(Photo: Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

The Good, Bad and Ugly: How the first quarter of 2014 Sprint Cup season has played out

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One quarter down, three quarters to go.

No, we’re not talking about the NFL. Rather, Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway marked the end of the first quarter of the 36-race Sprint Cup Series.

With 17 races left for drivers to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, two drivers are essentially locked in – the only two drivers with multiple wins, Kevin Harvick and Saturday’s winner Joey Logano, each with two wins apiece.

But after that, things are wide open – and are going to get much more aggressive as the second quarter of the season kicks off this coming Sunday at Talladega.

Let’s break down the good, bad and ugly thus far in the 2014 Sprint Cup season:

THE GOOD

* Logano and Harvick: who would have thought they’d be in this position at this point, particularly Harvick in his first season with a new team?

* Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Even though he dropped one place in the standings – from fourth to fifth – after Richmond, this year’s Daytona 500 winner remains among the most consistent drivers in the series.

* Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth: With five championships between them, they remain atop the Cup standings for the third straight week – and yet neither driver has reached victory lane in a season where a new Chase-qualifying format has put winning at a premium.

* Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson have been the stars of the eight-driver 2014 Sprint Cup rookie class. Larson, in particular, has taken to Cup racing like a duck to water, with two top-five and four top-10 finishes in the first nine races. After Richmond, Dillon is in 12th place, one point ahead of the 13-th-ranked Larson. This is going to be a battle that is going to rage throughout the season.

* Stewart-Haas Racing and Penske Racing: Between the two of them, SHR and Team Penske account for six of the nine wins thus far in the Cup season. Harvick and Kurt Busch have won three for SHR, both in their respective first seasons with their new teams, while Penske’s Logano (two wins) and teammate Brad Keselowski (one win) have been the primary torch bearers for Ford.

THE BAD

* Even though Gordon is atop the points standings and is having one of the best starts to a season in a long time, there’s no denying one very crucial fact: Henrdick Motorsports as a whole has just one win this season (Earnhardt in the Daytona 500). If anyone would have made a bet in Las Vegas prior to the start of the season that Gordon and particularly six-time and defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson would not have at least one win between them in the first nine races, the bettor would have been very rich right now.

* What’s happened to Roush Fenway Racing? Sure, Carl Edwards has a win and is ranked third in the standings. But really, what’s going on at RFR? Team Penske is dominating the Ford teams, with barely a peep out of RFR. Greg Biffle is tied for 10th with just one top-five and only three top-10 finishes. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in his sophomore Cup season, has been consistently inconsistent, which is why he’s dropped to 26th in the standings. Something tells me that if RFR doesn’t start improving, team owner Jack Roush is going to make some changes within the organization.

* What has happened to Toyota in 2014? ONLY ONE WIN?! Ford and Chevrolet now have four wins apiece, but Toyota has just one victory (Kyle Busch). While Joe Gibbs Racing is having a good overall start to the season – with Kenseth second in the standings, Busch fourth and Denny Hamlin 14th – the rest of the Toyota camp is having struggles. Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers, back in Cup on a full-time basis for the first time in three seasons, is tied for 10th, but Clint Bowyer is down to 20th.

* Kurt Busch: The elder Busch brother has been somewhat of an anomaly in 2014. Sure, he won at Martinsville, which is good. But even so, he’s dropped to 26th in the standings, with just one other top-five finish in the first nine races. Even worst, Busch has three DNFs. While the win will certainly help him qualify for the Chase, Busch has to pick up the pace in the second quarter of the season.

THE UGLY

* Martin Truex Jr. left Michael Waltrip Racing after last season when primary sponsor NAPA pulled its funding after the attempt to manipulate the finish at last summer’s final Chase-qualifying race at Richmond. Truex was an innocent victim of one of the sport’s ugliest events in recent history. He went to Furniture Row Racing hoping to rebound from the MWR debacle, as well as pick up where Kurt Busch left off in 2013, becoming the first driver from a single team to ever make the Chase. Unfortunately, Truex has had an absolutely horrible start to the season, with just one top-10 finish thus far, and is 27th in the Cup rankings. It’s a shame, because he’s a much better driver than his record indicates, and FRR is a much better team. Hopefully, things will start turning around in the second quarter of the season.

* Kasey Kahne: Kahne has become the Pete Best of Hendrick Motorsports. If you’re too young to know, Best was “the forgotten Beatle,” replaced by Ringo Starr just before the Fab Four prepared to make music history in the early 1960s. While his other three teammates – Gordon, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson are all ranked in the top eight in the standings – Kahne has dropped to 22nd after the first nine races, and has just two top-10 finishes for his effort. One good thing is Kahne typically warms up in the second quarter of the season. But he has his work cut out for himself: he’s 125 points – nearly the equivalent of three wins – behind HMS teammate and Cup points leader Jeff Gordon.

