The halfway point of the Chase at Lowe’s brought with it a reality check to several men no longer in the hunt for a championship. For drivers like Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, their one-time title dreams turned into nightmares filled with enough broken parts and pieces to start a junkyard. On the contrary, for others it was a case of too little, too late, as strong runs by Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch didn’t even make a dent in deficiencies that seem far too steep to overcome. The fact they survived the 1.5-mile Beast of the Southeast was impressive enough, though; a hard tire and an even tougher racing surface made it difficult for even the best of the Nextel Cup faithful to keep all four wheels underneath them. In the end, the only one capable of taming it was a certain Rainbow Warrior, surviving a late-race scare to pick up all the fuel out of his tank and score a second straight victory on the season. In the process, he wasted no time putting his face on the stamp labeled “championship favorite,” while everyone else had no choice but to look on in awe at the man who’s been down this road before… and finished up on top of the heap.
So, who are the only men left waiting in line at the post office – just hoping for a little championship stamp of their own – and which ones will spend the rest of the year simply trying to find the building? Read on to figure out how the field stacks up for the second half of the Chase in this week’s edition of Who’s Hot, Who’s Not.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon is quickly taking the “Chase” out of Chase for the Championship, threatening to make this thing a runaway. With two straight wins, the four-time champ is making things look easy, as he extended his points lead to 68 over teammate Jimmie Johnson Saturday night at Lowe’s. And for anyone looking for Martinsville to close the gap, you’ve got bad news ahead… in the last nine races at the track, Gordon has four wins and no finishes outside the top 10. I wonder if NASCAR has “Procession to the Championship” t-shirts made up?
Johnson: What a bad time for Johnson to finally become human at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. After recording the worst career finish at “his house” (14th) since he debuted there in 2001, Johnson dropped back into a tight battle for second with Clint Bowyer, all while Gordon managed to widen his lead. On the plus side, Johnson has won at Martinsville twice in a row; but remember who was trying to give him the chrome bumper there this spring? Of course, it was none other than the No. 24 and Gordon himself. Gordon might not be as nice this time with so much on the line; still, Johnson should continue to give him a run for his money.
Bowyer: The biggest surprise of the Chase has to be the performance of Bowyer. Entering this year’s playoffs, Bowyer was winless, not just for the season but for his career – as such, very few gave him a chance to be competitive. Well boy, has he proven them wrong. Not only did Bowyer start off the Chase with his win at Loudon, but he’s remained consistent, scoring two runner-up finishes in the last three races to take this Cinderella story to a whole new level. With an average finish of 18.7, Martinsville should prove to be another hurdle; but Bowyer hasn’t let those affect him yet, so there’s no reason to think it’ll start now.
Tony Stewart: If Stewart wasn’t such a gambling man, his position in the standings could be a heck of a lot better. He has three top-10 finishes in the last four races – including a seventh at Lowe’s, where he had to come back from an accident on pit road – but it was the gamble that went bust at Kansas that has hurt him in the Chase. That 39th-place finish glares at you as you check the standings, proving to be the main culprit for Stewart’s 198-point deficit to Gordon. Looking ahead, Stewart’s a two-time Martinsville winner; however, he’ll need some bad luck to visit the Hendrick teams if he wants to make a serious charge to the top.
Carl Edwards: Edwards holds the fifth position in the rankings, perhaps the last driver with a glimmer of hope of taking the title away from Gordon. Edwards’s win at Dover did wonders for his title hopes, but a crash at Kansas the next week wiped any progress he had earned – and so-so finishes the last two races have made it difficult to gain anything back. Martinsville looks to be a big obstacle for Cousin Carl’s battle to slay the dragon and get back up front; in six starts, he has yet to score a top 10, and has a dismal average finish of 22.2. That’s not exactly numbers that give you hope for a comeback – at least not right now.
Kyle Busch: Inconsistency has been the theme of Busch’s 2007 Chase run. In the last four races, he has finishes of third and fifth; the downside is they are bookends for finishes of 36th and 41st. That puts Busch 280 points behind his teammate Gordon, and you get the idea from the little comments and actions by the HMS camp, that’s just fine with them. In fact, that made it all the more surprising Busch didn’t bump Gordon out of the way at Lowe’s when given the chance; in the end, both class and maturity won out in a situation that could have easily ended up with the No. 24 in the wall. As for what’s next for Busch… who knows at this point? Martinsville has been a track where he’s had a fair amount of success; but with his up and down finishes, you never know what you’re going to get one week from the next. Not only that, but Tony Eury Jr. starts work over at Hendrick… making it even more difficult to get work done in the shop.
Kurt Busch: Entering the Chase, the elder Busch was hitting a high and feeling good as he began his quest for a second title. But things haven’t quite gone as planned. He has just one top 10 in the Chase so far; and while he is nearly perfect at Bristol he hasn’t shown that same kind of prowess at Martinsville. Sitting seventh in the standings, trophy number two is highly unlikely, but there is still plenty of room for movement up (and down) the standings.
Hamlin: Hamlin avoided the sophomore slump for most of the 2007 season; instead, it seemed to have found him at the worst possible time. The No. 11 team didn’t exactly ride high into the Chase, and that mediocrity has continued since the title run began. He put in a strong fourth-place finish at Talladega, but that has been the lone bright spot for a team who has an average finish of 25.5 in the other four Chase races. Things could turn around at Martinsville – where Hamlin ran well earlier this year – but don’t look for them to shake off the monkey for good, especially on non-CoT tracks.
Burton: The last four races have been frustrating to say the least for Burton and his attempt to earn his first championship. He scored top 10s at Dover (seventh) and Charlotte (fourth), but his team didn’t give him much of a chance at Talladega (43rd) when the engine quickly went south, and he was one of the many Chasers to get swept up in the Kansas twister (36th). A distant 366 points out from 13th with five races left, there is little chance left for Burton to claim that top prize – but he can continue to dig himself out of the hole he finds himself in. At his home-state short track, Burton was sixth here in the spring, giving him a small glimmer of hope for this weekend.
Harvick: Harvick would be well served to retrace his steps over the last month or more and figure out exactly what he did to anger the Tire Gods. Once again, a flat forced him to pit early, under green flag conditions and putting him laps down to the leaders. Unable to make up much of the ground he lost, his 33rd-place finish at Lowe’s understandably dropped him back to eighth in the standings and 328 points out of the lead. His not-so-impressive 20th-place average finish at Martinsville shouldn’t leave Harvick fans with good vibrations about his chances this weekend, either.
Kenseth: Rarely do you see Kenseth finishing outside the top 20; even more rare is to see him finish outside the top 25 in four straight races. Regardless, this unlikely and uncharacteristic dive has Kenseth dead last in the standings, even as the races continue to tick away in the 2007 season. To make any sort of ripple in the Chase battle, the other 11 drivers in the Chase would have to go to the wrong track for a couple of races. That is highly unlikely and everyone should be in attendance this weekend at Martinsville, a track that doesn’t give Kenseth much hope of snapping his string of bad finishes.
Martin Truex Jr.: If many people were forced to pick which young driver would have the best success in the Chase – Truex or Bowyer, – most would have picked Truex. He already had a win during the year en route to an 11th-place finish in the standings. However, things don’t look good for Truex to improve upon that number at Martinsville, where he has an average finish of 28.0 that’s lowest among all the Chase contenders.