The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not In Nextel Cup : Richmond Edition by Cami Starr -- Monday May 7, 2007

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

The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday May 7, 2007

 

For those of us that are past thirty, we know full well that, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Not surprisingly, she got the best of us this weekend – again – after realizing the side-by-side excitement of Sunday afternoon NASCAR would be replaced this week by a Saturday night short track battle under the lights. As a result, the would-be Saturday night race at Richmond ended up washed out and was forced to run on Sunday afternoon. But under either the bright lights of the track or the beautiful Spring sunshine, you get the feeling the final results would have likely been the same. Another Car of Tomorrow race is now solidly in the books, and Hendrick Motorsports chalked up yet another win with ease; it was their fourth straight dominating performance in CoT races as a reward for their solid preparation throughout the year.

Sunday’s finish left Jeff Gordon running away with the point lead, but the battle rages on behind him for positions in the Top 12, as several drivers have experienced roller coaster seasons similar to this weekend’s wild weather. So, which drivers left Richmond basking in glory and which ones left all wet? Read this week's Who's Hot and Who's Not to find out.

Hot

Matt Kenseth: While Hendrick Motorsports is stealing the limelight, Kenseth is looming under the radar in third position in the standings. In typical Kenseth style, he is putting together a string of quiet, consistent finishes; there’s been no finish worse than 14th for the No. 17 car since the season opener at Daytona. He's not flashy nor is he in Victory Lane every other week; Kenseth realizes the season is still a marathon, not a sprint. Everyone may be overlooking him now, but you can bet Kenseth will find himself in a strong position when it comes time to make the mad dash to the Chase finish line.

Denny Hamlin: So far in 2007, Hamlin is exorcising any Sophomore Season demons that may have been thought to plague him. In the past five races, Hamlin has scored four Top 10 finishes, putting himself in position for his first victory of the year at Phoenix a few weeks back until a pit road speeding ticket derailed his chances. In fact, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say Hamlin should have two or three wins by now. He has shown the Car of Tomorrow suits him just fine, placing second only to teammate Tony Stewart in laps led in the four CoT races with 374. Placing third this weekend in Richmond, he is also only one of three drivers that have now led laps in each CoT race, a record that should bode well for him this weekend at Darlington.

Kevin Harvick: During the first part of the season, it seemed like Harvick was suffering a bit of an adrenaline hangover following his exciting Daytona 500 victory. In the five races that followed, the driver of the No. 29 Chevy managed to score only one Top 10 finish, dropping to a season low 14th in the standings after Texas. But in the last three races, Harvick has got back on his game; he now sits eighth in the points on the strength of three straight Top 10s. At Richmond, he clearly had the car to beat, leading 105 laps before settling for a seventh place finish following a pit road incident with David Ragan which damaged the right front corner of his vehicle. While the win wasn’t in the cards, this team is starting to show the swagger of the title contender most thought Harvick would be before the season started.

Warm

Kyle Busch: Busch overcame his struggles at Talladega last week to score a second place finish at Richmond, keeping his streak of Top 10 finishes in CoT races alive and well. Because of that, it seems like the Car of Tomorrow continues to be nothing but a blessing for Busch, even though he still doesn't seem to really like them. It's actually been at the larger, faster tracks where Busch has been plagued by his problems so far this year : at the last three non-Car of Tomorrow events, he has an average finish of 35th, not really title material for a man looking to capture the Nextel Cup. Because of that, it will be interesting to see which trend continues this weekend: will Busch suffer running at a faster, longer track, or shine in the fact it’s a Car or Tomorrow race instead?

Ryan Newman: Newman got off to a decent start to the season, but saw the bottom drop out in a five-race stretch where he finished lower than 30th three times. However, in the past two weeks, he accomplished something that he hasn't managed since September of 2006: earning back-to-back Top 10 finishes. Now back up to 19th in the standings, it's not time to get out the confetti and celebrate just yet because the Dodge camp still has plenty of work ahead of them. But for the first time in a long time, Newman seems to be heading in the right direction.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr: Following an early season scare that saw Junior Nation holding its collective breath as Junior teetered around the 35th spot in owner's points, the No. 8 team has surged to 12th in the standings thanks to three Top 10 finishes in the last six races. What is helping the team right now is that when they have a bad week, it's not a really bad week. The only exception to that is Texas where Junior finished 36th, but even there, it wasn't a case of running bad; in fact, Junior led 96 laps in that race before getting caught up in a wreck. The 500 lb. gorilla in the room is still Junior's pending contract negotiations with D.E.I., but for now, at least he's letting his work on the track do the talking and it's not a major distraction.

