Cami Starr · Monday July 10, 2006
90% of Sunday’s race at Chicagoland played out like any race at a “cookie cutter” 1.5 mile track usually does; it was simply another boring case of the guy in the lead running away, with the rest of the field trying to plow through the air and catch him. Then came the last five laps, and suddenly a Sunday snoozer turned into a race that will have fans debating for years to come. Not since NASCAR’s “Muppetgate” has there been so much controversy at Chicagoland, as the USG Sheetrock 400 took the checkered flag with a giant crack in its foundation…and several angry fans showing their displeasure in the stands.
While the Gordon/Kenseth feud recorded another chapter, which of the other 41 drivers were able to avoid the day's drama, and which ones were caught up in the whirlwind? Read this week's edition of Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.
Jimmie Johnson : Chicagoland proved to be another typical performance for Johnson and the 48 team. They struggled from the start and continued to chase their car for the majority of the race, but at the end, there they were, scoring yet another Top 10 finish and running up front. Even better for Johnson, he was in jeopardy of losing the point lead until Matt Kenseth's day suddenly went down the toilet. With Kenseth down for the count, Johnson managed to come out of this day smelling like a rose one week after the team’s worst finish of the season, earning his 14th Top 10 and taking a 51 point lead north to Loudon.
Jeff Gordon : I'm not going into the whole debate of whether or not Gordon took Kenseth out on purpose Sunday or not. Honestly, it turned out to be a moot point once Kenseth ran out of gas on the next lap. Regardless of any controversy, the win was Gordon's second in the last three races and puts him back in the Top 10 in points once again. To keep himself there, though, he doesn't need to go out and race like Mad Max every week like he claimed in his postrace comments; he just needs to go out and get consistent Top 5 and Top 10 finishes without any more bumps in the road like he suffered at Daytona.
Jeff Burton A second pole winning run this season, followed up with a second place finish might finally get the attention of the fans that Burton is going to be someone to contend with in the Chase this season. His runner up finish in Chicago was his 12th straight Top 15 finish; Burton’s also scored nine Top 10s during that stretch. Following Chicago, he climbed up three spots in the standings, and is one of the few drivers fighting for the Chase that remains consistent each week.
Greg Biffle : After climbing eleven positions in the standings in seven weeks to reach the Top 10, Biffle's progress has been stonewalled the last two weeks. His late race spinout at Daytona dropped him out of the Top 10, and all he could muster at Chicago was an 11th place finish. Not bad, but not great when the drivers you are battling for that spot in the Chase finish ahead of you.
Kevin Harvick : While Harvick failed to come away with his third Chicagoland win, his fourth place finish kept him a solid ninth in points. Harvick has posted four Top 10 finishes in the last six weeks, but perhaps his most impressive stat is his current 30 race streak without a DNF. That consistency will certainly pay off big should Harvick stay on course to make the crucial battle for the Chase now just eight races away.
Reed Sorenson : Sorenson led a strong rookie showing this weekend at Chicagoland with a seventh place finish. While he's still behind fellow rookies Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer in the standings, he is making progress; he has two Top 10s five Top 20 finishes in the last six events. He's not setting the world on fire, but things are looking up for this young talent.
Kasey Kahne : The last three races have been a complete reversal for Kasey. After scoring two wins and four Top 10 finishes from Charlotte through Pocono, Kahne hasn't climbed out of the Top 20 in the last three events. His 23rd place finish at Chicagoland, driving a previously undefeated race car, put Kahne back to fifth in the standings after fighting his was back to third. A Chase bid is still almost a sure thing for Kahne, but as been the case repeatedly this year, Kasey and his team are riding a roller coaster that is currently on a downward slide.
Tony Stewart : Perhaps the biggest victim in the Gordon/Kenseth fight on Sunday was Tony Stewart. Without the final caution that extended the race, Smoke might not have run out of gas and kept his position in the Top 5. But, as things are, Stewart’s gas tank did run dry, giving him his third finish outside the Top 25 in the past four weeks. Stewart has now fallen back down to seventh in the points, his lowest ranking since Martinsville in April. Smoke is still a probable Chase driver, but he's certainly not heading into the 10 race bid for the title on a roll like he did last year.
The Chicagoland Fans : Maybe this should go into the category of “uncool.” I don't mean to get on a high horse or overreact like Joe Buck at a Vikings game, but the displacement of anger by some (notice I said some, not all) of the Chicagoland fans was a black eye for all NASCAR fans as a whole. Even the biggest Kenseth fan and most devout Gordon hater didn't need to resort to throwing trash out on the track to show their disgust. I guess some had lingering World Cup fever, because it looked like the end of a soccer match out there; whatever the reason, it was completely unnecessary.
Jeremy Mayfield : Call me crazy, but is calling out your car owner the best way to boost the morale of your struggling team? Mayfield vented some of his frustration to a few media members on Friday, and then, by the end of the weekend, tried to soften some of his comments when owner Ray Evernham was sitting close by. Mayfield has the right to be frustrated, though; just look at his results this year. He hasn't finished in the Top 20 in the past five races, and has a big goose egg in the pole, win, Top 5, and Top 10 columns. All this coming from a driver that has made the Chase with the 19 team each of the past two seasons. While getting things off his chest may make Mayfield feel a bit better temporarily, it could come back to bite him in the butt next year. When asked about his contract status for 2007, Evernham wasn't quick to come to his driver’s aid and say all is well for next year. I wonder if Ray wants to borrow Stewart's Jeremy Mayfield piÃ±ata?
Robert Yates Racing : Instead of singling out Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler individually, I decided to lump the whole dismal lot into one this week. Since Martinsville 13 races ago, both Sadler and Jarrett have taken huge hits in the points, dropping ten and thirteen places, respectively. In that same time frame, they have a total of three Top 10 finishes between them (all courtesy of Sadler) and eight finishes of 30th or worse. It would be different if week after week they were caught up in freak accidents, but the fact is they are just flat out running bad, highlighted Sunday by Dale Jarrett running a legitimate 43rd for much of the first 100 laps of the race. Unfortunately, with Jarrett gone and Sadler thinking of leaving, things aren't looking too bright in the near future for either team.
This week, the series heads to the cozy confines of New Hampshire International Speedway. Will Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth kiss and make up, or will their feud continue? Can Jimmie Johnson keep getting away with happening to be at the right place at the right time to extend his point lead once again? Will Jeff Burton call for mandatory restrictor plates this weekend in hopes of breaking his winless drought? We'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not.
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