Cup driver updates entering Bristol
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Take an inside look at the top drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ahead of next weekend's Jeff Byrd 500 presented by Food City (Sunday, March 20, 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Where he stands: 1st with 113 points, a gain of two points positions from the previous week.
Looking ahead: Stewart is outspoken about having a weekend off so early in the schedule. "We don't need a break after three races," Stewart said. "We need a break instead of 16 straight races or 18 straight weeks at the end of the year -- we need it before then. Somewhere in the middle of that. Three weeks into the season, nobody needs a break yet." Once the break is over, Stewart has to focus on Bristol. "It has always been a tough track, and I don't care how many years go by, it is always going to be a tough track," he said. "Anytime you get on that small of a race track, it is a challenge to not get yourself in trouble -- to be fast, but not get yourself in trouble. You can have one mishap that really messes up the rest of your day."
Looking back: Stewart looked like an apparent winner at Las Vegas after he led a race-high four times for 163 laps, but two bad pit stops cost him the victory. The first came when he left pit road with an air hose attached to the car midway through the race, which led to a penalty. That sent him from the lead to 22nd place. But Stewart was able to make it back to the front and was in the lead before his final pit stop got him back out behind Carl Edwards, who went on to win the race. "I'm real disappointed," Stewart said. "I honestly think we had the car to beat today. We just gave it away. I don't know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us. Darian (Grubb, the crew chief) made a good call getting us the track position back, but it also showed everybody else that they could do it, too, and we couldn't run 2 1/2 runs on a set of left-side tires. We just shot ourselves in the foot two weeks in a row now. It kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven't won at yet. This was a big deal today. … I'm sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we'll look back and say it was a great weekend, but just, man, it does not sit good right now."
Etc.: Later this year, Stewart will swap cars with Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton at Watkins Glen International. Stewart will drive Hamilton's F1 car and Hamilton will drive Stewart's Chevrolet at the famed road course. "I am excited about it," Stewart said. "It is an awesome opportunity. It is really a chance of a lifetime to drive something that is probably the most sophisticated race car on the planet. It is going to be really cool to get a chance to do it. We did a commercial shoot day with Lewis and he is an awesome guy. We are really looking forward to talking to him about it and learning from him about what to do to drive his car fast."
22 KURT BUSCH, Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Where he stands: 2nd, the same spot he held last week. He's tied with Tony Stewart at 113 points, but Stewart gets the advantage based on his better finish Sunday.
Looking ahead: Much of Busch's success can be attributed to Penske Racing reducing from a three-car Cup team to a two-car Cup team in 2011. "We've worked a lot on our budget program in the offseason," Busch said. "We've actually been able to find more key personnel to bring to the racetrack each week as well as cutting out some of the budget. It's been an interesting balance to watch the upper management work things through. I feel like at the racetrack we're a stronger team because there's more guys to bounce ideas off of that are directly related in our hauler after practice. There's just more guys to filter through information, and that's helped us. With (Brad) Keselowski conquering the Nationwide program, I really think that his Cup focus is amped up and I'm excited to see what it brings to the season -- the 2 car and 22 really working together and that much more in sync."
Looking back: Busch finished ninth at Las Vegas after leading one time for one lap. "We gave it all we had," Busch said. "Steve (Addington, the crew chief) made a great call to put us up front early and we were running, just biding our time. On a restart, I got too racy. I wanted the lead (to) get the bonus point and you can't do that. You have to race your race, let the race come to you. I was a little loose, had some rear brake in it, (Juan Pablo) Montoya was close and I spun it around. The Dodge Charger had a great run today. I appreciate my crew for giving me a great car. We're right up where we need to be in points and (are) really excited about today's finish. We wanted to win this thing, for sure. I came up just a little bit short in my hometown. I think I may have pushed a bit too hard early, driving the car as hard as I did. After I got loose in Turn 3 and spun the car, I just settled into the race and tried to start picking off as many spots as I could. I'm not sure we had the winning car, but we were good enough to be top 10 and get as many points as I could. Man, once you get stuck back in the pack here, everybody is running the same speed and it's just really hard to gain spots. The only way that you can do so is on pit road and have the confidence that your guys are going to do their job (in the pits). This place is just fast and you're on the edge every lap of the race."
Etc.: Just three races into the season, Busch already has won $1,058,301.
