Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, Kurt Busch, or one of Kurt Busch’s fans (yes – he actually does have some), then you probably found Sunday’s Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono a real snoozefest. Busch started from second position, alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., but didn’t stay there long; he made a mockery out of the race, leading 175 laps en route to his first win of the year and a spot inside the top 12 in points. Unlike recent weeks, there weren’t any potential Chasers that ran into major trouble on Sunday; the 14 main contenders all finished in the top-17 positions, making the race for the Chase more competitive than ever with just five races remaining.
So, which drivers left Pocono feeling revitalized and upbeat about the final month of the regular season ahead, and which ones were left feeling weary like the rest of us? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out.
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 put on a clinic Sunday at Pocono, leading all but 25 laps on the way to his first victory in 51 starts. His closest competition for the 12th spot came home second, but the 10 bonus points Busch earned was good enough to sneak his way into the Chase field by just seven points over Earnhardt Jr. With five races remaining, the “beer brawl” is on, with the chance at the championship at stake; it’s a battle that appears certain to go down to the wire. In Busch’s case, it seems like new crew chief Pat Tryson has sparked this team; in the six races since Tryson took the helm, Busch has finished 11th or better four times. With just five races remaining, that’s a solid streak of momentum to be on heading into Watkins Glen, a track where Busch has finished in the top 10 just once in six career starts.
Not: Jamie McMurray – For any McMurray fans that were still riding high from the win at Daytona, Sunday’s race at Pocono was definitely a mood killer, and possibly a Chase killer as well. Suffering with a loose racecar, McMurray did solo spins on lap 4 and again on lap 64 before ending his day for good on lap 181 when he was caught up in a multi-car wreck. The resulting 40th-place finish drops McMurray to 17th in the standings, 252 points out of the top 12. What was once an uphill battle to get into the Chase has suddenly transformed into a climb up Mt. Everest.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer may be the only driver currently in the top 12 in points without a win, but that shouldn’t detract from the solid performances that he has been putting together as of late. Of course, Bowyer would love to get his first Cup victory – but with four top-10 finishes in the last six races, he’s still busy solidifying his position in the Chase. Winning the big trophy at the end of the year may be a tall order, but Bowyer’s performance this year is proving that he does belong in the top tier of drivers on the circuit – despite only being a series sophomore.
Kyle Busch: It appears as though Busch’s future plans have been ironed out, but there is still the business ahead of finishing out his final season with Hendrick Motorsports. There’s little doubt that he would love to take the title of defending champion over to Joe Gibbs Racing next year – although his current teammates likely will have something to say about that. That’s not to say Busch isn’t running well, though; he has eight straight top-15 finishes, with five top 10s in that span to keep him ninth in the standings. Watkins Glen could pose a bit of a challenge for the younger Busch brother this weekend, but once the Chase field is reset after Richmond, he has as good of a chance as anyone with the way he’s been running lately.
Ricky Rudd: If you had to place a bet on the highest finishing Ford in Sunday’s field at Pocono, how many guesses would it have taken you to get to Rudd? Probably at least five – but Rudd was able to outrace the entire Roush Racing fleet, finishing 13th to mark his second top-15 finish in the last six races. While those numbers wouldn’t seem very extraordinary if we were talking about a driver in the top 20 in points, for Rudd and his struggling Robert Yates Racing team, it’s something to be proud of. In the last eight races, Rudd has had the No. 88 Ford running at the end of each one, finishing outside the top 30 just once. Again, not great, but a decent sign of improvement for this team, as well as a great PR boost coming off their merger with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing that was announced at Indy.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Since he won at Sonoma five races ago, Montoya has moved up three positions in the standings thanks to four top-20 finishes, including a runner-up performance at Indy paired with a 16th-place finish on Sunday. After a springtime letdown, Montoya’s on-track performance is once again matching the buzz surrounding the open-wheel star turned NASCAR Rookie of the Year contender. That buzz might reach a fever pitch this weekend as the series heads to the final road-course race of the year at Watkins Glen, where Montoya will look to become the third driver to sweep both road-course events since 2003.
