The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday May 28, 2007
While the rest of the country was enjoying a three day weekend, the drivers in the Nextel Cup Series were working overtime, driving in their longest race of the season at 600 miles. While the rest of the country was complaining about high gas prices, a handful of drivers would have gladly paid nearly anything for a few extra gallons of gas Sunday night. And while everyone was expecting another routine Jimmie Johnson victory at Lowe’s, Casey Mears – and his gas tank – had different ideas by the time the checkered flag flew. Collecting his first career Nextel Cup victory in his 12th start for Rick Hendrick, Mears took a season ready for the scrap heap and pulled it out of the junkyard in one fell swoop. He wasn’t the only one beaming with an unexpected smile after the race – J.J. Yeley, Kyle Petty, Reed Sorenson, and Brian Vickers finished off the most surprising Top 5 of the season, with all of them collecting their season-best finishes after surviving a race full of twists, turns, and fuel cells.
While the Top 5 relished their unexpected glory, who else left Lowe's Motor Speedway ready to celebrate this Memorial Day with their family and friends, and who left wanting to jump in Lake Norman? Read this week's Who's Hot and Who's Not to find out.
Jimmie Johnson: Heading into Sunday's race at “his house,” Johnson was gunning for win number six at Lowe's Motor Speedway and his ninth straight Top 3 finish at the track. There was no doubt that he was in position to make it to Victory Lane at different stages of the race; but in the end, a slow pit stop and a splash of fuel pushed him back to a tenth place finish. While Johnson wasn't able to keep his Top 3 streak alive, he did manage to score his fifth straight Top 10; right now, he’s the only driver in the series who can currently make that claim. Thanks to the trouble his teammate Jeff Gordon found early in the race, he is now just 132 points behind the points lead, too; that’s close enough to take advantage if Baby Girl Gordon chooses to make her grand entrance during a race weekend.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: The No. 8 team has all the reason in the world to be running poorly. First, they had the distraction of the contract negotiations. Then, there was the onslaught of media attention that hit after Earnhardt announced he was leaving D.E.I. And if all that wasn’t enough, they now have the loss of crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. for six races after the organization dropped the appeal of his penalty this week. But in fact, instead of running like junk, D.E.I. has managed to do just the opposite. In the last four races, Junior has finished in the Top 10 three times, with no finish worse than 13th. Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600, Earnhardt started fourth, his best qualifying run of the year to date, and ran solidly in the Top 10 most of the night even after he went a lap down due to a punctured tire. The 100-point penalty from the Darlington infraction dropped the team out of Chase contention back to 14th place, but thanks to another strong showing he gained one position back and currently sits 13 points out of 12th.
Denny Hamlin: Although Hamlin didn't win at Lowe’s, at least Sunday's race wasn't a gut-wrenching letdown like the ones he has suffered in recent weeks. Hamlin was a contender during the 600-mile race, but like so many others on the lead lap, he had to pit for a splash of fuel to ensure he could make it to the end. Still, his ninth place finish was the sixth Top 10 for this young Virginian in the last seven races. Hamlin is the highest ranked driver at Joe Gibbs Racing so far in 2007, currently sitting in fourth place, 239 points back.
Bobby Labonte: It would have been a huge night for Petty Enterprises Sunday if Labonte and the No. 43 team could have gotten a better handle on their car early in the race. Labonte started the night in ninth place but quickly fell to the back and down a lap with an ill-handling car. The team managed to make it a bit better over time, but Labonte wasn't able to keep up with the lead lap machines and never got in position to get his lap back. As things turned out, teammate Kyle Petty scored a Top 5 finish and Labonte salvaged 13th. With four straight finishes in the Top 20, including a Top 10 at Phoenix, Labonte has moved up to 17th in the standings and is less than 100 points out of a position in the Chase. If the Petty organization can keep the momentum going from this weekend, it wouldn't be impossible to see Labonte move into one of those spots. Improbable? Yes…but not impossible.
J.J. Yeley: With his contract up at the end of the 2007 season, it was mentioned this week that Yeley is now driving to save his job. Well, if Sunday's race is any indication, I'd say that Yeley wants to stay put. His second place finish led the way for Joe Gibbs Racing, who put all three drivers in the Top 10, and catapulted Yeley up five spots to 15th in the standings. Some people, including members of JGR, were critical of how the race ended, with fuel mileage determining the final running order. Still, Yeley was consistently in the Top 15 all night, making it not quite a fluke he rose all the way up to second by the checkered flag. Regardless of how he got there, Yeley's finish shows that this team is back on track and running well like they did earlier in the year. He may not be up there with Hamlin and Stewart, but Yeley is starting to show signs he can hold his own.
