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Kurt Busch was frustrated with his seventh-place result at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, but it was enough to move the elder of two Busch brothers into the Sprint Cup Series points lead for the first time in two years (Talladega, April 2009.
After going into the Bristol race tied with Tony Stewart for the points lead, Busch left the Tennessee track with a one-point lead over Carl Edwards. Stewart fell to third, 12 points behind Busch.
"It just didn't seem we had the mojo to compete," Busch said, later adding that his team "couldn't adjust on the car" in the second half of the race.
Despite that, he said, getting his fourth consecutive top-10 finish to begin the season was "a point-leader-type effort."
"We just want to get up there and try to win one of these things," he said.
Travis Geisler, the competition director for Busch's Penske Racing team, said Busch could have competed for the win had things worked out differently. But he wasn't dissatisfied with the day.
"Big picture racing, if you come out of Bristol with a top 10 and the points lead, you can't really complain a whole lot," Geisler said.
Here are the full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after Bristol:
You already know the results from Sunday's NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway. So let's examine how the four biggest multi-car teams performed during the race:
Roush Fenway Racing (average finish 7.5)
It was another great day for Roush Fenway Racing, which seems to be a common theme this season.
Carl Edwards finished second, meaning he's finished either first or second in five of the last six Sprint Cup races dating back to last year.
Matt Kenseth got a top-five finish, placing fourth and moving to 13th in the standings. And Greg Biffle moved up a whopping eight spots in the standings after his eighth-place finish, escaping the danger zone of possibly falling from the top 35.
David Ragan also had a decent day, finishing 16th and moving up six spots to 20th in points.
Hendrick Motorsports (average finish 10.0)
All four Hendrick cars came home with a top-15 finish, led by Jimmie Johnson's third-place effort.
Johnson was in contention for the win, but said he was hoping eventual race winner Kyle Busch and runnerup Carl Edwards would wreck in front of him while battling for the lead and open the door for Johnson to sneak through.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came home with an 11th-place finish, followed by Mark Martin (12th) and Jeff Gordon (14th).
Martin had figured to get a top-five finish after a strong run early, but got a piece of two late wrecks. Gordon said he was mad at Brad Keselowski after the Penske Racing driver bumped him despite being several laps down.
Johnson moved from 12th to seventh in the point standings, with Earnhardt Jr. ninth and Martin tied for 10th.
Richard Childress Racing (average finish 16.5)
It was a mixed day for RCR, with Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick mounting good runs but the team's other two drivers finding misfortune.
Menard recorded just his third career top-five finish (and 10th career top-10), moving to fifth in points on what was another solid day for a driver many people hadn't considered to be very competitive in the Sprint Cup Series.
Harvick's sixth-place finish helped him vault five positions in the standings (he's up to 15th). But the news wasn't good for Clint Bowyer, who smashed into Jamie McMurray during a wreck and then later blew an engine – leaving him in 35th place.
Jeff Burton suddenly lost power on the straightaway and caused a multi-car wreck as drivers checked up to avoid him. He eventually finished 20th – his best finish of the season.
Joe Gibbs Racing (average finish 19.0)
JGR had a good day in that the team went to Victory Lane – Kyle Busch swept the Bristol race weekend for the second time in a row – but as an organization, it wasn't great.
Denny Hamlin got significant damage from the first wreck and finished 33rd, while Joey Logano nearly rallied for a top-10 finish but broke a wheel late.
Hamlin dropped a whopping nine spots in the standings to 17th. Logano is mired in 30th.
Busch, though, picked up eight positions and is now sixth – 17 points behind his brother, who leads the Sprint Cup Series.
Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano expected far better results to start the 2011 NASCAR schedule, especially considering the momentum they had to finish 2010.
McMurray won three major races last year and barely missed the Chase, while Logano went on a remarkable run of top-10 finishes to conclude the season.
As a result, both were picked by many to make the Chase this season. But after four races, McMurray is 26th in points and Logano is 30th.
Neither driver found any improvement in their luck on Sunday at Bristol, where McMurray got a piece of both big wrecks and finished 21st, while Logano's broken wheel caused him to finish 23rd.
Along with 2010 Chase participant Jeff Burton, McMurray and Logano are in the worst position out of the main Chase contenders.
