With all the big stories this NASCAR season — from Danica Patrick at Daytona to Denny Hamlin’s injury and Tony Stewart and Joey Logano’s spat at Auto Club Speedway — one fairly significant one has been largely overlooked.
The sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has risen to the top of the Sprint Cup points standings. Heading into this weekend’s STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Earnhardt leads defending series champion Brad Keselowski by 12 points, and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson by 16.
Earnhardt has gotten to the top on the strength of runner-up finishes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway and the fact that his worst finish is a seventh at Las Vegas. He’s been steady, but not overpowering. He led only one race, at Phoenix, where he was out front for 47 laps.
He said on this week’s NASCAR teleconference that he doesn’t mind flying under the media radar for now.
“We’ve finished well, but I think that there are a lot of areas that we can improve, and we get to focus on that, sort of being out of the scope and out of the spotlight,” he said. “We can pay more attention to how do we get better as a team.”
Allmendinger on the road: A year ago, A.J. Allmendinger had the best finish of his Sprint Cup career with a runner-up run to Ryan Newman at Martinsville Speedway. Allmendinger isn’t racing at Martinsville this year. Instead he’ll run the IndyCar circuit’s Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham.
He’s driving for Penske Racing as a teammate to defending race winner Will Power.
Allmendinger said that even though he’ll likely try to keep abreast of the action at Martinsville, his focus this weekend will be getting up to speed at Barber.
“I don’t really look back and wish I could do (Martinsville) again,” he said. “I just look forward to every opportunity I get. To go to Birmingham in the Indy car this weekend is really exciting.”
Allmendinger, who raced open-wheel cars before coming to NASCAR, said he’s still getting used to being back in an open-wheel car on a road course, even after a recent test session at Barber.
“I’ve still got some work to do,” he said. “Barber’s a track that’s really technical. There are a lot of nuances to it. It just takes laps to get around it really good.
“I’m at least in the ballpark of being competitive. … I just have to keep picking away at it.”
Allmendinger also is set to run the Indianapolis 500 for Penske, and he’s running a partial Sprint Cup schedule for Phoenix Racing.
Asphalt resurgence: In the 1980s, short-track asphalt racing in the Southeast was on a roll. The late Bob Harmon and his All-Pro Super Series attracted the best drivers, the payoffs were substantial, and fans packed grandstands to see the show.
Harmon eventually sold his circuit to NASCAR, and over the years it lost its luster. Now there’s a new series set to make its debut, and many in the sport feel it has the potential to bring some All-Pro-like interest to the short-track asphalt scene.
The Southern Super Series is set to hold its inaugural race this weekend at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tenn.
The series plans to run 16 races at five tracks — Nashville, Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Mobile (Ala.) Speedway, Montgomery (Ala.) Motorsports Park and Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla.
T.J. Reaid of Acworth is among the drivers planning to compete in the series. The son of veteran dirt racer and former Dixie Speedway champion Tony Reaid, won the All-American 400 at Nashville in 2010 driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports, but this weekend finds him behind the wheel of a car that he and his father prepared.
Other local drivers on the entry list include Mason Massey of Douglasville, Allen Karnes of Sharpsburg and Anderson Bowen of Suwanee.
Tree initiative: NASCAR and Atlanta-based UPS are working together to plant trees as part of the sport’s green initiative.
UPS, in conjunction with the Arbor Day Foundation, is planning to plant more than 8,000 trees, including 90 in each market where the Sprint Cup series races for the remainder of this season.
According to a NASCAR release, one mature tree over the course of its lifetime absorbs about one metric ton of carbon dioxide, the same amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a Cup car running 500 miles.