NASCAR’s playoffs may be full steam ahead – but that doesn’t mean the other 31 drivers stop racing each week. Whether they’re building momentum for 2008, out there fighting for a job, or just infused with the plain ol’ desire to win, each one has something to strive for as the races wind down. It’s a chance to make up for lost time, stealing the spotlight from this year’s title contenders while looking for a little late-season hardware of their own. These drivers know there’s pressure of a different kind; after missing the playoffs, their futures could depend on proving to fans, the media and their current team they’ve still got what it takes to compete at the sport’s top level.
So, which one of the non-Chasers is in the best position to spoil the championship party at Dover? Read on to find out who in this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not, outside the Chase. One note before we begin, unlike our regular edition, we only highlight six drivers in this edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not, which means to make the list, you need to really be on fire (or ice cold, for that matter).
It’s now a little over two weeks since JJ Yeley‘s future was settled for 2008; he’ll be leaving the comfy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing for their satellite operation, Hall of Fame Racing, right down the road. It’s an easy transition for the Arizona native, and it’s showed; since that announcement went public, what was the most high-profile free agent left on the market appears to be both refreshed and relaxed behind the wheel. Sunday’s 10th-place finish for Yeley gave him back-to-back top 10s for the first time in his two-year Cup career, moving him back up to 19th in points and in position to climb even higher over the rest of the season.
“We want to win a race before the year is out, that’s the main goal,” said Yeley about his focus for the rest of 2007. “But at the same time, if we continue to finish in the top 10 we’ll peck away at the guys in front of us in points, and it would be cool to get back into the top 15 before the year is out.”
I don’t know about a win, but a top-15 finish in points is certainly within the realm of possibility here.
Ryan Newman has had his share of problems this year, but New Hampshire clearly wasn’t one of them. Running within striking distance of the leaders all day long, Newman came home ninth to score his 11th top-10 finish of the season – that’s one more than teammate and Chase for the Championship competitor Kurt Busch. If it wasn’t for some nasty luck earlier this year, Newman would be right alongside the No. 2 car in the championship; however, four DNFs were the culprit in a year that has seen the team make great strides back towards respectability.
Looking ahead to Dover, though, it’s a great chance for Newman to turn the momentum into a long-sought victory. He won the pole here in June and went on to finish second; taking the checkered flag this time around would end a winless drought that’s lasted since September, 2005 at Loudon. With the way the team has been running lately, don’t count him out.
Greg Biffle has now gone two straight seasons without making the Chase – that’s not what you’d have expected from the 2005 championship runner-up. But New Hampshire wasn’t all that bad a race for the No. 16 car; a 13th-place finish there continued a streak of five top 20s in the last six races for Biffle and his team. Considering how far behind Roush Fenway has been in Car of Tomorrow development, a top 15 is a solid achievement for the program. Just don’t try and convince Biffle the vehicle’s the right one to use for the sport; one of its most outspoken critics, he spoke up again after Sunday’s event, claiming passing was near impossible in a race that resembled a single-file parade. Still, his disgust hasn’t stopped a gradual uptick for the program, so expect a similar type of solid performance to head Biffle’s way this Sunday.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Bobby Labonte was moving and shaking his way up the ladder in the Nextel Cup standings. With new crew chief Doug Randolph on board, two consecutive top-10 finishes at Michigan and Bristol left him surging back towards the top 15 in points, and fans were left thinking new chemistry was all the No. 43 team needed to head back towards the top of the final results sheet.
Well, the “honeymoon phase” for driver and crew chief has since worn off. In the last three races, Labonte’s fortunes have slowly taken a turn for the worse: 11th at California, followed by a 16th at Richmond and a 22nd last Sunday in New Hampshire. In the background looms talk of a possible merger and/or alliance with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, a distraction that threatens to cost the team as they head towards the end of 2007. Dover is a crucial place for this team to turn it around; otherwise, all that summer momentum they built will officially crumble as the season changes to fall.
As the battle for the 35th and final spot in owner points has heated up, it’s the No. 22 driven by Dave Blaney that has cooled right off. The two teams in front of them haven’t exactly been running well, but Blaney’s Toyota has been downright dreadful, with four consecutive finishes outside the top 30 keeping them from a “locked-in” spot each weekend. This time around at New Hampshire, it was the rookie Regan Smith that gave Blaney the most damage, spinning him into the wall in turn 2. That was one of two spins for the Caterpillar Camry on the day – a far cry from the success the team had in June, when Blaney brought Toyota its first career pole.
Speaking of Toyota teams that are struggling, it’s hard to even gauge your temperature when you can’t even make it into the race each weekend. But that’s exactly what’s happening with Dale Jarrett. While Jarrett continues to maintain he’ll return to the Michael Waltrip Racing operation he’s driving for next season, that’s increasingly hard to believe as the DNQ list for the 1999 Nextel Cup champ keeps piling up. Friday’s qualifying was the third time in the last five races the No. 44 UPS-sponsored car was too slow to make the field, with Jarrett spending the rest of the weekend in the comfy confines of the ESPN Broadcasting studio. While rumors persist he’ll be headed there permanently sooner rather than later, it’s notable that Jarrett’s on-track DNQ list rose to 10 for the season; in comparison, even Darrell Waltrip never missed more than seven races in his final years on tour. So, it’s obvious there’s some serious bugs to figure out at MWR, and sponsor UPS simply can’t be happy with the overall performance.
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