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Track Smack: Hendrick at Martinsville could bring 200

March 29, 2012, ,

Busch gets first top-10 with Phoenix Racing; Truck Series back after long layoff

1. Hendrick Motorsports now has gone 11 consecutive weeks without a victory since Jimmie Johnson won at Kansas in 2011. Is Martinsville Speedway the organization's best chance to break that slump and score No. 200?

Dave Rodman: I'd say 11 weeks is too long for a team like Hendrick. I know it's going to happen sometime. But honestly, there have been several places already -- including this past weekend at Auto Club Speedway when what, all four Hendrick cars were in the top 12 at one point -- where I thought it would have happened by now, and it still hasn't.

David Caraviello: It's as good a place as any, given how strong Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have been there at different points in their careers. But ... we thought California was the perfect place for a breakthrough, too, given Johnson's track record in Fontana, and look what happened. The bottom line is that with the exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr., this organization is searching a little bit right now, and a lot of its struggles have been of its own doing. The potential clearly is there -- but stuff needs to stop breaking, and people need to stop making mistakes.

Jill Erwin: It's not quite as hot there as it was in the mid- to late-aughts (always love a good "aughts") but Martinsville is a great opportunity for this team. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson know how to drive at that track, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running so well right now. Is it a guarantee? Absolutely not. Nothing's guaranteed at Martinsville. But is it its "best" shot to this point? Dang skippy.

David Caraviello: Here's the thing about Hendrick -- the cars are good. That much is obvious, and that goes a long way. It's just the only driver who's been able to consistently parlay that into good finishes has been Junior. But even Jeff Gordon, who's had everything go wrong, has had great cars almost every week. Johnson was up there until the oil line was severed at California. Good cars are more than half the battle here, and Hendrick knows it has them, and that means this team should sail along once it weathers this patch of bad luck.

Dave Rodman: To David's point, with the exception of Junior, the only thing consistent to this point in the season seems to be its inconsistency. Some other people are consistently better. And obviously, since no one's going to hand it anything, it is going to have to execute a perfectly crafted 500-lap race to win this weekend. Then again, that's no different than any other weekend -- though the lap count certainly is.

* Caraviello: Junior is for real; nothing is guaranteed | Earnhardt carrying Hendrick flag

Jill Erwin: Fontana is a good point, David. Happiest guy not named Tony Stewart when that red flag came out? Jimmie Johnson. And also agreed on your second point ... cars are everything. I could get in a good car (well, if I could drive worth a lick) and be competitive in this series. And with Tony's performance and the strength of the Hendrick shop in general, things will right themselves. And when they do, watch out!

Hendrick at Martinsville

Jeff Gordon (7) and Jimmie Johnson (6) have combined for 13 of Hendrick's 18 wins at Martinsville, its best track in many statistical categories.

Laps Led7,0801
Avg. Start13.86*
Avg. Finish12.51*

Dave Rodman: Again, DC, great point. Having potential race-winning cars is a great start. Obviously, they have four race-winning drivers, but then that circles it back around -- how has it taken 11 weeks to not get No. 200?

David Caraviello: And Dave, here's the thing ... Johnson isn't "Mr. Martinsville" anymore. He hasn't won there since 2009. Gordon hasn't won there since 2005. It's one of Hendrick's best tracks, to be sure, but lately everyone's been chasing Denny Hamlin in southwest Virginia, and Tony Stewart won the most recent event there. Boy, what if Smoke notched a third win already. That would send some shock waves.

* Fantasy Preview: Three stand out at Martinsville

Dave Rodman: I tell you what, a Stewart score or another Hamlin win is a lot more likely than Hendrick's No. 200. Denny's been a little off-and-on but I think he knows what he needs this weekend, and Darian Grubb obviously is a pretty sharp cookie. But David, as you wrote, I think it was last week, Stewart could be the ultimate bulldozer this season. Ten wins might not be out of the question, and in this era that is somewhat unprecedented -- though Carl did almost get there a couple years ago.

Jill Erwin: That Smoke guy is on some kind of tear. I thought last year was lightning in a bottle. Then he fired Darian Grubb and I figured, "Oh, he'll be fine by his summer streak." But Heavens to Betsy if that guy hasn't come out firing on all cylinders from day one. Whatever is in the water at Stewart-Haas, he should bottle it and sell it for millions.

