Cami Starr · Monday March 12, 2007
"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." There were certainly some drivers who were happy with the outcome of Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, but also plenty of drivers who would have preferred to forget the whole thing. Jimmie Johnson, who scored his third straight win at the track, just might vote to race there every weekend. Johnson may have hit the big jackpot, but there were several other drivers who came up on the plus side following Sunday's race. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler all climbed into the Top 10 at the end of the day. But as is always the case in Vegas, there were plenty of drivers who went bust. So who left Sin City a bit richer than they came and who left with empty pockets? Read this week's edition of Who's Hot and Who's Not to find out.
Jimmie Johnson: After stumbling at Daytona, Johnson has certainly turned things around in the past two races. He scored a third place finish at California and then backed it up with a win at Las Vegas this Sunday. His three-peat in Sin City bumped Johnson up 11 positions in the standings to fourth, where he currently sits 89 points behind the leader. This team has overcome some atypical problems on pit road in the last two race weekends, but still managed to turn in strong performances. It's early in the season, but Johnson and Co. definitely have that championship swagger.
Mark Martin: The biggest question surrounding Martin these days is will he or won't he? I'm not even going to venture a guess at that, but I can tell you that nobody has been hotter than Martin so far in 2007. Driving for a team that scored only two Top 10s in all of 2006, Martin has them off to a blistering pace in 2007 with three straight Top 5 finishes. Not too shabby for a driver that was supposed to be retired by now. One thing will be interesting to watch if he does decide to go full-time this year; will this team be as good? Right now, they are in a position to shoot for the win every week without any regard to the overall point scheme. That might change, along with their performance, should they decide to make a run at the Cup.
Jeff Gordon: Marriage and impending fatherhood seem to agree with the four-time Cup Champion. For the first time since his championship season in 1997, Gordon has started off the year with three Top 10 finishes. Back to back runner-up finishes have Gordon second in the standings, six points behind "part-time" driver Mark Martin. At Las Vegas, the team led the most laps and showed that they may be turning the corner to become a serious threat for the Championship this year. Perhaps having a full season behind him with Steve Letarte at the helm is starting to pay dividends.
Denny Hamlin: Often times people get caught up in the idea of the dreaded sophomore slump. But so far in 2007, Hamlin isn't showing any signs of a collapse. He got off to a mediocre start at Daytona with a 28th place finish, but in the past two weeks has risen into the Top 10 in the standings with finishes of 11th and third. Heading to Atlanta, Hamlin should be able to maintain his current pace. Last year he was running strong in the Spring race before he had late race problems and followed that up with a tenth place finish in the fall.
Ryan Newman: While the most of the Dodges had their best day on Friday during qualifying, Newman saved his best for last this weekend in Las Vegas. His eighth place finish was tops among the Dodge drivers and boosted him up to 15th in the standings; that’s three spots higher than he was at this point last year. With a crew chief change in the off season, many wouldn't have been surprised to see Newman get off to a slow start. But with a 12th place finish at California coupled with his finish at Las Vegas, Newman is showing signs of a steady improvement. Perhaps a bit of fresh blood on the pit box is what this team needed.
Elliott Sadler: Sadler started off hot when he came to Evernham Motorsports partway through the 2006 season, only to falter later in the year. So far in 2007, the team looks to be headed back in the right direction. He kicked off the year with a sixth place finish at Daytona before a poor handling car put him back to 24th at California. This weekend at Vegas, suspended team director Josh Browne was back at the track and the team posted a strong qualifying effort, starting the race third before ending the day in 14th place. With his team back together, look for Sadler and Co. to continue to build on their early season spark.
Kasey Kahne: On the other side of the spectrum, we find another Evernham Motorsports driver. Kahne has found nothing but bad luck the past two weeks after starting off the year with a Top 10 finish at Daytona. At Fontana, a blown engine was the culprit and at Las Vegas, a late race accident doomed the team to their second straight finish of 35th or worse. Currently Kahne finds himself three points shy of the magical 35th place spot in the owner points, thanks to those two poor finishes and the penalty dished out at Daytona. The season is far from over, but this year things are ultra competitive with so many teams looking to make the race each week. On the bright side for Kahne, the team has been running well, they’ve just had some bad luck. But on the downside, he can't afford too many more mulligans this early in the year if he doesn't want to be forced into the pressure cooker of having to qualify on speed every week.
Tony Raines: Raines has had a quiet start to the new season, currently sitting in 25th position in the standings. He put in his best finish of the year this past weekend at Las Vegas when he brought his Chevy home in 19th place. His team is already at a disadvantage by being a single car operation, but with the talk of a possible driver change last year, you know his team owners are itching for some better finishes. Right now the team has the luxury of being in the Top 35 in owner points from last year, but it would be in their best interest to try and pool their resources into figuring out how to get better results on race day because many of the teams behind them in owner points right now are bound to get better soon.
David Gilliland: After making a big splash at Daytona, things have quieted down for Gilliland and the No. 38 Robert Yates Racing team. On one hand, that's not a terrible thing. At least he isn't out there making rookie mistakes and wrecking race cars. But on the other hand, turning in mediocre finishes like he has the past two weeks, 25th and 21st respectively, isn't doing much for the team either. Perhaps people read too much into the team's resurgence at Daytona this year. Right now it seems like they are knee deep in mediocrity.
Michael Waltrip Racing: The team couldn't have gotten off to too much of a worse start than they did this season. The scandal from Daytona seems to have died down, but is it still having lasting effects on this new team? Waltrip has missed the last two races, teammate David Reutimann joined the DNQ club this weekend at Las Vegas, and Dale Jarrett is going through past champion provisionals like candy. Waltrip’s No. 55 is so far out of the Top 35, it's almost comical. Currently they are 58th in owner points, 161 points behind 35th place Jeff Green. Reutimann didn't fare too well in his two starts and is 45th in the owner standings. Jarrett has made all three races this year, but is halfway through his free passes and hasn't done much with the opportunity, posting a season best finish of only 22nd at Daytona. I wouldn't even know where to start to recommend solutions for this team, but then again, I don't get paid to run a Nextel Cup team. They do, and they have a lot of work ahead of them.
Casey Mears: At this time last year, Mears was living the highlife. He was third in the standings and had posted three straight Top 10 finishes. When he made the move to Hendrick Motorsports this year, many people saw that as a move up and into a ride where he would have a chance to win. Looking at his results so far this year, you wouldn't know that. Mears started off 20th at Daytona and things haven't gotten any better. The car wasn't handling well at all at California, resulting in a 31st place finish. At Vegas, things looked to be going better before Mears was involved in an early wreck while running in the Top 10. No matter the cause, the result is the same. Mears sits far back from his Hendrick teammates in 34th place in the standings, a far cry from where he was in 2006.
Will Mark Martin continue his hot streak and make the decision to sit out at Bristol just a little bit tougher? Can Jeff Gordon finish one spot higher and finally tie Dale Earnhardt Sr. in all-time wins? Will Dale Jarrett finally start a race higher than 43rd place and will his teammates join him on the starting grid? We'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not in the Nextel Cup Series.
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