There were fireworks before and after the finish of Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, as 11 cautions – most of them late – led to a mini-demolition derby of sorts which changed the outcome of the race. Helping some while hurting others, those last-minute wrecks completely changed the placement of several of our Hot/Not drivers this week. Most notable of those was Jeff Burton, whose consecutive top-15 streak ended at Daytona when he was wrecked not once, but twice during the race.
Who else suffered mightily after watching their car turn into a piece from the junkyard, you ask? Well, here is this week’s look at the hot, the warm and the cold after a hot and sticky Saturday night in Daytona Beach.
Kyle Busch: I know that everyone is sick of hearing how great this driver and team are, but there is no denying this fact: Busch has won on just about every kind of track this year. And – after winning his sixth race in only 18 starts – Busch is also on pace to come one short of Jeff Gordon’s amazing 13 race-winning year in 1998. With the victory at Daytona, Busch also extended his points lead to 182 over now second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. Busch is now easily poised to make the Chase and could start with a healthy lead if he wins three or four more races between now and the beginning of September. For those looking for the only chinks in his armor, they come in that he could be peaking at the wrong time and that run-ins, like the one with Juan Pablo Montoya at New Hampshire, could prove costly in the Chase.
Matt Kenseth: The No. 17 DeWalt team and its driver sure know how to pour on the mojo then they need to. Kenseth finished worse than 35th in three consecutive races before ripping off seven top-10 finishes in his last eight starts to cap a remarkable rebound up to ninth in the points standings. Kenseth knows how to mount consistency, but now, he could be looking for more. A win or two would not only give Kenseth some distance from the Chase cutoff, but also would give him some sorely needed bonus points in a Chase where eight of the current top-12 drivers have won at least once.
Carl Edwards: What oil cover? When the No. 99 team received the massive points penalty from NASCAR after their technical violation at Las Vegas, his position in the championship standings plummeted. But that was early in the season and since then, Edwards just has not looked back. He has only one finish outside of the top 10 since Talladega, and his near-win at Daytona only goes to show that the No. 99 can hang with anybody at any racetrack.
Kurt Busch: The No. 2 team had the ultimate up-and-down weekend. He led the first practice, crashed at the end of that practice, struggled early in the Daytona race, but rebounded to finish fourth. That’s just one week after Busch and crew chief Pat Tryson used pit strategy to win at New Hampshire, bumping him up to 18th in the season standings and giving him two consecutive top-five finishes for the first time all year. Busch is still a long shot to make the Chase, but this shot in the arm will make him a factor in future races.
Tony Stewart: Though he has not had the finishes to show for it, the Home Depot team has run well – even with the rampant silly season rumors regarding Stewart’s future. Once again, the No. 20 was running strong at a race in Daytona, until Stewart literally got hot under the collar and gave way to JJ Yeley. After a 20th-place finish by Yeley led to more disappointment, it’s becoming obvious Smoke needs to break his nearly yearlong winless drought soon to solidify his spot in the Chase.
Earnhardt Jr.: Junior assumed the second position in the points with a solid run on Saturday night, and he’s showing consistency like no other time in his career. The man’s only three non-top 15 finishes this year are due to being caught up in wrecks that were not his fault, and he’s only 182 points behind the man he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports. The team is strong, the relationship with Tony Eury Jr. is functional, and there is a big wave of Amp Energy for the No. 88 team as the season stretches into the second half.
Burton: The driver of the No. 31 had his season-long streak of top-15 finishes this season came to an end in Daytona, as he was caught up in two crashes not of his making. Still, Burton has run well at every track this year – just not well enough to win. This team may be a lock to make the Chase, but won’t make championship noise unless the team takes it to the next level.
Kasey Kahne: The only factor keeping the Budweiser driver from being a HOT driver is his lack of consistency. Since Memorial Day Weekend at Charlotte, he has two wins, another top five – and three finishes outside the top 30 in six races. Go back and study Kenseth, Mr. Kahne.
David Ragan: Ragan has lost positions in the points but has remained in Chase contention through a so-so summer stretch. He rebounded from a pit-road speeding penalty to finish fifth Saturday night, and was running very well the entire Daytona race to keep his playoff hopes alive. However, expect him to be in the Chase next year rather than this one.
Michael Waltrip: This driver and team are better described as almost tepid, but nonetheless, the No. 55 car had a fluke runner-up finish at New Hampshire and was running in the top 10 at Daytona before wrecking at the end of the race. This is good news for a team very close to the Top 35 cutoff.
Reed Sorenson: Two weeks ago, this guy’s future in the No. 41 car was all but over – but since then, Sorenson has run well. He qualified and finished well at New Hampshire, then drove conservatively and finished in the top 25 at Daytona. These runs should help build his confidence and get his team rolling in the right direction.
David Gilliland: After running second at Sonoma two weeks ago, Gilliland was running in the top five at Daytona before succumbing to tire issues. Rumors of solid sponsorship for the whole Yates Racing operation, plus the possible addition of a third team, means the tide could be turning for this Ford operation.
Recent first-time polesitters: Both Paul Menard and Patrick Carpentier are showing improvements on the track as of late. Menard won the Daytona pole and finished 15th; just ahead of him was Carpentier, who faltered after winning the New Hampshire pole but came back to wind up 14th this week. That was Carpentier’s best Cup finish – and it was at a restrictor-plate track, no less! Pretty good for a former open-wheeler with less than a year of stock car experience.
Jamie McMurray: Rampant speculation about this driver’s future spurred a couple of top-10 runs at Dover and Michigan. However, at both New Hampshire and Daytona, the driver of the No. 26 wrecked and finished back in the pack. Maybe the rumors are about to start once again…
Yeley: Talk about the roller coaster world of NASCAR. Yeley and the No. 96 team failed to qualify at Sonoma, finished third at New Hampshire, and then failed to qualify at Daytona. Yeley did step into a fast No. 20 car for the ailing Stewart Saturday night, but could not hang in the lead draft like Smoke could, got caught up in a late-race wreck, and finished outside the top 15.
Keep in mind that Yeley was fired from a car last year for underperforming, and that team is now leading the points with Kyle Busch. The way this season has unfolded after that, before you know it, Yeley’s name may be in the rumor mill before long… for all the wrong reasons.
Montoya: His overaggressive driving style, combined with the firing of key members of his team, have left the driver of the No. 42 with pathetic finishes. He already is well out of Chase contention and likely will not contend for a race victory until Watkins Glen.
The Wood Brothers: This team just cannot make the best out of a good run. The No. 21 was running in the top five at Sonoma with Marcos Ambrose before breaking a transmission. The next week, that gave the car momentum – until Ambrose failed to qualify for New Hampshire. At Daytona, the team threw a radical setup in the car for driver Jon Wood, allowing him to just barely make the race. Just like Talladega, though, the team pulled not only into the pits, but into the garage just after the green flag, as their setup was simply too aggressive to run in race trim. Finishing seven laps off the pace, this team continues to run well outside the Top 35, and is rolling over and almost dying right now.
Haas CNC: It does not matter which car makes the race or where it qualifies; both the No. 66 and No. 70 teams run like junk in race trim. Scott Riggs has failed to qualify for two races (one in the No. 70 car) and the No. 70 team has failed to qualify for several races since two 150-point penalties for technical infractions crippled this operation. The rumored injection of money and talent from Stewart is the only way that this team will be able to harness all of the resources it has and garner good results.
Mike Lovecchio should be back next week. By then, there could be shakeups on all three of these lists, as crazy as this NASCAR season continues to be.