This weekend’s race featured a spin to win, two drivers putting in their NASCAR best effort to pull each other’s hair out after a wreck, and a crazed fan making his way onto the track during a red flag… just to ask for an autograph. Makes it sound like an August Cup race at Bristol, doesn’t it? But instead, this was what transpired from what began as a tranquil Sunday afternoon in western New York. Shocked? So were many of the fans who watched this year’s edition of the Centurion Boats at the Glen. But they weren’t the only ones happy to see a surprising series of twists and turns that matched the road course’s 2.45-mile layout. Perhaps the biggest smile on the day came from stunned race winner Tony Stewart, who inherited the top spot as NASCAR’s winningest road racer, Jeff Gordon, spun in turn 1 with just two laps to go, relinquishing the lead and 10 bonus points to his longtime rival in the process.
While the wild ending to the race was like Christmas in August for the fans, the Glen offered up presents for plenty of other drivers in the field. But like anytime gifts are handed out, some turned out good as can be and some were, well, equivalent to lumps of coal. On the receiving end of a good present were drivers like Ron Fellows and Robby Gordon, who scored top-five finishes, while Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Juan Pablo Montoya all wound up wanting to send theirs back C.O.D.
So, which other drivers got the equivalent of a new bike on Christmas morning, and which ones were left staring at a box full of socks? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out all the details below:
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 – Stewart: With three wins in the past four races, Stewart has come to life this summer as many had anticipated. In the seven races since the last road-course race at Sonoma, an early wreck at Daytona with teammate Denny Hamlin has been the source of Tony’s only major downfall. Since that race, he has moved up two positions for fourth in the standings, but more importantly, as Jeff Gordon pointed out Sunday, Stewart has racked up 30 bonus points for the Chase, putting him just 10 points behind Gordon and Jimmie Johnson if the playoffs began today. In the four races that remain before the Chase field is set, Richmond is Stewart’s best bet to grab that fourth win; but frankly, you can’t count him out anywhere at this point given the roll this team is on.
Not – Earnhardt Jr.: If last week’s second place finish at Pocono that dropped him out of the top 12 was a disappointment, Sunday’s 42nd-place finish at Watkins Glen had to be a dagger in the heart for the No. 8 team and their fans. That’s not to say that all hope is lost for Junior in his final year at DEI, but listening to Tony Eury Jr. on Sunday, you have to wonder if they have the fight left in them to take on the uphill battle they are facing. What now lies ahead is a 100-point deficit from Junior to Kurt Busch in 12th place, with just four races remaining to make up the lost ground. On the plus side, if Junior can lose 93 points in one week, it is possible to gain them right back should Busch and Ryan Newman (13th) find a similar fate; also, keep in mind Junior has a better average finish on the four remaining tracks than his other two competitors. But unless his team can believe in themselves and trust that they can get the job done, stats won’t matter a bit.
Hamlin: After a three race mini-slump, Hamlin and the No. 11 team have turned things around with back-to-back finishes in the top three. In the last seven races, Hamlin has scored a win at New Hampshire and four top-10 finishes, helping to keep him safely in second position in the standings. He’s nearly a sure bet to make the Chase and one of the most consistent drivers on tour as of late, but the one thing he lacks are the bonus points that his main competitors for the title have. With just the one win so far, he has only 10 extra points heading into the Chase while Gordon, Stewart and Johnson have at least 20 more apiece than he does. And while Hamlin lacks the experience of those around him in points, he does hold the best average finish (9.8) of any driver in Chase contention at the four tracks remaining in the regular season.
Jeff Gordon: How much more can really be said about Gordon’s season so far in 2007? With four wins, five poles, 14 top fives, and 20 top 10s in 22 starts (each of those stats has Gordon at least tied for the lead in its category for the year), there is no doubt why he holds a 951-point lead over 13th place, becoming the first driver to clinch a playoff spot this weekend as a result. And in case you doubt Gordon’s drive to win his fifth title this year, all you have to do is listen to his post-race comments to get an idea just how badly he wants it. He wasn’t as upset about losing out on a win or another trophy after spinning out at Watkins Glen, but the loss of the bonus points seemed to really stick in his craw. With a total of 12 career wins at the next four tracks, though there is a good chance Gordon will get those 10 points he covets; unfortunately, he’ll still be thinking of those 10 that got away in turn one on Sunday for a long time to come.
Johnson: Like Hamlin, Johnson has gotten his feet back underneath him in the last two races, posting top five finishes at both Pocono and Watkins Glen. While back-to-back DNFs cost him five positions in the standings, he has rebounded to seventh place, holding a tentatively comfortable 260-point cushion over 13th with four races remaining. The biggest difference in Johnson’s performance in the last six races is how much he’s run up front; he has led in just two events for a total of 96 laps since the end of June, when Chad Knaus began serving a suspension for a pre-race inspection violation. Compare that to the first six races of the year, where Johnson had three wins and 368 laps led, and it’s clear his performance is hot right now… but has the potential to get even better. With Knaus returning to the pits at Michigan, we’ll find out if he can once again take this team to the next level.
