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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not: Outside the Chase after the 2007 Dickies 500 at Texas

The Lone Star State proved a lonely place for drivers out of the playoffs Sunday, as nine Chase drivers finished the race in the top 11. One by one, some of the best hopes to sneak an upset win at Texas crashed themselves out of contention, showing instead why this wasn’t the year they proved capable of challenging for that championship trophy.

But amidst the smoke of an ugly day for this large group of underdogs, some longtime veterans kept up steady streaks that left them leaving with a Texas-sized smile. Who were they, and what man ahead of them is charging hard to stake his claim on the 13th spot in the standings? Find out below in this week’s edition of Who’s Hot, and Who’s Not, non-Chase style.

Hot/Not Update: How The Atlanta Edition Crowd Fared At Texas

Last week’s lone Hot spot was an early contender at Texas; having won there in the spring of ’06, Kasey Kahne was gunning hard for a repeat performance. But a flat tire midway through helped extend a winless streak that’ll reach 40 races with the drop of the green flag at Phoenix; the No. 9 car wound up 18th, two laps off the pace.

At least Kahne retained a small amount of heat in his late season streak up the standings, though. Drivers Reed Sorenson and Michael Waltrip weren’t so lucky; labeled Warm in last week’s edition, they cooled off considerably with weekends they’d quickly like to forget. Sorenson’s day ended in the haze of a wreck with David Gilliland; he hit the inside wall hard and wound up 40th, out of the race before the halfway point. Waltrip didn’t even make it that far; the recent strength of the No. 55 team turned sour when his NAPA Toyota failed to qualify Friday night.

Such an icy Cool feeling also extended to Mark Martin – he got caught in the tail end of a multi-car wreck, winding up behind the wall for repairs. The car he made contact with was none other than Gilliland; last week’s Cold selection was involved in multiple accidents with a loose-handling Ford, and hobbled home a disappointing 28th. Considering those performances, perhaps Sam Hornish Jr. got spared a disappointing day – car owner Roger Penske chose not to enter the IndyCar star turned NASCAR rookie at Texas, leaving his Cold streak intact – for now.

HOT

Ryan Newman‘s faulty engine briefly halted his momentum at AMS, but solid pit strategy Sunday has him flaming hot once again. The No. 12 team didn’t have a winning car at Texas, but made the most of it; a late two-tire stop put the Alltel Dodge out front, and Newman quietly steered his car home to a fifth-place finish. The run left him just 68 points behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the 13th spot in the standings, and he’s got a great shot of catching the No. 8 team for that honor; with three top-five finishes in the last five races (and a fourth near-miss at Charlotte) Newman is clearly the hottest non-Chaser as of late.

WARM

The heartwarming career of Ricky Rudd has only two races remaining, but I’m happy to report the driver of the No. 88 is doing everything he can to go out on a high note. In the four races since returning from a separated shoulder, Rudd’s put together three runs of 17th or better, including a 15th-place result in Texas; the Snickers Ford wound up on the lead lap after getting the Lucky Dog not once, but twice. It’s that kind of luck that had evaded this team all season long; but with Rudd’s retirement close at hand – as well as that of car owner Robert Yates – this team is giving it all they’ve got to give their leaders a proper sendoff.

Elliott Sadler had a season to forget behind the wheel of the No. 19 Dodge; however, a crew chief change Sunday provided a welcome boost of momentum. With Josh Browne replaced by Rodney Childers from teammate Scott Riggs‘s machine, the head wrench put together one of the best hot rods of the season for Sadler. After qualifying a ho-hum 19th, a quiet yet consistent race left him running with the leaders and 12th by the checkered flag. It was the second straight top 15 for a team looking to feed off the momentum of teammate Kahne.

“It’s fun when you’re making progress, and we’ve done that in recent weeks,” Sadler said. “We want to turn those top-15 finishes into top 10s these final two races.”

COOL

Mike Skinner failed to qualify the No. 36 Bill Davis Racing car at Atlanta, but what he did at Texas was nothing short of remarkable. In a tough title battle of his own over in the Craftsman Truck Series, you wouldn’t blame Skinner for failing to give a Cup substitution role his undivided attention; however, not only did he qualify the 360 OTC Toyota this week, he did so in impressive fashion, clocking in 14th with a team that’s made less than half the races this season. Then, he drove the car to just its fifth top 25 of the year; finishing 24th, three laps off the pace, he looked plenty capable of driving at the Nextel Cup level once again.

Brian Vickers is frustrated, and it’s easy to figure out why – Toyota’s most experienced “young gun” has failed to qualify 13 times this season, and when he has made the field, he’s never sure how competitive that car’s going to be. On Sunday, it wasn’t; off the pace from the very start, Vickers went laps down early en route to finishing a distant 23rd. More importantly, he’s finally letting his emotions show, evident by several of his post-race quotes concerning the mechanical state of his vehicle:

“We had a lot of brake issues, which is getting really frustrating, and when I’m at the end of my rope, it breaks,” he said afterwards. “We ran our brakes a lot here today and I don’t know why – I can’t explain it.”

“We’ve had enough problems this year, and it’s time to get them fixed.”

COLD

The Wood Brothers hired Bill Elliott for two reasons; the security of the past champion’s provisional, and their unwavering confidence the NASCAR legend could pull them out of their hole in owner points – even at 52 years old. Alas, their faith has not been rewarded; caught up in a wreck not of his making, Elliott was 36th at Texas, the third time in four races he’s finished 34th or worse. With the No. 21 team a staggering 127 points out of the Top 35, it’s going to take a minor miracle now for them to lock up an exemption for the beginning of ’08 – but ironically, the continued comfort of that past champion’s provisional may keep Elliott in this ride for the beginning of next year.

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