Summing up the 2011 Sprint Cup season so far, in the racers’ own words.

ONE TO WATCH: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
WHY HE MATTERS: He pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to victory at Talladega.
WHAT HE SAYS: “If I couldn’t win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win it.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Junior is now third in points, the highest he’s been since February 2010.

CENTERPIECE
Say that again
Summing up the 2011 Sprint Cup season so far, in the racers’ own words

Denny Hamlin, on the revised points system and “wild card” Chase format: “With this new points system, you can’t have a whole lot of bad races. We have to buckle down and get some top-fives and -10s like we’re accustomed to. … (But) if for some reason we can’t get ourselves into the top 10, hopefully (we’ll have enough wins) to carry us into the Chase. That’s the positive part about it. The negative is everyone has that same mentality. What’s going to happen when there’s five races to go before the Chase and you’ve got several guys with one win needing just one more win to lock in that wild card spot? You’re going to have crazy strategies going on, I feel like, right before the Chase starts — guys going out and trying everything they can to get a win to lock themselves in the Chase because they know they can’t make up the points to get into the top 10.”

Leonard Wood, whose famed Wood Brothers No. 21 had previously won the Daytona 500 with Tiny Lund, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt and David Pearson, on Trevor Bayne’s shocking victory in the 2011 edition: “What's (my) biggest win? Well, this is the top of the stack right now.”

Jimmie Johnson, on the maturation of Kyle Busch: “Well, you can definitely see him bite his tongue at times and not say what is the first thought that comes through his mind. From being teammates with him and racing with him, I’ve been able to get to know him years back. I’ve always raced well with him on track. He’s always been patient, hasn’t roughed me up. So I haven't had any issues on track with him over the years.”

Carl Edwards, on his supposed “feud” with Kyle Busch: “I told him after Phoenix I still owe him one. But I'll save it up.”

Jeff Gordon, on his emotions after ending a 66-race drought with a win at Phoenix: “Give me your definition of cry. There were no tears. The chin was shaking. I had to check myself.”

Matt Kenseth, on his emotions after ending a 76-race drought with a win at Texas: “It’s been over two years since we won. You can’t help but think, ‘Is this the way it's going to go? Are we going to keep trickling backwards?’ It’s a big relief to get back to Victory Lane.”

Jack Roush, on changes to the fuel “dump cans”: “This new fuel system is really a problem. For the gas man, for the crew chief, for the jack man, for everybody that's got to have a finger in this thing, there is a learning curve that's not perfect.”

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, on the difficulties of rebuilding attendance amid a struggling economy: “There’s still some challenges for us and for many, many sports, with still an uncertain outlook for the economy. Obviously (rising) fuel prices are never helpful to our fans or anybody who needs to drive to an event.”

Kevin Harvick, on being the first — and so far only — driver to win two races, with consecutive victories at Fontana and Martinsville: “Something that we have only done, I think, once before is win back-to-back weeks, and you know, to come out this season and win at racetracks that we had not won at before is good for our confidence to say the least.”

Clint Bowyer, on the “tandem drafting” that produced unusual races but great finishes at Daytona and Talladega: “Here is the thing. It doesn’t matter what happened throughout that race — if you didn’t like the finish and it didn’t make you forget about the race, you’re crazy.”

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on whether being back in the top 10 proves he’s a contender again: “Well, I ain’t really proved it to myself yet. I’ll let you know when I feel like I’m back, personally. … We still got a little ways to go.”



THE LOWDOWN This week the Sprint Cup series is off for Easter, but Nashville Superspeedway hosts a doubleheader for the Camping World Truck series (Friday night) and Nationwide series (Saturday afternoon). Nashville also hosts a truck/Nationwide doubleheader in July, also on an off weekend for the Cup cars. Lucas Oil Raceway, outside Indianapolis, is the only other non-Cup track to host a doubleheader, in conjunction with the Brickyard 400 in July. But fans have numerous opportunities to attend “tripleheader” weekends (Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World truck events) over the balance of the 2011 season (see schedule below).

