The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not In Nextel Cup: Infineon Edition by Cami Starr -- Monday June 25, 2007

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Who's Hot / Who's Not In Nextel Cup: Infineon Edition

Cami Starr · Monday June 25, 2007

 

There were plenty of twists and turns this weekend at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma…and I'm not just talking about the ones that were taken on the track. Robby Gordon got bumped off the pole by Jamie McMurray, but managed to lead the most laps in the race, only to see McMurray take control towards the end with a pit strategy gamble. Unfortunately for both, their fuel tanks rolled the dice on the craps table and came up short; while neither could make it to the finish without an extra splash of gas, the win went to a surprising recipient who fooled them all by going the distance…rookie Juan Pablo Montoya. In the meantime, several drivers saw Top 10 finishes evaporate as their own fuel tanks hit empty, painfully coasting along the Northern California countryside as a penalty for coming up short. And through it all, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson fought through the biggest penalties of their season to date, fighting through inspection failures to Top 10 finishes despite knowing the giant axe of suspensions, fines, and point deductions lay looming over their heads in what could be one of the biggest stories of the year.

So, who left Sonoma with a buzz of good fortune, and who left with a hungover feeling after sampling one too many bottles of Merlot at the winery tour? Read this week's Who's Hot and Who's Not to find out all you need to know.

Hot

Clint Bowyer: 2007 is shaping up to be the year of the first-time winner, and Bowyer has spent the past few weeks positioning himself to be the next driver to visit Victory Lane for the first time. In the last seven races, the sophomore sensation has scored five Top 10 finishes, including his team’s first Top 5 of the year at Sonoma on Sunday. While the Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet has certainly had its pitfalls at times, literally starting the year upside down at the Daytona 500 finish line, the No. 07 team has never stayed down for long to put themselves in Chase contention. The only knock on Bowyer’s season so far is the fact he hasn't led many laps this year…only 23 to date. But if the team keeps up their current performance, the laps up front will come, and so will that illustrious first win.

Jeff Gordon: In a season that has been pretty much smooth sailing for Gordon, this week had more than its share of ups and downs. Wednesday, Gordon and his wife celebrated the birth of their daughter, knocking away a contingency plan that would have seen Mark Martin behind the wheel of the No. 24 and allowing Gordon to focus on another road course win. Plans for a relaxing weekend at the track came crashing down, however, when Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson were banned from qualifying after failing Car Of Tomorrow inspection. That forced the Rainbow Warrior to the rear of the field…but when the going got tough, the tough get going, and Gordon overcame adversity to shine on Sunday. Coming back from 41st starting position, he scored Top 10 number 14 at Sonoma to keep his point lead at a healthy 271. Even with a possible 100 point penalty heading down the pike on Tuesday, he should still retain the top spot in the standings by a wide margin over Denny Hamlin. Up to this point, the No. 24 team is one of the hottest on the circuit; but the question now becomes, will a possible crew chief suspension penalty extinguish their progress towards that elusive fifth title?

Kevin Harvick: The roller coaster of a season for Harvick and his No. 29 team is once again on an upward climb. Following a three-race span with an average finish of 19th, Harvick has come back strong with more "Chase-like" finishes of 11th, seventh, and now second at Sonoma on Sunday, his first Top 5 since Bristol in March. His runner-up finish kept him eighth in the standings; on the surface, that seems like solid positioning for a run for the title, but Harvick lies just 150 points from falling out of the Chase race. Is that a good enough cushion to make sure he's in the Top 12 come Loudon in September? That depends on which Harvick shows up in the next ten races; the one who won at Daytona and has scored seven Top 10 finishes, or the one that has six finishes of 20th or worse.

