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Front-running Dale Jr. Leading Hendrick Pack - NASCAR News And Notes

Front-running Dale Jr. Leading Hendrick Pack
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead on Lap 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, fans who packed the frontstretch grandstand stood. And stood. And stood some more.

Earnhardt led the first 43 laps (and 70 overall), stamping his name yet again in the top 10. He’s up to fourth in points, and currently the flag bearer for Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt led all of 52 laps last season, and never more than 17 in a single race.

He’s already off to a faster start than last year, a rebound season that ended with a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup spot. Last season after three races, Earnhardt was 10th in points.
In short, things are looking up for the driver, who continues to watch his wins drought grow to its current state of 132 races.

Regardless, Earnhardt seems a prime candidate among his four HMS brethren to nab the team’s oddly elusive 200th victory. Will he outrun teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne this weekend? A breakdown …

Pros: His Bristol record shows promise. The most laps Earnhardt has ever led in a single race was 295 – and that was at Bristol in 2005. His recent record is one of attrition – a key to Bristol success. Earnhardt has finished on the lead lap in each of the last six Bristol races, finishing 16th or better in all six. And, finally, his overall short track record is strong. In 73 short track starts, Earnhardt has 35 top-10 finishes.

Cons: After a bumpy first few races, Johnson and Kahne have stabilized. Gordon stumbled a bit at Phoenix, but a 12th-place finish still launched him up five positions in the points to 17th. At Bristol, the results are varied. After starting his Bristol career all over the map, Johnson has become a must-watch. He won in 2010, and has finished in the top five in three of the last five starts. Kahne’s recent Bristol runs have resulted in in solid finishes. Last August, he finished 11th. In last year’s spring Bristol race, he finished ninth. His best run: a runner-up finish in 2007 that saw him lead 305 laps. Gordon finished third in last year’s night race, a welcome return to the top five. Going into that race, Gordon has finished outside the top 10 in four consecutive Bristol starts.

Hendrick Motorsports has nine Bristol victories.

Biffle Credits Team Leadership With Ascent To NSCS Points Lead

To say it’s been awhile since Greg Biffle has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings depends upon your perspective.

Six-plus years isn’t long for many. To a top-tier stock car driver, however, it can seem an eternity.
With three consecutive third-place finishes, his most recent last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 42-year-old driver of Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 Ford reclaimed a position he last held in June 2005 following the series stop at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

Biffle, with new crew chief Matt Puccia, opened the year vowing to put a disappointing 2011 season in the rear view mirror – a year in which he missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ and failed to win a race for just the second time in his nine years on the tour.

"Just plain and simple, Matt Puccia is the reason why we’re running and competing and finishing the way we are," said Biffle. "This team needed leadership. He was willing to step up and take the task one. [He’s] done a fantastic job so far."

Biffle finished eighth in last year’s Food City 500 and, with a best finish of third, the Washington driver continues to pursue his first victory at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Food City 500 Winner Has Qualified For Chase Four Years Running

Not every Food City 500 winner makes the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™, but a victory in Bristol Motor Speedway’s spring race certainly improves a driver’s chances.
Each winner since 2007 – Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson – has qualified for the postseason.

Two Food City 500 winners during the Chase era have gone on to become champions: Johnson in 2010 and Kurt Busch in 2004.

Jeff Gordon is the last competitor to win Bristol’s spring race and the championship in back-to-back seasons. The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup titleholder accomplished that feat in 1997-98.
Gordon and the Busch brothers are Bristol’s active win leaders with five apiece. None is likely to challenge Bristol’s all-time resident of Victory Circle, Darrell Waltrip, who won 12 times, including seven in a row between 1981-84 behind the wheel of NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson’s Chevrolets.

Defending Food City 500 winner Kyle Busch has won the race three times, including 2007 in the debut of the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s new car.

Stewart-Haas Doesn’t Miss A Beat With New Crew Chief Addington

Stewart-Haas Racing mystified many by releasing championship crew chief Darian Grubb at the conclusion of last season, especially when Grubb and his new driver, Denny Hamlin, won the recent race at Phoenix International Raceway for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Any questions about where Stewart and SHR go from here were emphatically answered over the weekend in Las Vegas when the team’s new hire, Steve Addington, backed Stewart to his 45th career victory – and sixth in the last 13 races.

Personnel moves should benefit all parties. Grubb and Addington are in agreement with both their drivers currently ranked among the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s top 10 in points, Hamlin third and Stewart seventh.

Stewart’s victory, interestingly enough, was Addington’s first with a driver not named Busch. The 47-year-old Spartanburg, N.C., native won 12 times with Kyle Busch while at JGR and more recently four races with Kurt Busch and his most recent employer Penske Racing.

Stewart, meanwhile, erased another track from his "to-do list," which contained only three stops where the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has yet to win. He can complete the sweep later this year with victories at Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway.

The latest victory erased a tie for 15th on NASCAR’s all-time win list, a ranking Stewart shared with Bill Elliott. Next in Stewart’s sights are former NASCAR Sprint Cup champions Buck Baker (46 wins) and Herb Thomas (48 wins).

Only two active drivers, Jeff Gordon (85) and Jimmie Johnson (55), have won more races than Stewart.

Dodge Bids To Boost Winning Manufacturers To Four At Bristol

For NASCAR Sprint Cup Series manufacturers it’s three down and one to go.

Ford won the season opening Daytona 500. Toyota went to Victory Lane in Phoenix. Defending champion Tony Stewart gave Chevrolet its first victory of the 2012 season over the weekend in Las Vegas.

Dodge hopes to make it four-for-four in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway where the brand is the track’s most recent winner. Brad Keselowski won last August’s Bristol night race. It was Dodge’s first victory in Thunder Valley since 2006 and just the third win there by the automaker in more than three decades.