99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Where he stands: 3rd, 7 points back, after climbing nine positions.
Looking ahead: By the way he finished last season -- a victory at Phoenix to snap a 70-race winless streak and then winning the next race at Homestead -- Edwards was predicted to be one driver capable of challenging Jimmie Johnson for the championship in 2011. While that remains to be seen, getting into Victory Lane this early in the season is a key for future success. Considering that he finished second to Trevor Bayne at the Daytona 500, Edwards has emerged as the most impressive driver in the first three races this season. "This is the best start to a season that I have ever had, and you know Daytona could have gone any way," Edwards said. "That was a lot of luck involved in our good finish at Daytona. Phoenix was a very strong performance from everyone, but we had bad luck there. I felt today we had a solid top-three car all day. Those are three different types of tracks with success on all three, so I am really excited about the season. This is a great start." ... While Edwards was the big winner at Las Vegas, he admits that Bristol "is already on my mind a little bit. It is going to be a wild race and always is. I believe the reasons we were good at Phoenix (are why) we will be pretty good at Bristol, but you never know. We have won, I think, two races there. (That's correct.) We have had good runs and had terrible days there, too. I think that everyone goes through Bristol and hopes they have a good points day and a chance to win." ... Judging from his fast start, Edwards is certainly capable of breaking Jimmie Johnson's streak of five straight Cup titles. "It is way too early to be thinking championship," team owner Jack Roush warned. "One of the two races before Homestead in the fall I encouraged everyone to be as conservative as we might be if it were in our grasp. We can't make a misstep and (must) keep our eye on the ball. We can't squander the opportunity we have now that we are running better than we did last year. It certainly feels more like 2008, even better."
Looking back: Edwards drove to victory at Las Vegas on Sunday. Edwards' impressive start to the season has allowed him to win $1,649,511 -- the most in the series. It was his 19th career Cup win in 232 Sprint Cup starts and his second victory and third top-10 finish in seven races at Las Vegas. His previous win there came in 2008.
Etc.: Edwards had quite a weekend in Las Vegas -- he bungee jumped off the Stratosphere and also flew with the Air Force Thunderbirds. "Flying with the Thunderbirds was a spectacular opportunity, especially to fly out here in the desert," Edwards said. "We went to Death Valley and flew over mountain tops upside down and gave some folks in their campers the air show of a lifetime out there. That was pretty cool. They let me fly the plane, which was a lot of fun. The most impressive thing about the whole morning was seeing how these guys operate the Thunderbirds program. It is unreal. They are the best of the best in the Air Force, and it shows. Their professionalism and excitement was something I hadn't seen. It was really inspiring to walk out of the door onto the tarmac and the guys are all lined up and dressed sharp with their shoes polished and they were pumped up for the flight. These are the guys that are working on the planes and helping out -- it was unreal. It was a really inspiring morning to see people who care about their jobs that much. The whole experience was great. I didn't get sick, which was huge, and we pulled 9.1 G's, which was a lot of fun. It was really neat."
Prerace coverage from Kansas begins June 5 at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
42 JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Where he stands: 4th, seven points back, up five spots from last week. Carl Edwards gets the third-place designation because he won Sunday's race.
Looking ahead: Montoya believes the key to his success is a matter of "acceptance" as a NASCAR driver. That is a valuable asset to have as the series heads to its first short-track race of the season in two weeks at Bristol. "I think I've been accepted from day one," Montoya said. "I think actually before I could have gone and asked people and they would tell me anything, and now I don't think they tell me as much, so that has changed. That's a positive, I guess, in a way. But for me it's just more comfortable. I think the last two, three years have been very comfortable with these cars, and it shows. When we can get the car working, it works really good. I think last year when they went from the wing to the spoiler, I think it really affected me and we really struggled, and we did a lot of work over the winter with the new nose to make sure that didn't happen and, I don't know, here we are. It's good."
Looking back: Montoya's third-place finish at Las Vegas proves that he has improved dramatically as an oval racer in NASCAR. He led one time for seven laps. It was his first top-10 finish in five Vegas races. "Our car was very good all day," Montoya said. "We battled between sixth and eighth place and then a little bit better and a little bit better. It was good. We were getting better, but we just never closed in. We could make the car turn through the middle, we just couldn't touch the throttle and the other way around. It was just touch and go. But it's good. You know, we really needed a good result after last week, and it was nice to get it here."
