CONTENDERS AND PRETENDERS AFTER 3 RACES

We knew some of these guys would challenge for the Cup, there wasn’t a question. But some of the guys we knew, or thought we knew, would challenge for the Cup are raising questions as to how good they are in 2011.

With a schedule realignment, the initial trio of races has shown us a superspeedway, a short track, and an intermediate facility. This gives a healthy taste of who has what, when it comes to serious championship contenders.

The impression I get comes from observing how teams ran during the race. Finishing results and bottom line box scores do not tell the full story as far as the strength of a team. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can derail the point total of an organization that actually has a lot of muscle.


CONTENDERS

Tony Stewart had the winning car at Las Vegas, hands down. The downforce-style speedway makes up over 50 percent of the schedule and Stewart was mad over his second place finish. That is a characteristic of a man serious about winning races and titles.

Kurt Busch is the only driver with three top-ten finishes. He has drawn headlines with his strong Speedweeks run and recent NHRA splash. Busch is taking on challenges and staring them down.

Carl Edwards finished 2010 with two straight victories. He begins 2011 with a Daytona 500 runner up, a Phoenix crash after he showed excellent speed, and a Vegas win. He was very close to five consecutive wins. Edwards is for real and looking like a favorite to unseat Jimmie Johnson.

Juan Pablo Montoya bounced off so many things at Daytona he gave Cole Trickle a run for his money. He still wound up sixth and backed that up with a third at Vegas. Montoya is hungry for an oval track victory. Look for it to come sooner rather than later.

Ryan Newman has two fifth-place results to his credit. Stewart-Haas Racing has two cars performing well enough to stir the envy of some four-car teams.

LOOKING GOOD, BUT…

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is part of another new crew chief/driver combination. When Jeff Gordon had Steve Letarte on top of his pit box, they were decent, but not good enough for Hendrick standards. Letarte now calls the shots for NASCAR’s most popular driver and they have gotten out of the gate nicely. A pair of top-tens finishes could have been 3 if not for a flat tire and then resulting crash late in the Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch was the championship leader leaving Phoenix. An engine explosion dropped him to 14th leaving Las Vegas. If the Gibbs engine troubles can be reigned in, he is a legitimate challenger.

Jeff Gordon has 2 crashes and a win in 3 races but he has been fast everywhere. Phoenix has traits similar to New Hampshire and Richmond. If he can cut down on wrecks, his speed is there. I was very impressed by Gordon getting up on the wheel and wrestling his Phoenix trophy away from Kyle Busch.

POSSIBLE PRETENDERS

Greg Biffle had a fast Vegas car. I mean a very fast Vegas car. The refueling troubles on pit road crippled this team’s run in Sin City. Despite sitting deep down in 31st there is strength being shown. The finishes are just not falling their way

I predicted Joey Logano to make The Chase in 2011. I made that prediction before 2010 began. This group needs to throw out the anchor and stop the major slide that this early season has become.

Jeff Burton is the lowest ranked of the Richard Childress Racing entries in 31st. RCR was probably the most improved organization last year. Now their mojo is missing. Burton is one of the most respected voices in the garage. But he is better heard from the front of the field, not the back. There is work to do in order to right his slow start.

THUNDER VALLEY UP NEXT

How will teams come back after such an early weekend off? Will the break wind up being a blessing to those who started poorly? Or a curse by breaking the momentum of those with strong starts?  

Bristol Motor Speedway is a place where those who need to hide from trouble, simply cannot. Turning a season around there is a difficult task. Keeping momentum could be even tougher.

The standings may be shaken and stirred on the Tennessee high banks more than they were in first 3 races.

(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Mondays at 7pm ET/4pm PT. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)

Related links:
NHRA Welcomes Kurt Busch
Daytona Cinderellas
I Will Pass on Red Bull
Speedweeks 1987
Anticipating Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 Win
NASCAR Stars at Daytona’s 24 Hours
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