"It's really frustrating, because yesterday I thought we had the fastest car," said McMurray, who was hit by Brad Keselowski in the midst of the lap 29 multi-car wreck. "We ran really good here (last August), and it was the same kind of tire, and we just had unbelievable lap times (in practice).
"Gosh, we just can't buy a break. Everything bad is happening."
But McMurray, after looking over his damaged Earnhardt Ganassi Racing machine, said he's not overly frustrated because his team has run well in three of the four races (aside from Las Vegas).
Unfortunately, he just doesn't have the finishes to show for it: 18th at Daytona, 35th after a wreck at Phoenix and 27th in the aforementioned bad race at Vegas.
"I know we had a really good car (at Bristol)," he said. "Our cars have been really good, so I'm not that worried about it because I know we have fast cars."
Logano doesn't have reason to be quite as optimistic. He complained of motor issues in the early portion of the race, but the engine never expired and he was in position to salvage a top-10 finish until he suffered another setback with less than 50 laps to go.
"I thought I would have all the bad luck out of the way, but I guess not," he tweeted after the race. "A wheel broke on the last run."
Both McMurray and Logano are in a position similar to that of Burton, who bizarrely lost power on lap 29 and caused a big wreck behind him.
Burton rallied to finish 20th, but is still only 29th in the points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. salvaged an 11th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, leaving Tennessee with a decent points day despite being one lap down early in the race.
Earnhardt Jr. said he was pleased his team "made a good day out of nothing, really." He moved up to ninth in the Sprint Cup Series point standings.
Most notably, Earnhardt Jr. was happy that crew chief Steve Letarte continues to make his car better throughout the races early in their new partnership – even when it looks as if the No. 88 team is in for a bad day.
"Steve's done amazing," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Every week we've gotten better during the race. I can't ask for any more than that, and I hope he keeps it up and I'm proud to have an opportunity to work with this group."
Earnhardt Jr. seemed headed for a certain top-10 finish – and perhaps a top-five – but a pit-road speeding penalty with just 70 laps to go dropped him from sixth to 17th.
He gained six spots on the final run, but it left him wondering what might have been.
"We should have run in the top 10," he said. "I sped coming on pit road – I guess. Hell, I was just in a line of damn cars. But I guess I should pay better attention. So we had to kind of give up a few spots there."
Earnhardt Jr. was also hurt by a speeding penalty last year at Bristol, but he seemed to handle this one much better. Asked by a reporter why he blew up under the same circumstances a year ago but not during Sunday's race, Earnhardt Jr. credited his overall attitude while working with Letarte.
"I ain't gonna get mad and holler," he said. "Last year was a hard time. Last year I was going through some rough stuff."
While Earnhardt Jr. was pleased that Letarte improved the car throughout the day, he was disappointed at the changes he and the team made prior to the racet.
The driver said he feels good about Bristol and is capable of a top-five run, but a Saturday-night decision to adjust the left-front suspension of the car ended up hurting his machine off the corner and made it drag the left front across the track in the turns.
Overall, though, it wasn't a bad day considering all that happened.
"We had a top-10 car, but we didn't at the start of the race, I guess," he said. "They made it better, and it got better."
The Jeff Byrd 500 brought a good day of racing to Bristol Motor Speedway's version of March Madness. But it was the same old outcome at the Tennessee track: Kyle Busch grabbed the checkered flag for another big win at Bristol.
Busch was followed in the top five by Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Paul Menard.
Busch's win is his 20th career Sprint Cup title, and his fifth striaight NASCAR series win at Bristol; he's now swept the weekend at Bristol in consecutive trips.
Full results from the Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway are as follows:
Welcome to Bristol race day. We're trying something a little different with the SB Nation chat today, so bear with us (and don't be afraid to let us know if you don't like it).
Here's how it will (apparently) work: You can comment freely, but some of the comments may have to be approved at the start. The CoverItLive tool will allow up to 25 chatters to make comments without approval, so we'll try and make sure as many of you as possible get to do that.
We also might enlist several of you to help us with moderating (especially when our main moderator has to run to the garage, etc.).
Again, if this doesn't work out or you don't like the format: Don't panic! We'll go back to the old one if this one flops.
Thanks for your patience, and enjoy Bristol!
It's NASCAR race day at Bristol Motor Speedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts for you below.
