The Frontstretch: Cup Drivers To Watch At Atlanta ... And Who's Hot & Who's Not In NASCAR, Too by Summer Bedgood -- Tuesday September 6, 2011

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For some reason, Mother Nature doesn’t seem to be a very big NASCAR fan these days. Whether it was the 2+ hour rain delay at Pocono or the Monday race at Watkins Glen, the weather seems intent on making sure as few fans stick around to see the finish of the race as possible.

This time, though, she really has her panties in a wad. Though the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races were able to go the full distance, come Sunday the skies opened right around the time the Sprint Cup Series race was supposed to start and carried on just long enough for NASCAR to postpone it … until Tuesday.

A forecast which called for a 100% chance of rain from tropical storm Lee was enough to convince NASCAR that putting thousands of fans, officials, drivers, etc. at risk on Monday would not be the right decision. This ended up being the right call as tornadoes, thunderstorms, and rain all pounded the area surrounding the racetrack.

So who’s a few drivers to watch heading into Atlanta this morning? Before we get into the other series, let’s leave you prepped and ready for Tuesday… two longshot drivers to watch and two drivers who need to have outstanding performances:

Kasey Kahne – Well, duh. He is the polesitter, right? But a victory here could catapult Kahne into Chase contention at the last minute. His history at Atlanta is outstanding: two wins, six top-5s, and eight top-10 finishes in fourteen starts. Plus, his Red Bull Racing team has always been on their best at 1.5-mile ovals; it’s how teammate Brian Vickers squeaked into the postseason in ’09. Don’t discount the chances for the No. 4 to pull a major upset this afterno… well, whenever we get that race underway.

Paul Menard – Yeah, most say he’s a longshot Sprint Showdown candidate at best. But don’t forget Menard got his first top-10 finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway; then, last spring he came up with a fifth after gaining some track position late. That one occurred in a day race, the last one we’ve had at this place… until 11 AM today. Well, there you have it… and with $1 million on the line, maybe he’ll get a little more aggressive for once?

Kevin Harvick – Over on the other RCR side of the fence we have the one major title contender that currently looks like he’s running a sinking ship. Harvick has exactly zero top 5’s – that’s right, zero – since Pocono in June and has been increasingly moody and mediocre on the racetrack as of late. While most Jimmie Johnson foes aren’t showing their hands, this veteran has already tipped his by stating repeatedly on Twitter that this team is behind. Well, Atlanta – the magical place where he won for the first time in Cup, in 2001 – could be just the cure this ailing team needs. Otherwise… could too many stumbles before the choice be simply too much to correct once the playoffs start?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – On paper, it looks like the No. 88 team has this whole Chase bid in the bag. But that ugly qualifying effort for this race, leaving him starting 29th certainly isn’t doing this team any favors. If points were awarded before Lap 1, his margin over Clint Bowyer would shrink to a manageable 13 markers heading to Richmond – putting pressure on a team and a driver that hasn’t exactly responded well to it through the years. Earnhardt would be best served to stay out of trouble early, then tiptoe up to a top-10 finish before his competitors finally get their act together.

OK. So now that we have that out of the way… the other two series deserve their time in the spotlight. Let’s crunch some numbers and take a look at the hot (and not) drivers in NASCAR’s lesser series.


Maybe Ron Hornaday hasn’t had the best season, but his win at Atlanta this week put him firmly back in the “Hot” column.

HOT

Ron Hornaday Jr. – For the first time since Timothy Peters took the checkered flag at Lucas Oil Raceway back in July, a Camping World Truck Series regular was standing in Victory Lane spraying champagne and thanking his sponsors. This time around it was Hornaday’s turn for a win, crossing the start/finish line first for the second time all season.

Other than the victory, Hornaday has been somewhat quiet this season and hasn’t been a factor in many races. Actually he wasn’t much of a factor in Friday night’s race in Atlanta either, leading only 17 laps and staying out on the racetrack while leaders like Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch dove to pit road for fuel and tires. Had there been a couple of extra laps, Bowyer just might have caught him, but alas there was not.

Hornaday may not be a big factor in this year’s title hunt but as Kyle Busch said after the race, it sure is nice to see the old man back in Victory Lane.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Though it was Reed Sorenson threatening to “find” teammate Justin Allgaier following the conclusion of Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. probably should have done the same, but for a different reason.

While racing Sorenson for position, Allgaier dove into the corner and tagged Sorenson’s left rear quarter panel, shoving him up the racetrack into Trevor Bayne and the outside retaining wall. Sorenson was done for the night, and took a huge hit in the championship points.

That’s where Stenhouse comes in. Stenhouse currently has a 13 point lead over second-place Elliott Sadler and 40 points over Sorenson. What looked to be a three-man race in the points has turned into a lopsided duo with the advantage going to Stenhouse, thanks in part to Allgaier.

Even if the move wasn’t intentional, I hope Stenhouse remembers to put Allgaier on his Christmas list this year, especially if he’s holding the trophy over his head following Homestead.

Honorable Mention: Blake WHO?! This is the question I, and probably most fans watching, were asking when they saw the name Blake Feese in the final running order. Feese finished fourth in Friday night’s truck race, his best finish in five career starts in the series. Still, though, who is this guy?!

WARM

Justin Allgaier – Though Allgaier managed to simultaneously ruin a potential race win for Trevor Bayne and championship hopes for Reed Sorenson, the day panned out fairly well for him. Allgaier finished 6th for his fourth consecutive top 15 finish, which leaves him fifth in points, 69 marks out of the lead.

