Cami Starr · Monday April 16, 2007
After seven races, 2007 seems to be the "Year of the Jeffs." Jeff Burton earned his first win of the year at Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday, the site of his first ever Cup Series victory. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon continues to lead the series point standings, although he once again saw victory slide through his fingertips Sunday, this time courtesy a visit with the track’s outside wall. Separated by only eight points and with six Top 10s each, the Jeffs are running away from the field early on this year. Matt Kenseth, who is currently third in the standings and 125 out of first, had his fans thinking sweep until the final lap on Sunday. But while those three are riding high, there are several drivers out there who would like to take out their brooms and sweep this season under the rug and call for a do-over. Plenty of big names found trouble again at Texas, and some were actually so eager to leave the disaster in the Lone Star State behind them that they even left the track early.
So, which drivers left Texas Hotter Than the Desert Sun, and which ones found themselves caught up in the chill of a Spring Nor’Easter? Read on to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not, this week in Nextel Cup.
Mark Martin: A two week absence didn't do anything to hamper Martin's momentum in 2007. When he left the driver's seat following Atlanta, he was the point leader after posting three Top 5 finishes in the first four races. Coming into this weekend at Texas, he had dropped to 15th in the standings, but quickly regained four of those spots with a third place finish on Sunday. With a perfect five for five Top 10 record this year, you can bet the armchair drivers will be out in full force debating whether or not Martin will make a run for the Cup. But with things going this well, why mess with what is working?
Jeff Burton: Thirteen years after his first victory at Texas, Burton became the first driver to win two races at Texas Motor Speedway. With five finishes in the Top 10 and no finish worse than 15th this year, getting to Victory Lane seemed like just a matter of time for the No. 31 bunch. Currently just eight points out of the lead, Burton heads to another track where he performs well : Phoenix. The cars are strong, the driver is smart, and the crew is fast; this combination certainly has the looks of a serious championship contender.
Jeff Gordon: Despite leading a race high 173 laps, Gordon once again left Texas with a big zero in the win column. While he was understandably disappointed after the race, there is plenty for this team to be excited about : his fourth place finish on Sunday is his third straight Top 5 and fifth overall. At this point last year, Gordon was eighth in the standings and had only three Top 10s. While he may be disappointed at not getting to Victory Lane, the No. 24 team have to be excited heading to Phoenix, although it’s another track Gordon has yet to win at. The Rainbow Warrior shouldn’t fret: his win is coming, it's just a matter of when.
Matt Kenseth: With 16 laps to go, Kenseth looked poised to complete the Texas sweep on Sunday; that is, until Jeff Burton tracked him down out of nowhere. After getting passed on the last lap, Kenseth had to settle for second place, but it still was a good finish for a team who has been running consistent all season long. If not for a 27th place finish at Daytona, Kenseth would be right up there with Burton and Gordon in the points. As it stands, he is 125 points out of the lead heading into Phoenix this weekend with six straight finishes of 11th or better. The No. 17's M.O. is to make consistency payoff in the long run, and they are following that formula to a T all over again.
Kurt Busch: Busch has had his share of bad luck this year that has cost him possible wins, but he's starting to turn it around. At Texas, he led 42 laps and scored an 11th place finish, even without regular crew chief Roy McCauley. The run was good enough to move him up two places in the standings to 15th. Busch has just one Top 10 this year, but he's been knocking on the door in the past four races with two 11th place finishes and a 12th place run. This week could see him doing far better; Busch has run well at Phoenix in the past, and you know it would be a bit of sweet vindication if he could get back to Victory Lane after scoring that infamous speeding ticket outside the track back in 2005.
Martin Truex, Jr: While his teammate suffered a bout of misfortune, Truex left Texas with his second Top 10 finish of the season, a clear momentum boost to a program looking for a spark. It hasn't been all that rosy for the No. 1 team this year, but after early season problems, this team is showing that they will be strong on the 1.5-mile tracks. His seventh place finish on Sunday vaulted him to 19th in the points, right behind his DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. This team isn't on the verge of greatness, but they are making steady progress to become a more consistent Top 10 threat.
