Editor’s Note: Regular Hot/Not columnist Cami Starr is off this week. Expect her back next Tuesday at the same time, same place, to give all her latest insight as the Chase race continues to unfold.
After a wild and wacky weekend at Kansas, people are still trying to figure out who won the race, let alone what the ramifications were on top of the Chase standings. However, as the dust settles and reality sets in that Greg Biffle snagged the win – fair or unfair – the focus should switch to just how clearly the title Chase unfolded after a rain-shortened, crash-filled frenzy in the Midwest. After six drivers were within 28 points heading into the event, now just two are within 114 of new Chase leader Jimmie Johnson – superstar Jeff Gordon and surprise Clint Bowyer. Everyone else got swept up by a Kansas tornado; in fact, half the title contenders finished 35th or worse, putting their Chase hopes in serious doubt heading to Talladega and beyond.
So, who survived the Midwestern storm and who appears to be down for the count? Find out in this week’s Chase Edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Nextel Cup.
Johnson – While there was controversy over who won the race at Kansas, there was no such confusion over who was on top of the Nextel Cup standings. After starting shotgun on the field, Johnson put together a masterful performance that saw him rise from 43rd to third in the final running order. In the process, the team showed the type of resilient attitude that wins you a championship. After snagging the pole, they could have easily wilted after a Saturday practice crash forced a backup car to come out of the trailer. Instead, the team persevered, using the luck of a rain-delayed restart and a strong-handling race car to methodically pick off positions as the “second part” of the event came to a close. Looking ahead to Talladega, the prognosis continues to look good for the defending champ; keep in mind this man was one half-lap away from a season sweep in ’06 before teammate Brian Vickers sent him spinning into the grass last October.
Gordon – While the winless streak reached 15 races at Kansas, the No. 24 team has got to be pleased with what happened on Sunday. Gordon’s fifth-place finish – his third top five in the last four races – would never have happened if the race hadn’t been restarted after the rain delay. But the extra hour gave Gordon an extra chance to turn an early pit stop into a long-term recovery, and he was able to bounce back up the field through the final 50 laps of the race. Now, Gordon heads to a track at Talladega that he won at this spring; a season sweep would give him back the point lead and quiet critics who claim the regular-season points champ needs a victory boost to be a true title contender.
Bowyer – The sophomore sensation better check his bank statement, because by all accounts, he got robbed of a win this Sunday when Biffle ran out of gas before the finish line at Kansas. Still, the second-place finish left him a surprising third in the standings, just 14 out of the lead as his championship bid takes on a more serious look by the day. With the two best runs of his career in the last three races, there’s no time to take it to the next level than when it counts the most. However, Sunday will prove a huge test for Bowyer; in three career Talladega starts, he has never been able to avoid the “Big One.”
Tony Stewart – Stewart went from hero to zero in no time flat Sunday. At first, it looked like crew chief Greg Zipadelli’s strategy of keeping the No. 20 out on the track before the rains came would win them the race; Smoke found himself holding a monster lead by the time the red flag came out for rain. But once the decision was made to restart the event, even the best laid plans for the Home Depot Chevy were wiped out quicker than you could snap your fingers. A multi-car wreck on the restart damaged the car and left Zippy with a tough decision on pit road; do you or don’t you give up track position to fix a slightly damaged racecar? Zippy said no, and the move backfired; the damaged fender rubbed up on a tire, and Stewart found himself wrecked in turn 3 with a flat shortly thereafter. Now 114 points back, he can hardly afford another mulligan; otherwise, Gordon and Johnson will likely pull too far away to be effectively reeled back in.
Kevin Harvick – No matter what the final finishing order says each week, there’s no denying the No. 29 looks a little off base. But perhaps Richard Childress’s return from a hunting trip in Mongolia kickstarted his No. 1 driver – after going two months without leading a lap, Harvick paced the field for 18 en route to a sixth-place finish in the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet at Kansas. That’ll keep “Happy” in the hunt a little while longer – in fact, he now has a streak of seven consecutive top-20 finishes that goes all the way back to mid-August. The problem is, it’s top fives that are needed if you want to seriously contend for a championship, and Harvick hasn’t had one of those since mid-July. Uh-oh.
