Sunday’s race at Atlanta had about as wacky a finish as you’re going to get. Water in the fuel tanks, wily maneuvers on pit road and the wheels coming off of people’s solid runs – literally – left most of us hanging in disbelief by the time the checkered flag flew. It was one of those times where Lady Luck trumped the best laid plans for a solid handful of teams who had spent their days running up front, giving those who didn’t quite deserve it the break they needed to finish ahead of them.
Amidst all the madness, it appeared the championship contenders were the ones most capable of doing the right things at the right time – eight of 12 finished in the top 10. But lost amongst the title positioning were some hidden gems from drivers desperate to get their names on the map before the end of the season. Which ones turned up the heat at a time when they needed it most, and who’s busy stuck in the ice maker after a difficult day at the 1.5-miler? Read ahead to find out Who’s Not and Who’s Not Outside the Chase.
Hot/Not Update: How The Martinsville Edition Crowd Fared At Atlanta
Ryan Newman had gone two straight weeks of just missing out on Victory Lane – but he was much further away from getting that long-sought win at Atlanta. The engine went south after 400 miles, and the No. 12 Dodge found its heat quickly dissipating in the midst of an early trip to the garage. The warmth also eroded from Greg Biffle, as a promising run early on quickly faded into a mediocre 22nd-place finish at a track where he thought his team could be a real factor. Kyle Petty actually proved the only driver capable of living up to last week’s ranking; his lukewarm performances continued with a solid 13th-place run, a finish that gave him precious breathing room in the battle for the Top 35 in owner points.
Over on the cool side of the fence, Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued to tread on thin ice late in the race; once again, he had a sure top five ending eroded by a horrific crash due to a loose wheel. He’ll soon be seeking shelter in David Ragan‘s igloo; the rookie continued a rough stretch detailed last week by involving himself in two wrecks en route to a 33rd-place finish, eight laps off the pace. At least John Andretti was able to shake a bit of the chill off his season; coming across the line 28th, it was just the third time he’d seen the checkered flag in the last six races.
Moving ahead to more recent Hot/Not activity, you have to start with a certain red Dodge that’s been dominating the non-Chase radar screen: that No. 9 Dodge driven by Kasey Kahne. Leading three laps at a track where he dominated in the spring of last year, the Gillett Evernham team wasn’t quite the dominant car it once was here – but for the first time in a while, they found themselves within striking distance. Running in the top 10 all day, Kahne wound up ninth to score his fifth straight run of 16th or better, with three top 10s in that span moving him back up to 17th in the points standings. Considering Kahne was out of the top 30 for most of the first quarter of the season, that’s one heck of an accomplishment; and considering the driver’s past record at Texas, he might actually be able to continue building on this newfound consistency this weekend. It’s clear that this is one team who seems ready to have their act together to contend again in 2008.
Besides Kahne, the only other non-Chaser to crack the top 10 Sunday was 21-year-old Reed Sorenson. It’s hard to call Ganassi’s youngest driver scorching hot – his last two finishes entering Atlanta were 41st and 30th – but the third-place finish Sunday marked the Georgia native’s best finish of his two-year Nextel Cup career. Add to that the fact he’s got two more top 10s since the Chase began, and you can see how he’s working hard to inch up towards the top 20 in the season-ending points standings. Considering the recent addition of Dario Franchitti into the Ganassi fold, you’ve got to wonder if there’s a newfound sense of urgency in the Sorenson camp; after all, Dan Wheldon‘s made no secret of the fact he wants to be the third open-wheeler working in Ganassi’s stock car ranks by the time 2009 rolls around, leaving no room for the lone American left unless this team looks to expand.
It’s hard to believe I’m saying these words, but as the season winds down, you better look out for that No. 55 car and Michael Waltrip. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s also a very true; Sunday’s 15th-place finish marked the third straight run of 18th or better from a team that’s come a long way from their cheating scandal back in February. It’s clear all the help the program is getting from Joe Gibbs – er, excuse me, the fine people at Toyota Racing Development – is starting to pay off heading into the stretch run. It’s just too bad those “special” new Toyota engineers couldn’t join the fold earlier in the season,
Remember back at Dover, when Mark Martin was once in position to pull off an improbable victory? He slowly faded over the last 50 laps of the race, winding up fourth; and since then, momentum for the No. 01 team has cooled off consistently over time. Martin’s last three starts have produced finishes of 12th, 16th and 43rd, the latter a result of a vicious wreck that left his car in a million pieces Sunday. It seems that the Ginn Racing magic just hasn’t carried over completely since they merged with DEI at the end of July, as consistency continues to be something that eludes this team as they search for a winning combination. Considering the veteran’s track record at Texas is something to be proud of, you’d like to think things could turn around this weekend; just don’t count on it. The Speedway’s a track that’s tough on equipment, and it’s no secret the DEI/RCR engine department hasn’t been up to snuff as of late.
Apparently, David Gilliland is still in need of a Cup sponsor for the No. 38 car next year. The way he’s running, though, it’s going to be hard to attract a backer capable of keeping him competitive. Sunday proved the latest setback in what’s been a season of struggle; a vicious wreck on the backstretch collected Martin and left the M&M’s Ford a mangled mess. That added to a disappointing streak that’s seen this car finish 22nd or worse in 13 straight races, including four runs that wound up outside the top 30. While the youngster was promised job security when Yates Racing formed a strong alliance with Roush, he’s not doing himself any favors by the way he’s performing, and he’d serve himself well to step it up with the season coming to a close.
Tucked within the DNQ list this weekend was another familiar sight – Sam Hornish Jr. had failed to qualify for a Cup race yet again, the sixth such time it’s happened over the course of the Chase. Finally, Penske is giving the IRL vet a break from disappointment – he’s not on the Texas entry list – but you have to wonder how much longer this team’s going to push a guy with minimal stock car experience into a Cup Series he just may not be ready to ascend to. To be fair, the guy’s not missing the field by much; but all you need is to be off just that little bit in today’s competitive Nextel Cup world.