Saturday was supposed to be the luckiest day of the year – July 7th, 2007 (7/7/07). On that fateful night, some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers were lucky, indeed, finding no problem pulling the lever and hitting that jackpot on the slot machine of restrictor plate racing known as Daytona International Speedway. While Jamie McMurray snagged the biggest payout, Kyle Busch discovered you make your own luck, and for all the talk about numerology, Clint Bowyer ended up just where he was destined to… in seventh place. In the midst of it all, Saturday night’s race provided the usual restrictor plate fireworks that we’ve all come to expect. There were teammate squabbles, finger pointing, bashed-in race cars and fiery tempers, all of which led to a gambler’s delight on wheels – one of the closest finishes ever recorded in NASCAR history.
So, which drivers were blessed with a visit from Lady Luck down south, and which ones were left alone to contemplate what might have been? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in Nextel Cup to find out.
Jeff Gordon: Not even a crew chief suspension and 100-point penalty can derail the Gordon Express in 2007. With a comfy 277 point lead over Denny Hamlin, Gordon leads almost every statistical category on the circuit – and looks to be nothing short of untouchable this season. In the last 14 races, only a wreck at Charlotte has kept him out of the top 10, a streak not seen since the glory days of his third title in 1998. And make no mistake, the No. 24 is clearly at the head of the class. For example, Gordon scored top five number 12 on Saturday night; the next closest competitor in that category hasn’t even hit double digits yet. There’s not much more to be said about Gordon’s success so far in 2007; the only concern now is that he hasn’t peaked too early, finding the bad luck he has avoided so far this season during the 10-race Chase instead.
Kyle Busch: After seeing how apprehensive his teammates were to play nice with Kyle Saturday night, you get the feeling that Busch will have to go it alone if he is going to make a championship run in his final year with Hendrick Motorsports. That probably suits him just fine, though, and to be honest, he’s currently running plenty good enough to pull it off. Following some bumps in the road, it’s been smooth sailing for Busch in the last five races, scoring all top-15 finishes in each while climbing to eighth in the standings. Whether or not he has friends on the track, the Chase field appears likely they’ll have to deal with Busch; and trust me, revenge can be a powerful motivator.
Matt Kenseth: Following two poor finishes at Michigan and Sonoma, it’s been back to business as usual for Kenseth and the No. 17 team. Two straight top-10 finishes at New Hampshire and Daytona have helped him reclaim the third spot in the standings with just eight races remaining before the Chase. The only problem Kenseth needs to overcome is that he hasn’t been running up front – neither leading nor in position to win. In fact, he led more laps at California (133) than he has in the other 17 races combined (122). But multiple race win seasons aren’t really his style. Kenseth’s M.O. is running consistently and not making big mistakes, and he’s following that to a T so far this year.
Jimmie Johnson: In the last six weeks, Johnson and his Lowe’s Chevrolet team have suffered both a midseason slump and a 100 point penalty from NASCAR, but both seem to be emerging towards the other side of the fence just fine. No top-10 finishes in a four-race span dropped Johnson back to fifth in the standings, but thanks to two straight top 10 finishes, he has reclaimed fourth place, sitting 24 points behind Kenseth in third. On the horizon are two great tracks for Johnson, too, which should put Kenseth and Hamlin on the defensive ahead of him.
McMurray: With a pole and a win in the last three races, you can feel both momentum and confidence building within McMurray. His thrilling win on Saturday night broke a nearly four-year-old winless drought and moved him up to 13th in the standings; in fact, that’s just 50 points out of the Chase. However, while the No. 26 team has been running well all year long, it’s important to note he’s not too far from where he was at this point in 2006. What the team will want to avoid this year is the downward spiral things morphed into during the second half of the year, when Jamie scored just one top 10 in the final 19 races. Unlike last year, however, McMurray does have the boost from the trip to Victory Lane to keep him on top of the mountain.
Robby Gordon: If before the season started, you had to guess what track Gordon would have his only top 10 at this point of the year, most likely you would have guessed Sonoma… and you’d be wrong. His only top 10 of the year so far came at Dover six races ago, kicking off a streak of solid runs for Gordon that has helped him climb up seven spots in the standings to 24th after his 15th-place finish at Daytona. While Gordon is still likely feeling some of the disappointment from Sonoma, where he led the most laps only to finish 16th, he should take pride in the five top-20 finishes he’s accumulated in the last six races. That may not mean a lot to some of the powerhouse teams out there, but for a single car effort, it does remain quite an accomplishment.