* Parker Kligerman: If it wasn’t for bad luck, Kligerman would have no luck at all in 2014. He was very optimistic heading into his rookie Cup season, but what’s transpired in the first nine races has been nothing short of a disaster. In the first eight races, he recorded DNFs four times. He dropped to 38th in the points, as a result. And then last week, Swan Racing imploded, with Kligerman left without a ride as the team he was with was sold, but he wasn’t part of the package (J.J. Yeley replaces Kligerman). There’s not much else to say for Kligerman, other than things can’t get much worse – and the only way to go from here is up. Of course, that means he has to get a ride first. But with the season only one-quarter of the way through, that’s not going to be an easy thing to achieve.

* Danica Patrick: In a sophomore Cup season that promised better results than her freshman campaign, Patrick continues to struggle. After finishing 34th in Saturday’s race at Richmond, Patrick is 29th in the standings, 188 points behind Gordon, and she has just two top-20 finishes.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Saturday at Mid-Ohio: Roll out the MRTI, PWC races

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Jamin dominated Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Because it’s 7:30 p.m. ET and change, here’s some quick recaps of the rest of the day’s activity from the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course..

FULL RECAPS

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY 

  • Santiago Urrutia cleaned up and dominated the first of two Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races. My colleague Luke Smith wrote that report and it’s linked above.
  • There were a double dip of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races, and neither winner came from Team Pelfrey. Instead, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing’s Nico Jamin swept both races. The first was less than scintillating with Jamin beating points leader Aaron Telitz (Pelfrey) and Will Owen (Juncos Racing). But the second was fascinating with rain interspersed and a heck of a lot of passes – Owen and Telitz proving aggressive when they needed to be, primarily. But up front Jamin held on for the second win of the day. Telitz holds a 14-point lead over O’Ward (345-331) heading to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Sept. 9-11, for the tripleheader season finale weekend.
  • The second of three Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda races also took place today and for the second time in as many days, it was Australian Anthony Martin who won it for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, thus making it Cape’s first Pro Mazda/USF2000 double win day of the season. Martin took the win over teammate Parker Thompson and ArmsUp Motorsports’ Victor Franzoni, and extended his points lead in the process.

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

  • The pair of K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3s took a 1-2 finish in World Challenge GT with Alvaro Parente winning his fifth race of the year (Long Beach, Barber race one, both Lime Rock Park races). Parente got around teammate and polesitter Austin Cindric, the 17-year-old, early and won by 1.009 seconds. Parente drives the yellow and black No. 9 car with Cindric in the blue and black No. 6 car. Bryan Heitkotter (No. 05 Always Evolving Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3) finished third for his first podium since Circuit of The Americas back in March; he also finished third overall as a GTA class competitor at Mid-Ohio, race two, last year. Jon Fogarty (GAINSCO McLaren) and Ryan Eversley (RealTime Racing Acura TLX-GT) had a great, clean scrap for fourth, Fogarty taking it. There was contact affecting a number of others; Patrick Long (No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R) received a drive-through penalty for hitting the third K-PAX McLaren of Colin Thompson. Meanwhile others who failed to finish included James Davison (Nissan), Spencer Pumpelly (RealTime Racing Acura TLX-GT), Kyle Marcelli (CRP Racing Audi R8 LMS ultra) and Adderly Fong (Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3). Fong failed to start, Davison got hit on the opening lap, Pumpelly also got hit and it broke the right rear, and Marcelli later had contact. Michael Schein (GTA) and Alec Udell (GT Cup) won their classes.
  • Lawson Aschenbach won again at Mid-Ohio in his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS, beating Nate Stacy (Ford Mustang Boss 302) and Brett Sandberg (KTM X-BOW GT4).

On tap for Sunday: USF2000 race three, Indy Lights race two and PWC GT/GTA/GT Cup race two.

Urrutia takes dominant victory in Mid-Ohio Indy Lights opener

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© Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Santiago Urrutia picked up his third victory of the 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season with a dominant display on Saturday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Urrutia entered the Mid-Ohio weekend trailing championship leader Ed Jones by 24 points, but managed to cut the gap back down to single figures with a peerless display.

Urrutia started the race second alongside pole-sitter Felix Serralles, but a cleaner getaway from the rolling start allowed the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver to pull into the lead at the first corner.

It proved to be a lead that Urrutia would never relinquish as he worked the gap open across the rest of the race, going unchallenged en route to his third win of the season. His final advantage was 6.4 seconds.

“I’m very happy. The guys did a great job on the car,” Urrutia told IndyCar Radio after the race.

“The car was awesome, put the car on pole position for both races. It’s pretty good for the championship for me, so I’m pretty happy.”

