It must be nice to be able to work just two weeks and then take a week off. Oh, wait; I did that last week, too, didn’t I? Well, this week both the Nextel Cup drivers and I are back to work after that early vacation, with the bright lights of Las Vegas looming over the horizon. While two weeks isn’t enough to forecast a team’s entire season, there are definitely those teams out there that are getting all they can out of the early part of the year, just as there are those who are digging themselves a pretty big hole. Last week, we showed you one full dose of them as the staff filled in for me, but when you’re in what’s shaping up to be the most competitive season in NASCAR history, it doesn’t hurt to have a Double Dose of Hot/Not to see where more of your favorite drivers stand. So, before the engines start up once more, let’s take a second look at the roulette table and put our money on Who’s Hot and Who’s Not heading into this weekend’s race at Las Vegas.
Clint Bowyer: Had it not been for his last-lap ride through the grass at Daytona, Bowyer would likely be heading to Vegas with two top-10 finishes in hand. As things stand, the second year RCR driver is still sixth in the standings following a sixth-place finish at Fontana; so much for an early season sophomore slump that seemed inevitable after his Daytona flip. Driving for a team that seems to be hitting on all cylinders right now should only continue to help Bowyer as he makes his way through the rest of the early season; at Vegas last year, he finished 15th, and given the way he is running, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him match or exceed that this time around.
Jeff Burton: He may not have the spectacular early season highlight reel or victory that his teammates have, but Burton has something they don’t; two top-five finishes to kick off the 2007 season. Only Mark Martin, the driver Burton trails in the standings by just five points, can say the same thing. But one thing we can say about Burton we can’t say about Martin is that we know he is going to run the full schedule. It’s been a long, difficult road but it’s now safe to say that RCR is back as one of the top-caliber teams in the sport each week, which many partially credit Burton’s leadership for. Things should only get better this weekend, as Burton is a two-time Vegas winner and was seventh there last year.
Brian Vickers: Once again, I’m bending the rules and singling out someone’s one race performance… but I think this one warrants it. After missing the season-opening Daytona 500, Vickers got Red Bull Racing their first ever Nextel Cup start in a points-paying event and the first top 10 for Toyota in the same race. Vickers got off to a good start in Speedweeks with an eighth-place finish in the Shootout, but a flat tire in the Duels later that week knocked him out of the Daytona 500. The team still has a long way to go to be a top-10 contender every week, but thanks to the finish at Fontana, they are currently in the Top 35 in owner points. The next few weeks will be crucial to make races and stay there so they can show what this team has to offer later in the season.
David Stremme: How many of you honestly would have taken me up on it if I bet you that the only beer-sponsored car in the top 10 in points at this time would have been Stremme? I’m guessing not too many. But with the struggles the Budweiser team is having and the hard luck the Miller boys had at Daytona, the No. 40 Coors Light team is tops among the “adult” beverage crowd. With an 11th-place finish at Daytona and a 19th-place finish at California, Stremme now sits 99 points out of first and is tops among the Ganassi teams in the standings. Whether or not he can maintain his streak is another issue; it is early in the year yet to say he’s turned his Silver Bullet Dodge around after a miserable 2006. But if Stremme can even stay semi-consistent from here on out, he should be able to hang in for a top-20, maybe top-15 finish in the standings.
Jimmie Johnson: Thanks to a third-place finish at California, Johnson vaulted up 22 spots in the standings following a rocky start to the season at Daytona. That result could have been much better, too, if it weren’t for a mysterious piece of debris on the track while Johnson was leading to cause a late-race caution and bunch up the field. The team’s performance was strong at Fontana up to that point, but then a few miscues on pit road cost the team the lead… and the win. We should get a good indication this week if the series champs are really back on their game this weekend at Vegas; they are two-time defending race winners.
Tony Stewart: A strong showing at Daytona was marred by a late-race wreck that dropped Stewart back to 43rd position, but like Johnson, he had a rebound at California the week after. His eighth-place finish was good enough to move him up to 21st in the standings; however, like Johnson, his finish should have been better, as a pit road penalty killed his chances to take the win. That means that in the first two races of the season, Smoke has now burned himself with two ill-timed speeding penalties. He can’t keep shooting himself in the foot like that, because no matter how strong a car he has, that will come back to bite him eventually if he keeps it up.
Bobby Labonte: Labonte ended 2006 on a positive note with three top-15 finishes, including two top fives in the final six races. But so far in 2007, he hasn’t been able to keep up that momentum. In the two races this year, he has put up mediocre finishes of 21st and 28th and hasn’t really been much of a factor in either event. It’s still early, but you would have thought this team might have gotten off to a better start after a full year together at Petty Enterprises.
Carl Edwards: What should have been a sure top-10 finish in California turned into yet another frustrating day for the Office Depot team. After racking up seven top 10s in the final nine races of last season and getting his crew chief Bob Osborne back, all signs pointed to a strong start to the new season for Edwards. But so far this year, bad timing and bad luck have plagued the team. Ill-timed caution flags put Cousin Carl two laps down at Fontana and he could never recover, finishing a disappointing 29th when all was said and done. And while his Roush teammates have fared well in Vegas, Edwards hasn’t been so lucky. Perhaps with the way his luck is going, though, that is a good sign and he’ll cash in with a solid finish this weekend.
Dale Jarrett: Well, for DJ fans, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that he has competed in both of the races this season and currently sits 28th in the owner standings. The bad news is, he’s used two past champion’s provisionals to do it, leaving him only four for the remainder of the year. Jarrett hasn’t run terribly, but continued finishes of 22nd and 32nd aren’t going to cut it as some of the drivers below him in the standings shed their bad luck and move past him. The key for the No. 44 team will be to deliver some decent qualifying runs to keep some of those provisionals in their back pocket while they work on better race setups and finishes.
The Unlucky Seven: With so many teams opting to make a full-time go of it in Cup racing this year, there were bound to be some disappointments. So far this year, seven drivers have failed to make both races in 2007. That means we have yet to see Ward Burton make his full-time return, and somewhere deep inside, Ray Evernham might be chuckling about the fact that Jeremy Mayfield has yet to make the starting grid as well. While rookie David Ragan sits in the top 10 in points, fellow rookie AJ Allmendinger has yet to make the field for Sunday, which will have longterm effects as he misses out on valuable seat time. On top of those three, of course, are the single-car entries that many expected to struggle due to lack of adequate funding or resources: Brandon Whitt, Mike Bliss, Kenny Wallace and Kevin Lepage have all been sent home early twice.
So, race fans, now that we are refreshed and relaxed from the weekend off, it’s time to get back into the weekly racing grind. Will one of the unlucky seven breakthrough and make it the sad six? Can anyone keep pace with the RCR cars? Will Stewart figure out how to work his tachometer and avoid yet another point taken off his license for speeding? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup series once again.