Race name: Today's race at Bristol Motor Speedway is called the "Jeff Byrd 500" in honor of the track's longtime president, who died last fall. Traditional sponsor Food City is giving up its name for the race in order to honor Byrd.
Start time: The command to start engines will be given by Byrd's family members (wife Claudia and children Christian and Belton) at 1:07 p.m. Eastern time. The actual start time of the race is scheduled for 1:13 p.m. EDT. So if you want to skip all the pre-race stuff and just tune in for the race, turn on your TV at 1:13.
TV and radio: As for all of the races through May, FOX is televising the race. The radio broadcast can be found on your local Performance Racing Network (PRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of PRN stations where you can listen.
National anthem: Country star Billy Ray Cyrus will sing the national anthem. He's also doing an off-camera performance of his military tribute song "Some Gave All." In an unusual move, Tennessee native Trevor Bayne will lead the fans in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before climbing into his car.
Driver introductions: Bristol has a special tradition driver introductions. Each driver comes out to a song of their choosing (you can see the partial list of songs here). Unfortunately, only bits of this will be shown on TV. You can, however, see it later on YouTube.
Race distance: The Bristol race is not 500 miles, but rather 500 laps around the half-mile oval. The total distance of the race is actually 266.5 miles.
Starting lineup for the Bristol race today:
It was immediately obvious that when Ryan Truex came down the track ever so slightly and hit Danica Patrick during Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the contact was an accident.
Even at first glance, Truex's action didn't seem the least bit malicious or intentional. Replays confirmed the young driver simply got loose and was trying to avoid hitting the wall.
But Patrick's reaction afterward indicated she felt otherwise. She put on a show of displeasure, walking up the track and giving Truex a "What the hell?" gesture with her arms extended, then complained to ESPN that Truex "runs hard."
So while the wreck wasn't Patrick's fault, the part-time NASCAR driver isn't doing herself any favors with fans who are still deciding whether they like her or not.
Longtime NASCAR fans have seen that type of incident hundreds of times, and typically both drivers treat it as "that's racin'." Meanwhile, those type of angry gestures are typically reserved for a driver who made a much bigger mistake than Truex did – or acted intentionally.
Truex, for his part, was immediately apologetic after the race and emphasized he didn't mean to run into Patrick.
"It wasn't on purpose and I'm sorry," he said. "I guess it's a racing deal. It's Bristol, it's tight and things like that happen. I definitely feel bad about it."
Patrick was particularly upset because Truex had made it difficult for her to pass him during a 20-lap stretch earlier in the race. She assumed his move may have somehow been out of retaliation.
But when she complains about another driver "running hard," fans have a hard time understanding what she means. "Running hard" at a short track like Bristol is often necessary, where letting another car go at a 1.5-mile venue is a different story.
Patrick won't return to NASCAR until after the Indianapolis 500 now, but it's important that she focuses on learning the NASCAR culture when she comes back.
Getting overly upset at a no-fault racing incident and making public criticisms for racing too hard at a short track isn't common among the NASCAR regulars, and thus won't earn her much street cred with NASCAR fans.
From the Statistics-Can-Be-Deceiving Department: Tony Stewart had the fastest single lap in the first of two Sprint Cup Series practices at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, but "Smoke" was only 12th-fastest among the 24 drivers who drove 10 or more consecutive laps.
The 10-lap average is a more reliable stat, and Mark Martin led the way in that category with an average speed of 123.248 mph over his 10-lap run.
Jamie McMurray (123.155) trailed Martin, followed by Ryan Newman, David Ragan and Joey Logano.
Denny Hamlin was next, with Brad Keselowski, Juan Pablo Montoya, Regan Smith and David Reutimann rounding out the top 10.
On the "traditional" practice sheet, the top 10 was: Stewart, Reutimann, Martin, McMurray, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Ragan, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Hamlin.
The final 60-minute practice session is scheduled to begin at noon Eastern time.
Cup teams were given one set of right-side tires to use for both practices today after a tire issue was discovered yesterday.
It's Day 2 at Bristol Motor Speedway, with a Nationwide Series race and two Sprint Cup Series practices on the schedule for today.
