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Sports Sports Columns Jeff Birchfield NASCAR/Racing

Big names are at head of the class

July 22nd, 2014 10:00 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Big names are at head of the class

Although Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick have had the fastest cars often during the first part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been the class of the field so far.

Gordon has been the most consistent driver, leading the points most of the season. Earnhardt has won twice, including the season’s biggest race with his second Daytona 500 victory.

He will look to add another marquee victory this Sunday with the 21st running of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Jimmie Johnson has to be the odds-on favorite at the Brickyard where his four wins there tie him with Gordon for the most all-time. For this season, however, Johnson’s performance has been up and down.

The six-time champion has been spectacular at times with three victories, but he’s struggled mightily the last two races. He finished 42nd at both New Hampshire and Daytona after crashing out both races.

Brad Keselowski also has three wins this season and has been the hottest driver of late with five top-three finishes over the past seven races. Those include dominating wins at Kentucky and New Hampshire.

Logano, his teammate, has appeared to have an even better car than Keselowski at times this season. He has led 14 of the 19 races, with two early wins. There hasn’t been much to show of late with his last top-five finish at Kansas some eight races ago.

Harvick is just 13th in the points, despite leading 882 laps this season. Much of his misfortune has come on pit road, leading to squabbling amongst driver and crew lately.

Still, Harvick has easily been the top driver in the Stewart-Haas organization which has been struggling as a whole. Team owner Tony Stewart is just 19th in points, slow to recover from a severe leg injury a year ago. Kurt Busch, who passed Johnson for the win at Martinsville and further impressed the racing world with his great run in the Indianapolis 500, ranks 25th, just two spots ahead of teammate Danica Patrick in the point standings.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, consistency has been the key for Gordon and Earnhardt with 13 top-10 finishes for each. Gordon hasn’t fallen out of a race this season, while Earnhardt also has two runner-up finishes to go along with his two victories.

Carl Edwards has been another strong contender with wins at Bristol and Sonoma, although the rest of the Roush-Fenway camp has been disappointing to say the least.

Joe Gibbs Racing has two wins, one by Kyle Busch and one by Denny Hamlin, but the Toyota flag-bearer hasn’t shown the same speed as a year ago. Matt Kenseth has still managed to rank fourth in the points, based off 12 top-10 finishes. However, Kenseth has yet to win a race after leading the series with seven victories last season.

Jamie McMurray won the All-Star race in May and he’s shown enough speed where he could win an official race and slide into the Chase. 

The same can be said for rookie drivers Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Larson has four top-five finishes, including a second-place at Fontana and a third at the last race at New Hampshire. Dillon has focused more on logging laps and he’s finished every race so far this season. 

As for the biggest disappointments, the list has to include Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Biffle and Kahne have enough top-10 finishes to rank 16th and 17th in the points, but Stenhouse is mired way back in 28th. He was runner-up to teammate Edwards at Bristol, but he has finished outside the top 20 in seven of the last nine races.

A ninth-place at Loudon last week might have finally turned things around for the No. 17 Ford team. 

Ryan Newman, a driver who has quietly made his way to seventh in the point standings, is among those looking for a strong second-half of the season. This weekend is particularly important for him as the Indiana native returns to his home state as the defending champion of the Brickyard 400.

After the off week, it’s a grind for the race teams with 17 straight weeks of racing scheduled.

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It’s a busy week of action at Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway. The Thompson Metals Monster Truck Madness is scheduled for the speedway on Saturday, while the Huddleston Performance Jr. Nationals and the NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League Eastern Conference Finals are at the dragway all week. 

Some of the monster trucks scheduled to be at BMS include Bigfoot, War Wizard, Red Solo Truck and Stone Crusher.

The legendary Bigfoot is also scheduled to make an appearance at Beef O’Brady’s in Elizabethton Friday from 5:30 until 7:30 p.m.

Transaurus, the fire-breathing, car-devouring robot, will also part of Saturday’s entertaiment. Mighty Monster, a specially designed monster truck for fan ride-alongs, will also make its debut this Saturday.

The pre-event pit party begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday with the Monster Truck Madness slated to begin at 7:30 p.m.

At the dragway, races from ages 8-18 will take part in the Eastern Conference Finals. States as far away as Michigan, New York and Florida produced champions during last year’s event. 

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The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will make its second visit to the dirt track at Eldora (Ohio) Speedway tonight for the Mudsummer Classic.

Austin Dillon won last year’s inaugural race. He is slated to defend his title, while other Sprint Cup rookies Kyle Larson and Michael Annett are also entered in the race. Veteran campaigner Ken Schrader could also be a factor. Schrader, who earlier this year won a dirt track race in a UMP Modified car, will be driving a truck owned by Cup Series owner Gene Haas.

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On the local scene, Volunteer Speedway has a 40-lap, $2,000-to-win Steel Head Late Model feature scheduled for this Saturday night.

Features for the Crate Late Model (30 laps) and Modified Hobby (25 laps) divisions are also on tap. Granstands open at 6 p.m. with a 7:30 driver’s meeting followed by hotlaps, qualifying and racing.

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Kingsport Speedway cancelled its NASCAR Weekly Series program last Friday night due to rain. There is no racing this Friday night either with the next scheduled night of racing on August 1. It will be highlighted by twin 60-lap features for the Late Model Stock class.

For those itching to see some two-wheel action, the Hot Summer Nights Supercross Series returns to I-81 Motorsports Park this Saturday night.

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