Cami Starr · Tuesday April 24, 2007
Hopefully, you East Coasters took your afternoon naps last Saturday and stayed awake for the exciting finish to the Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix. Two of NASCAR's top drivers duked it out in the closing laps, with Jeff Gordon pulling away from Tony Stewart to secure his first win of the season and extend his point lead heading into Talladega this week. While Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Stewart and third-place finisher Denny Hamlin left the track dejected, you can bet that will be nothing compared to the drivers who will leave Talladega feeling less than sunny after getting bit by the “Big One.” But before we start figuring out who will be the victims in the latest Talladega Tangle, let's wrap things up from the Valley of the Sun. Who left Phoenix rising from the ashes, and who left with the season smoldering in ruin? Read this week's Who's Hot and Who's Not to find out.
Jeff Gordon: I'm breaking my rule of not using a driver two weeks in a row on this one, but I think Gordon deserves an exception. His win at Phoenix Saturday night provided several storylines, but the perhaps the biggest one left largely unreported is this…Gordon now has four straight Top 5 finishes and six overall to date in a fairly young season. Tying Earnhardt, winning from the pole, and finally visiting Victory Lane at Phoenix are all wonderful things; but the consistency the former Wonder Boy is showing this season will pay dividends as he works towards the overall goal…championship number five.
Denny Hamlin: It was hard to not feel bad for Hamlin Saturday night after he finished third. Not only did he arguably have the car to beat before a speeding penalty dropped him to the back of the field, he desperately wanted to win for his home state that had seen so much tragedy last week. Hamlin can take some solace in the fact that his finish at Phoenix was his third straight Top 10; that keeps him solidly in the Top 10 in points heading into the crapshoot at Talladega this weekend.
Kyle Busch: We didn't hear too much about Busch this weekend, which may not be a bad thing. Putting aside the Texas debacle, Kyle put in a solid seventh place finish at Phoenix, and moved up to sixth in the standings as a result. Like him or not, the younger Busch brother has finished quite well in the three CoT races so far this year, a positive trend that should pay dividends later on in the season. Just think of how well Busch might do if he actually learned to like driving these cars…
Tony Stewart: Much has been made about Stewart's mood the past two weeks. At Texas, he tossed out the "R" word (retirement) after a frustrating race that saw him finish 25th, and then this week, he snubbed the media after coming in second. Granted, there are a lot of drivers out there who would be thrilled to come in second, but Smoke always wants more; that should have some of the other teams out there worried sick. So far this season, the notoriously slow-starting Stewart has racked up five Top 10 finishes in eight races, putting himself in contention to win at least three. Now seventh in the points, Stewart seems primed and ready to get on another summer hot streak heading towards the Chase.
Haas/CNC Racing: Don't look now, but there seems to be another organization out there that has the hang of this Car of Tomorrow thing, and it’s not who you might think : the middle tier team of Haas CNC. It's no coincidence that this team works closely with Hendrick Motorsports, the team that has won all three CoT races; but that still shouldn't discredit the strong performance put in by its drivers. Jeff Green scored his second Top 10 of the year at Phoenix and teammate Johnny Sauter earned his first with a ninth place run on Saturday night. All in all, the team has three Top 10 finishes in three CoT races when you add in Green’s Top 10 run at Bristol; not only will this success pay off in the long run, but it has a good short term return as well. Heading into the impound race at Talladega this weekend, both teams are safely within the Top 35 in owner points.
Greg Biffle: Biffle said that his Fusion at Phoenix wasn't the best car he had ever driven, but his 17th place finish was good enough to bump him up three positions in the standings to 14th after eight races this season. Fortunately, Biffle and Co. haven't had the horrendous luck that plagued him last year; he just hasn't been setting the world on fire, either. However, things are starting to take a turn for the better. Biffle earned his only two Top 10s of the year in the past four races, and the team is continuing to move up the ladder towards a Chase position in the standings. With tracks that Biffle runs well at up ahead on the schedule, look for this team to keep plugging towards the top.
Dave Blaney: The only saving grace to Blaney's season so far this year has been his astounding qualifying efforts. In eight races this season, he has put his No. 22 Camry solidly in the field in five. At Texas he had his worst starting position of the year, 40th, due to the rainout of qualifying, but ironically, it was the race that saw him earn his best finish, 21st. That's where things take a downturn for Blaney: his finishing results. Including the race at Texas, he has finished in the Top 30 just three times…it's no wonder that he is currently 39th in the owner standings. But unlike his Toyota compadres, Blaney does have qualifying on his side. At least that gets him in the position to earn points to dig himself out of this hole; now, we just have to wait for him to finally capitalize.
Kasey Kahne: Last year must seem like a lifetime ago to Kahne at some times this season. After eight races in 2006, Kahne was third in points and had two wins and six Top 10s to his credit. Flash forward to this season; he's 33rd in the standings, cracking the Top 10 only once in the process. Some of his problems have come from bad luck, but you can't blame everything on being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This team has to shoulder plenty of the responsibility themselves, and there is plenty to go around. It's sad to say that with not even a quarter of the season in the books, Kahne’s Chase chances appear to be gone. But there is a pretty loud hum from the fat lady warming up her pipes around the No. 9 garage.
Ryan Newman: Add Newman to the list of drivers who if they didn't have bad luck, they wouldn't have any luck at all. Newman saw a possible Top 10 finish vanish when the yellow came out as he was making a green flag pit stop. A miscommunication on pit road caused damage the Alltel Dodge, and Newman came back on the track 11 laps down. His resulting 38th place finish was his third of 30th or worse in the past four races, dropping him out of the Top 25 in driver points. I'm giving him some bonus points and not putting him in cold, because the team's performance has been showing signs of improvement. But they really need to get that monkey off their back…good luck!
Michael Waltrip: Remember five years ago when Waltrip was 1 for 463 in the win department? I bet that sounds a whole lot better than the current 1 for 8 streak he is on this season. The past seven races Waltrip has been sent home early for failing to qualify, even though we'll never know if he could have turned his off track problems into a starting position at Texas. Somehow, you get the idea it wouldn't have mattered, even with new crew chief Buddy Sisco coming on board. Toyota is helping Waltrip out by tearing down one of his cars down to the bolts, then putting it back together again. But can all of Toyota's Kings and all of Waltrip's men put Michael's season back together again?
David Reutimann: Speaking of Waltrip's men, things aren't looking to good for Reutimann this season either. To his credit, he has competed in four more races than his boss, but you wouldn't know it as you scan your way down the owner standings. If you look far enough down, you'll find the No. 00 in 44th place in the standings (hmmm, same number as his other teammate drives, but that's not a good omen, either). On the bright side, he did manage to score his best finish of the year at Phoenix Saturday night; the bad news isâ€¦he finished 32nd. And if you're into numbers, stats and trends like I am, you probably aren't betting on Reutimann being on the track Sunday at Talladega. Since making back-to-back starts at Daytona and California,
Reutimann has missed exactly every other race. You guessed it; Talladega is a don't make it week on the Reutimann roller coaster.
But Talladega is likely to be a roller coaster for everyone this weekend. Will there be the infamous "Big One," and how many victims will it claim? Can Jeff Gordon get back-to-back wins and pass the Intimidator in wins at what was "his track,” or can Dale Earnhardt Jr. claim his first win on what would have been his father's 56th birthday? Will Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch renew their battle from Daytona, or can Kevin Harvick go two in a row on the plate tracks? We'll just have to wait until next week for an update on Who's Hot and Who's Not in the Nextel Cup Series.
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