Going through NASCAR withdrawal already? Here’s some intriguing numbers to devour

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NASCAR may have the upcoming weekend off for the Easter holiday, but that doesn’t mean its crack team of statisticians is on vacation like most of the drivers and teams.

Even without a race, they’re still pumping out numbers that fans love to devour. So for an appetizer prior to next week’s countdown to the April 26 race at Richmond International Raceway, here’s some food for thought and to munch on:

* THAT’S DOMINATION: In addition to being the first repeat winner of 2014 in the Sprint Cup Series, Kevin Harvick has led 462 total laps in those two wins this season. He led 224 laps in winning Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, and led 238 laps in his first win earlier this season at Phoenix. All told through eight races, Harvick has led an impressive 515 laps in competition.

* FROM WORST TO FIRST – OR CLOSE TO IT: Let’s face it, Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had terrible days at Texas two weeks ago. Earnhardt made a huge mistake, bouncing into the rain-drenched infield grass going into Turn 1, and then shot across the track and hit the wall head-on, ending his day and leaving teammate Jimmie Johnson to finish 25th (Johnson picked up a lot of debris kicked up by Earnhardt’s car). Harvick, meanwhile, finished one spot ahead of Earnhardt in 42nd place because his engine expired early. Just five days later, both drivers improved an outstanding 41 places in the final race finish at Darlington: Harvick won and Earnhardt finished second.

* EARNHARDT SUCCESS CONTINUES: Even with the Texas debacle, Earnhardt continues to have the best season start of his Cup career. In addition to winning the season-opening Daytona 500, he has three other runner-up finishes (Phoenix, Las Vegas and Darlington) and a third (Martinsville), making for five top-three showings in his first eight starts.

* BUSCH NEARS IMPRESSIVE MILESTONE: Kyle Busch needs to lead 30 laps at next week’s race at Richmond to reach 10,000 total laps led in the Sprint Cup Series in his career. And the guy is still only 28 years old (he turns 29 on May 2)!

* THAT’S STOUT: More specifically at Richmond, the younger Busch brother has led 586 total laps in the last five spring races at the ¾-mile bullring. He’s led at least 32 laps in each of the last five spring races and won four of them.

* HE’S THE NO. 1 AND ONLY: Pop quiz – who is the only driver to have reached the final round in each of the seven knockout qualifying sessions this season? Joey Logano, that’s who. Logano continued his streak as the only driver to make every final qualifying round at Darlington, starting on the outside of the front row. And just in case you’re asking, “Wait a minute, there’s been eight races this season. Aren’t you missing one?” The answer is no. Remember, there was no knockout qualifying in the season opener at Daytona. Knockout qualifying did not begin until the second race of the season at Phoenix.

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Button enjoys ‘natural’ F1 return in Monaco, but hasn’t missed driving

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Jenson Button felt his return to a Formula 1 car in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix was “natural”, but admitted he hasn’t missed driving since stepping away from the sport.

Button appeared to have made his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi last November after stepping back from his McLaren race seat for 2017, only to be drafted in for the Monaco Grand Prix following Fernando Alonso’s decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button passed on the opportunity to test the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car in Bahrain last month, making his run in FP1 on Thursday in Monaco his first taste of a new-style 2017 F1 car.

Nevertheless, the transition appeared seamless for Button, even though he has not driven an F1 car in seven months.

“As soon as I exited the pits, everything felt very natural,” Button said.

“The weirdest thing is when you’re behind a car or when you let a car past, because you look at it and it’s gigantic. Then you feel really uncomfortable because you think, maybe I am too close to the barriers.

“I’ve really enjoyed practice, both the long and short runs. FP2 was a bit of a struggle to really find my feet with the car. I’m braking so much later than what I’m used to here and carrying so much speed into the corners.

“Adjusting to that takes time, so with another day with the engineers and a look through the data, I’m confident that I can improve for Saturday.”

Button finished 14th in FP1 and 11th in FP2, lapping less than one-tenth of a second off the pace of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne in the afternoon, giving McLaren hope of its first points of the season.

Button remains coy about his chances, though, insisting there is still more pace to be found.

“I haven’t really thought about where I hope to finish. It’s a very mixed-up grid at the moment which I’m sure will all change again on Saturday,” Button said.

“The guys understand where I’m coming from. They know what they need to do to improve the car to suit me a little bit more and to give me a little bit more confidence. Hopefully we’ll see a step in performance on Saturday.”

Will this one-off return stir a desire to be back racing full-time for Button? Don’t count on it.