Tony Raines: For a single car effort, Raines and his Hall of Fame Racing team are certainly doing an admirable job at holding their own. Raines' 13th place finish went over well with his owners and sponsors, who are all big names in Texas. Currently 25th in the standings, Raines is still searching for his first Top 10 of the year, but he has been putting himself in position to do just that. An almost certain Top 10 at Martinsville was taken away after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya, but their strong follow-up effort showed that this team is serious about making progress towards getting to the front.
Kevin Harvick: While one teammate celebrated in Victory Lane; Harvick left Texas frustrated after another disappointing run. He just hasn't been able to keep up the momentum from his season opening win at Daytona; the No. 29 team has scored just one Top 10 since, collecting four finishes of 25th or worse instead. Sunday at Texas, an ill-handling race car and an unscheduled pit stop for a flat tire were the main culprits. However, the resulting 29th place finish dropped him out of the Top 10 in the standings for the first time this year. But seeing Phoenix ahead on the calendar should put the Happy back into Harvick, who completed the season sweep in the desert back in 2006.
Elliott Sadler: After seven races this year, Sadler is the highest ranked driver in the Evernham Motorsports stable; but that's not saying all that much. Currently 16th in the rankings, the Virginian hasn't finished in the Top 10 since his sixth place start to the season at Daytona. Texas should have been a place where Sadler and his teammates could have made big gains, but none of them could capitalize on their opportunities. Sadler's 17th place finish was the best amongst the three, but still a far cry from teammate Kasey Kahne’s trip to Victory Lane last year. Certainly this season isn't a loss for Sadler by any means, but looking at how far they have dropped off since the start of the year; there could be cause for concern.
Casey Mears: Was moving to Hendrick a mistake for Mears? In his previous six starts at Texas, he found his way into the Top 10 four times. This year driving for HMS, a team that had won four straight entering Sunday, he could only muster a 23rd place finish. That has been typical for Mears in his first year in the No. 25 Chevy; with only one Top 10 to his credit, he is flirting with falling out of the Top 35 in points, all while his teammates are all in a position to solidly make the Chase. Things don't look much brighter for Mears heading south to Phoenix, either; in six races at that track; he's never finished higher than 20th.
Reed Sorenson: So far in 2007, Sorenson seems to be the driver suffering the most from the dreaded Sophomore Jinx. It's been a year of feast or famine for the Ganassi driver in his seven races this year; he has earned one Top 10, a ninth place at Atlanta, but has three DNF's and four finishes of 31st or worse to go along with it. The good news is that the team is solidly in the Top 35 in owner points for now, but his up and down roller coaster-type performance won't make it easy for him to stay there if the lows continue to be so bad.
Scott Riggs: While Sadler is the top driver at EMS right now, Riggs is the lowest, sitting 36th in the standings and 43 points out of the coveted 35th place position in owner points. The only bright spot in the season so far for the No. 10 team was an eighth place finish at Martinsville, but that momentum was lost during the Easter break. At Texas this past Sunday, his day got off to an ominous start when he received minor damage in the lap one wreck; the rest of the day, the car was just too tight for him to do anything with it, forcing him downward to a disappointing 27th place finish. Riggs has had his share of driver errors this year; but the entire mess that is the 2007 season so far can't be put squarely on his shoulders alone. The entire organization is struggling, and Riggs will be paying a big price for it if the team falters in qualifying before they can somehow regroup and get back into the Top 35.
This weekend the Car of Tomorrow, the Car of Two Weeks Ago, or whatever you want to call it is back on the track this Saturday night at Phoenix. Can Mark Martin keep up his torrid pace when he gets behind the wheel of the CoT for the first time? Will point leader Jeff Gordon finally be able to get back to Victory Lane? Or will his teammate Jimmie Johnson rebound from his Texas sized disappointment and steal the limelight? Have we seen the end of Stewart vs Montoya? And will Kyle Busch stay at the track until the end of the race? 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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