A few Nextel Cup drivers left Phoenix as hot as the desert sun, while others couldn’t use that extra warmth to break the chill of a bad year. While things have remained close at the top, with the Top 5 in the point standings separated by just 77 markers, there are a number of drivers stuck in ice cold slumps that are threatening to ruin their entire season. Let’s take a look at Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Nextel Cup following Week 8 and the Subway Fresh 500:
Kevin Harvick: After struggling the first half of the year, Harvick has flipped on the heat switch, putting together a streak of four consecutive Top 10 finishes. His Phoenix sweep ended his 39 race winless drought and boosted him to 8th in the standings. There’s nothing like heating up at contract negotiating time.
Matt Kenseth: With his fifth Top 5 of the season, Kenseth took the top spot in the standings from Jimmie Johnson heading into Talladega this weekend, where no point lead is safe. It’s the second time this year Kenseth has held the top spot, continuing his streak of remaining in the Top 3 of Nextel Cup points each week since his win at Fontana.
Tony Stewart: Stewart is tied with Kenseth with a series leading five Top 5 finishes, and extended his streak of leading at least one lap in each race so far this season at Phoenix. A mixup with his qualifying tires forced him to the rear of the field Saturday night, but that didn’t matter much, as the 20 team easily maneuvered their way back up front to a 2nd place finish. A driver who’s notoriously slow to get going out of the gate, if Stewart’s running this well now, that could spell trouble for everyone else later in the season.
Jimmie Johnson: Other than one bad run at Bristol, Johnson has had just about a “picture perfect” season. With six Top 10 finishes and two wins, Johnson has been on top of the standings for six of this season’s first eight weeks. Despite losing the lead to Kenseth after a 7th place run at Phoenix, Johnson is still one of the top drivers to beat, week in and week out.
Kasey Kahne: Like Johnson, Kasey Kahne is having a near-flawless year; unlike Johnson, that’s a big switch from 2005, when Kahne finished 23rd in points. With two wins, four Top 5s and six Top 10s (including a 6th Saturday night), his stats are nearly identical to Johnson’s. Now third in points, Kahne needs to simply continue to show that this run of good finishes isn’t just a fluke.
Bobby Labonte: After making the big move to Petty Enterprises in the offseason, many hoped Labonte would be able to resurrect the #43 team, but not many thought he could actually pull it off this year. While things at PE are far from fixed, Labonte is showcasing their progress with three Top 10 finishes in the last four races. He’s still back in 25th in the points, but he’s improved 13 spots in just the last four weeks. That’s a sign of a team moving in the right direction.
Sterling Marlin: Granted, a 30th place spot in the standings isn’t anything to brag about, but expectations aren’t high for this team after a sluggish start to the year. Marlin’s 12th place run at Phoenix, along with two other Top 20 finishes in the last four weeks, show some gradual signs of improvement for this new MB2 combination that was out of the Top 35 in owner points just three races ago.
Jeff Burton: It took awhile, but Burton is finally reaping the benefits of a resurgence at RCR. While he’s not as hot as his teammate Kevin Harvick, Burton does have two straight Top 10 finishes and four overall this season, putting him 13th in the standings. That’s a vast improvement over his 31st place start to the season following the Daytona 500.
Kurt Busch: In many instances, a driver gets on a roll after winning a race; that hasn’t been the case for Kurt Busch. In the three races since his win, he has two finishes of 20th or worse, and got involved in the Greg Biffle backstretch snafu at Texas. However, Talladega may bring a turnaround, given his 70% Top 10 rate there.
Ryan Newman: Unlike his teammate, who has reason to be excited about running at Talladega, this may not be the weekend Newman snaps out of his slump. With only two Top 10’s and three finishes of 39th or worse, including two straight, Newman finds himself at a season low 22nd place in the standings. Not only that, but with three finishes of 39th or worse in eight Talladega starts, the forecast for sunnier skies for the Alltel team doesn’t look too promising.
Casey Mears: Mears’ slide down from early season success continued with a 20th place finish at Phoenix Saturday night. He started this year out on par with Jimmie Johnson with three Top 10s, but since then has failed to finish higher than 14th. He’s still 10th in the points, but is hanging on by just a thread.
Michael Waltrip: Given his success at restrictor plate races with DEI, many people would pick Waltrip to have a good finish on Sunday. Unfortunately, his poor performances this year have him in the precarious position of possibly missing the race entirely. Currently 36th in the owners standings, Waltrip must qualify for the race on speed, which hasn’t been his strong suit so far this year. In eight races, he has only two Top 25 starting positions and two Top 20 finishes, making this weekend very unsettling and nerve wracking for Waltrip fans.
David Stremme: Other than Brent Sherman, Stremme is the only rookie driver yet to earn a Top 10 finish in 2006. And with no finishes in the Top 20, including a disappointing 29th at Phoenix in his first race with new crew chief Steven Lane, Stremme doesn’t look to be breaking out of that rut anytime soon.
Robby Gordon: After earning two Top 15 finishes in the first three races of the year, things looked to be turning around for Gordon. But those warm feelings have subsided thanks to two engine failures in the past three weeks which have dropped him to 31st place in the rankings.
Joe Nemechek: The only positive streak Nemechek has going right now is his current 40 race streak without a DNF, which was seriously threatened in Phoenix after a wreck forced him behind the wall. That’s been the story of Nemechek’s year; he hasn’t had much to brag about with only one Top 10 finish (Las Vegas) and the man many picked as a darkhorse to make the Chase sits a distant 28th in points.
If your driver is sitting in the cold, don’t panic; things could all easily change this weekend at Talladega, where anything that can happen usually does. Who will avoid the big wreck this time around at NASCAR’s largest superspeedway? Will the new bumper rules really cure bump drafting, or just cause the "big one" to be bigger and more often? Only time will tell, and I for one can’t wait until that 500 mile race on Sunday to find out the answers.
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