The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Tuesday June 6, 2006
Matt Kenseth conquered the Monster Mile on Sunday, stealing the victory away from teammate Jamie McMurray in the closing laps. Four hundred miles at Dover offered a few surprises along the way, but for the most part the hot stayed hot and the cold couldn’t snap the spell.
Now that we are at the halfway point of the "regular season," whose Chase hopes are still alive and whose are nothing but a pipe dream? Read this week’s Starr Report to find out.
Jimmie Johnson: Once again, Johnson started out like garbage but ended up smelling like a rose. His remarkable sixth place comeback was his fifth Top 10 finish in the last six events, and tenth overall in thirteen races this season. Johnson’s team’s performance Sunday and all year are the things champions are made of…but can they pull it together when it really counts?
Matt Kenseth: With his second win of the season, Kenseth doubled his number of victories from last season and right now is the only driver who can seem to keep pace with Johnson. Currently 74 points back, he’s the lone driver other than Johnson to lead the standings this year. With six Top 10’s in the past seven races, could we be seeing a repeat of 2003, when Kenseth topped Johnson for his first title?
Jeff Burton: With his third straight Top 10 finish at Dover, Burton sits seventh at the halfway mark, his highest ranking to date this season. After getting off to a slow start, he has finished in the Top 15 in seven straight races, and seems to be on the verge of getting back into Victory Lane for the first time since November 2001. He’s already won in the Busch series twice in 2006; it seems to be only a matter of time before it happens on the Cup side.
Other Hot Drivers Greg Biffle looks to have found a way to erase the bad luck that had been following him to start the year and has put up four straight Top 10 finishes. Solidly in the Chase hunt, Mark Martin recorded his third straight Top 10 finish this weekend to remain third in the overall standings.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin looks to be the class of the 2006 rookie field and could make history in becoming the first rookie to make the Chase. At Dover, he recorded an 11th place finish, making him the highest finishing rookie in four straight races. Currently just 80 points out of tenth place, Hamlin should get even better as the series starts to revisit tracks he’s already run at.
Kyle Busch: Like his moods, Busch’s performance this year has been all over the place. One week he’s down and frustrated (Charlotte)...the next he’s back up and running strong (Dover). Kyle rebounded from his meltdown last week with another Top 5 run at Dover, his third Top 10 in the last four races. Busch is sitting 10th in points, thanks to the penalty handed down last week, but he’s on shaky ground, only 80 points away from slipping out of the Chase hunt. Given Busch’s volatility, he may be his own worst enemy as the season progresses, making or breaking his chances to make the “postseason.”
Jamie McMurray: Finally, we are starting to catch a glimpse at why McMurray was such a hot commodity last year. He led the most laps at Dover (95) and came close to snapping his 125 race winless streak. In the end, Jamie had to settle for second place, but the finish was good enough to move him up to 15th in the standings, his highest ranking this season. He still has an uphill climb ahead to get into Chase contention, but Jack Roush seems to be starting to see a return on his investment with the 30-year-old Missouri native.
Other Warm Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on a roll since his win at Richmond and now sits fourth in the standings. A solid fixture in the Top 10, it would take a big meltdown to see him miss the Chase this year, which has to have Brian France smiling. While he wasn’t able to score another Top 10, Carl Edwards’ 15th place run at Dover was good enough to keep him on the warm side. He has five finishes of 15th or better in the last six races.
Kasey Kahne: Thanks to his big win in the 600 and a Top 10 at Dover, Kahne is starting to snap out of the cold spell that plagued him in recent weeks. He’s currently sixth in the standings and is tied with Jimmie Johnson for most wins this year with three. As long as he can keep putting in Top 10s without falling back into a 30’s slump, Kahne should be in a prime position when the Chase starts 13 races from now.
Ryan Newman: Who would have believed it would have taken 13 weeks before Newman earned his first Bud Pole of the season? While he could only muster a 14th place finish on Sunday, it was good enough to bump him up three spots in the rankings to 19th place. With three finishes in the Top 15 in the last three races, this team could be turning a corner, but don’t get your hopes up too high just yet. Still far away from the Chase, so far this year Newman’s had a terrible pattern of following up a few good runs with just as many bad ones.
Jeff Gordon: Like his teammate Kyle Busch, it’s hard to know what Jeff Gordon we are going to get one week to the next. He’s more than capable of putting in strong runs like he did at Darlington, yet mixes them with some mediocre ones like he had at Dover where he started off great but finished 12th. Gordon’s downfall is just when he starts to make a move up the standings, he’ll put in a couple bad finishes which negate the progress he just made. Right now he’s ninth in points, but a spot in the Chase is far from secure.
Other Cool Drivers Tony Stewart gave way to Ricky Rudd at Dover after just 38 laps, but plans to go the distance at Pocono this weekend. He’s dropped three places to fifth in the standings in the past two weeks, but if he can heal quickly he should make that back up easily if he hits upon his traditional summer hot streak. Clint Bowyer has watched his two teammates climb into the Top 10, but Bowyer himself is playing catch up. Early in the year he ran well, but has hit upon tough times as of late. Of course, we have to give the rookie a break, as he’s doing a lot better than some of the veterans out there.
Elliott Sadler: Maybe Sadler wishes he was the one leaving Robert Yates Racing at the end of the year given how he has been running lately. A flat tire, then an accident took him out of contention at Dover, giving him his second DNF of the season and dropping him to a season low 20th in the points. It wasn’t just the one incident at Dover that has Sadler feeling a chill though. He hasn’t finished in the Top 10 since Martinsville seven races ago.
Casey Mears: Remember when Mears was keeping pace with Jimmie Johnson at the start of season? Yeah, it seems like a lifetime ago to me, too, and probably to Mears as well. He kicked off the year with three straight Top 10s but hasn’t made it back there since. With an average finish of 20th in the last ten races, he’s used up all the cushion he built up in the standings and is now out of the Top 10 in 13th place. Even if Mears does heat up and turn things around, it may be too little, too late to repair the damage that has already been done.
J.J. Yeley: Yeley hasn’t had too much to brag about this year, and his 42nd place finish at Dover continued his rookie woes. He’s scored just one Top 10 this year, which came early on at Fontana. Since then, he’s been a fixture in the 20’s, which hasn’t allowed him to make up much ground in the standings. While his rookie teammate Denny Hamlin is riding high, Yeley needs to recharge his batteries and work on bringing in some stronger finishes this year to build upon next season.
Other Cold Drivers There was a bright spot for Dale Jarrett on Sunday. His new spotter, son Jason, kept him out of trouble all day long. But an ill handling race car kept him off the lead lap most of the day, and the team couldn’t find enough speed to rally back when they caught a break. I bet he could tell you off the top of his head how many days are left until he turns in his Fusion for a new Toyota. Meanwhile, Sterling Marlin had a few promising finishes and even scored a Top 10 at Richmond three weeks ago. Since then, it’s been business as usual for this struggling team.
As we pass the halfway point in the 26 week race to the Chase, the picture for this year’s playoffs is beginning to take shape. Many of the drivers we expected to be there are living up to expectations, while some fresh faces are keeping things interesting at the top. Only a handful of drivers are seemingly safe as the playoffs approach, which will make this final 13 race sprint very interesting for the fans to watch as drivers and teams scurry to claim one of the final 10 positions.
©2000 - 2008 Cami Starr and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!