Brad Morgan · Tuesday August 20, 2013
In many ways Sprint Cup’s return to Michigan International Speedway was similar to Round 1 there earlier this season. Fans saw a driver claim victory, snapping a prolonged winless streak, and many household names failed to maintain momentum as the schedule nears the Chase.
Joey Logano used a victory in the Pure Michigan 400 to propel himself near the cutoff, while other drivers have put themselves in danger despite being in the same portion of the standings.
This Irish Hills inspired edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not breaks down the winners and losers from race 23 of 36 and what they might expect when the series heads to Bristol this week.
Things just got a little more heated near the top of the Sprint Cup standings thanks to Joey Logano.
The driver, once praised for his uncharacteristically advanced skill level at a young age, has looked the part for much of his first season with Penske Racing. Logano won the Pure Michigan 400 from the pole, leading 51 laps to claim his first victory for an owner who used to own the Irish Hills track.
A costly penalty, DNFs, and back-to-back 40th-place finishes are all but forgotten now that Logano has moved his team back into Chase contention. Four consecutive top 8 results are enough to move him to 13th in points, even after setbacks almost forced the young gun outside the top 20.
Despite everything that has happened, the future is bright for the No. 22 if Bristol is any indication. Thunder Valley has been kind to Logano lately; an average finish of 12.5 over the past two races is enough to give him the seventh most points there over that span – a noticeable improvement in production compared to his early days at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Clint Bowyer is incredibly close to clinching a Chase spot aside Jimmie Johnson, due in part to his 5th-place finish. It was a finish that didn’t come without a little adversity. Bowyer battled back from a lap down after spinning on the first lap to secure his hold on second in the standings.
The No. 15 team ranks highly in this edition of Hot or Not because of their recent form and history at Bristol. Bowyer has no finish worse than 7th in the past three races there, making another top-5 run seem all the more likely.
Losing owner Tony Stewart was a huge blow for Stewart-Haas Racing and with the recent news that their captain has decided to shut things down for the remainder of the 2013 season, things might seem pretty bleak. But during that time, recent winner Ryan Newman has been the driving force behind the organization’s Chase hopes.
Newman stayed in the conversation with a 13th-place finish at Michigan that keeps him only 17 points behind 12th-place driver Martin Truex Jr. for the final wildcard spot.
On a brighter note, SHR offered Kurt Busch a full-time contract for the 2014 season. This comes as a surprise considering Stewart and Busch’s history with one another, but would add to an already potent driver lineup consisting for the three-time champion Stewart, recent acquisition Kevin Harvick, and Danica Patrick.
Busch acknowledged Monday that he has received several promising offers from teams regarding his Sprint Cup future in an interview with ESPN’s Marty Smith, but the possibility is there for a fourth entry at SHR.
The potential move is made even larger because of Busch’s success with Furniture Row Racing as part of his career comeback. Currently, Busch is 9th in points, more than good enough to qualify for the Chase after an impressive 3rd-place finish in the Great Lakes State.
Austin Dillon had a busy day while piloting the No. 14 Chevrolet in place of the injured Stewart. After being involved in a lap 14 wreck with J.J. Yeley, the Nationwide regular came back to finish 14th – his second career top 15 in the Sprint Cup Series.
Crunch time is beginning for several teams currently on the outside looking in with only three races remaining in the regular season. Jamie McMurray is 16th in points, down one position after a 22nd place effort at Michigan.
McMurray is entering the danger zone as a result, needing to make up the 41 point difference between himself and Greg Biffle in 10th. In the case that he gets a win – seemingly unlikely considering he’s led only 46 laps this season – he would still have to surpass Newman, Logano, and Truex for a wildcard birth.
Although McMurray is mathematically still alive, along with a few drivers, he appears to be the realistic bubble boy barring the widespread collapse of several Chase hopefuls ranked above the No. 1 team.
The Earnhardt-Ganassi driver will need a solid performance at Bristol to stay in the hunt. Considering McMurray has top 10s in five of the last seven races there, perhaps there is still a ray of hope.
Aric Almirola is another driver inside the top 20 in points, who sits outside of the Chase cutoff. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t encountered the type of finishes he’ll need to get back into serious contention.
The driver’s 18th place finish at Michigan makes for four consecutive races without a top 15, over which time Almirola has fallen from 16th to 19th in the standings. He never fully recovered from a crash in the Coca-Cola 600, a race that he started ranked 9th.
For an organization that has three entries currently on course to qualify for the NASCAR postseason and a fourth on the cusp, Hendrick Motorsports isn’t living up to expectations of late. Michigan, in a repeat of the Quicken Loans 400 earlier this season, has been the cause of much of their struggles.
In eight combined starts at the two-mile venue this season, Hendrick drivers have averaged an ugly looking 30th place finish, making Kasey Kahne’s 7th on Sunday seem like a major breakthrough.
The track was roughest on Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on this go-around. Johnson entered with a hefty points lead and a secured Chase spot, led just one lap before his engine expired. It was the five-time champion’s first DNF of the season.
Earnhardt Jr. lasted longer than Johnson, but a cut tire made the end result unfortunately similar. The No. 88 Chevrolet started strong before cutting the tire after hitting the wall on Lap 135. A 36th place finish was the best the team could get after returning from the garage.
Jeff Gordon remains in danger of missing the Chase after bad handling resulted in a 17th place finish. The veteran will need to avoid another wreck, like the one he encountered in his last start at Bristol, to join his teammates inside the cutoff.
Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has decided to part ways with Juan Pablo Montoya, who has been a common read in the lower depths of Hot or Not for some time. Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer reports that Montoya has been in talks with Michael Andretti in an attempt to bring the driver back to the IZOD IndyCar Series next season.
If that were to happen, it would likely mean that Montoya would be out of NASCAR for the foreseeable future.
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