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It’s Been A Go-Figure 2013 Sprint Cup Season

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 2 2013

Matt Kenseth appears to be a wonderful fit at Joe Gibbs Racing. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The 2013 NASCAR season has been one of surprises. Not huge surprises like getting a pony on your birthday when you figured you were getting socks and underwear again. But mild and very interesting surprises emanating from driver performances and race-day culture.

The eve of the Sprint Cup Series’ 10th race of the season – the return to Talladega for Sunday’s twice-yearly bacchanal of complaints and violence – might be a good time for an opinion-list piece. One centering on current and future go-figure aspects of the 2013 season.

So, go-figure:

Matt Kenseth – The move from Roush Fenway to Joe Gibbs Racing was interesting when announced last year. Kenseth is a little bit country while the folks at JGR are a little bit rock-and-roll. OK, in the case of the JGR incumbent drivers – Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch – more like a little bit mosh pit punk. But apparently mixing the two cultures has resulted in a nifty racing equilibrium. Kenseth has transfused Busch and Hamlin with maturity and patience, and they have reversed-flowed some fiery personality back to glass-of-milk Kenseth. Always wry to the point of being boring, he has added excitement to his on-track and media-session persona. Seriously. And, he’s winning races.

Carl Edwards – Welcome back, ‘cuz. Edwards hits Talladega second in points and with four top-five finishes, which ties him for second most in the series. He has not been great, but very-good is looking great these days

Carl Edwards looking like a contender again. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

when you consider how things have gone for him in recent years. Sustainability becomes the goal for a guy who has had legitimate shots at winning championships. With teammates Greg Biffle, and now Ricky Stenhouse Jr., showing some muscle, it appears the Roush Fenway team is producing good cars. Not great cars, but good is looking great for a team that has fallen off the pace the last couple seasons.

Tony Stewart – Twenty-second in points? One top-10? Eighteen laps led? If Stewart is on one of his diets, he may need to get off it. If he is off one, the may need to get on. No wonder he went after Joey Logano (mad because somebody blocked him late in a race?) after the event in Fontana. There has been bad luck, of course. Usual suspects there. But if things don’t improve for the three-time champ, he may be turning to teammate Danica Patrick for advice. But, Stewart is a hot-weather driver. Is there really any doubt that he’ll get a Chase berth? Wild Card or points-based? Eating or not eating frozen pizza is not going to radically affect the best in the biz.

Jeff Gordon – Gordon, too, has been surprisingly underwhelming this year. He’s not the kind of bad of shape points-wise (14th) as is Stewart, and Gordon has looked to be in race-winning form at places like Bristol and Texas. But you always have to look at how teammates are doing in racing. They offer a benchmark when it comes to equipment and expectations. Gordon’s Hendrick mates occupy three of the top four points positions. They have 11 top-fives between them while Gordon has chipped in with uno. But please, don’t start in with Gordon’s done stuff. He’s only 41. He will make the Chase.

Danica Patrick – If, for the last nine weeks your television has lost picture and you can only hear race broadcast announcers, you might think Patrick is leading in points and hot footing it toward the Chase. (Overselling her accomplishments by the media is an understatement.) But the truth is, she is about where you would expect her to be considering her experience level, and below where you would hope she would be considering her equipment level. Toss out Daytona – there was something hinky going on there with her beating out the best stock car drivers in the world in qualifying. For the rest of the season, Patrick has been running with the have-nots. Around her on Sundays and, hence, in the standings are the Gillilands and Stremmes and Blaneys. That is, decent drivers who are driving under-financed, relative crap. She may yet break out – if not this season, then down the road – but right now she still appears lost.

Auto Club Speedway – By far, the best racing – flag-to-flag wise –this season was held at one of the most

Joey Logano at Auto Club Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

maligned tracks on the schedule. Its flat, wide surface provided the kind of racing which theoretically, it always should have provided. Roger Penske must have felt like a proud papa as he watched great stock car racing at the track he built on the site of a former steel mill. Some old-schoolers would love to see racing succeed in Fontana. It’s a place located down the road from historically important former venues like Riverside and Ontario speedways. A couple more races like the one in March, the place may warrant getting a second date back. Or, at least, title sponsorship.

Richmond – It became trendy post race to laud last weekend’s Cup race at the .75-mile track. And that, if not warranted is at least understandable: Wonderful finishes tend to obscure events that were mediocre overall. But Richmond used to be The Place. Not just for good finishes but for two and a half hours of all that is good about stock car racing. And the heartbreak of seeing masses of empty seats is tempered only by the thought of how horrible the egress to the track used to be. Last week’s race was by no means a dog. Just not up to a place that used to bring out the very best in cars and drivers.

Gen 6 – The surprise here is not that the “new” cars have been terrifically wonderful right out of the gate, or that they are dismal failures right out of the gate. The surprise here is how they have measured up to the hype – both preseason and ongoing varieties of hype. New sheet metal and decals have changed the look of Sprint Cup cars but when it comes to improving the race-day product, well, got to issue the Gen 6 cars an incomplete. They have been good and bad on race days. And that’s cool. Everybody from Goodyear to garagesters are trying to figure out what they have here. But the sport has not been revolutionized. And next time you hear about how radical and fast they are, remember: They are still on the same chassis as COTs and they are a 150 pounds lighter.

Robin Pemberton – Suddenly, he and his mob have become hammers. Good-bye attempts to win the hearts and minds of race teams and drivers. Now, it’s; step out of line and the man comes and takes you away. Huge fines for mild criticism. Really? Chase-torpedoeing suspensions for 2.7 grams of piston rod? In American law, crimes are divided into felonies and misdemeanors depending on their affect on society. Even murder has legal degrees of severity. The hope is that NASCAR would emulate real-world law and commit itself to acknowledging gray areas and intentions. Word is, there are team owners out there who are none too happy about having to go to sponsors and tell them Chase hopes just got kicked in the groin by over-zealous, activist judges.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 2 2013
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