As Jeff Burton took the white flag for what would soon be the 40-year-old driver’s first victory since April of last year, the UPS No. 44 car crawled along the apron as the eventual winner passed. It was Dale Jarrett‘s final lap in a Sprint Cup points race, and just as the 1999 champion had done since his first start in 1984, the 51-year-old raced with respect and gave the leaders room. Few drivers are as respected among the NASCAR garage as Jarrett – but ironically, Sunday’s Food City 500 winner was among that elite group, too.
As fate would have it, the same driver who raced clean and accepted a second-place finish to Kyle Busch at Bristol one year ago had the race fall into his lap when leader Denny Hamlin fell off the pace with a fuel pickup problem a lap and a half from the finish. Now armed with 20 career wins, Burton has emerged as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, off to the same solid start that propelled him to a spot in the Chase last year.
The same cannot be said for a select group of teams now outside the Top 35 in owner points; digging themselves a deep hole, they will now have to qualify their way into the the field starting in two weeks at Martinsville. To see who else is left scrounging around for eggs this Easter weekend – as well as which drivers are best positioned to compete with the streaky Burton – check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup.
Burton: Burton has had a year as quiet as Darrell Waltrip with laryngitis. Sunday’s win was a perfect example of how Burton can run a smooth and steady race, yet somehow be in the front when it counts; it’s something the Virginian has done a lot of lately, recording three consecutive top 10s while never finishing lower than 13th this season. Now fourth in points, Burton stands just 37 out of the lead five races into 2008.
Kevin Harvick: The whole Stewart – Harvick tangle may have taken a bit away from Harvick’s second-place finish, but while the accident may have taken some by surprise, another top 10 for the No. 29 team was par for the course. Sunday marked Harvick’s fourth top 10 in five races this season, with the lone exception a 14th place while defending his Daytona 500 title in February.
Kasey Kahne: The No. 9 has undergone a complete 180 in ’08. At this point one season ago, Kahne was 34th in driver points, his team flirting with dropping out of the coveted Top 35. But in 2008, Kahne has yet to fall below seventh; this week, he bounced back from a disappointing 28th place at Atlanta last Sunday for his fourth top 10 in the first five races this season (seventh).
Hamlin: In a span of 20 minutes, Joe Gibbs Racing went from the possibility of having a 1-2 finish to having just one car in the top 10. But while Hamlin’s fuel-pickup problem may have cost him the victory, the sixth-place finish inched him closer to the coveted top 12 in points. After finishing 17th and 41st in the first two races, Hamlin has not finished outside of the top 15 since, with top 10s in Vegas and Bristol to show for his efforts.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer has jumped 15 spots in driver points in the past two weeks, with finishes of sixth and third to jumpstart his season. It may have been slow going in the first two events – the No. 07 had a best finish of 19th – but the Richard Childress Racing program as a whole has really started clicking. For proof, just look at its 1-2-3 finish this week.
Casey Mears: The No. 24 and No. 48 Hendrick cars may be struggling, but Mears is struggling on a completely different level. The possibility of a Hendrick team flirting with the Top 35 seems unfathomable, but Mears has had three finishes of 35th or lower in the first five races to turn it into reality.
Sam Hornish Jr.: Hornish has one thing going for him; he’s in the Top 35 in owner points even after the five-race gift from teammate Kurt Busch. But the question still remains; how long will that “cushion” last? The former IndyCar Series star has struggled to get accustomed to NASCAR, averaging a 30.6-place finish, and now he’s just four points away from falling outside the bubble.
Others: Carl Edwards (Strong start, but 16th place finish leaves Edwards 16th in points)
Dave Blaney: Remember all that talk about how fast Blaney was in Daytona testing? It’s an afterthought now, as the No. 22 is currently on the wrong end of the Top 35. But if there is anything positive about Blaney’s position, it’s that he has experience battling his way back into the bubble after last season. However, a season-high finish of 26th just won’t cut it; this team needs to step it up a notch moving forward.
Jamie McMurray: Perhaps McMurray is suffering from the possibility of being the odd man out at Roush Fenway Racing, but while the other Roush cars are flirting with the top 12 (Edwards would be in if it weren’t for the 100-point penalty), McMurray is facing the prospect of qualifying on speed at Martinsville. Caught up in an accident this week, it was the No. 26 team’s second straight race of finishing 40th or worse; now, he’s 36th in owner points and vulnerable to the dreaded DNQ.
Kyle Petty: I hate to write this as much as NASCAR fans hate to watch it. Truth is, Petty and the No. 45 team just aren’t cutting it this year. A 28th-place finish this week at Bristol was Petty’s best finish of the year, but he still has the least points of any driver to start all five races this season.