Etc.: With Martinsville coming up next month, Montoya described what it takes to get around NASCAR's flat short track. "It is go, brake, turn, go, brake, turn," Montoya said. "To tell you the truth, the first couple of times you go there, it is hard because it is a lot slower than anything you've done and because you are going so slow and it is so flat, the car slides around. It is more like a road course. It is in between a road course and an oval. For me personally, it is not that hard. Just have to make sure the car rolls through the center and put the power down. That is all that matters."
39 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Where he stands: 5th, an improvement of three positions, and is 10 points back.
Looking ahead: Newman is another driver who is off to a fast start and is hoping that momentum continues when racing resumes in two weeks. "It is the best start to the season since my Daytona 500 victory in 2008," Newman said. "... I think we have done a good job so far of carrying a good run in the last 10 races of last season into the offseason and turning that into a good start to the season. That isn't easy to do. Maybe Carl Edwards is doing it just a little bit better than us. Ultimately it has been a lot of fun to start. We led the most laps at Daytona, which was a great feat for us as a team. I think it was the first time for me at a restrictor-plate track and the first time for me at Stewart-Haas as far as leading the most laps."
Looking back: Newman is coming off a fifth-place finish but never led a lap in Sunday's race at Vegas. "It was a good double top-five for us at Stewart-Haas Racing," Stewart said. "I'm just proud of everybody on the Chevrolet (side) and Stewart-Haas for giving us the opportunity. We fought back. We were really loose for 80 percent of the race, and the last two runs when it cooled down and we could just kind of ride. We were three seconds behind or whatever; there was no sense in trying to catch up to the other guys. I think the difference was just how the tires and everything worked out here. It seemed like track position was key, and Tony Stewart proved that when he did those two tires (changed on a late pit stop). He had really old lefts and still hauled the mail. Track position was really important. I think when we get to some tracks where we have to handle a little bit more ... I don't know if it is those bumps and grip and forward drive and things like that, (but) I think you will see the cars separate and racing a little bit better."
Etc.: Racing with the new nose on his car instead of the splitter from recent years was a big focus of attention heading into 2011, but it's not that big of a deal to Newman. "I honestly haven't noticed any difference in the way the car drives aerodynamically or physically as far as hitting the race track with the new nose compared to the old nose," Newman said. "This new nose is supposed to be more rigid but, in saying that, I wouldn't have known any difference whatsoever and I don't know many drivers that I have talked to (who) would say anything any different."
27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Where he stands: 6th, 17 points back, up five spots.
Looking ahead: Now that he is with a top-level team, Menard has been impressive and promises the best is yet to come. "We've had a good start to the season," he said. "Daytona went really well for us. We came out of there with a ninth-place finish and we were disappointed with that. We had a really fast car down there. Phoenix, we had a good car again. Got some damage early in the race. Got the toe knocked out, had some tire-wear issues from there that hurt us at the end of the day. Just proud of the way a brand-new race team is coming together. They build me really nice looking, beautiful race cars. They are fast. We have awesome horsepower. Just looking forward to get the ball rolling here with the season."
Looking back: Menard finished 12th at Las Vegas after leading twice for three laps.
Etc.: Menard may be new at RCR, but some of the crew members have worked with him at DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.). "Just walking through the shop I see a lot of people I've known the last few years, which is really cool and helps with the learning process and all that," he said. "The race cars are very light. They do a really good job with the fit and finish of them. The welds are beautiful. If you just look at the race cars, you can tell they are nicely built. Slugger (Labbe, the crew chief) coming over is a huge deal, obviously. He has assembled a group of guys that were with me last year and a lot of guys that he has worked with in the past and people that he is familiar with. It is a really good group of guys. So far this year we've gone out to dinner at some point every weekend, and everybody just gets along really well and it is cool to see."
56 MARTIN TRUEX JR., Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Where he stands: 7th, 18 points back, nine positions better than last week.
Looking ahead: Truex was asked what the keys to his success this year are and how he can continue this progress in future races. "This team has been on it this year," Truex said. "We really hit on some things at the end of last season. The communication is going great; Chad (Johnson, the chief engineer) and I are really on the same page as far as getting the car set up. We had a good car in practice all weekend; we had a good run last week. It's just been good -- the communication has been going really well and we're building a lot better race cars. He's really learning what I need in them -- there's going to be a lot more of this this year."
