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Sports Jeff Birchfield NASCAR/Racing

No one talking about points early in year

March 25th, 2014 7:25 pm by Jeff Birchfield

No one talking about points early in year

NASCAR has gotten its wish early in the season.

There have been five different winners over the first five races, and it seems no one is talking about points. That was NASCAR’s intention when the new championship system was unveiled at the annual Sprint Media Tour in January.

The irony of the situation is a large portion of fans would be excited about the points as they currently stand.

Three fan favorites — Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon — are within two points of each other at the top of the standings. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, is only four points behind Edwards, while Matt Kenseth, a seven-time race winner last season, is seven points down.

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is 21 points behind Edwards in sixth, followed by Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Joey Logano.

Under the old Chase format, Denny Hamlin would be a part of the 10-race playoff despite missing Sunday’s race at California, and Jamie McMurray would be in position for the final spot.

Kevin Harvick, despite an early win, would be on the outside looking in, since he’s 25th in the standings. However, with NASCAR’s new system, Harvick is virtually assured of a Chase berth by virtue of his Phoenix victory.

The way it now works is a race winner will likely qualify for the Chase, provided that driver is in the top 30 in the point standings. There are 16 spots available in the Chase field, and the odds are overwhelmingly against there being more than 16 different winners over the first 26 races.

The emphasis on winning has led to a variety of race strategies which produced an exciting finish at California.

It looked like Johnson was cruising to a win until a blown tire put his No. 48 Chevrolet into the wall with six laps remaining. Then Gordon appeared to be the man to beat, managing his tires perfectly on the final run. Clint Bowyer’s spin with two laps to go changed all that, and it set up a wild finish filled with some drivers going to the pits for four fresh tires, others getting two new tires and Landon Cassill staying on the track with old tires.

Kyle Busch charged to the front and then held off Kyle Larson for the win.

Now, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Martinsville, Va., the smallest track on the tour and a place where wild finishes are common.

Gordon, who won the last Martinsville race, has had his share of disappointments at the Virginia short track. Like Sunday at California, he’s literally seen victory wiped away with late cautions on more than one occasion.

Still, he and defending race champion Johnson have to be favorites, with eight wins apiece on the paper-clip shaped bullring.

Tony Stewart is another driver who comes to Martinsville with a lot of confidence. The three-time champion struggled the first three races of the season, but his team has played pit strategy to perfection the last couple of races. It allowed him to score consecutive top-five finishes at Bristol and California.

A good bet this weekend would not to put your money on a Ford driver.

While Fords have done well on the high banks of Bristol, the Blue Oval brand has struggled at Martinsville’s flat half-miler. The first Ford win at Martinsville came in 1961, some 12 years after the first race was held there. Fred Lorenzen won that race and later became the only driver to win four consecutive races (1963-65) at Martinsville. Richard Petty, who holds the record for 15 Martinsville wins, swept races in 1969, his only year racing a Ford Torino.

Rusty Wallace is the only other Ford driver to sweep Martinsville races in a season, doing so in 1994. The last win for Ford was Kurt Busch, driving for Jack Roush, some 12 years ago. 

Chevys have dominated the track recently with six straight wins, while Hamlin won the three races prior to that in a Toyota.

This weekend marks the first off weekend of the season for the Nationwide Series, which last raced at Martinsville in 2006. 

The track was always a favorite for Johnson City driver Brad Teague, who earned his only career Nationwide Series win at Martinsville in 1987.

Teague scored five top-10 finishes in 13 Martinsville races, and he also had some of his strongest efforts ever in the Sprint Cup Series there. Teague finished 11th at Martinsville in 1982, driving for the No. 26 Chevy for car owner Charlie Henderson. 

It was also the site of Teague’s best ever qualifying effort in the Cup Series. Teague, driving the No. 67 Ford for independent car owner Buddy Arrington, qualified eighth, one row ahead of defending NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt.

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Kingsport Speedway’s season opener is set for this Saturday.

Grandstands open at 1 p.m. with racing to begin at 3 p.m. There will be six classes of racing headlined by the Late Model Stock division. Other divisions racing are: Street Stock, Pure 4, Rookie Pure 4, Mod-4 and Iron Warriors (a beginner class featuring drivers in front-wheel drive cars with few modifications other than safety equipment).

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The newest season of Street Fights kicks-off at Bristol Dragway on Saturday. Gates open at noon with racing slated to begin at 1 p.m.

There is another night of Street Fights scheduled for Thursday, April 3, and the DER Bracket Series is scheduled to begin its season next weekend (April 5-6).

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Amber Abram of Johnson City is one of 88 drivers currently competing for a tryout with Michael Waltrip Racing in the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge.

Each of the racers entered in the contest have posted pictures and videos online, and fans vote for their favorites. Abram hopes to be one of the top five, which would secure one of the18 tryout spots.

Otherwise, her goal is to be the highest voted female and to be handpicked by Waltrip. Voting goes through April 30.

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