Brad Morgan · Tuesday August 27, 2013
Bristol Motor Speedway has a way of causing a lot of controversy despite its small size and the 2013 Irwin Tools Night Race was no different. The contenders and pretenders are beginning to emerge after the year’s second visit to the “Last Great Coliseum”.
This Thunder Valley inspired edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not proves that bad luck isn’t enough to hold some drivers back, while others are now slumping at the worst possible time while the series prepares for a trip to Atlanta.
Joey Logano took his hot status to new heights at Bristol, showing that he could continue to race well even after sustaining damage from Kyle Busch.
The No. 22 crew was able to make repairs to the Ford Fusion’s right-front fender on that occasion, however, the Penske driver had a lot of ground to make up. From there, the night was just getting started as Logano would also overcome a speeding penalty, being blocked into his pit stall by the No. 11, and an extra stop to remove debris from the grill.
After every issue Logano was able to race his way back into contention with the leaders, before recording a fifth-place finish. This race showed that Logano has truly progressed as a driver since his last trip to Bristol, which ended on a sour note. During that race, the Food City 500, Logano also ran well, but was unable to keep his emotions in check after a spin off Hamlin’s bumper.
In Round 2, Logano kept his cool with every mistake and finds himself on the inside of the Chase bubble as a result, with only two races remaining before the 10-race playoff is set to begin.
Kasey Kahne has been almost immune to the recent struggles at Hendrick Motorsports and that trend continued in the Irwin Tools Night Race. Kahne came ever so close to becoming a repeat winner at Bristol, needing only to pull off a “bump and run” to get around leader Matt Kenseth during the final laps. It proved to be a move that Kahne wouldn’t execute and instead of potentially wrecking Kenseth, he settled for a much less controversial runner-up result.
With two wins, Kahne appears to be in good shape to secure a Chase birth at some point. He ranks eighth in the standings, 42 points ahead of second wildcard occupant Ryan Newman. But recent struggles at Atlanta, including finishes of 34th and 23rd since the track moved to one race date per season, could postpone celebrations in the No. 5 camp.
Matt Kenseth needed a win a Bristol and he got it with a resounding effort, leading twice for a race-high 149 laps, including the final 125 circuits.
The Joe Gibbs driver hasn’t been in danger of missing the Chase – due to his series leading five wins – but until this race, he just didn’t seem like the Kenseth who consistently showed up to the track as guy to beat during the schedule’s early months. Maybe this victory will help to recover some swagger for a driver who has suffered through a miserable month that included no other finishes better than a 15th at Michigan.
What good timing.
The recent win, paired with a solid history at AMS, could have Kenseth and the No. 20 team looking good again in time for the stretch run. Kenseth brings a little momentum to Atlanta, and with top 10s in over half of his 24 career starts there, the odds seem favorable for a bigger upswing.
Several Chase hopefuls in need of a good finish were involved in the multitude of wrecks that played out inside Bristol’s tightly packed bullring, leaving many drivers disappointed; but a ninth-place finish insured that Greg Biffle wouldn’t be one of them.
Biffle has been riding the bubble for much of the season without slipping outside of the cutoff point. The No. 16 team has used its lone win and prolonged consistency to remain a factor to this point. Though Biffle might not turn heads like other drivers who appear to be opting for a more Chutes and Ladders style approach during crunch time, three top 10s in four races can’t be ignored.
There is potential for this to be a very frustrating season for Roger Penske. All signs currently point to Logano leading the No. 22 team into the Chase, but that would leave teammate and defending champion Brad Keselowski on the outside looking in if the drivers end up where they are positioned right now.
Keselowski’s outlook would be a lot better if he had a win, something that has eluded the Penske driver after he went to victory lane on five occasions last season.
At Bristol, the Blue Deuce was way off the mark and never appeared capable of snapping the team’s winless streak. When things could have turned positive Keselowski was involved in the night’s most high profile accident involving many borderline Chase drivers. The damage inflicted on the No. 2 machine relegated Keselowski to a 30th-place finish and sinks him to 11th in the standings.
Atlanta served as a huge momentum builder before Keselowski’s title campaign last year and could help save his season this time around.
The fact that Jimmie Johnson is having a truly historic season cannot be denied, but neither can a startling trend that has developed around him over the past few years.
Lately, Johnson has struggled leading up to the Chase and it appears to be happening again, this time because of crashes in two consecutive events – one resulting in a DNF – that have significantly closed the gap between the No. 48 and Clint Bowyer in the standings.
Another exhibit of Johnson’s bad luck entering the Chase was the Atlanta race last September in which the Lowes Chevrolet wrecked out after 269 laps.
Denny Hamlin’s inability to return to pre-spinal injury form has been an evolving story since it became clear that the JGR driver wasn’t his usual fast self, and new details are still emerging to shed light on why Hamlin is, well, cold.
Chronic back pain continues to be a problem for the recovering Hamlin, to the extent that “daily life is miserable”, according to FOX Sports writer Lee Spencer. This could help to explain why Hamlin seems alright over short runs, as illustrated by his pole award and 23 laps led at Bristol, but isn’t there when it counts most.
The No. 11 Toyota Camry cut a tire with 52 laps remaining and sent Hamlin speeding uncontrollably into other cars, collecting Keselowski and several others. He then had to deal with an angry Kevin Harvick upon returning to the pits for a damage assessment.
If Hamlin’s pain continues it could distract him enough to cause even more problems through the final 12 races. After that, surgery still remains a possibility, but Hamlin appears ready to weigh all of the options available to him.
Saturday wasn’t a good day to be a Truex. Martin Truex Jr. and his brother Ryan each encountered unwanted finishes at Bristol.
Martin was among those involved in the wreck that included Hamlin, Harvick, Keselowski and others, and never returned to the track after going to the garage with extensive damage. The DNF knocks the No. 56 machine outside of the Top 10, forcing the Michael Waltrip Racing driver to rely on his win at Sonoma for the time being.
Ryan Truex had a Sprint Cup debut not to remember. After qualifying 18th in James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet, Ryan appeared overmatched, brushing the wall early before hitting it hard enough to end his night on Lap 39.
His older brother will give it another go at Atlanta this weekend, where a repeat of last season’s fourth-place effort would likely move Martin back into a safer position in the standings.
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