Chicago is known for football, deep dish pizza, shopping and the Sears Tower; sadly, it’s not yet known for great racing. However, there was at least one driver who didn’t sleep through the Chicagoland snoozefest; that would be Tony Stewart, who celebrated the end of his 20-race winless drought with another climb up the fence. Smoke was left awake and alert after a weekend where he got a lecture from the coach about playing nice with others, and he turned that motivation into victory celebration come Sunday night. Smoke wasn’t the only happy camper; Richard Childress Racing put all three of its drivers in the top 10, while polesitter Casey Mears led the way for Hendrick Motorsports. But there were plenty of sour faces at the end of the day, too. Jimmie Johnson saw his chance at victory blow up along with his tire with 45 laps to go, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to muscle home his Chevy to a 19th-place finish with no power steering.
So, what mood did your favorite driver leave off heading towards the final off week of the season? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out if he made the cut.
Carl Edwards: It seems like Edwards has become a whole new man in the last eight races. He went 10 races into the season leading just one race for three laps, but since Darlington, he’s gone on a hot streak, leading laps in all but the last two events. With five top fives in that span, including a third at Chicagoland, he has moved from 11th to fifth in the standings, giving Matt Kenseth a run for his money as the top Roush Fenway driver.
Jeff Burton: In the last four weeks, we have seen the old Jeff Burton back at the track. Gone are the DNFs and subpar performances; after a six-week slump, he’s gone back to scoring top 10s to solidify his position in the Chase standings. Burton’s comeback started on a road course, of all places; he scored his best finish of the year since his Texas win at Sonoma, coming home third, and he’s backed it up since with two seventh-place runs at Loudon and Chicagoland. But Burton isn’t doing it alone; the entire RCR team is heating up as the laps wind down in the regular season, with all three cars positioned to be in the Chase.
Kevin Harvick: After winning Saturday’s Busch race, Harvick came up three positions shy of pulling off the weekend sweep. But all is not lost for Happy Harvick and his fans. His fourth-place finish marks his fourth in the last five races and keeps him eighth in the standings, quite a distance from the dogfight for 12th. While he hasn’t won a points race since the Daytona 500, he is making positive strides in the right direction, leading laps (54) like he did at Chicago while racking up top five finishes.
Greg Biffle: The Biffle roller coaster of inconsistency has defined what’s likely his penultimate season with Roush Fenway Racing; but at least for now, the ride is heading uphill. In the last four races, the No. 16 team has scored two top-10 finishes, and an 11th-place run at Chicago helped to keep the momentum rolling in the right direction. Perhaps this newfound consistency has come too late in the season, though. Just seven races are left before the Chase field is set, and with 185 points to make up on 12th place, it appears the Biff will be on the outside looking in once again.
Kurt Busch: Like his former Roush Fenway teammate, Busch has had his share of ups and downs this season. Luckily for him, though, the downs haven’t been as long lasting or as extreme, and he still has a shot at making the Chase in 2007. Back-to-back top 10s have helped put him back up to 14th in the standings, in the middle of the fracas for one of the final Chase slots. To get over the hump, one thing Busch may need to see end is his winless drought, which hit 50 after his sixth-place run at Chicago.
David Gilliland: It’s pretty obvious that Gilliland has taken a liking to the restrictor-plate tracks, earning his only two top 10s at Daytona and Talladega this year. But in recent weeks, he’s found at least some amount of success on tracks where it’s not white knuckle racing for 400 miles. Case in point was his run at Chicagoland Sunday, where he came from 42nd place to end the day 16th, his best non-plate finish of the year. Gilliland’s not setting the world afire, but currently nestled in 27th in the standings, he is doing the one thing he needs to do the most; finish races.
David Stremme: It’s been a tale of two seasons for Stremme in 2007. In the first nine races of the year, the sophomore driver scored a pair of top 10s en route to finding himself 14th in the overall standings. Since then, the next 10 races have brought three DNFs, plenty of frustration, and a drop to 25th in points. It would be easy to blame the two engine failures on his downfall, but on-track performance has also been lacking for Stremme. His best finish in the last 10 races was a 17th-place run at Charlotte, which also gave him his best qualifying effort (10th). After what initially looked like a possible breakout season for the second-year driver, it would seem that Stremme has fallen victim to the dreaded sophomore slump instead.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne’s Chicagoland blues continued this weekend with another exasperating 32nd-place finish, his seventh finish of 30th or worse this season. After scoring an unexpected top 10 at Daytona, the No. 9 team was unable to feed off any momentum; they struggled with an ill-handling car early and often in Sunday’s race. If there was any magic potion that would turn this season around for the team, you could bet team owner Ray Evernham would be washing the cars in it every week. But the frustration continues to mount for a driver that won six times last year, yet is staring a 25-race winless streak in the face when the series heads to Indy next week.
Tony Raines: Raines has yet to put anything but a goose egg in the top-10 column this year. At least earlier this season, he was managing to notch solid top-15 finishes; but now, even that is a distant memory. The only bright spot in the past six weeks for the Hall of Fame Racing team was actually when their primary driver got taken out of the car. Raines was replaced in the No. 96 in favor of road-course ringer Ron Fellows at Sonoma; he scored a 15th-place run to help the team stay 25th in owner points, their only bright spot as of late. In the meantime, Raines has been bringing up the rear, scoring three finishes of 36th or worse in his last five starts.
Scott Riggs: In what has become a disturbing trend, Riggs missed his second race in the last three weeks Sunday at Chicagoland. That’s not to say that everything was rosy when he was making races, either. Strong performances at Martinsville (eighth) and Talladega (11th) have to seem like a lifetime ago to the third car in the struggling Evernham Motorsports camp. Riggs’s last two finishes when he did make the race have been 33rd at Michigan and 41st at Daytona, clearly not the results they’re looking for to get their season back on track. Climbing back into the Top 35 in points will be difficult at best at this point, meaning the No. 10 team will likely be behind the eight ball for at least part of the year in 2008.
Paul Menard: While his job at DEI is secure, Lady Luck hasn’t been kind to Menard this year. After a strong 15th-place qualifying run on Friday, things quickly turned sour on Sunday when his second engine of the weekend started to smoke. In the end, the parts and pieces didn’t hold up, causing a fire in Menard’s car and putting him in the garage; he wound up 42nd in the final running order. If it’s not one thing, then it’s the other for the No. 15 team, who has failed to qualify for three of the last eight races. Luckily for Menard, his sponsor isn’t likely to lose faith and drop him; but like other struggling drivers, this year’s problems will be following him for many months to come.
Brian Vickers: Things have taken a drastic downturn for the driver who gave Toyota their first top-five and top-10 finishes in the Nextel Cup Series. After making five races in a row, Vickers once again finds himself struggling to make it to Sunday, missing three of the last four events. Should the sudden decline continue, it will quickly overshadow the positive results that Vickers has put forth this season.
This weekend, the Nextel Cup series takes their final weekend off of the 2007 season. Will new BFFs Stewart and Denny Hamlin spend some quality time together? Can Ray Evernham find his teams’ missing mojo and come back to run strong at the Brickyard? Will Joe Gibbs be called in to counsel the HMS team so Kyle Busch and others will play nice the remainder of the season? We’ll have to wait two weeks to find out before the series heads to Indianapolis next.