David Caraviello: Rick [Hendrick] jokes all the time about hauling around all those "200 win" caps. I've heard a story about how Alan Kulwicki's team once carried around big foam "No. 1" fingers with their sponsor's name on them, in anticipation of their next win. They went so long without one, they left them at home -- and finally won again.

Jill Erwin: Sounds like my kind of luck, David.

David Caraviello: Ten wins! Dave, my man, let's not get ahead of ourselves. I still think Stewart and Hamlin are going to go toe-to-toe a lot of this year, adding some personal drama (because of Darian Grubb) to the championship picture. Either way, it should be fun. I also love how everyone is agreeing with me. This Track Smack is off to a great start!

Jill Erwin: I miss the halcyon days of Denny Hamlin's youth in this series, when Tony barely tried to hide his disdain for the brash young driver crashing the JGR party. "Little Denny," he called him. Now, if Denny can best Tony head-to-head? Man, I'd love to see that battle come down.

David Caraviello: And one more thing to remember when it comes to Hendrick and Martinsville -- Dale Jr. led this race near the end last year until Kevin Harvick passed him at the end. A double streak-buster in the south Virginia hills? Oh, they'd rip out the grandstand seats in jubilation.

Hendrick Motorsports

2012 Season Results
DriverTop-5sTop-10sLaps LedAvg. St.Avg. Fin.Lead Lap Fin.Pts. Rank
Jimmie Johnson249210.013.449
Jeff Gordon01817.424.2225
Kasey Kahne0009.2*26.6227

Dave Rodman: "Dramatic" wouldn't quite cover it.

2. Kurt Busch earned his first top-10 of the season with Phoenix Racing. Is that an aberration, or is it a sign of things to come?

Jill Erwin: The top-10 itself is an aberration, absolutely. Kurt was happy with his 15th until other cars pitted and moved him up in the order. Now, is that kind of run an aberration? I still think yes, but I'm not as sure.

David Caraviello: Kurt's been overlooked a little bit since Daytona, and he's been caught up in a few crashes. No question, it was a pit call at California that gained James Finch's boys some track position and helped them move up to ninth, where they eventually finished when the race was called due to rain. But hey, that's part of the game. Nobody says Tony's win was an aberration because he stayed out of the pits, as well. The car was in good enough position, they used a little strategy, and got a pretty good finish out of it.

Phoenix Racing

In 18 years prior to Kurt Busch, only four drivers had made 10 or more starts in a single season for James Finch: Johnny Sauter (10) in 2003; Mike Bliss (11) in '09; Bobby Labonte (14) in '10; and Landon Cassill (29) in '11.

StatTotalBusch in '12
Laps Led862
Avg. Start29.321.8
Avg. Finish30.823.2
Lead Lap Fin.422

Jill Erwin: Right, and I'm not disagreeing with you, David. But is he consistently enough of a top-15 car where they can take advantage of things like that weekly? I say no, a lot more definitively than I did in my first response. I think they can become a top-15 car, but it's going to take time and work. So right now, aberration. But also a sign of things to come. I Rodmanned that!

Dave Rodman: Kurt's another one who has had a couple of decent cars, but crappy luck. California specifically might have been an aberration, but it's a fact that sometimes, that's how you win races and score good finishes. The positive is that Kurt and crew chief Nick Harrison got themselves into position to execute the call -- and when the time came, Mr. Harrison pulled the trigger and earned the finish. Bravo!

Jill Erwin: I haven't been listening to the radios as much this year. Is Kurt still Kurt on the radio? Because if not, if he's not off the handle as much, then I think that's a good sign for the team's future. If he's still ranting and raving and threatening and insulting, I think that's a lot harder for a team like Phoenix to handle.

David Caraviello: Listen, this is not an elite team. Kurt wanted old-style racing, and he's got it. Our Bill Kimm found him helping to push the car into the garage area Sunday at Fontana, a cold one in hand. That's about as old-school as it gets. But ... the dude can still wheel a car, and it comes through sometimes. They finished top-20 in Bristol despite being caught up in a wreck. They finished 15th at Phoenix. In many races they're hanging around, just enough, to put themselves in position in case a scenario unfolds like the one did at Fontana. And clearly, they took advantage of it.

