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The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in Bristol

Bob MargolisContributor IIMarch 10, 2014

The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in Bristol

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    Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr.
    Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr.HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing

    Why is this man smiling?

    Because “It’s good to be the King,” that’s why.

    And even though his points lead is as slim as they come (one point) over Las Vegas race winner Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be the first to tell you he gave that race away. He said in the post-race press conference:

    We figured we were a lap short, and I was lifting early and let Brad get there, and I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we'd win the race. If we weren't, we would have saved enough fuel to have finished the race, at least, (to) get to the end.

    Earnhardt Jr.’s team is not only the hottest team at Hendrick Motorsports, it’s the hottest team in NASCAR. And when you can give one away and still feel good about yourself, then you’re talking about the stuff champions are made of.

    It's disappointing, but at the same time the good Lord has blessed me with a good team and good fortune and great opportunity, so I don't want to get too down and think about the positives and be productive so we can go to Bristol and try to win there. 

    You can expect the Steve Letarte-led team to do just that. Junior has one win and a whopping 14 top-10 finishes at Bristol Motor Speedway, so adding another notch to the win column certainly isn’t out of the question.

    As for the photo at the top with Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Junior and Martin Truex Jr., have some fun with it. Leave a comment with your idea for a caption. And be creative!

Team Penske Showing Championship Form

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    Joey Logano (l) and Brad Keselowski
    Joey Logano (l) and Brad KeselowskiTodd Warshaw/Getty Images

    If you follow different forms of racing, then you can easily see that Team Penske, the NASCAR version, is looking a lot like Team Penske, the IndyCar version.

    Roger Penske’s racing organization has always been known for displaying championship form year after year after year in IndyCars. In NASCAR, not as much. In fact, when Keselowski won the Sprint Cup title in 2012, it was Penske’s first Sprint Cup title in over 40 years of trying. Forty years! 

    During that time, his IndyCar teams won the Indianapolis 500 15 times.

    Some have accused Penske of focusing more on his IndyCar teams. That may be true. And that also may all be in the past, as the Penske NASCAR driver roster features two of the more talented drivers in the Sprint Cup Series in Joey Logano and Keselowski. This duo has been delivering top-level performances during the first three weeks of the new season.

    Many observers say Logano’s career may have been stifled by his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing. Since his arrival at Penske, the young driver has shown a new maturity both on and off the track. He’s willing to quickly take on anyone with his mouth and then back it up on the race track.

    Keselowski is known almost as much for what he says as what he does with his race car. When he’s been in one of Penske’s Nationwide Series Mustangs, he’s always been a threat to either win or finish second. Now, he’s showing that same form in the Sprint Cup Series.

    Expect both Team Penske drivers, Keselowski (second) and Logano (fourth) to remain in the top 10 in points for the entire season.

Report Card for Team Setups for the 1.5-Mile Tracks

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Look closely at the photo. Three cars running three different racing lines.

    The new Gen-6 car took a lot of heat when it first left the NASCAR showroom floor, but in the year or so that has passed since its debut, it’s shown to be remarkably versatile and very fast. Especially fast on the 1.5-mile tracks.

    The racing on the 1.5-mile tracks last season was hit and miss. Some tracks saw side-by-side racing, while others found drivers running single-file, searching desperately for clean air to use to get better control of the car. 

    NASCAR responded by making several changes to the setups for the 1.5-mile “cookie cutter” tracks, including setting a static ride height and introducing a larger spoiler on the back.  The Las Vegas race weekend was the first time those new rules were used in competition.

    It was easy to see which race teams were able to best understand the new rules, which were both aerodynamic changes as well as mechanical. To nearly everyone’s surprise, many of the multi-car organizations did not see comparable team success across the board.

    You can likely chalk that up to each team within the organization was working on a different solution to the same issues. This week, the engineers back at the race shop will look at the cars, talk to the drivers and crew chiefs and then there will be decisions made on which direction to take. Often when one team in an organization hits the target, then the rest follow its example. 

    Stewart-Haas Racing struggled more than the rest of the multi-car teams. After one-time race leader Kevin Harvick dropped out of contention, its best car for much of the afternoon was the No. 10 car. 

    Chevrolet teams dominated the top 10 with six cars, while Ford had three and Toyota just one, Matt Kenseth, who finished 10th.