Remaining 2011 NASCAR “tripleheader” weekends
DATE            TRACK
May 13-15        Dover International Speedway
July 7-9        Kentucky Speedway
Aug. 24-27        Bristol Motor Speedway
Sept. 2-4        Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sept. 16-18        Chicagoland Speedway
Nov. 4-6        Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 18-20        Homestead-Miami Speedway

Quote of note
“When you’re four-wide across a start/finish line, I think that’s a pretty damn good race.” — Winner Jimmie Johnson, on last Sunday’s wild finish at Talladega.


UP TO SPEED
Closing the gap?
The points standings are much closer after eight races this season than they were at this stage last season. It’s tempting to attribute that tightening to the new, scaled-down scoring system. Under the old system, the most points that a driver could gain on the leader in a single race was 161. Last year at this stage, only three drivers were within 161 points of leader Jimmie Johnson. This year, the most points a driver can gain in the leader in a single week is 47 — and seven drivers are within 47 points of leader Carl Edwards (see chart). But that disparity is more a function of Jimmie Johnson’s fast start last season than the new system in use this season. Had this year’s system been in place last year, just three drivers would have been with 47 points of Johnson after eight races. In other words: The accounting might be different this year, but the results are the same.

Tennessee turbulence
The racing surface at Nashville Superspeedway is concrete. The track’s future is not. Dover Motorsports, which owns Nashville Superspeedway, recently sold Memphis Motorsports Park and closed Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis. Short term, Nashville might benefit from those developments. Nashville Superspeedway picked up one of the Camping World truck events that Memphis used to run, and it has two fewer tracks to compete against in the region. But it remains to be seen whether two Nationwide/truck doubleheaders a year can generate sufficient revenue to keep the speedway viable. Adding to the intrigue, an unlikely competitor has emerged. Or rather, re-emerged. Nashville Speedway, an old fairgrounds track that hasn’t hosted a major NASCAR race in more than a decade, is back in the picture after being slated for demolition just months ago. A group of racing enthusiasts, including former Cup star Sterling Marlin, convinced city officials to not only spare the track from the wrecking ball, but to also consider allowing it to reopen. Earlier this month, Marlin participated in a muffler demonstration to address neighbors’ noise concerns. Short term, the fairgrounds group is proposing to hold small-scale events. But if the effort succeeds, the track could be a more cost-effective alternative for Nationwide and truck races than the superspeedway, which is more than twice the size of the old fairgrounds track.

Doubles partners
“Tandem drafting” at Talladega wasn’t limited to Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. Drivers also ran two-by-two in Saturday’s Nationwide race, with wild results. The race produced a series-record 57 lead changes — obliterating the old mark, 36 — but also a pair of red flags and 11 cautions, a track record. There were so many wrecks that even winner Kyle Busch’s car had significant damage.

Milestones
Last Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 tied records for the closest Cup finish since electronic timing-and-scoring was introduced (.002 seconds), and the most lead changes (88).

WEEKLY STATS
Current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points

RANK            DRIVER            POINTS    BEHIND
1            Carl Edwards        295        --
2            Jimmie Johnson        290        -5
3            Dale Earnhardt Jr.        276        -19
4            Kevin Harvick        268        -27
5            Kurt Busch            267        -28
6            Kyle Busch            257        -38
7            Ryan Newman        253        -42
8            Matt Kenseth        252        -43
9            Juan Pablo Montoya    246        -49
10            Clint Bowyer        245        -50
11            Paul Menard            242        -53
12            Tony Stewart        240        -55
13            Jeff Gordon            234    `    -61
14 (tie)        Mark Martin            226        -69
14            A.J. Allmendinger        226        -69
16            Greg Biffle            221        -74
17    `        Denny Hamlin        195        -100
18            Kasey Kahne        194        -101
19            Martin Truex Jr.        192        -103
20            David Ragan            191        -104