Here are some quick notes and quotes from around the Bristol garage:
Denny Hamlin says he's in good position
Hamlin, who had a miserable start to last season before rallying to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the championship, said he's right where he wants to be this year: Already in the top 10 in points after three races.
"I think I'm in championship form," Hamlin said.
That comment drew a few chuckles, but Hamlin said he was at least somewhat serious.
"Look at where I was last year," he said. "I'm definitely on track, I feel like, for what we (usually) do early in the year."
The rest of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars haven't had the same degree of success. Joey Logano is 28th in points, and Kyle Busch has run well but blew an engine last week and is 14th in points.
Overall, the Toyotas haven't looked as fast as the competition – but Hamlin said he's "not really too concerned."
"I think it's just part of the make-up of this race team" to start slow, he said.
Greg Biffle worried about poor start to season
Is Greg Biffle concerned about his disastrous first three races, in which he's run well but had bad luck and even worse results that have left him 32nd in the points?
"Yeah, I'm (a few) spots away from having to qualify with the go-or-go-homers, so that would definitely be a concern of mine," he said.
This wasn't the start Biffle expected. Roush Fenway Racing has had some of the fastest cars all year, and while Biffle himself had one of the fastest cars during the most recent race at Las Vegas, he finished three laps down.
"That's hard to do when you've got a really, really fast car," he said. "I don't know exactly all the issues of what happened."
One issue was a fueling problem that prompted Roush to change Biffle's gas man. Is Biffle satisfied with the change?
"I don't know," he said. "I'll let you know on Sunday."
Juan Pablo Montoya sees importance of finishing races
When Juan Pablo Montoya first came into NASCAR, he tended to push his car past its limits – and crash. Even last year, which was expected to be a Chase-caliber season for Montoya after he made the playoff in 2009, Montoya said he made mistakes which made his season go from bad to worse.
The No. 42 team had gotten in some early wrecks that were no fault of its own, but when Montoya tried to make up ground in the standings, he made even more mistakes.
So over time, Montoya has learned to race smarter and more cautiously.
"With this sport, you get to the point where the car will give you what it gives you," he said. "You can get a little more for three laps, but it would cost you the next 15. There is always a fine balance and you have to see how far you can go.
"When you go too far, it will bite you – and it did last year to us."
That's the brakes: Ryan Newman likes short-track racing
Why is Ryan Newman such a fan of short-track racing?
"I like using the middle pedal," he said, referring to the brake.
Newman said it adds another dynamic to racing when a driver has to use the brake as part of the race (as opposed to places like Las Vegas, where he said very little brake is used).
"When you are (only) using a little bit, it's hard to screw it up," Newman said. "I like the short tracks. I like having the character added to the program of modulating the brake."
Kurt Busch wants to race NHRA again this year, but will he?
While Kurt Busch said he enjoyed his NHRA drag racing experience last week, it's uncertain whether he'll race again this summer, when a NASCAR off-week and and NHRA race coincide again.
Busch said the possibility of racing at Denver is appealing to him (he qualified his way into the event but lost a close race in the first round), but said he may need to concentrate on his Sprint Cup car at that point in the season.
"If we're sitting right on the bubble of ninth, 10th, 11th in poins, we just need to be focused on our Cup car," he said. "We need to be testing extra with it. We need to be doing everything that we can to get our real job into the show."
If Busch was safe in points, however, he said he'd ask team owner Roger Penske for permission to drag race again.
"It just seems like it's itching me to go again and go play and have some fun," Busch said.
Opening day of the Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend had quite the surprise: A tire issue that recalled memories of the infamous Indianapolis tire debacle in 2008.
Tires failed to lay rubber down on the track and instead turned into a fine dust, causing them to wear out quickly. As a result, Goodyear will bring in approximately 1,200-1,300 new right-side tires from its Charlotte warehouse to hopefully remedy the problem.
But because there are so many unknowns – Nationwide teams will actually start their race on the old tires and switch to the new ones after 25 laps; Sprint Cup teams will get one set for the two practice sessions on Saturday – the Bristol weekend has suddenly turned into a guessing game.
"It's a pretty big mess-up to bring something like that and only having one set of tires tomorrow to practice on," Matt Kenseth said. "It's gonna be whoever guesses the closest."
Tires have suddenly become an unexpected issue at a place where fans don't typically hear about them. In fact, tires could be the No. 1 story heading into the race.
