Thomas Bowles · Tuesday September 28, 2010
Psst. Wake up! Yeah, I know Sunday’s second race of the Chase came attached with sky-high expectations and a forecast for excitement that fell short. Instead, graying clouds rained down boredom on a less-than-capacity crowd that saw the energy of last week’s playoff debut dissipate faster than the water on your skin after a warm summer’s day. The coolness of Fall was in the air, the popularity of a sport continuing to chill in the form of single-file racing, “same old” stories, and a soap opera atmosphere that chose to do its talking off the track – not on it.
But with eight races left, there’s still time to salvage a season, and with it the hopes of fans and teams everywhere that yes, hope still springs eternal in a sport looking for any ray of sunshine it can get. Let’s look at those teams still smiling on the inside, happy with their recent performances while others try hard to finish strong in the latest edition of Who’s Hot / Who’s Not.
Austin Dillon: “Wait a second!” You say. “That’s not a Sprint Cup driver!” Not yet, my friends … but soon. In a season where being a Cup rookie constitutes a crash course in learning how to start-and-park, the man who doubles as Richard Childress’ grandson provides a faint hope NASCAR’s future will still burn bright to some future checkered flags. Winning a second race at the sport’s Truck Series level in Las Vegas Saturday, he’s now got two wins on the season, sits fourth in points and has made the Rookie of the Year race a laugher over similarly talented Justin Lofton. It’s quite an achievement; a shocking turn of events, considering this team is basically a new, full-fledged effort that started Daytona by causing a multi-car wreck during the first lap. Add in those Kasey Kahne-like looks, and the Allstate girls say the mixture is there for a future superstar over the right circumstances. They’re just “so sorry” about all the others without the bonds of family ties who no longer get the chance to impress.
Carl Edwards – Cousin Carl sits sixth in points, 73 behind Denny Hamlin and seemingly on the margins of Chase contention after just two weeks. But if there’s anyone that’s going to crash this No. 11/48 party, it’s him. Eleven straight top-12 finishes combine with two pole positions in answering the AFLAC trivia question of whether his summer was sizzling. If there’s going to be a “quack” in the winless streak, Kansas is as good a bet as ever; remember the video game near-pass for the win on the final lap vs. Johnson two years back? Another promising sign is how he’s gone from contending for first place to actually taking it; he’s led a lap in four straight races, totaling 133 laps to equal the number of races led he had all season before that. Clearly the lone remaining choice for this year’s title if you’re a fan of the Blue Oval crowd.
Jimmie Johnson – I know, no one’s surprised. But it’s worth mentioning Johnson has now led 1,622 laps at Dover, the most for him there compared to any other track on the circuit as he’s turned the Monster Mile into his own personal sponsor of success. You all know the story, JJ now 35 points from passing by Hamlin and making a fifth straight Chase a foregone conclusion. So for those looking for a downer day, well, remember Kansas last year? The No. 48 ran ninth, was never in contention and had an awkward-running day all around. With a pit crew continuing to falter – they had a net loss of four spots during Sunday’s event, posting the sixth-best times on the day behind each of the JGR’s trio of teams – a much better day is needed to ensure Hamlin doesn’t squirt away any further.
Honorable Mention: Richard Childress throwing stones (and that takes a heck of a lot – if you’re getting him mad, chances are you deserve to be called a skunk); Kevin Harvick throwing stones (Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gluck, @mother_function on Twitter … although the last one is nothing new); Clint Bowyer being picked for post-race inspection (they might as well book a date with the R & D Center until Homestead); Michael Vick (from torturing dogs to opposing defenses in just three years!); My big money fantasy football team (about to be 3-0 as you read this!)
Jeff Burton – Sitting 80 points back, seventh in the standings the man known for being Mr. Conservative is actually busy kicking himself this week for taking a gamble. If the team didn’t run out of fuel at New Hampshire, a podium finish would have left him runner-up in points, breathing down Hamlin’s neck with a reasonable intermediate schedule ahead that could have kept him in the race. Instead, like Stewart the man’s season will be defined by taking risks in a point system that rewards snooze-inducing consistency over the types of decisions fans pay to watch – four straight top-15 finishes are nice, but do nothing but pad the stat sheet for fans excited to be a part of something more.
Kyle Busch – No, Kyle didn’t wind up keeping Johnson at bay in the closing laps at Dover, making a physically damaging mistake in the form of the outside wall that dropped him to sixth. But two races in, and for the first time in four Chase appearances the youngest Busch brother hasn’t taken himself out before the meat of the playoff schedule begins (in 2007, he was ten points back in the Chase but in that case, he was leaving Hendrick and never considered a serious contender). It’s a script the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and I have absolutely no idea how this one’s going to play out. Of note, one of the two drivers he still has to leapfrog over also serves as a teammate, a recipe for either fistfights or a flameout in a world where “Have at it, boys” has taken a firm 2010 hold on the sport.
