The Midwest is known for vast temperature changes and powerful storms, followed by days of calm. The Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway seemed to follow that theme this weekend. Jimmie Johnson was blowing by the competition and looked to be heading for a win that could have got him back in the title hunt, but Tony Stewart calmly came in and stole the win away with a little extra fuel. The late-race fuel-mileage gamble left plenty of other Chasers looking for gas – and answers – at the end of the day, in the midst of several other spinouts and mechanical issues that threatened to doom their title hopes.
So, which drivers stayed hot during a fall trip through the Heartland, and which drivers felt a cool wind blow their championship hopes further away?
Read this week’s Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Jeff Burton: A week after earning his first victory of the season, Burton continued his hot streak at Kansas with a fifth-place finish. Burton, the only driver in the Chase with three straight top 10s, extended his point lead to 69 points heading into Talladega. His fourth-place finish there in the spring was his third top 10 in the last five races he’s run at the track, which could have the competition a bit nervous should he avoid the Big One this weekend.
Denny Hamlin: Despite a tornado’s worth of troubles at Kansas, this young rookie refused to buckle under the pressure. Two speeding penalties, a spin and a vibration from a loose wheel tried to ruin his day, but Hamlin was still able to bounce back from his problems with an 18th-place finish. Combined with two other top-10 runs in the Chase, that was enough to move him to second place in the standings, just 69 points out of the lead with seven races left. Hopefully, though, the rookie hasn’t used up all his resiliency; he’ll need it at Talladega, at track where Hamlin finished 22nd earlier this year.
Mark Martin: The No. 6 team took a gamble on fuel Sunday, and it paid off after spending most of the afternoon struggling to give Martin the biggest boost of any Chaser coming out of Kansas. With his third-place finish, Martin moved up from sixth to third in the standings, shaving five points off Burton’s lead to get him back into title contention. Mark hasn’t had the bad finish in the Chase like most of his competitors, but he’s expecting it at Talladega this weekend… he has an average finish there of only 23.9.
Matt Kenseth: In an otherwise frustrating day, Kenseth can take comfort in the fact that at least he didn’t run out of gas again this week. But that’s little consolation for the No. 17 team, whose 23rd-place showing was their first finish outside the top 10 in the Chase. A poor-handling car led to a disastrous weekend, but things could change at Talladega for Kenseth, where he has four straight top-15 finishes, including back-to-back top 10s.
Kevin Harvick: Add Harvick to the list of drivers who left Kansas feeling more than a little frustrated. To avoid a spinning Ryan Newman on lap 15, Harvick took a slide through the infield grass, putting him in a situation at the back of the field from which he never completely recovered. With an ill-handling racecar, Harvick wasn’t able to pick his way back through, but a 15th-place finish was good enough to keep him fifth in the standings. Also on the bright side, Harvick has run very well at Talladega recently, and should be able to make a charge at his points leading teammate should he be able to stay away from the Big One.
Jeff Gordon: After cruising through the first two races of the Chase with two third-place finishes, Gordon finally got a dose of the bad luck that has been running through Hendrick Motorsports as of late. On Sunday, a broken fuel pump took Gordon out of the race at lap 238 and dropped him back to a 39th-place finish, causing disappointment in the No. 24 camp. The busted part took a toll on Gordon in the standings, pushing him back to sixth after entering the race just six points out of the lead. However, that lost ground could likely be made up this weekend at Talladega, where Gordon has two wins in his last five races at the track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Who would have thought a race where a spring rubber broke through the nose of the No. 8 car could turn out to be Junior’s first top 10 in the Chase? Leading early, the Budweiser Chevy looked to be a contender before the strange damage to the grill occurred around the halfway point on Sunday. Junior still managed to bring the car home in 10th place, which has to give the team great confidence heading into one of their best tracks this weekend. Junior is a five-time winner at Talladega, and while he hasn’t finished that well in recent years, that confidence should pay dividends for the No. 8 team as they try to break into the top five in the Chase.
Johnson: Johnson showed on Sunday that the best car doesn’t always win. He led 105 laps at Kansas and looked to be the class of the field before a late-race speeding penalty doomed the team to a 14th-place finish that kept Johnson a distant eighth in the standings, 165 behind Burton. Having taken his mulligan in the Chase in the first race at Loudon, Johnson can’t afford another, and unfortunately, the wild card of Talladega looms ahead. Johnson won the spring race at the track, but also has two finishes outside the top 30 here since 2004, a dubious omen for a team which seems to have run out of luck at the wrong time. Still, if Johnson can somehow steer clear of trouble Sunday, he may have a shot to warm up and get back in the hunt.
Kyle Busch: Kyle finally finished his first Chase race this week at Kansas in seventh place, but it might be too little, too late for the No. 5 team. Busch buried himself in a pretty big hole the first two weeks, finishing 38th and 40th, and trails Burton by 233 points. Looking at his past Talladega results, the youngster might fall even further back this weekend, with a best finish of 32nd-place in three career starts at the track.
Kahne: Maybe there is an Evernham Chase jinx. Jeremy Mayfield made the Chase twice, but didn’t do much in the final 10 races… and it looks like Kasey is following suit. Things looked good for the Dodge Dealers team after they captured the pole for Sunday’s race, but a possible top-10 finish was ruined when Kahne spun out entering pit road for his final green-flag pit stop. The resulting 33rd-place finish, three laps back, dropped him 273 points behind Burton and into 10th place in the Chase. Looking ahead, Kahne’s Talladega track record isn’t very promising, either, as he has just one top-15 finish in five starts. My advice would be to stay away from Kahne on Sunday, because bad luck seems to be following him everywhere.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
Stewart took back some of the ground he lost to Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards last week at Dover by stealing the win at Kansas with fuel mileage on Sunday. Tony’s third victory of the year widened the gap to 270 points over Biffle, who remains in 12th place. But Biffle might not hold that position for long: With two straight top 10s, Edwards is closing the gap, and lurks just two points behind the Biff heading into this weekend’s race at Talladega.
As Separation Sunday fast approaches, who will survive the 500-mile white-knuckle dance on Talladega’s new pavement? Will Martin prove to be some sort of NASCAR Nostradamus and fulfill his prediction of wrecking this Sunday? Will Gordon get back on track and finish third this weekend for the third time in the Chase? Can Burton distance himself from the pack with another top-10 finish, or will Talladega shake things up and close the gap?
We’ll just have to wait until this weekend to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the latest race in the Chase.