    The next test for the 1.5-mile setups, which make up 11 of the series 36 points races and half of the 10 Chase races is Texas Motor Speedway on April 6.

Who Is in Points Trouble?

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Stewart isn’t doing a whole lot of smiling these days, at least not when it comes to his NASCAR driving career. No one, especially this writer, expected him to bounce back from his serious injuries.

    He’s readily admitted that he’s not 100 percent and doesn’t expect to be 100 percent any time soon. In fact, he’s told the media to stop asking questions about his leg. So, it’s easy to write off his poor finishes and 27th place in driver points. His Las Vegas race was more like a nightmare than a stock car race.

    “Loose” is how Stewart constantly described his race car. No matter what crew chief Chad Johnston did in an attempt to solve the car’s ill-handling ways, nothing made a lasting impact. Stewart ended the race in 33rd position, four laps down.

    “Something wasn’t right,” Stewart said after the race.

    Hopefully, this weekend at Bristol, things will get right.

    His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch (28th in points) had a similar race day at Las Vegas. Busch also described his race car as being loose all afternoon. Busch was in dire need of a good day to kick start a season that is in danger of becoming a lost cause, barring him winning a race.

    Truex Jr., who made the Chase last year but was booted from postseason contention, could also be given a pass this year. Except the team he moved to from Michael Waltrip Racing, Furniture Row Racing, gets its cars and engines from Richard Childress Racing. And returning crew chief Todd Berrier, a Daytona 500 winner (with Harvick) is considered to be one of the best in the business. Truex Jr. sits 25th in points and either needs to think about a run of top fives or a win if he’s to be part of the postseason action this year.

    And finally there’s Clint Bowyer, 22nd in points. After starting third at Las Vegas, he finished 23rd, the victim of a minor mishap following a late race restart. It forced him onto pit road for tires and he fell back in the field. His finish didn’t help him in the points. Bristol could bring some much needed help for the 5-Hour Energy team.

New Qualifying Rules a Work in Progress

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    Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson
    Chad Knaus and Jimmie JohnsonAssociated Press

    Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile track presented the first opportunity for NASCAR to see how the three-round version of knockout qualifying would work. It was a success for the fans. They got to watch an exciting second and final rounds of qualifying that saw Keselowski rip off a blistering hot lap to win the pole.

    As the folks in the grandstands and watching at home were being entertained by NASCAR’s new qualifying format, drivers and crew chiefs were dealing with two separate, but equally important issues.

    One was the traffic issue, with cars making qualifying laps encountering cars that had finished a hot lap and were slow on the race track. The other was an engine cooling issue that has crew chiefs telling drivers to drive slowly around the track in an effort to cool the engine.

    NASCAR is aware of both issues, as well as a few others that popped up in Las Vegas, like parking the cars at an angle on pit road, causing a traffic issue of its own. Jimmie Johnson said:

    That initial roll-out is very sketchy and I think we’re going to start crashing cars just backing out because you’ve got guys at various angles trying to back out and guys backing out before the clock strikes zero and the track is green. There are a variety of things like that going on. We need to clean it up a little. I think the format is awesome. It’s great for the fans, it’s great for the teams; but some of the logistics and flow on pit road could be addressed.

    Those logistics issues Johnson refers to will get a real test this weekend when qualifying goes back to being just two rounds and the track is NASCAR’s shortest in Bristol. 

    Per 

    On Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR officials announced modifications to the knockout qualifying rules. In an effort to address the cooling issues, effective immediately:

    •    One cool down unit connected through either the left side or right side hood flap/cowl flap is allowed to cool the engine
    •    The hood must continue to remain closed
    •    Plugging in the generator will not be allowed
    •    Two crew members will be allowed over the wall to support the car and driver
    •    No cool down laps will be permitted

    The new qualifying format will continue to undergo evaluation and further modifications will be done as necessary, according to NASCAR.

Austin Dillon Sits at the Head of the Rookie Class

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    Austin Dillon
    Austin DillonJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The Sunoco Rookie of the Year class continues to be led by Austin Dillon, who started fourth at Las Vegas but fell victim to a tight-handling condition during the middle portion of the race and fell further in the running order.

    A series of pit stops by the Richard Childress Racing crew helped alleviate the handling conditions the young driver was facing but track position was key, and Dillon ultimately recorded a 16th-place finish.

    He sits 13th in points.

    Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson started 17th and finished 19th. He too struggled with an ill-handling car. Larson sits 23rd in points.

    The rest of the rookie class:

    Justin Allgaier is (29th in points) finished 31st. Cole Whitt (30th in points) finished 36th. Michael Annett (34th in points) finished 29th. Alex Bowman (35th in points) finished 37th. Parker Kligerman (40th in points) finished 40th and Ryan Truex (41st in points) finished 35th.

    Las Vegas is a tough track for a rookie, even one in a good car, like Dillon or Larson. Several of the sport’s big names could do no better than these rookies did.

Danica Patrick Leads the Way for Stewart-Haas Racing

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    Tony Gibson and Danica Patrick
    Tony Gibson and Danica PatrickJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    It says a lot when Danica Patrick finishes a race in a better position (21st) than the rest of her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates.

    Patrick, who started 22nd, fell to 30th in the early portion of the race and ended up a lap down, fought her way to a respectable 21st-place result. 

    It was a solid run for Patrick considering her luck in the opening two weekends of the season. She was involved in accidents not of her making at Daytona International Speedway and at Phoenix International Raceway where she finished 40th and 36th, respectively.

    Still, if you’re a Danica lover, there’s a lot to be proud of. She continues to get better in regards to driving a stock car and how to race on the tracks the Sprint Cup series races on. The is a quick study, there is a lot for her to learn and crew chief Tony Gibson is patient and deliberate.

    And if you're a Danica hater, well, just keep thinking that she finished better than Smoke, Harvick and even Busch.

The Times They Are a Changin'

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    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    It had to happen eventually. A NASCAR driver named Dylan.

    He wears his ball cap just a bit different than the other drivers in NASCAR.

    But before you draw any conclusions, this young man knows how to race. Dylan Kwasniewski has a different name and a different style, but he does possess a true racer’s heart. 

    This season, the 18-year-old Las Vegas resident is driving full time in the Nationwide Series for Turner Scott Motorsports. If his name sounds familiar (once you’ve heard it, you never forget it) this week it was announced he would become a development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.

    His resume is nothing short of spectacular. He is the 2013 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion. He became the first driver to win both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West (NKNPSW) and NKNPSE Championship titles, doing so in back-to-back seasons. He won his first race in the NKNPSE at Bristol Motor Speedway en route to a series-high six race wins.

    Kwasniewski made his NNS debut at Daytona International Speedway last month after winning the pole position becoming the youngest driver ever to do so in the NNS. He finished eighth in his first start in one of NASCAR’s top-three national touring series. 

    This weekend he’ll be in the No. 31 Camaro in the Drive to Stop Diabetes 300 on at 3 p.m. (ET) Saturday. Chip Ganassi had a lot of praise for Kwasniewski:

    This young man has impressed us from the moment we saw him. His poise, skill and determination on the race track are remarkable for someone so young. I am really looking forward to seeing him grow as a driver with each increase of competition. I think Dylan has a big future ahead of him in NASCAR.

    Ganassi has a very good track record of bringing young talent up from the minor leagues and making them stars. 

    So, we've got a driver named Dylan, he’s only 18 years old and he’ll be driving for Chip Ganassi in a couple of years. In NASCAR, the times they are a changin’.

There's Only One Bristol

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Baseball has Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. Football has Soldier and Lambeau Field.

    NASCAR has Bristol Motor Speedway. A half-mile oval tucked inside coliseum-styled grandstands built to hold 160,000 screaming fans. This is racing nirvana. The action doesn't come any better or any faster than at Bristol Motor Speedway.

    Racing is only half of the story. The fans, camping on the hillsides surrounding the racing facility in the east Tennessee mountains, make every race here a special event. New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Bristol is the Carnival of Speed. Beer is the beverage of choice and burgers and dogs cooked on the grille is the food. There's nothing fancy here, just great racing, great fans and a wonderful time had by all (and that includes the teams).

    Most drivers circle the two Bristol dates on the calendar. If you're not running great, Bristol is often the place to correct that. You can be sure that five-time Cup winner Kurt Busch has Sunday's date circled with a big red crayon. He needs Bristol.

    And so do about a half-dozen other drivers. 

    Team owners, crew chiefs and drivers all know that if you haven't got your stuff together by the time you leave Bristol, you never will. Who will go home happy? 

     

    All quotes were obtained from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

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