Brody Jones · Tuesday April 19, 2011
Eight races into the season, the Sprint Cup Series takes a breather for just the second time as we’re all able to sit back, relax, and evaluate what’s happened to date. For some drivers, though, they wish we were racing this Sunday simply to continue the momentum after a fantastic finish at Talladega left their teams – and their Chase chances – sitting in high gear. Who were those guys, and can they keep that positive mojo rolling through a two-week period where racing will be the last thing on their minds? And how about the other side, teams ready for a month’s vacation after a season that hasn’t gone their way? Find out who’s at the forefront of those two extremes right now in the latest edition of Who’s Hot / Who’s Not.
Jimmie Johnson – It’s taken almost a fourth of the season for Johnson to finally get into Victory Lane, but he proved at Talladega on Sunday that all roads to the champion will go through him. Johnson’s charge to the front in the closing stages with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pushing was impressive enough, but he now sits five points behind Carl Edwards in the championship hunt with four top-5 finishes and five top 10s already on the year. It’s certainly beginning to appear as if Johnson has hit his stride and that could be very dangerous for all of NASCAR because when the No. 48 team is on its game, the five-time champ is almost unbeatable.
Clint Bowyer – Last week, Bowyer was in warm territory, but after an impressive race at Talladega where he led the most laps, just falling short of Victory Lane by the blink of an eye that moves him solidly into five-alarm hot territory. Moving into the top 10 in points, based on the strength of two straight runner-up finishes and four top 10’s in the last six races has given RCR a formidable 1-2 punch with Bowyer and 2010 regular season champion Kevin Harvick. One can only begin to imagine how well he would be faring this year had his season not started on such a disastrous note; the coming weeks will be interesting to see how Bowyer can maintain this momentum.
Honorable Mention: Carl Edwards (Maintains his points lead with another solid top-10 finish, giving him so far this year one win, four top 5s, and six top 10s in eight races.)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Each week it seems as if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is getting closer and closer to breaking his now 101-race drought. He had the lead at Martinsville until the closing stages and pushed Jimmie Johnson to victory at Talladega. What seems to be getting glossed over in terms of Junior’s season, though, is that he now sits third in points with a pair of top 5’s — two in the last three weeks — and five top 10’s. The potential is there in the coming weeks for Junior to move into hot territory, but it will be interesting to see if the two-week hiatus will cool the jets of the driver of the No. 88.
Kevin Harvick – After a bit of a hiccup last week at Texas, Harvick climbs right back into “warm” territory with an impressive top-5 at Talladega. Harvick was hanging toward the back of the pack early on, but in a late-race brou-ha-ha, he found himself right in the thick of things at the end and now has a pair of wins, four top-5 finishes and five top 10s on the season. Harvick, quickly developing into the sport’s top “closer” is showing that his breakthrough season of last year was no fluke.
Honorable Mention: Paul Menard (Richard Childress’ decision to put him in his fourth car has paid great dividends as Menard has only finished outside the top 20 once this season — he finished 38th at Martinsville — and sits 11th in Sprint Cup points.)
Jeff Burton – It’s still hard to fathom that while all of the other Childress teams seem to be hitting on all eight cylinders, Jeff Burton is still stuck in neutral. After eight races, he still has yet to get a top-10 finish this year in what’s become his longest drought in two seasons. While in recent weeks the No. 31 Chevy has at least been finishing races, he and his team are still not where they need to be compared to the rest of the Richard Childress Racing organization. One has to wonder when will Burton finally start to come around? Between the first eight races of this year and the Chase last year, if Burton hasn’t had bad luck, he’s had no luck at all.
David Ragan – After back-to-back top-10 finishes, David Ragan once again seems to be sitting on the proverbial “hot seat” he seems to be welded to with a 39th-place disaster at Talladega. Not only did he appear to blow his engine during the race, but the UPS Ford also plowed into a spinning Kasey Kahne seconds later to add salt into an already open wound. If there is any consolation for Ragan at all, one of his rumored successors in Trevor Bayne was also caught up in the incident… and hasn’t been doing so well himself as of late (we’ll have more on him in a bit).
Honorable Mention: Kurt Busch (After a strong start to the season, Busch has finished no better than tenth in his last four races with three finishes outside the top 15 — including an 18th-place result on Sunday — and he spun out everyone except pace car driver Brett Bodine at ‘Dega.)
Brian Vickers – At this point, one has to wonder if Vickers’ return to NASCAR has to be in the sub-Arctic category as outside of a pair of top-10 finishes, he has been largely a non-factor this season. Again at Talladega, the No. 83 car got taken out of contention in another incident and rumors have been swirling as much as rotating storm clouds in “Tornado Alley” that Vickers may be getting the proverbial heave-ho from Red Bull, who has proven in the past to not be shy about pulling drivers. This comeback clearly is not the heroic return Vickers had in mind after having to miss two-thirds of last season due to blood clots.
Trevor Bayne – One has to wonder if Trevor Bayne is quickly becoming NASCAR’s version of Gnarls Barkley with one sterling performance amongst a myriad of DNF’s. At Talladega, despite running up front at times, Bayne was collected in a five-car pile-up that ended his day prematurely. Bayne has only had one top 20 since Daytona and it’s looking more and more as if his miraculous Daytona 500 triumph was like finding a needle in a haystack.
Honorable Mention: Michael Waltrip (The Auburn colors proved to be an ill-advised move for Waltrip as he finished an ignominious 28th on the afternoon. But at least it was better than his awful NAPA Know How commercials.)
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