The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday August 28, 2006
This year's version of the famed Bristol night race was fairly tame compared to recent years. There were no fist fights, thrown helmets, or last lap spins to win…but there was still plenty of battling going on. Matt Kenseth completed the weekend double to earn his second straight victory, inching closer to Jimmie Johnson for the top spot in the Nextel Cup standings. Behind them, positions shuffled around like a deck of cards at a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, with only the top three spots remaining unchanged from a week ago.
So, who ended the night at Bristol raking in the points, and who got sent paddling down the river? Read this week's Who's Hot/Who's Not to find out.
Matt Kenseth: Six months of the 2006 season passed before a driver won two in a row, but Kenseth put an end to that streak on Saturday night when he completed the Bristol sweep. After cooling off earlier this summer, the DeWalt team has caught fire since their runner up finish at Indy. Now only seven points out of first, Jimmie Johnson might not be the one everyone is Chasing after Richmond like most had assumed.
Denny Hamlin: Places like Bristol are supposed to intimidate rookies, but Hamlin didn't get the memo. With 15 straight Top 20s and six in a row in the Top 10, Hamlin continues to solidify his position in the Chase. Fontana and Richmond were good tracks for Hamlin the first time around, and I'd be willing to bet we'll see him trying to deliver Joe Gibbs a second straight championship should he deliver two repeat performances.
Kevin Harvick: It's not always the wins or the Top 5s that make a team look like a title contender. Saturday night, Harvick and the GM Goodwrench team overcame a blown tire and a hard hit to the outside wall on lap 203 to score an 11th place finish. He's not yet a lock in the Chase, but with eight straight Top 11 finishes, Harvick's likely a force to be reckoned with unless he undergoes a shocking collapse.
Kyle Busch: After a disappointing weekend at Michigan that saw him drop two places in the standings, Busch gained three spots following his runner up finish at Bristol. Now fourth in points, Busch has finished in the Top 15 in 13 of the last 15 races. Despite his rank, the younger Busch brother continues to fly under many people's radar screens with his on track performances. If he keeps running this way during the Chase, though, it might not be that way for long.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr: The last seven races have been very telling in how Earnhardt, Jr, and his team have evolved from last year's disastrous season. After hitting a season high third in the rankings, Junior finished 43rd in back-to-back weeks and looked to be in the midst of another meltdown. Now, with three Top 10s in the last four races, Junior has risen to 9th, 92 points ahead of Kasey Kahne in 11th, and his team appears to have persevered thorugh the tough times.
Scott Riggs: After failing to make the season opener at Daytona, things didn't look very bright for Riggs and his new team. But in the 23 races since, the Valvoline group has dug in their heels and worked hard to improve each and every week. All of that hard work paid off Saturday when Riggs earned his first Top 5 of the year, finishing fourth, and moved into the Top 20 in points. At their current pace, this team has a good shot at cracking the Top 15 by season's end.
Mark Martin: If you think Martin's retirement plans are up and down, just take a look at his recent race results. In the past six weeks, he's finished 4th, 19th, 5th, 20th, 5th and 28th. If that pattern holds, the good news is that he should finish well at Fontana, where he scored a 9th place finish earlier this year. The bad news is that he'd have a bad finish at Richmond, the last race before the Chase. Currently 10th in the standings and only 90 points ahead of Kasey Kahne, he better hope the finish at Richmond isn't too bad.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer is in need of a break, but not the kind of break he got in Bristol Saturday night. He was making his way through the field when, just shy of halfway, he lost a left rear tire and went sailing into the wall. The resulting 38th place finish was his second straight finish of 30th or worse and dropped him to 20th in the standings. With only one Top 10 in the last six races, Bowyer and his team need a couple of good runs to come their way so they can start building for next year.
Jimmie Johnson: Most teams would give their crew chief’s left arm for finishes like Johnson has had, but for a team that is looking to finally break through and win the title, things should be a whole lot better. Following his win at Indy, Johnson had a 107 point lead over Matt Kenseth. Now, just four races later, the lead has been shaved to only 7. Johnson hasn't been running terribly; but he's not setting the world on fire, either. Other than his win at Indy, Johnson hasn't scored a Top 5 finish in 12 races, and in several events, he's had to simply fight and claw just to finish in the Top 10 by the end of the day. Is the No. 48 team holding back and preparing for the Chase, or are they once again trailing off at the end of the year?
Kurt Busch: Bristol has been the best track on the circuit for Busch since he started in the Cup series, and he needed another big finish Saturday to keep any Chase hopes he had alive. But a pit road penalty dropped him back in the field early, and, ultimately, a transmission problem ended his night in 37th place. With two straight finishes outside the Top 35, Busch's Chase hopes have been put on hold for another year, leaving the team fighting for 11th the remainder of the season. With just one Top 10 in the last six races, even that could be a tall order.
Sterling Marlin: In the last two weeks, Marlin has qualified well, and had hoped for another strong finish in his home state at Bristol Saturday night. But when he smacked the wall on lap 62, Marlin blew any chance for a strong run and finished 32nd. The No. 14 group hasn't seen a Top 10 finish since the series was last at Richmond back in May, and with five straight finishes of 29th or worse, the team continues to struggle to keep itself within striking distance of the Top 35 in owner points.
Greg Biffle: No matter how hard he tried to fight back, Biffle's early season woes proved to be too much for the team to overcome. He finally cracked the Top 10 following the race at Michigan in June, but in the ten races since, has finished outside the Top 15 on five occasions. Bristol's 19th place all but officially knocked him out of the Chase, but it was the three races at Pocono, Indianapolis, and Watkins Glen where The Biff really spelled the end to his Chase hopes; he finished 24th or worse in all three.
Next up this weekend is the new Labor Day tradition of Sunday night racing in California. It doesn't have quite the excitement of the Bristol night event, but it is still a critical race for the nine drivers who are still fighting to make it into the Chase. Can Matt Kenseth make it three in a row, complete the Fontana double, and take over the point lead? Will hometown favorite Jimmie Johnson steal the limelight instead and get back on track? Will 4th through 11th in the standings finally put some distance between one another? We'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who's Hot…and Who's Not.
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