Warm

Robby Gordon: You would be hard pressed to find a more disappointed person leaving Infineon Raceway on Sunday than Robby Gordon. After starting on the front row, Gordon paced the first 34 laps of the race before giving up an almost three second lead to stop for fuel and tires. Gordon quickly found his way back to the front before making his final stop of the day on lap 75, forced to pit in order to know he had enough fuel to go the distance. Unfortunately for Gordon, other teams didn’t need an extra stop, and the time lost in the pits proved far too much to make up on the track this time around. But all wasn't lost; Gordon didn't bring home the hardware, but his 16th place finish was good enough to move him up five places to 24th in owner points. He has also scored finishes of 16th or higher in three of the last four races, putting him back on the Nextel Cup map as one of the sport’s best single-car programs on tour.

Ryan Newman: Depending on if you're a glass half full or a glass half empty type of person, Newman is either warm or cool. In the last five races, he has three finishes of 20th or worse, including two of 39th and 37th. But if you go back eight races total, Newman has five Top 10s, including two runner-up finishes on his resume. Like many drivers out there, fuel strategy that didn’t work out put Newman in the back this weekend after running in the Top 10 for most of the race. On the bright side, his 20th place finish was good enough to move him up to 13th in the standings, just 96 out of the coveted Top 12 with ten races left before the Chase. Should they keep momentum on their side, Penske Racing’s No. 12 machine should be in a good position when the checkers fall at Richmond.

Bill Elliott: When Elliott was brought on board at Wood Brothers racing, his objective was clear - get the team into the Top 35 in owner points. Five races into his part-time stint, the No. 21 is still on the outside looking in; but Elliott has done his job, cutting the deficit to 159 from 35th-place Johnny Sauter and the No. 70. However, the most important stat for the 51-year-old veteran is that he has used just one of his allotted past champion provisionals. In the last two races, Elliott has finished especially well, scoring an 11th place run at Michigan and a 19th at Sonoma. Whether or not Awesome Bill can accomplish his ultimate mission remains to be seen…but the team is showing signs that they are heading in the right direction.

Cool

*J.J. Yeley:*After scoring a second place finish in the Coca-Cola 600, the rumors regarding Yeley's possible ousting at Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to have quieted down. But his performance in the four races since have gotten the rumors started all over again. Even his pole-winning performance at Michigan last week hasn't done much to silence his doubters. But can you really blame them? While his teammates are running solidly within the Top 10; Yeley is fighting to simply stay above the Top 20 cut. Since his only Top 10 of the year at Charlotte, Yeley has finished no higher than 17th, curbing momentum and making it difficult to prove he’s improving with time in his second season on tour. With the inability to keep anything going off of a solid run, it won't be a shock to hear of a driver change in the No. 18 for next year, unless Yeley can pull off a sudden turnaround.

Jamie McMurray: McMurray's crew chief can bear the brunt of this rating; after scoring the pole at Infineon Raceway on Friday, McMurray should have easily scored a Top 5, or even a Top 10 with a conservative run to the finish. Instead, the team opted to make the gutsy call to try to make it to the end of the race on fuel. That gamble failed; instead of having two Top 10 finishes in a row and likely a spot in the Top 12 in the standings, McMurray finished 37th and possibly doused any momentum the team had been carrying forward. The No. 26 caught fire earlier this season, ripping off four Top 10s in a five-race span; but ever since, they have fallen back into obscurity, with McMurray appearing to fall into the same old slump that got him in trouble with Roush in the first place. Sunday presented the team another chance to get on a roll, building off an eighth place at Michigan…but, with victory starting them straight in the eye, they simply couldn’t capitalize. Of course, this begs the all-too-easy question: like McMurray's gas tank, has his Chase chances begun to run dry as well?

Bobby Labonte: Add Labonte to the list of drivers who saw a good run go south when the fumes ran out Sunday. He was running in eighth place on lap 109 before the needle hit the ‘E'; so instead of finishing strong, he wound up 33rd, his second such sub-30th place finish in a row. What has to especially hurt for this team is that they were running well until the last two weeks. They hadn't scored a Top 10 since Phoenix, but they weren't shooting themselves in the foot, either. In the meantime, Labonte took a two place hit in the points and currently is 19th heading into Loudon, looking to get back on track after a recent slump.