Chevrolet is the current NASCAR SPrint Cup Series Manufacturers Championship points leader by two over Ford. Chevrolet won its ninth consecutive title - and 35th championship overall - in 2011.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Milestone Watch: Ryan Newman continues the hunt for 50 Coors Light poles. He would be the ninth driver to reach the milestone. …

Brian Vickers will make his first appearance of the 2012 season, piloting the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. Mark Martin has driven the car in the first three races this season. …

DIY Network and Bristol Motor Speedway are teaming up for a special episode of the popular series "Man Caves." Hosts Jason Cameron and former NFL great Tony "The Goose" Siragusa will create a race-ready man cave featuring stadium seating made from race car driver seats, pub tables fashioned from Goodyear tires, and a racing simulator with seat vibration connected to sound from the track. …

With defending champion Max Gresham moving up to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the race for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title is wide open – starting with the season-opening Widow Wax 125 presented by SealWrap Repair Tape Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Leading contenders include Darrell Wallace Jr., and new teammates Sergio Peña and Brett Moffitt, who won three races apiece last season. In addition, Travis Pastrana makes his return to NASCAR in his first race since his X Games 17 accident last July.

Outstanding Competition Giving Series Fans Plenty To Love

In the new era of the ‘select-a-series,’ the 2012 season has kicked off with three winners who haven’t "checked the box" for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points, a first since 1996. The competition levels keep rising and the first three weeks of 2012 have given everyone plenty to talk about.

James Buescher, a full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver, won the season opener at Daytona in dramatic fashion, taking the lead on the last lap as a caution came out.

Week two in Phoenix was not to be outdone. Elliott Sadler posted his sixth victory in 166 NASCAR Nationwide Series races, ending a 91-race winless streak that dated to Oct. 31, 1998, at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. Sadler has commanded the series standings since week one. His lead is 15 points over Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate and fellow Richard Childress Racing teamate Austin Dillon.

In week three, in the shadow of the famed Las Vegas Strip, 2011 series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. captured the checkered flag at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, complementing his third career win by moving up two spots in the standings to third, 17 points behind Sadler.

Meanwhile, Danica Patrick (Daytona) and Sadler (Las Vegas) have captured two of the first three Coors Light poles.

Only three drivers who were in the top 10 in the standings after three events last year are among the current top 10  – Stenhouse, Justin Allgaier and Trevor Bayne, of Knoxville, Tenn.

Stenhouse Proving 2011 Championship Was No Fluke

Some say timing is everything, and this past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took the time to show his competitors that last season was not a fluke and that he is a serious series contender in 2012.

Las Vegas runner-up Mark Martin gave all the credit to Stenhouse. "That was a serious beat-down he put on me that last run," Martin said, describing how Stenhouse grabbed the lead with just over 50 laps to go en route to winning his first race of the season and first on an intermediate track. "I’m not ashamed to say it wasn’t even close."

Stenhouse finished a disappointing 19th in the season-opener at Daytona then rallied to a third-place result at Phoenix. His Las Vegas win escalated him from fifth to third in the standings heading into Bristol. Stenhouse has made four starts at Bristol, where he sat on the pole in last year’s spring race and finished 14th. His pre-race Driver Rating (88.7) is ranked 12th in the series and his average finish at Bristol is 18.0.

St. Patrick’s Day Race Boasts Big Names

Watch for a larger-than-usual number of photo flashes during the driver intros at this year’s NNS race at Bristol, because some of the biggest names in NASCAR are competing on the ‘World’s fastest half-mile’ on St. Patrick’s Day.

JR Motorsports drivers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are both entered and will garner much attention. Patrick has made one series start at Bristol, finishing 33rd last spring. This will be Junior’s 11th start at Bristol, making it second only to Daytona (21) as the track on which he’s raced the most in his NNS career. Earnhardt has one win (2004), six top fives and eight top 10s, including a third-place finish in this race last year.  He also leads the series among active drivers in average finish at Bristol with a 6.5.

Richard Childress Racing will have no shortage of prominent names, fielding standings leader Sadler, 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Dillon and Bristol’s all-time NNS winner Kevin Harvick. Harvick has five wins in 21 series starts at Bristol.

Turner Motorsports will have Kasey Kahne behind the wheel of its No. 38 this weekend. Kahne has made 14 series starts at Bristol, posting one win (2007) and four top fives.

Owner/driver Kyle Busch also is entered this weekend. Busch’s four NNS wins rank second to Harvick. Busch leads the series in pre-race Driver Rating with a 113.3.

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Joey Logano and Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski round out the remaining NSCS drivers pulling double-duty (six total) this weekend. Of the two, Keselowski has had the most success, posting two series Coors Light poles and one win (2008) at Bristol.

NASCAR Nationwide, Etc.
Milestone Watch: Morgan Shepherd, 70, will attempt to make his 325th NNS start this weekend at Bristol. Mike Bliss will attempt to make his 250th NNS start and Eric McClure will attempt to make his 175th NNS start. Eric and his wife Miranda welcomed their fourth daughter, Merritt Hetteigh Mae McClure, on March 12. Merritt’s name honors the driver’s paternal grandmother, Hetteigh Mae McClure, who passed away a few days before Daytona. Kyle Busch will attempt his 150th NNS top-10 finish. Busch is currently tied with Greg Biffle for 12th on the NNS all-time top-10 finishes list. …

Eleven-time X-Game gold medalist and future NNS driver Travis Pastrana will be making his Bristol Motor Speedway debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series – East following Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide race at 6:15 p.m. He’s targeted for his NASCAR Nationwide debut at Richmond in April. …


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