Cami Starr · Monday July 17, 2006
Who would have thought a visit to a small one mile track in the quiet state of New Hampshire would have had such a large impact on the race for the Chase? Following Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 300, the point standings looked like they had been tossed into a blender and spun around on high. Only four positions in the Top 14 remained unchanged by late Sunday afternoon with Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. making the biggest moves up…and down. So who went for a ride in Loudon and came out better on the other side, and who left worse for the wear? Read this week's Starr Report to find out Who's Hot…and Who's Not.
Jeff Burton: Although he didn't leave Loudon with the win that many had predicted, Burton still put together another hot performance. His seventh place finish was his 12th Top 10 of the season, and his 13th straight Top 15 finish. Since that streak began at Texas, he's moved up thirteen places in the rankings and is currently third. After a long, hot day in Loudon Burton still said his Chase bid isn't a lock… but performances like this make it only a matter of time.
Jimmie Johnson: It was the same story in a different setting this weekend for the 48 team. No, Jimmie didn't lead any laps; no, he never had a car that was a threat to win. At the end of the day, though, there was Johnson, putting Top 10 number fifteen in the stat column and adding to his point lead. Even Johnson himself said after the race that at some point, this team needs to find ways not to have to battle back at the end of the race…but hey, why mess with such a good thing?
Kyle Busch: Was that applause that I heard on my TV after Kyle Busch earned his first win of the season on Sunday? The fan response isn't the only thing that should be giving Busch a warm feeling. With three straight Top 3 finishes, Busch made the biggest upward jump of the week in the standings from eighth to fourth following the victory. It seems like Shrub is blooming at the right time while his competition wilts around him.
Carl Edwards: Edwards nearly pulled off the weekend double at a track that he admits he's never run very well at in the past. His runner-up finish at Loudon gives him three Top 10 finishes in the last five races and keeps him in 13th place in the points, within sight of the Chase. But even strong finishes like he's had recently may not help Edwards. Despite his best efforts, he'll probably wind up like a potential wild card team on the last week of the NFL season, someone that will need to run well in that last race at Richmond and need some help from others in order to make it in.
Matt Kenseth: According to the stat sheets, Kenseth should have fared much better at New Hampshire than he did, considering he’s had a Top 10 finish in each New Hampshire race since the Fall of 2002. At least his fourteenth place finish in this Sunday’s version was a major improvement over where he was running early in the race (maybe he's trying to use Jimmie Johnson's method of getting Top 10s). All joking aside, even with four less than stellar finishes in the past five races Kenseth is still running well enough to keep Johnson in sight, and should be a sure thing for the Chase at this point unless something catastrophic happens.
Mark Martin: After five straight races without a Top 10 finish, Martin rebounded back in New Hampshire in a big way with a fourth place run. His team has ridden out a rough patch without falling any further down than sixth in the standings, and after Loudon, Martin finds himself back up to fifth. This team has been streaky this year, so if New Hampshire is any indication, we could see Mark go on a Top 10 roll again and help pad his position for the Chase in the next few races.
Jamie McMurray: Each time it looks like McMurray might be getting things straightened out in his new ride and might put together some solid finishes, something happens to cut down his momentum. This weekend's culprit was brake problems that forced him to a 33rd place finish. Loudon was the 26 team’s second straight finish of 30th or worse, and McMurray has just one Top 10 in the last six races. Obviously if that crew chief swap by Jack Roush back in April was meant to help McMurray out, it hasn't worked; we’ll find out this week if that change will be permanent, so stay tuned.
Martin Truex, Jr. Many fans felt Truex could turn his two straight Busch Series titles into success at the Cup level, but after 19 races this year, that hasn't happened. Truex may not be stinking up the joint, but he isn’t setting the world on fire, either. Running consistently in the middle of the pack won't get you very far these days in the competitive world of Nextel Cup, and that’s where Truex seems to be stuck. He has only one Top 10 finish this year (Texas) and currently has slid to fourth in the Rookie standings behind Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Reed Sorenson after a disappointing 18th at New Hampshire.
Casey Mears: For the first half of the season, it appeared that all of the waiting for Casey Mears to finally turn the corner and become a competitive force each week was over. In the first nine races of the year, Mears was a fixture in the Top 10 in points, and got off to a hot start with three straight Top 10s to open the season. But since then, it's been back to business as usual for Mears and his team, scoring just two Top 10 finishes in the last nine weeks. If fans couldn't fathom why he would want to leave his role as top driver for Ganassi, you only have to look at these results to figure out the answer.
Tony Stewart: We've all heard the saying: where there is smoke there is fire. Well, lately in NASCAR, where there's Smoke, there is trouble. After having one of the strongest cars early in the race at Loudon, Stewart's contact with Ryan Newman on lap 92 while leading the race spelled another day of misery for the 20 team. With six finishes of 25th or worse in the last eight races, the Home Depot team is reeling and finds itself outside the Top 10 in standings for the first time since Atlanta. Everyone keeps waiting for Smoke to catch fire this summer in his trademark fashion, but right now the team would settle for catching anything to just melt the ice.
Michael Waltrip What is it with Michael Waltrip and Robby Gordon at Loudon? More importantly, how much more dismal can a season get than hitting another car under caution at the end of the race to break the radiator? The late contact epitomizes Waltrip's season to date. Forget Top 10s…Waltrip hasn't even been close. In fact, he only has two Top 20 finishes to his credit this season, and they came in the first four races of the year. You can bet Waltrip's keeping an eye on the NASCAR classifieds for another team in the Top 35 that may be going out of business next year, because he won't be locked into any races in 2007 thanks to his poor finishes in 2006.
Joe Nemechek: When things aren't going your way, sometimes they REALLY aren't going your way. Case in point: Joe Nemechek at Loudon. The driver of the 01 car was having his best run of the season, riding solidly in the Top 10, when contact with Brian Vickers on lap 201 put the car into the outside wall, adding another mark in the DNF column in what has been a frustrating season for the Army team. At this point last year, Nemechek had one Top 5 and four Top 10s; this season, both columns are filled with big goose eggs, and the MB2 Motorsports group can't seem to catch a break. On the bright side, the team is still 31st in owner standings, so qualifying isn't yet a major concern; but one or two more tough breaks like Sunday, and that could be something else heaped onto this team’s already full plate of woes.
This week, the Cup series makes a return trip to Pocono. Can Denny Hamlin jumpstart a late “regular” season push to make the Chase in his rookie season? Will Jimmie Johnson once again find a way to eke out another Top 10 finish after struggling most of the race? Can Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart rebound from dismal outings at Loudon? We'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who's Hot… and Who's Not.
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