Mark Martin: After a three-race “slump” where he failed to finish in the top 10, the series’ best part-time driver has returned to form with two straight top-10 finishes. While the talk of him making the Chase even on a limited schedule has long since dissipated, Martin is still putting in one heck of a performance this season. In 16 starts, he has nine top-10 finishes, and has completed all but two laps on the way to an amazing 10.5 average finish. It’s clear that the combination of Martin and Ryan Pemberton has paid off this year, since Martin is already saying he’ll run again with Pemberton again in 2008. It would have been interesting to see what this new dynamic duo could have done full-time this year; but why tamper with what is obviously working?
Robby Gordon: Starting with a 13th-place run at Michigan, Gordon ripped off four straight top-20 finishes, but in the three races since, things have started to take a downhill turn. A 36th-place finish at Chicagoland started off the recent bout of bad luck, and things got worse this week with a suspension from NASCAR following his actions in Saturday’s Busch Series race at Montreal. Missing Pocono dropped Robby two places in the standings to 29th, but he should be able to make that up at Watkins Glen this weekend – provided he doesn’t ignore anymore instructions from the NASCAR tower, of course.
Paul Menard: Perhaps the biggest winner in the Ginn/DEI merger, at least in the short term, was Menard. After struggling to make races and to climb his team into the crowded Top 35, he leapfrogged the competition when he took over the No. 14 car’s points, along with the guaranteed starting position that came with it. But looking at the No. 15 team’s performance as of late, they are slowly trying to give that gift back. Menard’s already dropped one spot in the owner standings since he took over the No. 14’s points, and with just one top 20 in his last five starts, it’s looking like he may drop farther back. To Menard’s credit, the lack of track time early in the year has put the team behind, but they need to step things up in the final half of the year to ensure they keep their place in the Top 35, crucial for the first five races of 2008.
Jeremy Mayfield: Granted, things aren’t hunky dory over at Evernham Motorsports, but do you wonder if Mayfield wishes he would have kept his mouth shut last year? Obviously, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, as he has found out the hard way in 2007. With 21 races in the book this year following Pocono, Mayfield and his No. 36 team have managed to make only eight – and when they do make the field, they aren’t really blowing anyone’s doors off. The No. 36 struggled to a 31st-place run at Pocono, the team’s fifth finish of 30th or worse this year. To the team’s credit, they have suffered only one DNF so far, but that’s little solace for a driver who was in the Chase just two short years ago.
JJ Yeley: His departure papers from Joe Gibbs Racing are all but signed, sealed, and delivered, leaving Yeley just 15 races left in the No. 18 Chevy; the question is, what is he going to do with them? Is he going to go back to being the driver that scored a pole at Michigan and a runner-up finish at Charlotte? Or will he be the driver who has crashed out of two of the last three races, recording no finish higher than 35th? JGR has some of the best equipment on the circuit, so if Yeley wants to pad his resume, there is no time like the present.
David Reutimann: For Reutimann, the Cup Series and the Busch Series have been like night and day. In the Busch Series, he has racked up three top fives and nine top 10s, holding down the second position in the standings. His results in the Cup Series, however, have been the polar opposite. Reutimann’s made only 15 starts out of 21 races, and has failed to finish seven of those he’s made, including this Sunday’s race at Pocono. The single bright spot for the team came at Michigan with a 15th-place run – but those performances have been few and far between for the struggling rookie.
Next up for the Nextel Cup teams is the final road course race of the season at Watkins Glen. Can Montoya complete the season sweep, or will Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart find a way to steal the crown? Will Robby Gordon learn from his Montreal mix-up and only do burnouts if NASCAR declares him the winner? Can one of the road-course ringers come in and steal the show? And will the beer battle between bubble drivers Kurt Busch and Earnhardt Jr. continue on? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup series.