While Tony Stewart was kissing the bricks at Indianapolis for the second time in three years, some drivers almost kissed their Chase hopes goodbye in the wreck-fest that was the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday. In the first 60 laps of the race, a total of 18 drivers had been involved in at least one accident, with defending race winner Jimmie Johnson making the most spectacular exit from Indy. As Johnson ran for cover from his burning car, several other key Chase contenders were in the garage area; namely Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray, who were involved in earlier incidents. But what could have been a terrible day for those drivers turned out to be nothing more than a tiny bump in the road when current Chase bubble driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s engine went up in a plume of smoke.
With those Chase drivers fresh on everyone’s mind, which men left Indianapolis able to soak in the majesty of the famous track after putting in a good run… and which ones couldn’t wait to make a beeline for the exit? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out.
Editor’s Note: From now until the Chase begins, we’ll take a look at the drivers gunning for a spot in the final 12 and tell you who’s hot and who’s not in their bid to make the playoffs.
Hot: Kurt Busch – Busch was the only one of the drivers on the outside of the top 12 that was able to take advantage of 12th place Earnhardt Jr.’s troubles at Indy on Sunday. After scoring an 11th-place finish, Busch moved up one spot to 13th and is just eight points behind Junior heading into Pocono. With two top 10s prior to his run at Indianapolis, Busch and the No. 2 team are starting to gel at the right time.
Not: Ryan Newman – Things could have been a lot worse for Newman following his brief stint in the Allstate 400 Sunday at Indy. He started off the day well after qualifying third on Saturday, but things quickly went downhill from there. An ill-handling racecar and rising water temps dropped him in the running order, but was nothing compared to what laid ahead. Following hard contact with the wall on lap 21, Newman was done and finished 42nd. The finish dropped him to 14th overall and he lost 29 points to Earnhardt Jr. in the battle for 12th. The No. 12 team has been a bit shaky lately when it comes to putting in good finishes, but remember they were within just half a car length of winning at Pocono last month.
Jeff Gordon: He may not have left Indianapolis with his fifth Brickyard win, but his third-place finish will help go a long way to helping Gordon record his fifth championship this season. Sunday’s run was his eighth straight top 10 and series-high 13th top-five finish of the year. Unlike his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, the loss of crew chief Steve Letarte doesn’t seem to be having an adverse affect. Now with an even larger lead in the standings (371 points), Gordon and Co. return the site of their last win, when they used clever pit strategy to out duel Newman and the rain to get win number four on the season.
Tony Stewart: If you’re one of the fans that Stewart dedicated his win to on Sunday, you have to be happy about the position your driver finds himself in. Heading into the middle of the summertime, or should it be Stewarttime, stretch of the year; Tony has scored back to back wins for the seventh time in his career and shows no signs of slowing. Currently fifth in the standings, barring any penalty for dropping the “B” word in his post-race interview, Stewart is in the thick of the Chase race with just six races remaining before Richmond. The only cause for concern is that in the past this year, Stewart hasn’t been able to get a major streak of top 10s going without faltering somewhere along the way.
Matt Kenseth: You almost get the idea that Kenseth enjoys quietly laying back, just waiting to make his move at exactly the right time; and he appears to be doing the same this season. Following a 10th-place finish at the Brickyard, Kenseth finds himself just seven points out of second place as the Chase draws near. Trips to Michigan and Sonoma last month proved to be stumbling blocks, but nothing that the team hasn’t been able to overcome with four straight top 10s. Pocono hasn’t been one of his strongest tracks, but he has plenty of cushion in the Chase race if he should break his top 10 streak this weekend.
Reed Sorenson: It’s been a pretty good three weeks for the young driver from Georgia. He rebounded from some pretty rough weeks on the Cup side to score a 12th-place finish at Chicagoland and followed it up by winning the Busch Series race at Gateway, his first in almost two years. Then came his weekend at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he scored his first career pole, becoming the youngest driver to do so in the track’s stoic history, and followed it up with an impressive fifth-place run. The team’s stock is up now, but can he maintain? The last time he finished in the top five (Charlotte), he didn’t gain any momentum at all and his best finish prior to Chicago was 23rd at Michigan.
Martin Truex Jr.: Only a blown engine at Chicago has put a serious bump in the Truex Express since winning his first Cup race at Dover eight races ago. Since that win, he has scored four top fives and just two finishes outside the top 15. That streak looked to be in jeopardy early at Indianapolis when a pit-road violation put him a lap down, but the team was able to battle back to a 12th-place finish on the lead lap. As things stand now, Truex maintains his 11th-place spot in the standings and, thanks to his teammate’s engine woes, increased the gap between himself and falling out of the Chase to 119 points.
Jimmie Johnson: While Gordon hasn’t missed a step since his crew chief was suspended following Sonoma, the same can’t be said for Johnson. He started off strong, posting top 10s in the two races immediately after Chad Knaus was sent home, but the last two races have been a different story. For the first time in almost three years, Johnson has posted back to back DNFs and has fallen from third to ninth in the standings since the race at Michigan six weeks ago. All of the blame can’t be put solely on Knaus’ absence either; before he scored top 10s at Loudon and Daytona, the team went on a four-race dry spell with Knaus at the helm. With a 253-point gap between himself and utter disaster, the Lowe’s guys have time to right their ship; but they need to do it sooner than later.
Denny Hamlin: Another case of teammate polar opposites is Hamlin and Stewart. While Stewart has been basking in the spotlight of victory lane, Hamlin has been hiding in the shadows since his win at Loudon four races ago. Everyone knows about the Daytona debacle where the pair knocked each other out and the coach had to be called in for a pep talk (butt chewing) and while Stewart has flourished after that; Hamlin has not. In the two races since, he has finished 17th and 22nd; not contending in either race. He still holds down the second place in the standings, but Gordon is drifting farther and farther ahead and Kenseth is right on his tail. Good thing for Hamlin Pocono is on deck this weekend, if the forecast calls for sunny skies; perhaps the FedEx driver can deliver JGR’s third straight win.
Brian Vickers: After a rocky start to the season, Vickers looked to have turned things around at the end of May and into the month of June. He made five straight races and scored Toyota’s first top-five finish at Charlotte. But since Michigan, the team has gone back to being hit or miss in the qualifying department and haven’t put up the impressive finishes that many expected might come after the Coca-Cola 600. In the last five races he’s failed to qualify for three and has managed a best finish of 21st, which came at Indy on Sunday while fellow Toyota driver Dave Blaney cruised to a top 10. On the bright side, the team did manage to make it into the Pocono race last month; but they came away with a 35th-place finish, which is just a prime example of their inability to get anything consistent going on a regular basis.
Dale Jarrett: Sunday during the broadcast of the Allstate 400 Jarrett got more airtime than he has in his No. 44 UPS Toyota all year long. Jarrett was forced to make his only Brickyard appearance in the broadcast booth after missing his second straight race and his fifth in the last seven races. Even with the recent shuffle in the owner standings, Jarrett and his 13 starts this year are nowhere near a spot in the Top 35, meaning that the team’s struggles will likely continue well into next season as well. Perhaps Jarrett is auditioning for a new team (ESPN) for next year that won’t be relying so heavily on his past champion’s provisionals.
Next up for the Nextel Cup Series is a return trip to the honeymooners’ paradise of Pocono. Can Stewart keep spreading the love around and make it three straight wins for the first time in his career? Or will Hamlin take three wins of his own, continuing his love affair with the track that he swept last year? Will Gordon continue his hot streak and steal another Pocono victory to complete the sweep in ’07? Or will another driver be able to woo the testy triangle and score a 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.