The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday September 4, 2006
In the mid-1800s, settlers flocked westward in the famous California Gold Rush. Now, over 150 years later, fans are flocking westward to take part in an adrenaline rush offered by the area’s newest discovery : the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.
As the new Labor Day tradition entered its third year as the Southern 500 replacement, it was Kasey Kahne who struck gold on this night, leading the most laps and earning his series-leading fifth win of the season. Several other drivers in Chase contention followed close behind with strong finishes; whether or not they’ve all struck Fool's Gold will be depend on how much they can sustain their momentum during the final race of the regular season at Richmond Saturday night, their final obstacle before the real title Chase begins.
So, which drivers brought home a bounty of points following a weekend of digging out West, and which ones left the track with empty pockets? Read on to find out in the California edition of Who’s Hot…and Who’s Not.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Back-to-back last place finishes had to have Junior fans a little bit on edge a little over a month ago. But in the last five races, four Top 10s should have calmed their nerves as their man charges towards a chance at the championship. Junior's not locked into the Chase yet, but a strong second place showing at Fontana, by far his best finish at that track, makes the hill a whole lot easier to climb Saturday night.
Jeff Gordon: The other big name driver to miss the Chase last year is heating up late in the game as well. Finishing 5th at California, Gordon has ripped off three straight Top 5s and has moved to a season high fourth in the standings. As long as Jeff doesn't repeat his 40th place performance at Richmond that he had in the spring, redemption for last year is just a race away.
Denny Hamlin: In the 16 races since the series first came to Richmond in May, young Hamlin has only one finish outside the Top 15 and no finish worse than 17th. That's impressive for any driver, let alone a rookie, and now just one more trip back to his home track stands between Hamlin and a piece of history. Given the recent hot streak and Denny’s runner up finish the last time he came here, it's not such a high hurdle to jump.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne may still be the odd man out in the race for the Chase, but he did all he could at Fontana to close the gap. His fifth win of the year, coupled with a fourth at Michigan and 12th at Bristol, have him just 30 points out of the Chase heading to a track in Richmond that gave him his first win in May 2005. Kahne's been up and down all season long; the question is, does he have one more trick up his sleeve to keep the roller coaster from speeding downwards in the final race of the regular season?
Tony Stewart: Stewart was uncharacteristically quiet Sunday night, claiming his fifth Top 10 in the last six races with a 9th place finish. In fact, compared to last summer Stewart has been very quiet. However, despite his struggles in the two weeks following his win at Daytona, Smoke is still firmly in the Chase hunt and should make it in with ease, something that many wouldn't have dared say a month ago.
Casey Mears: Mears has been all over the place so far in 2006. He started off hot, then cooled way off before hitting a season low 19th in the standings after a 35th place finish at Watkins Glen. In the three races since, he has been steadily better, and his 14th place finish at California put him back in the Top 15 in the standings. Too little, too late for the Chase, but perhaps this season is starting to turn and will go full circle towards the top before the year is out.
Jeff Burton: While his competitors are starting to flex their muscle as the Chase cutoff nears, Burton is showing signs of slowing down. His biggest hit was a blown engine at Michigan that landed him 42nd, but other mediocre finishes have taken their toll. The qualifying efforts have been outstanding for the No. 31 team, but their inability lately to turn them into strong finishes on Sunday afternoon might make Burton the odd man out after Richmond.
Brian Vickers: While his Hendrick teammates are working to solidify their places in the championship battle, Vickers is fighting just to stay in the Top 20. After scoring his third Top 5 of the year at Pocono in July, he has taken a steady downward turn, capped off by a 41st place finish at California. With results like that, it's going to be a long 11-race stretch as his tenure with HMS comes to a close.
Dale Jarrett: I've been pretty hard on Jarrett at times this year, often deservingly so. Now that he's put together a pair of good runs, I thought it was worth a mention. DJ backed up a 15th place run at Bristol with a Top 10 at Fontana, his first such finish since Atlanta in March. It's not much, but when you've been as down as Jarrett and the UPS team has been, even the smallest things are worth a little celebration.
Joe Nemechek: What a difference a year makes. In 2005, Nemechek was 16th in the standings, the same place he would end the year, and had a Top 5 and seven Top 10s to his credit. In most cases, you would think a team would match or even better their statistics the following year after showing signs of improvement the year before. Well, that hasn't been the case for the Army team. With no Top 5s and another goose egg in the Top 10 column, the No. 01 group is battling to simply make the Top 30 in the standings this year. Looks like this batallion needs to form a new battle plan for 2007.
Kurt Busch: Perhaps when Busch said that his team is testing out new things for next season now that they are out of the Chase, that was code for “don't expect much from us the rest of the year.” Qualifying isn't an issue with the No. 2 team; they have three poles in the last four races. Turning Friday performances into results on Sunday is a whole other story, though. That kind of sounds like another Penske team of years past, doesn't it? In the last three races, Busch has finished outside the Top 25 in each, and two of those finishes have been 37th or worse. Looks like the team has accomplished a laundry list of things not to try next year.
Kyle Petty: Another driver who had hoped to have a reversal of fortune this year only to see more of the same old struggles is Kyle Petty. With the addition of Robbie Loomis and Bobby Labonte to the organization, hopes were high for a bit of an improvement over at Petty Enterprises. Now that Labonte’s crew chief, Todd Parrott, has left the team to return to Robert Yates Racing once again, Petty has personnel issues to deal with that could cause him to lose focus on the track. With no Top 20s in the last 14 races, Sunday night’s 35th place run was bad enough to kick the No. 45 car out of the Top 35 in owner points, making the near future extra tough for Kyle and his team.
Next up is another Saturday night short track race at Richmond, with the Chase for the Championship taking center stage under the lights. Can Kasey Kahne pull a Mayfield (and no, I don't mean “outing” his car owner’s relationship), winning at Richmond in order to make the Chase? Will one of the drivers currently in the bottom half of the Top 10 find trouble at Richmond to make room for Kahne? Can a non-Chase driver steal the limelight and win under the Virginia lights? We'll have to wait until next week to found out Who's Hot, Who's Not…and Who's “Chase-bound”.
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