Brad Morgan · Tuesday November 12, 2013
The finale of the Sprint Cup season is upon us and after 500 kilometers and Phoenix left one title contender reeling, the championship picture is now dominated by one driver.
Several Chase drivers had a day to remember in a return trip to the desert, but two, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, left extremely happy.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that while Johnson has now become the easy choice when picking a potential champion for this season, there are several others who are building momentum for the 2014 campaign and those who are simply looking for some time off.
Kevin Harvick has developed a knack for finishing things off strongly, be it Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway or the Richard Childress Racing portion of his NASCAR career.
Harvick put the No. 29 RCR Chevrolet in victory lane for the fourth time this season after leading a race-high 70 laps. He ended up there by taking advantage of Carl Edwards’ fuel mileage mishap and passed the No. 99 entering the white flag lap.
The RCR driver was so good that at times he was ahead of Matt Kenseth in the standings. Currently, he is only six points behind Kenseth and still mathematically capable of winning the championship. (The only other driver aside from Johnson and Kenseth.)
While Harvick’s chances of capturing the title are slim at best, his stock couldn’t be much higher as the offseason approaches. And who would have guessed it? Only a few weeks after a Martinsville tirade—directed at fellow RCR drivers (and Richard Childress’ nephews) Austin and Ty Dillon—left Harvick’s final races with the organization in question, here he is still in contention.
Harvick was only able to shave a few points off the margin between himself and leader Jimmie Johnson because the five-time champion crossed the line a close third. Johnson avoided any trouble at Phoenix after taking a critical hit there in last season’s Chase. He’ll look to lock up a sixth Cup at Homestead, where it would seem that only a DNF (two in 12 starts) could derail his hopes.
Even with Johnson’s success over the past nine weeks, it’s hard to ignore the postseason that Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having. Junior tied a career-best mark with his 21st top 10 of the season, and seventh of the Chase.
While Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. have each had special postseason runs, Kasey Kahne has often seemed disappointing because of the flashes of greatness he showed during the regular season. But, things have been different over the past two weeks (with finishes of fifth and second) and he appears to be building momentum again before next season.
Kahne led multiple laps for the first time since pacing the field for 138 circuits in October and ran up front without issue after qualifying seventh. These are good signs for the No. 5 team, as they prime for the offseason.
While Kahne’s championship aspirations sailed weeks ago, he has shown the ability to once again run with the remaining title minded Chase drivers. For that to continue at Homestead, he will need to channel the type of efforts that resulted in multiple top 10’s while driving for former owner Dietrich Mateschitz.
Ryan Newman has also put together something of a late-Chase comeback after things fell apart due to a 35th-place finish at Kansas.
Newman led 31 laps around the one-mile venue and posted a 10th-place result – the highest finisher among Stewart-Haas Racing drivers – to move up one spot to 11th in the standings.
A first-ever win at Homestead would be a nice departing gift for SHR owner Tony Stewart, and recent form at the Florida-based track makes a win seem possible. Newman is among the series’ best at the 1.5-mile speedway, sporting a 7.33 average finish over the past three races.
Matt Kenseth dodged a major bullet last week, but had no such luck when problems reared up again at Phoenix. On this occasion the issue was with the No. 17 Camry itself. The car’s setup was off from the drop of the green flag and crew chief Jason Ratcliff was unable to find the remedy. As a result, Kenseth ran off championship pace and finished 1-lap down in 23rd position.
Kenseth’s biggest misstep of the Chase is enough to leave him in a 28-point deficit entering the season’s final race. Even though the Joe Gibbs driver still has a shot, chances are that he won’t be the one hoisting the championship trophy when the checkered flag waves on the season. He will have to do as much hoping as he will do driving Sunday, because Johnson simply needs to finish 23rd (or 24th while leading a lap, or 25th while leading the most laps) to clinch a sixth title.
Johnson has fallen on hard times at Homestead in the last two trips to the venue, while Kenseth has posted an 11th-place average finish in those races. Unfortunately he will need to do better than that, unless lighting strikes for a third straight time for Johnson.
There is still no word on full-time plans for current Nationwide regular Elliott Sadler for next season. The former Sprint Cup driver was given the opportunity to drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing entry after the team’s regular driver Brian Vickers was sidelined with blood clots. While this is good news, Sadler’s results (25th, 19th and 25th) in three spot starts thus far aren’t extraordinary.
Danica Patrick has experienced the typical amount of bumps and bruises that a rookie should expect and magnified it. Simply put, Patrick hasn’t had many good experiences since shocking the world during Daytona 500 weekend.
The SHR driver finished nine laps down in 33rd at Phoenix, after running over equipment during a lap-118 pit stop. The disappointing result is just the latest indication of a lack of progression as the season moves to its final stage.
While fellow rookie turned boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has developed a reputation for being relatively consistent and safe with equipment, Patrick hasn’t had the same good fortune in her first full-time campaign. Patrick has recorded finishes that are roughly equal to or worse than those that she had at venues that the series revisited during the Chase. Of those return trips, only Loudon and Charlotte were vast improvements compared to the corresponding spring dates.
Patrick is signed with SHR for at least a few more years, but it’s hard to image her capable of sustaining a long-term Sprint Cup career if she continues to post results like she has this year. Currently she ranks in the bottom four in average finishing position for drivers who have started all 35 races and she has only one top-10 finish.
Patrick will make her first Sprint Cup start at Homestead-Miami on Sunday.
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