The Frontstretch: Who's Hot/Who's Not in Nextel Cup: Talladega Edition by Cami Starr -- Monday May 1, 2006

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Who's Hot/Who's Not in Nextel Cup: Talladega Edition

The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday May 1, 2006

 

Monday brought another restrictor-plate race, another "Big One," and another round of cuts in the bid for the Chase for the Championship. Following Talladega, only 12 drivers would be in the Chase if the season ended now, leaving many teams scratching their heads and grasping at straws to make a move in the final 17 races before the official cutoff. Have any of the struggling teams got fire left in their belly to mount a desperate effort to make the “playoffs?” Let’s take a look at Who’s Hot/Who’s Not after the Aaron’s 499 to find out:

Hot

Jimmie Johnson: Last week, Johnson fell out of the point lead for only the second time this season. On Monday, he quickly reclaimed it with his third win of 2006, passing his teammate Brian Vickers coming to the white flag to take the victory. With only two finishes outside the Top 10 in nine races, Johnson is letting his performances on the track speak for themselves while quieting his critics. Until he can close the deal at the end of the season when it really counts, however, Johnson will still have his doubters.

Tony Stewart: After getting off to a bumpy start, Smoke has caught fire. The flames continued to be fanned at Talladega, where Stewart climbed the ladder to a second place finish to give him four straight Top 5 finishes and five in the last six races. Those have him sitting a season high third place in the standings with Stewart’s best races likely still ahead of him.

Matt Kenseth: Not too many people would complain about a sixth place finish, but that’s what cost Kenseth his first place ranking after Talladega. Don’t cry for the Roush driver just yet, though. Kenseth’s still just 21 points behind Johnson, and given his results this year, Matt doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Scott Riggs: After bashing Riggs earlier in the year, I figured it was time to give him some props following his recent string of good finishes. He’s finished in the Top 10 in three of the last four weeks and is 25th in the point standings, which is impressive considering he missed the season opener at Daytona.

Warm

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: It’s hard to put the “cool tag” on someone who is in the Top 10 in the standings, but if Dale, Jr. doesn’t heat up a bit soon that could be where he is headed. Talladega, usually full of hope for the 8 team, turned as black as the car’s retro paint scheme, with Dale, Jr. spinning out and then burning up the engine well before the end of the race. The finish cost Dale, Jr., as he fell to eighth in the points after finishes of 23rd and 31st. But with three Top 10s this season, he’s not in the ice box just yet.

Kevin Harvick: Harvick saw his four race Top 10 streak snapped at Talladega, but he managed to salvage his day after an early wreck and come out one place higher in the rankings with a 23rd place finish. Harvick has made steady progress all year, and one bit of bad luck at Talladega shouldn’t throw that off track.

Jeff Burton: Burton is reaping the benefits of a resurgence at RCR. With three straight Top 10s and five overall, including a strong 4th at Talladega, Burton is rebounding from a three race slump which dropped him as far back as 21st in the standings. Now in 12th, Burton is making a serious bid for a spot in the Chase.

Dale Jarrett: DJ has quietly worked his way up into the Top 10 in the standings after his 12th place finish Monday. He hasn’t been bold, never close to making any trips to Victory Lane in ‘06. In fact, Jarrett hasn’t been all that great either: he only has two Top 10s, but DJ’s been staying out of trouble and finishing in the Top 20 every week. It’s not likely that formula will win him a title, but it might be just good enough to get him into the Chase.

Cool

Kyle Busch: Shrub has been in the Top 10 in points since week 3 of the 2006 season, but at his current pace, he might not hold that distinction for long. Three straight finishes of 15th or worse, the last two being 36th and 32nd after wrecks, have him barely clinging onto the Top 10. He needs to be careful, as this recent cool spell could wilt his chances for the season ending Chase.

Casey Mears: Mears has been riding the coattails of his three Top 10 finishes to start the year, but his recent string of mediocrity caught up with him at Talladega, and he’s now out of the Top 10 for the first time in 2006. With no finish better than 14th in the last six races, things have taken a downturn for Mears, who many had pegged to win his first race this season. I’m not counting Mears out yet, but Casey needs to start making progress in the other direction if he wants to finish the year as well as he started.

Elliott Sadler: The weekend started off well for Sadler after capturing his first Bud Pole award for 2006, but when the final tally was done, it was more of the same for the 38 at the end of Monday’s race: wrong place, wrong time, bad finish. Sadler has managed to earn only two Top 10 finishes this season and currently sits 13th in the points. With two finishes outside the Top 30 in the last three weeks, Sadler can’t afford to let many more good opportunities pass him by.

Cold

Greg Biffle: As the season continues to play out, Biffle’s chances of making the Chase get smaller and smaller. The way things are shaking out, don’t look for more than 10 drivers to be invited to the season ending dance, and if that’s the case, don’t look for Biffle to be one of the drivers with an invite. An engine failure was the culprit at Talladega, but it’s been one thing after another this year for Biffle, who has now dropped to 23rd in the standings. Biffle’d have to have a near perfect run to make a challenge for the Top 10, and at the rate he’s going, it doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Ryan Newman: Like many drivers, Newman entered this weekend hopeful that he could finally put up a good result, given that he finished third at the other restrictor-plate race of the year at Daytona. Those hopes were quickly dashed, of course, when he was caught up in the wreck on lap 9. The end result for Newman? A third straight finish of 33rd or worse and a four place drop to 26th in the standings. Like so many other preseason Chase favorites, Newman is seeing his season slowly slip away from him.

Brent Sherman: 2006 has been a tough rookie year for Sherman to say the least. Many thought he might be in over his head, considering he had only run a total of 27 Busch Series races with only one Top 10 finish when he made the leap to Cup this year. Looking at his current record, that appears to be the case. For the second time in the last three weeks, Sherman has failed to make the field. Now 42nd in the standings, he has the added pressure of needing to qualify on speed to even get into the race to get the opportunity to gain some much needed track time. It certainly looks to be a long season ahead for both Sherman and his team.

With the margin from first to 10th expanding each week, it doesn’t look like we are going to see more than 10 drivers again in this year’s Chase, increasing the pressure on several teams trying hard to make the field. With tough races at Richmond, Darlington and Charlotte on the horizon, there isn’t much room for error for the have-nots as they work to play catch up. Could we see one or two drivers rise from the ashes (or should we say freezer) and beat the odds? We’ll just have to sit back and watch to see how it all unfolds.

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