NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not: Outside the Chase after the 2007 Subway 500 at Martinsville

Sunday’s race at Martinsville marked the beginning of the final five races this season, launching a segment filled with pressure-packed racing not only for those fighting for the title, but for many others involved in separate skirmishes of their own. Whether it’s battling to stay within the top 25 in driver points, to move up to the “best of the rest” label of 13th place or simply to prove their worth in the free-agent market, each of the non-Chase wheelmen has his own set of goals in mind. Unfortunately for many, the tight quarters of Martinsville’s half-mile oval proved a formidable adversary, as the event’s 21 cautions chewed up and spit out the hopes of many an underdog looking to make a name for themselves on the old school short track.

So, which drivers kept their hot streaks intact, and which ones found themselves skidding to a halt on the hard concrete surface of a paperclip slugfest turned Demolition Derby? Read on to find out who’s heating up and cooling down among the non-Chase drivers heading to Atlanta this weekend.

Hot/Not Update: How The Lowe’s Edition Crowd Fared This Week

Kasey Kahne came away from Lowe’s feeling the heat after scoring two top-10 finishes in the last three races; however, he cooled ever so slightly at Martinsville. Driving a car he claimed should have continued that streak, poor track position late led to a disappointing 15th-place finish, leaving Kahne thirsting for more despite moving up to 20th in Nextel Cup points. Frankly, he shouldn’t have complained; it could have been worse, as the other “Hot” driver from last week – who also doubles as Kahne’s heated rival – proved time and time again on Sunday. David Stremme flushed away any and all momentum he’d gained from his first top 10 since April; involved in the spin cycle virtually all day long, he languished at the back of the pack until a hard crash on lap 413 finally put him out of commission for good. The No. 40 Dodge wound up 37th.

Also coming off a solid top-10 performance, Michael Waltrip hoped to keep his “Warm” feelings intact at Martinsville – and admittedly, he did just that. While engaged in a rather unspectacular day, the veteran brought his No. 55 home in 18th place, on the lead lap and with the car in one piece – no small feat on a day of continuous wrecks. More importantly, just the fact this car was able to qualify, extending its recent streak of races made to five, is easily the longest run of success in what’s been a difficult year for Waltrip and this team.

Along with Waltrip, Juan Pablo Montoya was busy lighting a fire of his own; labeled “Cool” after a difficult race at Lowe’s, eyebrows got raised after a career-best eighth-place finish at one of the hardest tracks at the circuit for stock car rookies to get a hold of. Montoya was so impressive Sunday, he even led nine laps during the race, using pit strategy by crew chief Donnie Wingo to sneak towards the front of the pack.

Finally, both Jamie McMurray and Ward Burton did nothing to melt the ice of their cold streaks in southern Virginia; mechanical issues for both led to disappointing finishes of 32nd and 38th, respectively.

HOT

Now, we move on to the most recent Hot/Not selections – although with my first pick, you’ve got to believe his mind was still stuck on a certain Saturday night from a little over one week before. Ryan Newman appeared to have that race at Lowe’s all but won heading into the closing laps, pulling away from the pack before spinning out with what he claimed was a flat left-rear tire. More than likely, though, the only thing that tore to shreds was actually Newman’s ability to control his nerves; tests showed after the race that all four tires were completely filled with pressure on the No. 12 Dodge Charger.

Whatever the issue, the bottom line was that Newman’s drought was extended to 76 races, something that should have been a momentum-killer of the highest degree; but luckily, this Purdue graduate referred to let that failure go straight to his head. As a result, the No. 12 car proved the fastest early and often on Martinsville’s half-mile oval, running consistently until late-race pit strategy vaulted him further up into the top five. Despite only having two tires while the rest of the field had four, Newman was still able to hang with the leaders, passing Jeff Gordon for second before falling just short of Jimmie Johnson when the yellow came out on the last lap. Still, that’s now Newman’s second top five in the last three races; and if the No. 12 had simply kept it off the wall at Lowe’s, he’d actually be occupying the 13th spot in points right now over Dale Earnhardt Jr. Don’t expect the man to slow down next week, either; Atlanta’s a track where Newman won six straight poles between the 2003 and 2005 seasons, and he started on point a seventh time at the spring race this March. Clearly, Newman’s making it known he’ll be a driver in contention for a much bigger prize in 2008.

