The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not in Sprint Cup: Darlington-All Star Edition by Brad Morgan -- Tuesday May 14, 2013

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By day, the Southern 500 was an uncharacteristically clean race with only one caution early. But once the sun set, the Lady in Black reared its head. To run a full race at Darlington Raceway, a driver must use every bit of their concentration. Many of Sprint Cup’s biggest names struggled to maintain focus for the duration of the 500-mile event, causing a few late-race wrecks to rear their head.

Some nights ended in frustration, due to a combination of mental errors and mechanical failures brought about by the venue’s rough nature, while others persevered to collect valuable points heading into the All-Star Race in Charlotte. Sparks flew at the finish, while an unexpected name wound up at the front during the closing laps.

This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows how those twists and turns changed some recent trends going on in the Cup Series. And while one team involved in the recent flurry of rules violations (and appeals) wasn’t fazed in the aftermath of penalties, another organization couldn’t overcome the temporary loss of valuable personnel.

Taking his No. 20 to the front put Matt Kenseth in the HOT seat this week.

HOT

Matt Kenseth finally broke through. After two consecutive races in which the Joe Gibbs drivers appeared destined for Victory Lane, only to suffer a late-race collapse, he reversed fortunes and wound up there while teammate Kyle Busch served as the victim.

Busch may have paced the field for 265 of 367 circuits, but Kenseth needed just 13 laps led to claim his third victory of the season, doing so without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, whose suspension after a parts violation and corresponding appeal was reduced to one race.

The less severe punishment on Ratcliff and the reimbursement of 38 points after the successful appeal is great news for the No. 20 team, which enjoys a string of four straight top-10 finishes all while weathering testing times.

Maintaining the positive momentum that has carried Kenseth through tough dates at Talladega and Darlington unscathed will mean conquering the speedy confines of Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he has two wins and should be included as one of the top-tier drivers at the venue. Clearly, this car is the hottest on the circuit as of late, perhaps the best positioned to challenge Jimmie Johnson for this year’s title. There’s nothing preventing Kenseth from racing among the leaders in a year that has seen the JGR Camry be one of the fastest cars in Sprint Cup on a week-to-week basis.

WARM

With the continued dominance of Kenseth, paired with Kyle Busch’s ability to hold on for a sixth-place finish, the successful return of Denny Hamlin at Darlington was icing on the cake.

A healed Hamlin put together a clean, no-frills effort in the FedEx Toyota which resulted in a promising second-place run that puts an end to his dive from Chase contention after a month-long absence due to a spinal cord injury. He was relieved and visibly tired inside the No. 11 Camry after a season-high finish, building confidence while showcasing he’s physically capable of contending once again.

From here, Hamlin will look to continue an extended run of top-10 finishes at Charlotte, where the driver has scored more points than any other driver over the past five races. Those numbers indicate that the No. 11 team, even with Hamlin’s seemingly fragile state, will be a favorite for the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600.

Jeff Gordon made the most of his 700th career Sprint Cup start, making some history en route to an impressive third-place finish. In posting his second top-5 result of the season, Gordon now has 300 such finishes over the course of his historic career, joining Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison as the only drivers to achieve the incredible feat.

Gordon will now have to overcome some demons that have plagued the No. 24 team in recent trips to the track located in Hendrick Motorsports’ backyard. The veteran was once a dominant force at Charlotte, but his success there has since tapered off a bit, with only one finish better than 18th over the past five races.

COOL

Penske Racing found that Darlington was indeed Too Tough To Tame; without the help of their crew chiefs, Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano struggled to keep the pace.

After appearing to be invincible through the first few months of his title defense campaign, Keselowski’s strong form has come to a shrieking halt over the last three races, culminating in an uninspiring 32nd-place finish at Darlington. The defending champion suffered from a loose wheel early in the event, one that put the No. 2 Ford Fusion several laps down and later was involved in a multi-car accident involving Casey Mears.

His teammate didn’t fare extremely well, either; after starting 22nd on the grid, Logano finished in the same position, two laps down and was never a factor. That doesn’t bode well for Charlotte dead ahead.

Kasey Kahne may have found a new rival in Kyle Busch thanks to a brush-up with Rowdy. It’s the third time this season the two have been involved with each other, each time resulting in bad endings for the No. 5 car. After being wrecked by Busch last week at Talladega, Kahne’s chances for a good result were again dashed by the No. 18 at Darlington after getting aero loose and smacking the outside wall once attempting a pass for the lead.

Despite a rough past few weeks – the driver also tangled with Mark Martin at Richmond – Kahne kept his cool during a post-race interview and will need to do so again inside his Hendrick Chevy when the Sprint Cup Series visits Charlotte. That’s a venue where he has four career wins — including a victory in the 2012 running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Paul Menard finds himself in a tie for 10th in the driver standings after hitting the pit road commitment cone while making the approach for a green-flag pit stop. The pass thru penalty that resulted from the error put Menard a lap down and relegated him to a 19th-place finish. Two races removed from completing every lap on the Sprint Cup schedule, the Richard Childress Racing driver has since looked simply mediocre.

COLD

Talladega has a way of creating “fairy tale” type finishes and in the case of Front Row Motorsports, that reputation held true. Unfortunately for Bob Jenkins’ group, Darlington served as a rude awakening to reality just one week after David Ragan gave the organization its first ever win.

Misfortune struck for two of the organization’s three entries, as Ragan and third-year driver Josh Wise were forced off track over an eight-lap span. A blown engine ended the night for Ragan’s No. 34 Ford Fusion, while Wise’s No. 35 spun and collected David Reutimann while running in the 30th position.

David Gilliland was the only Front Row driver left standing at the conclusion of the race, posting a 29th-place finish. But that’s a far cry from the 1-2, record-setting performance this organization posted at Talladega one week ago.

Contact Brad Morgan

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Steve K
05/14/2013 11:20 PM
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Warm: Juan Montoya
The car is fast and the bad luck has to be behind him, right?