Dave Rodman: I think the thing with Phoenix is, it has been good in spot appearances and James Finch cuts no physical corners. Getting Kurt meant it would race on a much higher level, for complete races. That means everything else has to pull itself up to Kurt's level and it will do that, step by step. For the short term, top-10s might be aberration, but it's heading to where it will be consistent possibilities.

David Caraviello: Dave is right. Kurt is carrying this team on his back right now, and it's going to have to progress to his level. Now, is it capable of doing that? Maybe not in the short term. That No. 51 car doesn't look like it's going to be able to drive up there to the front on its own, at least outside of restrictor-plate tracks. It has to lurk, and be prepared to take advantage of situations, and get what it can. That's exactly what they did Sunday. Nothing wrong with that.

Dave Rodman: And Phoenix has always been a potential winner. Kurt ups that percentage considerably, too.

Jill Erwin: Whoa, whoa, whoa! I know you and Fincher are old-school, Rodman. But "Phoenix has always been a potential winner?"

David Caraviello: Well, maybe at Talladega. We get there, who knows of what this bunch might be capable. Daytona was a scramble for it with everything coming together so late and a couple of cars getting wadded up in preliminary events. We get to north Alabama in May, and heck yeah, it's a potential winner. Anywhere else ... for now, barring a fuel-mileage scenario, I'd give it potential top-10.

Dave Rodman: Please re-read transcript. In places -- like Brad Keselowski, Talladega, 2009 -- it has always been potential winners. But realistically, in the past those potential places were few and far between.

David Caraviello: And that really hasn't changed, Dave. Kurt is one heck of a wheelman, but Phoenix can put only so much underneath him. I don't exactly expect him to drive to the front and challenge Jimmie, Denny, Tony and whomever else at Martinsville on Sunday.

Jill Erwin: I've read the transcript just fine. There were no qualifications in your post. You said "Phoenix has always been a potential winner."

Dave Rodman: Said it. Meant it. Stand behind it.

David Caraviello: Much like Kurt Busch, Dave Rodman is not one to back down.

Dave Rodman: If it puts together good road-course cars I'd add that to the list. I don't think ol' Nick is short on smarts and Kurt for sure is a top-five wheelman in the Cup Series. And to your point DC, no -- Martinsville probably not a likely place for a Phoenix breakthrough.

David Caraviello: But we all await the time when the Phoenix will rise. And we will say Dave Rodman predicted it!

Jill Erwin: And then I'll let him buy my lottery tickets.

* Video: Watch Busch's 2012 season highlights

3. The Camping World Truck Series is back in action after four weekends off. Who needs a good showing at Martinsville the most?

David Caraviello: That would be one Mr. John King. There were people in this business, drivers on the national series included, who had to look up the guy's name after he won the season-opening wreckfest at Daytona. Given how that event unfolded, a lot of folks are going to wonder about King until he backs it up. Here's hoping he will, because I get the sense that maybe the guy is a better racer than his limited national-series resume suggests. But you win that kind of race, people are going to have a big asterisk in their minds until you do it again.

Jill Erwin: The last time we were all together, my inner James Buescher fangirl was laid out for all to see, if I remember correctly. So I will refrain from picking him in hopes of avoiding the wrath of Caraviello. Instead, I say Ron Hornaday. Fourteenth at Daytona, and Martinsville is very much a veteran's track, as I so astutely pointed out in Head2Head this week, in a monumental beatdown of Mark Aumann.


Mark Aumann and Jill Erwin disagree on the likelihood of a Truck Series driver scoring a first win at Martinsville.

Dave Rodman: If you take a big-picture view, it wouldn't hurt Todd Bodine none. Red Horse has made an initial commitment to run three trucks, but only has some sponsorship for one. Todd has some deals percolating and man, he would love to win at Martinsville to even him up with his brothers. He has a lot riding on a good run Saturday.

