A week after David Gilliland's win in the Busch Series, the Cup Series almost got its own storybook finish this weekend at Infineon. Two-time champ Terry Labonte almost came away with an improbable win of his own, going the final 50 laps on one tank of fuel. While his tank didn't run dry, his luck did when Jeff Gordon passed him on lap 88, going on to take the checkered flag. For Gordon and his team, their first win of the year couldn't have come at a better time. The wolves were circling, just waiting to chew him up for squandering another chance at making the Chase.
Who else besides Gordon came out of Infineon looking like Best in Show, and who left looking like a Junkyard Dog? Read this week's Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.
Jeff Burton : With ten straight Top 15 finishes, including eight Top 10s, Burton has become a solid fixture in the race for the Chase. Short track, intermediate track, super speedway, or road course, Burton has shown he can be competitive anywhere. Don't let his calm demeanor fool you, either; when it comes to crunch time, Burton can be tough as nails to get what he wants.
Greg Biffle : Thanks to an average finish of 4.8 in the past seven weeks, Biffle has moved up 11 places in the rankings and sits solidly in the Top 10 in points. Now that The Biff's in the picture for the Chase, the real work begins as he tries to stay there and not lose all of the ground that’s been made up. Nobody has been hotter than Biffle lately, but nobody knows more than he does how quickly it can all go away.
Jimmie Johnson : Maybe this is the year Johnson finally takes care of business. He earned his 13th Top 10 of 2006 at a road course, where he has historically hasn't been at his best in the past. That falls in line with Johnson’s theme for the year, though; it seems like he can turn any trashy start or bad track around and at the end, come out smelling like a rose. His current point lead is up to 110, and the rest of the pack is fighting like wild dogs behind him.
Jeff Gordon : Gordon finally got the monkey off his back by reclaiming his crown as King of the Road on Sunday. His win, coupled with some bad luck by a few of his main competitors, puts the 24 team back in the Chase for the time being in eighth place. Gordon fans certainly have bragging rights up until the cars hit the track at Daytona…but they shouldn't get their heads too high in the clouds. Yes, the Rainbow Warrior does have three Top 10 finishes in the last six weeks, but two of those other finishes were 34th and 36th. Gordon has yet to put a consistent run of good finishes together this year, so don't lock him into the Chase just yet.
Ryan Newman : The process has been slow and sometimes painful, but Newman has finally started to make a turn in the right direction. In the last eight races, the driver of the ALLTEL Dodge has climbed up nine places in the standings to 17th. Newman hasn't done it with wins; in fact, he's winless in the last 24 races. Rather, three Top 10 and six Top 15 finishes have been the catalyst. A Chase bid probably isn't in the cards, but if Newman keeps up the pace, that winless streak might snap before it hits the one year mark.
Kurt Busch : Five weeks ago, making the Chase might have seemed like an improbability for Busch. Now, he's within 165 points of the Top 10 in points thanks to three straight finishes of ninth or better. Also benefiting Busch is the fact that some of his competition ahead of him is struggling. There's bound to be plenty more movement in the coming weeks, and Busch now needs to show some past Champion moxie, pushing the issue up front to make sure his team is one of the comers and not a goer.
Tony Stewart : In the past five weeks, Stewart has dropped an average of one position per week in the standings. His third place finish at Pocono is his best finish in the last seven weeks. The problem for Stewart isn't not winning races, it's not running in the Top 10. Four finishes of 25th or worse in the five weeks since Stewart’s shoulder injury certainly has his fans a bit nervous. If there’s any saving grace for Smoke, he tends to live up to his nickname as the summer rolls along, so his faithful are praying for another heat wave.
Kyle Busch : Following Martinsville 11 races ago, Busch was in the Top 5 in points and riding high. Since then, it's been a slow and steady decline to outside the Top 10 in points. The roller coaster that Busch seems to be on won't be a benefit to him as the battle for the Chase tightens up, as in the past five weeks, he has only one Top 10 finish. Far from being out of the Chase fight, the main key for the younger Busch brother will be reestablishing his consistency. He better do it quickly – erratic finishes won’t put anyone in the Chase this year.
Bobby Labonte : Labonte looked to be well on his way into the Top 20 in the standings after three straight weeks of running 17th, 12th, and 13th. But in the last two races, he's finished out side the Top 25 and has lost all the progress he made. After Sunday's 35th place finish at Sonoma, where he seemed to have a bulls-eye on his car that only Dale Jarrett could see, he's fallen down to 25th in points again. The bright side for the 43 team is they know they can run in the Top 10 or 15 on a regular basis, and will be making second trips to tracks they have already run at. The extra knowledge racing at tracks the second time around should help Labonte bounce back in a big way.
Sterling Marlin : If it wasn't for bad luck, Marlin wouldn't have any luck at all. He was one of the first two cars knocked out at Sonoma, giving the 14 car a 42nd place finish in two of the last four races. A few Top 10 and Top 20 finishes had gotten Marlin out of the danger zone of being outside the Top 35, but with the way things have been going lately, he looks to be heading back down into the abyss.
Dale Jarrett : 231; it’s a number that has to be ringing loudly in DJ's head. That's the approximate number of days left until Toyota takes to the track in Daytona in 2007. With the dismal type of season Jarrett's had this year, why not look ahead? Looking at the present, things just have to be plain depressing. Four races into the season, this RYR team was ninth in the points; now, they’re 23rd in the standings and heading south faster than a speeding bullet. With no finishes of 20th or higher in the past seven races, nothing seems to be going right these days for Jarrett. Driver, team, spotter, everyone deserves a piece of the blame in the mess that has come out of his final year with the 88 team.
Dave Blaney : The one bright spot that Blaney had going for him this year was extinguished at Sonoma this weekend. Mechanical problems forced him out of the race early and ended his 33 race streak without a DNF. Sadly, with the way Blaney’s season has been going, it seemed like only a matter of time. With no Top 20 finish since Richmond seven races ago, Blaney has been floating down the standings. The key for this team will be staying in the Top 35 to help them get a jump on the season next year with Toyota.
Jimmie Johnson left Infineon with yet another Top 10 finish, padding his point lead to 110 over Matt Kenseth. Behind them, though, the field is bunching up, with sixth through 12th separated by only 109 points. With Daytona coming up Saturday night, any one of those drivers battling for those final spots in the Chase could get a big bite taken out of their hopes with one false move. With Daytona and the Big One lurking ahead, this Saturday night's race could provide enough fireworks to shake up the whole picture. Can Johnson keep raising the bar, or will he find trouble this weekend and open up the field to more than 10 drivers? Can Jeff Gordon celebrate his engagement by snagging a second win in a row? Can Tony Stewart end his slide and catch fire again? We'll just have to wait until Saturday night to find out Who's Hot…and Who's Not.
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