The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not In Sprint Cup: Kansas-Richmond Edition by Brad Morgan -- Tuesday April 23, 2013

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The map continues to be drawn for the performance capabilities of the Generation-6 models, and the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway helped to silence critics after spread out racing showed its prevalence in Fort Worth. Drivers battled an extremely slick, fast track that left teams constantly reeling to find the perfect setup. Matt Kenseth wasn’t fazed by a plethora of cautions brought about by those who struggled to get a handle on their cars; restarts alone left the racing more competitive than what we saw down in Texas last Saturday night.

So who should we be championing this Tuesday, after a second straight intermediate? This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that while Kenseth was among those who overcame cautions by using good strategy, some others, who needed a decent finish after getting off on the wrong foot, left Kansas City disgruntled.

HOT


Dominant. That’s the best way to describe Joe Gibbs Racing, with driver Matt Kenseth after leading 163 of 267 laps Sunday.

Heading into the STP 400 race weekend, there were several questions regarding the performance of the new Gen-6 cars and their ability to race on the newly repaved Kansas Speedway. Matt Kenseth answered those inquiries on his own account with a dominant showing in the Sunflower State, winning his second consecutive race at the 1.5-mile venue.

The former champion led for 163 of the event’s 267 laps, but that doesn’t help to fully grasp how prevalent the No. 20 Toyota was during Sunday’s telecast. Kenseth was assisted by flawless pit stops early, ones that often that allowed him to take advantage of superior track position during restarts. He stayed ahead of the field on the final one to claim his second victory of the season, moving him up to eighth in the standings. The win also provided some history as three straight pole winners have now gone on to celebrate in Victory Lane, marking the first time that drivers have accomplished the feat since Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt combined to do it in 1985.

For Kasey Kahne, a second-place finished sparked déjà vu as he came up just short of catching Kenseth after his team made adjustments during the final set of stops. The handling changes made for an ending that was eerily similar to the identical one-two finish in Las Vegas earlier this season.

The runner-up result, for Kahne matches his previous best mark at Kansas and moves him into second in the driver standings, one point ahead of Brad Keselowski. Kahne wouldn’t mind another repeat of fortunes next week at Richmond. He drove the No. 5 Chevrolet SS to victory at Bristol during Sprint Cup’s last short track excursion and will look to do the same at a 0.75-mile track where he has one career win and finished fifth in the Spring visit last season.

WARM

Michael Waltrip Racing has seen its fair share of adversity through the first two months of the season, but things appear to be headed in the right direction after each of the organization’s three entries finished inside the top 10 at Kansas Speedway.

Martin Truex, Jr. has been at the forefront of that adversity; especially lately, because of the No. 56 team’s failure to meet the minimum front-car height requirements after the NRA 500. It’s an infraction that resulted in a six-point penalty, plus a fine and probation for crew chief Chad Johnston.

But in Kansas, he was able to rally from a pit road penalty on lap 72 that left him 34th, claiming a fourth-place finish and his second consecutive top-5 result. After two ugly go-behind-the-wall incidents, nearly derailing his 2013 season early on Truex has worked his way back into Chase contention quickly.

Clint Bowyer placed directly behind Truex in the fifth position. The Emporia, KS native proved to be one of the fastest drivers on his home track. After starting from 10th, Bowyer kept his car inside the top 10 for much of the race thanks in part to two-tire pit stops that kept the No. 15 Toyota near the front despite constant handling adjustments. Bowyer, ninth in points has led only one lap this season but with three top-5 finishes, in his last five events seems to be rounding back into the form of late 2012.

Veteran Mark Martin rounded out the organization’s solid outing with a ninth-place finish that was the result of an impressive run during the final green-flag sequence. The No. 55 car was twice the victim of contact on restarts; the driver himself never seemed comfortable pressing the accelerator down. Still, over the long run that wasn’t enough to slow this 54-year-old near the end of the race. The part-time Cup participant, competitive as ever now sits 16th in the driver standings despite having one less start than many of the contenders ranked below him.

Aric Almirola put together an impressive run that resulted in an eighth-place performance, the second consecutive top 10 for the Petty Motorsports driver. The throwback STP Ford Fusion stayed inside the top 20 for much of the day before an impressive final stop set Almirola up eighth with 43 laps remaining. The finish means Almirola, a pleasant surprise this season can hold onto the 13th position in the driver standings for yet another week.

COOL

There were no backflips for Carl Edwards this week as a rough weekend in Kansas stymied the momentum of the No. 99 Ford.

Carl Edwards was undoubtedly one of the fastest drivers on the track in Kansas until an ill-timed turn of events set him up for a 17th-place finish and a COOL mention.

While many of the drivers previously listed in this edition of Hot or Not enjoyed impeccable pit strategy, Edwards was among several drivers who did not. The No. 99 team’s troubles began after crew chief Jimmy Fennig elected for a green-flag stop late in the race to adjust the Fusion’s chassis. Shortly afterwards, the last caution was brought out before much of the rest of the field had pitted, meaning that Edwards was cycled back to 23rd on the final restart. What resulted was stagnation, equating to the waste of a test for Roush Fenway Racing; they’re the only ones to use one of their four NASCAR-issued test dates on the 1.5-mile oval, to no avail. None of the Roush Fenway cars, on Sunday wound up finishing inside the top 10.

Edwards, at least will hope for better luck this weekend at Richmond, where he has eight top 10s in 17 career starts.

Another driver looking to rebound in Virginia is Joey Logano, who hasn’t been quite the same driver since his run-in with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart in Fontana. Since that race, Logano has fallen to 20th in the standings. The decline can be partially blamed on the recent suspension violations that Penske cars suffered after Fort Worth (a race where Logano finished fifth) resulting in a deduction of 25 driver points.

But that’s not the only problem. An innocent victim at Kansas Sunday, his recent issues culminated in a hard collision with a spinning Kyle Busch. On lap 104, Busch lost control for a second time before hitting the Turn 4 wall, then careened back down the track into the No. 22 Ford Fusion on the apron, ending the day for both drivers. Should Penske lose their appeal, which we’ll know sometime in the near future this recent run of bad luck means Logano may have to think “wild card” to make the Chase.

COLD

Tony Stewart isn’t having the 2013 season he once envisioned after the Stewart-Haas organization expanded to a three-car effort to house rookie Danica Patrick over the offseason. Stewart is no stranger to slow starts, but his struggles this year have been surprising nonetheless because he isn’t even getting top-10 finishes.

In fact, after a lackluster 21st-place result at Kansas, the three-time champion has only one top 10 with eight races in the books. These types of performances, week after week have Stewart stuck in 21st in the driver standings, the worst start to any season over his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

Stewart’s hottest moment this year wasn’t due to a good finish, but instead his tirade with Joey Logano after the Penske driver blocked him late in the running at Fontana. When the temper, not the terrific performances define Smoke you better watch out; the volcano could blow again at any time.

Fortunately for him, Richmond seems like the perfect place for the No. 14 team to break its slump. With three wins and a streak of four consecutive top-10 finishes there, the track might provide some aid for the ailing Stewart.

Contact Brad Morgan

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