The Frontstretch: Who's Hot/Who's Not in NASCAR: Watkins Glen/Michigan Edition by Brett Poirier -- Tuesday August 14, 2012

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Who's Hot/Who's Not in NASCAR: Watkins Glen/Michigan Edition

Brett Poirier · Tuesday August 14, 2012

 

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.

The ending to Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It brought back memories of my favorite video game as a kid — Super Mario Kart for Super Nintendo. The ending was so chaotic it didn’t seem real.

Kyle Busch had the win and the second wild card spot locked up when he began slipping in oil during the final two laps, allowing Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose to close in. Keselowski spun Busch in the esses (green shell) and along with Ambrose, drove through the grass in the bus stop (shortcut).

Then Ambrose turned it up a notch (star power) for the final corners and wrestled the lead away from Keselowski, and despite one more bump, held on to the checkers.

Busch was left ranked out in seventh, still in search of a second victory. More intrigue is added to the wild card race with each passing week. What will Michigan have in store?

Well, while we mull the possibilities over, here is Who’s Hot and Who’s Not after a crazy finish at Watkins Glen.

Brad Keselowski chased Marcos Ambros at The Glen and settled for a second place finish—but it sure felt like a first.

HOT

After coming home second, how many drivers get out of their cars to congratulate the crew who won the race? Brad Keselowski did, and it was one of the best moments in a memorable weekend. Keselowski proved that his runner-up result in 2011 at Watkins Glen was no fluke and after Sunday’s race, Ambrose said Keselowski was one of the best road course drivers he had ever raced against.

Keselowski’s flat-out getting it done everywhere right now. He earned his sixth straight top 10 on Sunday and is clearly the hottest driver in Sprint Cup right now.

It took 22 races for it to happen, but Jimmie Johnson is back in a familiar spot — the points lead. I love hearing the argument that Johnson wouldn’t win the championship if there was a road course in the Chase. Obviously, these people are watching something that I’m not. Johnson placed third at Watkins Glen and fifth at Sonoma.

If the playoff schedule needs to be reconfigured so Johnson won’t win the title, put in a handful of superspeedways (this would be terrible) because Johnson knows how to get around a road course.

WARM

Part of proving that you are a championship contender is performing well on each type of track on the circuit. Greg Biffle—often thought of as just a 1.5-mile ace—has done that it 2012.

Biffle raced his way to top 10s in both road course races (seventh at Sonoma and sixth at Watkins Glen) and has top 10s in three of the last four events. The driver who led the points for much of the season was expected to fade, but after 22 races, he is one point out of the lead.

Besides Marcos Ambrose, nobody benefited more from the chaos in the closing laps than Ryan Newman. I’m not so sure there wasn’t a Bobby Labonte-Ryan Newman conspiracy going on. When he crossed the start-finish line for the white flag, Newman’s Chase chances were hanging on a string. Kyle Busch was in line for his second win and Jeff Gordon was surging forward into the top 10.

The two drivers, who benefited the least from Labonte’s oil, just happened to be the guys Newman was racing for that final wild card spot. After contact with Keselowski, Busch was seventh and after spinning on the final corner, Gordon was 21st.

Newman drove to 11th and somehow exited Watkins Glen in the second wild card spot.

I also wanted to give a call out to Regan Smith, who had one top 20 (16th) in his road course career before Sunday. Smith was in the top 15 all day and came home ninth for the second straight race under new crew chief Todd Berrier. Before Berrier stepped into that role, Smith had a best finish of 14th in 2012.

COOL

Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved he can blow a points lead like the Red Sox can blow a wild card lead (check 2011). Junior tried to give it away at Pocono after breaking his transmission, but because Jimmie Johnson took out himself and Matt Kenseth in the final laps, Earnhardt Jr. held on for one more week.

On Sunday, Junior put himself in position to score his first top 10 at a road course since 2005, but once again it wasn’t meant to be. Earnhardt Jr. spun himself and ended up 28th, giving the point lead to a more deserving driver in Johnson.

Nobody had to be happier to leave Watkins Glen than the No. 88 team, except maybe the No. 11 team.

When ESPN was panning through the drivers during the National Anthem, I noticed something in Denny Hamlin. He looked like he wanted to go home. It’s like he knew his weekend, which started bad with a practice crash on Friday, was only going to get worse — and it did.

Hamlin’s day ended after yet another Gibbs mechanical problem (Joey Logano also had a separate issue). When Hamlin’s engine blew, the No. 11 went up in flames, causing him to have to make fiery exit. Hamlin still tied for his best finish in his last six road course starts, 34th. Can you blame Denny for not wanting to be there on Sunday?

COLD

If there was one place outside of Indianapolis where Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing could turn its season around, it was Watkins Glen. Both cars qualified in the top 10, including a second straight pole for Montoya at the track where he scored his last win.

For the second consecutive week, that feeling of hope was quickly replaced by more frustration. McMurray blew a left-front tire and crushed the wall through the esses and Montoya also broke something in the left front of his vehicle while he was still in contention for the win. A pair of top 10 starts turned into a pair of finishes in the 30s.

I wrote in last week’s column about Kyle Busch’s summer of self-sabotage, in which either a mistake by Busch or a mechanical issue had cost him the finish he deserved in seven of the last nine events heading into Watkins Glen.

I’m not sure how to categorize what happened on Sunday. Busch led a race-high 43 laps and made a daring move on a restart with 16 laps to go to get back to the lead. Busch’s joyride into the sunset proved to be anything but in the closing laps, when he began slipping in oil and made contact with Keselowski.

Only two drivers spun on the final lap at Watkins Glen, and it was only fitting that it was Jeff Gordon and Busch, who seem to have bad luck following each of them around in 2012.

The word Gordon used at the height of his misfortune this year was comical, and after Busch’s anger subsides from what happened on Sunday, it might be the word he leans on, too.

Contact Brett Poirier

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Carl D.
08/14/2012 01:52 PM
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“I love hearing the argument that Johnson wouldn’t win the championship if there was a road course in the Chase”

I think what they actually said was “Johnson wouldn’t win the championship if there wasn’t a chase”.