NASCAR’s playoffs may be full steam ahead – but that doesn’t mean the other 31 drivers stop racing each week. Whether they’re busy building momentum for 2008, out there fighting for a job, or just infused with the plain ol’ desire to win, each driver 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. For them, it’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.
That tension proved its existence at Dover, as a Kyle Petty – Denny Hamlin crash resulted in an off-track altercation, a special run by Roush Fenway Racing’s “forgotten man” nearly resulted in a win, and an old legend of the sport, Mark Martin, came up with his best finish since Daytona. So, as the series moves on to the Midwest for this weekend, which drivers are best suited to make the most noise on the Kansas prairies? 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).
In a year that has included only three top fives, a crew chief change, and sponsorship uncertainty, a season-high second-place finish at Dover is definitely something that Greg Biffle and his entire No. 16 team can get excited about. That’s now six top-20 finishes in seven races for the Biff, who showed flashes of his old self as he came charging through the field in the last laps of Sunday’s race, taking advantage of fresh rubber to come home a few car lengths behind winner and teammate Carl Edwards.
Of course, one good finish doesn’t equate to the multiple victories of the last two seasons, including 2005’s runner-up finish in points. Biffle in particular made the intermediate tracks his personal playground back then, taking home a career-high six trophies that year while coming into his own as a Cup driver. That confidence provided by past history should prove a good thing for this team, as five of the remaining eight Chase events will be held at tracks that are a mile-and-a-half in length. And if all else fails, there’s always Homestead, a track where Biffle has won the past three consecutive races. If he can continue to gel with crew chief Greg Erwin, look for Biffle to easily play the role of Chase spoiler for the remainder of the season.
When Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag in a thrilling race at Daytona this July, many thought it was just the shot in the arm his team needed to propel them into the Chase. Instead, the Missouri native followed his triumph with five straight finishes of 30th or worse to drop straight out of contention. But refusing to wallow in disappointment, the No. 26 team appears to be benefiting from Roush Fenway’s recent resurgence as of late… especially in Car of Tomorrow races. Sunday’s eighth-place finish was the eighth top 10 of the season for the Crown Royal/Irwin Ford, and it now gives him a mini-streak of two top-15 finishes.
With momentum on their side, expect McMurray and company to continue steady progress back to the “top” of the points… if only they can stay out of trouble. I don’t see this team necessarily playing spoiler, but they definitely would like to improve on their current position of 18th in points, and certainly have the resources necessary to do so.
After engine woes once again plagued the Budweiser Team at Richmond, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and company are starting to right the ship once again to salvage what they can out of 2007. After a pedestrian 16th-place finish in New Hampshire, Junior brought home a solid third at the Monster Mile, increasing his lead over Ryan Newman to 127 for the first “non-Chase” spot of 13th in points. Although Junior never ran up front Sunday, don’t be fooled; the team is still in position to be the Chase spoiler that many picked them to be. The early departure of Tony Eury Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports after Talladega shouldn’t slow this team any, either; his replacement, Tony Gibson, performed admirably earlier this year, leading the No. 8 team to four top-10 finishes in the six races that Eury was suspended. The way this team has stepped it up, a win for this Bud crew is not out of the question before the end of the year.
“Cool” can be considered an achievement for Kasey Kahne considering the way he and his team have underperformed this season. After showing signs of hope – knocking off three straight top-10 finishes at Bristol, California and Richmond – this team has cooled down some during the past two weeks. Kahne was never a factor at New Hampshire, finishing a subpar 20th, and had similar handling woes at Dover. Still, it looked like Gillett Evernham’s primary driver would at least piece together consecutive top 20s – at least until Lady Luck got in the way. An innocent victim, Kahne got swept up in a late-race accident that involved 10 cars on the frontstretch, sending him limping to the garage and a 32nd-place finish. If this team can just shed some of the bad luck that plagued them all season, it’s won’t be surprising to see the No. 9 post some solid finishes in the remaining eight races of 2007. The big question, as always, is if… and a win, while desired, appears to be a bit far fetched at this point.
After his third place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 in May, it appeared that Petty would be the 2007 “Feel Good Story of the Year.” In fact, many hoped that Petty’s first top five in a decade would give the No. 45 team the momentum it so desperately needs to piece together consistent respectable finishes. But the actual results could not have been more different, and Petty’s struggles came to a head on Sunday.
After three consecutive finishes of 25th or worse, Petty was hoping that coming to Dover – the site of his last victory, in 1995 – would give the team the solid finish it needed to remain in the Top 35 in owner points. Instead, the Wells Fargo Dodge struggled once again, eventually punted out of the way by Hamlin just past the halfway mark. The incident lead to the much-publicized heated exchange between the two drivers, as the normally calm Petty uncharacteristically got in the face of Hamlin, a sure sign of the frustrations from a long season that continues to slide downhill.
While on the subject of long seasons, Jeremy Mayfield missed his third consecutive race this past weekend. It was already announced that No. 36 Toyota Camry will have a new driver next year (most likely Jacques Villeneuve), while Mayfield has yet to find a home for 2008. In the man’s defense, he stepped into a challenging situation when signed on to drive a new car that was not in the Top 35 in owner points, as well as trying to overcome the learning curve associated with a brand new manufacturer. Still, missing races isn’t doing much to help Mayfield’s efforts in finding a new ride. And with most quality seats already filled for next season, the veteran’s time to pick something new is already running short on time.