Looking back: Truex continued his impressive start to the season by finishing sixth at Vegas. He led three times for three laps.
Etc.: Truex, along with teammate David Reutimann and team owner Michael Waltrip, got to work out with the Chicago White Sox at their spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz., last week. "I was pretty good at baseball when I was a kid, so to return to the field after 18 years was neat," Truex said. "I had some rust on me, that's for sure, but so did David (Reutimann), my brother Ryan and Michael (Waltrip). We did the whole nine yards with the White Sox -- warm up, fielding and batting practice. It was a lot of fun to practice with the players, and a few of them came with us to the track. It was cool to hang out with baseball players who are NASCAR fans because I'm a baseball fan, too. I found out baseball is like racing. They make it look so easy when you watch them, but in reality, what they do is not easy at all."
11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Where he stands: 8th, 18 points back, six spots better than last week.
Looking ahead: Hamlin returns to the short tracks in less than two weeks at Bristol and is eager to continue his forward progress in the standings. "I think this year, I'm more anxious than I was in any of the years in the past, but I'm more calm about it," Hamlin said of his approach to 2011. "It's two different things. I just have an understanding for how things work now. I understand that you can't panic in the first three or four races. You've got to just work your way into the season ... We know when we leave Daytona reality sets in, and that's when you see what all of the hard work that you've done over these last two months whether the results were good or not."
Looking back: Hamlin is coming off a seventh-place finish at Vegas but did not lead a lap. "It's commendable -- anybody that was out there today knew that passing was nearly impossible. It was so hard," Hamlin said. "I think it just has a lot to do with the speeds that we're running and as hard as the tires are. We're just so dependent on the air. When someone is in front, it takes it away and we can't do anything. Hopefully when we come back here, they'll soften the tire up and that's when you'll see a lot of side-by-side action."
Etc.: Don't compare crew chief Mike Ford to New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, according to Hamlin. "I think he's the absolute, total 100 percent opposite of Rex Ryan," Hamlin said. "He never says anything."
43 AJ ALLMENDINGER, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
Where he stands: 9th, 19 points out of the lead after falling five positions.
Looking ahead: Despite his fall this week, this still is the best start of Allmendinger's career, and it has him hoping for bigger things to come. "I vote we just start the Chase right now," he said. "It is still really early, just two races in, but I feel like between Daytona and Phoenix we have had a good race car. We got through all the wrecks and have been a little bit lucky there. This is definitely a lot better start than where we were last year at this point, but ... we have to stay calm about that and can't get too excited. I am happy with where our race team has started. I think it is just the times in racing right now. The Sprint Cup Series is tougher than it has been in a long time. Everyone is fighting for the sponsors and for their jobs. You see that on the racetrack. Everybody has to be aggressive to be fast. There is a certain level of aggressiveness that you have to have, but at the same point, something I have learned in the last year or so is when to be aggressive and when not to be. ... I think that right now we are in a good position, although it is only race two, that we don't have to press really hard. We are up there in points and can try to run every lap and be smart and have good finishes. There are guys out there right now that with this points system the way it is are already looking at being over a race behind. Those guys need to push a little more, but we just have to be smart out there."
Looking back: Allmendinger finished 19th at Las Vegas, causing his drop in the standings.
Etc.: Allmendinger is hoping the off weekend doesn't slow the momentum the team has gained through the first three races of the season. "I think that every weekend, whether there is an off weekend coming or not is a really big deal," he said. "For me, the biggest thing is that this (Bristol) has been an Achilles' heel track for me. We have always struggled here. I missed the first two races in 2007 and 2008, and we have struggled the last two years. I don't think the off weekend has anything to do with that, but we need to get through this weekend and be strong. That will give us more confidence than anything. This is one of the tracks that I circled on the calendar at the beginning of the year that we had to run well at. I really feel like we are a lot better than when we came here last year, but at the same point we just have to have a good run. The off weekend is what it is and it gives everyone a chance to settle down and figure out where we are after a few races. I think that this racetrack is bigger than anything for me."
88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Where he stands: 10th, 22 points out, up seven spots.
