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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not In the Chase: 2007 Sylvania 300 at Loudon Edition

One race down… nine races to go. After his dominating performance on Sunday, Clint Bowyer has to be asking himself what the big deal is about all this Chase pressure everyone kept talking to him about. The only winless driver in the playoffs, he threw that status right out the window Sunday, coming out of the gates strong to score the first victory of his Cup career and climbing to fourth in points in the process. But Bowyer didn’t stand alone in his success; for the majority of the Chasers, Loudon proved to be a solid starting point for their 10-race quest for the Cup. In fact, the top-seven finishing positions on Sunday went to drivers solidly within the Chase field; only three ended the day outside the top 15, leaving the 12-car lineup more tightly bunched at this juncture than ever before.

So, which drivers are still heating things up and hitting their marks as the Chase rolls on, and which ones are feeling the pressure to perform? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.

Author’s Note: This week, instead of giving you the normal Hot/Warm/Cool/Cold breakdown; we’re ranking the full field of the Chase drivers from Who’s Hot to Who’s Not as the series heads to Dover for week two of the Chase to the Championship. In other words, think of it as a one-time Power Rankings without the smart aleck comments…

Jimmie Johnson: Johnson’s win streak ended at Loudon on Sunday, but his sixth-place finish was still good enough to keep him tied for the points lead heading into Dover. With three straight top 10s and six in the last seven races, the No. 48 team is peaking at the right time of the year. That trend should continue this weekend at Dover, a track that Johnson has won at three times in his career. The Hendrick cars showed their CoT dominance again at Loudon and they should be flexing their muscle again this weekend, leaving Johnson in perfect position to capitalize.

Jeff Gordon: Hendrick’s CoT dominance also bodes well for Gordon as he looks to break the tie he has for the top spot with his teammate. After seemingly taking a few weeks off to “test” when he wrapped up his position in the Chase, Gordon has gotten back on track with two straight top-five finishes, including a distant runner-up result to Bowyer this weekend. A four-time Dover winner, Gordon’s recent history bodes well for him. He has finished in the top 10 there in the last two races, including a ninth-place finish in June of this year in the CoT.

Bowyer: Bowyer came out of the gate strong in week one of the Chase with a dominating performance at Dover, proving that things aren’t always as they seem. Up until Sunday, Bowyer had never finished higher than 24th at Loudon and came into the Chase as an underdog. But now that he’s vaulted up eight places in the standings, people are suddenly taking notice. They should be on the lookout again this weekend, as well; in his three Dover appearances, Bowyer has an average finish of 11th to go along with two straight eighth-place finishes.

Martin Truex Jr.: This week marks the series return to the track where Truex scored his first career Cup victory. After starting off the Chase strong with a fifth-place finish Sunday, Truex and Co. have to be feeling good about their chances of not being forgotten in the title hunt. With six straight top-15 finishes, including four top 10s, Truex certainly didn’t back his way into the Chase. Now, Dover could be the big weekend the team is searching for as they try to complete the series sweep and continue their climb up the standings.

Tony Stewart: Over the past nine races, it’s hard to find a driver that has been hotter than Stewart. With no finish lower than 13th in that span, Stewart currently sits third in the Chase standings after one week. But while he has been hot lately, one place where Smoke has struggled at recently is Dover. After winning there twice in 2000 and racking up 11 top 10s in his first 12 starts, he has cooled at the Monster Mile in recent years. In his last five performances, his highest finish is 15th, and Stewart was 40th here in June, mainly due to his run-in with Kurt Busch. But now that the pressure is on, look for Stewart to get back on top of his game in Delaware this weekend.

Matt Kenseth: Once again this year, consistency has been the key to Kenseth’s success. He only has one win – at Fontana in week two – but his 17 top-10 finishes have kept him in the game. After hitting a mini-slump, he has racked up three top 10s in the last five races, and things look promising to get number four this weekend at Dover. In the last three events at the track, he has three top 10s, including a win and a fifth-place finish in June. Kenseth might not make a big splash in the Chase early, but you can bet he’ll be there when it gets to crunch time.

BOWLES: WHO’S HOT/WHO’S NOT OUTSIDE THE CHASE AFTER NEW HAMPSHIRE

Carl Edwards: With his 42nd-place finish at Richmond, you might think Edwards had fallen into a slump after his win at Bristol. But think back to the fact that he was leading that race when his engine let go, and you know this team is far from falling off the pace. Edwards did drop in the standings after his 12th-place finish at New Hampshire; however, that ground could be easily made up at Dover, a track where he has finished second and third in the last two races.

Kyle Busch: Despite a few rocky finishes, the soon to be JGR driver has run fairly well over the second half of the season. He’s got just as much a shot as anyone to win this championship, and with three top 10s in the last three races, Busch is working hard to keep pace with his current teammates. After a fourth-place finish at Loudon, he moved up four positions to fifth in the standings, and now stands 35 points behind Johnson and Gordon. Dover potentially could be a stumbling block for Busch, though, who hasn’t finished higher than 17th there in the last two races.

Denny Hamlin: After being on a roll in the early parts of August, Hamlin has cooled off in the last four races; he’s scored just one top-10 finish, and that came at Richmond… not at Loudon. His 15th-place finish there was uncharacteristic for a driver who had run so well in the CoT races prior, winning the last event held at the track in July. His team scratching their heads, the No. 11 bunch could possibly run into a similar situation at Dover this weekend. All signs point to a probable strong finish Sunday, as he has an average of 8.0 at Dover; including a fourth-place finish in June. But the team needs to shake off the cobwebs in order to take that step forward.

Jeff Burton: Burton has posted back-to-back 18th-place finishes, which just won’t cut it if he wants to make a serious push towards his first Cup championship. No question about it, the No. 31 team is in a serious rut; they hasn’t posted back to back top 10s since mid-July, and now that he’s already 91 points behind the leaders in the Chase, Burton will have to step up his efforts soon before a comeback is out of reach. Dover has the possibility of being a track to springboard his efforts, though. Not only is Burton the defending winner of the race, but he was a respectable 12th here back in June. That’s exactly the kind of finish he needs to improve upon.

Kevin Harvick: Following a strong top-10 run at Richmond that solidified his position in the Chase, Harvick went back to the mediocre finishes that had him sweating things out for the final position in the top 12. His 17th-place finish in New Hampshire was good enough to bump him up one place in the standings; but that was more a product of a poor finish by another Chaser… not from Harvick running well. Now 88 points behind, another hill to climb is forming in front of the No. 29 team, and the concrete monster at Dover is looming large ahead of them. With an average finish of 17.8 and finishes of 32nd and 20th in the last two races there, it could be a long 10 weeks for this team.

Kurt Busch: Busch entered the Chase as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, but he was the first driver in the top 12 to find trouble when his Miller Lite Dodge suffered carburetor problems at Loudon. You have to give the No. 2 team credit, though; they worked on the car all day long and were in position to steal a decent finish had a late caution flag come their way at Loudon. But as things stand, Busch dropped seven places to last in the Chase, falling 102 points behind the leaders. The team came back from quite aways back to make the Chase in the first place, but do they have it in them to pull the comeback off a second time? Dover will surely test their resolve given Busch’s 20th-place average finish there, the lowest among the Chase contenders. With the memory of the Stewart run-in still fresh in everyone’s minds from June, the Miller Lite Dodge better be on its best behavior come Sunday.

So, will one of the rookie Chasers be able to steal the show again this weekend? Can Bowyer or Truex pull off their own versions of an encore? And will the tie between Gordon and Johnson finally be broken? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out the answer to these mysteries, getting an update on Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to the Championship.

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