The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not in NASCAR: Phoenix / Homestead-Miami Edition by Brett Poirier -- Monday November 12, 2012

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Brad Keselowski couldn’t catch a break in the final 50 laps of the race at Texas, but he caught a big one at Phoenix. Jimmie Johnson’s right-front tire failure and subsequent crash put Keselowski in the catbird’s seat (20-point lead) heading to Homestead-Miami.

Johnson must have left his golden horseshoe in Victory Lane at Texas, or maybe Kevin Harvick finally stole it. Either way, after Johnson caught all the lucky breaks at Texas, Keselowski caught them all at Phoenix. After Johnson’s wreck, the race wasn’t exactly a cakewalk for Keselowski, especially in the final laps. He had to avoid Jeff Gordon’s stupidity (more on that in Cold), then get to the finish while skating in oil and avoiding a massive accident on the frontstretch. It must’ve felt like Watkins Glen all over again, except the championship was on the line so it wasn’t as easy to laugh at.

There have been many reasons why Keselowski shouldn’t win this championship:

1. He doesn’t have the experience, only being in his third full year.
2. He doesn’t have a Chase-caliber teammate to share information with (he only has one.)
3. He is racing for an organization that has never won a title.
4. He is racing for a manufacturer that won’t return to NASCAR next year.
5. He hasn’t really lost a title fight to learn how to win it.

None of it seems to matter. If he seals the title at Homestead-Miami, what a story for Dodge, Penske, for Keselowski…what a great thing for NASCAR!

Here is Who’s Hot and Who’s Not with one race left in the season.

Brad Keselowski’s luck returned at Phoenix, making him one very HOT driver.

HOT

The only thing standing between the No. 2 team and a Sprint Cup title is themselves. Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe need to prepare and execute like they have been without shifting into hyper-conservative mode at Homestead-Miami. Racing safe could easily put Keselowski in that 16th to 20th range and in more danger than if he was at the front of the pack.

Keselowski doesn’t have to go out and dominate the race, but he needs to be in the top 10, which he has shown a knack for doing. In the last 19 races, he has 17 top 10 finishes, and every time Keselowski has faced pressure, he has responded, so there is no reason to think he won’t on Sunday.

Kyle Busch has six top 5s in nine Chase races. He dominated at Phoenix, leading 237 laps, but let another race slip away in the final laps. Busch has lost the last eight races in which he has led the most laps, and that stat is starting to look pretty ominous.

Nobody would be more deserving of a victory in the season’s final race than Busch, who has been knocking at the door insistently (second, third and third in the last three races), but he needs to knock the door down, or maybe drive his Toyota Camry right through it.

WARM

Kevin Harvick finally scored his first top 10 of the playoffs at Texas, and he took another five leaps forward at Phoenix, giving Richard Childress Racing its first victory of the season. This came days after Harvick was in the news for planning to leave the organization after 2013 for Stewart-Haas Racing. Next season is going to be awkward, to say the least.

Harvick followed in the footsteps of Kasey Kahne in planning his future, maybe too soon. Kahne fell into the perfect one-year situation at Red Bull Racing, but I’m not sure things will go as smoothly for Harvick if he stays at Childress. Here’s what I suggest: Harvick take’s a ride with Xxxtremme Motorsports, not only because they have the coolest name out (like if a porn star started a race team), but Harvick could race there for one year with no worries and no commitments, while helping to build an underfunded team. All I’m saying is it would be really xxxtreme. Think about it Kevin.

Kurt Busch may be the perfect guy to fill Harvick’s seat in 2013 or 2014. Assuming both Dillon brothers aren’t thrown into the fire of Sprint Cup with an underachieving race team all at once. Busch scored his second consecutive top 10 on Sunday when he crossed the line in a ball of fire. He has back-to-back eighth-place finishes and that easily could have been three straight top 10s if it wasn’t for late-race trouble at Martinsville. The No. 51 to No. 78 move is starting to look like a smart one.

COOL

Jeff Burton drove to his best finish (13th) since Talladega, but he hit a couple of walls and Danica Patrick on the way. After making hard contact with the outside wall with his primary car in the first practice, Burton went out in his back up and wrecked that, too. Richard Childress Racing ended up having to repair the primary car so the veteran could race on Sunday.

Burton was having a quiet day in the top 15 until he booted Danica Patrick — having her best career run — coming to the white flag and chaos ensued. The end result was teammate Paul Menard and host of other cars coming across the line in a demolition-derby-style finish. NASCAR certainly was at fault for not throwing the yellow flag on the final lap, but the incident never would have happened without Burton, who couldn’t seem to stay out of his own way.

Patrick’s strong run was marred by the last-lap melee, but she still rumbled her way across the line (with a little help from all the cars crashing into her) for 17th spot, two positions better than owner Tony Stewart.

After showing some speed in practice, Stewart raced outside the top 10 all day on Sunday. His memorable moment of the weekend was a spin off of Turn 2. Smoke has been out of championship contention for some time, so the pressure has been off — and so have the finishes. Stewart’s placed 19th or worse in four of the nine Chase races and will be one of the first drivers introduced at the banquet a year after being the last.

COLD

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has only been back in the car for three weeks after taking time off to recover from back-to-back concussions, but he still doesn’t seem right. He was 21st at Martinsville and then 21st again at Phoenix — traditionally two of his best racetracks. Junior was two laps off the pace on Sunday, while the rest of his Hendrick teammates raced inside the top 10.

Even if the result was just due to an experimental setup, Junior’s finishes in the races he has participated in the playoffs have been less than thrilling. He has a best finish of seventh and five of his seven finishes are outside of the top 10. He hasn’t even been close to championship caliber.

Earnhardt Jr. may have run poorly at Phoenix, but he didn’t embarrass himself like his team mate Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion apparently visited the Danica Patrick School of Wrecking in recent weeks.

There are too many reasons to count why Gordon’s execution was less than ideal, but the main one has to be the setting: the final three laps of the penultimate Chase race in front of championship contender Keselowski, while driving possible championship contender Clint Bowyer head on into the wall. He also collected innocent by-standers Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, and forced Harvick and everyone else to go through one more restart.

All drivers get hot under the collar every once in a while, and that is part of what we love about them, but Gordon showed no regard, not just for Bowyer, but for the rest of his competitors as well and the race as a whole. I think we all lost a little respect for Gordon on Sunday, and as Bowyer sprinted through the garage after the accident I couldn’t help but hope that he got there.

Because apparently even four-time champions need to be taught lessons.

Contact Brett Poirier

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