Sprint Cup Series pole-sitter Carl Edwards predicted the tire change "has the potential to turn this field upside-down" because the cars that were fast with the current setup may not be as quick with a different tire.
Similarly, he said, "Guys that were struggling today could be dominant on Sunday. It's going to be very interesting."
Despite the unknowns a different tire will bring, Edwards said the change was necessary – seemingly a unanimous opinion among the drivers.
"I feel pretty confident in the change NASCAR and Goodyear are making with the tires," said Brad Keselowski, who will also run both races. "We won't have any tire issues."
Martin Truex Jr. said it will be "weird" to race on a different set of tires than the teams practiced on, but predicted teams would use their one new set of tires toward the end of the final practice session after already finding the general setup for the car.
Then, he said, they'll just "hope that it doesn't change the balance too much."
"If it does, (we'll) just kind of guess for the race and see what happens," Truex said. "Everybody is in the same boat. Some guys are going to understand the tire or guess a little better with the new tire. We'll just have to see what happens."
Goodyear is bringing a tire with the identical compound that teams used last summer at Bristol. For some reason, Goodyear didn't hold offseason tire testing after changing the tire (NASCAR said the old tire was scrapped because teams wanted more grip and increased wear).
"I don't understand why we changed them," Brian Vickers said. "I think they're making the right decision by changing them back."
One thing is for sure: Everyone will find out together.
Here's the schedule for the rest of the Bristol race weekend, with the different tires noted as "Friday" or "Saturday" tires.
9:40 a.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying (on Friday tires)
10:45 a.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (on Friday tires, except for one set of Saturday tires for both practices)
12 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (on Friday tires, except for one set of Saturday tires for both practices)
2 p.m. – Nationwide Series race (on Friday tires to start, then changed to Saturday tires during a Lap 25 competition caution)
1 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series race (on Saturday tires; enough sets to run a normal race)
Carl Edwards is on quite a roll.
Edwards, the most recent NASCAR race winner, picked up his second pole of the young Sprint Cup Series season on Friday afternoon, taking the top spot in qualifying at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver will head the starting lineup, ahead of teammate Greg Biffle in an all-Roush front row.
"It's unreal," Edwards said of his recent hot streak, which includes three wins and a runner-up finish in his last five races dating back to last season. "I hope this keeps going. This is fun!"
Regan Smith had a career-best qualifying effort and will start third, ahead of Paul Menard and another Roush driver – David Ragan.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were next, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne.
Only one driver failed to qualify for the race: Ken Schrader.
Here are the qualifying results for Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500:
NASCAR and Goodyear are being forced to change the right-side tires for both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series after the current tire failed to lay rubber down on the surface at Bristol Motor Speedway, officials said Friday afternoon.
Race teams need the tracks to "rubber in" particularly at concrete tracks like Bristol – otherwise, the surface simply chews up the tire compound after only 15-30 laps.
"You can see the racetrack just isn't rubbering in," Kurt Busch said. "It's more like they're turning into powder, which is what we had a few years ago at Indianapolis."
Goodyear officials monitored tires throughout Friday morning's practice sessions and ultimately worked with NASCAR to implement a backup plan: Bringing in approximately 1,200 tires that were to be used at Fontana and Kansas from a warehouse in Charlotte.
The tires won't arrive until later today – too late for the Nationwide Series teams to practice on them before Saturday's race.
Sprint Cup teams will get one set of the new right-side tires before a pair of practice sessions on Saturday and will have them for the race.
Nationwide teams will qualify on the old tires and even start the race on them. NASCAR will then call a competition caution at Lap 25 to allow teams to change to the new tires.
The tires that will be used for both races are made up from the same compound that was used at Bristol last August. After those races, though, teams requested a different tire that have more grip but would wear faster.
Goodyear officials said they don't know why the current tire failed to put down rubber on the track.
Carl Edwards continued his early-season momentum in the first Sprint Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday, showing he has a fast car yet again by topping the charts with a 128.675 mph average lap.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver, who won the most recent race at Las Vegas, bested Jimmie Johnson (128.022 mph) and teammate Greg Biffle, with Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard rounding out the top five.
