Mark Martin in, Denny Hamlin out and Tony Stewart struggles
Normally this would be the introduction to the racing we would see on Sunday, but as NASCAR followers are traditionally very religious, we take a break before returning to Martinsville next weekend for some more beating and banging.
Can we take more beating and banging? Look what it has gotten us so far!
News came out this week that Denny Hamlin, injured in last Sunday's crash at Auto Club Speedway, will miss at least six weeks out of the racing schedule. Of course, this being a weekend off works in his favor, and he won't lose points. Luckily Hamlin will not require surgery for his fractured vertebrae, which would have likely take him out of the 11 for the duration of the season. Instead, he will take the time off to heal, participate in physiotherapy, and watch as Mark Martin pilots his car. If anyone can keep that car in the spotlight and running well, it would be Mark.
The decision to put Mark in the 11 car apparently was made with a combination of factors in mind, including availability, sponsors, and talent. Both Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers were considered, but in the end, it was Mark who could fill all the requirements. He has not run a race at Martinsville since 2011 when he was with Hendrick Motorsports, and has refused to run at Talladega because of the uncertainty. He will, however, run at both tracks with this deal in place.
According to Roger Penske, Joey Logano and Denny have traded text messages since the accident, although only the two seem to be privy to the content of those texts, but Roger has also traded texts with Hamlin, sending his best wishes to the driver. Logano has refused several interview requests since the accident, which is probably a good thing. His "that's what he gets" comment after the crash has fans up in arms. Admittedly, Logano did not know the extent of Hamlin's injuries a the time, but it would have been smarter for him to shut his mouth and say nothing. Now that interview is forever out there, showing his apparent disregard for another driver's well being. Yes, it is good to see Logano showing some spirit, but he really does need to watch what he says.
So now the question is whether this injury means an end to Hamlin's championship hopes. No, it doesn't, not as long as he can get back in the car and run well, and win races. NASCAR has the wild cards, don't forget. While Dale Jr's injury last year happened in the Chase, Denny has an advantage, if you will. He will miss a minimum of five races. Once he is cleared to race again, look for Hamlin to have a new focus. He was upbeat at the beginning of the season, believing this was his best chance yet to win that elusive championship. Now he only has one way he can accomplish that. He has to win and stay in the top 20 in points. Can he do it?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is currently the points leader. He has once again started his season off on a very consistent note, finishing second twice so far this year. Unfortunately, he needs to win. He has come very close, but if he wants the championship as much as we believe he does, Jr also needs to win races. We know he has been trying. We know he is so close! Last year the opinion was that once he won one race, he would keep on winning. That, unfortunately for Jr., just didn't happen. I have no doubts he and crew chief, Steve Letarte, will continue to do everything they can to put the 88 into Victory Lane, and in the meantime, that will equate into good finishes, keeping Jr in the points lead, at least until the Chase is set.
Tony Stewart went after Joey Logano after the race in California last Sunday. Even though Logano and Hamlin had crashed, it was Tony who ran after Joey's car and got in the driver's face. In his interview, laced with obscenities, it was apparent that he took issue with the way Joey restated the race, then blocked the 14 to keep him from passing. Truthfully, it was nothing we haven't seen Tony do dozens of times, and for him to become so angry over it seemed ridiculous. Many have said they believe that Tony was expressing frustration at the lack of success in his team so far this year. Tony's best finish so far is 8th, at Phoenix, but he has more often been found at the back of the pack and he sits at 22nd in points. Ryan Newman sits two ahead in 20th, having a top finish of 5th at Daytona. Then there is Danica, 29th in points, and a top finish of 8th, also at Daytona. The team as a whole has struggled this year. Kevin Harvick has signed to join Stewart Haas Racing in 2014, If SHR can't figure out how to get out of the slump they are in, Kevin may be very sorry for that decision. That has to be weighing heavily on Tony, as a Team Owner. It no doubt is on Tony's mind, even as he straps into the car.
He, too, has been very quiet since the race in California. Perhaps he is just enjoying the Easter break.