Editor’s Note: Cami Starr is off this Tuesday, so the staff took care of business and complied her weekly column. Look for her to be back writing next week!
As the Nextel Cup Series put its second race in the books last weekend in California, a state known for wildfires surely did its part to fuel the flames of several of Nextel Cup’s hottest drivers. This week’s surprising contingent listed as currently burning up the tracks includes a 48-year-old veteran who continues to steal center stage, as well as a 21-year-old rookie using a combination of luck and racing smart to fight his way towards the top of the charts.
At the other end of the spectrum, an entire organization threatens to find itself thrown in the freezer with little or no to chance of being thawed, icing up next to one of the circuit’s oldest drivers and the greatest comeback story that may never be told.
Ready for a closer look? Read on to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not after the second race of the year at California:
Mark Martin: Yeah, yeah, yeah… we know regular Hot/Not writer Cami Starr mentioned him last week, but Martin’s success is too fiery hot to pass up a second time around. With a late-race surge in California, Martin finished in fifth position, giving him two top fives in two 2007 starts and proving his Daytona dramatics were just the start of good things to come with the U.S. Army Chevrolet. Now leading the standings for the first time since 2002, the question for Martin is the same one on the minds of most NACAR aficionados nowadays: Will the 48-year-old give up his intentions of a part-time schedule and Chase after the Cup one last time?
Jeff Gordon: The four-time champ is alive and well, sitting third in the Nextel Cup point standings two races into the year. Gordon dodged the majority of the last lap melee at Daytona en route to a 10th-place finish in a car that wouldn’t cooperate for most of the afternoon; riding the momentum, the DuPont team won the pole for the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway and ran in the top 10 all day before racing his way to a second-place finish. With a start like this, there’s no reason not to stamp the No. 24 as a title contender for ’07.
David Ragan: You’ve got to hand it to Roush’s young rookie; he’s raising eyebrows and proving critics wrong, handling this transition better than anyone expected. Ragan, like Gordon, was the beneficiary of the last lap demolition derby at Daytona; he slid the No. 6 Ford through the destruction for a fifth-place finish, the highest of any rookie in the field. Most thought the good fortune would fizzle by California, but after an early spin, Ragan ran a smart race, recovering to finish a solid 16th. The new Roush protege now finds himself fifth in the Nextel Cup point standings, just 65 markers out of first.
Joe Nemechek: Nemechek got bumped to the third car for Ginn Racing this year when Mark Martin came aboard, meaning he’d need to qualify on time just to make the first five races. That was a smart move for Ginn, for if anyone can qualify on speed, it’s a man nicknamed “Front Row” Joe. Well, not only has he made both starting fields with ease, he’s done more than just get the car in the show, scoring a ninth-place finish at Daytona and backing it up with a 14th at California. That puts him seventh in points so far this season; barring a meltdown over the next three races, he will easily lock himself into the Top 35, with a label of surprise early season Chase contender just another solid finish away.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth is minus his crew chief and finds himself surrounded by chaos at Roush Fenway, but it doesn’t appear to have ruffled this perennial title contender in the least. After bumpdrafting Kevin Harvick to Daytona glory while getting caught up in a last-lap wreck, Kenseth bounced back nicely in California by getting to Victory Lane himself. The win allowed him to climb up to 12th in points, and it’s a safe bet last year’s title runner-up won’t stop there.
JJ Yeley: It’s still early, but so far this Nextel Cup sophomore is making a case for the Most Improved Driver award. Yeley had difficulty staying off the wall last year, but so far in 2007, he has a 12th place at Daytona and a 13th at California, leaving him eighth in points. That makes him the surprising leader among Joe Gibbs’ three teams, 10 spots ahead of Denny Hamlin and 12 ahead of Tony Stewart.
Casey Mears: 2007 brought Mears a new team, a crew chief fresh off a championship season in Darian Grubb, and sky-high expectations. There have been bright spots to give credence to that hype: Mears was on his way to a top-10 finish at Daytona before becoming a victim in the last-lap melee, and he qualified in the top 10 at California Speedway to start that weekend strong. Those spotlights dim, however, within the shadow of finishes of 20th and 31st on the final results sheet. That’s discouraging for Mears, especially when one considers the red hot start the 2006 Daytona 500 runner-up got off to one year ago.
Greg Biffle: What a difference a year makes – this team was favored to win a title just one year ago, but since then, The Biff has come back to Earth in a big way. His 2007 start – 25th at Daytona and 15th at California – shows no indication that this ship is turning around. Instead, Biffle’s 15th at Fontana was overshadowed by the late-race tap of David Reutimann‘s car, sending it into the wall for one of the hardest crashes in NASCAR’s history.
Ricky Rudd: Rudd sprinted out of the starting gate with a front row start at Daytona, but has sputtered since. While it isn’t entirely Rudd’s fault – he was caught in the last-lap fracas at Daytona and an early wreck in Fontana – it’s not good to start the season with a monkey on your back. This team needs to give the monkey a Snickers and send it packing before it turns into a gorilla.
Ken Schrader: It’s been a tough start to ’07 for one of NASCAR’s oldest veterans. A promising run at Daytona was foiled when Dave Blaney attempted to go back in time driving down pit road, only to miss the time riff and drive headlong into Schrader’s Little Debbie Ford. The misfortune just kept going at California, when the engine disemboweled itself on lap 160 to leave Schrader 39th in points.
DEI: Things couldn’t have gone much worse so far: Martin Truex Jr. is 38th in points, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 41st, and Paul Menard is 43rd. As if getting busted by a cop for relieving himself in parking garage wasn’t bad enough, Truex had a car capable of winning the Daytona 500, even leading 13 laps before getting caught up in a wreck, with Earnhardt Jr. no less. Both fared no better at California, as their engines expired by the halfway point of the event. In Junior’s case, he had the misfortune of TWO engine failures in the same race to go along with a beautiful pirouetting spin. Menard actually has the best finish of the three, running in the top 20 at California; only thing is, he missed the Daytona 500, so he’s in just as rough a shape as the other two. The dirty laundry that was aired early in the year for DEI seems to be prologue to their early season struggles; another bad run or two and the whirlwind of controversy that has surrounded this team will surely pick up.
Jamie McMurray: Where to start? After two wrecks have the 30-year-old 36th in the driver standings, it seems that McMurray’s troubles, which date back to a year ago, continue unabated. His average finish in the last 10 races is 34th; his last top-10 finish was a third at Watkins Glen in August of 2006, and the last time he contended for a win was in June 2006 at Dover. The crew chief carousel at Roush Fenway Racing may be spinning again shortly should the No. 26 not at least break into the top 20 every now and then.
With the challenges of California behind them, the Cup Series now heads towards a week off just two events into the season. Hopefully, drivers and teams will take some time to rest up, as the high speeds and newly designed speedway at Vegas should throw them all for a loop on March 11th. It’ll be a white-knuckle game of craps to see who hits Victory Lane and who hits the showers early… so write down this Hot/Not list while you can. It’s bound to change sooner than you think.