Friday, June 29, 2012

Special Edition Under the Spotlight: Drivers still worth watching in 2012


Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
Back in February before the start of the 2012 NASCAR season “Under the Spotlight” ran a special edition with predictions of the Sprint Cup Series “underdogs” that would be worth watching this year. With 16 races already behind them, some of those drivers have found consistency and will likely find themselves vying for the championship while others will just have to wait until next year. The sport’s senior series will make their second visit ever to Kentucky this Saturday night for the Quaker State 400. For the sake of comparison, Kentucky is a 1.5-mile oval referred to as “cookie-cutter,” because it resembles several other tracks on the circuit such as Texas, Las Vegas, Chicagoland and Kansas. With little to go on as far as notes from last year’s visit to Kentucky, the teams and drivers will rely on past experience at similar tracks for their setup as well as strategy throughout the race. At this point in the season with just 10 races left before the start of the Chase it’s either go big or go home. This special edition of “Under the Spotlight” will highlight some of the underdogs that are still worth watching in 2012.

Martin Truex Jr.

Currently ninth in the point standings, Martin Truex Jr. helped put Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) on the map this season as a team capable of competing for a championship. The driver of the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota started the season off right, earning a pole in the non-points Bud Shootout. He scored his second pole in April in the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas where he finished sixth. Truex has a total of eight top 10s and four top-five finishes this season. At this point last year, Truex had just five top-10s and no top-fives (he eventually earned a total of 12 top-10 finishes and three top-fives). He has one of the best average finishes at “cookie-cutter” races (18.34 in 32 attempts), but finished 18th in last year’s inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky. 

“Last year we didn’t really run very well there,” said Truex. “In the past, I have had good runs [at Kentucky] in a Nationwide car. I’ve had several top-fives, so I’m not stressing over last year at all. With the way our teams have worked together and the way our Toyotas have been running, I look forward to the challenge.”

Truex is 76 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth and 30 points ahead of 10th-ranked Brad Keselowski.

Joey Logano

Joey Logano surprised everyone at Pocono a few weeks ago by nabbing the pole while also breaking the track record with a lap of 179.598 mph in 50.112 seconds. Thanks to the repave, a reported 36 drivers broke the record held by Kasey Kahne, but Logano was ultimately the fastest. The weekend got even better for the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota on Sunday when he took home his first win since 2009, beating veteran Mark Martin to the finish line and becoming the first driver this season to win a race after starting from the pole. After his win, Logano sent a clear message to those who doubted him, saying, “I hope it shuts them all up,” said Logano. “It means a whole lot.” 

In three full Cup seasons, the driver has never finished higher than 16th in the standings, but he currently sits 15th and hopes his boost of confidence will help drive him to a spot in the Chase. Logano is 49 points out of the top 10 and sits third in the wild card standings with his single win. So far this season he has one top-five and six top-10 finishes. He finished the season last year with two poles, four top-fives and six top-10s, but was unable to secure a win. 

Logano finished 14th in last year’s race at Kentucky, but is confident that his experience racing at the track in Nationwide Series can help him this weekend. “[Kentucky’s] just one of those places that you just take to,” said Logano. “Ever since I ran my first Nationwide race there back in 2008, I’ve just had a pretty good knack for Kentucky.” Logano has three consecutive Nationwide Series wins at Kentucky in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Marcos Ambrose
Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs

Currently ranked 16th in the standings, Marcos Ambrose never won a pole in his 134 races in the Sprint Cup Series, until two weeks ago at Michigan. Now Ambrose has two in a row – he was able to knock five-time champ Jimmie Johnson from the top spot last weekend at Sonoma and take home his second career pole. His pole-earning lap at Michigan made him the first driver in 25 years to surpass 200 mph during a qualifying lap. In both the races at Michigan and Sonoma, Ambrose earned top-10 finishes (ninth and eighth respectively) bringing his total to four top-10s this season. Last year Ambrose won the race at Watkins Glen and finished the season 19th in the standings with five top-fives and 12 top-10 finishes. Now in his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports driving the No. 9 Ford, Ambrose had a real shot at earning his first win of the season at Sonoma, but it just didn’t happen. Luckily, the driver has become more confident on tracks other than the few road-courses on the circuit – over his first three seasons, his average finish on the 1-2-mile tracks (which include upcoming races like Kentucky, Loudon, Michigan, and Atlanta) was 23.0, but over the last two years, he has averaged 15.4 with 11 top-10s in 25 starts. 

Last year Ambrose finished 20th at Kentucky, but ran as high as sixth. “My team and I are really strong on intermediate tracks like Charlotte and Texas, and Kentucky is a sister track to both of those venues,” said Ambrose. “And I’m looking forward to another strong run this weekend. Hopefully we can end up in victory lane at the end of the night.” 

However, if he can’t secure a win at any of these tracks, there’s always Watkins Glen in August. Entering this Saturday’s race at Kentucky, Ambrose is 65 points out of the top 10 in the standings. 

Other Notable Drivers

Ambrose’s teammate, Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports is currently 21st in the standings with two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 19.9. Almirola earned his only pole of the season in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, where he finished 16th. He is 102 points out of the top-10 in the standings and will run at Kentucky for the first time in the Sprint Cup Series. “Mike Ford (crew chief) has really helped us elevate our entire race program, but especially our mile-and-a-half packages,” said Ambrose. “After (we won) the pole at Charlotte, that has really given us a lot of confidence at the tracks we race at the most.” Almirola has an average finish of 19.2 on these intermediate tracks.

AJ Allmendinger is currently 23rd in the standings with one top-five and two top-10 finishes. He earned his only pole of the season back in April at Kansas. In his first season driving the No. 22 “Double Deuce” Dodge for Penske, Allmendinger hopes that his success on intermediate tracks will continue this weekend at Kentucky, and for the next 10 races heading in to the Chase. With a 28th-place finish in last year’s inaugural Cup race at Kentucky, Allmendinger is 125 points out of the top 10 with hopes of earning a higher finish this time a round and climbing closer toward the top 10 in points. “We’re just hoping to be able to go there this weekend and have a solid performance that starts with practice and qualifying on Friday and continues on through Saturday’s race.”

Despite being 24th in the standings, veteran driver Mark Martin has made a bit of a comeback this season. Just a few weeks ago at Pocono, Martin’s No. 55 Toyota had a solid performance nearly beating Joey Logano to the finish in what would have been his first Sprint Cup win since 2009. Despite not having any wins, the pole has become Martin’s best friend – he has earned three poles this season at Richmond, Phoenix, and Dover. Running only a limited-schedule while sharing seat time with team owner Michael Waltrip, Martin has two top-fives and five top-10s with an average finish of 16.0. Despite his high finishes and ability to start from the front, it seems that Martin has struggled with consistency – the 53-year-old driver has had five finishes of 20th or worse, which have held him back from moving up in the standings. Martin is currently 149 points out of the top 10. The driver will not compete in this Saturday’s race at Kentucky, but instead Waltrip will be driving the No. 55 Toyota.

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