5 Questions Before ... Samsung Mobile 500

Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR

It seems the further we get into the 2011, the fuzzier the championship picture can become. Sure we’ve had several different winners this year, but we’ve already seen some promising early season runs start to fade away. The opposite is also true, with drivers that got off to a seemingly slow start suddenly returning to prominence.

However, no one expected that six races into the season we’d know who to pick for the championship. Even with the new points rule, it’s hard to tell who exactly will maintain the early season momentum (or lack thereof) through the summer and into the fall. Heck, we’ve even seen drivers fall off during the summer and pick up the pace again in time for the Chase in previous seasons.

So without regard to the championship battle, here are some questions on my mind heading into the weekend:

Does Jimmie Johnson have a point? … Following a speeding penalty that ultimately cost Johnson a race win this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway, the five time champion was vocal on both Twitter and to reporters after the race that he had wrongly been penalized.

“I wasn’t speeding,” Johnson said after the race. “They didn’t like how it looked. The way I managed my timing lines. Had this happened one other time where I do a good job with my timing lines to know exactly where I needed to accelerate and where I needed to stop. There is just know way. People will say whatever. But with the math and the way we know our timing lines, there is just no way. You accelerate real hard through your timing zone. A lot of guys get dinged for that. I’ve been dinged a couple of different times. Usually you get dinged when you pass someone or break the plane of the car in front of you. With no one there, I accelerated like I always so from my mark. There is just no way. There is just no way. It won’t do me any good to have a conversation; it isn’t going to matter. I guess I just can’t attack pit road like I know I can and like I did every single time before this.”

A couple of days following the incident, Johnson retracted those statements and said he had been misinformed on the penalties.

"The fact is we were wrong," Johnson said. "I was referring to a segment I knew I couldn't get busted in. At the end of the day it wasn't the segment we were busted on."

According to a report by ESPN’s David Newton, Johnson was caught speeding in timing zone segment 3 at 35.53 mph. Martinsville’s speed limit is 30 mph with a 5 mph tolerance.

While Johnson was apologetic of his post-race bombast, he was still clear on one issue: "If NASCAR wanted to eliminate speeding controversy, they would post the times for the world to see,” Johnson posted on Twitter in a tweet to ESPN reporter Marty Smith.

NASCAR’s Kerry Tharp said, “We don't feel the need to display the speeds to the other competitors to let them figure out the other teams' strategy. That's why they call it competition.”

Still, what harm could it possibly do? After all, if fans, teams, and commentators alike were able to see for themselves that the drivers were indeed speeding, it would eliminate any and all doubt. NASCAR claims to use computer generated timing and scoring, meaning that the penalties handed out are brought up electronically rather than hand-picked by NASCAR or subject to human error with a stopwatch.

I’m not one that believes everything in NASCAR is fixed and that there is some pre-race script heading into the weekend, but they certainly leaves themselves open to speculation when they keep everything so secretive.  

What will Texas’s first night race feature? … While Texas Motor Speedway has had races end under the lights, Saturday night will be the track’s first official night race and track president Eddie Gossage has said they are already seeing a positive response from the change. Apparently the track is expecting to see an 8-10% increase in ticket sales, which would be encouraging after last year’s spring race at TMS saw a crowd of less than 100,000 in attendance.

To be quite honest, I’m looking forward to seeing the first night race of the season. Night racing in my opinion provides some of the most exciting and memorable moments, and all but two races through the end of May at night. Kudos to NASCAR for allowing the change and to TMS for pursuing it. The fans really seem to appreciate it, and I’m sure the track will benefit from the change.

What’s up with the standings? … Notice anything unusual about the current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings?

Nope? Give up?

The top seven drivers drive for seven different teams: Leader Kyle Busch drives for Joe Gibbs Racing; 2nd-place Carl Edwards (-5) drives for Roush Fenway Racing; 3rd-place Jimmie Johnson (-12) drives for Hendrick Motorsports; 4th-place Kurt Busch (-14) drives for Penske Racing; 5th-place Kevin Harvick (-15) drives for Richard Childress Racing; 6th-place Ryan Newman (-16) drives for Stewart-Haas Racing; and 7th-place Juan Pablo Montoya (-18) drives for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

Think it doesn’t hold much significance to this weekend’s race at Texas? Think again! The diversity in competition this year has been astonishing, and the current standings are no less than evidence of that. HMS and RFR are the only other teams with multiple cars in the top 10—Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, both from HMS, are 8th and 10th in points, respectively, and RFR driver Matt Kenseth is sitting in 9th.

Everyone has their own definition of a good race/season. I usually find a race most enjoyable when multiple cars have a car capable of winning, and the same thing goes for the championship battle. Yes the season is early and there is more than enough time for the points to continue to space themselves out, but as of now there are more than enough cars to provide a ton of on-track action on any given weekend—Texas included.

Can Kyle Busch clinch 20,000 laps led? … You can hate on Busch all you want to. The fact of the matter is that he’s a helluva racecar driver and he’s about to prove it this weekend.

If Busch leads 117 laps this weekend in either the Nationwide or Sprint Cup Series race this weekend, he’ll clinch 20,000 laps led across all three of NASCAR’s national series (the other one is the Camping World Truck Series).

The chance that Busch will reach this milestone is basically inevitable. Based upon his dominance so far this year in both series, leading a combined 117 laps between both races this weekend should be no problem. If he repeats his Nationwide Series performance at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this season and leads every lap, he’ll have exceeded the 20,000 laps led before the race is even finished.

By the way, Busch has five career victories (Nationwide Series only) at TMS. Yeah, I’m thinking this one is a lock.

Can Kevin Harvick win three in a row? … For only the second time in his Sprint Cup Series career, Harvick won back-to-back races, pulling off the victory at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville Speedway and sealing the deal with late race passes for the win.

Harvick would be the first driver to win three races in a row since Jimmie Johnson won four in a row back in 2007. However, TMS hasn’t always been very friendly to Harvick.

In 16 starts at the track, Harvick has yet to win, only  has three top 5s, and five career laps led at the track. His average finish is 12th, which isn’t too bad, and he’s finished every single race he’s started in Texas. And, as the saying goes, in order to finish first you must first finish. Still, he’ll have to do better than that if he wants to keep his winning streak alive.

Bonus questions: How many times will Kimi Raikkonen’s name be mispronounced before he actually makes a start in NASCAR?  … Will Denny Hamlin finally show up this weekend? … Can Joe Gibbs Racing go two weeks in a row without an engine failure?
5 Questions Before ... Samsung Mobile 500 5 Questions Before ... Samsung Mobile 500 Reviewed by Summer Dreyer on Thursday, April 07, 2011 Rating: 5