ThatsRacin

For 3 NASCAR Cup Series drivers, a head-turning start

Jeff Gordon, in his final season as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, has already had his share of bad luck despite two poles and an ability to run up front in all three races so far.
Jeff Gordon, in his final season as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, has already had his share of bad luck despite two poles and an ability to run up front in all three races so far. Getty Images

We are three races into the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season, so there isn’t a significant sample size from which to draw conclusions.

But certain performances – or the lack thereof – have stood out. As the Cup series heads to Phoenix International Raceway this weekend, here’s a look at three drivers who are turning heads, for very different reasons:

Tony Stewart

Before the season, Stewart appeared more relaxed and excited than he had in several years.

His right leg – injured in a racing accident in 2013 – no longer seems much of a hindrance, and late last year Stewart was cleared of any criminal charges in the death of driver Kevin Ward Jr.

Three races into this season, though, Stewart is 34th in the series standings, with finishes of 42nd, 30th and 33rd.

Stewart got caught up in wrecks in the Daytona 500 and at Atlanta, but his performance at Las Vegas is particularly vexing. On an intermediate track of the sort that make up the bulk of the series schedule, Stewart finished five laps down.

A.J. Allmendinger

A.J. Allmendinger qualified for the Chase in 2014, so the fact he is doing well isn’t a big surprise. His consistent ability to run in the top-10 is striking, though, for his JTG Daugherty Racing team.

He is fifth in the series standings through three races, including two top-10s (a sixth and seventh). Allmendinger had five top-10s in 36 races last season, including his victory at Watkins Glen, N.Y., which cemented his Chase berth.

“I really look at this race as one of the best races I feel like we’ve run as a race team, just over the year now that we’ve been together,” he said after the Las Vegas race. “The car was consistent all day.

“Right at the end, I thought we really had a fast race car; was kind of catching the guys and a few more laps might have been able to get a couple more guys.”

Jeff Gordon

Given the speed and potential Gordon’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team has displayed, the results – and circumstances around them – have left Gordon 30th in the series standings.

In his final season as a driver, he has won the pole for two of the first three races but has been caught up in accidents in each race, leaving him with finishes of 33rd, 41st and 18th.

In contrast to Stewart’s recent performance, the good news for Gordon is he has been running well enough in races to win them and could easily end up in Victory Lane in Sunday’s CampingWorld.com 500.

Although he won the pole at Vegas, Gordon had to start the race from the rear of the field after his primary car was damaged when Danica Patrick spun in front of him during practice.

“I just can’t believe the way these days are going,” Gordon said.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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