If I had to guess, Sorenson won’t have to find Allgaier next week in Richmond like he threatened. Karma is a “you know what”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if qualifying put the two teammates riding around the track in the back of a truck together next week, waving to the fans following driver intros, both with artificial grins plastered across their faces. Oh how fun that would be…

Todd Bodine – Bodine hasn’t been at the level he was last year, where he won four races and a championship with Germain Racing for his second title in the last five seasons. Lacking valuable funding, the team has struggled through the season and at times even contemplated skipping races.

However, a partnership with Randy Moss Motorsports has seen a change in number both on the side of his truck and in his results column. Through the first 10 races of the season, Bodine only had three top 10 results and was never any higher than seventh in points.

Since teaming up with RMM, however, Bodine has four top 10 finishes in the last seven races and has remained in the top 10 in points. Though he probably won’t finish much higher than 7th or 8th in the standings, he may be able to grab a win or two before the year comes to an end if he can continue on this streak. Who knows, maybe he’ll make an appearance in the “hot” section before the checkered flag waves on the 2011 season.

Honorable Mention: Though Austin Dillon’s season has been somewhat disappointing considering his impressive rookie year in 2010, he’s still laid down some solid results recently. He’s had nine total top 10s this year, with five of those coming in the last seven races. In addition to those numbers, a well-timed hot streak could put him right back in the thick of this championship, as he is 17 points out of the lead with eight races left in 2011.

COOL

Ryan Truex – In his 11th race this season in the Nationwide Series and first for Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex was little more than ok. But that’s alright, because he’s still a rookie and an 11th-place finish isn’t too bad considering there were five Sprint Cup Series drivers in the field, and several more experienced Nationwide Series drivers to contend with. Sure, he was in the car that Clint Bowyer once claimed a primate could pilot, but he finished a race that was rather unkind to tires and saw more experienced drivers than him heading to the garage area.

Truex had better be careful, though. Yes he’s a rookie, but he’s in arguably the best equipment in the series, with the possible exception of Kevin Harvick Inc. Typically, Joe Gibbs Racing wants results yesterday, and aren’t known for their patience with drivers (see Joey Logano).

On the flip side, the team does know talent when they see it, and clearly they see something in Truex worth developing. Let’s just hope they give him time to do so.

Parker Kligerman – Speaking of developing talent, Kligerman is a driver I’m largely undecided on. Though he’s shown here and there he has the talent to run up front, he hasn’t been consistent enough to earn a proverbial thumbs up, and any seasoned NASCAR fan or driver knows consistency is huge in this sport.

I’ll be fair, though. Kligerman has been able to finish in the top 15 in five of the last seven races, and was on a streak worthy of a mention in the “hot” spot earlier this year. Now if he could just turn those top 15 results into top 10s, we might see him back up there again. The question remains, is eight races enough for him to turn things back around? We shall see.

Honorable Mention: Max Papis the Italy native only has one top 10 finish this season, which came in Martinsville back in April. His last five results are 14th, 26th, 19th, 11th, and 18th which has put him back in 15th in points. Clearly, this multi-car deal isn’t working that well for Germain Racing, with Papis’s teammate Brendan Gaughan sitting 13th in points.

COLD

Reed Sorenson – Sorenson had every reason to be pissed off with teammate Justin Allgaier, after contact from the latter ruined the day and potentially the season for the former. However, Sorenson hadn’t exactly been running up front in recent weeks either. Instead, the contact from Allgaier acted as more of a nail in the coffin rather than a blow to the head and Sorenson can’t blame his teammate for that.

The last time we saw Sorenson in the top 10 was five races ago in Iowa, with his highest finish since then coming at Bristol where he grabbed 12th. These mediocre results have seen him slide to third in points, 40 markers back from leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

So, yes, Allgaier probably screwed Sorenson’s season, but not without help from Sorenson himself. Now with only eight races left this season, time has been cut severely short for the Turner Motorsports driver. And when he’s watching either Stenhouse or Elliott Sadler accepting the Nationwide Series trophy postseason, he’ll no doubt think back to Atlanta.

Trevor Bayne – Bayne really can’t catch a break. In the last 11 races, the Roush Fenway Racing driver has only finished in the top 10 twice and after missing five races due to an illness all he has left to race for is wins. But whether it’s tires, fuel mileage, or other drivers’ stupidity (see Allgaier/Sorenson) he’s usually left scraping up whatever he can get.

Bayne’s luck has been so bad, though, that the only place left to go now is up. In fact, most of NASCAR Nation is waiting for him to break through with his first career Nationwide Series win following his record breaking Daytona 500 victory in February, and maybe he can break out of this funk long enough to do just that.

Honorable Mention: Josh Wise, the driver best known for filling in for Danica Patrick while she’s busy with her IndyCar duties, has only 3 top 10s in his 24 starts for JR Motorsports and Key Motorsports and will be without a ride come next season. Not an easy situation considering his lack of solid results, but hopefully a team and/or sponsor noticed enough talent in him to give him a chance.

Contact Summer Dreyer

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Mik
09/06/2011 08:20 AM
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Blake Feese is a former Hendrick Development driver from the mid 2000s. He along with Kyle Krisiloff and Boston Reid were Hendrick’s development trio in ARCA…which only lasted one year.

Since then Feese has bounced around from one off ride to ride, until landing some races with Turner this year.