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Post  luckyGordongrl on Mon Mar 23, 2009 9:20 pm


Fryer’s Five: Bristol

By Jenna Fryer, Fryer's Five 1234563686

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle Busch dominated his way to a win in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, easily holding off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin for his second win in three races.

That Busch and Hamlin were running up front is no big surprise. The two contended last year but were each denied victory because of mechanical problems – Busch lost his power steering while leading, and Hamlin had a fuel pickup issue on the final restart which allowed Jeff Burton to slide by him for the win.
What was more interesting is who wasn’t contending, including preseason title favorite Carl Edwards and previous Bristol winners Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth.
Harvick, despite winning the Nationwide Series race on Saturday in a car fielded by Kevin Harvick Inc., was off all weekend in his Sprint Cup Series car. He started 30th and finished 30th.
Kenseth, winner of the first two races this season, also had a terrible weekend. He started 33rd and also finished in the same spot, never making up any ground.
But Earnhardt and Edwards were curious as well, and among the five things we learned at Bristol:
1. The No. 88 team did little to silence its critics:
Success is the best way to silence the critics, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t able to do that Sunday at Bristol. Twice he needed NASCAR’s “lucky dog” free pass to stay on the lead lap, and wound up finishing 14th in an effort that will do little to take the heat off embattled crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
Earnhardt arrived in Bristol adamant that Eury is the right man for the job, an assertion his ardent supporters believe is based more on family loyalty to his cousin than it is on his desire to win races. He must start winning races, or at least knock down top fives, to prove the duo is indeed on the right track.
But with a poor qualifying effort – and Earnhardt is taking the blame for that – they never got rolling at Bristol. He was slated to start 34th until a prerace transmission change sent him to the rear of the field before the green flag, then he struggled with the handling on his Chevrolet as the race progressed.
Busch put him a lap down two-thirds of the way into the race, and he needed a caution with 60 laps left to return to the lead lap.
“We need to run better than that,” Earnhardt said. “We qualified so poorly. I made a real big mistake in qualifying. We had a pretty good car; we just needed track position. Couldn’t get it all day.”
He still managed to move up five spots in the standings, to 19th, but once again was forced to defend his team after failing to contend for a win.
“These guys on this team are talented,” he said. “If we work really hard at our job and our craft, man, we’ll see results. I don’t think there is a true missing link that sticks out, in my opinion. I’ve got everything we need, and we’ve just got to work really hard trying to understand the cars and trying to make them work.”
I believe Eury is the right guy for Earnhardt, and Earnhardt himself said he doesn’t want anyone else running his race team. But with just one top-10 finish through the first five races, their performance needs to pick up for them to make a credible case to stay together.
2. Has anyone seen Carl Edwards?
After a red-hot close to 2008, Edwards came into the season as the man to beat in both divisions. Not only is he still looking for his first win of the year, he’s hardly even contended.
His third-place finish at Atlanta, where he’s a three-time winner, is his best finish of the season. And he was a very quiet 15th on Sunday at Bristol. On paper, his results aren’t all that bad: two top 10s through five races and he’s fifth in the Cup standings. It would look even better had his motor not failed in the closing laps at Las Vegas, turning a top-five finish into a 17th-place disappointment.
But Edwards has led only 31 laps all season, and 28 of them were at Atlanta.
Yes, it’s still so early in the season, and Jimmie Johnson proved last year that a driver can have a slow start to the year and still win the championship. But Johnson did that through extensive testing, a luxury Edwards doesn’t have this year under the NASCAR cost-cutting ban on extracurricular practice at its sanctioned tracks.
It’s likely that Edwards and crew chief Bob Edwards will get things rolling soon, and Texas and Phoenix – two tracks where Edwards is very good – will be here shortly. If he’s not in sync by then, it will be time to worry.
3. Extra effort equals results:
It’s no secret that Johnson struggles at Bristol, one of just six tracks on the schedule where he has yet to visit victory lane. His average finish of 17.4 entering Sunday’s race was only better than Indianapolis (where he’s a two-time winner but has three DNFs), Infineon and Richmond.
So prior to Sunday’s race, he sat down with crew chief Chad Knaus and his engineering staff to figure out exactly what it is about Bristol that he couldn’t seem to conquer. The extra work paid off, as Johnson led twice for a total of 88 laps while finishing third.
“I’m very pleased – to be that close to a win and to see [Busch] pull into victory lane, I can now see what the leaders do and I can visualize being in that position someday,” Johnson said. “Where before, we were so far off and had some decent runs but really wasn’t in the race, racing for the win. I’m very proud of all the work.”
The finish was Johnson’s best of the season, which has started slowly by his standards. He’d finished ninth twice this year and was 13th in the standings when he arrived at Bristol.
Now Johnson’s ninth and proving that, despite his three consecutive championships, he isn’t letting up in his push for a record fourth straight title.
“It started two weeks ago when we went to work on the setup for this race,” he said. “We created a plan, stuck to it. Off the truck, the car was quick. We were right on par with everybody, had confidence going into qualifying. The weekend just kept building.”
4. Travis Kvapil is probably just the first casualty of the slumping economy:
Kvapil’s season might very well have ended with his 18th-place finish at Bristol. Yates Racing is expected to suspend operations on the No. 28 Ford on Monday because after funding five races out of pocket, the organization cannot afford to spend anymore on the unsponsored team.
It’s a tough break for Kvapil, who raced all of last season for Yates without proper funding but still sent the car into this season locked into the top 35 in points. But when Hall of Fame Racing partnered with Yates, and brought the team fully sponsored Bobby Labonte, Kvapil’s points went to that car and he was left with nothing.
It cost him at Las Vegas when he failed to make the race, and that setback may have scared off any potential investors. Yates general manager Max Jones said he’ll bring the team back if sponsorship is found, but it’s not likely that will happen in this economic climate.
The Yates shutdown is probably just the first, as more teams will be forced to make difficult financial decisions. Aric Almirola doesn’t have sponsorship at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, and AJ Allmendinger is still searching for funding despite a highly publicized start to the season. Richard Petty Motorsports has expanded Allmendinger’s original nine-race schedule through at least Charlotte, but he still has no guarantees for a full season.
5. Which brings us to David Gilliland and TRG Motorsports:
The No. 71 team didn’t light the world on fire at Bristol – two flat tires contributed to Gilliland finishing 36th – but the team did enough to lock the car inside the top 35 headed into Martinsville. For the first time this season, they’ll go to a track not needing to worry about qualifying on speed.
It’s a fairly remarkable story considering the team missed the season-opening Daytona 500 when Mike Wallace failed to race the car into the field. Plus, it is an unsponsored team that, so far, is outperforming fully sponsored teams such as Scott Speed of Red Bull Racing and Paul Menard of Yates Racing.
TRG is working with just a handful of employees dedicated to its Cup effort, and team owner Kevin Buckler is hoping NASCAR’s “industry marketing” arm can help tout its Cinderella story and lead him to some sponsorship dollars.
NASCAR needs more underdog stories like the No. 71 team, and the organization isn’t in the clear just yet. Another run like Sunday’s could knock Gilliland outside the top 35 and undo all the progress they’ve made.
But for now, Buckler is focusing on the positives and looking forward to Martinsville.
“You have to persevere through the tough weekends,” he said. “It is just as important to do that as it is to celebrate the good weekends. This team has a lot of character. We will be ready for next weekend.”

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