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Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on Cup schedule

Much was made of the first five races of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule being run on diametrically diverse tracks. From the season opening restrictor plate Daytona 500, to the bumper-car bonanza that made up the closing laps at Martinsville, and the intermediate downforce contests in Las Vegas and Fontana.

Now that those races are in the books, the series begins to transition into the meat of the season. The next four weeks are held at equally unique racetracks as the season begins to take shape and winnow out the weak. The following is a preview of the next month of Sprint Cup competition and where to place your fantasy picks — or place an ill-advised wager if you’re one who happens to frequent such establishments.

There are many images that come to mind when one mentions racing at Richmond. From Rusty Wallace punting Jeff Gordon in 1997, Kevin Harvick and company stomping on Ricky Rudd’s hood in 2003, or Kyle Busch’s brush with mortality after getting into Dale Earnhardt, Jr. while racing for the win in ’08 — it’s like somebody had the bright idea to mash Martinsville and Michigan together into a three-quarter mile oval and ended up with the perfect track. That said, what I am about to declare may be proof that the Mayans are right on target with the 12-21-12 end date:

The winner this weekend will almost certainly be a Michael Waltrip Racing entry.

While that may have been a funny quip a couple of years ago, it’s an undeniable fact that in 2012, this team is for real. MWR has had a long and storied — and at time notorious — history at Richmond. Who can forget Michael Waltrip jacking up a hapless Casey Mears the entire length of the frontstretch in 2008 after the two had made contact? Considering it was one year ago here that Martin Truex Jr. went Tim Daland in Days of Thunder and summarily fired the entire pit crew, it’s fair to say it would be more than fitting if the No. 56 NAPA Toyota found its way to Victory Lane on Saturday.

Truex has been on a tear this year, notching six top 10s in the first eight races, while his three top 5s already match what he achieved in all of 2011. His late-race fade at Kansas was indicative of a team that has the speed and performance to win, but has not been in that position before, and therefore, is still learning how to seal the deal. Yeah, I know … bad set of tires, the sun came out, it was cold. Truex may have made his banzai video game pass attempt on Denny Hamlin about a lap too early, before he went all Carl Edwards 2008, but he was a legit contender — and no doubt had the best car of the day up until that point

Teammate Clint Bowyer has always had speed at Richmond, having won there in 2008 to go along with five other top 10s in 12 Cup starts. Mark Martin will be back in the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine after finishing a season low 33rd in Kansas courtesy of a blown engine with 12 laps to go while running sixth. Martin has 24 top 10s and 17 top 5s in an amazing 52 starts at RIR, with just one win, which came in 1990. (The circumstances surrounding the resulting controversial fine are still a point of contention and a reason for most Martin fans to go.)

Driving in a part-time capacity this year, Martin has been at worst a top-10 car at every race, with Brian Vickers guiding the No. 55 to a top 5 at Bristol. There’s no reason to believe anything would be different this weekend, as the 55 was the fastest car on the track the last 20 laps at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago.

Prediction: A win for one of Mikey’s three teams in the Year of the Mayan. After all, there’s a reason that Dick Clark passed away the year there’s not supposed to be a New Year’s Eve.

Rick Hendrick has got to be sick and tired of lugging around all of those “Hendrick Motorsports 200th Cup Win” commemorative hats. HMS has gone goose egg since the October race at Kansas last year, which was won by Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick has since had to endure allegations of trying to build a fast superspeedway car, keep sharp objects away from Kasey Kahne, and find new ways for Jeff Gordon to communicate that, “We have to qualify better.”

After the Martinsville incident that saw a guaranteed one-two finish go up in smoke — which, prior, had been most recently witnessed in my last season in career mode playing NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2 — the 200th win question has loomed large, nearly overshadowing the 600-pound dancing bear in the room: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winless streak that dates back to a time when Greece was solvent and Secret Service agents were, uh, secretive. While Junior has been doing a commendable job, these hats need to be distributed, so that means all eyes were on “Five Time” at Texas Motor Speedway — just as Greg Biffle set a pick and subsequent slide job on Johnson exiting Turn 4 with 30 laps to go.

Cut to another scene of Mr. Hendrick slowly removing his headset and dismounting the No. 48 war wagon.

At Talladega, this all will change. Daytona was a disaster, with Johnson getting turned into the wall after just one lap and Gordon blowing the bottom end out of the powerplant of his No. 24 machine. Kahne was involved in a late-race dust up, which meant that Earnhardt had to take on the Ford tandem of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth in the final laps by his lonesome. Junior did what he could en route to a second-place finish, which should provide hope for Junior Nation, as well as the HMS brain trust.

With any luck, two droughts will be wiped out at Talladega, and if there is one track more perfectly suited for Junior to make a difference, they haven’t built it yet.

Prediction: Earnhardt ends a 138-race winless streak and Hendrick disposes of what now must be an irritating hat collection. Junior Nation then goes Soccer Fan, demolishing every Occupy rally across North America, tipping over their own vehicles and lighting them ablaze.

