(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.

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Graham Rahal visits the Honda Classic (PHOTOS)

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Rahal for the putt. Photo courtesy Honda Racing
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In the buildup to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener at St. Petersburg on March 12, a number of drivers are visiting other sporting events of note.

Graham Rahal has been one of the busiest. The driver of the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing made a pit stop at the Bridgestone Winter Classic in January and this week has been out to the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Anyway, 28-year-old Rahal is an avid PGA Tour follower and fan and when time allows, brushes off his own set of clubs for the event’s Honda Classic Cares Pro Am presented by Tire Kingdom. He’s also used golf as a fundraiser; he’s raised over $300,000 to benefit children’s charities (with the golf tournament he did around the Indy 500).

Rahal, who won the Pro Am twice in 2011 and 2012 and came second the next year with motorsports fan Rickie Fowler, himself one of the young stars on the PGA Tour, was only able to get in four holes this week owing to poor weather. But with a new putter that’s the same model as the one used by recent world number one player Jason Day, Rahal sank a rather impressive 40-foot putt. Rahal was playing in a group with Smylie Kaufman, and credited him for the advice.

A handful of photos from the event are below (courtesy Honda Racing):

Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.

Shell, Penske extension sees Shell back for Castroneves at Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 18:  Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell V-Power/Penzoil Ultra Team Penske Chevrolet, poses after qualifying for the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 18, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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With Shell and Pennzoil having had a longterm business relationship with Team Penske, today’s long-term extension through 2022 and beyond also means Shell’s relationship on Penske’s Verizon IndyCar Series program continues.

Helio Castroneves’s No. 3 Chevrolet will be adorned in Shell V-Power NiTRO+ colors at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28, with Shell and Pennzoil continuing as associate sponsors on all Team Penske cars in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and IndyCar.

Castroneves’ car has had either Shell or Pennzoil on his car each of the last six Indianapolis 500s dating to 2011, but has not yet won an Indianapolis 500 with Shell or Pennzoil as the primary sponsor. The Rick Mears tribute “Yelio Submarine” ran in both 2014 and 2016, with the 2014 race a particularly tough loss as Castroneves came second by a fraction to Ryan Hunter-Reay.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 17: Helio Castroneves appears at a Shell station on May 17, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images for MATTER)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 17: Helio Castroneves appears at a Shell station on May 17, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images for MATTER)

Castroneves has had Shell V-Power for the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra in 2012 and 2013 and Shell V-Power Nitro+ in 2015.

In those six races, Castroneves has finished 17th, 10th, sixth, second, seventh and 11th.

“It’s an iconic sponsor; a partner actually, to be honest,” Castroneves said during the announcement at Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500.

“Since I was a kid in Brazil, watching Formula 1 and IndyCar, now I’m the one to be wearing that patch in my suit.

“I’m really excited to be back for the Indy 500. We’ll be with Shell NiTRO+ V-Power. They’re always innovating and in the technical part.

“We’re going for our fourth win… we’ve been so close. We know we can make it happen. We have the equipment and teammates to make it happen. It’s an amazing organization, and I’m so thankful to be part of it.”

Castroneves is the longest tenured active member of Team Penske’s driver lineup in all its series as he heads into his 18th season with the team and 20th overall since joining IndyCar in 1998.

Full-season teammates are defending champion Simon Pagenaud, 2014 champion Will Power and new recruit Josef Newgarden, with two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya joining the field in a fifth car for the ‘500.

Commercial partners for Montoya’s car haven’t yet been announced but with Menards (Pagenaud), Verizon (Power) and likely Verizon (Newgarden) for the ‘500, it stands to reason another of Penske’s longterm sponsors will be present for Montoya.

Roger Penske, who turned 80 earlier this week, made a great and key point during the Daytona announcement; he noted that of his 38 sponsors for the race team, he has business relationships with 25 of them.

Sauber confirms Giovinazzi to deputize for Wehrlein at first test

MACAU, MACAO - NOVEMBER 17:  Double R Racing driver Antonio Giovinazzi of Italy in action during the Formula 3 event as part of the 60th Macau Grand Prix on November 17, 2013 in Macau, Macau.  (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)
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As expected, but not necessarily official until confirmed directly by Sauber F1 Team, Ferrari third driver Antonio Giovinazzi has been confirmed to fill in for Pascal Wehrlein at next week’s first test of the Formula 1 season at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona which runs from February 27-March 2. The second test, also in Barcelona, is March 7-10.

Sauber called Wehrlein’s injuries, reported as either neck or back injuries in other outlets, “back problems” and said further information will follow when available.

The team has not, as yet, confirmed its test plan of when Giovinazzi and Marcus Ericsson, who ran the team’s filming day earlier this week, will drive.

“We took the decision that Pascal will not be driving in the first test in Barcelona. We will monitor his medical progress and will then decide on the next steps,” Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said in a release.

Wehrlein had already confirmed his absence but the team hadn’t, yet. He will be on site though.

“It is a pity that I cannot be in the car during the first test days, but I will be in Barcelona in order to get familiar with the team’s procedures and also to follow the Sauber C36-Ferrari on track,” he said.

Giovinazzi, who made his first test with Ferrari at the tail end of last year, added, “I thank the Sauber F1 Team for making this real, and also Ferrari for allowing me to replace Pascal for test one in Barcelona.”

Williams announces deal with JCB manufacturing

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Photo: Williams Martini Racing
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Construction equipment manufacturer JCB has pegged a deal with Williams Martini Racing, to see the logo on the rear wing endplate of the Williams FW40 chassis, Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll’s helmets, and the full crew uniforms after the British Grand Prix.

Interestingly, the team’s release says this will be the first of “a number” following the signing of Stroll this season.

Company chairman Lord Bamford caught the racing bug in the early 1970s and, according to the team, the JCB Dieselmax car still holds the world diesel land speed record of 350.052mph, more than a decade after it was set on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA.

“I am an engineer and a manufacturer and designing and engineering innovative products is at the core of what JCB does,” Bamford said in the release.

“We frequently combine our engineering expertise with some of the best automotive technologies which means our machines are very fuel efficient and intuitive to operate. Our partnership with Williams Martini Racing builds on that innovative and technological link and our company’s long association with motorsport.”