The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday August 21, 2006
You need look no further than the results of the two drivers that started on the front row Sunday to see how quickly a team's fortune can change in Nextel Cup racing. Jeff Burton won his fourth pole of the year, quite a feat for a driver not known for his qualifying skills, and went into the race at Michigan as one of the hottest drivers in the series. Elliott Sadler dazzled the crowd by starting second in his first race for Evernham Motorsports, a team that has been getting more attention from its owner's personal life than its on the track results.
Knowing that, you would think that Sadler’s team would be the one heading backwards on Sunday, but that’s hardly the way it turned out. Burton's day ended early with engine problems that dropped him like a rock down to ninth in the standings, while Sadler scored the first Top 10 for the team this year and moved them back into the Top 35 in owner points.
Like Burton, several other teams found themselves on the wrong side of what was an unpredictable, roller coaster type of day at Michigan. So, which other teams celebrated after that wild ride and which ones couldn’t wait to get off? Read this week's Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.
Denny Hamlin: It took nine races this season before Hamlin truly hit his stride, but once he did, he has not looked back. With fourteen straight Top 20 finishes and five straight Top 10s, he has moved from 19th to 8th in the standings and is poised to be the first rookie ever to make the Chase. While his competitors have their good and bad weeks, quiet consistency has been Hamlin's key to success.
Tony Stewart: Stewart has had a pretty successful summer, despite a rough beginning. Back-to-back finishes of 32nd and 37th following his win at Daytona had people wondering if the Home Depot team would make the cut this year. Now, four Top 10s later, Stewart is fifth in the standings and has a tiny bit of breathing room.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick came up one position short of extending his streak of Top 10 finishes to seven races, but his 11th place run at Michigan was good enough to keep him third in the standings with just three races left in the Chase. Catching Johnson and Kenseth isn't in the cards, but with a 216 point lead over 11th place, he looks to have one of the Chase spots firmly in hand.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth's third win of the season came at a good time for a team that had been a bit on the cool side in recent weeks. Other than his runner up finish at Indy, Kenseth hadn't seen the Top 10 since Daytona seven races ago. While his spot in the Chase was never in doubt, the momentum the team was carrying into the final ten races could have been a question mark…until Sunday.
Elliott Sadler: Normally, I don't rank someone based on one or two races, but Sadler's strong qualifying run and 10th place finish had to be considered a big success for all involved. For the team, it moved them back into the Top 35 in owner points, which takes the pressure off for qualifying this week at Bristol, where anything can…and will…happen. That can’t help but be a motivator for this team as they work to build a strong foundation for next year. For the driver, his second Top 10 in a row has to give him confidence after suffering with RYR for most of this season.
Jeff Gordon: If, for some reason, Gordon doesn't make the Chase, it won't be because they have struggled greatly on the same tracks they have in recent years. Gordon's runner up finish at MIS was his first top 5 at the track in six races, and allowed him to capitalize on other drivers' misfortunes to move up to sixth in the standings. With three strong tracks for the team coming up, he should be able to easily turn in Top 10 finishes, something he's lacked on a consistent basis this year.
Greg Biffle: Biffle rebounded with a seventh place finish at Michigan on Sunday, but many expected him to do better; not that anything other than a win would have done much good with his closest competition, Kasey Kahne, finishing in fourth. Prior to Michigan, The Biff had three straight finishes of 20th or worse after he had finally worked his way back into the Top 10. Those three races could prove to be the final dagger in what keeps him from the Chase.
Carl Edwards: Edwards is another driver people expected big things out of this weekend, but an ill-handling race car late in the race relegated him to 22nd place and put his Chase hopes somewhere between slim and none. Edwards does have three top 10s in the last five races, but a few poor finishes late in the season have kept him from being able to fully dig out of the hole he put himself in after week one.
Kurt Busch: Add Busch to the list of drivers whose Chase hopes took a nosedive at Michigan this Sunday. After battling for the lead in the early part of the race, Busch's car got terribly loose and he made contact with the wall on lap 129, relegating him to a 40th place finish. It was the fourth time in the last five races that he failed to score a Top 10 finish after rattling off five straight. Busch all but waved a white flag in his post race interview, saying now the focus turns to next year. Just don't forget about the big battle for 11th, Kurt.
Dale Jarrett: After seeing how well his former teammate ran in his first week with a new team, you have to wonder if DJ is wishing he could make an early exit from RYR, too. Michigan is a track that is usually good for Jarrett; he actually claimed his first series win there. You wouldn't know it, though, from his 36th place finish on Sunday. With only two Top 10s this year, both of which came within the first four races, I give Jarrett credit for sticking it out this long.
J.J. Yeley: While his two teammates battle for the Chase, Yeley finds himself the odd man out at Joe Gibbs Racing. He had managed a three race streak of Top 15 finishes, but has seen a return to the cold side with finishes in the 30s the last three weeks. Yeley managed to wreck three times this weekend in all, so you can be sure he's glad that Michigan isn't on the schedule again until next June.
Kyle Petty: While teammate Bobby Labonte has found a little success this season, Petty has continued to struggle. His only Top 10 of the year came in race No. 4 at Atlanta, and since then, he's been hard pressed to find the Top 20. With the departure of Todd Parrott from Labonte's team, Petty Enterprises is on a crew chief search for the 43; but they could also use a bit of work on the 45, as well.
Next up is one of the highlights of the season, the Bristol night race. With the pressure of the Chase building, will we see some drivers take it out on the track this Saturday night? Will Carl Edwards dole out a little bit of payback to Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Will Jeff Gordon put the old bump and run move on Kenseth? We'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot…and Who’s Not.
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