The 1-mile flat track up in New Hampshire proved as difficult as ever to pass on Sunday, but that didn’t stop a resurgent Jeff Gordon from giving it a shot. His last-lap battle with Denny Hamlin left the two side-by-side heading to the finish line; but in the end, Hamlin held on, squeaking out a win while sending out a statement that his team could pose a challenge to Hendrick’s Car of Tomorrow dominance. In the meantime, several storylines developed behind the two contenders, with late-race pit strategies, dropped jacks, and two-tire stops doing their best to separate the contenders from the pretenders as the Race to the Chase began its final 10-race stretch.
With the urgency reaching a fever pitch, who left the Granite State with their title hopes solid as a rock, and who discovered their chances may be permanently cracked in two? Read this week’s edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in Nextel Cup to find out.
Hamlin: Hamlin didn’t lead a large amount of laps Sunday; for once, he wasn’t even the dominant car of the day at a CoT event. But in the end, the driver of the FedEx Chevy got what he wanted the most; his first win of the season. In a clever twist of irony, it was a two-tire call made on pit road by Hamlin’s crew which won him the race, helping to erase the memory of past mistakes that had left their driver critical of the team at times. The victory marked Hamlin’s 11th top 10 of the year and his seventh in the past eight races; that’s something only the man he raced to the line, Gordon, can claim on his resume. Now that he finally has his win in his pocket and Chase bonus points in hand, can Hamlin maintain this run of consistency? Or, will there be a bit of a letdown now that he finally has what he’s been working to claim all season long?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: For all of the doubters who didn’t think Junior could hack it without his cousin Tony Eury Jr. on top of the pit box, you were sadly mistaken. In the six races since Eury has been away, the No. 8 team has been on one of their biggest highs of the season, peaking in a season best finish of fourth this Sunday, where Junior led the most laps to boot. Currently 12th in the points, Junior has made up the ground he lost with the 100-point penalty from Darlington and holds a 128-point cushion over Ryan Newman in 13th. Oh yeah, and guess were they are racing this week: Junior’s personal restrictor plate playground at Daytona.
Martin Truex Jr.: Who would have thought after Junior’s announcement he was leaving DEI that the team would have two of the hottest drivers on the track heading into Daytona? Probably not many, but Truex is doing all he can to show that DEI will be left in good hands at the end of the 2007 season. His breakthrough win at Dover has propelled him into Chase contention, and the confidence boost is a huge factor in the fact that he has four top-three finishes in the last five races. The New Jersey native is up to 10th in the standings and currently possesses more momentum than a tailwind down the backstretch at Daytona. Not only has he finished well as of late, Truex is running in front of the pack in the process. In the previous two seasons in Cup, Truex had led just 38 laps, but he’s led 315 in the last five races alone. That is the sign of a team moving up in a hurry.
Carl Edwards: Add Edwards to the list of drivers that have experienced a springtime/early summer surge in 2007. In the first 10 races of the year, he struggled to lead just three laps while racking up just two top 10s. But during the last seven weeks, he’s pulled a total 180, leading 133 laps and finishing up front to the tune of a win and three top-five results. That number could have easily been four top fives if not for a pit road miscue on Sunday at Loudon that put him down a lap. But the team pushed through and managed to bring home a respectable 13th-place finish. Edwards needs to find a way to turn his top-15 finishes into more top 10s, but if the team can get that mission accomplished, he could make some noise later this year.
Jeff Burton: After a midseason slump, it looks like the Burton of old is starting to slowly come back to life. While he didn’t lead every lap or even score a win at Loudon, Burton did manage to come from 26th place to finish seventh for his second straight top 10. The No. 31 car’s not setting a blistering pace like it was early in the season, when it seemed like Burton couldn’t finish outside the top 10; but still, he’s been able to battle his way back, currently holding down the fifth position in the point standings.
Tony Stewart: Thanks to a botched entry into his pit stall during the last stop of the day, Stewart saw his top-10 streak end at three at Loudon Sunday with a 12th-place finish. Still, it says something about your team when a 12th-place run seems like a letdown. Everyone expects Stewart to kick things into high gear as the weather turns hot, and he’s been heading in that direction with seven top 10s since his runner-up finish at Phoenix in April. Perhaps the veteran will pick up a few tips from his young protege Hamlin and get Joe Gibbs Racing win number two in the coming weeks.
