The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not In Nextel Cup : Atlanta Edition by Cami Starr -- Monday March 19, 2007

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Who's Hot / Who's Not In Nextel Cup : Atlanta Edition

The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday March 19, 2007

 

March Madness isn't just for hoopsters anymore. The Nextel Cup Series is getting ready to tip off its own version, as the introduction to the Car of Tomorrow looms just days away at the craziest short track of them all, Bristol Motor Speedway. Sandwiched between that unknown and the Goodyear debacle of Las Vegas, the teams visited the tried and true Atlanta Motor Speedway this past Sunday for some stress relief, where Jimmie Johnson won his second race in a row. That was the only consistent feature in a race that produced more questions than answers. With Mark Martin vacating his seat in the car that currently leads the points, the top spot in the standings is now completely up for grabs, and just one race remains before last year’s owner standings are thrown to the wayside, with several drivers using Atlanta as their chance to firmly faceplant themselves straight down to the bubble.

So, with so much at stake, which drivers are riding an NCAA bracket with all the right teams picked, and which ones are ready to rip their sheet (and their season) into shreds? Read this week's Who's Hot and Who's Not to find out.

Hot

Tony Stewart: After leaving Daytona 43rd in the point standings, Stewart has rocketed up to sixth following his second place finish at Atlanta this weekend. Smoke saw his chance at victory end with three laps to go when Jimmie Johnson passed by, and a brush with the wall soon after took away Stewart’s momentum and any shot he had of reeling back in the No. 48. Still it wasn't a totally wasted effort for the Home Depot Chevrolet. That second place finish was his third straight Top 10 and moved him up seven spots in the standings. We knew it wouldn't take long for Tony to get back into the thick of things following his Daytona DNF, but doing it in only three races may have surprised some.

Matt Kenseth: You may not have noticed this, but other than Johnson, no driver has been hotter than Kenseth in the last three races. NASCAR’s unassuming star dominated at California, leading 133 laps on the way to his first victory of the season. Then, he followed it up with a quiet fourth place run at Las Vegas, where he seemed to come out of nowhere at the end of the race to finish strong. This Sunday, his pit crew was the key to helping Kenseth move up from his 21st place starting position to finish third. Of course, he's done all of this without crew chief Robbie Reiser making the calls come race day. At Bristol, all that changes, with the longtime crew chief returning atop the pit box of the No. 17 after a four-race suspension. Could their reunion make Kenseth even better? If it does, his competitors better stay on their toes.

Carl Edwards: His return to Atlanta didn't end with a back flip, but Edwards’ seventh place finish was good enough to put him into the Top 10 in points for this first time this season. By the midpoint of Sunday's race, Edwards was in the Top 5, but a miscue on pit road nearly cost him a decent finish. That slow stop dropped him seven positions late in the going; but a strong car and a good stop by his crew during the final caution allowed him to make up most of that lost ground. Atlanta marked Cousin Carl's second straight Top 10 finish after getting off to a tough start of the season at Daytona and California. The bright spot for the team is that the poor finishes in the first two races were the result of bad luck, not bad race cars. Now that Cousin Carl is back on track, that backflip might be lurking right around the corner.

Warm

Jamie McMurray: When Scott Riggs spun in front of McMurray on lap seven at Fontana, it seemed that a dark cloud had found a permanent home in the No. 26 garage. But in the past two weeks, that cloud has lifted, and the sun is starting to shine on a team that has been struggling to live up to expectations over the past year. Poor qualifying efforts have put the Crown Royal team behind early, but in the last two weeks, the Missouri native has been able to move his way through the field to capture two Top 15 finishes in a row. A tenth place run at Las Vegas and a 15th place finish at Atlanta have vaulted the No. 26 from 36th to 24th in the standings, taking the pressure of being in the Top 35 off of both McMurray and the team.

