The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not In Sprint Cup: Kentucky-Daytona Edition by Brad Morgan -- Tuesday July 2, 2013

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Rain tampered with the Nationwide Series race Friday, and then delayed the Sprint Cup Series race until Sunday at Kentucky Speedway. Fans who stuck it out were treated to an exciting race that featured high-profile accidents and varying tire issues.

A late-race gamble was enough to give Matt Kenseth the victory and end his June troubles, while two blown tires put Chase regular Denny Hamlin in a huge hole.

With nine races left before the Chase, Sprint Cup’s stars now travel back to Florida for Round 2 in Daytona, where Jimmie Johnson stood victorious earlier this season. This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that while some drivers are struggling to break out of midseason slumps, others hope to continue heating up during the summer months.


Clint Bowyer continues to strut his stuff this season, letting off a nice steady heat.

HOT

Despite having gone winless to date in 2013, Clint Bowyer has displayed incredible consistency this season and it continued in the Blue Grass State.

While Bowyer’s third-place run was enough to close within three points of Carl Edwards for second in the standings, it also helps to continue a 10-race stretch during which he has scored more points (361) than he did during a third-place Chase campaign last season (355).

The Michael Waltrip Racing driver started 15th, then dodged potential disaster and a spinning Kyle Busch on lap 43. From there he raced with the leaders for much of the day, before recording his first ever top-five finish at Kentucky.

Bowyer will now look to reverse a downwards trend of Coke Zero 400 finishes that includes crashes resulting in DNFs in the last two renditions of the Daytona night race.

Since Darlington, Joey Logano has been on a tear that trumps even his good showings at Fontana and Fort Worth early this season.

The 23-year-old driver is finally experiencing a level of success that has eluded him during much of his six-year Sprint Cup Series career. That success continued with a fourth-place finish at Michigan, despite constantly being off the normal pitting sequence of many other top teams.

As a result, Logano sits 10th in the standings, his highest running position since departing Auto Club Speedway in late March. After the penalty at Fort Worth and two DNFs in subsequent weeks, the No. 22 team has now jumped from 19th back into Chase contention.

To keep things moving in a positive direction Logano must stay out of trouble at Daytona. And lately he has done just that – posting three top-10 finishes in the past four races there.

WARM

Matt Kenseth thrived on old tires during a race in which other Chase hopefuls struggled with Goodyear rubber, recording his first victory at Kentucky Speedway and fourth in Sprint Cup competition this season.

The No. 20 team decided on a fuel-only strategy for the final round of stops with 23 laps remaining and then Kenseth pulled away from runner-up Jamie McMurray to win the Quaker State 400 by 0.699 seconds.

That slim margin is enough to help the former series champion recover from the troubles that he has encountered largely since a blown engine at Dover put the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s title campaign under the weather. Even with the month-long slump, Kenseth remains fifth in the standings after his most recent trip to victory lane, a venture that helped to further solidify him a potential spot in the upcoming Chase.

Kenseth now has a chance to regain HOT status at Daytona, where he was the gold standard for Sprint Cup drivers during 2012 and dominated in the ’13 Great American Race before a blown motor ended his afternoon. Toyota’s more reliable engine setup could come in handy as he searches for a third career win at the 2.5-mile speedway.

Kurt Busch continues to put himself in the spotlight on race day with his on-track activity. This week the elder Busch brother was involved in an incident with defending champion Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle that left the latter two in the garage area for an extended period. Busch triggered the lap-49 wreck by driving down onto the apron and edging into the No. 2 car’s left-rear quarter panel, sending the Dodge spinning down and back up across the track.

The only reason his latest escapade qualifies as a positive is the end result. Busch apologized for causing the accident, the type of gesture that sometimes isn’t seen from the embattled driver. He also finished sixth and moved up to 13th in the standings, within striking distance of outlying Chase hopefuls.

COOL

Since snapping out of his early-season skid with a win at Dover and a string of top-five finishes, Tony Stewart has once again begun to struggle. After spinning out late at Sonoma, the three-time champion couldn’t regain momentum at Kentucky, posting a 20th-place finish.

Early on Stewart had his moments while battling the handling of the No. 14 Chevrolet, but tire issues flared up around lap 120, forcing him to surrender those gains. He was then forced up into the marbles on a late-race restart, causing him to fall to 23rd before rallying late.

Stewart now finds himself 16th in points, clutching to the final wildcard spot heading to Daytona, where he won last season, but struggled during the ‘13 Daytona 500.

Paul Menard’s chances of returning to the top 10 in points took a major hit when the Richard Childress driver was involved in the same wreck that claimed Keselowski and Biffle. The No. 27 Chevrolet suffered front-end damage and struggled with handling issues from that point on, after restarting from the red flag four laps down.

Because of the bad luck, Menard has fallen to 15th in points, his lowest mark since the season’s second race at Phoenix. Turning things around at Daytona means he would need to improve upon his most recent results there (14th and 21st).

COLD

Denny Hamlin’s 35th-place finish puts him in greater need for wins and continues a run of finishes outside the top 20 that is preventing him from gaining wildcard eligibility.

The No. 11 Toyota was cursed by two blown tires, first on lap 38, then another on lap 147 that totaled the machine after hard impact against the Turn 4 wall. Hamlin was taken to the infield care center afterwards and later released with no serious injuries.

Despite news that he’ll test at Indianapolis Speedway Monday and race at Daytona Saturday night, things haven’t gone well on-track this season for the banged up veteran. Even when he’s been healthy, Hamlin hasn’t looked his familiar self – posting his lowest average finish thus far (19.2) of any season over his nine-year career.

After getting the bad end of a run-in with Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski didn’t have the type of race he needed at Kentucky. Instead of contending for a victory, the Blue Deuce was crippled from the incident and limped home with a 33rd-place finish after extensive repairs were made.

These types of results have been the norm for Keselowski since Richmond. With only one top-five over that span, this can only be characterized as one of the worst slumps of his career, so bad that he currently isn’t in a position make the Chase (13th) and it’s becoming alarming that he doesn’t have a win to help his wildcard case.

Daytona has a history of providing strange winners, so why not a victory for the ice-cold Keselowski? Recently, he’s improved his performance at the restrictor plate track – with finishes of eighth and fourth in the last two trips there – and he could definitely use one.

Contact Brad Morgan

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