Cami Starr · Tuesday March 21, 2006
Rain washed out the Golden Corral 500 on Sunday and pushed it back to Monday. For some reason, Monday races always seem to bring about a few surprises, causing plenty of new faces in the Who’s Hot/Who’s Not lineup following the race at Atlanta.
Before we jump ahead too far, let’s take a look:
Kasey Kahne: Kahne is back to the form that had everyone excited about his future back in 2004 as a rookie. With his sophomore slump behind him, Kahne and his team are showing the competition that they have a pretty good handle on the Charger. His worst finish of the year was 11th at Daytona, a finish that a lot of drivers would love to have as their best finish of the year so far. Now second in the standings after the Atlanta win, Kahne and his team need to keep their noses to the grindstone and keep pounding out good finishes.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Atlanta has always been a good track for Dale, Jr., and he showed that with a strong third place finish on Monday after qualifying back in 26th. Everyone wondered how Dale, Jr.’s season would go now that he’s back with Tony Eury, Jr. While he still has a few doubters out there, you can’t really argue at this point that the year hasn’t turned positive. Other than the poor finish at Vegas last week, he has been in or near the Top 10 every week, and is sitting seventh in the standings. Not bad for someone who is "struggling".
Kyle Petty: It was great seeing Kyle with a Top 10 finish this week at Atlanta. His eighth place finish marks his best run at that track since he finished sixth there in 1997. The finish also bumps him up to 24th in the standings, which is key for qualifying following this weekend’s race at Bristol. Other than Daytona, qualifying hasn’t been Kyle’s strong suit, but if he can continue to put in good runs like this, he should stay away from the dreaded 35th place points cutoff.
Paul Menard: In just his third Cup start and first on an oval, Menard showed a lot of patience and talent on the way to his first Top 10. Early in the race, he fell back, but the crew made the right calls on pit road to get the car better and make him one of the fastest cars on the track near the midpoint of the race. The team then took a gamble on fuel at the end and stayed out at the finish, earning him valuable positions. What a good job by the rookie to stay cool and bring home an impressive seventh place finish.
Robby Gordon: Gordon wasn’t pleased with his 28th place finish, but he certainly has to be pleased with how the car performed and how well he ran up until the end of the race. He was on pace to bring home his best finish of the year in 3rd when a late race stop for a tire problem turned into a penalty that put him two laps down. Despite the disappointment and drop from 14th to 19th place in the standings, Gordon and his team should feel good about their turnaround from last season.
Dale Jarrett: Don’t count this old guy out just yet. Just three days after announcing plans to likely run through 2008, Jarrett earned his second top 10 finish of the season and bounced back into the top 10 in the point standings. One of the biggest problems for Jarrett in recent years has been a lack of consistency on top of the pit box. For now, the new combination is working. If D.J. and Slugger can keep working together as well as they have at the start of the season, there shouldn’t be any reason why he can’t remain a Top 10 contender.
Scott Riggs: Perhaps an 11th place finish isn’t anything to get too wild and crazy about, but for this team, anything positive is worth bragging about. After failing to make the Daytona 500, Riggs had two mediocre finishes before coming in 11th on Monday. That finish put him 32nd in the point standings, which is critical for this team as we move one week away from using 2006 owner points to determine starting fields. Another bonus for Riggs is how well his teammate Kasey Kahne is running. Hopefully some of that information will trickle down, and we will see the finishes from Riggs that Ray Evernham thought he would be able to earn when he hired him last year.
Reed Sorenson- It’s been a tough rookie campaign for Sorenson up until this point, but a 10th place finish at Atlanta should help with his confidence and momentum. For the first time this season, he was the highest finishing rookie, and should make up some ground in the ROTY battle. He still has a long road ahead of him, but coming out of a tough track like Atlanta with a Top 10 your first time out is something to be proud of.
Bobby Labonte: Things looked so promising for Labonte following his fourth place qualifying effort on Friday. Everyone was so sure that "Mr. Atlanta" would put in another strong run and possibly even bring a win to Petty Enterprises. At the start of the race, it looked like it just might happen. But then, on lap 56, the car slowed on the backstretch, and Labonte’s day was done, just like that, with an engine failure. Now, four races into the season, Labonte finds himself struggling with bad luck once again, with his best finish a 30th place run at Vegas. But don’t count the team out just yet. Labonte has qualified well, he just needs to catch a few breaks and he can be running near the Top 10 or 15.
Kurt Busch: I bet the only thing giving Kurt Busch a smile Monday evening is the fact that Bristol is the next stop on the Nextel Cup tour. After crashing out of Daytona, Busch and his new team seemed to have turned a corner with two mediocre finishes at Fontana and Vegas. But Atlanta brought more bad luck for Busch. After leading for 22 laps, he hit the wall just before halfway and ended the day two laps down in 37th place. And he wasn’t shy about letting his frustrations known on Monday, either. During the race, he went into an expletive laced tirade about Kevin Harvick forcing him into the wall. Now back to 27th position in the standings, Busch has a battle on his hands to simply make it up to the Top 10 and make the Chase.
Carl Edwards: Just when you think Carl and his team are on the rise, something comes up and bites them in the rear. This week at Atlanta, the site of his first Cup win, it was the Dodge of Dave Blaney that was the culprit. Edwards, who had been running in the Top 10, suffered major damage to the front of his Ford when he and Blaney made contact on pit road. The team tried to make repairs, but a blown tire 20 laps later put Edwards 40th in the final running order and buried him back in 30th in the standings. But look on the bright side… bad luck can’t last forever"¦ can it? Or is Carl the latest victim of the dreaded Sophomore Jinx?
Jeremy Mayfield: While his teammate was celebrating a win and jumping into second place in the point standings, Mayfield was lamenting his 41st place finish. He smacked the wall on lap 118 and spent several laps behind the wall making repairs to finish the day 90 laps down. It will now take a nearly miraculous rebound for Mayfield to make a return trip to the Chase for a third straight year. Now 34th in the standings, he and his team have a lot of work to do to get back into contention for even a Top 15 finish.
Well race fans, it’s on to Bristol next week and I’m expecting plenty of fireworks. Will Mother Nature keep us dry this weekend? Can Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch play nice two weeks in a row? Will Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch tangle? And if they do, will Harvick back up his comment from Atlanta about making more than Kurt’s ears hurt? Will Jimmie Johnson be able to keep up his strong start with Chad Knaus back on the pit box? Only time will tell, and I can’t wait to find out the answers.
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