Roush drivers were also sixth (David Ragan) and eighth (Matt Kenseth), with Kyle Busch in seventh and Tony Stewart and David Reutimann completing the top 10.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 16th, and Bristol ace Kurt Busch was 17th. Other notable drivers included Jeff Gordon (21st) and Denny Hamlin (23rd). Kevin Harvick was 15th.
Only two drivers (Marcos Ambrose and Andy Lally) did 10 consecutive laps or more, meaning it was difficult to get a sense for which cars are good on longer runs.
There are two Cup practices scheduled for Saturday, but the only remaining action for NASCAR's top series today is qualifying (3:40 p.m. Eastern time).
We're already halfway through "Menarch," which is celebrated by the members of the Paul Menard Empire.
Not familiar with Menarch and the Empire? Don't worry – you're not alone.
"I haven't heard of the Paul Menard Empire," Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard said Friday. "There's something on Facebook about 'Menarch,' which I have no idea what that is either."
The Paul Menard Empire is a group of Menard fans, nearly 600 strong and growing. They maintain a Facebook page to salute their favorite driver and his unique sideburns, which they refer to as "nardburns."
"Menarch" – a combination of "Menard" and "March" – is the Empire's month-long celebration of all things Menard. Some of the group's Facebook postings include Menard-oriented expressions like this:
Menarch came in like a lamb and will go out like a neon yellow roaring lion with spectacular facial hair.
The group was originally started as a satire, but has evolved into a community of fans who are proud to follow Menard and participate in his Empire.
It began a year ago, when University of Wisconsin pharmacy student Jory Fleischauer was moderating a message board for sim racers. The conversation turned to drivers who had underperformed in their careers, and a debate began over who had underachieved more: Menard or David Stremme.
To settle the score, users made a bet: If Menard's 2010 Las Vegas finish bested Stremme's '09 finish at the same track, Fleischauer said he would change his message board avatar to a picture of Menard for one week.
Menard beat Stremme's finish by one position, and Fleischauer held up his end of the deal by putting up a Menard avatar. Other users followed suit, changing their own avatars to a picture of Menard's face. Eventually, the number of people with Menard avatars grew to a few dozen.
"Early on, someone quipped that there wasn't a Menard Nation, there was a Menard Empire," Fleischauer said. "With that statement, I decided that there truly should be a Paul Menard Empire, which is where the Facebook page originally arose from."
At that point, though, the Empire still was supporting Menard somewhat out of humor. Users tried to find what Fleischauer called "the most spectacular pictures" of Menard's facial hair – or even adding the 'nardburns to other pictures.
Fleischauer freely admits the idea was "crass." But then, something funny happened – Menard started running well.
The week after the Empire officially began, Menard led a lap at Atlanta and eventually finished fifth – only his second career top-five.
"Naturally, later that night, we were discussing what had happened," Fleischauer said. "Could it be mere coincidence the creation (of the Empire) coincided with one of the best runs of Menard's Cup career?"
The focus of the Empire had suddenly changed. Some users began to grow their own 'nardburns, and they began to actually pull for Menard, not just celebrate his facial hair.
"What had started as callous discussion had evolved...into an actual following," Fleischauer said. "We were actually now cheering Menard on on a weekly basis. It was an odd feeling realizing that as soon as I would get home from work, the first driver I would check on would be Menard."
Fleischauer said the year-old Empire is "serious in its support for Menard" despite the sarcastic humor. He plans to attend his first race this year and is creating some Paul Menard Empire shirts for he and his fellow Menard fans to wear. The group even sponsors Menard's statistics page on racing-reference.info.
"I have no idea if Paul is even aware of the fact he has his own Empire," Fleischauer said. "I would hope that he finds it as humorous and fun as we all do each day. As we celebrate the first anniversary of Menarch, the Empire is extremely proud to see Menard sitting sixth in the standings thus far."
He added a reminder to "never doubt the power of the 'nardburns."
As for Menard himself, the driver said he planned to look up the Empire's Facebook page and find out more about his burgeoning group of fans.
"I gotta reach out to those guys," Menard said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still feeling positive about his fast start to the 2011 NASCAR season, but he's not ready to declare that he's busted his slump just yet.
Earnhardt Jr., speaking to reporters as part of a top-10 media availability for the first time this season, said Friday morning that it's important to remember how long the season really is.