Mark Martin: It seems like running part-time is finally starting to catch up with Martin. After starting the year with four straight Top 10 finishes and taking the point lead with him into his first off week, he has come back down to earth. He scored a Top 5 at Texas, his first week back after taking off at Martinsville, but since then, he has yet to find the Top 10. Granted, Martin hasn't been stinking up the joint; but trust me, Top 20's aren't nearly as exciting at Top 10s. It seems like the excitement and enthusiasm around the team is starting to dwindle a bit. Good thing Martin doesn't want to make another run at the title huh?
Kyle Busch: Busch is like a teeter-totter this year; he's either way up in the air or he's bumping his butt on the ground. Other than the Daytona 500 where he finished 24th, Busch has either been in the Top 10 or 30th or worse in each of the other 11 races. His inconsistency is starting to show in the standings as well, in the last two months he has dropped from fifth in the standings to his current position in 11th. It's hard to say that this team has to work harder to improve their results; the driver might need to showcase a little patience though. There is no doubt this team is strong and capable of winning races, but no team, no matter how good they are, can overcome such inconsistency if they want to make a serious bid for the championship.
David Stremme: Stremme might not have been jumping for joy when he heard the news that the Car of Tomorrow will be run full-time in 2008. In the last four CoT races, Stremme has finished 34th or worse each time, a far cry from his performance in the current car: he has two Top 10 finishes in the last seven races, plus a 17th place finish to along with them from Sunday. Like Kyle Busch, such glaring inconsistency isn't the way to build a successful team. Granted, he doesn't have to run full-time in the CoT this year, but you have to wonder if his other results will suffer when the team tries to step up their CoT program for next year.
Jeff Burton: Things haven't been coming up roses for Burton since he scored his win at Texas last month. Following that race, he was second in the standings, just eight points behind Gordon. Now, just five races later, Burton has only one Top 10 to his credit and has dropped back to fifth in the standings, 344 behind Gordon. Obviously, Burton hasn't forgotten how to drive, but the team is having runs of bad luck that they had been avoiding, such as an engine failure at Richmond that left him sitting on the sidelines. If there is a bright side to this mini-collapse, it's that the No. 31 bunch are going through it now and not in the Chase like they did last year.
David Reutimann: Sadly, the year Michael Waltrip Racing as a whole is having this year is becoming a punch line for a joke- "You know you're running really bad when…" Reutimann has been running well at various times this year, but has never managed to turn it into a good finish, as proven by his four DNF'S this season. To compound the misery, those four DNF'S have come in just four races; he's failed to qualify for another four events. Of course when it rains, it pours, between another disappointing 33rd place finish at Darlington and another DNF at Charlotte, his motor coach driver was busted by NASCAR for faking an annual credential. With all the possible distractions, I do give the team credit for actually having the will to get up and make it to the track every weekend.
Johnny Sauter: Following a ninth place finish at Phoenix, people suddenly were taking notice of Sauter and the Haas CNC Racing team … and for a good reason. But looking at his results in the four races since, it seems like that Top 10 was just a mirage. It's been business as usual in the last four races with no finish higher than 27th, which came this past Sunday, and a drop back to 35th in points and a spot on the bubble. If this team hopes to stay on the right side of the Top 35 and not fall into the pit of teams that have failed to make a race or more this year; they need to figure out why Phoenix went so well and bottle it!
Kasey Kahne: After sweeping both Charlotte races this year, this week was the perfect opportunity for Kahne to turn his season around. But instead of getting his second Top 10 of the year, he had another mediocre run where he was barely noticed until he smacked the wall on lap 268. The resulting 23rd place finish was just more of the same for the No. 9 team, and dropped them back to 32nd in the owner points and within sight of the dreaded bubble once again. If Kahne can't get things turned around at Charlotte, a track he ran so well at last year, you really have to wonder if there is any hope for them at all.
Next up for Nextel Cup is a trip north for a visit with the concrete monster at Dover. Will Jeff Gordon bounce back from his disaster at Charlotte? Or will his daughter keep him off the track all together? Can Kyle Petty stay on a roll and get back to Victory Lane at Dover, which is ironically the track he last won at 12 years ago? Or will Casey Mears realize he likes this winning stuff a lot and pull off back-to-back wins? 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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