The Frontstretch: Who's Hot/Who's Not in Nextel Cup - Daytona "2" Edition by Cami Starr -- Monday July 3, 2006

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As Tony Stewart climbed the fence at Daytona after another Pepsi 400 victory, plenty of other drivers found themselves climbing up and down the points ladder with two late race wrecks jumbling up the final running order. Just one week after his first win of the season, Jeff Gordon found himself on the wrong side of a tangle between J.J. Yeley and Greg Biffle and finished 40th, giving back all of the points positions he gained. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson took Shamu for a wild ride against the side of Bobby Labonte’s race car, finishing 32nd and allowing Matt Kenseth to inch closer to the top of the Nextel Cup standings. Things were so crazy that Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s disappointing 13th place finish at this restrictor plate track actually caused him to move up two positions in driver points.

Who else found themselves moving up and down the points ladder after Daytona? Read this week's Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.

Hot

Matt Kenseth : With five Top 5 finishes in the last seven races, Kenseth has closed the gap between himself and Jimmie Johnson to just eight points. Kenseth won a championship with consistency, and it looks like he’s at it again to make his team the one everyone will be Chasing after Richmond.

Kurt Busch : Thanks to four straight Top 10 finishes, Busch has moved up six spots in the standings since his 39th place finish at the Coke 600. However, his struggles in April and May might prove to be too much for him to overcome as he fights for a spot in the Chase. With only nine races remaining before the cutoff, Busch is still little over 100 points behind tenth place after his latest surge. Whether or not he makes it will depend as much on his competition failing as Busch continuing his hot streak.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. : It took some time for me to finally decide whether or not to list Junior here or not. His results on the track don't have him on a hot streak as much as his pure luck and good fortune. In the past four weeks, he's moved from sixth to third in the standings, so you'd figure he would have put in some impressive finishes. But that's not really the case. He has just one Top 5 finish during that span, with his next best finish a mere 13th. That doesn't scream “hot streak” to me, but Junior is finishing well enough to move up and take advantage of other driver's problems. Sometimes, that's all it takes.

Warm

Kevin Harvick : After a brief cold spell, things have been warming up for Happy Harvick lately. In the past five weeks, he has three Top 10 finishes, and continues to secure a place in the Chase. While Harvick's one of only four drivers in the Top 10 not to have a DNF this year, he’s still had his fair share of problems. They’ve been just enough to put Harvick on the bubble, in a tight battle with five other drivers for the final two or three slots in the Chase. That doesn't leave this team much room for error.

Denny Hamlin : Hamlin hasn't been setting the world on fire since his win at Pocono four races ago, but he's remaining strong enough to still be a contender for the Chase. With two finishes of 12th and 17th in the three weeks since he visited Victory Lane, he's capitalized on the misfortune of others as drivers bounce back and forth around him in the standings. If Hamlin wants to be in control of his own destiny, though, he's going to have to step up his performance a notch or two in the next nine races.

Kyle Busch : One teammate’s problem was another's gain at Daytona this weekend. While Jeff Gordon faltered after Daytona, Busch used his runner up finish to once again climb into the Top 10 in the standings. Now eighth, Busch has four Top 15 finishes in the last five weeks, keeping within striking distance of the Chase. If Kyle wants to quit riding the fence, he will need to turn up the heat and start raking in Top 10s instead.

Cool

Mark Martin : I can hear the comments already; how can someone in the Top 10 be on the cool list? Well, look at Martin's performances in the last four events. His best race has been 13th at the Infineon road course, and Mark has two finishes of 25th or worse in the last three weeks, not really performances that scream Championship contender. Yes, I believe Martin will reel himself in and make the Chase, but it's no longer a given. The battle for 8th through 10th is likely to be a tight one, and Martin is one of those drivers sinking back in the standings, making the 6 team vulnerable if there’s any more bad luck. Clearly, it’s not the position this driver wants to be his last time out gunning for the title.

Jeff Gordon : Here's another driver that is bound to be a crowd favorite, but Gordon is going to catch a cold the way he's been going in the past seven weeks. One minute he's hot, the next he's cold, back and forth over and over again. Gordon had two Top 10s in a row, including his breakthrough win at Sonoma, but another DNF at Daytona quickly doused any flames that were heating up his chances for the Chase. The Rainbow Warrior now has four DNFs this year, the most of any driver in the Top 25 in the standings. Even if Gordon does somehow make the Chase and wins trophy number five, is that really the sign of a Championship season with these results?

Elliott Sadler : I've been kind of hard on Sadler this year, with good reason if you look at his results to date. But with two straight Top 10 finishes, I thought Sadler deserved a week out of the cellar. With an eighth place at Sonoma and a sixth place showing at Daytona, Sadler might get that much needed boost to be able to contend for a spot in the Top 15 come season's end.

Cold

Scott Wimmer : Wimmer is stuck in an ugly Catch-22. His team is currently 39th in the owner standings, which puts him on the hot seat when it comes to qualifying, and he's not been able to run fast enough in qualifying to get into the race and earn his team enough points to get out of the hole. Wimmer's only had one DNF this year, which came in the second race at California, so he's running better than a lot of drivers in that respect. But failing to make races is killing this team. Wimmer’s now missed both races at Daytona this year, as well as the race at Pocono. If this team doesn't exemplify the term cold, I don't know what does.

Michael Waltrip : Speaking of chronically chilled teams, Michael Waltrip still remains below the Top 35 in owner points nearly halfway through the season. Waltrip’s season of misfortune continued at one of his favorite tracks, where an incident with the outside wall at Daytona combined with a cut tire left him 38th on the final results sheet. I will give Waltrip credit, though, for finding a way into each race. Notice I said finding a way into the race, not qualifying his way into each race, as he bought his way into the Coke 600 in May after failing to qualify on his own. The bad thing is, with no manufacturer support this year, the results aren't likely to get any better. That will put him behind the eight ball next season as well, and I can't imagine the Toyota guys being too happy about the very real prospects of seeing one of their top name teams on the sidelines early next year.

J.J. Yeley – There seems to be one struggling car within each multi-car team this year, and Yeley is it for Joe Gibbs Racing this season. With Hamlin in the Top 10 and Stewart on the rebound, Yeley still continues to struggle. In the last three weeks, he's failed to crack the Top 30 in any race. That puts him 29th in the standings, his lowest point of the year other than his 41st place start after the Daytona 500. He does have one Top 10 this year, but I thought we would see more out of this rookie as he continued on through the season under the guidance of Tony Stewart.

Next up is a trip to the Windy City, with just nine races remaining before the cutoff for the Chase becomes final. Will Chicago blow away the chances for some teams on the bubble like Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin? Can Jimmie Johnson pad his already impressive stat sheet at Chicago to once again widen the gap between himself and Matt Kenseth? Will a Daytona win once again signal a summer hot streak for Tony Stewart? We'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who's still Hot… and Who's Not.

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