The Sprint Cup’s fast starters

by Gordon Kirby on 9th March 2009

Four of 36 NASCAR races down and the Sprint Cup is wide open. At this early stage four-time champion Jeff Gordon leads the series from Clint Bowyer and last weekend’s winner Kurt Busch, while defending champion Jimmie Johnson has yet to win a race and is 13th in the points. Gordon has been the most consistently competitive driver so far this season, but no one has a clear edge. Matt Kenseth won last month’s Daytona 500 and won again the following weekend at the California Speedway, before Kyle Busch scored his first victory of the season at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kyle’s older brother Kurt scored a convincing win at the Atlanta Motor Speedway last Sunday, dominating the race and out-duelling points leader Gordon and Carl Edwards in the final sprint to the flag. Kurt is Roger Penske’s lead driver, but he and Penske’s team have been conspicuously uncompetitive in recent years. Busch demonstrated at Atlanta, however, that Dodge’s latest NASCAR engine has plenty of power. His victory was the most impressive performance for both driver and team in two or three seasons.

In the four races run so far, three drivers have won for three different teams and manufacturers. Kenseth, the 2003 champion, scored his two wins for the Roush Fenway Ford team, with Kyle Busch winning for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, before brother Kurt won for Penske and Dodge. And of course Gordon leads the championship for Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports, so that all four of NASCAR’s competing manufacturers have something to crow about. In that way NASCAR couldn’t have asked for more from its opening races.

Nor are there any problems – so far at least – in filling the field with 43 competitive cars. Four drivers and teams failed to qualify at Atlanta, but every qualifier was a strong runner with no stragglers. The depth of the field is evident in Juan Pablo Montoya’s continuing struggles with Chip Ganassi’s Dodge-equipped team. Montoya qualified an encouraging fourth at Atlanta but didn’t run well in the race and eventually finished five laps down in 27th place. Scott Speed is also discovering how tough NASCAR is as he struggles to match the pace set by Red Bull Toyota team-mate Brian Vickers, who challenged Kurt Busch for the win at Atlanta. Speed, meanwhile, ran near the back of the field and his race ended in the wall.

Nor has the season started well for three-time champion Jimmie Johnson or team-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson and Earnhardt are Gordon’s team-mates, along with veteran Mark Martin, in the four-car Hendrick Chevrolet team, but neither has been able to score any results so far this year. Johnson has run well but has yet to enjoy a clean race. He finished ninth in Atlanta and is currently 13th in the points. Earnhardt – by far NASCAR’s most popular driver – has been mired in the midfield after bearing the brunt of criticism from both fans and the media following his collision with Vickers at Daytona.

One thing is clear, and that is there are going to be plenty of empty seats at many NASCAR races this year. Daytona was close to full thanks to numerous creative ways of giving away tickets, and Las Vegas two weeks ago also enjoyed a pretty strong crowd, although not a sell-out by any means. But the California Speedway the week after Daytona was only half full, and Atlanta wasn’t much better. Atlanta has been struggling to sell seats for many years and last Sunday the place was around two-thirds full.

After four straight races on superspeedways NASCAR takes a rare weekend off before resuming with a pair of short-track races on half-mile ovals at Bristol, Tennessee on March 22, and Martinsville, Virginia on March 29. Bristol seats no fewer than 130,000 fans and has been a sell-out for many years, but not this time. It was reported last weekend that more than 30,000 seats are unsold, but it’s fair to say that in today’s economy 100,000 isn’t anything to sneeze at. NASCAR has its troubles, but the party is far from over.

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