- Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 April 2011 20:08
- Published on Tuesday, 26 April 2011 20:08
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Who do you like for this season’s championship? You can throw all the analysis out the window, the 2011 season is wide open.
Seven different drivers have won the first eight races of the season. It’s the most competitively balanced start to a season since 2003, when nine different drivers won the first nine races.
Until Talladega when Hendrick Motorsports teams started the race 1-2-3-4 and followed up with all four teams finishing in the top ten and Jimmie Johnson recording his first win of the season, the Hendrick
teams were unusually quiet. Only one Hendrick Motorsports driver had won a race, Jeff Gordon at Phoenix. A surprising 16 of Hendrick drivers’ 28 finishes so far this season were outside the top ten.
The season opening Daytona 500 was an especially tough day. Three Hendrick drivers - Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - finished outside the top ten. But seemingly one race cures all ills. At Talladega, Johnson won; Gordon was third; Earnhardt Jr. fourth and Mark Martin eighth. All were within .145 seconds of Johnson at the finish line.
All four drivers have an interesting subplot within their team:
Dale Earnhardt Jr., with his fourth-place finish, vaulted into third-place in the standings, his highest standing this late in the season since 2008. He now has two top-fives, and five top-ten finishes, which matches his top-ten numbers for the entire season last year.
Jimmie Johnson is on a similar course as past years. He sits second in the points and has now been the points leader or second after eight races for the past three seasons.
Aside from his Phoenix win, Jeff Gordon has mostly struggled. Only once has he had a worse points position after eight races than his current 13th place in the standings. In 1994 he was 14th. He was also 13th after eight races in 2008.
An accident at Texas derailed Martin’s season a bit. Though his 14th-place standing in the points chase is his lowest after eight races since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008; five of his eight finishes have been in the top fifteen.
If you’re into the glass is half full or the glass is half empty thinking, there’s reason for optimism for last season’s runner up Denny Hamlin. In 17th place, if the Chase for the Sprint Cup began today, Hamlin would fail to make the Chase. Have faith, it’s still early in the season. In 2005, Matt Kenseth charged back from 28th place after eight races to make the Chase. That’s the furthest back after eight races any driver has been and made the Chase.
Hamlin knows a few things about charging up the standings after a slow start. In his rookie year of 2006, Hamlin sat 18th in points after eight races. By the time the Chase began following the September race at Richmond, Hamlin was in the top ten, he would finish third in the final standings as a rookie.
Saturday night it’s “racing perfection under the lights at Richmond” and, as the saying goes, there’s still good seats available for the Crown Royal Presents The Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400. There have been 109 Sprint Cup series races at Richmond International Raceway. Richard Petty leads in career wins with thirteen trips to victory lane. Among active drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson are tied for the most Richmond wins with three each.
Friday night the Nationwide Series cars will take to the track at Richmond for 250 laps of racing in the Bubba Burge 250. After posting his 47th Nationwide series win at Talladega, Kyle Busch is just two Nationwide Series wins shy of Mark Martin’s all-time series record of 49 victories.