that."

The good news for Gordon is, Martinsville is one of his favorite racetracks. He and teammate Johnson are tied for the most wins (eight) among active drivers.

IndyCar opens

The IndyCar season starts Sunday with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (6ABC, 3 p.m.)

The race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn Florida street circuit marks the return of Juan Pablo Montoya to open-wheel racing. Montoya spent the previous 7 years in the Sprint Cup series, winning only two races. He won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and later raced in Formula One.

Scott Dixon is the defending series champion. Pocono Raceway will host a 500-mile IndyCar race July 6. Verizon is the new title sponsor of the series.

This week's race

STP 500

Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Va.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Fox 29/WNPV (1440-AM)

Course: .526-mile oval

Distance: 500 laps/263 miles

Forecast: partly cloudy, mid-60s

Last year’s winner: Jimmie Johnson

Last year’s pole Johnson, 98.400 mph

Track qualifying record: Denny Hamlin, 99.595 mph (October 2013)

Track facts: Denny Hamlin will return to the No. 11 Toyota at Martinsville. Hamlin was forced to sit out Sunday’s race at Fontana, Calif., with a sinus infection. Doctors at the track’s infield care center later found a small sliver of metal in his eye. Filling in for Hamlin, Sam Hornish Jr. finished 17th. Hamlin is a four-time winner at Martinsville ... Jimmie Johnson led 346 laps, including the last 138, to win last year’s race. His pole speed was a track record until Hamlin broke it in October. Clint Bowyer finished second; Jeff Gordon was third. Neither Bowyer nor Gordon led a lap. Gordon won the fall race at the track ... Some of the Cup series’ top drivers are winless at Martinsville: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are winless in 28 starts; Carl Edwards is 0-for-19; Kyle Busch is 0-for-18 ... Since Kevin Harvick’s victory at Phoenix in the season’s second race his average finish is an appalling 38.6. He has plummeted to 25th in points ... Martinsville is the oldest NASCAR track: Red Byron won the first race in 1949.

STANDINGS

1. Carl Edwards 186

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 185

3. Jeff Gordon 184

4. Brad Keselowski 182

5. Matt Kenseth 179

6. Jimmie Johnson 165

7. Kyle Busch 158

8. Ryan Newman 150

9. Austin Dillon 150

10. Joey Logano 146

11. Denny Hamlin 140

12. Jamie McMurray 138

13. Brian Vickers 137

14. Paul Menard 134

15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 132

16. Kyle Larson 131

17. Tony Stewart 127

18. Casey Mears 126

19. Kasey Kahne 123

20. Marcos Ambrose 122

21. Greg Biffle 122

Up next: Duck Commander 500, April6, Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas, 3 p.m.; TV: Fox; last year's winner: Kyle Busch.

  Email: fleiscb@phillynews.com

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