Cold

Kasey Kahne: Has anything gone right for this team this year? Kahne’s six win season last year has to seem like a lifetime ago for a No. 9 group that finds themselves 26th in the standings and with just one notch listed in this year’s Top 10 column. Just when they seem to take one step forward, Evernham Motorsports takes three or four steps back, it seems. Kahne was 12th at Talladega, but came back the next three weeks with finishes of 40th, 20th and 23rd to reestablish limited momentum. He seemed to bounce back at Dover, finishing 11th, until once again, in the last three races, he has failed to even find the Top 20. Old nose, new nose, old car, or Car of Tomorrow, it just doesn't seem to matter for the No. 9 bunch; Kahne just can't get anything going his way, and things don't look to change anytime soon.

Reed Sorenson: While his teammate was celebrating in Victory Lane, Sorenson was left lamenting over a disappointing 40th place finish with Chip Ganassi’s No. 41. It was his fifth finish of 40th or worse this season, a disappointment for a sophomore who’s failing to live up to expectations. Reed was another driver who got a surprising good finish in the Coca-Cola 600 and, like Yeley, he hasn't done much with that momentum. In the four races since, his best finish came last week at Michigan, where he was 23rd. Sadly, it would seem that judging by these results, Sorenson is smack dab in the middle of the dreaded Sophomore Slump. At least his good finishes at Charlotte and Atlanta showed that he is capable of getting the job done. Now, it makes his subpar performances look all the more disappointing.

Brian Vickers: Put Vickers in the list of drivers who have fallen off in the month of June. He ended May with an exciting run at Charlotte, leading 76 laps and scoring Toyota's first ever Top 5 finish in the Cup Series. But it's been a slow downhill slide ever since. In the three races following the 600, he finished 19th, 35th and 41st, with the downturn cumulating in yet another DNQ this weekend at Infineon. We all know Vickers can get the job done if he can make races, but these poor finishes and DNQ's continue to be a killer for this team, one that desperately needs track time to build their fledgling program.

Next up for Nextel Cup is a trip to New Hampshire for their second Car of Tomorrow race in a row. Will we see new faces on top of the No. 24 and No. 48 pit boxes? Can Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart finally win a short track, Car of Tomorrow race? Or will they just lead the most laps as they usually do, only to hand over the win to someone else? Meanwhile, can Jeff Burton get win number two at a track he has dominated in the past? Will Robby Gordon get revenge for his bad luck at Sonoma by getting another win at NHIS?

Well, we'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not in the Nextel Cup Series.

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©2000 - 2008 Cami Starr and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Jay
06/26/2007 07:00 AM
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Harvick is actually 245 points from falling out of the chase, not 150.

Robert Eastman
06/26/2007 01:05 PM
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Just Wondering?
How much of the #21’s improvement is because of the driver change and how much is from the crew chief change?
Since the driver can’t carry the car on his back around the track and “those in the know” attribute 90% of a team’s racing success to the car/setup, I have to believe that “Fatback” has as much to do with the Wood’s team improvement as Bill Elliot. This is not meant to take anything away from Bill, but I wonder if Schrader would have also done much better with a differrent crew chief? (What I’m not aware of, is there a “Chemistry” problem between Schrader and McSwain?)

Sean Decker
06/26/2007 04:43 PM
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Another reason for bringing Bill Elliot on board is he is a chassis specialist. He did most of the chassis set-ups when he was racing the Melling 9 car (the most successful portion of his career).

Bringing Elliot onboard gave the Wood Brothers someone that’s especially adept at making a car handle. Given that anything that will make a COT handle better is going to have come from the chassis and not aero I’d say the Wood’s made brilliant choice in getting Elliot.

While I think McSwaim’s return to the top of the pit box is significant, I believe Elliot has more to do with 21 car’s improvement.

Now they need to get him to stay awhile

 

Contact Cami Starr

Recent articles from Cami Starr:

2009 Season Review: Jeff Burton
Frontstretch Live Blog: Chase Race #8 Edition
Driver Review : Scott Speed
Driver Review : Michael McDowell
Chase Challenge Rosters

Want to know more about Cami or see all of her past Frontstretch articles? Then check out her article archive and bio page