Bobby Labonte: At the end of 2006, it seemed like Petty Enterprises and Labonte had really hit upon something; but so far in 2007, they have been slow to recreate that magic. In the first ten races of the year, Labonte has scored just one Top 10 finish, making it appear like he’s mired in a season-long slump. However, a closer look reveals he hasn't exactly been stinking up the field, either. Labonte finds himself 18th in the standings, which is exactly where you figure he would be with six Top 20 finishes to his credit. He has followed up his season-best performance (8th) at Phoenix with runs of 20th at Talladega and 15th at Richmond on Sunday to build momentum back in a positive direction for his team. The No. 43 team isn't on anybody's radar right now to sneak in and be competitive, but Labonte’s was clearly a lot better off than when he was 27th in the standings following ten races last year.

Cool

David Stremme: When speaking of drivers that are far ahead of last year’s curve, you have to add Stremme to the list. In 2006 after ten races, Ganassi’s then-rookie driver was 37th in the standings, nestled behind two drivers that had started one less race than he had. This year, he is 17th in the points after ten events, a comfort zone he would have killed for all of last season. So, with that kind of turnaround, why is he cool? One word…inconsistency. Stremme has shown this year he is capable of running well; he already has two Top 10 finishes while finishing in the Top 20 seven times. But since Bristol, Stremme has started a dangerous trend. One week he's up, the next he's down. He finished 37th at Martinsville, but quickly turned things around with Top 10 number one of the year at Texas. Then came Phoenix (43rd), Talladega (8th), and Richmond (38th). Are you seeing the pattern?

Joe Nemechek: 2007 didn't start off too bad for the NASCAR veteran. In the first four races, he scored a Top 10 and was 19th in the points, not too bad for a brand new team. But then came Bristol, and thanks to a big goose egg in the owner points column from 2006, Nemechek was sent packing after failing to qualify. In the five races since, things just haven't been the same. With three finishes of 27th or worse in those five events, he's back down to 30th in the driver standings and 27th on the owner's side. Hopefully, it doesn't take another missed race down the road to turn things around to the plus side for this team.

Casey Mears: To look at the bright side of things, Mears did pull off his second best finish of the season when he finished 18th Sunday at Richmond. But in reality, that comes as little consolation when the rest of your teammates were in the Top 4. That has been the theme of Mears' first season at Hendrick Motorsports, being the odd man out in a team hitting on all cylinders. While his teammates are locking up spots for the Chase, Mears is simply battling to stay in the Top 35 in points to ensure he has a spot on the grid each week. An adjustment period between Mears and his new team could possibly be part of the problem, but you would have thought by now they would be showing signs of improvement. Granted, Casey has been a victim of some bad luck this year, but you can't hang it all on that. Hendrick is the class of the field, so even the red-headed stepchild team should be running better than this.

Cold

Ken Schrader: Two one thousandths of a second; it doesn't seem like much, but to Schrader and his No. 21 Wood Brothers team, it meant everything. That is the margin that Schrader missed Sunday's race at Richmond by, and it marks the second week in a row that the team has been sent packing early after failing to qualify on speed. With no finish higher than 19th this year, it's easy to see how the team has gotten into the current predicament they are in. 150 points out of the Top 35 in owner standings, Schrader and Co. have a long road ahead of them to qualify on speed each week, attempting to simply get into the field in order to get the opportunity to try and make up that ground. This team is full of real racers who won't give up…but they do have a steep hill to climb to make it back on top.

Brian Vickers: Add Vickers to the growing list of drivers who have to hold their breath through qualifying each week. With just four starts in the first ten races of the year, Vickers isn't anywhere near provisional land. It's a shame, too, because when Vickers can get into the race, he usually runs well. In the four races he's run in, he has finished in the Top 15 all but one of them. In fact, that lone poor finish came at Atlanta where Vickers was caught up in somebody else's wreck and finished 42nd. But all the good finishes in the world won't help this program until they can start making races on a consistent basis.

This week, the series visits the infamous Lady In Black at Darlington for another date with the Car of Tomorrow. Can the Hendrick teams keep up their torrid pace and claim yet another win, or will Joe Gibbs Racing finally steal the limelight? Can anyone make a dent in Jeff Gordon's 211 point-lead or even steal the pole away from him? Will Jeff Burton be able to rebound from his engine woes at Richmond to win number three at the Track Too Tough to Tame? 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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