"I think we've just got to temper our excitement over what we've seen so far," he said. "... Just got to temper your mood and keep working hard. Keep focused on how much further in the season we've got to go."
He cited races at Daytona and Phoenix as reasons not to assume past results are indicative of future success. He ran well at Daytona before crashing, but he said he was supposed to run well there. And at Phoenix, he said, he may not have gotten a 10th-place finish if a host of contenders hadn't crashed early.
Still, he's feeling optimistic that his new team and pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte may be the answer to his slump – particularly coming off an eighth-place finish at Las Vegas, which left him 10th in the point standings.
His is a cautious optimism, though.
"It's just such a clean slate starting this season that it allowed me to sort of reboot a little bit," he said. "Me and Steve are getting along really good. Hopefully we can maintain that. That's going to be the challenge, really – maintaining our positive attitude and the communication and the consistency that's working right now.
"That's going to be the hardest and will determine whether we can succeed or not – whether we can keep that going the entire season. The season is long, you get pissed off, things don't go right and you've got to get through those points."
In the past, Earnhardt Jr. said he's struggled with managing his emotions when he's faced with setbacks. He said "even the littlest thing" can throw him off, and added he's had "a hard time not letting things just ruin my day and getting pissed off at everything around me."
"I've always had that problem," he said. "That's going to be the tough part. The hardest part is just trying to keep the relationship as it (is now)."
Letarte, though, seems to specialize in keeping those around him positive. He's a motivator and a cheerleader, and Earnhardt Jr. said he gives off the impression that even when the car isn't good, "he's going to get it fixed before the end of the day."
"He does a great job of just keeping you in the game," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You're part of the puzzle and everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction. He's good at what he does, you know? There's no doubt about it."
So does Earnhardt Jr. feel like he's getting closer to winning?
"Yeah," he said. "I feel like we've made some steps that have helped us. We've got a long way to go, though."
Brian Keselowski is expected to undergo gallbladder surgery as early as Thursday evening after the driver was rushed to the hospital Tuesday with what was described as "severe abdominal pain," his K-Automotive Motorsports team said.
Keselowski was "diagnosed with a severe case of gallstones," according to the team, and medication to relieve the pain is not helping.
The surgery would put Keselowski – vying for Sprint Cup rookie of the year honors – out of his car for two or three weeks, the team said. Dennis Setzer will attempt to qualify the No. 92 car at Bristol.
Keselowski was described by the team as bending over in pain and begging doctors to remove his gallbladder, saying "Get this thing out of me."
"I just want this thing out of me so I can get back in my car and race," he said.
The surgery would be done as an outpatient procedure.
Keselowski was one of the best stories of Daytona Speedweeks after he qualified his under-powered car into the Daytona 500. But since then, Keselowski hasn't made a race – missing both the events at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The team said well-wishes can be sent to Keselowski at K-Automotive Motorsports: 2668 Peachtree Rd., Statesville, NC, 28625.
College basketball shouldn't have all the fun.
Stock-car racing has March Madness every year, too, as the NASCAR schedule brings us to Bristol Motor Speedway, the "World's Fastest Half-Mile" in the Tennessee mountains.
Historically, tempers flared and drivers took out their anger on one another at Bristol – though the racing has changed since the track was repaved in 2007.
But Bristol is still Bristol, and it's always worth watching.
Some of the storylines heading into this weekend include Kyle Busch (can he continue his Bristol success after his three-race sweep there last summer?) and NASCAR itself (can the sport pick up where it left off in early-season momentum despite an off-week?).
In regard to the off-week, this is likely the last time NASCAR will have an early-season break. Next year's Daytona 500 has been pushed later, so there will be no need to take an off-week before Easter.
Will drivers bring back "Boys, have at it" in time to rival the real March Madness? We can hope.
Here is the schedule for this weekend (all times Eastern):
8:30 a.m. – Nationwide Series practice (90 minutes)
10:30 a.m. – Nationwide Series practice (80 minutes)
12 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (90 minutes)
1:40 p.m. – Nationwide Series practice (110 minutes)
3:40 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series qualifying
5 p.m. – Nationwide Series practice (60 minutes)
9:40 a.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying
10:45 a.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (45 minutes)
12 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (60 minutes)
2 p.m. – Nationwide Series race
1 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series race
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