The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not in Sprint Cup: Indianapolis - Pocono Edition by Brad Morgan -- Tuesday July 30, 2013

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The Brickyard 400 marked the first race in the final stretch of events that ends at Homestead-Miami in November. Fresh off a one-week vacation, many drivers returned to the track in big ways, while others didn’t seem as sharp.

Ryan Newman, a driver with Hoosier ties, captured an emotional win at Indianapolis and propelled himself into Chase contention, just days after racing his way to third in the inaugural Mudsummer Classic. But was that enough to earn a top spot in Hot or Not?

Let’s find out. This Indianapolis – Pocono edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that dominant sometimes isn’t good enough and that sometimes even “ogres” can win in NASCAR.


Top 10? Jeff Gordon made it into the Top 10! How hot is that?

HOT

Jeff Gordon wasn’t successful in the hunt for a fifth win at Indianapolis – a victory that would have broken a Brickyard tie with teammate and statistical rival Jimmie Johnson – but he did enough to break into the standings’ Top 10.

The No. 24 Chevrolet was ninth when the green flag dropped, and Gordon kept the Hendrick machine around that position before making his way to the lead on Lap 57. Gordon then battled an overheating issue after the halfway mark, one that eventually forced him to make an early pit stop. But the problem never surfaced again and he was able to drive back into seventh by the checkered flag.

When Gordon has been able to keep his car out of the garage, he has looked capable of competing for the championship. The only problem is that he has been stricken by five DNFs this year – four stemming from crash-related damage.

Gordon has suffered such DNFs at Pocono during his career, including a hard wreck during the 2006 Pocono 500, but lately he has avoided trouble at the Tricky Triangle at recorded some quality finishes in the process. In the last two races there, the veteran has looked impressive, with a sixth-place average finish and one win.

Jimmie Johnson extended an already hefty points lead to 75 over Clint Bowyer with a runner-up finish at Indianapolis. The No. 48 Chevrolet was dominant in Johnson’s quest for a fifth Brickyard 400 crown, leading a race-high 73 laps in what appeared to be a runaway victory. It couldn’t get much better, right? Despite near-misses on three victories, in the last two months it seems like driver and team are on cruise control.

WARM

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. battled to a sixth-place finish at the Brickyard while dealing with issues on and off the track. Junior lost his uncle, Randy Earnhardt, after the 60-year-old lost a prolonged battle with cancer. Randy was the brother of former Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, assisting Junior in his racing development at an early age.

The No. 88 Chevrolet ran well leading up to Sunday and Earnhardt Jr. qualified the machine 14th for the Brickyard 400, but after the race began, it became quickly evident that something was amiss. Junior quickly told crew chief Steve Letarte that he was suffering from a loose wheel and pitted on Lap 12 to change tires. From that point on, the team used its unique pit window to its advantage, crafting a strategy that put Junior in the top five with 62 laps remaining.

The result, a late-race slip to sixth is another top 10 in a stretch of hard-earned finishes that has solidified Earnhardt Jr. fifth in the standings. He’ll look for another at Pocono, where the No. 88 has been competitive over the last three seasons. In that time, Junior has four top-10 finishes, the best being a third place there earlier this season.

Ryan Newman finds himself slightly lower on the Hot or Not totem pole then many other Sprint Cup race winners because he is only now breaking into serious Chase contention.

Newman took advantage of a Jimmie Johnson mishap to claim his first Brickyard win, an emotional victory because of his ties to Indianapolis and surrounding areas. Newman can also thank Johnson for giving him an advantage over other drivers in the “wild card” race. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver now sits 16th in the standings – a mere 20 points behind Martin Truex, Jr. (12th) – and things could quickly improve from there. That’s because the Rocket Man returns to the Poconos with a little momentum and a favorable history at the 2.5-mile track. Over the past five races there, Newman’s average finish (7.4) stands as the second highest behind Johnson.

COOL

Speaking of Johnson, he lands on the cooler side of the spectrum because of his team’s failure to deliver on what was a near-perfect afternoon. That’s right, the five-time champion becomes the first driver to be listed twice on Hot or Not because of the No. 48 crew’s 17-second final stop, a gut-wrenchingly slow affair that ended their driver’s stint in the lead and led to the aforementioned runner-up finish.

“There’s been some late race mistakes on my behalf that have taken race wins away from us. Granted not a major event like this. But we win as a team, lose as a team,” Johnson said when asked about whether this particular mistake would be easy to forget about.

Despite leading Sprint Cup in top-10 finishes, with fourteen Johnson’s latest one left a sour taste in his mouth and it could get worse if he dwells on what happened.

Greg Biffle raced under the radar for much of the 2013 season, until his breakthrough victory at Michigan and currently occupies eighth in points. While his current position is good, his results since the win haven’t been impressive.

Over the past four events, the Roush Fenway driver has no finish better than 15th at Loudon. Sure, that doesn’t kill his stock, but runs of 34th at Kentucky and 24th at the Brickyard closed the gap between the No. 16 team and a growing number of drivers vying for a position inside the top 10.

Replicating the second-place finish the team encountered in Round 1 at Pocono could do wonders for Biffle going forward.

COLD

With an 18th-place finish at the Brickyard, Denny Hamlin’s chances of making the Chase seem all but mathematically impossible. Hamlin is 111 points behind 20th, meaning that becoming eligible for a “wild card” spot would require an incredible run over the next six races.

Hamlin plans to complete the Sprint Cup schedule, but in order to do it in a competitive manner means collecting wins at a torrid pace. His next realistic chance will be Pocono, where he has four career victories and a 10.5 average finish. From a potential Chaser standpoint, he’s as cold as a former Chase regular could be, but dates at Pocono and Richmond give him the slightest bit of hope.

The driver he’s trying to catch, Jeff Burton (20th) took a major hit to his chances after a 43rd-place finish at Indianapolis. With crew chief Luke Lambert suffering from an eye ailment, Matt McCall took over duties for the first time.

Despite running inside the top 20 for much of the afternoon, the No. 31 had mechanical issues that cost the Richard Childress team several laps and creates tension in the standings. Now 60 points behind 10th place, it’s going to take a win – probably two – for this team to fight their way back into postseason contention.

Contact Brad Morgan

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