Brad Morgan · Tuesday June 4, 2013
If Charlotte didn’t do enough to scramble the Sprint Cup driver’s positions in Who’s Hot and Who’s Not, the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks finished the job.
Engine problems flared up in an all-too-familiar way and another favorite fell off the lead lap because of a restart penalty at Dover International Speedway, giving Tony Stewart the opportunity to break into the win column for the first time in 2013.
Fresh off the Monster Mile, stock car racing’s biggest stars now prepare for a date in the Poconos, where NASCAR’s Tricky Triangle looms.
Is naming Tony Stewart this week’s hottest driver a stretch of the imagination or a foregone conclusion?
His results leading up to the FedEx 400 would suggest that the 42-year-old is over the hill and nowhere near the pinnacle of Hot or Not. Yet Stewart did his best to buck rumors of crew chief replacement and the self-proclaimed struggles inside Stewart-Haas Racing by posting his first victory of the year at Dover International Speedway.
Before Stewart managed a miraculous charge against Juan Pablo Montoya during the final 10 laps, there were no signs of the victory lane celebration that ensued after completing the pass and winning for the 48th time. Just one race prior, the No. 14 team seemed nowhere near solving the Gen-6 model, but perhaps now there’s hope.
The belated victory in race 13-of-36 really isn’t far off the mark of Stewart’s semi-annual awakening from early season hibernation, but a previously held 30-race dry spell made his winless ways seem all the worse. With only two top-10 finishes beforehand, it’s no wonder Darrell Waltrip discounted Stewart’s ability to capture future victories during the prerace broadcast.
Even with everything that’s gone amiss he now stands 16th in the standings, and with tracks like Pocono on the horizon – where Stewart scored more points (80) than anyone else last season – there’s still time for yet another midseason turnaround.
While that’s a possibility, becoming wildcard eligible doesn’t automatically insure a Chase birth, making it too early to start dreaming about a fourth Sprint Cup championship. After all, there are still many unsolved problems abound at SHR, especially with the ongoing struggles of Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick.
Clint Bowyer wasn’t impressed with the No. 15 5-hour Energy Camry during Sunday’s main event. Even after starting 15th, he battled an ill-handling race car for much of the day. However, with fewer than 20 laps remaining he found himself running third and then held on for a sixth-place finish.
While not groundbreaking, the top-5 moves Bowyer to third in the standings and closer to current leader Jimmie Johnson. He also managed to avoid the engine troubles that plagued fellow Toyota drivers Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.
It’s the second good finish in a row for the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, who posted an eighth-place finish at Charlotte a week ago. Bowyer has a chance to capitalize on his most recent string of solid results in the upcoming trip to the Pocono Mountains, where he posted two top-10 finishes last season.
Joey Logano began the weekend by snagging a victory away from former teammate Kyle Busch in the 5-hour ENERGY 300 for his third consecutive Nationwide Series win at Dover. He followed up that performance with an important seventh-place run on Sunday.
Logano is showing signs of life after a rough stretch from Martinsville through Darlington nearly knocked him off the Chase map. Even so, he’s only 26 points behind Jeff Gordon (11th), who currently occupies the final wildcard spot.
His recent history at the Tricky Triangle is another reason for optimism in the No. 22 camp. Logano won this event last season during his farewell tour with Joe Gibbs Racing and then finished 13th in the rain shortened Pennsylvania 400 last August.
It’s rare to find Jimmie Johnson in this portion of Hot or Not, but such is the occasion because the five-time champion threw away a possible victory after jumping the gun on a late-race restart. With 20 laps remaining, he outran leader Juan Pablo Montoya inside the restart box and was forced to serve a stop and go penalty when officials ordered the black flag.
The mental error resulted in a 17th-place finish, his second straight result outside of the top-15. This combined with several incidents during the Coca-Cola 600 have eaten into Johnson’s points lead. He now holds a 30 point advantage over Carl Edwards, down from 44 points after a fourth-place finish at Darlington.
He’ll hope for better luck at Pocono, where the No. 48 team has two victories and recorded a ninth-place average finish last season.
Paul Menard struggled with handling en route to a 20th-place finish at the Monster Mile. While the middling finish doesn’t bury him in the standings – where he currently sits 10th – it doesn’t help to separate him from the growing number of drivers who are vying to force there way into the Chase picture, either.
Menard hasn’t had a top-10 finish since Kansas in April, and while his brand of consistency has its uses, it won’t sustain him against drivers like Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart if they get on a roll.
A top-10 at Pocono would be a step towards replicating the type of production that had the No. 27 team battling with the leaders during the better part of March. And Menard recorded an average finish of 10th there last season, meaning it’s not impossible for him to do just that.
Ryan Newman failed to give comment on his lap 299 wreck with David Gilliland that crippled both vehicles. Newman raced the No. 38 Ford hard for several laps before spinning Gilliland in apparent frustration. The Fusion came back down across Newman’s hood, sending both cars into the inside SAFER barrier.
The drivers didn’t handle the situation very well afterwards in a confrontation that lacked only punches. Gilliland proceeded to argue with Newman after quickly exiting his battered car. Newman later used hand gestures to reenact his view of what happened.
Newman’s Hot or Not stock takes a plummet as a result of his bad temper and doesn’t help him in the points either; after limping to the line in 36th, he fell to 20th.
Toyota’s engine woes continued at Dover in the worst of ways. Such failures ruined excellent showings from Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. Both drivers were forced to the garage while running inside the top-10.
It’s the second time in two weeks that Joe Gibbs Racing has been adversely affected by the engine bug, after Kyle Busch suffered the same fate at Charlotte. Kenseth also blew an engine in the season opening Daytona 500.
Overall Toyota now has six engine failures in Sprint Cup competition, which brings back the question of whether Toyota Racing Development is able to field a durable motor. The long straightaways and high speeds of Pocono will provide an immediate answer to TRD’s reliability issues.
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