The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday August 7, 2006
Once again, the stock car world invaded the famed walls of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday for the 13th running of the Brickyard 400. Before the cars took one lap, it seemed like the headlines were already planned out. Tire problems seemed to be ready to rear their ugly head, and all eyes were focused on three of the series’ top drivers who were in desperate need of a good finish in order to make the Chase.
While the tire problems weren't that bad and Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all left the track solidly within the Top 10 in points, it was the two men atop the standings who came out of the day leading the pack. With the focus on the bottom half of the Top 10 heading into the race, people almost forgot about Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth; that was, of course, until they finished the race 1-2, proving the theory that the hottest of the hot will always be at their best when the hardware is at its finest.
So, who else grabbed a headline or two with a good run this week, and who was relegated to the back page with another poor performance? Read this week's Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.
Jimmie Johnson: It's not often that a driver who has led the points for 19 of 21 weeks needs to prove himself. And whether or not it was needed or intended, Johnson and Co. hushed some of their critics with their fourth win of the season on Sunday. The Lowe's team now hopes to become the sixth team in the last nine years to win the Brickyard and go on to win the Championship. Ten Top 10s in the last 11 races don't point to a summer slump that many expected, so while Johnson kissed the bricks in August, his detractors may be kissing something else in November.
Kevin Harvick: While he's making a mockery of the Busch Series title fight, Harvick is holding his own in the battle for the Nextel Cup Championship. In the past five races, he's finished no worse than ninth, and four straight Top 5s have helped vault him to fourth in the standings. He's suffered through a couple of mini-slumps since he broke into the Top 10 following Texas, but Harvick hasn't ever fallen out of Chase contention. With just five races remaining before the final cut is made, the No. 29 team is running well enough to make a serious charge for the biggest “double” of them all.
Jeff Gordon: I know, I know; a 16th place finish isn't worth getting all that excited about. But considering what Gordon and his team had to go through to get that shows how serious they are about redeeming themselves from last year's failure to make the Chase. Gordon’s finish at the Brickyard was good enough to bump him up to 8th in the standings and give him a bit of breathing room as the laps wind down to Richmond. In the past seven races, the Rainbow Warrior has finished outside the Top 20 just once, with two wins in that span. Heading to the road course at Watkins Glen next week, Gordon could easily make that three wins, giving himself even more of a cushion.
Ken Schrader: Yeah, you read that right: Ken Schrader. Since Michael “Fatback” McSwain took over the crew chief duties at the Wood Brothers in the middle of July, this team has really hit on something. Schrader’s three Top 15 finishes in the last five weeks total one more than they had in the previous 16 races combined. I'm not saying we are close to seeing his winless streak, which hit 500 races this past weekend, come to an end anytime soon. But there are tracks coming up where Schrader typically runs well, and the added boost that McSwain has given the team could find Kenny back in the Top 10 a few more times before the year is out.
Clint Bowyer: For the third time this season, Bowyer took home top rookie honors with his fourth place run at the Brickyard on Sunday. Following a second place qualifying effort, Bowyer ran in the Top 10 most of the day, and has continually shown progress this season. With three Top 10s in the past five races, you get the idea that Bowyer is definitely paying attention to his veteran teammates at RCR. If he continues to improve, it won't be long before we see all three cars from that team running with the big dogs of Hendrick and Roush in the Chase.
Tony Raines: In the past three races, Raines has stepped up his qualifying effort, starting in the Top 20 each week. At Indy, Raines translated that into an 11th place finish with Hall of Fame Racing, easily his best of the season. Perhaps the team was inspired by co-owner Troy Aikman's induction into the NFL Hall of Fame Saturday; perhaps Raines is finally creating good chemistry with crew chief Philippe Lopez. Whatever the reason, this team is making steady progress every week, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them climb into the Top 10 once before the year is out.
Bobby Labonte: In his first year with Petty Enterprises, Labonte has shown flashes of why the Pettys chose him to help rebuild their team. In 21 races this year, he has one Top 5 and four Top 10s, but it's the series high six DNFs that are killing any progress they make. Just when things seem to be heading in the right direction, another poor finish sets this team back. Case in point: this weekend at Indy. After posting an eighth place finish at Pocono, the No. 43 Dodge suffered an engine failure at the Brickyard and came home 40th, marking Labonte’s fifth finish out of the Top 20 in seven races. While there is a noticeable improvement from recent years for both the driver and the team, there is still plenty of room to develop.
Reed Sorenson: Things were looking up for Sorenson not that long ago. After Top 10 runs at Michigan and Chicago, Sorenson seemed to be on the path to having a strong second half of the season. But in the last three races, he's failed to crack the Top 20 and is coming off a 30th place effort at the Brickyard. He has run well at various times this year, which should help him as he finishes out his rookie season. But with a new teammate on the horizon for next year with no Cup experience and a bright spotlight shined towards him, it makes you wonder what kind of sophomore season Sorenson has to look forward to. Will he get lost in the shuffle, or be forced into a leadership role he's not yet ready for?
Boris Said: After two Top 10 finishes in his only Cup starts of the season, including a dramatic fourth place finish at Daytona, Said came back down to earth Sunday with a 42nd place finish at the Brickyard. His race lasted a mere 19 laps before he ended up in the grass following contact with Reed Sorenson, and before that, he never made it out of the bottom five positions. While it's obvious Said’s oval track program still is a work in progress, at least he should get a reprieve this weekend as the series heads to the final road course race of the season.
Kasey Kahne: Coming into the weekend, all eyes were on Kahne as he hoped to improve on his runner-up finish last year at Indy and score his fifth win of the season. Well, not only did Kahne fail to win the race, a spin on the final lap relegated him to a 36th place finish and knocked him out of Chase contention. It was just six short races ago that Kahne was third in the standings and had everyone talking about a possible title for Ray Evernham, but five finishes of 20th or worse have put Kahne on the outside of the Top 10 looking in. He's only 37 points out of 10th right now, but the way the No. 9 car is running as of late, it might as well be 137 points.
Elliott Sadler: After his wreck on lap three in Sunday's race, Sadler looked like he just wanted to go run and hide for the final fifteen races of 2006. His 43rd place finish was his fourth straight of 25th or worse, and drops him to a season low 22nd in the standings, a far cry from the 12th position he was in at this point last year. With both he and Dale Jarrett moving on in 2007 and Robert Yates cleaning house in an effort to rebuild the organization, don't look for a heat wave to hit this team for the remainder of the season. If I was Sadler, I wouldn't be too thrilled with the results my possible future team is putting up, either…
Jeremy Mayfield: Which brings us to Jeremy Mayfield. Like Sadler, Mayfield's trip to Indy was anything but memorable. After a decent qualifying effort, he started 15th and briefly hung in the Top 20, but then things took an all too familiar turn. Mayfield slid further back into the pack, and then, on lap 60, hit the turn two wall and ended the day in 41st place. The hit knocked Mayfield out of the Top 35 in owner points, putting him in the dangerous position of having to qualify on time until he can make up the lost ground, if at all possible. With the way things are going, though, I wouldn't put too much money on that.
Next up is the final road course race of the season at Watkins Glen. Will Jimmie Johnson suffer a Brickyard hangover, or can he conjure up another Top 10? Will Jeff Gordon retain his crown as King of the Road, or will one of the road course aces snatch it away from him? Will Tony Stewart lose the “moron” moniker from Carl Edwards, or will he fan the flames by calling him another name from a ‘50s TV show? We’ll have to wait until next week to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not.
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