With the spotlight on the top-12 drivers in the standings, it’s sometimes easy to forget that 31 others take to the track each weekend in pursuit of a long-sought after victory… but that’s what the purpose of this column is for. With another Chase race under our belts, it’s time to take a look at how some of the non-Chasers performed in Talladega this Sunday. The first Car of Tomorrow race at the superspeedway produced its share of opportunities for drivers looking to make a name for themselves; in the first three-quarters of the event, championship contenders steered themselves out of harm’s way, leaving their non-Chase brethren busy setting the pace up front. As the laps wound down, that pace picked up… but that doesn’t mean every man from the lead pack was forced to relinquish their spot to a driver fighting for a title. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Who’s Hot, and Who’s Not, Non-Chase style following the UAW-Ford 500…
Hot/Not Update: Kansas Edition
Rick Hendrick’s teams have always found a way to get streaky during the title hunt, but don’t forget about his non-Chase team this year. Casey Mears brought home his fourth straight top-10 finish on Sunday, ensuring that it’s only a matter of time before he appears on this “hot” list again. His counterpart from last week, JJ Yeley, didn’t fare too badly, either, finishing the race in 18th place to keep his fire simmering bright. Reed Sorenson, last week’s “Warm” driver, turned up the heat a bit with a strong run of 10th in Alabama, while his teammate David Stremme remained steady at “Cool” with his second straight 17th-place finish. Finally, Ken Schrader‘s blown tire ensured that he won’t come off the “Cold” list anytime soon with the No. 21 car, while Ryan Newman nearly won in his attempt to melt the ice before the door on this season gets slammed shut for good.
At first glance, it hardly seems like Elliott Sadler is on anything that resembles a hot streak; in fact, he has yet to score a top five this year. But a closer look reveals this team is in position to make some noise as 2007 comes to a close. Sadler’s eighth-place finish at Kansas two weeks ago was easily his best since the Daytona 500 in February. He followed that up with an impressive run at Talladega this Sunday; Sadler ran with the leaders most of the day and at times looked like the car to beat, running first on three separate occasions for 25 laps. A late accident caused by Michael Waltrip‘s flat tire relegated the No. 19 to a disappointing 24th-place finish; however, that’s nowhere near an indication of what this team was capable of.
Sadler’s miserable season to date cannot fall squarely on his shoulders, as Gillett Evernham Motorsports has struggled as an organization. However, the Virginian serves an important role in getting the team back to the top of the charts; Kasey Kahne may be the team’s No. 1 driver, but Sadler is the veteran everyone looks to for guidance during these tumultuous times. Look to see that leadership begin to pay off with better consistency – and results – the remainder of the season now that GEM is showing signs of improvement all around.
Speaking of topping the charts, Dave Blaney turned some heads on Sunday afternoon with a third-place finish, tying his career best in the Cup Series. If there had been a “freezing” category in Hot/Not each week, Blaney would’ve been in it just a few short weeks ago after missing the field at Dover. However, at Kansas this team recovered from a last-place starting position to finish a solid 15th, turning things back in the right direction and keeping the No. 22 in the battle for the Top 35 in owner points. Then, at Talladega, Blaney raised eyebrows when he put his Caterpillar Camry on the outside of the front row. Leading the first lap, Blaney fell back in the lead pack after that, but remained in contention all race long. As the laps wound down, the No. 22 found itself in position to win, and Blaney took the right line at the right time with the Caterpillar Toyota – falling just short to Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
While Blaney’s team hasn’t always been the center of attention, they have been Toyota’s most stable team in 2007. Bill Davis’s flagship organization has made more races than any of their Camry counterparts, along with the distinction of winning the manufacturer’s first pole at New Hampshire. If crew chief Tommy Baldwin can keep the wick turned up in the final six races, this team represents the best chance for a Toyota not associated with Joe Gibbs Racing to start out 2008 with a locked-in qualifying position.
One of those teams associated with JGR, of course, is the No. 96 car with driver Tony Raines, a satellite operation owned by Hall of Fame Racing. Sunday, Raines brought home a season-best ninth-place finish with the car, pulling through despite being involved in the final wreck of the day just 11 laps from the finish. The run marks the first two-week span since Texas and Phoenix in April that this team has brought home consecutive top-20 results following their 18th place last week in Kansas.
Unfortunately, Raines could do no better than “Warm” during his tenure at Hall of Fame Racing, which ultimately cost him his job, as Yeley will take over the reins of the DLP HDTV Camry in 2008. Still, it shouldn’t be overlooked that his steady and consistent performance kept this team in the Top 35 in points for the past two years running.
Earlier, we focused on the success of Sadler, but on the other end of the Gillett Evernham spectrum is Scott Riggs. It has been an awful season for Riggs, who has only one top 10 all year in a ride he will vacate at the end of the current season. Trying to finish on a high note, it looked like this team had a glimmer of hope in the Nation’s Heartland last week, where Riggs qualified the No. 10 Charger on the inside of row two and finished a respectable 13th. But the momentum was short-lived once the series turned to Talladega – for the sixth time this year, the No. 10 failed to make a race on speed. To add insult to injury, Riggs actually had a time fast enough to put his car solidly in the field; unfortunately, he fell victim to NASCAR’s Top-35 rule, knocking him out in favor of a team with a qualifying exemption. At least Riggs can now turn an eye towards the future; he will have the fresh start he needs in 2008, as it was just announced that he will be piloting one of Haas CNC Racing’s cars next year.
It has been a downright dismal year for David Gilliland, the underdog story of 2006 and the driver chosen to help bring Robert Yates Racing back to its winning ways. But the No. 38 team has done quite the opposite in ’07, averaging a finish of only 26.9 this season while slumping to 31st in owner points with Gilliland at the helm. Talladega represented this team’s best chance to salvage one last solid finish in 2007, as they recorded two front row starts and three top-15 finishes at the three other restrictor plate events held this year. Alas, it wasn’t to be; the M&M’s Ford was involved in the day’s second caution when Gilliland made contact with Greg Biffle, ending any chance of adding to the team’s stellar superspeedway stats (Gilliland wound up 27th).
Bobby Labonte hasn’t had nearly the dreadful season that Gilliland has suffered through; in fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that Frontstretch listed the Texan as one of the hotter drivers on the circuit. Boy, what a difference a few weeks can make. Labonte’s average finish is a bleak 35th over the past three events, turning momentum right back in the other direction with his program. For a moment, it appeared that the downslide would reach its end Sunday, as the former Nextel Cup champ had his Pillsbury Food Services Dodge running solidly in the top five. It all seemed to be coming together for the Cheerios Charger when, out of nowhere, Labonte inexplicably broke loose in front of the entire pack, igniting the “Big One” and tearing the No. 43 car to shreds (the team finished 35th). Ouch! With Petty Enterprises reeling and the crash cart piling up, there is no doubt that Labonte is looking forward to Charlotte next week – it’s the site of his first Cup victory back in 1995.