Jeff Green: I know it’s kind of odd to label a driver as “cool” that just finished sixth in the prior race, but don’t be fooled; Green has been in this position before and didn’t do much with the opportunity to increase his standing. Back at Phoenix in April, he scored another sixth place finish in a CoT race, but came up with just one top-15 finish, a 13th the next race at Talladega, in the eight races since. What keeps Green from being a warm driver is his lack of consistency. You only need to look at the last five races to see why Green isn’t up higher than 29th in the standings. During that time, he has not finished higher than 30th while crashing out of two events. Bit if Green can build upon this top 10, unlike he did the last time around; he could make a move out of the ranks of the “also-rans.”
David Ragan: Ragan was keeping pace with fellow first-year Juan Pablo Montoya until his big win at Sonoma; now, he’s lagging behind a bit in their heated competition for the sport’s top rookie honors. It’s not that Ragan is having a horrible season, but he has run into his fair share of problems, literally. While he has just one DNF due to a crash this year, coming at Charlotte, there have been times when he hasn’t made many friends on the track, a statement I’m sure Kurt Busch would attest to after Sunday. His results haven’t been awful, either in qualifying or in the race; but there is still a lot of room for improvement, even after Ragan’s 15th on Sunday gave him top rookie honors for this week.
David Gilliland: How happy does Gilliland have to be to see Daytona on the calendar for this week? Other than two great qualifying efforts at the restrictor-plate tracks this year, followed up by top-five or top-10 finishes, the rest of the season has been mediocre for him. He has four DNFs this year, and since his career-best finish of fourth at Talladega, he’s put up only one other top-20 performance. With another good run likely on the horizon this week, it’s hard to say that Gilliland is cold; but riding success on the plate tracks will only work for so long. Bottom line, they need to start improving everywhere else.
Greg Biffle: You’re not supposed to use speedometers in Cup racing, but Biffle might want to think of a way to sneak one in after he got busted for speeding three times Sunday. A tight race car, combined with a lead foot on pit road left Biffle with a 31st-place finish just one week after scoring his second top five of the year at Sonoma. It looked like Biffle and his team were heading in the right direction… possibly even towards an outside shot at the Chase. But any gains the team had earned from their run at Sonoma and top 10 at Dover have been erased, thanks to three finishes of 30th or worse in three of the last four events. Even if the team does catch fire, it appears that Biffle will once again be looking in from the outside come Chase time this year.
Ward Burton: These results are probably not what Burton had in mind when he made his return to Nextel Cup this season. The plan was to come back full-time, but with how the No. 4 single car team has been running, it seems more like a part-time gig. Out of a possible 17 starts; Burton and the No. 4 car have managed to qualify for only eight. In five of those eight races, he has failed to finish due to a combination of crashes and engine failures, the last one coming just a mere four laps into Sunday’s race at Loudon. With an underfunded, single-car operation, Burton had to know he was in for a struggle at first. But I wonder if even he thought it would be this bad.
Joe Nemechek: Despite missing the race at Bristol, Nemechek has been able to stay in the Top 35 in points all year long…but it hasn’t been an easy task. His only top-10 finish came at the Daytona 500, when he finished ninth to start off the season. While he has run well in races since; he hasn’t been able to turn that into strong finishes in the record books. In fact, he has just two top-15 finishes other than Daytona to go along with three DNFs this season. You would think that some of the success teammate Mark Martin has enjoyed would have rubbed off onto this team, but so far, it hasn’t. The downside is that unless the team can at the very least maintain their current performance or improve it, Ginn Racing will likely find themselves in this position next year, too.
This weekend marks the unofficial halfway point of the season as the teams head to Daytona for the Pepsi 400. As everyone knows, anything can happen on a plate track – so does that mean we’ll we see another battle down to the wire like we did in February? Can Earnhardt Jr. keep up his hot streak and return to victory lane at Daytona one last time in a DEI ride? Will Jimmie Johnson and Gordon keep “suffering” without their crew chiefs? Or can someone unexpected come out through the smoke and steal a big win? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup Series.