With the spotlight on the Top 12 drivers in the standings each week, it’s sometimes easy to forget that 31 others take to the track each weekend in pursuit of a long-sought after victory…but that’s what the purpose of this column is for. With another Chase race under our belts, it’s time to take a look at how some of the non-Chasers performed in Kansas this past weekend. Now, to say Sunday’s race was crazy would be a bit of an understatement; weather, accidents, and plain bad luck ruined the days of many participants. As a result, seven of the Chasers experienced trouble, leaving many of those not in the NASCAR playoffs available to steal the headlines. With that in mind, let's take a look at Who's Hot, and Who's Not, Non-Chase style…
Hot / Not Update : Dover Edition
Last week, Roush Fenway teammates Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray made the "Hot" list amongst the non-Chase crowd, as both were busy building momentum in the late stages of 2007. Well, The Biff came through with yet another strong performance, taking home the victory at Kansas Speedway, while McMurray faded a bit with a sub-par finish of 24th. Behind them, the current Budweiser driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and the future Bud pilot, Kasey Kahne, were labeled about average, with the No. 8 team on the rise and the No. 9 on the fall. However, both of these guys persevered at Kansas, bringing home Top 10s to help pad the stats of two seasons gone wrong. Finally, our cold "non-Chasers” Kyle Petty and Jeremy Mayfield came home 21st and 22nd, respectively…not all that bad for two drivers who need some breaks as we head towards the end of the season.
Frontstretch.com's newsletter was the first to tell you about the Hendrick team orders at Dover, with Casey Mears’ subsequent disgust at being told to move over for teammate Kyle Busch in the No. 5 car. The much publicized radio conversation between the No. 25 driver and crew chief Darian Grubb shows that Mears, the only driver from the Hendrick stable outside the Chase, is at least not planning on backing down from anyone the rest of this yearâ€¦teammate or not. Lucky for him, that fiery attitude is paying off; Mears has collected three straight Top 10 finishes since the Chase began in New Hampshire.
Don't look for that mojo to stop after Kansas, either. Next week, the series goes to Talladega, where in the Spring, the National Guard/GMAC Chevrolet was the car to beat early on until an incident with teammate Jimmie Johnson ended Mears' hopes with a hard crash into the inside wall. Following "Tally,” the series returns to the Mecca of stock car racing in Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of Mears's first Nextel Cup victory last May. Clearly, this team is a strong bet to be the best of the rest over the next two weeks.
Lowe's Motor Speedway was also kind to J.J. Yeley back in May, the site of his career best runner-up finish. It’s been tough sledding since then, but recently, the sophomore is busy putting back together another streak of solid runs, finishing in the Top 15 in three out of the past four races. Following his rookie 2006 season in which he was known more for wrecking than finishing, the second-year driver is showing signs of life in 2007, leading some to believe that the "demotion" to JGR's No. 96 satellite team may not be the debacle many predicted.
Don't go predicting Yeley for victory just yet, however; this team he’s with is not quite at that level. However, a few more Top 10s to finish out the season is not out of the question, and would give the Arizona native the momentum he needs to make some noise in 2008.
Reed Sorenson has shown signs of competitiveness this season, notching two Top 5s and four Top 10 finishes. However, the second year driver did not have the consistency needed to make any noise in the overall season standings. Inconsistency appears to be the culprit; after a DNF due to an accident sidelined the No. 41 Dodge with a 30th place finish at Dover, Team Target rebounded with a solid seventh at Kansas this past Sunday. Now, if Sorenson can just survive Talladega, he will move on to Lowe's, where he also recorded his best career finish of 4th back in May. Notice a theme here?
So does Sorenson. A mini-hot streak of sorts would be much needed medicine for his current team, as it is very likely that he will become Chip Ganassi's senior driver in 2008 with the imminent departure of David Stremme. That's not necessarily a good thing, though; Ganassi has shown little patience with keeping drivers that underperform. As a result, look for Sorenson to do everything possible to elevate himself to "Hot" status by the end of the year.
Sorenson's teammate, David Stremme, has been at the bottom of the Ganassi food chain this year in terms of performance. His 17th place run at Kansas actually stopped a month’s worth of bleeding; it followed finishes of 42nd and 39th at New Hampshire and Dover, runs which dropped him out of the Top 25 in driver points. Any good news for Stremme? Well, Talladega is the site of his best career finish of eighth earlier this year. It might be too little, too late for this driver though; he’s still searching for a 2008 ride after being released from the No. 40 team following this year.
Ken Schrader returned to the seat of the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford after being replaced on an interim basis by Bill Elliott. So far, the reunion has been less than stellar, as Schrader's average finish in the three races since resuming his driving duties has been a catastrophic 30.67. Kansas did not offer any relief to this team, either; after the second rain delay, Schrader and the No. 55 Camry of Michael Waltrip collided coming off of Turn 2, creating a multi-car melee that enveloped one third of the field. With a trip to the unemployment line at stake, the veteran could use a solid finish, as he is also on the list of drivers looking for a ride in 2008. Unfortunately, the move backfired for now…a 32nd place run at Kansas shrinks the distance between himself and the No. 22 team (36th in owner points) to just 49.
Also suffering from a string of bad luck recently is Ryan Newman, who many picked as one of the top candidates to play the spoiler role in the Chase. Unfortunately, quite the opposite has happened to Newman instead. Poised for a Top 10 finish at Dover, he got caught up in a multi-car accident triggered by teammate Kurt Busch late in the race. It would only got worse at Kansas; once qualified, the Alltel Dodge was forced to start 42nd after their time was disqualified for the roof being too low. You would think the only way to go from that point is up; however, the No. 12 Dodge defied the odds and actually did one worse, finishing last after engine problems retired the No. 12 car after 108 laps.
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