For some, the racing at Bristol Saturday night was the best it has been in years. For others, it was a Bristol race in name only, with no fireworks and little excitement. But no matter which side of the fence you are on, there were plenty of winners and losers coming out of the annual madhouse that is Thunder Valley in late summer. Carl Edwards added another 10 bonus points to his Chase count, and should get extra points for sticking the backflip on Bristol’s high banks after his second win of the season. On the flip side, Denny Hamlin‘s fried engine left him with just his second career DNF. In between, what could have been a big night for a points shakeup amongst the Chasers instead never materialized, with no driver falling out of, or moving into, the playoffs.
So, what drivers exited the Bristol bullring feeling like they had fought off the beast, and which ones felt like they got a horn square in the backside? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out.
HOT – Tony Stewart With three wins and four top-10 finishes in the last six races, Stewart is making his presence known as the laps wind down in the final weeks before the Chase. Currently second in points, Stewart would be just 10 behind Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson if the playoffs started today; and with plenty more momentum to boot. Fontana hasn’t been the best of tracks for Stewart in the past, but look for him to try and equal the Hendrick duo with 40 bonus points at Richmond next week; it’s a track he has won on three times in his nine-year career.
NOT – Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale Jr. is quickly becoming a long shot to make the Chase this year, although not for lack of trying. A fifth-place finish at Bristol was canceled out by Kurt Busch crossing the line right behind him, leaving the No. 8 car 158 out of 12th and Junior Nation (and NASCAR) sitting on the edge of their seats. A blown engine at Watkins Glen could ultimately prove to be his undoing, but with five DNFs this year, Junior hasn’t had what you would characterize as a championship season.
Getting an honorable mention here is Clint Bowyer. Given the cushion back to 13th-place Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer’s spot in the Chase is fairly secure, but with no wins and no Chase experience, what kind of Chase will he have? If the team could manage to score a win in the next two races, it would give them a huge boost of confidence heading into their first run for the title.
Bobby Labonte – For the first time since October 2006, Labonte has scored back-to-back top-10 finishes, including a strong drive from 22nd to eighth this weekend at Bristol. That run vaulted him to 17th in the standings, giving him a shot at a top-15 position in points at season’s end. With only one DNF in ’07, when he ran out of gas at Watkins Glen, the No. 43 team has been far more consistent, and it shouldn’t take anyone by surprise if this team finds a way to steal a win sometime before the year is out.
Edwards – With his second win of the season at Bristol, Edwards helped to separate himself from the other one-race winners that will be in the Chase this year. Now with three straight top-10 finishes – and five in the last seven races – Edwards is building up plenty of momentum as the regular season comes to a close. Ford fans, take notice, there is now more than one horse to pin your hopes on for the title. Look for the good vibrations to continue this weekend as the series heads to Fontana, a track where Edwards has finished outside the top 10 just once in six career starts.
Kurt Busch – After this team hit an early summer skid, who would have guessed that Busch just might be the hottest driver heading into the Chase this year? Between Darlington and Loudon, Busch was on a seven-race streak without a top-10 finish. But in the last seven races, Busch and the No. 2 team have scored a complete turnaround, snagging two wins while finishing no lower than 11th. What’s the biggest reason behind their success? Many point to the addition of crew chief Pat Tryson, Busch’s third head wrench this season, who led Mark Martin into the Chase three times at Roush Fenway Racing. With both men veterans of the three-year Chase format, expect the Busch/Tryson duo to be a force to be reckoned with as we continue on into the playoffs.
Kyle Busch – While big brother Kurt is stealing the headlines, Kyle is quietly keeping himself in position to make a run for the title in his final year with Hendrick Motorsports. Now that his plans for the future are all mapped out, Busch can focus solely on beating out his current and future teammates for the championship. To date, he’s kept his concentration; winless since Bristol in April, Shrub has still maintained his eighth-place position with 11 straight top-20 finishes and seven top 10s in that span. Busch has quieted his comments towards his Hendrick teammates, but as you know, when push comes to shove, he’ll be gunning for them down the stretch.
