The path to the Chase took some right turns this weekend for the final road course stop of the season. A Sunday drive around a winding road in New York can be a calming experience, but in a 3400 pound stock car at Watkins Glen, calming isn't the word that jumps to mind. Kurt Busch and his Miller Lite team certainly weren't calm when a pit road violation doomed his day, and Jeff Gordon was anything but relaxed when he spun and missed out on a Top 10 finish. With only four races from the cutoff for the Chase, those are just two of several drivers whose nerves were put on edge Sunday.
So, who actually survived the road trip, and who saw their season veer off course?
Read this week's Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick doesn't have a reputation for being a feared road racer, but that may change after his victory Sunday. The No. 29 team avoided a possible fuel disaster and Harvick passed Tony Stewart with seven laps to go to earn his second win of the year. His six straight Top 10 finishes are best in the series and have him a season high third in the standings as the Chase draws near.
Kyle Busch: I wonder if Milkbone was calling on Monday to be an associate sponsor on Busch's car? Busch took being a Lucky Dog to a whole new level Sunday, using five free passes to get him back on the lead lap after suspension repairs sent him behind the wall early in the race. His ninth place finish was his fifth Top 10 in the past six races and keeps him fifth in the standings.
Denny Hamlin: It seemed like Hamlin flew under the radar on Sunday, quietly finishing tenth in only his second Cup road course race. Maybe everyone has come to expect this kind of consistency from the young rookie from Virginia. With four straight Top 10s and 13 straight finishes in the Top 20, Hamlin is looking more and more like the Chase darkhorse threat for the title that nobody saw coming.
Robby Gordon: Gordon managed to turn in his first Top 5 finish of the year despite what he called a DEI engine that was on the “conservative” side. With five Top 20 finishes in the last eight races, Gordon is doing an admirable job considering the single car resources he has to work with, and has an outside shot at finishing in the Top 20 in Nextel Cup points. Perhaps if he can form an alliance with a team in the offseason, he could turn those Top 20s into Top 15s or Top 10s.
Brian Vickers: Over the past ten races, Vickers has put together a strong of consistent runs that have moved him from 26th to 15th in the standings, including a 16th place run on Sunday at the Glen. While a Chase bid is out of the question, this midseason push might be a catalyst for two teams in 2007; the No. 25 team itself, to be driven by Casey Mears, and Red Bull Toyota with their new driver Vickers.
Tony Stewart: When Stewart blew by Kevin Harvick with eight laps to go, it appeared he was on his way to his third straight Watkins Glen victory. In the end, he didn't have what it took to hold off Harvick, but his second place finish still moved him up two spots to seventh in the points. He currently has a 122 point cushion over eleventh place, and with four Top 10s in the last six races, it seems that Smoke's simply reloading before the real Chase begins.
Mark Martin: Nine weeks ago, things were looking pretty good for Martin; he was third in points and solidly in the Chase. Flash forward to the present, and the picture isn't as rosy. Mark's still in the Chase, but his grip on one of the ten coveted positions isn't as strong, to say the least. An engine change forced him to start at the tail end of the field Sunday, and a resulting 20th place finish gives him just a 21 point edge over seventh place Stewart. Only two Top 10s in the last nine races now have Martin in jeopardy of losing his Top 10 ranking, with just 143 points separating himself and eleventh place Kasey Kahne.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Junior's been fighting a consistency problem in recent weeks. His 18th place finish at Watkins Glen was good enough to keep him in tenth, but didn’t put any real distance between himself and Kasey Kahne in 11th. In the last four races, Junior has two finishes of dead last to go along with two Top 10s. So which Bud team will show up in the next four weeks? In the four tracks that are left before the Chase, Junior finished 11th twice, 3rd, and first in the races held at those places earlier in the year. So… while Junior's riding the fence between warm and cool right now, he could really heat up before the Chase begins.
Matt Kenseth: Like Junior, Kenseth is another driver that could really heat up in the coming weeks, but right now things aren't looking too bright. Kenseth has kept Johnson in sight, but only one Top 5 finish in the last five races has to have the 17 team a little bit concerned. A Chase bid is a virtual lock for this team, so at least they can use the next four weeks to build up badly needed momentum. A return visit to California, where Kenseth won earlier this season, could give the 17 bunch just the jumpstart they need for the final 10 race stretch of the year.
Kasey Kahne: If you look at Kahne's stat line in the rankings, you wouldn't believe that he wasn't solidly in the Top 10. Kasey has more Top 10s than the three drivers he's chasing, and his four wins are only one fewer than the ones those drivers have combined. So, why is the 9 bunch on the outside looking in? The answer is simple; six finishes of 20th or worse in the last seven races, including two races ruined by wrecks on the last lap, like Sunday’s 22nd place run at the Glen. Kahne may snap out of his cold spell this week at Michigan, a track he won at in June…but is the damage already done?
Greg Biffle: The fat lady isn't singing yet in the No. 16 shop, but she's humming pretty loud. Watkins Glen was a terrible weekend for Biffle, who wrecked both in qualifying and the race. The 38th place finish he received was simply another brick in the wall that's continuing to block him from the Chase. Now 180 points behind tenth place, Biffle heads to Michigan with three straight finishes of 24th, 33rd and 38th. He's been good at MIS in the past, but the wall maybe too high to climb at this point.
Casey Mears: The potential feel good story of the year back in February, Mears continues his descent down the standings as the weeks click away. He started off with three Top 10s in a row, but has yet to earn that many Top 10s in the 19 races since. With a streak of five finishes in a row outside the Top 20, Mears isn't even a blip on people's radar screens anymore to get that elusive first win before he makes the swap to Hendrick Motorsports for 2007.
This week, the series rolls back to Michigan where Kasey Kahne last visited victory lane. Can history repeat itself for Kahne, allowing him to mount one final charge towards the Top 10? Or will a win by Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon, who both finished in the Top 10 here in June, put a nail in the coffin for drivers like Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch? Finally, will Kyle Busch retain his surprising Top 5 points position by using the Lucky Dog to his advantage once again, or fall back into the clutches of his Chase competitiors? We'll have to wait until next Sunday to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not.
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