Thomas Bowles · Tuesday October 19, 2010
The story of this year’s Chase unfolded on Saturday night, the turning point we’ll rediscover while sitting at the Sprint Cup banquet this December. It’s just that right now, we don’t know what one, exactly, will be selected for the NASCAR Pulitzer out in Vegas. Could it be Jimmie Johnson’s determined drive from 37th to 3rd, a spin-to-survival that paved the way towards stealing Jeff Gordon’s Drive For Five mantra from his mentor? Or maybe it was Denny Hamlin’s fourth-place survival, the No. 11 simply keeping Johnson within striking distance before Fed Ex’ing his five-star fantasy to the land of Simply Impossible. Or maybe it’s even Jamie McMurray, the man without a title to fight for but still with a chance to end the season with more wins _and poles then the 12 men on the grid ahead of him? (Me thinks if that’s the case, chances are France Family Productions might bar that from being nominated on a technicality)._
We’ve got just five weeks left to find this year’s award winner, with 43 men (or 35, give or take the start and parks) fighting to be part of that ending celebration. Find out who’s in the best position to be on the right side of stock car’s final chapters of 2010 in the latest edition of Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in NASCAR.
YOUR TWO CONTENDERS
Jimmie Johnson – Championship contender number one took a gargantuan step towards further immortality the second his Lowe’s Chevrolet didn’t hit anything turning sideways Saturday night. From that moment on, you just knew this team would pull another rabbit out of their hat, a top 5 seemingly predestined for the group that never learned the words “give up.” A third-place finish could possibly have turned into a win under the right circumstances, but the Chase is all about taking what you can get without overreaching – see Tony Stewart, New Hampshire – and the No. 48 team snugly settled for a fourth straight top-3 finish instead. They were ninth at Martinsville in the Spring, which might as well have been dead last considering their track record, but I’ve got a sneaky feeling they’ll be much improved the second time around.
Denny Hamlin – For Hamlin, the first five races of this Chase were “Survivor: Jimmie,” keeping the four-time champ from bolting away and his own No. 11 team from blowing up internally. It was a hard-fought battle, waged at some of their worst tracks on the circuit, but for once the Toyota juggernaut didn’t stick the throttle, lose their heads, or blow up an engine that had their championship chances sealed inside. What’s left before them is a bit of a daunting challenge – 41 points back of a reigning four-time champ with five races left to close the gap – but that’s all they could have asked for heading down the stretch. Considering this team has wins at Texas, Martinsville, and Homestead all within the last year, momentum might be further tilted towards the Virginia native than you might think.
Jamie McMurray – Coming full circle in a roller coaster Sprint Cup career, McMurray’s first and last victories now come courtesy of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Five races into a Chase where he hasn’t run lower than 17th, the standout example of why the point system needs a makeover is standing up and forcing every one of those 12 “championship contenders” in front of him to take notice. Armed with a total of seven wins and poles combined, the No. 1 car is the No. 1 heartwarming story in everyone’s hearts and minds this season, even though Kevin Harvick may have a bigger comeback and championship trophy to show for his work. This poor guy should be a zombie for Halloween, for his is a career that’s truly risen from the dead.
Honorable Mention: Brad Keselowski’s Nationwide championship chances; the return of Old Kyle; a push towards getting more diversity drivers in NASCAR seats next season; Richard Childress Racing’s slow but steady Chase downfall of yes, even Kevin Harvick’s team; New York Yankees’ late-inning comebacks… and failures; Death Valley, California where it’s 93 degrees – if only summer could return…
Joey Logano – Sliced Bread is slicing up that sophomore slump in hopes of a third season filled with breakout success. Armed with four straight top-20 finishes for the first time since May and June, the firesuit in the family incident seems firmly behind him while Greg Zipadelli and Co. focus their No. 20 Toyota on the future. Martinsville lies dead ahead, the scene of his best result of the season – second in March – and a darkhorse opportunity to score a second straight non-Chaser win before the season is out. Sitting pretty at 18th in points, a top-15 finish would be just what the doctor ordered to get the critics buzzing about a first ever postseason berth in 2011.
