1.Ryan Newman's reputation has been built on starting positions. He earned the nickname "Rocket Man" for burning up the track in qualifying, with 43 career poles including 11 in 2003. Of late though, he has opened anything but fast. For the second straight year, he's mired in a troubled start.
Through three races, Newman has two DNFs and is coming off an 18th-place finish at Las Vegas that has him heading to Atlanta 32nd in the points standings. It's a precarious spot to be in so early in the campaign. During the first six seasons of the Chase, only twice has a driver sat lower than where Newman is right now and still climbed to grab one the 12 spots for the 10-race playoff. One of those drivers is Mark Martin (34th in '09), the other is Newman, who last year was 33rd after Vegas. That's exactly why he isn't ready to panic just yet. He's been here before.
"We've got ourselves in a hole," he admits. "I wouldn't call it a comeback, but we've got some work to do to get ourselves in position. "We've got a long time before that issue becomes pressing."
Newman learned two things last season: 1. He can mount a rally, ripping off eight finishes of eighth or better to get back the No. 39 back in contention; 2. The energy required to perform so consistently well for so long can take its toll. Newman last year had worked his way up to fourth in the points after a fifth-place finish at Pocono, but over the next nine races he had an average finish of 17.6 and one top 10. Once the Chase came around, he continued the dive, averaging an 18th-place finish overall and 22nd over the last four races.
"I think if you look at 2009, when we rebounded, we didn't keep that performance going," he said. "We left ourselves a lot of room to get better, which is a good thing, even though we made the Chase. I think if we can improve upon last year, then talking about [32nd] at this time won't be an issue for the rest of the season."
But unlike '09, where his early woes could be easily pegged on pit issues for the new Stewart-Haas team, Newman this season has wrecked with 15 laps remaining at Daytona and blown an engine at Fontana. And he's still having pit problems, as he was beseiged by handling issues at Vegas. The remedy could lie in Atlanta, where he has won seven poles, tied for the most in Cup history. It's the opportune place for him to plant the seeds of another turnaround -- though future struggles could just leave him that much closer to hitting the panic button.
2. Denny Hamlin hasn't done anything. Neither has Kyle Busch. Surprisingly, the driver who is delivering for Joe Gibbs Racing is 19-year-old Joey Logano, who has two top-10s. Busch and Hamlin have none.
Logano is far from having a sophomore slump, though in a strange twist, the driver whose departure from JGR led to him getting that orange-and-white No. 20 is struggling in his second year as an owner/driver: Tony Stewart has led all of seven laps.
After finishing 26th and 14th in two races at Fontana and 13th at Las Vegas last year, Logan came in fifth and sixth, respectively, on those tracks the last two weeks. His talent was never questioned. it's what led Mark Martin to bill him as "the real deal." But Logano was missing experience and familiarity, with the tracks and crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Now that he has both, it's making him dangerous.
But another test to Logano's development will come in Atlanta, where he has struggled mightily with an average start of 38th and an average finish of 26th in two races. With phenoms, progress is measured by benchmarks, and for Logano, that means contending for a Chase spot. So far, Bread is in fact rising to the challenge of following Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, all of whom showed massive improvement in their second full-time Cup seasons.
48: Number of laps that Jeff Gordon didn't lead of the 267 total last weekend in Las Vegas
48: Laps Gordon logged during his final run at the front before he was passed by the 48 car driven by teammate Jimmie Johnson, who claimed his second straight win
Matt Kenseth. Doesn't it seem like the last time anyone was talking about Kenseth was when he abruptly changed crew chiefs after the Daytona 500? He's quietly putting together a solid season in finishing in the top 10 in all three races and he could make his return to Victory Lane in Atlanta, where he has five top-fives in the last nine races on the 1.5-mile track and hasn't finished outside the top 13 in four years. Of course, don't be surprise if it's Johnson grabbing the checkered flag for the third straight week; his average finish of 10.7 in the ATL is the highest of any active driver.
There are varying degrees of unfortunate sponsorships. Mike Bliss' aforementioned eau de Kim Kardashian ride, for example, resides firmly in the embarrassing/were-they-high-when-they-signed-off-on-this? camp. Those, at least, are good for a few laughs. But then there's another kind of paint scheme, one capable of creating cringe-inducing moments that can only truly be appreciated when a father and son watch together. Of course, we're talking about a sub-species that we all believed/hoped died with Mark Martin's Viagara car. Unfortunately, rookie Kevin Conway has ushered in the return of the awkward conversation with his No. 37 EztenZe scheme - and he's not alone.
Jimmy Johnson -- that's "Jimmy," not "Jimmie" -- you know, the former Cowboys/Hurricanes coach and FOX talking head, not only admits to using the male enhancement product in ads with Conway, but he's also offering fellow users an invitation to dinner so they can discuss what the supplement has done for them. Kind of makes you long for those family-friendly sponsorships like Tide, doesn't it?