NASCAR's Spring Brake

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Throwing out the the anchor just three weeks into a promising season

Throwing out the the anchor just three weeks into a promising season

by Vito Pugliese

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is but three weeks old, yet off to one of its best starts in a decade. A genuinely thrilling Daytona 500 helped remind us why we started watching NASCAR to begin with, while Phoenix saw a legend rise from the ashes to greatness once again. Las Vegas was … well, Las Vegas — largely uneventful, save for several notables stubbing their toes at precisely the wrong time. But with so much momentum and good will having been built up in just under a month, what does NASCAR do?

Pull the plug on it.

The back-to-back West Coast weekends can be a bit of a strain for some teams, so NASCAR takes a week off right around the same time colleges are on Spring Break. While I wouldn’t advise travel to Mexico for anyone right now, some teams could probably benefit from a vacation, while others would like to keep the party going. With the concrete cereal bowl known as Bristol up next, let’s take a look at who’s good to go, and who should just sit this one out.

Kurt Busch Last year he often lamented that he felt on an island unto his own, being essentially the only Dodge of substance in the Sprint Cup field. With Penske still promoting Pentastar pride with Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski, not much has changed since 2010 — except that Sam Hornish isn’t spinning out and hitting things.

With the series heading into an off-weekend, it is probably welcome relief for Busch and his Steve Addington-led team, who got off to a strong start at Daytona, winning the Bud Shootout, Duel 150 and led 19 laps in the 500, while leading another 31 laps at Phoenix. A little botched brake bias led to a spin and positions and points lost in Las Vegas, and a weekend to regroup might be best for Busch heading into Bristol, a track where he has five career Cup Series wins.

Off-Week Plans: Book the vacation … to the Gatornationals.

Tony Stewart Driving what is often cited as “a fifth Hendrick car,” owner/driver Tony Stewart finds himself in an awkward position. Will he ever be able to truly contend for a title against the likes of Hendrick heavy hitters Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin (sorry, I’m not convinced he’s leaving), when he sources chassis and engines from the mothership? While he is still certainly more cool, calm and collected as any owner these days (at least while stateside), Mount St. Smoke was about ready to erupt Sunday after having led a bundle of laps, yet finished second to Carl Edwards.

Stewart was felled by a pit road penalty when an air gun hose got hooked on his car and exited the pit box. He was quite vocal about having to take the week off, wanting instead to get back to racing and maintain the momentum his team built with finishes of 13th, seventh and second. I’ll take his word for it. Besides, I don’t want to get cracked in the face.

Off-Week Plans: Staycation. Bummer for Smoke.

Juan Pablo Montoya He has the most followers on Twitter of any NASCAR driver, yet rarely says anything controversial or critical. It is normally just a statement about playing golf, going swimming or how awesome his radio-control plane is. Something else that is awesome is the start to his 2011 season, which echoes that of his ’09 campaign, which saw him contend for the title deep into the Chase. Finishes of sixth, 19th and third are a good indication that JPM is back on track after a dismal 2010 season that, a Watkins Glen win aside, was host to yet another failed Brickyard 400 attempt. Instead, his teammate, Jamie McMurray came away the victor. I’m not saying Juan isn’t a team player, but it has to sting a little.

I would say this off week would be a negative considering how the No. 42 team has performed, but if you check his Twitter feed this weekend, you will probably see it is for the best.

Off-Week Plans: Fly the friendly skies … RC style.

Carl Edwards It wasn’t that long ago that everyone wondered what was going on with Carl Edwards (and the entire Roush Fenway team) — and Ford as a whole, for that matter. While Jimmie Johnson still hasn’t lost a championship since gas was $2.40 a gallon, fortunes have definitely changed for the Blue Oval brigade. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that if for a little bit of luck, Edwards and the Bob Osborne-led No. 99 team would have five wins in a row, dating back to the last two events of 2010. A runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, and a Phoenix car that was untouchable — except when touched by Kyle Bush — were prologue to his win Sunday in Vegas.

Many more back flips are to follow in 2011, but not this weekend — and that’s only because there isn’t a race.

Off-Week Plans: Skip the break. Summer is coming soon enough. Back and bi’s, bro!

Jimmie Johnson What’s this? Superman is 13th in the point standings? This must be the year! Finally, Chad and Jimmie have been vanquished, and not even an oddly-timed pit crew swap can save them!

Pffft … please. Figures lie and liars figure.

The 48 got whacked in the Big One at Daytona, had a car capable of winning at Phoenix and a bit of experimenting was in play in Las Vegas with a long-run late-race setup that actually showed some promise, but was not reflected in the final finishing order. It’s kind of silly to count this team out anywhere, and Johnson is the defending champion for the next race at Bristol.

I don’t think anything short of a tornado during a race would do much to fluster this bunch. They’ve seen, done and beat it all — including coming from behind in the last race to win their fifth straight title last year.

Off-Week Plans: This bunch doesn’t take vacations.

Kyle Busch Kyle Busch has had a decent start to the season, but the first two races really could have been wins. Normally, that kind of missed opportunity would be cause for a Tiger Blood-fueled rant from the driver who Mike Joy insists on calling “Wild Thing” — which, if current events had happened a few years ago, would be strangely appropriate.

Much has been made of the “New Kyle,” as his outbursts and tantrums have been dialed down a bit (that is, until the Chase starts and all hell breaks loose). Maybe getting married in the offseason has mellowed him out a little bit, making for a calmer Kyle. Then again, is that what you really want? Heck no — you want a full-on, narcissistic, Carlos-Estevez-peaking-on-seven-gram-rocks-esque-tirade, ripping out radio cords and fake-drinking NOS Energy syrup.

Off-Week Plans: Duh … Bi-vacationing.

Jeff Gordon Jeff Gordon has had quite an up and down year so far. After the in-house swap that moved Gordon over to Mark Martin’s No. 5 team with Alan Gustafson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. inheriting Gordon’s No. 24 group, it was generally accepted to be for Junior’s benefit and little else. But to quote John McClane, “Errrghhh!!! Wrong answer, Hans!”

Gustafson is the worst best-kept secret weapon at Hendrick Motorsports, and already has paid huge dividends this year. Gordon qualified on the front row for the Daytona 500 and won in just his second outing with Gustafson in Phoenix. All of that momentum came to a screeching halt in Las Vegas when a blown tire sent the No. 24 into the wall and back to the garage on lap 193, dropping him to 14th in points.

However, I seriously doubt the Vegas lick will have much of an impact. This is a team and driver that have traditionally bounced back from such an event in fine form. Normally I would say he’d be itching to get back to business as soon as possible, but he’s kind of an old guy now and has two kids.

Off-Week Plans: Load up the Family Truckster, Ingrid. We’re going to Wally World!

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese examines who has made the most noise early in NASCAR's 2001 season, and what they'll be doing over the year's first off-weekend.</p>