The Frontstretch: Who's Hot/Who's Not in Nextel Cup: Pocono Edition by Cami Starr -- Monday June 12, 2006

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

Cami Starr · Monday June 12, 2006


Editor’s Note: If you like Cami’s Hot or Not edition, you’ll be sure to enjoy her new book review column called Hitting the Books. Check it out here.

The race for the Chase took an interesting turn following Sunday’s race at Pocono. Denny Hamlin pulled off his first Cup win, which many believed was just a matter of time, and took a big step in becoming the first rookie driver to make the Chase. Jeff Gordon took a big hit, both on the track and in the points, falling out of the Top 10 to the delight of his critics. The outcome at Pocono wasn’t totally predictable, though. Find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not this week to see what other drivers continued their current streaks or broke out of their slump.


Denny Hamlin: By taking home his first career Nextel Cup win at Pocono, Hamlin strengthened his hold on the ROTY battle and increased his chances of becoming the first rookie ever to make the Chase for the Championship. With his fifth Top 5 in the last eight races, he moved up two places to ninth in the standings and has to be a threat to win the next handful of races on the schedule. Look out for Hamlin especially at the usually rookie un-friendly road course race at Sonoma, since he took the victory at Mexico’s road course in the Busch Series.

Greg Biffle: Pocono showed that Biffle’s luck may be officially turned to the good side now. After a series of bad luck finishes in the first part of the season, Biffle and his team battled through brake problems on Sunday to finish sixth, his fifth straight Top 10 finish. Heading to Michigan, a track he’s dominated as of late, Biffle’s now less than 30 points out of the Top 10 in the standings, a far cry from the 23rd place he held before his hot streak began. Guess those naysayers who said he couldn’t bounce back might be eating some crow come week 26.

Matt Kenseth: Kenseth chipped away some more at Jimmie Johnson’s point lead with his fourth straight Top 5 finish at Pocono on Sunday. He has a series leading nine Top 5s in 14 races this year and is the only driver with a realistic shot at taking down Johnson before the Chase starts after Richmond. Unlike Johnson, Kenseth has championship winning experience, which could pay off big when it comes down to crunch time.


Kasey Kahne: With three wins, Kahne is tied for the league lead with Johnson, and has rebounded nicely from a slump with three straight Top 10’s, including his win in the Coca-Cola 600. Kahne is clearly the class of the Dodge camp, and he’s been solid on both race day and in qualifying. Now fifth in the standings, he should be a lock for the Chase if he can avoid another mini-slump like he had in May.

Bobby Labonte: Being 23rd in the standings doesn’t really scream "˜warm’, but if Labonte could have gotten off to a better start to the year he could be battling for a Top 15 spot, which is a big step up for this team and Labonte. In the first four races, Labonte didn’t crack the Top 30. Since then, he’s had decent runs with a few Top 10s mixed in along with a Top 5. In the last three weeks he’s finished 17th, 13th and 12th and gained four places in the rankings. With Michigan coming up, a track where he’s run well at in the past, look for Bobby’s warm trend to continue.

Scott Riggs: It’s a shame Riggs and Co. got behind the eight ball early this year by missing the Daytona 500, otherwise who knows how high in the points they could be right now. He overcame a bad start and ill-handling car at Pocono to run in the Top 10 the second half of the race and finish eighth, his third Top 10 of the year. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Riggs’ season is that in all but three weeks he’s moved up at least one position in the standings, now up to 21st in points.


Brian Vickers: Vickers was strong again at Pocono, finishing fourth and leading 19 laps, but that’s just a drop in the bucket as he tries to right his ship this year. His last Top 5 before Pocono was at Talladega, and in the four races since his best finish was 23rd last week, in that span dropping him from 14th to as far back as 27th in the standings. Now that he’s got clearance to shop around for another ride in 2007, at least the pressure may be off at HMS and Vickers can concentrate on racing for wins to pad his resume while he’s out job hunting.

Kevin Harvick: After being one of the hottest drivers earlier this year, Harvick has felt a chill in recent weeks. He had a decent 13th place finish at Pocono to stop his slide down the standings, but the battle for the final spot or two in the Chase is really starting to heat up, and now is not the time for Harvick to take it easy. With his tendency to run either really well or really poorly, he can’t afford too many more down races if he wants to be in the Top 10 when it counts.

Carl Edwards: Edwards seems to be taking one step forward, two steps back in his quest to rebound and crack the Top 10 by Richmond. He rattled off a string of three straight Top 10s back in late April and early May, but in the four races since has only finished in the Top 5 once. A super slow pit stop ended any chance that he had for a good showing at Pocono on Sunday. While he still remains 13th in the standings, he’s battling guys who are really catching fire now for that final spot.


Jeff Gordon: Considering how hard of a hit he took at Pocono, only having to worry about falling out of the Top 10 in points is pretty good news for the 24 bunch. In the overall picture as the Chase draws nearer, though, the news for Gordon isn’t all that great. Pocono’s 34th place finish was his third of 30th or worse in the last six races, putting him out of the Top 10 for the first time since week three. Looking at how Gordon ran in the last 13 races of the “regular season” last year, the drop shouldn’t give Gordon or his fans a warm and fuzzy feeling. Last year he averaged a 19th place finish in the final races leading up to the Chase, including four finishes of 30th or worse. It doesn’t appear that the team has their woes on 1 "" 2 mile tracks cured either, which could make for a long season for the 24 team yet again.

Terry Labonte: Does anyone else feel a bit bad for Labonte out there just turning laps in the few races he’s run so far this year? Labonte is a great driver and former champ in the sport, but since he’s opted to run part-time he hasn’t fared all that well. In the nine races he’s run in 2006, his best finish was a 17th place at the season opener at Daytona. Hopefully Texas Terry can have something to brag about before the year is up, but right now he’s living up to his Ice Man nickname for all the wrong reasons.

Martin Truex, Jr.: While fellow rookie Denny Hamlin is on a hot streak and winning races, Truex is barely a blip on the radar screen as of late. After finishing 24th at Pocono, Truex finds himself a distant fifth in the ROTY standings, a major disappointment to those who thought he would come in with a higher degree of success following two straight Busch Series titles. The transition into Cup hasn’t been smooth for Truex. With just one Top 10 this year, he’s struggling to simply stay in the Top 25 in driver points. With three straight weeks finishing 20th or lower, he’s sliding down in the wrong direction instead of improving as the season moves along.

Next up is Michigan International Speedway, deep in the heart of the Irish Hills. So which drivers will enjoy the luck of the Irish? Maybe Jimmie Johnson, who somehow continues to finish in the Top 10 despite not running there for the majority of the race. Perhaps a driver that really needs some good luck, like Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon. Meanwhile, did Pocono serve as the end of the rainbow for some drivers who have been hot lately, like Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth? Will we see a driver who hasn’t been to Victory Lane in a long time like Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte or Jamie McMurray get the pot of gold at MIS? We’ll just have to wait until next Sunday to find out the answers.

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