Mark Martin: Remember all the talk about Martin possibly making the Chase despite going part-time? At the time, it seemed like a wild possibility, considering how the No. 01 Chevrolet started the year with four top-10 finishes. But now, it seems like a crazy notion considering how the team has cooled down in recent months. In the last seven races that Martin has run, he has scored just two top-10 finishes and now sits in 18th place in the standings. Obviously, Martin didn’t suddenly forget how to drive and it’s not like he’s in and out of the car every other week; but the results have dwindled. The telltale sign that something might be amiss is the fact that Martin was inches away from the winners’ circle at Daytona in February, and Saturday night, he wasn’t a factor at all before finishing 17th. Is the team only now showing its true colors… or is team owner Bobby Ginn too busy wooing free agents to focus on his current stable?
Juan Pablo Montoya: Despite earning his first NASCAR Cup victory just three races ago, it seems like Montoya is doing everything in his power to make the battle for Rookie Of The Year honors a close one. After his win at Sonoma, he had a chance to build up a wider margin on David Ragan, but more mediocre finishes have left Ragan just 10 points behind. Whether you blame the problems on Ganassi Racing, Dodge, or Montoya still learning the ropes, the team does seem to have an issue on their hands. As the season progresses, you would expect Montoya to become more comfortable and the finishes to be better. But in the first seven races of the year, he had just two top 10s. In the last 11, only his win and his 19th-place run at Loudon helped him clear the way from what has otherwise been a disastrous stretch. That’s not really the sign of a team making strides in the right direction.
Dave Blaney: A 35th-place spot in the driver standings isn’t all that impressive, but when you look at Blaney’s circumstances, you have to give him a little bit of credit. By far, the No. 22 Caterpillar Camry has been the class of the Toyota field this year. He gave the manufacturer their first pole in the midst of qualifying for 16 of 18 events, the best of any Toyota driver. But there has been a downside, one where he’s run into his fair share of bad luck and poor judgment this year. Blaney has six DNFs, a list which includes being parked in the Daytona 500, three crashes, and two engine failures. Ranked 36th, the team has plenty of work ahead of them if they want to be the only Toyota team in the Top 35 of owner points; but with a little change of luck, Blaney just might be able to pull it off.
Dale Jarrett: Speaking of Toyota, one of the drivers who doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of making the Top 35 is Jarrett. Right from the get go, the entire MWR organization has been behind the eight ball, but Jarrett and his six free passes seemed to be looked at as a glimmer of hope. But those golden tickets were used up long ago, and Jarrett now finds himself in the group of drivers fighting for scraps on qualifying day. He did manage to make the first nine races of the year, but has missed five of the last nine since that point, not able to run well when he’s managed to make the field. Three straight engine failures had to take a major toll on the team, and while he has finished the last two races he’s run in; he’s been practically invisible.
Elliott Sadler: Let’s get the good news out of the way; Sadler’s No. 19 team has not only made every race, they have yet to post a DNF. Unfortunately for Sadler fans, that is where the bright side ends. On the other side of the coin is a year full of disappointments, struggles, and underachieving. It seems like a lifetime ago when Sadler took over this ride from Jeremy Mayfield, giving this team an automatic surge if they could only put themselves in position to make the Chase. In the last 12 races, Sadler has managed to lead just five laps, posting just two finishes in the top 15. The way things are going at Evernham Motorsports this year, don’t expect a turnaround anytime soon.
Kenny Wallace: In comparison to the multi-car powerhouses, Robby Gordon and his single-car team seem to be thriving. But on the other end of the spectrum are Wallace and the Furniture Row Racing team. Herman is batting .500 when it comes to making races this year, a percentage that makes it hard for any team to get any semblance of momentum going. Even when the No. 78 car does make it to race day, the team has struggled, posting three DNFs in nine starts to go along with no finish higher than 21st. With the current qualifying system stuck in place, it will take a miracle for things to improve… at least at the rate they’re going now.
Next up for Nextel Cup is a trip to the Windy City. Will the three-week streak of different winners hold up, or will a fresh new face grace Victory Lane this weekend? Can McMurray go two-for-two after going winless for so long? Will Tony Stewart and Hamlin kiss and make up… or will they take each other out, standing helpless by their cars while they watch Hendrick streak by towards yet another win?
We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not.