For anybody worried the Sprint Cup series couldn’t keep up the excitement and torrid pace with which it started the 2013 season, those fears should be all but gone by now. Penalties, dominant performances, and heartbreaking late-race failures are keeping the excitement level high as the series loads up the haulers and heads to the heartland.
Previously on NASCAR 2013
Last week in Texas, Kyle Busch straight destroyed the competition, winning both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races, as well as setting a new Texas Motor Speedway qualifying record.[ref]196.29 miles per hour. That’s a mile and a half in under 28 seconds.[/ref] He continued showing the maturity and patience that has defined his 2013 thus far, qualities that, if he maintains them, should scare the crap out of the rest of the field.
Elsewhere, both 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and his Penske Motorsports teammate Joey Logano were penalized for rules infractions. Details are still murky, but it appears the groups were using special set-ups in the rear end housing of the cars that had not been submitted to and approved by NASCAR officials.[ref]A major no-no.[/ref] Both drivers were docked 25 championship points and their crew chiefs and car chiefs were suspended for six races, including May’s All-Star race. All parties involved will still be present this weekend, though, as Penske will appeal the penalties.
On a related note, Keselowski also went on a verbal rampage following the race, claiming that NASCAR is targeting he and his Penske teammates unfairly, whilst rumors circulated around the garage that Hendrick Motorsports team members, who shared the garage stalls directly next to Keselowski and Logano last weekend, may have tipped off officials to the infractions. This situation’s got more drama than a high school prom.
For the first time this year, the series will hit up 1.5-mile tracks on back-to-back weekends as the teams head to Kansas Speedway for the STP 400. Like Las Vegas, Kansas is a flatter track than Texas, but it is crazy fast, due in no small part to a repave that took place after this race last year. The new surface allows for quicker speeds, and the adding of variable banking means the incline of the track increases as you get closer to the wall. This creates multiple lines drivers can take and with the capabilities of the new Gen 6 car, should allow for side-by-side and three wide battling throughout the race.
In 2012, Martin Truex Jr. fumbled an opportunity to win the race, much like he did last week at Texas. He was out front for 173 of the 267 laps run, but his car went away on the final run to the finish line, allowing Denny Hamlin to catch and pass him to take the victory.
- We shouldn’t expect to see any of the fallout from the Penske penalties just yet, because NASCAR’s appeal process will allow both Keselowski and Logano’s crew and car chiefs to be present while appeals are taking place. That being said, we’ll see if there’s any hangover from the 25-point penalties both drivers were hit with. Keselowski’s shown tremendous focus in high-pressure situations, but if he truly believes he’s being unfairly targeted by the sport’s higher ups, that could cause concentration problems during the race.
- This week’s race is only 400 miles, as opposed to the 500 last week at Texas. That’s 100 less miles for teams to work on their car and make their way through the pack if they start toward the tail end of the field. The Kansas race is also notorious for lengthy green flag runs, so dialing in your car early during the practice sessions and laying down a good qualifying lap to start up front are critical.
- Although it’s only 400 miles, the Kansas race still puts a stress on engines. Toyota’s engine development program has shown promise the last couple of weeks after some truly awful months of failures, but Kansas will be a good test to see if the struggles are truly behind them.
Who to Watch
- Jeff Gordon had a great car at Texas and was going to be a part of the battle for the win, were it not for a broken wheel hub with less than 50 laps to go. His team will rebound from that issue and he’ll once again be a factor this week.
- Jimmie Johnson was uncharacteristically silent last week, posting a strong finish but never really factoring into the battle for the lead. The #48 team kind of gets butthurt when that happens, so he’ll be back up front at Kansas.
- Look for Truex Jr. to once again challenge for the victory. After the Texas race, a clearly dejected Truex Jr. said he was tired of finishing second. His lone win in the Sprint Cup series came in 2007, and his team is poised to finally get back in victory lane.
Who Will Win
You’d be a fool to bet against Kyle Busch right now. He’s won four of the six races run in the Nationwide series in 2013, and after last week, two of the seven Sprint Cup races. He’s learned to be more patient, not overdrive his car when it isn’t working, and allow the crew to tweak the setup until it runs like he wants. If he keeps it up, he’ll be unstoppable, and he’ll ride his momentum to victory lane this weekend for back to back wins.
How I’ve Done
As much as it pains me to do so, since my pick for last week (Brad Keselowski) was docked 25 points for illegal equipment, I will assume that penalty in my personal standings as well. Not only have I now failed to pick the winner correctly in all seven races this season, my fictional driver, created by adding up the points of my race winner pick each week, would now be eighth in the standings. I’m falling apart, folks.
Current Record: 0-7
My pick: Jeff Gordon (finished 20th)
Winner: Jimmie Johnson
Subway Fresh Fit 500 (Phoenix)
My pick: Jimmie Johnson (finished 2nd)
Winner: Carl Edwards
Kobalt Tools 400 (Las Vegas)
My pick: Marcos Ambrose (finished 22nd)
Winner: Matt Kenseth
Food City 500 (Bristol)
My pick: Kyle Busch (finished 2nd)
Winner: Kasey Kahne
Auto Club 400 (Fontana)
My pick: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (finished 2nd)
Winner: Kyle Busch
STP Gas Booster 500 (Martinsville)
My pick: Jeff Gordon (finished 3rd)
Winner: Jimmie Johnson
NRA 500 (Texas)
My pick: Brad Keselowski (finished 9th)
Winner: Kyle Busch
Sprint Cup Standings
1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Kyle Busch -18
3. Greg Biffle -30
4. Brad Keselowski -34
5. Carl Edwards -35
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -35
7. Kasey Kahne -37
8. Clint Bowyer -61
9. Paul Menard -63
10. Matt Kenseth -65
The STP 400 takes place Sunday on FOX. Green flag is scheduled for around 1pm EST.