NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Nextel Cup: 2008 Auto Club 500 at Fontana Edition

The warm, sunny, and beautiful weather conditions commonly associated with California were replaced this weekend by rain, rain and well, more rain. After little practice time and a washed out qualifying session, NASCAR made a number of futile attempts to run the Cup race on Sunday before finally – at 2 a.m. ET – postponing the race. The schedule may have been thrown out of whack, but when the green flag finally flew again Monday afternoon it was typical California racing – boring – and the usual cast of characters up front.

With the win, Carl Edwards recorded Roush Fenway’s fourth consecutive spring race win at the 2-mile oval, while Jimmie Johnson followed up his win in the fall race last year with a second-place run in his return to his home track. It was a long week for drivers, teams and fans alike; but for some in particular, the weekend couldn’t have been any longer.

At the same time, other drivers followed up great runs at Daytona with solid efforts again this week, becoming some of the select few happy to be in Ontario in the first place. To see who was basking in the California sun Monday afternoon and who simply couldn’t wait to get home, check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup.

HOT

Kyle Busch: Nobody in NASCAR has been as hot as the younger Busch – just ask Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip’s undeniable lovefest for Busch has been unmistakable on TV recently; but the truth is, Busch has done nothing but impress thus far this season, recording fourth-place finishes in each of the first two races.

THOMPSON: KYLE BUSCH – SO MUCH, SO SOON

The Las Vegas kid is the only driver to record two top fives to start the year, and now he returns to his home track this week, where he has enjoyed numerous success. In each of his last three races at Vegas, the 22-year-old has yet to finish outside of the top 10, including top-three finishes in 2005 and 2006.

Ryan Newman: The Daytona 500 champion did just what he had to do this weekend, and that was follow up last week’s performance with another strong run at California. The No. 12 was not one of the “elite” cars on Sunday/Monday, but Newman did manage a 10th-place finish, leaving him second in points.

Looking ahead, Newman has four top 10s in seven starts at Las Vegas, including an eighth-place run last year. It will be interesting to see if he can continue his strong start this week.

Tony Stewart: Stewart was the victim of a Penske push on the last lap of the Daytona 500. He may not have won the season opener, but a third-place run wasn’t too bad; neither was a seventh-place finish this week at California.

The No. 20 should be strong all year and contend for the championship, but it’s still early; and for now, Stewart has sights set on Las Vegas, where he finished seventh one year ago and in the top 10 in five of the last six years.

WARM

Edwards: This week’s Auto Club 500 winner moved up 13 spots in the points after finishing 19th in the Daytona 500. Edwards was strong at the end of the race and eventually passed Johnson in the closing laps.

California has traditionally been a Ford track and Edwards was expected to run strong; however, he now heads to Vegas where he has just one top 10 in three years (sixth – 2007).

Kasey Kahne: The Budweiser car may still confuse some fans at first glance, but there is no confusing how strong the No. 9 has been this year. Quietly, Kahne is one of only four drivers to finish in the top 10 in each of the first two races this year. Think that streak will end this week? You might want to think again.

In four races at Las Vegas, Kahne has recorded two poles and never qualified lower than seventh. He’s raced strong as well. In the two races he did not crash, Kahne’s lowest finishing position is fourth… not too shabby.

Johnson/Jeff Gordon: Concerned after these two drivers’ performances at Daytona? Me neither. Both outside of the top 20 last week, Johnson and Gordon finished second and third, respectively, at California – showing glimpses of last year’s dominating performance in the process.

This week could be the time Hendrick Motorsports returns to victory lane. If California is a Ford/Roush Fenway track, then Las Vegas is definitely a Hendrick facility, with Johnson winning the last three races at the 1.5-mile oval. Gordon hasn’t run all that bad either, with three straight top fives and a win in 2001.

Others: Kurt Busch (fourth in points); Kevin Harvick (seventh in points); Greg Biffle (ninth in points); Jeff Burton (10th in points); Brian Vickers (11th in points).

COOL

Denny Hamlin: Few drivers have had luck as bad as Hamlin this year. While Kyle Busch and Stewart have been red hot, Hamlin has struggled. After running strong at the beginning of the Daytona 500, damage slowed down the No. 11 machine, resulting in a 19th-place finish. This week, Hamlin was the victim of NASCAR’s wet track blunder (we’ll get to that later), finishing 41st after an accident on Sunday.

COLD

Kyle Petty/Dave Blaney: If anybody knows about the importance of the Top-35 rule, it’s Petty and Blaney, who both narrowly made the cut for a locked in spot for the first five races of this season. However, neither of these drivers have taken advantage of their “provisional” in the first two races, with both currently sitting outside of the bubble.

Casey Mears: Accidents have plagued Mears, who has actually run strong when on the track in the first two races. Two consecutive DNFs to start the year leave the No. 5 team 43rd in car owner points, but you can expect them to bounce back and onto the bubble before race five is complete.

Mears was third fastest in Vegas testing, too, so that turnaround could happen as soon as this week.

BOWLES: CALIFORNIA JOKE TESTS NASCAR PASSION

NASCAR: C’mon guys. 2 a.m. ET? Seriously? What happened to making 8 p.m. the deadline to start the race? Sure, the green flag already flew; but you’ve got the storm of the century coming through Fontana, and a track that’s “weeping” even when it’s not raining. You totaled five cars because of a premature start, and then led your viewers on from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. about a possible restart. It was not a good weekend for the sanctioning body; but at least Vegas should be better. Right?

FROZEN

AJ Allmendinger: I thought I felt bad for Allmendinger after he failed to race his way into the Daytona 500, but the poor man didn’t even get a chance to qualify for the Auto Club 500. Vickers has the No. 83 Red Bull team in the top 12 to start the season, but Allmendinger can’t even get the No. 84 off the ground because of the stupid Top-35 rule. What a shame.

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