Looking ahead: Earnhardt is confident heading into the fourth race of the season after finishing in the top 10 for two consecutive weeks. "We're just doing what we're supposed to do, I reckon," Earnhardt said.
Looking back: Although he never led a lap, Earnhardt finished eighth at Las Vegas. "We made some great adjustments and the car just drove better and better," Earnhardt said. "I just kept describing what I was feeling and what I thought I needed and Steve (Letarte, the crew chief) was really hitting right on it about every time. We got a little bit too tight there. We had a little bit too much air in the right front and took it back out for that last run. But I'm happy. It's a fun team; a great group of guys. I'm proud to be a part of it and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well. We didn't have too bad a car in practice, and I just didn't nail it in qualifying. I didn't drive good. I thought guys were running on the top and that maybe I needed to run there in qualifying, and so I ran there and that wasn't the thing to do. But I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments. I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong and he was hitting on it every time. We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up. We had some great late-run speed and we needed to move that toward the beginning of the run. That's what we did."
Etc.: Now that he is regaining his competitive confidence, Earnhardt can't underestimate the importance of this season. "Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I've got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work," Earnhardt said. "If it don't work with him (Letarte), I got nowhere else to go. I got no other options, really, other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and (JR Motorsports crew chief and co-owner) Tony (Eury) Jr. and them guys. But I want this to work. I want to be in a COT (car of tomorrow) the rest of my career as long as I can and I want to be successful, and so I'm just trying to work hard, man. We're getting better. It feels like it's working."
5 MARK MARTIN, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Where he stands: 11th, 22 points out of the lead and down five positions from last week.
Looking ahead: While Martin didn't fare too well at Bristol last year, he remembers how well he ran there in 2009. For that reason, he is "really looking forward" to getting back there. "We led a lot of laps in '09 (242), so we feel good about how we will run this time around," said Martin.
Looking back: Martin did not run as well as he had expected after being one of the fastest cars during practice. "We just never got the car to where we needed it to be," said Martin, who finished 18th. "The track conditions were different today, and we kept throwing things at it but we never got a real handle on it. It was a good day, but we had hopes for a better one."
Etc.: Martin is 132 starts short of matching Richard Petty for the most in NASCAR history. When asked if he thought he would catch Petty, Martin said, "That's a good question. That's quite a lot of starts. I say it's possible, but I haven't even thought about it. That's four more years of nearly full time of some kind of NASCAR competition, so I don't know. I can't really answer that question."
48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Where he stands: 12th, only four points out of the top 10 and 26 out of the lead. Gained one spot.
Looking ahead: Johnson is looking forward to the week off and the opportunity to spend a lot of time with his wife, Chani, and daughter, Genevieve. "It will be just nice to get away from racing for a few days and enjoy the family," said Johnson.
Looking back: It was an up-and-down day for Johnson as he finished 16th at a track where he had won four of the last six races. "We started pretty far off, but we made some real smart adjustments and got the car real close and then at the end we had a couple of bad things go our way -- a bad stop -- and lost track position," said Johnson. "We didn't adjust on it on one stop when we needed to and just started slipping back at the end. But for a while we had momentum going our way, and we worked our way to a decent finish and then had a little trouble late."
Etc.: Johnson said he has no plans to drive an open-wheel car anytime soon. "Four or five years ago I would have been in a position to do it," said Johnson. "I've joked around about the agreement that Chani and I had -- open-wheel cars were cool until we had a baby, and until I can get that sold through my wife, I just don't see it happening."
CUT-OFF FOR CHASE FOR THE SPRINT CUP
4 KASEY KAHNE, Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
Where he stands: 13th in the standings, only four points out of the top 10. Gained two spots.
Looking ahead: Kahne said he plans to "fully enjoy" the week off from Cup racing, but he'll be in the Truck race. He is eager to get to Bristol to see if he can duplicate his fifth-place run last August. "I have high hopes for Bristol," said Kahne. "We seemed to hit on something last August."
Looking back: Despite being involved in an early-race accident, Kahne was able to rally and finish 14th at Vegas. Just past the 100-lap mark, Kahne was hit from behind by David Ragan as Kahne slowed to miss a spinning Kurt Busch. Kahne was able to keep the car off the wall. "It was a good points day for us," said Kahne. "We struggled all weekend to get the car where we wanted it to be. But we managed to get ourselves a top-15 finish, which is good for the overall picture."
