Monday May 4th, 2009

Five things we learned last weekend in Richmond, Va.:

On Saturday Busch celebrated his 24th birthday in grand style, winning his third race of the season. What was most impressive about this victory was that Busch clearly didn't have the fastest car in the field for most of the night, but he found speed as the laps wore down -- the mark of a special driver.

Busch now has eight victories this season -- three in the Cup series, three in Nationwide and two in the trucks. Saturday's was the 50th of his career in NASCAR's top three circuits, and he's already eyeing a number that is as hallowed as any in NASCAR: 200. This is how many career races Richard Petty won in the Cup series -- a record that will never be broken -- but Busch sincerely believes he can reach this career win total in the three series combined.

"I know the older I get I'll start slowing down some way," he said. "Hopefully I can achieve that goal. It would be sure nice to get that. I know it's not 200 Cup victories like Richard Petty has, but it will still be a phenomenal mark for me."

Indeed it would be. Considering he's already a quarter of the way there, it seems like an attainable mark. In fact, he could very well pad that total next Saturday at Darlington, where he's the defending winner in the Cup series.

No driver has been as consistent over the past several weeks as Tony Stewart. On Saturday night he finished second, which was his fourth top-four run in the last five races. Two things make this surprising: Stewart's team, Stewart Haas Racing, is essentially a start-up; and Stewart is a notoriously slow starter.

"I've been racing 29 years with a lot of different series. Momentum's everything," Stewart said. " That gives you such a head start when you get to the next track that weekend."

Stewart typically peaks in the middle of the summer. A former dirt track racer, he prefers slick, sun-baked surfaces, which is why his favorite months of the season are July and August. Expect him to get a win soon.

Over the past two weeks, Newman has recorded as many top-five finishes (two) as he did in all of 2008. This much is certain: The move from Penske Racing to Stewart Haas this offseason is working out better for Newman than he ever could have hoped.

How surprising has Newman's recent performance been? Just seven races ago he was 33rd in the points and looking very much like a second-tier driver. But since then, he's ripped four top-seven finishes and has climbed to 10th in the points. Through 10 races, both Newman and Stewart (who's third in the points) are in the top-12 in the standings, which has to be one of the biggest surprises of the season. On Saturday night Stewart Haas put two drivers in the top five for the first time in the team's history.

More impressive, the entire Stewart Haas organization appears to be getting stronger by the week. Is it possible that Stewart Haas could become the next superpower in the sport, joining Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing? It's still too early to say that, but the gap between those teams and Stewart Haas is closing -- fast.

Richmond has always been one of Junior's best tracks on the circuit. He has three career wins on the .75-mile oval, and on Saturday he was looking to get his first victory in nearly a year.

Didn't happen. Earnhardt had problems all night with his car and struggled to a 27th-place finish. He's now 18th in the standings. Even Junior acknowledges that it won't be easy for his team to qualify for the Chase.

"We never were too worried about losing our position [last year] to make the Chase, and we struggled through the summer like I've done in the past," Earnhardt said. "This year we started out so slow and terrible; we're in a hole now."

Yes they are. There's still time for this team to turn its season around, but now Little E will have to run well at tracks on which he's struggled in the past -- places like Pocono, Sonoma and Chicago.

Nothing is official yet, but the 25-year-old Keselowski, who won recently at Talladega, is in exclusive negotiations with Hendrick for next season and beyond. Keselowski's closest friend is Dale Earnhardt Jr., and it seems like a good bet that Keselowski will slide into the No. 5 car when Mark Martin retires. The No. 5 team is housed under the same roof as Earnhardt's. Little E certainly has a lot of sway with owner Rick Hendrick, and a recommendation from him could go a long way toward convincing Hendrick to offer a deal to Keselowski.

But there's always the question of when Martin will retire. He originally said he'd hang it up at the end of this season, but he's thrown out hints recently that he wouldn't mind returning in 2010. If he does come back, then Hendrick could put Keselowski in a Nationwide car in '10 with the promise of a full-time ride in the Cup series in '11.

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