OK, what are the chances that some scumbag tries to make a lame tie-in with “The Lady In Black” and Danica Patrick making her first attempt at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”? Hmm … sounds like the basis for another commercial. Well, in that case, I demand some royalty monies for planting the seed.

But I digress. They simply don’t make them like Darlington anymore. A track whose shape was determined by a minnow pond and whose reconfiguration has been limited to some soft walls and moving the start/finish line to the other side and doing away with the backstretch pits. To many, Turn 2 will always be Turn 4, but what is for certain, the only race that deserves to be called The Southern 500 is the one held here the second week of May.

So who will be the one to claim triumph at the original superspeedway over Mother’s Day weekend? I’ll tell you who you can forget: Anything or anybody coming out of the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing stables. If there is one organization that continues to baffle, this is the one. A solid Chase contender in ’09, a perennial threat at Indy and the restrictor plate tracks, and a showcase for Jamie McMurray’s renaissance in 2010, EGR has been seemingly out to lunch at every single event dating back to the 2011 season. It has even regressed after most of the old guard departed in the offseason, including longtime competition director Steve Hmiel, founding team member Tony Glover and crew chief Brian Pattie.

The net result? Juan Pablo Montoya sits 16th in points and McMurray 19th. Not exactly the rebound to the 2011 season that team principal Chip Ganassi deemed “pathetic.”

Those that stand a reasonable chance of contending for the win are those who have managed their miserable luck thus far, performed well here last year and are gaining momentum the last couple of races. Kahne faded to fourth last year after leading 124 laps — after walling it in the final stages of the race. Edwards was a close second to first-time winner Regan Smith (well, second-time if you happened to see the fall 2008 race at Talladega), and is part of a Roush contingent that is a top-5 threat each and every weekend. Roush Fenway Racing has won two races in 2012 and currently occupy first (Biffle), third (Kenseth) and ninth (Edwards) in the points standings.

Prediction: Flip a coin between the No. 5 of Kahne and No. 99 of Edwards, but I’m calling heads for Kahne.

The original 1.5-mile tri-oval that served as the model for such cookie-cutter copycats as Texas, Kansas, Chicago, and to some extent, Atlanta. A resurfacing in 2005 provided a dire warning to anyone who dared futz with a perfectly good racetrack, and helped introduce a word that should be forever banished from the lexicon of motorsport: Levigation. Upon completion, Mark Martin lamented, “They took the greatest racetrack in the world and ruined it.” Upon painting the walls a hideous shade of yellow, they’ve somehow made it worse.

However, it’s still Charlotte, and still the best intermediate track on the circuit. Where else are you going to see a gigantic spark plug do donuts in a roadster after fast-roping out of a Blackhawk or a school bus jump through a wall of fire?

Held on Memorial Day weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 is desert on the table of the greatest feast in motorsports. Things get kicked off early with Formula One’s Grand Prix of Monaco as an appetizer, followed by the main course, The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. NASCAR’s endurance race is held in the hub of the industry, capping off a two-week stint that includes the All-Star Race and Pit Crew Challenge. The official start of summer is also the unofficial start to the Summer Stretch, an eight-week stint that essentially dictates who’s going to be contending for the championship in the fall and who’s going to be burning through old inventory to make way for the new 2013 Car of Tomorrow.

The race still needs to be run, however, yet the recent races at downforce tracks might not be the best indicator of who will be the team to beat as night falls on Concord, N.C. While the Roush cars have certainly been the class of the field for much of the season on these type of tracks, there’s a reason that Johnson and Chad Knaus once referred to CMS as “our house” – and not just because sponsor Lowe’s held the naming rights for the facility at the time. The No. 48 team has six wins there, having won all but one race during the 2003-05 seasons.

Johnson’s teammate, Kahne has three wins, and has been fast all year despite having the kind of luck that only Kahne … er, Cain … would wish upon Abel.

While his finish at Kansas may not have been indicative of my pick for a Coke 600 win, the qualifying results and ultimate winner are guiding my direction here. There seems to be some newfound oomph! in the Toyota camp, even though they popped a few TRD engines last weekend (would that make them TuRDs?), which will likely be ironed out in time for the 600. TRD-powered machines qualified third through sixth at Kansas, and took the top two spots at race’s end.

That said, there’s one driver who’s been notoriously absent up front and a bit too quiet for my liking this year — and Charlotte is the perfect two-week test session to try some new technology. The All-Star Race is a go-for-broke-dash-for-cash-and-crash event, while the 600 dictates that a car must be drivable during the day, and dialed in when it’s dark. For both of those events, I’d put my money on one car in particular …

Prediction: In the 2010 All Star Race, he declared that somebody better keep him away from his teammate or he’d kill the (insert two-word derogatory phrase here). In 2011, he achieved 128 mph in a 45 mph zone driving a Lexus LFA. In 2012, however, Kyle Busch will get his season righted with a win at the Coca-Cola 600 … and the All-Star Race.

So after struggling through an at-times mind-numbing month on the Sprint Cup circuit, enjoy the fruitful May stretch that lies ahead.

by Vito Pugliese
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