Calmer Kyle Busch could win at Dover International Speedway
Kyle Busch has reeled off five straight top 10 finishes and is currently third
Denny Hamlin is on a roll, winning three of the last six Sprint Cup races
Jeff Gordon has led more laps this season than any other driver and is due
He was behind the wheel; she was a passenger. It was the summer of 2007, a few days before the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kyle Busch was giving fans rides around the historic 2.5-mile track. Samantha Sarcinella, who was a senior at Purdue, was working that day at the Brickyard as a promotional model, and Busch invited her for a spin.
Sarcinella didn't know who he was. But after cruising around the track Busch instructed his PR person to get Sarcinella's cell number, which she passed along. A few days later Busch sent her a text, asking her if she liked her ride. "What a line, right?" Sarcinella says, laughing.
And so began their relationship. This past February, on their first night together in a motor home that they designed, Busch got down on a knee and asked Sarcinella to marry him while they were in the infield at Daytona International Speedway. She quickly said yes. Is it possible that Busch's relationship with Sarcinella is a big reason why he's become a more consistent, cautious, savvy driver this season? Absolutely.
"There's no such thing as a new Kyle versus an old Kyle, but he's definitely matured in the last year," Sarcinella told me last Saturday at Darlington before the start of the Southern 500. "He's matured both on and off the track."
A psychology major, Sarcinella has clearly had a calming influence on Busch, who before this season was one of the most emotional, temperamental drivers on the circuit. He still can get into a fever -- especially when things don't go right on the track -- but, as I wrote in the magazine this week, Busch has been far more even-keeled this season. He's reeled off five straight top 10 finishes and he's currently third in the standings. More impressive, he's completed more laps in the first 11 races this season -- 3,752 of the 3,753 laps possible -- than any other driver in the Sprint Cup series.
He's my pick to win on Sunday at Dover International Speedway, where Busch took the checkers in June 2008. He'll be driving a new car this weekend --chassis number 265 -- and with his new attitude it says here he'll take his second checkered flag of the season and move past Jimmie Johnson into second place in the standings behind Kevin Harvick.
Here are five other drivers who likely will be in contention as the laps wind down at the Monster Mile:
1. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin is on a roll, winning three of the last six races. What's scary for the rest of the field is that Hamlin is driving cars that were built last year; the 2010 models won't be rolled out for a few more races. This means Hamlin, in theory, should be even faster when he pilots the new cars that will feature all of the latest and greatest Joe Gibbs Racing technology.
Hamlin traditionally hasn't run well at Dover. In eight career starts on the mile track, his average finish is an underwhelming 25.1. But the No. 11 team is clearly the one to beat right now in the sport, so past history at Dover for Hamlin means little.
2. Jeff Gordon
Gordon has led more laps this season than any other driver and for the third time in 2010 he led the most laps last Saturday night at Darlington and he failed to win the race. In other words, Gordon is due.
Dover is always an important race for Gordon. The corporate headquarters of his primary sponsor, DuPont, are based in nearby Wilmington, Del., and many of the heavies from the company will be on hand on Sunday. Gordon always has had a keen sense of theatre, and I've got a hunch he'll be a factor late.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Ever since the spoiler replaced the rear wing at Martinsville in late March, Johnson hasn't been the same. He hasn't won since then and he's crashed in two of the last three races. Still, until proven otherwise, the four-time defending champ must be considered the title favorite, but his aura of invincibility is slowly started to fade.
Of course, this could quickly change. After all, Johnson has won the last two races at Dover and he has five career wins here.
4. Greg Biffle
No Roush-Fenway Racing driver has taken a checkered flag in 2010, but the team is well represented in the top 12 in the standings. Three RFR would make the Chase if it started today (Matt Kenseth, Biffle, and Carl Edwards). The most impressive of this group, to me, has been Biffle.
Currently seventh in points, Biffle has seven top-10 finishes this season. But, like the other RFR drivers, he simply doesn't appear to possess the straight-line speed of the Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing cars. Can he surprise at Dover? Possibly. He's won here twice and finished in the top 10 in seven of the last eight races.
5. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has been one of the biggest surprises of the '10 season. He's authored four straight top-10 runs, including a win at Talladega, and he leads the points. There are plenty of skeptics in the garage about his chances to contend for the championship in the fall, but so far, so good for the No. 29 team.
Dover hasn't been kind to Harvick. In 18 career starts at the Monster Mile, he has zero wins and only six top ten finishes. He won't take the checkered flag on Sunday, but given how consistent he's been recently, go ahead and pencil him in for another top-10 run.