Jul 3, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick (10) walks through the garage area during practice for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Petty Motorsports
This past July 4th weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the King Richard Petty’s record setting 200th NSCS victory on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. Petty’s 200th victory is best remembered as the race that put NASCAR on a global scale. On that warm July 4th afternoon back in 1984, the King celebrated his record-setting feat in the company of President Ronald Reagan.
Thirty years later it’s only fitting that the famous #43 once driven by the king should wind up in victory lane. Richard Petty Motorsport’s current driver of the #43, Aric Almirola, not only scored his first career NSCS victory this past July fourth weekend, he also earned a spot in this year’s 16 driver Chase for the Sprint Cup. Aric Almirola is the first RPM driver to earn a berth in the chase since Kasey Kahne in 2009.
Almirola’s victory also marked the first time the #43 has gone to victory lane since John Andretti won at Martinsville in the spring of 1999. RPM’s other driver, Marcos Ambrose, recorded his fourth top 10 finish of the season by claiming a 10th place finish in the rain shortened Coke Zero 400.
Now with one car headed to the chase come September, Richard Petty Motorsports could easily have both cars in the Chase by the end of the summer, as Macros Ambrose is always a threat to win on a road course. Ambrose has won two of the last three races run at Watkins Glen. Regardless the circumstances surrounding Almirola’s first career victory, it’s plain to see that hard work and determination has led Richard Petty Motorsports back to the winner’s circle. Richard Petty Motorsports is a team visibly on the rise.
Stewart Haas Racing’s B Drivers
Kurt Busch came mighty close to finally winning a race at Daytona on Sunday afternoon. Busch has recently turned the corner at SHR following a disastrous start to his career with the multi car all-star team. Busch has finished inside the top 20 in the last seven races, a colossal improvement from an abysmal start to the season that produced two top five finishes in the first 12 races of the season. On paper, Busch’s season reeks of mediocrity in comparison to some of his fellow chase drivers.
One has to admire Busch’s unwavering attitude as it pertains to the next two months of the season. Busch, despite his position in the points, remains confident he can return to victory lane before the Chase cut off race at Richmond in September. Judging by his most recent gut wrenching performance at Daytona, Busch is certainly one driver to watch this summer.
Danica Patrick far too often is criticized for her inability to prudently manage a 400 or 500 mile race. Honestly, Danica’s done a yeoman’s job in her second year of NSCS competition for an organization that’s looked out of sync for much of the season. Patrick survived a war of attrition at Daytona in the process avoiding two major wrecks to tie her career best finish of eighth at the world center of racing.
Get this man a contract!
It’s a mystery to me why Michael McDowell has yet to procure a contact from one of NASCAR’s multi-car giants? McDowell secured a career best finish of seventh on Sunday in Daytona, albeit for a part time small market team. It’s downright criminal seven years into his NSCS career we’ve yet to truly see what this guy is made of. For what it’s worth, Michael can certainly benefit from his solid restrictor plate efforts, but it’s painful to see such a talent go to waste. Hopefully one of these days he will get a chance to be the last man standing.
Damn I look Hot!
Casey Mears endured nasty weather conditions combined with extreme heating conditions inside his car at Daytona to earn his first top five finish since 2008. Finishing fourth never looked so good.
Michael Waltrip Racing
A Michael Waltrip Racing driver hasn’t been to victory lane in almost a year, but you get the feeling they are extremely close to ending that drought real soon. Both Brian Vickers & Clint Bowyer know they have to win if they want to get into the Chase, and that window is closing with only eight races remaining until the Chase cut off.
A recent swing in momentum should have both drivers feeling confident about their chances of competing for a championship this fall. Had the coke Zero 400 gone back to green, Brian Vickers easily could have grabbed his first win of the season. Thankfully for Vickers, the NSCS is heading to New Hampshire, the place that was instrumental in Vickers returning to the circuit on a full time basis.
Stewart Haas Racing’s A-TEAM
Collectively as an entire organization, Stewart Haas Racing has struggled for a vast majority of the 2014 season. Based on the team’s struggles this season, it’s safe to say this organization has fallen victim to the curse of trying to grow too quickly. Team owner Tony Stewart’s efforts this season have been uncharacteristic of what we’ve come to expect from smoke in the past. Although this team will send two drivers to the Chase this fall, it’s hard to imagine Kevin Harvick as a serious title contender at this point in time. Until Stewart Haas Racing can manage to minimize some of the damages that has hindered their progress in 2014, expect more frustration that beatitude.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has managed to raise the ire of Tony Stewart on more than one occasion this season. His significant other sits one spot ahead of him in the point standings. Things are really looking bleak for the former NASCAR Nationwide Series champion. Ho hum.
Daytona & Talladega present themselves as the land of opportunity for some of NASCAR’s small market teams. Teams that normally wouldn’t have a chance to claim victory elsewhere have ample opportunity to pull off an upset of a lifetime when the series goes restrictor plate racing. It’s not that we are belittling these teams. They race on Sundays for a reason, but when it comes to winning a championship or scoring wins they are just not on the level of the Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penskes of the world.
Unfortunate as it may seem, it’s just the nature of the beast. Landon Cassill enjoyed a fair amount of time near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon before getting caught up in the wreckage on lap 99, subsequently ending his bid to steal one of the big names on the circuit. Perhaps Wally Dallenbach cursed Cassill by extenuating the fact repeatedly during TNT’s broadcast of the Coke Zero 400 that guys such as Cassill & Reed Sorenson aren’t accustom to running up front with NASCAR’s finest. Oh Wally, how could you?
Photo courtesy of Rob Foldy USA Today Sports