Phoenix Rising: Kahne, Allmendinger, and Earnhardt Jr. Nab Top 10 Finishes
While Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500K belonged to Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team, the race itself may have been a good starting point of momentum for Kasey Kahne, A.J. Allmendinger, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Each of these drivers and their teams needed a solid shot in the arm after somewhat disappointing performances in the season opener at Daytona.
With finishes of 25th, 11th, and 24th for Kahne, Allmendinger, and Earnhardt Jr., it wasn't exactly the kind of start they anticipated.
In the case of Earnhardt Jr., it capped off what looked like a promising Speedweeks, capturing the Daytona 500 pole before wrecking his primary machine in pre-Duel practice and crashing his backup car during the closing stages of the 500.
As for Kahne and Allmendinger, it was an afternoon to forget, with a race in "The Valley of the Sun" looking to be an elixir from their Daytona disappointments.
And a top-10 finish at Phoenix for these racers may have been exactly what they needed to build a foundation for a successful season.
Kahne capped off a relatively stellar racing weekend with his sixth place finish after piloting his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota Camry to a starting spot of third.
Sure, it wasn't a victory, but their top-six finish boosted the Enumclaw, WA native to the 15th position in the points standings, which encouraged the 2004 Rookie of the Year.
"Good job Red Bull guys," Kahne posted on his Twitter. "Glad we got a good finish. Can't wait for Vegas."
Heading into Las Vegas, Kahne's logged in two top-fives and four-10's through seven starts, compiling an average finishing position of 15th.
Another top-10 might be in the cards for Kahne and Red Bull Racing at "Sin City," with "Special K" finishing ninth, 11th, and sixth in his three most recent races at that facility.
Finishing just three spots behind Kahne was A.J. Allmendinger, who drove his No. 43 Valvoline Ford to a hard fought ninth place finish.
One look at Allmendinger's racecar and you'd think it raced at Daytona or Talladega, with duct tape adorning the right front fender and some dents on the front valence.
Nevertheless, he made the most of an eventful afternoon, starting 15th and climbing his way to a top-10, a highwater mark for the Ford Fusion teams.
To say the least, Allmendinger's description of the race was quite colorful and precise like his drive to the front pack.
"Good day for us and the Valvoline Ford," Allmendinger said via his Twitter. "Felt like a pin ball at times. Might as well been back at Daytona."
As a result of his top-10 finish, he currently finds himself sitting third in the points standings, just 11 markers behind leader Kyle Busch.
Reminiscent of his fast start in 2009, Allmendinger hopes to apply the lessons learned from that season and translate it top finishes during the spring stretch.
Although the Los Gatos, Calif. native has struggled at Las Vegas (placing 33rd and 25th in the 2009 and '10 races), he placed 14th at Chicagoland and 10th at Kansas, which have similar characteristics to the Nevada speedway.
Finishing right behind Allmendinger was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who rebounded from his crash-related 24th place result at Daytona with a 10th at Phoenix.
Like the No. 43 team, Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte had to muscle their way to the front pack, starting deep in the field (35th) with a Chevrolet Impala that was ill-handling all weekend long.
Digging deep and racing wisely in an afternoon with high attrition, the No. 88 National Guard team's game plan paid off handsomely in the race as well as the points chase, climbing to 17th in the standings.
Car owner Rick Hendrick was pleased with his racer's performance, given that the team had to overcome a loose wheel during the race.
"He drove a great race and he never gave up," Hendrick said during his press conference via motorsport.com. "And when he had to pit with a loose wheel, Stevie (Letarte) made some good calls and came back with a top-10 finish."
It may have not been the big victory that the team sorely needed, but a starting point for Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte, who are still learning each other's mannerisms and styles at the races.
Las Vegas isn't exactly the Kannapolis, NC's best track, posting an average finish of 17.6 in his previous 11 starts.
However, if you only consider his three races with Hendrick at LVMS, then there's reason for optimism with the No. 88, boosting his average finishing spot to 9.3.
At the end of a long grueling race, undoubtedly, every driver and team wants to capture the checkered flag and trophy.
That said, the unique nature of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing translates to building momentum over the course of a 36-race schedule.
Grueling and cerebral, in terms of the grind of a long championship season, somehow, these teams have to keep on digging every week to produce the best finishes possible.
Keep an eye on the Nos. 4, 43, and 88 teams, especially during this Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 (Live, 3 PM EST on FOX).
Perhaps the headlines will focus on Jeff Gordon, the Busch brothers, and Jimmie Johnson, who are the usual heavy hitters at Las Vegas.
In the case these sluggers fall short at some point during the race, don't be surprised if Kahne, Allmendinger, and Earnhardt Jr. may be the cards you need to find yourself with "a three of a kind," especially if you're fantasy racing this year.
After all, who wouldn't want a full house when it comes to getting into the intensity that is NASCAR Sprint Cup racing?