In what was a much smoother race weekend than the on again/off again rain debacle last weekend in California, the story in Vegas wound up with a similar ending. As the checkered flag flew, it was Carl Edwards once again winding up in Victory Lane, cementing his status as the hottest driver in the Cup Series right out of the box. But who else left Vegas with a boatload of cash and momentum? And on the flip side, who’s currently in gambling purgatory – needing good runs in the next two weeks to steer clear of the dreaded Top-35 bubble position in car owner points?
To see the latest trends in Sprint Cup, as well as what to expect next Sunday in Atlanta, check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.
Edwards: Owww! Sorry, had to grab the extinguisher because Edwards’s season is giving me third-degree burns, and we’re 1,000 miles away from him right now. Two wins in his last two starts have Cousin Carl leading the standings for the first time in his Cup career; with a 21-point lead over Kyle Busch, his No. 99 team has revitalized Roush Fenway Racing while giving hope that the Blue Oval crowd ain’t dead yet. Don’t expect this bunch to keel over anytime soon on the track, either; Edwards captured his first career Cup win at Atlanta three years ago, and has six top-10 finishes in seven career starts at the track.
However, be sure to keep an eye on any possible off-track penalties coming from Edwards’s car failing post-race inspection Sunday night. A missing oil-tank cover landed several Nationwide teams in hot water this February, and considering the penalties handed to Robby Gordon back at Daytona, a bucket of ice could be doused on this team from NASCAR in the form of points, fines, and a six to eight-week suspension of crew chief Bob Osborne.
Kyle Busch: Sure, Las Vegas wasn’t as kind to the hometown boy as he might have hoped; Busch went from contender to pretender when some late race tire issues left him slumping to an 11th-place finish. But he remains a solid second in the season standings and maintains the highest driver rating (which supposedly means something) through the first three races of the Cup season. Here’s a more critical stat that cements Busch’s frontrunning status in our eyes: he’s led 156 laps in 2008, more than anyone else on the circuit – even Edwards. So much for the No. 18 team being an also ran.
Kasey Kahne: The 2008 presidential election may still be up for grabs, but the votes are in on the Kahne slump, and it looks like we can make a projection: it’s over. The only driver in Cup with three top-10 finishes to start off 2008, Kahne’s a solid fourth in the standings, enjoying a more consistent beginning than even his six-win season of 2006. That year, Kahne’s success took off with a surprise win at Atlanta; just two years later, he’d love to repeat the magic to give GEM its first victory since George Gillett came on board last year. There’s just one caveat to this whole thing; as of now, Kahne’s led just two laps to date, and there’s a difference between running up front and challenging for the win. Only time will tell if Kahne and the No. 9 bunch are ready to take that next step once again.
Kevin Harvick: It was a whole different month of February for the 2007 Daytona 500 champ, who had a solid but not spectacular Speedweeks as he fell short of his goal of back-to-back wins in the Great American Race. Still, Harvick emerges from the first three races in far better shape than he’s been in quite sometime; a fourth place in Las Vegas was not only his best of the year, but it put him in fifth in the season standings. It’s a welcome consistency that should serve Harvick well heading to the track where he scored his first career Cup win in 2001; since then, he’s struggled at Atlanta, but RCR’s improvement with the CoT should help him catapult back into contention.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Seems like Junior’s still in shock about just how good he’s got it. Nerves of going after his first win since Richmond in May of 2006 led to Junior spinning the tires on a late-race restart at Vegas, causing a jam-up that inevitably led to teammate Jeff Gordon crashing himself by running into Matt Kenseth. Surviving that melee, Junior was unable to catch Edwards on the ensuing green/white/checkered finish but came home second, recovering nicely from being victimized by his teammate’s wreck at California the week before. Heading to Atlanta – where Junior had a top-five run last fall before wrecking late in the race – the team has to feel good about its chances.
Clint Bowyer: Clearly, Bowyer is not a fan of the racing in Sin City. Three career starts in Vegas have led to a best finish of only 15th, and Sunday’s event left the No. 07 team making the best of it; after going to a backup following a wreck in weekend practice, Bowyer struggled en route to a 28th-place finish. Now just 23rd in the early-season standings, the Cinderella magic that followed Bowyer during his 2007 Chase run has clearly worn off; but if there’s any consolation, the early strength showed by teammates Jeff Burton and Harvick should make it easy for the No. 07 car to regroup over at RCR.
Jamie McMurray: When the rest of your five-car team is the talk of the series for their early-season strength and you’re still trailing behind the pack, that’s a serious problem. McMurray’s been a bit of an enigma, and has got to be feeling the pressure after finishes of 26th, 22nd, and 25th have left him far behind his four Roush Fenway teammates. Things were so bad at Vegas that McMurray was the lowest-finishing of the seven Fords entered in the event; even the cash-strapped Yates Racing operation of David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil wound up ahead of him, with Kvapil running circles around McMurray with an eighth-place finish. With an Atlanta record that includes no top-10 finishes since joining the No. 26 team in 2006, McMurray’s slump is expected to continue through Sunday; but don’t expect it to last much longer without Roush making some serious changes to this program.
The Open Wheelers: This season’s rookie crop was supposed to be stumbling all over each other in their quest to be the next Juan Pablo Montoya; instead, they’re just plain ol’ stumbling. A rookie average finish of 33.9 includes the three subpar performances turned in by Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier. Each of them wrecked at Vegas, with Hornish and Carpentier forced behind the wall for repairs. It’s the second straight race Hornish has mashed up his car, dropping his team outside the Top 35 in owner points with only two races left on his five-race “gift” he received from teammate Kurt Busch (the No. 2’s points from last year). Meanwhile, Franchitti is right there with him; and if the No. 40 team can’t get anything going, both will find themselves forced to qualify on speed come Martinsville the end of March.
Kyle Petty: Petty’s 2008 season has begun with a whimper, and Sunday was yet another indication the No. 45 team is in trouble. Sunday’s event saw the Wells Fargo Dodge struggle to even keep up with the slowest cars in the field, as Petty whimpered to a 32nd-place finish, two laps off the pace. Now 35 points away from a locked-in qualifying spot, the team’s going to have to work hard to even crack the Top 35 before Martinsville – a crucial element to their survival, as Petty isn’t known to be the best qualifier in recent years. Atlanta should be a telltale sign of how bad off Petty’s car really is; with a recent history that includes three top-20 finishes in his last four races there, it should be the best chance this season for the No. 45 to pick up the pace. If they don’t, the dangers of Friday qualifying loom ever closer.