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Three weeks in, all smiles in NASCAR land

Three weeks in, all smiles in NASCAR land

NASCAR has to be thrilled with the start of its latest Sprint Cup season.
 
 
Consider the first three winners of the year – bright new star Trevor Bayne, former four-time champ and media savvy Jeff Gordon and now fan favorite Carl Edwards.
 
OK, the suits in Daytona Beach would love to see the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. in there, but even the No. 88 has run well enough in the early going to give Junior Nation a bit of extra reason to tune in on Sundays.
 
For a sport that’s been hurting in television ratings, attendance and sponsorship dollars, the opening stanza to NASCAR’s marathon season has been about as good as the sanctioning body could have possibly dreamed for.
 
Throw in Danica Patrick’s fourth place run in the Nationwide event at Las Vegas and you’ve got some of the biggest media buzz surrounding the sport in years. It’s certainly a welcome development for a sport heavily beleaguered by fans and critics alike in recent seasons.
 
A few thoughts as the Sprint Cup series takes a rare week off following three weeks of action:
 
-Can Patrick possibly turn her back on NASCAR at year’s end when both her contracts with JR Motorsports and her IndyCar deal with Andretti AutoSport run out. Logic would say Patrick will have to choose one or the other once and for all, as finding success in either while not concentrating solely on one type of racing seems impossible.
 
Patrick’s improvement in her second partial season of stock car racing has been drastic. She had just one top 20 finish a season ago – 19th in the season finale at Homestead in November. This month, she’s led laps at Daytona, kept her nose clean, recorded three finishes higher than her previous career best and now the record finish for a woman in a national NASCAR touring series.
 
Still, Patrick can never hope to reach the goals she undoubtedly has for herself to compete at the highest level when only strapping into a stock car a dozen or so times per year. One would think Patrick wouldn’t have flirted with NASCAR if she didn’t one day hope to compete in the sport full-time. If her struggles of a year ago gave her pause, the temptation of a few good runs in the Nationwide Series most likely have given Patrick the fire to go racing with fenders full-time starting next February. I, for one, am hoping she chooses that route as it would undeniably be good for NASCAR, and not to mention, I’m intrigued to see just how much she can accomplish when running Nationwide full-time. At fourth in the points, it’s too bad Patrick can’t give the full schedule a try this season.
 
-Funny how quickly this sport can bring you to its peaks and valleys. Bayne experienced the ultimate high of taking the checkered flag in the Daytona 500 only to crash three cars between Nationwide and Sprint Cup practice and races the very next week in Phoenix. Gordon proved that the racing gods don’t favor veterans as he followed up his week two victory by knocking down the walls in Las Vegas.
 
-I’m sure Tony Stewart wishes that Bristol was tomorrow, rather than two weeks off after in his words, “giving away” Las Vegas. Smoke has two full weeks to burn after dominating in Sin City and coming away second.
 
-The new nose put in place this season in the Sprint Cup has made the cars crazy fast – we saw speeds at Daytona surge past 203 mph – average – before rules changes were implemented. This week at Vegas, we saw the first test on a mile and half and the front runners hit 204 down the end of the front straight away. Those types of numbers not only test a driver’s courage, but could hurt the quality of races. At those types of speeds, passing becomes very difficult. Sunday’s event was the first at the  type of “cookie cutter” 1.5-mile ovals which dominate the schedule and was easily the worst race of the young season. Passing was scarce and cars out front seemed to dominate the day. Here’s hoping that’s not a trend that continues after stellar events at Daytona and Phoenix.
 
-NASCAR’s top two series are off this weekend, but the Trucks are in action at Darlington. Kudos to NASCAR for returning the Trucks to exactly the type of venue they can excel at, and for adding another major touring series event to the Lady in Black. If you’re looking for a racing fix next weekend, make sure to tune in.

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