Three things easily sum up this weekend’s race at California Speedway: hot, hot and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Countless Earnhardt fans were on the edge of their seats just waiting to see if one of the drivers at the bottom of the top 12 would slip up, giving their man a chance at making the Chase and the rest of us were forced to go along for the ride as the entire race seemed to be a case of “Where in the World is Dale Jr. Now?” At the end of the night, Earnhardt finished a solid fifth, but still is a long shot to make it into the postseason Chase. But as the summer sun baked the drivers, crew members and the scarce number of fans in the stands; Jimmie Johnson came out on top to score his fifth win of the season and looking like he barely broke a sweat. So what other drivers thrived in the sweltering heat and which ones shriveled up under the pressure? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out.
HOT – Johnson: Since his early exit at Indianapolis, Johnson has made a huge turnaround in the last five races. Other than a 21st-place finish at Bristol, Johnson has been in the top five, and his win at California was big in more ways than one. Certainly the boost from winning in front of the home state crowd is big, but ending his near four-month winless drought was even bigger, and an extra 10 bonus points is huge. By earning his fifth win of the year, he’ll enter the Chase in two weeks no lower than tied for first. Unlike other seasons when he’s limped into the Chase, Johnson and Co. look to be heading into the Chase on a tear.
NOT – Kevin Harvick: There is one bright spot for Harvick this weekend, he’ll be sure to get plenty of camera time at Richmond. But the reason for attention he could do without. After going five weeks without a top-10 finish, Harvick now has the unenviable position of being 12th in the standings and being the driver thousands of members of Junior Nation want to see make an early exit Saturday night. The scenarios that have Harvick not making the Chase are pretty far fetched, but the thing the No. 29 should be worried about is what kind of competition are they going to be once they get in? The mediocre finishes they have been posting over the last month just aren’t going to cut it once things get serious down the stretch.
Martin Truex Jr.: As each lap passes, it seems like the unlikely will happen. Truex will be the driver representing DEI in the 2007 Chase for the Championship. Any detractors can’t say he hasn’t earned it. He’s driven smart races; his only two DNFs are engine failures, and he’s rode the wave of momentum since his first career win at Dover. In the last four races, as the pressure to make the Chase has mounted; Truex has finished no lower than 11th place and only needs to start his engine Saturday night to be in the top 12 at the end of race. Whether or not a title is in his near future remains to be seen, but he’s certainly showing he is worthy of being DEI’s flagship driver.
Tony Stewart: You know things are going your way when you have an “off night” and still manage to finish 13th; that’s exactly what happened to Stewart Sunday night. After struggling with the handling on his Home Depot Chevy most of the night, the No. 20 crew took the time to make a huge adjustment late in the race and it paid off. In the last six races, Stewart has moved up to second in the standings off the strength of two wins and no finish lower than 13th. Looking back on last year when he got hot in the final 10 races of the season; the competition should be wary of Stewart as he tries to get his last championship in a Chevy.
Brian Vickers: This one might be a bit of a stretch, but follow along for a minute. In the last two races he’s run, Vickers has scored back-to-back top 10s, a first for any Toyota driver. The reason that doesn’t qualify him for being hot, he missed the race at Bristol in between. What is killing Vickers this year, and is likely to plague him for at least part of next year, is missing races. In the 15 races he’s qualified for this year, he has four top-10 finishes; which is more than some drivers who have gotten into all 25 races this year can say. If they can get the qualifying issue resolved and with the boost Toyota should get from Joe Gibbs Racing next year, keep an eye on Vickers in 2008.
Casey Mears: After getting off to a rough start in his first year at Hendrick Motorsports, it appears that things are starting to gel for Mears. In the last five races, he has moved up three positions in the standings and his 22nd-place finish at Bristol is his only run outside the top 15 in that span. While keeping team chemistry is important, Mears got a bit of good news Tuesday when it was announced that he will move to the No. 5 and be teamed with Alan Gustafson next year, the crew chief that has led Kyle Busch to a spot in the Chase this year. And looking at Mears’s progress this season, he just might be ready to make that next step in 2008.
Kasey Kahne: For all the times I’ve dogged Kahne this year for his less than stellar performance, I figured it was time to give him his due now that he has turned things around, at least for now. Kahne looked poised to grab his first win of the year at Bristol, but in the end it just wasn’t meant to be. But the strong performance at Bristol carried over to Fontana Sunday night where Kahne rallied for a top-10 finish; the first time all season he has finished back to back races in the top 10. Whether or not we’re seeing the Kahne of old remains to be seen, but for the Gillett Evernham team and at least a certain three fans; the change is a welcomed sight.
David Ragan: At Bristol, Ragan drew some criticism for the number of times he spun out before finally finishing 41st, but he had people singing at different tune at Fontana. For the second time in three races, Ragan scored Rookie of the Year honors with his 12th-place finish. While he’s not a threat to continue to winning rookie tradition, you have to give the kid credit for getting better as the season has progressed. In the last six races, he has scored three top-20 finishes. With his other finishes being 32nd or worse, things aren’t totally rosy, but he’s moving in the right direction.
Jeremy Mayfield: This is another pick where you have to follow my logic a bit for it to make sense. Not much was expected from the No. 36 team this year, and sadly they have lived up to expectations. But they have managed to score some moral victories in the last six races. Since missing the big show at the Brickyard, Mayfield has managed to put the No. 36 Camry into the show in four of the last five races. Given the fact that he’s made just 11 races all season, that is quite a feat – well enough to move him out of the deep freeze, for now.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Now that the series is starting to hit tracks for a second time, many expected Montoya’s performances to get better. His second-place finish at Indy showed he can run well on ovals, but he hasn’t parlayed that good finish into any serious momentum in the five races since. His best finish since the Brickyard was a 16th the following week at Pocono, but with three finishes of 26th or worse Montoya’s roller coaster of a season continues on.
Ricky Rudd: Sunday’s race at Fontana probably didn’t register on the top 100 ways that Rudd wanted to see his 900th career start end. While running in 16th place, Rudd got caught up in a wreck started by Jeff Gordon and Mayfield; and unfortunately he took the brunt of it. After suffering a shoulder injury, a run at his home-state track this weekend is off the radar. Not that Rudd would want to get hurt, but getting away from the struggling team might not be an awful thing. In the last four races, the No. 88 has finished 33rd or worse and has failed to finish three of them.
Ryan Newman: Not that he had much of a shot anyway, but it’s now official. With his third engine failure of the year, Newman saw his slim Chase hopes dashed at Fontana Saturday night. Now that the pesky Chase is out of the way, Newman can concentrate on getting back to the business at hand of breaking his winless streak which now sits at 70 races. In recent weeks, the No. 12 team hasn’t been running that poorly; but it’s inconsistencies and DNFs like he suffered at Fontana that has been their downfall.
Up next is the “drama” of the final race of the regular season at Richmond. Will Gordon score a win to take over the top spot once the field is reset? Can Clint Bowyer and Truex start their engines to clinch their spot in the field? Can drivers like Bobby Labonte and Kahne keep their hot streaks alive? Will any of us get to see it on TV as long as there is even the slimmest of chances Earnhardt Jr. can still make it into the Chase? We’ll just have to wait and see what happens and Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup Series.