Brad Morgan · Tuesday June 11, 2013
In some senses the Party in the Poconos 400 provided a return to normalcy as many of Sprint Cup’s most prominent drivers reclaimed their positions in the better half of the Hot or Not rankings.
Nothing could prevent Jimmie Johnson from snagging the hottest seat in NASCAR, while some not-so-fortunate drivers now find themselves on a hot-seat of different nature after struggling to solve the Tricky Triangle.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not delivers the rundown on Sunday’s major players at Pocono Raceway and what they might expect when the series travels to the Irish Hills next week.
Well that didn’t take long! After a short two-week hiatus, Jimmie Johnson quickly rose to a spot atop Hot or Not by dominating the Party in the Poconos 400 and extending the points lead.
After qualifying was washed out, the three-time Pocono winner played the part from the pole – leading for a race-high 128 circuits – before pulling away from the pack on the final restart to claim his first victory since Martinsville. That result was just what the No. 48 team had hoped for after mental errors plagued the five-time champion for two weeks prior.
He ties Matt Kenseth with three wins on the year, currently enough to place them atop a hypothetical Chase standings. During the Quicken Loans 400 Sunday, Johnson will be looking for another and what would be his first every victory at Michigan International Speedway.
Last season he recorded a fifth-place finish in this race, but suffered a blown engine in a return trip to the 2-mile venue last August.
Rebounding after not-so-good finishes has been a remedy for sixth-place finisher Kyle Busch lately as well. If there was a noticeable drop-off in output from Toyota’s new more dependable, yet slightly underpowered engine, the No. 18 didn’t show symptoms.
It was only two weeks ago that Busch found himself on the verge of losing touch with many Chase hopefuls because of a blown engine at Charlotte. But with two consecutive top 10’s within grasp, a repeat of the late March-early April hot streak that elevated the No. 18 team to second in the standings could be on the horizon, depending on his performance at Michigan. It’s there that Busch struggled last season to the tune of a 22.5 average finish, but he also found the winner’s circle in 2011.
By his 2012 standards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been quiet over the past two months, but a third-place finish helped revitalize JR Nation heading into a favorable date at Michigan. For the first time in a long while the No. 88 Chevrolet held strong against the competition, hanging inside the top five for much of the day.
With two straight top 10’s, Earnhardt Jr. is beginning to show signs of returning to the form that had the Hendrick Motorsports driver leading the points after five events. He’ll look to throw his comeback into a higher gear in the Irish Hills, where he ended a 143-race winless drought in 2012. The veteran has also scored more points (119) than any other driver over the past three Sprint Cup races there.
During post race interviews, Greg Biffle admitted that the No. 16 has a lot of catching up to do in order to hang with entries from Hendricks and Gibbs, but was nonetheless pleased after a runner-up finish at Pocono. Despite struggling through the early summer, Biffle now sits 10th in points after his first top five since Fort Worth.
Race 14-of-36 seems like a picturesque spot for a turning point because of what lies ahead for the Roush Fenway driver. He enters Michigan with some momentum and serves as the track’s most recent winner. News that Biffle plans to stay with his current organization instead of bolting for Richard Childress Racing may also serve the team in a positive manner.
Matt Kenseth was hoping for a turnaround after Dover’s blown engine, but it didn’t happen primarily because of a spin with Juan Pablo Montoya that occurred with 28 laps remaining. Afterwards he was unable to fully recover, posting a 25th-place finish that drops the No. 20 Camry to sixth in points.
With three consecutive finishes outside of the top 10, this is the closest thing to a slump that Kenseth has encountered this season. However, turning things around shouldn’t be an unfeasible task judging by the team’s consistently fast setups.
With engine problems in the past for now, he’ll look to reassert himself at Michigan, where he’s averaging an 8.5-place average finish over the past three seasons.
Rainy conditions early in the week didn’t benefit Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in his first visit to Pocono since 2008. The rookie didn’t have much time to reacquaint himself with the racing surface before Sunday’s 26th-place finish.
Stenhouse ran inside the top 20 on numerous occasions before being shuffled back during several late-race cautions. Despite the effort, those cautions served as the latest reason why he has yet to capture an elusive first top 10 finish. Through 14 races, his best result is an 11th-place run at Kansas Speedway.
Next the No. 17 team will turn its attention to Michigan, another track where the 25-year-old driver has limited experience. He’ll have to rely on practice time and three past Nationwide Series races in his Sprint Cup debut there.
Fortunes went from bad to worse for Kasey Kahne on the first lap at Pocono. After a 23rd place finish at Dover a week ago, a vibration put the No. 5 Chevrolet behind the wall for more than 20 laps. After returning to the track, Kahne clocked times that rivaled the leaders, but crossed the line in the 36th position.
Outside of his runner-up finish in the Coca-Cola 600, Kahne has experienced a rough stretch since late April, with no other result better than 17th.
Now he’ll attempt to capture a better finish at Michigan to prevent the loss of more ground in the standings. Over the past two seasons there he’s been hit-or-miss, with an average finish of only 17.75, despite impressive results of third and seventh.
While Kahne limited his struggles to the opening lap, Paul Menard found himself against the wall after the white flag was waved – dashing any hopes of what appeared to be a top 15 effort.
The damage sustained when the No. 27 Chevrolet’s right-front tire when flat crippled the machine, forcing Menard to limp back to the checkered flag in 30th-place. The finish drops the 10-year veteran to 12th in the standings and outside of a potential wildcard slot.
Menard must now play catch-up for the first time since Bristol. But his first chance at bouncing back comes at a track where he has only one top 5 finish in 13 career starts.
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