Martin Truex Jr. – Following his maiden trip to Victory Lane at Dover, Truex went on a hot streak, scoring top-five finishes in three of the next four races. But shortly after that, the only DEI driver currently in the Chase hit a rough patch, only recently bouncing back with three straight finishes of 11th or better. Now embroiled in a tight race with Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick at the bottom of the top 12, Truex needs to key into the momentum the team built following Dover; because looking at his past performances at Fontana and Richmond (an average finish of 30.7) he has a fight on his hands not to enter the Chase in a slump.
Ryan Newman – Like Earnhardt Jr., the phrase “too little, too late” comes to mind when thinking of Newman’s recent success. He scored a top-10 finish at Bristol this past weekend and has three in the last six events, but an early exit from Indy combined with mediocre finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan gave him a snowball’s chance in Arizona of making the Chase this year. Currently 175 points behind his teammate in 12th, it appears the big goal for this team the rest of the year should now be trying to break their 69-race winless streak.
Gordon – Gordon’s spot in the Chase has long been a given, but what kind of condition will this team be in once the green flag falls at Loudon? The last three weeks have been “un-Gordonlike” for the No. 24 team. First came the last-lap spin at Watkins Glen that cost them 10 bonus points in the Chase; then, the following week at Michigan, Gordon found himself stuck in the mud with a 27th-place finish, his worst since his only DNF of the year in the Coca-Cola 600. Saturday night at Bristol, the team had an uncharacteristic 19th-place result after falling back in the pack when the car didn’t respond well to changes. Granted, this team is in a position to take some chances – but going into the Chase on a downturn isn’t what this team needs if they want to get Gordon championship No. 5.
Harvick – Harvick better be thanking his lucky stars that the No. 8 car has struggled lately, and the gap back to 13th place is 158 points; otherwise, this team would be in jeopardy of missing the Chase after being in the top 12 all but one week this season. At one point in Saturday’s race, Harvick was actually shown as low as in 12th place in the standings; but his 16th-place run was just good enough to keep him in 10th. With the seeding and two wins under his belt, being 10th or 12th after Richmond is of little consequence; but riding a streak of four races without a top 10 should concern this team.
Jamie McMurray – When I did the Race to the Chase edition of this column at the end of July, I had McMurray, 111 points out of 12th at the time, listed as a long shot. Little did I know I that the word I was really looking for was “tanked,” simply because that is exactly what McMurray has done in the last six races. Now 19th in the standings and falling fast, he is 508 points behind Kurt Busch. So what went wrong? Perhaps a little too much post-race celebrating at Daytona? Who knows, but things have gone wrong in a hurry. In the last six races, McMurray’s best finish is 26th (Bristol) and he’s failed to finish on the lead lap in any of them. After so much hope and excitement following their win at Daytona, it looks like it’s back to the drawing board for the No. 26 team.
Elliott Sadler – While his teammate Kasey Kahne was giving Gillette Evernham Motorsports their best run of the season at Bristol this weekend, Sadler was towards the back of the pack doing the same thing he’s done all year, struggle. The team had one bright spot at Michigan when they qualified fifth, but that good feeling didn’t last too long when Sadler dropped like a rock during the race and finished 32nd. His 29th-place finish at Bristol on Saturday was his eighth straight outside the top 20, dropping him to 25th in points. New nose, old nose, or Car of Tomorrow this team can’t hit upon anything that works… hey, at least he doesn’t have a DNF this year.
Next up for the Nextel Cup Series is the new Labor Day “tradition” of running at California Speedway. Can Gordon find another way to give away 10 bonus points? Will Earnhardt Jr. finally get his first win of the season, only to find it does him no good in his bid for a Chase spot? Can Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya manage not to find each other on the track for once? Will anyone show up to find out? We’ll just have to wait and see what Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup Series next Tuesday.