Martin Truex, Jr.: Truex had a mediocre run at Daytona to open the season, then followed that with a DNF at California after his motor let go. That left him deep in the standings after just two races, and the pressure was on the D.E.I. team to rebound. As it turns out, they were up to the challenge; Truex posted a 12th place finish at Las Vegas, following up with the No. 1’s first Top 10 of the year last Sunday at Atlanta. That 8th place performance moved Truex five positions up to 22nd in the standings, making him the highest ranked driver at D.E.I.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Like his teammate, Earnhardt found himself struggling during the first part of this short season. Back-to-back DNF's had people thinking the unbelievable; what if Dale, Jr. isn't in the Top 35 after five races? Like Truex, though, Junior was able to turn his program around; however, the ride back to the top hasn't been without its share of problems. In Las Vegas, Junior was penalized late in the race for pitting too soon, ending the day in 11th place. Despite a 14th place run at Atlanta this past Sunday as a follow-up, Junior wasn't handing out compliments to the No. 8 bunch. He was running as high as third at one point of the race, but bad adjustments on pit road towards the end of the day cost him a shot at his first Top 10 of 2007. It would shock everyone if Junior’s team didn't get it together soon, though. He is currently 26th in the standings and once they get these little mistakes ironed out, they should be able to continue their climb towards the top.

Reed Sorenson: While his famous teammate may be stealing the headlines, Sorenson is putting together a decent start to his sophomore campaign. He kicked off the year with a 13th place run at Daytona, but then was caught up in an early wreck at Fontana, which caused him to end the day dead last. Like many other drivers, Sorenson found Vegas a bit frustrating. He was running near the Top 15 before gear problems hit and he was caught speeding on pit road. But Atlanta was another up week for Reed as he scored his first Top 10 of the year. Not that he's struggled in qualifying lately, but his ninth place finish Sunday moved him up six places to 25th in the standings; giving him some breathing room between himself and the dreaded 36th points position.

Cool

Kevin Harvick: Harvick came within a handful of laps of possibly starting the season with two straight wins. But a flat tire after a red flag at Fontana started off a run of bad luck for the Daytona 500 champ. At Vegas, the team never got the handle right on the No. 29 Chevy, and they ended the day two laps down in 27th place. Last weekend at Atlanta, a return to the Top 10 seemed possible before engine issues developed with 75 laps to go. On a positive note, the engine didn't give out, and Harvick was able to finish the race, albeit in 25th position. His season is far from over, but as other teams are hitting a hot streak and moving up to the Top 10 in points; Harvick is sliding back and currently sits seventh.

Paul Menard: Rookie of the Year candidate Paul Menard got off to a rough start by missing the opening race at Daytona. While his finishes since have been less than spectacular, he’s done a job many series vets haven't pulled off…he's qualified for all of them. In this ultra competitive season with several teams going home early each weekend, Menard has done an admirable job in making sure his No. 15 Chevy is in the field on speed. Once he's in the race, though, he hasn't had the best of luck in turning those opportunities into solid finishes. Currently 36th in the standings, Menard’s No. 15 is just nine points out of the coveted 35th position heading towards a critical race at Bristol. The main culprit of the team's woes this year has been not being able to get the car to Menard's liking; but if he can continue to make the field, he'll get the valuable seat time that will help him and his team communicate to get the cars in a position where he can finish stronger.

Cold

Scott Riggs: After a mid-season rally in 2006, Riggs and his No. 10 Valvoline team faltered towards the end of the season, and as of right now, it seems that bad luck has followed him into 2007. Daytona started off with transmission problems that put him behind the wall for 20 laps. At Fontana, he was done before the race really got started, finishing 16 laps before he wrecked out. Vegas brought a mediocre 23rd place finish; then, Riggs scored his second DNF of the year when his engine blew at Atlanta. Three finishes of 37th or worse have him buried in 41st place in the owner standings, 79 points out of the Top 35. The task ahead of Riggs isn't insurmountable, but he can't afford many more wrecks and mechanical failures in order to dig out of this hole.

Dave Blaney: Other than Dale Jarrett, Blaney is the only Toyota driver that has been in each of the four races this season. Like Jarrett, though, Blaney hasn't been able to use his free passes to his advantage to build himself a cushion for the remainder of 2007. He has the dubious honor of leading the series in DNF's so far this year with three; both wrecks and mechanical failures have left him deep in the owner rankings, stuck in 39th place. The No. 22 team is only 31 points out of 35th, so it's not out of the question that he can get back up to the “safe zone” quickly and easily. But running like he has been, the question is whether he maintain that position above the fray if he should even find himself lucky enough to be there after next weekend?

Well, race fans, this week marks the race many have been looking forward to and dreading at the same time; the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow. Will Jimmie Johnson be able to conquer the new design and make it three in a row? Can Kurt Busch retain his crown as the King of Bristol? Or will Jeff Gordon finally break through and get his first win of the year, taking over the point lead now that Mark Martin is stepping down? 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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