Serralles duked for position with Andre Negrao and Dean Stoneman on the first lap, slipping behind both into fourth through Thunder Valley. Zach Veach also managed to dip past the Puerto Rican for P4 on the first lap, leaving Serralles with a mountain to climb.

Veach soaked up the pressure from Serralles before ultimately dropping back into fifth place on lap nine, his rival easing clear as he chased down Stoneman ahead.

For the final 15 laps of the race, the gap between Stoneman and Serralles rarely exceeded a second. However, the British Andretti Autosport driver managed to keep cool and retain the final podium position behind Negrao, who endured a lonely race to second to complete a one-two finish for SPM.

Veach finished fifth ahead of Jones, whose championship lead was reduced to just seven points as Urrutia also recorded the fastest lap and led the most laps, chalking up two bonus points in the process.

Zachary Claman de Melo managed to emerge victorious from a thrilling battle with Shelby Blackstock for P7, both surviving contact in the closing stages. Kyle Kaiser followed in P9 ahead of Garett Grist and Dalton Kellett, with Neil Alberico propping up the running order in P13.

Dixon to start 11th at Mid-Ohio after miscommunication (VIDEO)

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – After dominating most of this weekend at the Honda Indy 200, Scott Dixon will only start Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, CNBC) from 11th place on the grid following an odd and abnormal strategic mistake, and a miscommunication.

The driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, who led both first and third practice, was told his time from earlier in Q2 would be enough to transfer into the Firestone Fast Six.

But that’s not quite what happened. Dixon’s generally luckless season rolled on and he will start 11th; the only upside, perhaps, is he started double that – 22nd and last – and won this race two years ago courtesy of a strategic masterstroke from Ganassi managing director Mike Hull.

“We made it on track on the new set of tires, but we waved it off,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee. “The team felt we’d be safe. I think it’d get faster, the rain was lightening, and they didn’t hear me. Times picked up drastically.

“The Target car has been fast all weekend. Bit of a miscommunication there. Kind of like how our season has been going.

“We’ve been hoping for (luck) for three or four races. It is what it is. We’ve put ourselves in quite a big hole, there.”

Dixon enters the weekend 83 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud, who scored the pole position on Saturday to add insult to injury for Dixon and gain another point.

Red Bull GRC: Speed dominates in Washington, D.C.

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Photo: Red Bull Content Pool
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Scott Speed has his second consecutive win in Red Bull Global Rallycross, Saturday at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., after also winning the most recent race at MCAS New River.

The defending series champion has also closed on his Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammate, Tanner Foust, who finished third in Saturday’s race.

Speed, in the No. 41 entry, got the strong launch off the line and proceeded to lead away from Bryan Herta Rallysport driver Patrik Sandell, who debuted a new Cuttwood livery on his No. 18 Ford Fiesta ST this weekend.

Meanwhile Chip Ganassi Rallycross driver Brian Deegan was third in his No. 38 NOS Energy Drink Ford Fiesta ST, ahead of Speed’s teammate Foust in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle.

Foust would later get around Deegan for third but neither of them had anything for the top two drivers.

While Speed dominated, Sandell’s Washington D.C. hot streak continued and he had his third podium of the season (second at Phoenix Round 1, won Dallas Round 3).

Meanwhile a flat right rear demoted Honda Red Bull Olbsergs MSE driver Sebastian Eriksson down to P10.

The finishing order? Speed, Sandell, Foust, Deegan and the second OMSE driver, Joni Wiman.

Steve Arpin (Ganassi) was sixth – a tied season worst result – ahead of SH Rallycross/DRR returning driver Nelson Piquet Jr.

In GRC Lites, Cabot Bigham withstood a heavy challenge from defending series champion Oliver Eriksson to take his first career Lites victory. Bigham, who raced in front of numerous friends and family members that live in the DC area, also extended his championship lead in the process with only four races remaining.

Full Supercar results from Red Bull Global Rallycross Washington DC are as follows:

  1. Scott Speed, #41 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
  2. Patrik Sandell, #18 Bryan Herta Rallysport Ford Fiesta ST
  3. Tanner Foust, #34 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
  4. Brian Deegan, #38 Loenbro Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  5. Joni Wiman, #31 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic Coupe
  6. Steve Arpin, #00 Loenbro Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  7. Nelson Piquet Jr., #07 SH Rallycross/DRR Ford Fiesta ST
  8. Austin Dyne, #14 AD Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  9. Bucky Lasek, #81 Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI
  10. Sebastian Eriksson, #93 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic Coupe
  11. Sverre Isachsen, #11 Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI

The Red Bull Global Rallycross season will resume on August 27-28 at Bader Field in Atlantic City with Round 9 of the 2016 championship. Tickets remain on sale at redbullglobalrallycross.com/tickets. The race will be shown on Sunday, August 28 at 3PM ET on NBC and 3:30PM ET on Red Bull TV.