The Frontstretch: Who's Hot / Who's Not In Nextel Cup : Darlington Edition by Cami Starr -- Monday May 14, 2007

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

The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday May 14, 2007


How the best laid plans can quickly go up in smoke; well, for everyone but Jeff Gordon, that is. NASCAR learned that lesson the hard way – again – when they saw their plans for running on a Saturday night drown in a flurry of raindrops. For the second straight week, rain forced another postponement of the Cup race, leaving Moms all around the country to be treated to a 500-mile gift at Darlington Raceway Sunday afternoon. When the Dodge Avenger 500 did get underway, it saw the usual suspects up front and leading from the drop of the green straight till the final laps. Jeff Gordon was not among them at first; but after some sly pit strategy put him squarely in the front of the pack, he soared ahead to score his third win of the season, thanks to the gift of an engine that held on to the finish instead of blowing up in a puff of smoke. Right behind him, Denny Hamlin recovered from a present he'd love to return, one in the form of two dropped lugnuts on pit road that cost him a shot at the win once again.

But all in all, the Mother's Day race provided a bouquet of surprises and disappointments. So, which drivers presented their Moms with a welcomed gift of on track performance, and which ones left Darlington wanting to run and cry to Mommy? Read this week's Who's Hot and Who's Not in Nextel Cup to find out.


Jeff Gordon: Capturing his third Cup win in the last four races at Darlington, Gordon once again showed that sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good. It's not that Gordon didn't run well all day long…but there's no way he should have won that race with an engine so overcooked even a junkyard wouldn’t want a piece of it. Heck, even Gordon's own parents didn't think he would make it until the end, deciding to beat the traffic by leaving early. But when things are going your way, you tend to have risky situations fall exactly right, and at the moment everything is turning up roses for Gordon. Heading into the All-Star break, the driver of the DuPont Chevrolet has already built a 231-point lead over teammate Jimmie Johnson, all while surpassing his total number of wins from 2006. Can anything derail the Dupont Express? It doesn't look that way, as even their own engine couldn't stop them from winning on Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson: It's been business as usual for the No. 48 team over the past month following a 38th place finish at Texas. Four straight Top 10 finishes have helped Johnson claim the second spot in the standings, leaving him chasing his teammate, Jeff Gordon, both on and off the track. At Darlington on Sunday, Johnson lost the lead when he pitted late in the race, yet still managed to rally back for a solid third place finish. He might be getting tired of playing second fiddle to Gordon, but that will likely change once they hit the track at Lowe's Motor Speedway. It’s a track that Johnson has turned into his own personal playground over the course of his six-year career, with five wins in eleven tries leaving him in the envious position of passing out valuable track advice.

Ryan Newman: If I told you only three drivers have finished in the Top 10 in the last three races, I'm sure you could easily come up with two of them (here's a hint: they are listed directly above you). But how many guesses would it have taken you to come up with Ryan Newman? The No. 12 team's recent turnaround is no joke; after finishing 32nd or worse three times in a four race span, Newman has done a total 180. At Darlington, he even flirted with the chance to get back into Victory Lane for the first time in 18 months before fading to fourth in the final results sheet. It’s clear the team continues to improve; now, the big question is whether Newman will stick around to reap the benefits … or is he just auditioning for prospective new employers?


Carl Edwards: Other than an engine failure at Talladega that earned him a 42nd place finish, things have been going pretty smoothly for Edwards as of late. In the last nine races, the Talladega event was the only time he failed to finish in the Top 17, scoring three Top 10 finishes in the process. That's quite a difference from this time last year, when Cousin Carl racked up three DNF'S after only 11 events. Currently tenth in the standings thanks to a fifth place run at Darlington, Edwards seems to be an early candidate for a spot in the Chase Dozen by the end of the year. Whether or not he can do anything once he gets there depends mainly on if the Ford teams can get their act together as they try to stay in the same zip code as the Chevys around them.

Kurt Busch: Both Penske teams are experiencing a resurgence of late. Busch has run very well at times this year, only to have an ill-timed caution come back to haunt him like it did at Texas and Phoenix. At Darlington, he was running in the Top 5 when he joined then race leader Jimmie Johnson and other drivers on pit road. The decision for tires might have been a good call at that time…if not for all the lap traffic needed to work his way back up front. Busch couldn't make much progress and had to settle for a 12th place finish, good enough to move him up to seventh in the standings. Overall, in the past three races, he's climbed up six positions in points, as Penske seems to be getting a handle on the CoT. Perhaps it will be a blue Dodge that will finally end Chevy's domination? We’ll have to wait and see.

Tony Stewart: A late race wreck at Talladega is the only thing that has kept Stewart from claiming four Top 10 finishes in a row. Still searching for his first win of the season, Smoke is now sixth in the standings, earning a hard fought sixth place finish at Darlington after a cut tire put him two laps down with just over 150 laps to go. That moral victory of getting his laps back helped reinforce the team's commitment to winning just when it seemed like Bad Boy Tony might be on the verge and doing more harm than good. With four Top 10s in the five CoT races, Smoke should be a contender at those events later on in the year, and we all know about his tendency to get on a roll in the summer months that lie just ahead of us. Could it be that Tony is just stalking his prey before taking a big bite out of the competition?