Etc.: Kahne thinks the decision by NASCAR to fill the last two spots in the Chase with drivers who have the most wins and are not in the top 10 is "a very good one. The two extra drivers in the Chase by most wins keeps everybody after wins. You've got to win races -- that's the only sure way you'll make the Chase."
18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Where he stands: 14th in the standings after he was first the previous week. Still, he's only five points out of the top 10.
Looking ahead: Busch points out that "I want to race every week. I will be racing this week in the Truck race at Darlington (on Saturday). And I can't wait to get to Bristol. We need a win to get back up there (in the points), and our record in that area is pretty good at Bristol."
Looking back: Busch had visions of another win at his home track, but his day ended only 107 laps into the 267-lap event when his engine failed. As a result, he ended up 38th. "We had a great car," said Busch. "We chased down (Tony) Stewart there, and unfortunately the air is so sensitive today that you get within a five car-length cushion and you just can't close anymore. Even after we had the tire go down, we were OK with plenty of time to go and 'kablooey' -- it just broke."
Etc.: When Busch was asked about the team's early engine problems in 2011, he replied, "Obviously, we have some sort of problem that we can get through and work around. We're trying to make the best horsepower we can to keep up with some other teams that we know have better horsepower than we do. The guys keep trying to find every ounce they can and unfortunately sometimes we push the limits. The pieces that break sometimes are smaller than your pinkie fingernail."
47 BOBBY LABONTE, Toyota
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
Where he stands: 15th, seven points out of the top 10 and down eight spots from last week.
Looking ahead: Labonte wishes the first off weekend of the year came later in the year since he and his team are still in the getting-acquainted mode. "We haven't worked together that long, but we have a good group and hopefully we can make the changes that we need to make week in and week out to be better on the racetrack," he said. "With the people that we have, I know we can do that."
Looking back: A lengthy pit stop early in the race put Labonte a lap down, and he was never able to recover as he finished 24th at Vegas. "It was not in the cards for us," said crew chief Frank Kerr. "We were in position for the lucky dog (to get the lap back), but we never caught a break. We got behind a little on pit road on one stop, and the leader eventually caught up and we just didn't have any luck in getting our lap back."
Etc.: Labonte admits the last couple of years have been extremely difficult. "There were times of 'Should I stay home or not?' That was very difficult," said Labonte. "But I think if I haven't had that perseverance, I probably wouldn't be here today. And I think this (teaming up with JTG Daugherty Racing) is a good opportunity."
17 MATT KENSETH, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Where he stands: 16th in the standings, 14 points out of the top 10. Gained seven spots.
Looking ahead: With a new addition to the family, Kenseth was looking forward to the week off. "Just to be home with the family will make this week a special one," said Kenseth. "We don't get very many weeks off in this business."
Looking back: After winning the pole, Kenseth had high hopes for the day. But early-race tire problems put him a lap down, and he spent the majority of the race just trying to get back on the lead lap. After he did, Kenseth was able to march his way through the field to finish 11th. "We finally got it back with 70 to go and couldn't do any better than what we did there," said Kenseth. "We just didn't have enough time (to get back to the top 10). I assume we ran over something (to cause the flat)."
Etc.: Kenseth has nothing but praise for crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who joined the team late in 2010. "I've known Jimmy for a long time, and we've always gotten along well," said Kenseth. "Everybody has their own style and the things they like to work on more than others, and he has his certain things that he likes to do with the cars. He's won championships and a lot of races, so he's got tons of experience and has seemed to help the group that way."
9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
Where he stands: 17th in the standings, 15 points out of the top 10. Gained 10 spots.
Looking ahead: After an excellent run at Las Vegas, Ambrose wishes Bristol was this weekend. "You just hope that the week off doesn't put a halt to the momentum you had after Vegas," he said.
Looking back: Ambrose was beaming after finishing a career-best fourth at Vegas. "It was a great day," said Ambrose. "It was a great first top-five for RPM (in 2011). I have to thank Richard Petty for believing in me and giving me a shot. It is going to be a great year. We had great pit stops and a good crew today. There was a lot of good energy out there today, just a ton of good energy. I am really happy with the finish."