“It was funny when I did the install lap this morning, I had a little giggle to myself,” Button revealed.

“Have I missed it? No, but when you jump in the car, you definitely enjoy the moments that you have.”

Sainz refusing to get carried away with Toro Rosso’s Monaco pace

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Carlos Sainz Jr. is refusing to get carried away despite making a strong start to the Formula 1 weekend in Monaco as Toro Rosso got both of its cars inside the top five in second practice.

Toro Rosso currently sits fifth in the F1 constructors’ championship amid a close midfield battle, but appeared to pull clear of rivals Williams and Force India in Monaco on Thursday.

Sainz and teammate Daniil Kvyat both reached the top 10 in FP1 before sharing the lead for much of the early part of FP2 before the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull went quicker.

Kvyat ultimately finished the session fourth-fastest, 0.6 seconds off pace-setter Sebastian Vettel’s time, while Sainz followed in P5, but the Spaniard urged caution in the Toro Rosso ranks after the session.

“I think that we did what we needed to do on a Thursday in Monaco, building the speed up little by little and trying different configurations to give myself confidence with the car,” Sainz said.

“After today’s two practice sessions, it’s safe to say that we’re quite happy with everything. Obviously, from Thursday to Saturday a lot of things could change so we can’t let ourselves get carried away with today’s result.

“But it’s definitely a good starting point! I’m looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

“Since our problems in Barcelona, where we had a number of updates, we’ve learned a little more on how to get a better balance with the car,” Toro Rosso technical chief James Key added.

“Both drivers seemed to be reasonably happy in FP1, so it was a case of fine-tuning the car a little bit for FP2. We ran a slightly different tire program to other teams, concentrating on our own work, car setup and understanding.

“During the afternoon session we made reasonable progress and, even if there are still some issues to resolve, the session went well.

“We will now be working hard overnight and tomorrow to look at the data and optimize the car as best we can.”

Stroll crashes out of Monaco FP2, seeking PlayStation gains

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Lance Stroll’s difficult start to life in Formula 1 continued on Thursday in Monaco when he crashed out of second practice following an error on entry to Casino Square.

Stroll, 18, is yet to score a point through his rookie F1 season, and suffered another setback in Monaco on Thursday when he shunted his Williams into the barrier with 35 minutes to go in FP2.

Stroll was unharmed, but the incident acted as the latest setback through what has been a baptism of fire for the young Canadian in F1 despite significant efforts to prepare for his rookie campaign through private testing.

“The track is great and I was really happy with the car, but then there was the crash at the end. I just basically centered in looking for the limit, got onto the dirt a little bit and lost the rear,” Stroll explained.

“It was a typical street circuit mistake. I got into learning the circuit pretty quickly and I was happy with the day until then. What is good here is the tire seems to be hanging on quite a bit, so we are able to do multiple push laps.

“In FP3 I am just going to build up my rhythm in that area, but I think I know pretty clearly in my head what I did wrong. I am going to look at the little areas I can improve on for Saturday, as I know we can do that and have a good day.”

Stroll’s pursuit of added lap time may be aided by an unusual influece: his experience of racing around Monaco on his PlayStation game.

“I think corner eight and the last corner are the two places I need to improve on,” Stroll said.

“But it really annoys me because every time I play the PlayStation game it has always been those two corners that I couldn’t get right, and in reality it is still those two corners!”

Hamilton puzzled by ‘night and day’ tire difference in Monaco practices

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Lewis Hamilton was left puzzled by his lack of pace in the second Formula 1 practice for the Monaco Grand Prix after feeling a “night and day” difference in his tires from morning to the afternoon on Thursday.

Hamilton posted the fastest time through FP1, but could not match F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel’s pace through second practice, finishing over 1.1 seconds off the pace in eighth place.

Hamilton felt a significant change in his tires between the sessions, and while he is unsure as to why, he is confident Mercedes can get to the bottom of the matter.

“We didn’t have the greatest day today. Practice one was actually really good and we were quickest, but then in second practice we just struggled to extract the grip from the tires and we were sliding around a lot,” Hamilton explained.

“I’m not sure why the tires weren’t working but the difference between the two sessions was night and day. We’ve got some work to do ahead of Saturday, that’s for sure, but I’m confident the team can work it out.

“Monaco is always amazing to drive, but this is definitely the best car I’ve driven around here. Ferrari are very quick again and Red Bull are also looking good this weekend.

“We’re looking forward to a real fight on Saturday.”