Something is going on here.
The Virginia 500 at Martinsville saw several eye-opening angles - the sixth straight winner in Winston Cup, a redemption win for Kurt Busch - his first in Winston Cup since the 2011 Delaware 400 and first in any race since the 2012 Firecracker 250 in the Busch Series - memorable efforts by AJ Allmendinger and Kyle Larson, and heartwarming efforts by Richard Petty's team in the wake of the passing of matriarch Lynda Petty.
With all that we head next to Texas Motor Speedway, and there are several angles worth touching on entering the 2014 Alamo 500 -
** To begin with we have the issue of tires at Fontana and criticism by Jeff Gordon after Fontana and entering Texas. The Fontana fiasco had numerous angles and Goodyear indeed warrants criticism - something too many in the sport go out of their way to avoid. We also nonetheless saw some very good racing at Fontana and if Goodyear can fix some of the issues incurred at Fontana that can blunt some of the criticism.
** We also have seen a surprising upsurge in lead changes lately - Fontana and Martinsville combined for 68 lead changes - 33 is unheard-of for Martinsville - and it is exactly the kind of racing the sport needs to have; if anything the more lead changes the better, and one can actually believe more races will now break 40. NASCAR gets and deserves a lot of criticism, but right now the competition package is working.
**A team that isn't getting much going right now is Joe Gibbs Racing. Despite the win at Fontana, JGR has been decidedly mediocre to date in 2014. Matt Kenseth has been the lead dog, posting top tens in the last two races.
JGR's mediocre season is reflective of Toyota's increasingly-discouraging lack of competitive depth. None of the other Toyotas are performing and the brand more and more needs to acquire more teams.
** Despite a poor finish, Kyle Larson is routing Austin Dillon in the rookie race, posting the runner-up at Fontana contrasting with one measely top-ten for Dillon; Dillon is living up to a reputation as the anti-intimidator, as his racing is passive and indifferent compared to the fight Larson shows. The downside is it's not doing anything for Ganassi/SABCO teammate Jamie McMurray, who's looked a little lost this season.
** As Austin Dillon stumbles forward, the scariest part for RCR is Paul Menard, a guy with more sponsorship than talent, is leading the team in performance. Suddenly this isn't looking like a promising year for the team.
** Richard Petty Motorsports usually pulls something decent out of Martinsville and here got both cars running strongly. Though still subpar on the intermediates where they need to be good, the Petty team nonetheless is showing substantial improvement with new crew chief Trent Owens. The pain of losing the matriarch won't go away; the determination to win looks like it won't, either.
** Suddenly Penske Racing doesn't look that good. Joey Logano posted a solid finish and his status as the real top dog at Penske looks more and more solid; Brad Keselowski meanwhile crashed on pit road and was livid at Kurt Busch about it as he has plummeted from leading the points to seventh and has just one top-20 finish since winning at Vegas.
** FOX Sports did a puff piece defending Danica Patrick by citing "baby steps" in improving finishes. Martinsville was one of her better tracks last year, and she qualified tenth - then was never heard from again. Whatever these numbers the piece cited are, they're not an accurate barometer of her success.
** Largely lost in the shuffle has been a very encouraging year for AJ Allmendinger, posting back-to-back top-11 finishes for Brad Daugherty's team.
** Finally, Dale Junior leads the points standings. Imagine the outcry if he loses the championship because of the Chase's repeated points reracks - actually it's easy to imagine that scenario since it's how the Chase concept has gone the whole time.
So it's off to Texas.