WARM

Trust me on this one: warm and fuzzy feelings are not what comes to mind when Greg Biffle thinks of Martinsville. But after two 20-something finishes put a kink into his late season hot streak, The Biff righted the ship with a career-best seventh-place finish at the track on Sunday. Listening to the post-race comments from the five-year veteran, you’d think he wound up in Victory Lane, especially judging the way in which he raved about his day at the track.

“That was a win. I won!” joked Biffle. “That’s the first time I’ve finished a race at Martinsville in my life – my life. It’s unbelievable. I’ve never had a car like that here. I learned a lot from watching Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Matt [Kenseth], applied it, and got a seventh-place finish. It’s just unbelievable.”

Alright, so the guy was exaggerating about one thing. He’s finished several Martinsville races throughout his career, but just never at a level capable of coming home with a top 10. Now, Biffle can cross this track off his list of weaknesses; and with a third top-10 finish in the six playoff races, he’s inching ever closer to the all-important “best of the rest” 13th spot in the driver standings.

Further on down the final results sheet, Kyle Petty is competing for something some of these other teams take for granted; it’s the right to simply qualify each weekend without the fear of missing the race. All season long, the No. 45 has stayed above the cutoff line of a qualifying exemption; but over the past month, success of other teams like Dave Blaney‘s No. 22 car has put Petty in a precarious position, dropping his team to 35th in car owner points. It was at this time last year when this team began to click in a similar situation; and wouldn’t you know it, the same thing is happening all over again. During a weekend where both Blaney and the No. 21 team experienced problems, Petty ran a solid, steady race to come home 21st at Martinsville. It’s the third finish of 21st or better in four races for the team, which now finds itself a more comfortable 148 points ahead of the dreaded 36th-place organization. Heading to Atlanta – a track where Petty has finished 17th or better two of his last three starts – it appears he’s earned the right to have an exemption for the first five races of 2008 once again.

COOL

It’s not that Earnhardt Jr. has run badly during the playoffs; in fact, his team seems looser and his car is handling better than it was during the regular season. Where the No. 8 team is hurting continues to be in the engine department; once again, the motor fell apart with just a handful of laps to go, turning Junior’s sure top five at Martinsville into a far more humbling 23rd-place finish. More importantly, it was almost the seventh DNF due to engine failure for a team that would be in a completely different place this season had it just installed parts capable of lasting the distance. At this point, even Junior himself is busy trying not to lose his cool – but swearing was abundant on the radio Sunday as the car’s handling took a back seat to the inability for its equipment to simply just do its job.

COLD

I don’t think there’s any denying the fact that David Ragan has had a better rookie year than most anyone expected. However, Martinsville proved a subtle reminder of how much further he still has to go to earn respect amongst all his competitors. One year removed from one of his first Cup starts at this track – an event noted by the amount of veteran drivers he sent spiraling out of control by accident – Ragan proved why his yellow stripe still sits firmly planted on the back bumper of his car. Not only was he involved in multiple accidents once again, but the last one on lap 505 inevitably caused the race to end under the yellow flag. A far cry from his career-best third-place run at another short track – Richmond – Ragan now has gone the past six races without a top 15, enduring a horrible ending to a season initially filled with promise.

Since John Andretti came on board with BAM Racing, it’s like a spark got lit under the No. 49 team; they’ve qualified for nine of the last 10 races with the veteran on board, no small feat for a single-car program with limited funding. In the races, Andretti’s also run well, coming close to top-15 or top-20 finishes on many occasions. So, where’s the iceberg then? Simple – getting a good starting spot is about all this driver’s been good for lately. Failing to finish five of nine races, Sunday’s tough deck proved one of the hardest to control; Andretti dropped a transmission with just 14 laps to go, a move which seems like par for the course when driving for a team that doesn’t get any breaks.

Could a fire get lit underneath this No. 49 team? Only time will tell; right now, though, they’re busy trying to melt the ice of mechanical failure happening all around them.

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