Kyle Petty: It's been a fairly quiet season so far for Petty. But with the problems some of the other big name drivers are having this year, he might be happy with consistent mediocrity. He's yet to earn a Top 15 finish this year, but he has managed to stay out of the DNF column, something few others around him could ever lay claim to. His best finish of the year came just three races ago when he finished 18th at Talladega, and two 25th place finishes after that haven't dazzled anyone, but it's been good enough to keep Petty on the plus side of the Top 35 bubble line. Currently 31st in the owner standings, he has a 175 point cushion over 35th. Maybe that will give the team a bit more incentive to not worry about qualifying setups and work on the race, a much-needed change as they continue to search for their first Top 15 of the season.

Tony Raines: Actually, Raines was anything but cool Sunday; he was one of the unlucky six drivers that failed to finish the race due to an overheating engine. Still, you have to give this team credit; it was their first DNF of the '07 season and Raines’ first in almost a year. Following two Top 15 finishes at Texas and Phoenix, the Hall of Fame racing team has stumbled in the last three CoT events, finishing with a pair of 22nd place finishes before winding up 39th at Darlington on Sunday. While the team may be a bit down right now, they certainly aren't out of making their bid for a Top 20 spot in the standings by the end of the year. Currently 24th, Raines has made big strides after not even being on the radar at this point last season. They have the potential to be consistent, but they need to keep striving for that elusive Top 10 finish.

Elliott Sadler: Just when this team shows a small glimmer of hope that they are getting their act together, things come crashing back down to reality for the No. 19 bunch. In the last seven races, Sadler has just two Top 20 finishes, and the tell-tale sign of this organization's woes is the fact that neither of them came in any of the five CoT events held during that time. Sadler is still top dog at Evernham Motorsports, sitting 17th in the standings, but it has been a slow and painful slide down the standings since he left Daytona sixth in the points. Perhaps they can get some relief in the new few non-CoT races ahead on the schedule, but with the slump they are in…I wouldn't bet on it.


Robby Gordon: The CoT is a more durable car, but Gordon has really been testing its limits as of late. At Richmond, he was cutting down tires left and right and at Darlington it seemed like he couldn't make a lap without kissing the wall. He started off the season in decent shape, with no finish worse than 21st in the first four races; but since that point, the bottom has seemed to have dropped out. After Atlanta, Gordon was 16th in the standings, but thanks to five finishes of 33rd or worse in the past seven races he now finds himself dangerously close to falling out of the Top 35. That could prove fatal to this team, especially considering that Robby has qualified in the Top 25 just twice this season to date. If the No. 7 thinks he has sponsorship issues now, just wait to see what happens if he should miss a few races. And with many more finishes like he's had lately … that is exactly where he is heading.

Scott Riggs: Oh, how the once “almost” mighty have fallen. Last year, Riggs was one of the biggest stories on the circuit, climbing back to a Top 20 finish in the standings after missing the season opener at Daytona. This year, he made the Daytona 500 but just ten races later has missed his first of what could be many races in 2007. Riggs’ struggles simply highlight the deep hole that Evernham has found itself in this season; he has one Top 10 and an 11th place finish to his credit, but that wasn't enough to mask his other tough luck; he currently sits 85 points out of the Top 35 and a guaranteed spot each week. To Riggs' credit, he had qualified in the Top 10 for each of three races prior to Darlington, but he failed to capitalize in two of the three, putting him in the solemn predicament he is in now. The Coca-Cola 600 should be a good character test for this team: will the DNQ hurt their morale and see them continue to struggle, or will it serve as a wake up call and see them come back stronger than before? P.S. – Don’t forget – the No. 10 car and Riggs were your Charlotte polesitters around this time last year.

David Gilliland: If you asked Gilliland, I bet he would love to see the entire 36-race schedule be run on restrictor plate tracks. Had it not been for his Top 10 at Daytona and Top 5 at Talladega, he would be even further back than the 27th position he currently finds himself in the standings following Darlington. Back to back DNF's at Bristol and Martinsville, and again at Richmond and Darlington have been daggers in the heart for this team and its young driver. I think it's safe to say you can add Robert Yates Racing to the list of teams who wouldn't mind seeing the CoT on the shelf for a few extra races this year.

Next up for the Cup drivers is a wild night under the lights at Charlotte for the Nextel Cup All-Star race, an event where the sport’s best and brightest will be gunning for big dollars instead of big points. After that, the longest race of the year will take place Memorial Day weekend with the running of the Coca-Cola 600. Will Jimmie Johnson once again dominate at "his house”, Or will his teammate Jeff Gordon steal the limelight with his continuing pursuit of 100 wins? Can Denny Hamlin dish up a big, heaping plate of irony and finally beat Hendrick at a track they have been so dominant at in recent years…or will a Ford or Dodge team finally score one for the underdogs? We'll just have to wait and find out Who's Hot and Who's Not in two weeks.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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