Brett Poirier · Monday August 27, 2012
Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart’s seasons have almost mirrored each other. Both drivers entered Bristol with multiple victories in seasons that have been more up and down then Kurt Busch’s rear deck lid.
Hamlin and Stewart entered Bristol in The Chase, but they knew what was on the line Saturday night. Kasey Kahne has been steadily closing on the drivers in the top 10 and neither Hamlin nor Stewart wanted to be the driver to drop into a wild card slot and forfeit his team’s wins.
They certainly drove like they knew what was on the line, but the two drivers had very different outcomes. Hamlin finished a slide job on Carl Edwards in the final green-flag stint to take the lead and run away with his third victory, while Stewart’s fight for the lead ended with his car pressed up against Matt Kenseth’s and the inside wall.
Hamlin will be remembered for his doughnuts after the race and his hands raised in Victory Lane, while Stewart will be remembered for his two-handed helmet toss at Kenseth’s car and his over emotional post-race tantrum (the kind that can only come from a driver who knows deep down that he wrecked himself).
Kahne and Stewart are only separated by 16 points (Hamlin appears safe), and one can only wonder, are we witnessing a regular season collapse from Stewart that will dwarf what we saw last season?
Here is who is hot and who is not after the Bristol night race.
Only one driver has notched top 5s in each of the last three races. It isn’t Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth or Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s Marcos Ambrose,. Ambrose threw himself into wild card contention by winning at Watkins Glen and responded with fifth-place showings at Michigan and Bristol. This guy is proving he is more than a road-course ace.
Before Ambrose’s win at Watkins Glen, he was 58 points out of the second Chase spot. He left Bristol only 28 points back. He might run out of time to catch current wild card No. 2 Kyle Busch, but the way Ambrose is racing right now, would it be that much of a surprise if he won either of the next two races?
If he hadn’t slipped in some oil and damaged the right side of his car, Kasey Kahne very well could have been in Victory Lane at Bristol. The No. 5 looked strong early. Despite the incident, Kahne bounced back to finish ninth. It was his sixth top-10 in the last eight races, and another great points day.
Kahne closed within striking distance of a struggling Tony Stewart for the final spot in the top 10 and if the No. 5 is anywhere near as strong at Atlanta as it was at Charlotte earlier this year, Stewart is in trouble.
A lot of people thought Clint Bowyer was taking a significant step back by moving to Michael Waltrip Racing from Richard Childress Racing, but Bowyer has proved them wrong and is having a career year. He had 16 top 10s last year for RCR, and already has 14 with 12 races to go at MWR. That includes top 10s in four straight races. He was seventh on Sunday.
Bowyer’s name hasn’t been mentioned much as a championship contender, but maybe it should because he is proving the No. 15 team can be remarkably consistent.
Jimmie Johnson could be looking a three straight podium finishes if his engine held up at Michigan. The only thing that has stopped Johnson from being in the top 5 in every race is bad luck because the No. 48 has been fast everywhere.
Johnson qualified 37th at Bristol, an effort that would’ve ruined the weekend for most race teams, but instead bounced back to lead 52 laps and finish second.
Carl Edwards had the win he needed in his grasp at Bristol, but he let it slip through his fingers. Edwards proved that Bristol can be a cruel place. With less than 40 laps to go, he was in the lead. By the checkered flag, he was four laps down in 22nd after fading and then running out of fuel.
Edwards has three top 10s in the last 12 races. That sounds a lot like a guy that should be running for a championship.
Jeff Burton ran in the top 5 outside of a superspeedway for the first time since 2001 on Saturday night (not really). Unfortunately, Burton didn’t get the result he was hoping for after getting caught up in the Ryan Newman wreck on lap 190.
Bad luck can be attributed to Burton’s problems at Bristol, but bad performance has been the No. 31 team’s real problem. Burton has finished outside the top 20 in 14 of the first 24 races. There are only about 24 competitive teams in the Sprint Cup garage, so that is pretty hard to do.
It’s not just Burton who has struggled at Richard Childress Racing. Kevin Harvick has outperformed his teammates this season, but clearly isn’t where he would like to be. Harvick’s got one top 10 in the last nine races.
The No. 29 is a 15th place car most weeks (check the last four races) and unless something changes real quick, he has about the same shot as A.J. Allmendinger as competing for a title in 2012.
There isn’t much that can be said about Tony Stewart that wasn’t said in the intro. Smoke has wrecked twice and blown up in the last three races and is gaining points at the same rate as Danica Patrick. We’ve seen this before from Stewart and know he is capable of bouncing back at any point. The No. 14 team better hope it is sooner than later.
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