Regan Smith – One of the unsung heroes in a dwindling field of underdogs, this single-car effort has made the most of a limited budget and resources in recent weeks. Scoring back-to-back top-15 finishes for the first time in his four-year Cup career, Smith even led the Fontana race briefly based on pit strategy while putting together some of the most consistent performances the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet has ever seen. His fantasy hockey team may need to be tweaked, but there’s no such adjustments needed in the FRR camp for next season as their own third year working together should be the charm for a top 10 and heck, maybe even a top 5 if everything breaks their way.
Honorable Mention: Rumblings on a possible crew chief change for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.; rumblings on Scott Speed’s pending free agency; throwing fake debris cautions late in the name of ratings; going green in every which way possible, and that includes the dollars that line NASCAR’s bank account along with it; unprecedented parity in the NFL, something this sport could watch and learn from going forward
Kurt Busch – My, how times have changed for the once trendy Cinderella pick to win the Chase. The slipper cracked before the playoffs began, an 18th-place mediocre Richmond run followed up by one top-5 finish the last five weeks as the Miller Lite Dodge brought some skanky beer right into the postseason. Oh, what a bad time to wear those sunglasses at night, blocking his vision at Charlotte in a 30th-place, spin-and-sin race in which Penske Racing saw their title hopes bite the dust yet again. Now the question isn’t whether Busch can win a race, but how many crewmen he can publicly berate between now and when the season is out. Man, between him, Mr. Harvick, and little brother Kyle, NASCAR needs an anger management session between practice every week!
Danica Patrick – OK, OK, so a 21st-place finish isn’t exactly the type where you hand out awards for anything more than simple participation. But the fact remains Ms. Patrick finished in the top half of the Nationwide Series field for the first time in her short, undistinguished career. It was the cherry on top of a weekend cake filled with fiery comments towards James Buescher, a man who wrecked her first ever top 15 opportunity at Fontana the week before and who better stay 50 feet away from this woman on track the rest of the year. A feisty Danica with a car that could actually run side-by-side with people every once in awhile? Oh, how far we’ve come from the days of running behind start-and-parks while knowing so little about the NASCAR rules, it’s a wonder she found the accelerator and the brake pedal each week.
Honorable Mention: Jeff Gordon’s Drive For Five title chances; TRG Motorsports’ grip on a top 35 spot, then perhaps a NASCAR team for 2011; Nationwide Series teams ever getting an answer on when Cup drivers will or won’t be allowed to drive; the relationship between Kevin Harvick and Ron Hornaday, Kevin Harvick and his crew, and Kevin Harvick and, well, seemingly everyone who crosses him lately
Bill Elliott – Awesome Bill from Dawsonville appears to be winding down an awesome career. Amid rumors the No. 21 Ford he drives might be bought out altogether by Jack Roush, he’s not helping the cause of the Wood Brothers for 2011 with runs of 23rd, 25th, and 35th the last three starts that make their part-time schedule nothing but a blip on NASCAR’s radar screen. One year ago, this team was the little engine that could, showing signs of upward progress despite only appearing at the racetrack an average of once a month. Now? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the resources and continued shift towards engineering just too much for a program that couldn’t even tell a computer geek from a janitor until a few short years ago.
Steve Wallace – Calling Rusty Wallace’s son. Rusty Wallace’s son, to the Small Claims Court for Family Members With One Too Many NASCAR Chances, please. You’re being accused of four DNFs the last seven races, no top-10s in the last nine and just one top-5 finish overall in a season in which your career was supposed to take off. Haven’t I heard that reelection slogan before oh, about once every year for about the last five seasons? I’m sorry, 5 Hour Energy, but I’m just not sure if those numbers warrant giving your driver a chance at a sixth.
Honorable Mention: J.J. Yeley (finished dead last with a start-and-park team at Charlotte, then forced to eat Kasey Kahne’s scraps en route to 38th); the Dallas Cowboys; any type of Chase trial balloon being floated within the Sprint Cup garage; everyone’s shoulders at Richard Petty Motorsports after Kasey Kahne walked away; Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, where it’s snowing and 39 degrees right now – winter’s coming, folks!
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