The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday April 30, 2007
Racing at nearly 200 MPH isn’t quite child’s play, but that didn't stop some drivers from channeling their inner child this Sunday at Talladega. Following a bad game of operator between the Hendrick teams, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears played some tag, with Mears getting the short end of the stick. They weren't alone; Elliott Sadler and Greg Biffle, along with Tony Stewart and David Gilliland, were among those that joined the game unwillingly later on. In the spirit of the afternoon, several teams were busy playing Risk instead as they made the gamble on fuel mileage, leaving everyone with little choice but to follow the leader in the last 30 laps in order to save gas. In the end, Jeff Gordon came out on top, with an uncaptivated audience forcing him to play an uncharacteristic case of Dodgeball – after the race was over.
So, when the beer cans cleared and the fans got detained, what drivers found themselves at or near the King of the Mountain on Sunday, and which ones simply wanted to pack up their toys and go home? Read this week's Who's Hot and Who's Not to find out.
Jeff Gordon: As Gordon continues to break records, I continue to break my rules regarding repeating the same driver week after week. But given the hot streak Gordon is on, you really can't leave him off the list. After struggling to win in the first seven races of the season, Gordon has pulled off back-to-back wins and doesn't show any signs of slowing down heading into Richmond. He heads into this Saturday night's race with a 203-point cushion, leaving his competitors hoping he slows down when the late night feedings start for both him and wife Ingrid in early July.
Jimmie Johnson: After enduring both engine problems and a crash at Texas, Johnson has bounced back in a big way, snatching two Top 5 finishes at both Phoenix and Talladega. Currently fourth in the standings, Johnson is the only driver in the Top 12 with two DNF's, but he’s been able to counteract that with six Top 5 finishes in the first nine races of the year. The record seems to clarify things for the ’06 champ; when he's good, he's really good, and when he's bad, he's really bad. Luckily for the No. 48 team and their fans, the bad days don't come around too often.
Jamie McMurray: McMurray gets my vote for biggest surprise so far in 2007. After struggling during his first season at Roush-Fenway Racing, McMurray is finally showing why Jack Roush made such a big deal to get him in the first place. Following a bumpy start, McMurray has five Top 10 finishes in the last seven races to vault from 36th to seventh in the standings. If this team keeps running as well as it has in recent weeks, career win number two for Jamie Mac could be just around the corner.
Carl Edwards: Despite a blown motor that relegated him to a 42nd place finish at Talladega, Edwards and his No. 99 team have been among the most consistent teams in the Roush-Fenway stable this season. Since starting off the year with two finishes of 20th or worse, Edwards hadn't finished below 17th until this past Sunday afternoon. Richmond should provide this team an opportunity to get back on track; in fact, he could have a flippin' good time there Saturday night, since Cousin Carl finished in the Top 10 in both Richmond events last year.
Martin Truex, Jr.: Truex has been up and down this season, but comparing his start to the 2006 campaign, he is headed in the right direction so far in 2007. At this point last year, Truex had just one Top 10 to his credit; this Sunday at Talladega, he scored number three on the year. Other than a blown motor at Fontana, his worst finishes have come in the two short track events of the season. In fact, if D.E.I. can put the Dale, Jr. contract talks behind them and work a bit more on their CoT program, its possible Truex could put himself in position for one of the dozen Chase spots later in the year.
Kurt Busch: Busch has been running better than his results have shown, yet he still finds himself ranked tenth in the Nextel Cup standings. His third place finish at Talladega on Sunday, his best of the year, should provide this team a big boost as they look to get the Penske organization back into Victory Lane for the first time since Bristol a little over one year ago. It's well documented that the Dodge camp has been struggling this year, but in his second year with Penske, Busch is making serious headway.
Clint Bowyer: Another plate race, another wreck for Bowyer. The No. 07 Jack Daniels team had a blown tire put him into the wall on lap 81, marking the third consecutive race the RCR car was forced behind the wall. The team made repairs and got Bowyer back out on the track, but he ended the day 35th, his worst finish of the season. After posting back to back Top 10s at Atlanta and Bristol, this team has finished worse and worse each week; but currently 11th in points, the season isn't anywhere near a total loss for this team. They just need to refocus and regroup, something that his teammate Kevin Harvick has already done this year with some success.
Kenny Wallace: What a pleasant surprise it was to see Herman both up front at Talladega and leading laps on Sunday. By far, Talladega was the best performance by his No. 78 team in 2007. After starting sixth, Wallace managed to run up front before being shuffled back to wind up 26th. Those bright spots have been few and very far in between for this team. On the plus side, Kennyy has qualified for the last three races in a row after missing four of the first six. But on the downside, he failed to finish at both Texas and Phoenix, mechanical woes following them around like a dark shadow. In fact, you get the impression this team could really make some progress in getting better if they only had the track time to do it; sadly, that is hard to come by with so many cars lining up to make the field each week.
Juan Pablo Montoya: After surprising many fans with a fifth place finish at Atlanta, things have gotten a bit more difficult for the NASCAR rookie sensation. In the five races since that career best finish, Montoya has finished in the Top 10 just once, all the while compiling three finishes outside the Top 30. Suspension problems sent him into the wall at Talladega, resulting in a 31st place finish and dropping him to 19th in the standings. He still holds a slight advantage over David Ragan in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year battle, but things don't seem to be as easy for Montoya right now as they were earlier in the year.
J.J. Yeley: Things were looking up for the third Joe Gibbs Racing driver early in the 2007 campaign. Two straight Top 15 finishes had him eighth in the points, but just two finishes in the Top 20 since have dropped him back to 21st following Sunday's race at Talladega. That puts him just one position higher than he was at this point last year before finishing the season 29th overall. But that doesn't necessarily mean a similar fate lies ahead of him this year. Yeley has done a much better job of bringing home his cars in one piece; in fact, he has just one DNF. That came at Texas where he was a victim of a lap one wreck. Yeley still has plenty of work left ahead of him, but that strong start to the season shows they are capable of turning things around.
Dale Jarrett: Speaking of turnarounds, Jarrett is in need of oneâ€¦ and quick! Nine races into his first season with Toyota, Jarrett finds himself without any more freebies in his back pocket and in 38th place in the owner points. That has to leave this team a bit uneasy heading into Richmond and the remaining races of the season. Jarrett's never started higher than 30th in any race this year, and as his owner/teammate Michael Waltrip showed this weekend, you have to qualify really well to make it into the race under the current set of rules.
Ricky Rudd: Things aren't much better over at Jarrett's former team, Robert Yates Racing. After dazzling everyone with a front row start at Daytona, Rudd has struggled to readjust to racing life. In nine races this year, his best finish came at Martinsville when he came in 13th. Maybe Rudd is still dusting off the cobwebs after sitting out last season, but with just a 55 point cushion between getting a pass into the race and going home, he better brush himself off quickly and start bringing in some more consistent Top 20 runs.
This week, the Nextel Cup Series heads to Richmond for a little short track action under the lights. Can Tony Stewart exercise his demons at a track where he had so much success early on in his career? Will Jeff Gordon pull off the threepeat and distance himself even further from the pack? Can Mark Martin get out of his slump and back into the Top 10? Or will someone unexpected be celebrating under the lights instead? 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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