The Frontstretch: Who's Hot/Who's Not in NASCAR: Auto Club/Martinsville Edition by Brett Poirier -- Monday March 26, 2012

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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not is brought to you by StarCoach Race Tours, your home away from home at the track. Eat a hot meal, sleep in a warm place, with a cool view of the track, drinking a cold beverage with StarCoach Race Tours.

I don’t know if it was for you, but the 129 laps run on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway was plenty for me. I’m glad I spent only 1 hour, 36 minutes watching that race. The big winner when the race was called was Tony Stewart of course, but the guy in 14th must have felt like he won too.

The race went by so quickly, Kasey Kahne didn’t even have time to wreck his car (sorry Kahne fans). And for not doing so for the first time this season, Kahne moved himself out the cold area of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not. Luckily, there were a number of viable candidates willing to take his place in this week’s edition.

Tony Stewart is on track to smash his own record for number of wins in a single year. Two down—four to go.

Hot

Tony Stewart has had some superb seasons in Sprint Cup. His three championships vouch for that. However, Smoke has never started a year like this. Stewart recorded all five of his wins in the Chase last season, and even in other years when he has been strong, he has waited until the summer to catch fire.

The fact that Stewart already has two victories in the first five races of 2012 is scary. Where Stewart has recorded the wins could be even more disconcerting for the rest of the NASCAR garage. He has been the class of the field at the first 1.5-mile race and first 2.0-mile race… and tracks this size dominate the schedule. The most wins Stewart ever recorded in a season was six in 2000. Expect that number to be in jeopardy in 2012.

What a week for Jimmie Johnson. He earned back 25 points from NASCAR before he took the track on Sunday and learned his crew chief and car chief will be here to stay. That might not have even been the best part of the week.

Late in the race at Auto Club, he caught his biggest break yet. The No. 48 began leaking oil under the final caution for rain, but Johnson maintained speed until the red flag came out. Even better, when NASCAR called the race, he was awarded 10th place. It was Johnson’s fourth consecutive top 10. The only other driver with four top 10s is point leader Greg Biffle.

Warm

There is something to be said about consistency. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t set the world on fire in 2012, but he hasn’t done much wrong, either. Earnhardt Jr. is yet to finish outside the top 15, and that’s why he is third in the standings.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver had his most impressive run of the season at Auto Club (third) and now heads to a track where he was only a handful of laps away from winning in the spring in 2011. Earnhardt Jr. is averaging a finish of 7.75 in his last four races at Martinsville, and fans of Junior have to be excited about the prospects of a victory on Sunday.

After getting off to a rocky start, Ryan Newman has quickly turned things around for the other full-time Stewart-Haas team. Newman scored a pair of 21st finishes at Daytona and Phoenix, but has caught fire in the last three races. His success has just gone largely unnoticed because of what his teammate and car owner has done so far.

Newman was fourth at Las Vegas, 12th at Bristol and seventh at Auto Club. His performance on Sunday sprung him up to 10th in the standings.

Cool

Jamie McMurray’s 32nd-place run on Sunday was his third finish of 30th or worse in the first five races. McMurray has a lot to prove after placing 27th in the standings last year (he was expected to contend for a Chase spot), but 2012 isn’t treating him much better.

While he does have a pair of top 10s, McMurray is back in 22nd in the points standings with drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and A.J. Allmendinger still behind him.

I’m not sure the rain should award ‘Lucky Dogs,’ but it did on Sunday, and it helped break a streak A.J. Allmendinger had going in 2012. The late-race gift put the Penske driver on the lead lap at the finish of a race for the first time since he joined the organization. Allmendinger also scored his best finish of the season, but 15th isn’t much to brag about at Penske Racing.

While Brad Keselowski (18th) didn’t have a great day himself on Sunday, Allmendinger’s Dodge was once again off the pace as it has been in all five races this season.

Cold

For the second straight week, Jeff Gordon fell victim to circumstances. At Bristol, the four-time champ cut a tire and backed into the wall after contact with his teammate, Earnhardt Jr. At Auto Club, Gordon had his first top 5 run of the season well in hand until he was penalized for a pit road equipment violation after his gasman landed two feet outside the No. 24 pit. His 26th-place finish was his third finish of 25th or worse in five races.

Gordon has only one top 10 this season (eighth at Phoenix) and is 25th in the standings. We are only five races in and there isn’t reason to panic. However, there is cause for concern. The No. 24 currently sits a whopping 51 points out of 10th.

Richard Petty Motorsports actually has one less top 10 than Gordon. If you are counting at home, that number is zero. The No. 9 and No. 43 combined for 22 top 10s in 2011. On Sunday, neither car finished on the lead lap. Marcos Ambrose was 21st and teammate Aric Almirola was 25th.

Ambrose was a popular pick as a breakout driver this season, but the results haven’t come. He had a top 5 going in the late stages of the race at Phoenix before his engine expired and was running in the top 10 at Bristol when Kasey Kahne’s early accident took out a number of contenders, including Ambrose.

Contact Brett Poirier

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Sherri T
03/27/2012 09:17 AM
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Personally, the Sprint Cup race was not exciting to me. I enjoyed the Nationwide race much more. They put on a much better show.

Rob Bolling
03/27/2012 10:13 AM
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While accuracy of trends will increase with the number of races ran, I would attribute bad luck on the part of Gordon and Ambrose.

New team chemistry issues plague both Allmendinger and Almirola.

If things look the same 15 races into the season, I will be surprised.

Gordon should rebound to having several top 5 finishes by then, and I would say 3-4 top tens from Ambrose, with a very possible roadie win.

For the Dinger I expect the same, at least a handful of top 10s by 15 in and the outside chance for a win at Dover or Pocono.

Almirola is a good driver but he is still low on the learning curve.

As for the hot and warm drivers;

Smoke is smoking and I do not see any fire trucks in the vicinity.

I can’t I believe Jr has won his last race and see his slump as very similar to Tiger Woods, it is just a matter of time before we see the 88 in victory lane.

SHOEMAN
03/27/2012 11:53 AM
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When and if the 88 wins a race, you can count on NASCAR having something to do with it. Not because he earned it.

Rob Bolling
03/28/2012 03:26 PM
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Shoeman, why all the vitriol?

To follow your logic to it’s end, one would suppose his third place in the points has been orchestrated by NASCAR.

Statistics show, drivers that finish in the top 5 to 10 consistently have what it takes to, and generally, eventually win races.

He is with a top team, and is arguably a capable driver. The odds and history show that these two factors usually combine to win races.

Continue what they are doing, and they will need no help from NASCAR.

SHOEMAN
03/30/2012 10:04 AM
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Bob Bolling> Stats don’t win races. Talent does, which Jr is lacking. GO ROWDY!