Cami Starr · Monday April 2, 2007
After two grueling short track, Car of Tomorrow races, the Nextel Cup Series is taking off this weekend for their version of Spring Break. Where each driver is going for that extended vacation may range from Alaska to the Caribbean depending on their mood; the first six races of 2007 have showcased a few surprises, a couple of disappointments, and plenty of interesting scenarios for the men behind the wheel. On the surprising side, how many fans would have predicted that Juan Pablo Montoya would have already scored a Top 5 finish…at Atlanta, of all places? Or that his teammate, David Stremme, would be 13th in the standings? On the disappointing side, Kasey Kahne leads the way; he's having more trouble shaking his bad luck than he does running away from those three crazy women in the commercials. Even the point leader has had his share of ups and downs: how disappointed is Jeff Gordon that it was his teammate ahead of him on Sunday stealing the win, not some other driver he could have punted out of the way without giving the boot a second thought?
All those ups and downs are enough to make anyone confused as to where their driver will be spending the next two weeks… shaking off the heat or freezing themselves in an igloo. Luckily, Hot or Not is here to sort out the good from the bad in this week’s Spring Break edition. Pack your bags and read on below before you board your plane to paradise…
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson may not be getting an invitation for Easter dinner at the Gordons this weekend, but he probably doesn't mind; he'll be busy trying to figure out where to put his brand new grandfather clock. Thanks to a setup courtesy of the No. 24 team, Johnson scored his third victory in the last four races to maintain third in the standings heading into the off week. With a winning percentage of 50%, Johnson and Knaus continue to show why they are a powerhouse combination, leaving the competition on notice they are going to fight hard for back-to-back titles.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior Nation was on suicide watch after Dale, Jr. started off the year with two straight DNF's, but the past four weeks have eased their fears. Remember when people were worried Junior might not be in the Top 35 in owner points? That seems like a ridiculous fear now that the No. 8 team has four straight Top 15 finishes, including back-to-back Top 10s that sent them roaring back into Chase contention. Now 11th in the points, Junior and Co. seem primed to continue their hot streak with favorite tracks like Texas and Phoenix on the horizon.
Jamie McMurray: McMurray ended 2006 with 14 straight races without a Top 10 finish, leaving many people scratching their heads about why Jack Roush made such a fuss to hire him away from Ganassi Racing. The start of 2007 didn't see the team fairing much better, with two finishes of 31st and 37th digging an early season hole. But the next week at Las Vegas, things seemed to turn around for the team. The shed their bad luck and have scored three Top 10 finishes in the past four races, putting them 12th in the standings heading into the Easter break. The addition of Larry Carter in the offseason is starting to pay off, and McMurray is no longer an afterthought in the Roush-Fenway stable.
Denny Hamlin: You could see on Hamlin's face following Sunday's race at Martinsville, just how badly he wanted to win at his home state track. Given his performance in the two CoT races, you can see why he was so optimistic about his chances. In the end, he had to settle for a third place finish, but Hamlin has showed no signs of the dreaded sophomore jinx so far in 2007. He has a pair of Top 5s, including a third on Sunday, and currently sits sixth in the points. His results haven't been flashy, but he is staying consistent, and both wins and more Top 5s will come based on how this team is running so far this year.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Montoya isn't necessarily setting the world on fire, but he is exceeding many of the expectations people had for him coming into his rookie year. He scored his first Nextel Cup Top 5 at Atlanta, but then his first taste of short track racing produced a dropoff to 32nd at Bristol. This week at Martinsville, Montoya managed to keep his nose pretty clean (just don't ask Tony Raines what he thinks), coming out with a 16th place run. Currently 16th in points, Montoya is ahead of plenty of well established drivers…just think of what he can do once he gets the hang of this oval stuff.
Carl Edwards: What a difference a season can make. This time last year, Edwards was 19th in the standings and at the start of what would turn out to be a disappointing sophomore slump for a driver who had battled for the title the year before. Flash forward to 2007; Edwards is ninth and seems to have some of his swagger back. He only has two Top 10s this season, but the team isn't falling victim to the bad luck and heartbreak they endured in 2006. Reuniting with Bob Osborne in the offseason has certainly paid off dividends for the No. 99 team, and they are slowly getting back to where they were at the end of 2005.
Kyle Petty: There is good news and bad news for Petty six races into 2007. On the bright side, the team is 53 points on the good side of the Top 35 cutoff, and Petty has a goose egg in the DNF column, a bugaboo for the organization in past years. Now, here’s the bad news: they are in sight of the bottom 35. Other than a 42nd place at Daytona, Petty hasn't had any disastrous finishes; in four of six races, they have finished in the Top 30, but in this ultra competitive era, Top 30s and Top 20s on a regular basis just don't cut it. With the way this team ended 2006, it looked like they may have made a serious dent in their long climb back to the top. All hope isn't lost, but there is still a lot of work left ahead of them.
J.J. Yeley: While his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are resting comfortably in the Top 10 in the standings, Yeley is struggling to try and keep up. He started off the season well with two Top 15 finishes, but in the four races since, he's struggled to have his finishes show how much the team has improved. He's no longer wrecking cars left and right, but a relapse at Martinsville sent him into the wall and ruined what would be a certain Top 5 finish. Currently 18th in the standings, Yeley has certainly improved over where he was at last year; he just needs to work on being consistent and running strong the entire race.
Joe Nemechek: By missing the race at Bristol, Nemechek ended a streak of 175 straight starts that dated back to April 2002. Luckily for Nemechek and his new No. 13 team, his early season performances at Daytona (9th) and California (14th) were good enough to keep him in the Top 35 in points. Martinsville saw the team struggle after a poor qualifying performance; Nemechek went down a lap early in the race and could only muster a 27th place finish, eventually falling several more circuits off the pace. Heading into the off week, he is 25th in owner points, so there isa bright side; facing another DNQ won't be an issue unless the team can't stop the mini-slide they are currently suffering.
Dale Jarrett: There is one bright spot for Jarrett this year; he has been in some pretty funny commercials. Personally, my favorite is the NAPA ad with Michael Waltrip and Sammy Hagar, where Hagar asks Waltrip, "Can you drive any faster?" Well, that would be good advice for both Jarrett and his boss to heed. The blame can't be placed squarely on their shoulders though; none of the Toyota teams are dazzling anyone. As far as Jarrett’s team, the past two weeks have simply been more headaches in a season filled with disappointments. At Bristol, he was wrecked by Matt Kenseth, and then, at Martinsville he had a tire fall off. Currently 38th in the owner standings, Jarrett has only two former champion’s provisionals left to fall back on. If things don't improve, maybe there is a loophole where Ned Jarrett can get into the car and use six more.
David Gilliland: After making a big splash at Daytona to start the season; Gilliland has barely made a ripple in the five races since. Daytona had people talking about the resurgence of Robert Yates Racing, but the team has quickly fallen back into mediocrity. The two CoT races were a killer for Gilliland, dropping him from 21st in the points following Atlanta to 30th in the standings after Martinsville. An average finish of 31 in races two through six makes that eighth place at Daytona seem like a lifetime ago.
After a two-week sabbatical, the Nextel Cup series will find themselves returning back onto the track at Texas. In the interim, will the Easter Bunny bring Jeff Gordon that little bit of extra luck he needs to finally get over the hump and back into Victory Lane? Can drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Burton keep up the momentum after taking a week off? Will Kasey Kahne be able to leave his bad luck on vacation and distance himself from the bottom 35? We'll just have to wait another two weeks to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not in the Nextel Cup Series.
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