Carl Edwards: In an attempt to score his second win of the season, Edwards made a banzai move at the end of Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen to try and pass Stewart… one that didn’t work. However, the resulting slide through the sand trap that ensued led to some masterful driving, as a perfect slide job kept Edwards out of the wall… and still in contention for a top-10 finish. Eventually finishing eighth, Edwards kept up the momentum that has seen him rise up to fifth in the standings. This week, the series returns to Michigan, the site of Edwards’ win seven races ago and where his current hot streak began. Since then, he has scored three top-10 finishes and hasn’t finished lower than 21st. Consistency continues to be a strong point for the No. 99 team; but if Edwards wants to really make an impact in the Chase, he’ll need to crank things up a notch in the races ahead.
Casey Mears: Thanks to Mark Martin taking another weekend off, Mears jumped up three positions in the standings following his 15th-place finish at Watkins Glen. He had recently cooled off after his big win at Charlotte, but in the last three weeks, he has scored a pole (Chicago) and two top 10s to go with his finish on Sunday and get him climbing up the charts once again. While a Chase bid is highly unlikely, Mears has clearly made a marked improvement in the second half of the season after getting off to a rough start in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports. In the first 11 races of the year, he had just one top 10 to his credit; but in the second 11, he has a win and five top-10 finishes to build momentum for 2008.
Greg Biffle: Like Mears, it would take a near miracle for Biffle to rebound and make the Chase this season; but at least the roller coaster the team had been on has tempered a bit. Earlier in the year, Biffle would finish good one week and come crashing down the results sheet the next. But in the last seven races, Biffle has finished outside the top 30 just once while placing inside the top 15 on five occasions, including a 10th on Sunday. However, moral victories aren’t what this team is looking for; it’s a bid for the Chase. But sitting 212 points out of 12th with four races to go, that seems to be an unrealistic goal. Biffle was supposed to come back and be a title contender again like he was in 2005, but that is far from the case this season. If there’s any silver lining, though, at least the progress the No. 16 team is showing should give Biffle hope that he won’t be staring at his first winless season since he started full-time in Cup back in 2003.
David Stremme: Stremme’s name has been heating up the rumor mill more than his No. 40 Dodge has been heating it up on the track as of late. After capturing his first two career top 10s early in the season, Stremme’s performance can be described as cool at best in the last seven races. Engine failure knocked him out of the race at Chicago, his first DNF since Darlington; but the results haven’t been stellar even when he has made it to the end of the race. A spat of wrecks and mechanical failures have left his 21st-place performance at The Glen the No. 40’s best finish since he was 17th at Charlotte back at the end of May. To many, those wouldn’t be performances that would have left the phone ringing off the hook, and to no surprise, DEI has denied Stremme is even on their radar screen as a possible fourth driver for their team.
Dave Blaney: After being bested by road course ace Boris Said at Watkins Glen, Blaney lost the distinction of being the only Toyota driver to hold a coveted spot in the Top 35 in owner points. While the loss of an automatic spot on the grid hurts, it’s not the end of the world for the No. 22 team and Blaney, though. Clearly this team has been the class of the Toyota field this year, starting 20 of 22 races while scoring the manufacturer’s only pole and a ninth-place finish at the Brickyard last month. But as good as things have been, they could be better. Blaney has run well in several races, only to have engine problems or crashes keep him from showing that on the final results sheet. The team scored an 18th-place finish at Michigan seven races ago, but has cooled off since then, with just one top-20 finish other than Indy.
Kyle Petty: Since returning to the driver’s seat after his stint in the television booth this summer, Petty hasn’t been able to catch a break; at least, not the kind that he would like. In his return at Indy, he finished 19 laps down, and the following week at Pocono, he was two laps down to the leaders at the end of the race before finishing 34th. Things went from bad to worse this weekend at Watkins Glen, when his transmission went out on lap 1. After making repairs, Petty came back into the field and made contact with Dale Jarrett to exit the race for good with radiator problems. His 43rd-place finish wasn’t the only thing that hurt him this weekend, either. Apparently, a year of frustration is getting to the veteran – his son Austin revealed on a national radio show that Kyle broke his hand when there was “an incident between his fist and the wall” in Petty’s hauler.
Jamie McMurray: If you look up momentum in the NASCAR dictionary, don’t be surprised if you see a picture of McMurray next to the entry for antonyms. Since winning at Daytona, McMurray has had anything but positive momentum. In the four races since, he has one DNF and has finished lower than 33rd each time out. After the win, McMurray had an outside shot at the Chase at best. Now back to 17th in the standings and 316 points behind the cutoff, the odds of that happening are slim to none. Hopefully, McMurray has a tape of the celebration of Victory Lane from Daytona, because otherwise that excitement has to be a distant memory by now.
This weekend, the Nextel Cup Series makes its final trip to the Irish Hills of Michigan for 2007. Can Stewart’s luck continue and earn him yet another 10 bonus points? Will Harvick and Montoya park their cars on the backstretch and resume their “discussion” from last week? Can the return of Chad Knaus put Johnson back in Victory Lane? Or will Michael Waltrip back up his top-10 finish here last time and shock the world to score Toyota’s first win in the Cup Series? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup Series.