The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday July 24, 2006
Pocono is known as a famous honeymoon retreat, but there wasn't a whole lot of love being spread around on Sunday. While the Pennsylvania 500 provided plenty of good side-by-side racing, and an upbeat story with rookie Denny Hamlin completing the sweep, it also had enough drama to fill a soap opera.
The main cast of characters in this week's episode of “As The Triangle Turns” were Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, and everyone's favorite villain of the moment, Tony Stewart. A lap 31 crash between the three drivers ruined the days of Bowyer and Edwards and caused a one lap penalty to be thrown in Stewart’s direction, a penalty matched by Edwards after spinning Stewart’s car on pit road out of frustration later in the event. After the race, Stewart deflected much of the heat towards young Bowyer, while Edwards and Bowyer weren't in the mood to take any flack from the testy vet.
Hidden behind that public argument was more controversy and talk from Sunday's race than the infamous â€˜Who Shot J.R." cliffhanger produced in the 1980s. So, who else left Pocono caught up in the midsummer drama, and who left with a smile on their face?
Read this week's Starr Report of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out.
Denny Hamlin: I think it would be safe to say Pocono ranks high on the list of Hamlin's favorite race tracks. The 25-year-old backed up his first win last month with another dominant performance Sunday to complete the sweep in the Pennsylvania mountains. The win did more than double the size of Hamlin's trophy case, it bumped him back into the Chase race to eighth, with just six races left before the cut is made. Hamlin's now posted 11 straight Top 20s, showing his knack for good, consistent finishes despite his rookie status.
Kevin Harvick: After a midseason slump put him squarely on the Chase bubble, Harvick has done a good job of rebounding back into contention. With a fifth at Pocono Sunday, “Happy” posted his third straight Top 5 for the first time since 2003, his fourth straight Top 10, and now finds himself having risen to a season high fifth in the standings. Harvick and his team could have buckled under the pressure when things got rough, but instead, they held their own and turned things around, definitely showing their championship potential.
Jeff Gordon: In the past six weeks, Gordon has been up…and down…and back up again. But with a new take no prisoners attitude, he is inching closer to a second Chase appearance with each solid finish. During the last six races, Gordon has two wins and five Top 20 finishes to position himself within the Top 10 in points. He's not a lock for the Chase yet, but it's obvious the four time Champ isn't going to go down this year without a fight.
Kurt Busch: Despite having six Top 10s in the last seven weeks, Busch is still a longshot for the Chase. It's obvious his recent performance is on par with or better than the current Chase contenders, but his slow start to the year has put him in a hole that will be nearly impossible to emerge from, 166 points out of 10th with six races left. Should his good fortunes continue, though, Busch will clearly be one of the top challengers for the 11th place prize.
J.J. Yeley: It's been a tough year for the third driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Following a similar racing path as Tony Stewart, Yeley's not as popular and doesn't quite have the experience of his veteran teammate, and he's not having the winning success like fellow rookie Denny Hamlin has enjoyed. But in the past three races, this driver and the 18 team have shown they aren't giving up. After three straight finishes of 30th or worse, Yeley has quietly strung together three finishes in the Top 12 for the first time in his short career in Cup. He may not be grabbing the headlines, but Yeley and the 18 team may be building a solid foundation for their future.
Brian Vickers: In the last half of his final season with Hendrick Motorsports, Vickers is giving fans a glimpse of what he hopes he can do with Toyota and Red Bull next season. In the last seven races, Vickers has finished in the Top 20 and earned two fourth place finishes along the way, both of them at Pocono. If it wasn't for a four race stretch during the middle of the year when nothing seemed to go his way, Vickers might have actually been in position to put all four Hendrick teams in the Chase. As things stand now, though, his best hope is to soldier on and get that elusive Cup win he'd love to deliver for his fallen friend, Ricky Hendrick.
Tony Stewart: Remember, in this column I'm talking about Stewart’s on the track performance, not his attitude. After his latest on track run-in on Sunday at Pocono, Stewart's temper has been anything but cool. But while Pocono brought a truckload of bad PR, his seventh place finish did put him back into the Chaseâ€¦for now. In the last seven races Stewart has three Top 10s, including his Daytona win, but when he's not finishing in the Top 10, he's finishing terribly. Like it was mentioned several times during the broadcast on Sunday, Stewart's biggest hurdle right now for making the Chase is Stewart himself. The team and the equipment is there, but it's up to the driver to make sure the car gets to the checkered flag in one piece.
Greg Biffle: Biffle's early season struggles have been well documented. Sitting 23rd in the standings following Talladega, the Washington driver finally caught a wave of good luck and strong finishes and climbed up as high as ninth in points just four weeks ago. But since his fourth place run at Sonoma, Biffle’s progress has stalled. Two finishes of 24th or worse in the last four races and only one Top 10 once again have Biffle on the outside looking in at the Chase. Did the Biff use up all his good luck for the year, or does he have enough left in the tank to make one final push towards the Chase in these next six races?
Kasey Kahne: It seems like we've been in this boat of inconsistency before with Kahne. He'll rattle off a string of great finishes and heat up before falling back in a rut and going cold. Right now, he's in a downward turn. In the five races since his win at Michigan, Kasey has only one Top 10 finish to his credit. He's still in the Top 10 in points, but finishes of 31st, 25th, 23rd, and 31st are making things a bit more interesting for him as he tries to make the Chase for the first time in his career. The silver lining in this cloud for Kahne's fans is that he may have one more upturn in him yet that will come right when the Chase is ready to start. If this cool spell lasts too much longer, though, that upturn may not matter; there’s no room left for error with Kahne.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr: An off weekend couldn't have come at better time for Dale, Jr. and the Bud crew. After two straight finishes of 43rd, the team needs time to shake off the ill effects and regroup for the final push towards the Chase. Last week's engine woes at Loudon had the Dale, Jr. haters crowing and Junior nation on eggshells as it is; following Sunday's crash after a poorly executed bump draft by Dave Blaney, the noises are only getting louder, with Dale, Jr. currently 15 points behind Tony Stewart for the final spot in the Chase. Six races give him time to make up that ground, but three DNFs already this season mean there aren't many mulligans left in Junior's bag.
Jamie McMurray: McMurray's woes continued with another forgettable run at Pocono this past Sunday. While a 20th place finish isn't the worst thing in the world, couple that with finishes of 39th and 33rd in the previous two weeks and you've got a Crown Royal team on ice. While that thought might make some people start to drool, it's not a cause for celebration for one of the offseason’s biggest acquisitions. Many expected McMurray to improve with Roush Racing this year, but so far that hasn't panned out. At this point last season with Ganassi, McMurray was 11th in points and toying with a Chase bid. This year, he's 17th in the standings, and his Chase hopes have already went past last call.
Ryan Newman: Newman is another driver that has a better chance of getting struck by lightning than getting into the Chase again this season. In the past two weeks, the Penske driver has qualified on the front row, but hasn't been able to translate that into a good finish in either race. Newman had a respectable finish at Pocono on Sunday, coming in 18th, but too many finishes in the 30s and 40s have put him in a cold spell that he isn't likely to break out of. Currently, Newman's almost 400 points behind 10th place Tony Stewart, making his chances of even contending for 11th place a longshot at best.
This week, the Cup teams take their final week off within the 2006 season. Will Tony Stewart spend his break in a seaside spa trying to bring calm and harmony into his life? Can Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wash away the memory of the past two weeks to come back and make his way into the Top 10? Will the off weekend spell impending doom for those drivers who have been riding a wave of success? We’ll have to wait two long weeks to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not…ending within the storied walls of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400.
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