Etc.: Ambrose has started his own race team to help young Australian drivers. Based in North Carolina, Marcos Ambrose Motorsports has formed a Late Model stock car team to race in the UARA Stars Touring Series with 24-year-old George Miedecke behind the wheel. "It seemed to me that there was an opportunity available to help launch new drivers into the NASCAR system," said Ambrose.
33 CLINT BOWYER, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Where he stands: 18th in the standings, up three spots, 16 points out of the top 10.
Looking ahead: Because the year has not started well for the RCR teams, Bowyer hopes the week off will help "get us back on the right track. It will be nice for everyone at the shop to have a few days off."
Looking back: Bowyer finished 15th at Vegas. "We battled a loose-handling race car and changing track conditions all day, but we were still able to score a top-15 finish and gain a few spots in the points," said Bowyer. "We were pretty good on the short runs, but on the long green-flag runs the car really got loose. I am looking forward to the off weekend before we head to Bristol."
Etc.: Bowyer said the Sprint Cup Awards Banquet in Las Vegas last December helped him realize again "just how important it is to be part of that Chase and be a contender for the championship. This is a huge sport, and to be one of the boys (chasing the title) is a pretty cool feeling."
24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Where he stands: 19th in the standings, down a whopping 14 spots, 17 points out of the top 10.
Looking ahead: Gordon said he has no "big plans" for the week off "other than spending a lot of time with my family. It is always a big deal when I get to be with Ingrid (his wife) and the kids."
Looking back: Gordon was running in the top 10 when his right-front tire blew out, sending his car into the third-turn wall on lap 194 of the 267-lap event. As a result, he ended up 36th to fall out of the top 10. "The day actually started out pretty good for the DuPont Chevrolet," said Gordon. "We were further up toward the front than I thought we would be based on practice yesterday. We were definitely fighting a tight condition right there, but I certainly wasn't expecting to blow a tire like that going into three. Thankful for the safer barrier here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a safe race car."
Etc.: Gordon said his Phoenix win was special in a lot of ways. "Even the memories that I have of some of the other wins don't compare to that crowd reaction," said Gordon. "The crowd reaction, it sent chills up my spine. That was unbelievable. I don't quite understand it, to be honest with you -- maybe a little bit of a sympathy vote or over these last couple years I have earned a little bit more respect maybe because I have gone through some tough times. That was just the coolest thing that I ever experienced."
29 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Where he stands: 20th in the standings, up two spots, 20 points out of the top 10.
Looking ahead: Harvick is not a big fan of an off weekend so early in the season. "We have two early off weekends, and you look at the TV ratings (up so far in 2011) and the momentum the sport has and you wish that those things weren't there," said Harvick. "We will use them as wisely as we can. No big plans, just making sure all the racing stuff is heading in the right direction."
Looking back: A pit-road speeding penalty midway during the race ended any hopes Harvick had of battling for the win. Instead, he had to be content with a 17th-place finish at Vegas. Harvick was running fourth when NASCAR ruled he was speeding as he left the pits. As a result, he had to restart from the rear of the field. "Gil (Martin, the crew chief) and the guys on the Budweiser crew gave me a good car today," said Harvick. "That speeding penalty killed us. We got stuck back in traffic and just couldn't go anywhere after that."
Etc.: Even though Harvick stands 20th in the standings, he said it is "way too early" to worry about the points. "We just go race every week, and if we do like we did at Phoenix (finishing fourth), we won't have a problem with points," said Harvick. "We ran well at Vegas; the speeding penalty just kept us from another top-10 or even top-five."
34 DAVID GILLILAND, Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Where he stands: 21st in the standings, down 11 spots, 21 points out of the top 10.
Looking ahead: Gilliland said the team's goal "at the beginning of the year was to stay in the top 20 in points, and we are right there (one point out of the top 20). I feel like our motor program and the cars we have are so much better than last year. So I feel good about reaching our goal."
Looking back: Gilliland's day ended on lap 150 when his right-front tire blew, sending him hard into the second-turn wall. "We hadn't had any tire issues all day," said Gilliland. "That last lap we ran was as fast as we had run all day. We didn't see anything unusual (with the tires) -- it just blew out. It was definitely a hard hit. I am thankful for those safer barriers."
Etc.: While he was in California before the Vegas race, Gilliland spent a lot of time in the dunes "messing around. My car has a thousand horsepower, is a twin-turbo and weighs about 2,600 pounds, so it is fast. It is like strapping yourself onto a rocket ship out there. It was a lot of fun."