Honorable Mention: Denny Hamlin (the latest believer in NASCAR’s play-it-safe points mentality. Fans on Facebook: -1.); A.J. Allmendinger (led 100 more laps yesterday than he has his whole four-year, 107-start Cup career up to that point); rain-free weekends (Kansas looks dry, Texas was our last Monday race … far cry from the Spring floods we endured); Dover losing a date in 2012 (the way Sunday’s crowd “filled” in? Very much a possibility)
Martin Truex, Jr. – A top-5 runner throughout much of Sunday, the New Jersey native actually led four laps at his near-hometown track before breaking an axle, the bad luck that’s defined a Charlie Brown-style year. Since Jeff Gordon killed his karaoke session at Sonoma, Truex’s team has never been the same, a NAPA Know Better of just two top-10 finishes the last dozen weeks to go along with a win and top-5 total which nicely matches teammate David Reutimann’s number: double zero. Along the way, virtually everything that has gone wrong will for this outfit, tormented by a testy Toyota engine, a Tasmanian halfway out the door (Marcos Ambrose) and the lingering stench of Michael Waltrip setups. Qualifying hasn’t gone that badly – four top-10 starts the last six races – but finishing there means more than going fast for just a single lap. Just ask Ryan Newman.
Kasey Kahne – While the rest of his RPM teammates steam full speed ahead towards 2011, Kahne’s stayed behind to sip a Bud, fill his new car with Red Bull and watch as his No. 9 near-defunct operation gets outfitted with nothing but junk. A fired up pre-race speech on the radio proved fruitless Sunday, the team struggling to a 28th-place finish, four laps back that doubles as the worst performing effort out of their soon-to-be-dissolved four-car stable. With Marcos Ambrose and a brand new bunch coming on board for next season, four straight runs outside the top 10 prove the current group is already thinking and looking elsewhere, lame ducks barely registering a quack while riding out what’s been an ugly end to their seven-year tenure with the team. But hey, I guess it’s better to enjoy the relative obscurity of diminished expectations while you have them, right? I don’t think Hendrick will let him run and hide in 29th, packing it in for his first full year with the team in 2012. He already has Dale Jr…
Honorable Mention: Danica Patrick’s “Save NASCAR” campaign (noticeably not attracting fans or success at the moment); Brian Scott’s NASCAR career (fired from his Nationwide Series team days after new ownership; luckily, rich daddy has the money this talented driver needs to keep going); rides for future Nationwide Series talent (Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, former “superstars” Landon Cassill and Danny O’Quinn, Jr. can attest – there’s a start-and-park ride waiting for you)
Sam Hornish, Jr. / Scott Speed – A picture I can’t get out of my head from Sunday is seeing the unlikely sight of this duo walking down pit road together. Possible conversation topics: The glory days of open wheel, the best way to file unemployment, and how they can’t wait for this year to be over. Speed was out of character on the radio Sunday, clearly frustrated over a car that might have handled better if it ran on your local ice rink. No amount of Red Bull could energize the No. 82, who ran 32nd, seven laps off the pace for their tenth straight run outside the top 20. Man, does he need to pay those Austrians off to keep him…
Mr. Hornish is busy trying to do the same thing to Roger Penske, but no one will pay for him to drive unless he’s busy wheeling it over in the IndyCar Series. We’ve said for months that’s where he’s headed, and perhaps it’ll take a therapist to finally convince this man it’s where he truly belongs. Even the electrical system is saying its piece at this point, failing with less than sixty laps to go as the momentum from a tenth-place finish got washed away like that with an ugly DNF a week later – their fifth run of 25th or worse the last six races. No wonder why the usually relaxing Hornish seemed rather curmudgeonly on the scanner… if only Verizon would give him an open-wheel ride to solve this problem that’s easily fixed.
PRISM Motorsports – Say what you want about Dave Blaney, but man, Mr. Start-And-Parker specialized in getting the No. 66 car in the show. Since leaving after Watkins Glen, his former ride has made the show just once in the last six weeks with a variety of different drivers. Mike Bliss has done slightly better, taking over for Michael McDowell around the same time with the No. 55 and going three-for-three, but an operation accused of being in it to make money is finally getting hurt the one place they can stop damaging the sport: in the wallet with some of these dreadful DNQs.
Honorable Mention: Extenze (no money, no full-time races, pending litigation … this could get messy); Jeff Green (the sad part is he’s probably not even getting paid to DNQ the No. 26 – which he’s now done twice in two weeks); Bobby Labonte (eight races away from no top-10 finishes for the first time in a long, distinguished career); Brett Favre (apparently didn’t consult Mark Martin on the right time to stop “unretiring”)
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