Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rating the STP 400: 3 Stars ***

The Sprint Cup Series visited its second consecutive mile-and-a-half racetrack Sunday and delivered nearly the exact same race with few cautions and long green-flag runs. The finish was closer this time, however, and gets the race at Kansas a 3 Star Rating.

Greg Biffle passed Jimmie Johnson with 30 laps to go to win the Texas race a week ago, and this week Denny Hamlin passed Martin Truex Jr. with 31 laps remaining to win the race. The Kansas race also set records for fewest cautions (three) and race speed (144.122). The race at Texas last week set similar records for that track. For whatever reason, the drivers are running these races as if we’re in the summer stretch at Michigan and Pocono.

That is a topic that will likely draw increasing scrutiny this week, but it is unlikely to last in the upcoming weeks with Richmond, Talladega and Darlington on the horizon. I those races set records for fewest cautions, then we’ll know that something is up.

Still, other than the one debris caution Sunday, NASCAR has done a very good job of allowing the races to play out naturally and not messing with the finish by throwing a caution late in the race.

As for Sunday, Hamlin obviously deserves congratulations for running a steady race and pouncing when he had the chance to race for the win, but Truex Jr. also deserves a lot of credit for his race.

Truex Jr. led 173 laps and is now second in the points standings, just 15 points behind Biffle for the lead. That’s the highest Truex Jr. has ever been in the points standings and has shown that he can run well on several different types of tracks this year. Even though it’s early, something drastic would have to change for him not to make the Chase this year.

However, for all of the positives Truex Jr. and the #56 team can take from Kansas, the fact that they once again came up short has to be a nagging concern. When drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch dominate a race the way Truex Jr. did Sunday, they finish the deal and win the race. For whatever reason, Truex Jr. is still not to that level and he won’t be a true championship contender until that happens.

Once it does happen, he will likely go on a tear and win a bunch of races. It happened to Brad Keselowski last year.

Although they both broke into the Cup series full-time in 2006, Hamlin has now won 19 races and has the experience to know how to close out a race and win. Truex Jr. still has just that one win at Dover in 2007 and cannot close the deal no matter how well he runs throughout the day.

That will come as the #56 team continues to run well. Usually drivers have to be in contention several times before breaking through with a win, but once that win happens they find that path to Victory Lane much easier and more often.

Now that we’re done with the intermediate tracks for a while, the short track of Richmond International Raceway comes up next followed by the ever-interesting Talladega Superspeedway.

Next week will be interesting because the teams and drivers have two short track races under their belt and it’s getting to the point in the season where several drivers who are used to winning will look up and realize, “Wow, it’s nearly May and I still don’t have a win this year.”

That, combined with the typically close racing at Richmond should make for a great Saturday night race.

Have a great week, everybody.

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