The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not In Sprint Cup: Sonoma-Kentucky Edition by Brad Morgan -- Tuesday June 25, 2013

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When the Sprint Cup Series visits wine country, it can be exciting for even the most casual race fan to watch as drivers navigate the 12-turn road course known as Sonoma Raceway.

This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that some of the stock car world’s most esteemed road racers can struggle while Martin Truex Jr., a driver with an insipid non-oval history, can win again.

Now the series gets ready for the cross-country trip to Kentucky Speedway as some drivers want to continue prepping for the Chase, while others are just content to return to oval racing.


He won! Martin Truex Jr. won!

HOT

Martin Truex Jr. did more than just turn right in his performance at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver scored his second career victory in the Toyota / Save Mart 350, snapping a prolonged 218-race winless streak dating back to 2007.

By reasserting himself in the win column, Truex proved that he’ll be a factor in the Chase picture. Few expected a victory at Sonoma for a driver whose previous best finish there was eighth two years ago, but he defied those odds, leading a resounding 51 of the 110 laps in the process.

A victory serves as insurance for Truex in the battle for a Chase spot, but as of now his current points standing (10th) is good enough to automatically qualify him for the playoffs.

With a surprising win in wine country, is there a ceiling for the red hot driver in his bounce back from a slow start?

The earliest indication will come at Kentucky Speedway, where Truex averages a 13th-place finish and recorded an eighth-place result in the most recent trip there.

Since Richmond, Carl Edwards has been positioned second, behind only Jimmie Johnson in the point standings. With a third-place run at Sonoma the Roush Fenway driver closed the gap on the five-time champion and in the process separated himself from other drivers vying for the Chase.

Outside of a brief moment with Kyle Busch, Edwards ran a clean race, avoiding any damage and posted a solid finish. Edwards will look to extend his current two-race top 10 streak at Kentucky, where he recorded a fifth-place run in the track’s 2011 debut on the Sprint Cup schedule.

WARM

A runner-up finish at Sonoma helps to erase a forgetful finish at Michigan last week for Jeff Gordon. The veteran was the highest ranking finisher for Hendrick Motorsports a week after the organization’s weakest outing since 2005.

The second-place effort was an important step in the right direction for Gordon, who is currently without a victory and positioned outside of the top 10.

When the series travels to the Blue Grass State, Gordon will look to cement himself in victory lane and inside the Chase cutoff. In two prior trips there, he has a seventh-place average finish which could make the gap between 10th (12 points) and his current spot seem a little smaller.

Kurt Busch might be left wondering what could have been after two consecutive speeding penalties left him a lap down, but things would have been worse if he hadn’t been able to storm back into contention and record a fourth-place finish.

The Furniture Row Racing driver led 15 laps before suffering the lap-35 pit road entrance penalty and subsequent speeding penalty after being too fast entering to serve the former.

Fortunately for Busch, being fast aided in his return afterwards. However, by that time, Truex and Gordon had both separated themselves from the rest of the pack, leaving Busch one caution shy of chance to battle for the win.

Still, the solid result gives Busch one more top 10 then he had all of last season with Phoenix Racing and keeps him in the upper echelon of the standings, just a win away from being Chase relevant once again.

COOL

Many road course ringers and other highly talented road course drivers didn’t encounter the type of finish that they had hoped for on the West Coast, leaving the not-so-hot portion of the Sonoma Hot or Not populated with several uncharacteristic names. Among them, Juan Pablo Montoya might be the most disappointed, primarily because of the way his day ended.

The No. 42 Target Chevrolet was in the picture as Martin Truex Jr. commenced his post-race celebration for all the wrong reasons. Montoya was running second as the white flag waved and then abruptly fell off the pace when he ran out of fuel, forcing him to coast the majority of the way back around the 2.52-mile venue en route to a 34th-place finish.

A miscalculation on fuel mileage seemed strange for the Earnhardt Ganassi team because the race winner was on an identical strategy at that point in time. But, Montoya is forced to deal with the repercussions – having just been dealt a career-worst finish at Sonoma – heading into Kentucky, where he hopes to better finishes of 15th and 14th.

Tracks like Sonoma and Watkins Glen serve as rare occasions when drivers outside of everyday Sprint Cup competition have the opportunity to compete with the top stock car drivers in the world. That being said, road course specialists didn’t make a lasting impact on this race for a variety of reasons.

Of those drivers only Boris Said (18th) finished inside the top 20, making it a rough day for any team who chose to hire temporary talent. Outside of Said, Ron Fellows, and first timer Justin Marks, other ringers ended up off the lead lap or failed to finish altogether.

COLD

Alex Kennedy and Paulie Harraka shared in the most embarrassing moment for drivers making their Sprint Cup debut at Sonoma, before the race even began.

As cars filed down pit road before pace laps, David Reutimann slowed ahead of Kennedy, forcing the Nationwide Series part-timer to let off the gas. Unfortunately, Harraka wasn’t aware of the situation ahead of him and plowed into the rear of Kennedy’s No. 19 MediaMaster Toyota.

Both drivers were immediately forced back to pit road for repairs and Harraka ran the race without a large portion of his front-end. He would later suffer a lap-7 crash, setting the No. 52 Ford to the back again, before finishing 39th, one position ahead of Kennedy.

They weren’t the only drivers who encountered trouble before a lap was completed. Veteran Bobby Labonte suffered a blown engine on the opening circuit, forcing him to a 43rd-place finish, his worst at Sonoma in 21 career starts.

That makes it two straight early exits for Labonte, who crashed at Michigan last weekend after five laps while driving for Phoenix Racing. The former champion has fallen to 30th in points and continues to show signs of decline after placing outside of the top 20 in all but three races this season.

Now with news that A.J. Allmendinger could pilot the No. 47 Fusion at Kentucky, Labonte would potentially be left without a ride because Austin Dillon is slated to compete in the No. 51. Without entry in the Quaker State 400, Labonte’s streak of 704 consecutive starts would come to an abrupt end.

Contact Brad Morgan

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SHOEMAN
06/25/2013 11:17 AM
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Hope that Labonte finds another ride and keeps his string of starts going.

Old farmer
06/25/2013 12:35 PM
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Bobby Labonte deserves a ride this weekend. Boot out one of the no-names and put Bobby in the seat, showing him the respect he deserves. Best case scenario: put him back in the 47 where he belongs.