Normally, the fireworks in Daytona are reserved for July, but they came out early this year. 2007’s version of NASCAR’s Super Bowl didn’t disappoint in the action department… at least in the final fourth of the race. Kevin Harvick started off his season on fire with a weekend sweep after claiming his first Daytona 500 victory in a nail-biting finish that went down to the wire. But the only smoke at the track wasn’t from the leftover Victory Lane celebration; plenty of teams saw their chances for victory go up in flames as the final 50 laps of the race were filled with wrecks, busted sheet metal, and broken spirits. So who left Daytona in a blaze of glory, and who left putting out the flames of rage and disappointment?
Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out.
Harvick: There isn’t a much better way to start off a season than by scoring a thrilling victory in the Daytona 500. Harvick motored his Pennzoil Chevy from 29th to 1st in the final 22 laps of the race, bringing home RCR’s second ever win in the Great American Race. But the hot streak Harvick is on didn’t start Sunday evening; dating back to last season, he has four straight top-five finishes to go along with two wins. Will the California native finally cool down a bit next week when the series heads to Fontana? Perhaps. He has just two top 10s there in nine starts, but momentum and confidence can do a lot to overshadow past records and performances.
Kurt Busch: For the majority of Sunday’s race, Busch looked to be in position to give Roger Penske an early birthday present… his first Daytona 500 trophy. But on lap 153, Kurt’s hopes were dashed when he and Tony Stewart got together while battling for the lead. While it was certainly a disappointing ending, Busch did show this week he’s becoming a force to be reckoned with on the plate tracks. He was third in the Shootout, second in his qualifying race and led the most laps on Sunday, 95, before ending the day 41st. At California, Busch should be able to once again be a contender. He has a win there in 2003 and three top fives in nine starts.
Mike Wallace: Normally, I try not to single out just one performance, but when it comes to Wallace at the No. 09 car, this one was a surprising exception. Wallace raced from 22nd starting place to finish fourth in Sunday’s Daytona 500, his first top-five finish at the track along with his top 10. What makes it all the more impressive is that Wallace did it with an underfunded, part-time team that had no teammates out there to help push him along. Sunday was one of just a handful of races the James Finch team plans to race in Cup in 2007, but with performances like that, it would be nice to see them in a few more.
Mark Martin: When I think I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. Last week I thought Martin would be “cool” this season moving from Roush (now Roush Fenway Racing) to Ginn Racing. Well, they quickly proved me wrong with a strong showing at Daytona. Everyone has seen and heard by now that Martin had the Daytona 500 win in his grasp before losing by mere feet to Harvick, but what is really impressive is how Martin and this team have come together in such a short time. Granted, it’s early in the season, but Sunday showed Martin still has the fire to win, and with California on the horizon, that warming trend may continue for some time to come.
Jeff Burton: Burton was torn on Sunday on the final lap of the race, watching his teammate and mentor battle it out for the win. He had a great seat for the show, finishing third in the 500; it was his best finish at the track since he was second as Mark Martin’s teammate in July 2003. The No. 31 team doesn’t seem to be showing any ill effects from their late season collapse in 2006, posting top 10s in all three races of Speedweeks. Last year, Burton scored a top-five finish at Fontana, and with the roll RCR is on right now, he looks poised to do it again.
David Gilliland: I can’t imagine the amount of pressure Gilliland must have felt on Sunday, leading the field down to the green flag in his very first Daytona 500. Despite a few minor hiccups during the race, Gilliland stayed patient and didn’t force the issue as the tried to work his way back though the field. The end result was an eighth-place finish, giving him top 10s in the Shootout, Gatorade Duels, and the Daytona 500. The young driver has credited veteran teammate Ricky Rudd for his solid start to the 2007 season, and the pairing seems to be paying off with good chemistry and improved performance.
Sterling Marlin: After being considered one of the best restrictor-plate racers in history, Marlin has lost his mojo at Daytona. He earned a 17th-place finish, largely thanks to the pileup on the final lap, just one more mediocre run for a team that has been struggling for over a year. Marlin hasn’t had a top-10 finish since May 2006, ending the year with three straight finishes of 36th or worse. Maybe the addition of Martin to the fold at Ginn Racing can benefit Marlin, though; at California, he had three top 10s in a row from 2001 to 2003, so the possibility for a solid run is still there. Unfortunately, I think you should expect more mediocrity from this team next week.
Ryan Newman: While his teammate was burning up the track at Daytona, Newman was burning up his engine. The No. 12 car looked good early on in the race, making it up into the top five and only making minor adjustments before the final 25 laps. That’s when the team noticed a leak in the radiator, and it wasn’t long before Newman was done for the day. That kind of bad luck plagued the No. 12 team last year, and so far, it seems to be following them into 2007. Newman hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Bristol in August, and while he used to regularly score top 10s at Fontana, he has only one finish in the top 20 in his last three starts. If Newman and Co. can’t turn things around, especially on intermediate tracks that gave them so many problems last year, it could be a long season.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Following Sunday’s race, Montoya said, “Stock car racing is good. Here, it’s easy.” That’s surprising words from a driver who spent most of the day complaining to his crew that he car was “so tight” and “crazy” before ultimately finishing the day 19th, largely thanks to several cars that got wrecked ahead of him on the final lap. The Colombian rookie had high hopes heading into Speedweeks, but after a win in the 24 hours of Daytona, things went downhill. After shortened appearances in both the Busch race and his qualifying race, Montoya spent most of the 500 near the back of the pack. Perhaps his woes are more of a reflection on the team, not the driver; either way, it looks like JPM might be in for a bumpy start to his rookie year.
The Toyotas: Toyota came into 2007 with eight teams trying to make their way into the Daytona 500. In the end, only four teams got the nod, and it was a bumpy road along the way for each. Michael Waltrip‘s team made the biggest headlines of the week, but that wasn’t exactly the type of press the newest player in NASCAR was looking for, as a cheating scandal rocked the sport and sent the team owner scurrying to apologize to everyone he could. When the smoke cleared, Dale Jarrett was the highest finishing Toyota in 23rd place, giving the impression the Camrys have a long road ahead in order to be competitive.
Scott Riggs: As if starting the race 25 points in the hole wasn’t bad enough, things went from bad to worse for Riggs during the running of Sunday’s race. During his second pit stop, Riggs overshot his stall, costing his team valuable time and real estate on the track. It wasn’t much longer until transmission problems developed and forced Riggs behind the wall for repairs. He rejoined the race, but couldn’t muster anything more than a 37th-place finish, leaving him with just 27 points heading to California next week. It’s well documented that Riggs can overcome early problems at Daytona after his DNQ last season, but he will still be without his team director next week at Fontana, a track that he has only one top 10 finish at.
Kyle Petty: Petty is another driver that would have no luck at all if it wasn’t for bad luck. On lap 80 of Sunday’s race, Kyle had a tire go down that ate up the sheet metal on his No. 45 Dodge, forcing him behind the wall for extensive repairs. He came back out on the track to limp around for points, but managed only a 42nd-place finish. At the end of 2006, Petty had two top-15 finishes in the final five races of the season, but the team never seemed to have it together in Daytona this week. California doesn’t look all that promising, either; Petty’s yet to score a top 10 there, with his best run a 17th-place finish in 2002.
So now that the series is getting back to its normal schedule, will some of these teams be able to leave their troubles behind at Daytona? Can Stewart once again bounce back from a last-place finish in the 500 to win the championship? Will the California boys at Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Casey Mears) be able to right their ship at their home track? Or will it be another California native, Harvick, that continues to set a blistering pace? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not.