2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Where he stands: 23rd in standings, down three spots, 28 points out of top 10.
Looking ahead: Keselowski will spend the weekend off working on his "Race of Recovery" program, in which veterans wounded in the line of duty will have the opportunity to come to the track for a three-day VIP race experience capped off with a ride-along with Keselowski. "I am extremely proud of this program and can't wait for the first event at MIS (Michigan International Speedway)," he said.
Looking back: Keselowski finished 26th at Vegas. "We missed something all day," said Keselowski. "I'm not sure what. Kurt (Busch, his teammate) was a little bit better, but neither of our Dodges were where we wanted them to be. These rough race tracks seem to be our Achilles' heel last year, and so far this year it's the same. We tried a lot of different things and just never hit on anything."
Etc.: Keselowski remembers six years ago seeing a list of five Nationwide drivers for whom racing experts predicted stardom. He wasn't on the list. "I wasn't rated good enough at that time to make that list," said Keselowski. "I go back now and ask myself, 'How did I get to where I am today?' I worked hard and constantly improved every year. If I am going to make it on the Cup side, I'm going to have to do that again."
83, BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
Where he stands: 24th in the standings, 30 points out of the top 10. But he's up nine spots from last week.
Looking ahead: After missing the last 25 races of 2010, Vickers wants to race every weekend. But since there is no Sprint Cup race this weekend, he plans to be outdoors. "I love being outdoors," he said. "I love nature and all those things, and I enjoy hunting. I try to be respectful about it, and I don't just randomly shoot things."
Looking back: Vickers was all smiles after his first top-10 finish since his final race of 2010 (Darlington). Vickers missed the last 25 races of last year after discovering he had a blood clot near his heart. "Today was finally the good start to our season we have needed," said Vickers, who was involved in wrecks in the first two events. "We made the most of everything today and got every drop we could out of the car -- the guys did a great job in the pits and with adjustments."
Etc.: Vickers admits the last half of 2010 was "very difficult. You spend your whole life preparing to do something and you're there and you're doing it and then all of a sudden it's taken away. Emotionally it was difficult at times. I never thought that I would be dealing with blood clots or having heart surgery at 26."
00 DAVID REUTIMANN, Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Where he stands: Tied for 24th, up six spots, 30 points out of the top 10.
Looking ahead: Reutimann said he doesn't have much planned this weekend except to be in his race shop working on cars. "Buzzie (his father) tore up our cars down in Daytona. We have a lot of work to do to get him back out there so he can start racing again," David said.
Looking back: Reutimann overcame an untimely caution flag while he was pitting and an extra pit stop late in the race to finish 13th at Vegas. "We had a fast Tums Toyota today, but every time it seemed like we were going to break into the top five something put us back," said Reutimann. "We kept battling back and ended up with a decent finish. It isn't what we wanted or think we deserved, but it moved us up in points."
Etc.: Reutimann believes "we have turned this thing around. We still have quite a bit of ground to make up after a rough start to the season, but we gained some spots in Las Vegas and we are looking to pick up some more momentum in Bristol -- we ran very well there last year and I think we will again."
6 DAVID RAGAN, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Where he stands: Tied for 24th, down one spot, and 30 points out of the top 10.
Looking ahead: Ragan hopes the week off will put an end to the tough start he's had this season. He knows he needs to run well this year if he is to keep his ride beyond 2011. This is the last year of his contract with Roush Fenway Racing.
Looking back: After posting the second-fastest time in the first practice session, Ragan had visions of starting on the front row. "But I was trying too hard and just got too high (coming out of the second turn)," said Ragan, who spun out. He was able to keep the car off the wall but had to start 42nd after not posting a qualifying speed. The poor starting position forced him to play catch-up all day, and he finished 22nd. "I felt like we had a better car than where we finished," said Ragan.
Etc.: After finishing 13th in the Sprint Cup standings, just short of the Chase, in 2008, Ragan's second year on the circuit, he has finished 27th and 24th the last two years. "We haven't been able to repeat that or regain that close proximity to the Chase group, and we need to re-establish that," said car owner Jack Roush. "I am confident that David can and very hopeful he will do what he needs to do to make all that carry forward as it needs to."