Carl Edwards – Cousin Carl saw the momentum of a win at Dover go poof! the second Stewart’s spinning car emerged in his path at Kansas. But as Edwards said after the race, it’s not like the No. 99 was setting the world on fire; for whatever reason, the car was so far off the wreck served a purpose of putting him out of his misery. Now 142 out of the top spot, seventh in points, he remains a contender but not a favorite for the title… and that’s never a bad role to play.
Matt Kenseth – You have to feel for the 2003 Cup champ. All season long, Kenseth has been struggling – despite a February win at California, he made the Chase more on his usual top-10 consistency than anything else, finishing races but not becoming a serious contender in many of them. Then, the playoffs start and the pieces fall into place; his 241 laps led are tops amongst any Chase drivers in the three races held so far. There’s just one defector from the team, an important cog who’s decided to play hooky at the worst possible time, Lady Luck. At Dover and Kansas, Kenseth had a car capable of winning, only to blow an engine or be involved in a wreck on both occasions. That has left his championship hopes DOA and momentum uncertain, heading to a type of track that Kenseth has typically had his problems with – restrictor plate racing.
Martin Truex Jr. – At first glance, finishes of fifth, 13th and 38th shouldn’t be a killer as far as the title Chase is concerned. But considering these were tracks where Truex expected top-five finishes – if not wins – based on past performance, you can understand why the team is in a bit of a rut after three playoff races. Talladega could be one final track where this team could make a statement, but if not, don’t expect much here as the next few tracks on the schedule don’t bode well for the No. 1 team.
Kurt Busch – When you start off your Chase by digging yourself a hole – not once, but twice – you have to make the most of each remaining race. That’s what Kurt was finally able to do on Sunday, although some damage sustained in an incident with Stewart above relegated him to 11th in the final rundown. That puts him 177 out of the lead with seven races to go, further cementing his status as a championship darkhorse at best. However, when you’re dealing with the 2004 Nextel Cup champ, simply labeling him a darkhorse makes him just as dangerous as many of the top contenders above him. Considering the way in which Penske Racing has run at restrictor-plate tracks as of late, making a bit of noise at Talladega isn’t out of the question.
Kyle Busch – For better or for worse, Busch’s championship hopes took a dive at the heels of his future replacement Sunday. Busch’s wreck with Junior on the backstretch caused old feelings of bitterness to rise to the surface for the youngster, but perhaps that bitterness was hiding the brutal reality of just how tough a road lies ahead. Now 136 points out of the Chase, Busch becomes a serious underdog to take the title, making it hard to maintain motivation within a “lame duck” program that now sees the distraction of Tony Eury Jr. entering the fold this month to prepare the team for ’08. If the No. 5 car manages to make even a half-hearted run at the trophy at this point, I’d be surprised.
Jeff Burton – It’s the stat that will haunt Burton all the way to 2008 – 29 races, four laps led. Simply put, the No. 31 car has been mediocre all year long, and Kansas was no different – only perhaps for the way in which the team was forced to suffer. Burton followed up a rare penalty for attempting to fix his car under red-flag conditions with a fuel-pump failure on the race track, relegating him to a 36th-place finish and sending him far beyond reach of the top spot in the standings. With just one top five in the last 13 races, it’s increasingly likely there’s no one the AT&T Chevy can call to save their title hopes at this point.
Denny Hamlin – After last week’s debacle/embarrassment with Kyle Petty, Hamlin ran in the top five early at Kansas, but struggled late and wound up spinning through the grass in a late wreck. Battered and bruised, the No. 11 came home 29th, putting him nearly 250 points behind with seven races to go. With little if any signs of momentum remaining, it’s time to put a fork in Denny; as far as the title’s concerned, he’s done.
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