David Caraviello: We've only had one race, and it was a wacky one at that, so the standings right now are kind of all over the place. But I can tell you who would love to have a strong run at Martinsville -- and that would be Jason White. The one-time Virginia short-track whiz was Denny Hamlin before there was a Denny Hamlin. That guy still is a legend in the Commonwealth, and for him to back up a strong opener at Daytona with a good run this weekend in his home state would be ideal.

Dave Rodman: And with his own team. That's a great call on Jason. He's been creeping up on it, an inch at a time, and it would be pretty fitting to have to step back to his own operation this season and to finally flourish.

Jill Erwin: If we're going on the "Virginia boys who would love to run well there" theme, I'm throwing Timothy Peters back out there. Got his first series win at Martinsville, and I'm sure he'd love to back it up. I only wish Waaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhd Burton was in the truck this weekend so I could pick him. Instead it's young Jeb.

Dave Rodman: Now that we're out of the insanity that is Daytona, I think James Buescher is a given, as I said a couple of weeks ago in Smack. DC, I agree with your initial take on John King, but he's the classic case of an NBA "project." He has so little experience that the mistakes, like dumping Johnny Sauter at Daytona, are going to continue to occur. But he has oodles of potential so it'll be interesting to see how far apart the glitches occur. It'll be a character-builder, for sure -- but Daytona seemed to show young Mr. King already has plenty of that.

David Caraviello: And as we know, Peters is a driver who could be in there for the long haul. You look at the standings right now, and you wonder -- who can stay up there? King, of course, is a wild card. How good are Justin Lofton and Chris Fontaine? White and Clay Greenfield run their own teams. Ward Burton -- well, he's Ward Burton, and I'm not going to overlook a Daytona 500 champ even though he's not in the race this week. So it's a jumble, to say the least.

Jill Erwin: I'd love to see Lofton put together a really good season. He's 26 and pretty marketable, so I'd like to see what he can do near the top of the standings for a while. I think he could be a good thing for the series. But to me the biggest question is Ty Dillon. All the talent in the world by all accounts ... can he keep racking up the top-10 finishes?

David Caraviello: Jill, you beat me to it: In my opinion, the one to watch is the driver currently in eighth place in the standings -- Ty Dillon. That kid can wheel anything. His evasive maneuver in the Daytona race was awe-inspiring. He's going to be hot on the heels of his brother, last year's Truck champion Austin, now in the Nationwide Series. Ty just might replicate the feat.

Jill Erwin: Good to see you agreeing with me, David.

Dave Rodman: The first short-track race of the year always is cool as heck. New drivers come out of the woodwork. Teams -- some of them new ones -- run their first races of the season. With Sauter, Hornaday, Bodine, [Matt] Crafton, Peters, Buescher, White -- heck, we're forgetting Kevin Harvick, not to mention Nelson Piquet Jr., who won his first stock-car race at Bristol, and Miguel Paludo. It's going to be an effort for newcomers Jeb Burton, Caleb Holman and Natalie Sather to get into the race, but if they do would be a great forum to catch some attention.

* Race Hub: Piquet, Paludo discuss journeys from Brazil to NASCAR

David Caraviello: At some point, though, these Truck standings are going to flip. Buescher, Sauter, Piquet, Hornaday, Paludo, Joey Coulter -- that's a lot of strong drivers, not to mention potential championship contenders, who came out on the wrong end at Daytona. Just like with the Cup guys, the real season begins with the second event, in this case this week at Martinsville. We just had to wait a little longer to get there.

Jill Erwin: Very true. I know they had to space out the schedule, but all that build up to Daytona, then a whole month before they even sniff a race track again? I don't like it! Also, it's no longer a new idea, but it doesn't make it less true: Truck races are the most entertaining things NASCAR puts on in a given weekend. So much fun.

David Caraviello: Our most recent Truck race at Martinsville, by the way, was loaded with Cup interlopers. But Hornaday, Sauter and Coulter all finished in the top five. I can certainly see that being the case again this weekend. And just admit it, Jill -- you're going to be in the Martinsville grandstands on Saturday eating one of those famous hot dogs and wearing your James Buescher T-shirt.

Dave Rodman: I'd almost make a road trip from Florida for the Martinsville Truck race.

Jill Erwin: I'll save you a seat in the Buescher grandstands, Dave.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.