Lowe’s Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile oval that has a reputation for going fast and wrecking hard; Saturday night’s race proved no exception to that rule. As such, it’s time to take a look at how a myriad of non-Chasers performed under the lights in NASCAR’s hometown of Charlotte, N.C. Let’s take a look at Who’s Hot, and Who’s Not, non-Chase style…
Hot/Not Update: Charlotte Edition
Like dropping ice on a campfire, Elliott Sadler dropped from “Hot” to “Not” in a hurry after an incident on pit road put the team behind. Warm driver Tony Raines also remained lukewarm at best, finishing 31st and failing to record his third top-20 finish in a row. Cool recipient Scott Riggs saw an opportunity to turn up the heat, Unable to recover, the No. 19 team could do no better than a 41st-place finish on Saturday night. On the other hand, Dave Blaney is sizzling, gaining 28 positions to record his second consecutive top 10, establishing some breathing room for the No. 22 car in the race to simply score a top five. Meanwhile, Riggs’s cool status turned to ice as his top-five run was ruined when he became an innocent victim in Juan Pablo Montoya‘s tire misfortune. Cold driver David Gilliland ran well for most of the night, but settled for a mediocre 25th-place finish while Bobby Labonte stopped his downfall with a 12th-place run.
Kasey Kahne and his UAW/Dodge Dealers team appear determined to end the 2007 season on a high note. He has averaged a respectable 11th-place finish over the last three races, catapulting him up two positions to 20th in the driver standings. Believe it or not, this is the first time Kahne has been in the top 20 all year. (Note: Even though Kahne finished seventh in the season-opening Daytona 500, his team was assessed a 25-point penalty, relegating him to 22nd in the standings).
On the one hand, this is an amazing feat for a team that was on the fringes of the Top 35 in points this past spring. Still, on the other hand, his current points standing is a monumental disappointment given the fact that this is the same No. 9 team that produced six wins last year. It is this second point that leads me to believe that the Gillett Evernham’s flagship team is in fact building momentum for 2008 and not experiencing a fluke.
Meanwhile, David Stremme is out to prove that his promotion to Nextel Cup two years ago also was not a fluke. A few weeks ago, Stremme was a “cool” driver without a ride for 2008, having been released from Ganassi at the end of the season. However, Stremme’s name has resurfaced as a possibility to take over one of the Haas CNC rides for next season, and the glimmer of hope has seemingly motivated the Indiana native. Stremme’s ninth-place finish on Saturday night represented his third top 10 of the year, boosting him up one spot to 24th in the standings.
There is still a long road ahead for Stremme, but there is reason to believe he can string together some solid finishes to end the year. The remaining schedule includes the sister tracks to Lowe’s Motor Speedway – Atlanta and Texas – where the No. 40 team finished 13th and 10th, respectively, earlier this season.
The last four races have seen Michael Waltrip qualify for each of them – his longest streak of 2007 – as well as watch him finish in the top 10 for the second time this year, win a Bud Pole Award, and gain five positions in the points. OK, so that point gain was from 51st to 46th, but for a team that has had an atrocious season, these little gains can turn into a mountain of confidence. Waltrip displayed his focus on 2008 on Friday when he announced his driver lineup that included David Reutimann taking over the UPS ride from Dale Jarrett and a third driver yet to be determined. Already making the moves to put this season behind them, this latest bout of success can be just the medicine this organization needs to launch them into 2008.
Another driver that could use a doctor to stop the bleeding is Montoya. Over the past three races, the leading Rookie of the Year candidate has averaged a dismal 26.67 finishing position in the race. Beyond that, Lowe’s was a complete nightmare for the Texaco/Havoline team; after scraping the wall and dropping a down a lap early, Montoya eventually lost a tire late in the race and slammed hard into Riggs and the outside retaining wall, destroying the right side of his No. 42 Dodge. A Nextel Cup rookie faces a lot of challenges in his first year and rebounding from adversity is one of them; Montoya is facing that very test right now, and I would expect him to pass it with flying colors.
Just a few short weeks ago, Jamie McMurray was considered one of the hottest non-Chase drivers on the circuit (and ladies, I mean in terms of on-track performance). The past few races, however, have seen this team cool off considerably. Two weeks ago McMurray was caught up in the Big One at Talladega, finishing 37th. Last weekend in Charlotte, the Crown Royal Ford appeared to be the car to beat early on, but an untimely caution trapped McMurray on pit road and down a lap, leading to a 24th-place finish. The last two races represent a perfect microcosm of McMurray’s season – with bad luck keeping him of the radar rather than poor performance. If this team can ever get the monkey off their backs, McMurray would become a favorite to win on a weekly basis.
On the contrary, a driver that wished he had McMurray’s problems is Ward Burton. The popular Virginian made a comeback to Nextel Cup with Morgan-McClure Motorsports after being away from the scene for the better part of two years, waiting to align himself with a ride he thought would be competitive. It’s been a valiant struggle for the team in 2007, which has been fortunate just to make races. After missing the show for three weeks in a row, Burton made the Bank of America 500 field last weekend. However, engine gremlins forced this team out of the race after only 83 laps, the first car to drop out on Saturday night. Just how bad has this season been for the No. 4 team? Burton fell two positions in the points after his 43rd-place run at Charlotte, which is actually more ground than he lost when he DNQ’d for the previous three races.