After a bout with Mother Nature forced a bizarre finish in the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono – the second straight week of strange results for NASCAR – there was plenty of heating up and cooling off throughout the sport’s top levels. So, without further ado let’s get right to the list of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not with just five races left to go in the regular season:
Carl Edwards: Kyle Busch, meet your biggest threat for the title. While Lil’ Busch has gotten all of the media attention – and rightfully, so with seven wins – Edwards has lurked right behind, in the back end of the top five. Now, with an apparent spot in the Chase locked up, Edwards and his No. 99 team have adopted Busch’s all or nothing mentality beginning this weekend at Pocono, and are 1-for-1 in the win column to date.
And despite three less wins and three less top fives than Busch, Edwards has been far more consistent, with two more top 10s and just three finishes outside the top 20. He moves up two spots this week to third in points, nine points behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 185 back from Busch in his quest for the first title trophy. Let’s not forget, the No. 99 was also docked a 100-point penalty they had to overcome following a win at Las Vegas earlier this season, too.
Jimmie Johnson: The hottest driver in the series right now, Johnson joins Edwards as Busch’s toughest competition when the Chase begins. Three consecutive top threes, two consecutive poles and a win last week has Johnson fourth in points.
AJ Allmendinger: The most improved driver of the second half of the season has to be Allmendinger. Removed from the seat in the early part of the season because of his inability to qualify the No. 84 on time, the former Champ Car driver has now improved his consecutive start streak to 13 races – a career high. Getting over that Friday hump has translated into Sunday success, as ‘Dinger has earned five top 20s in his last eight races to gain crucial confidence behind the wheel. After finishing in 19th place at Pocono on fumes – his third straight top 20 – the strong finish leaves the No. 84 just 38 points from its first ever trip inside the Top 35.
Kasey Kahne: Creeping closer and closer to solidly making the Chase, Kahne has enjoyed three seventh-place finishes in his last four races and four consecutive top 15s. It’s been an up and down year for Kahne, but this is the best time for him and the No. 9 team to post solid finishes.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon fans who have waited all season for the No. 24 to break into victory lane may finally get their wish this weekend. Gordon has four wins in his career at Watkins Glen and is finally posting consistent finishes, with five runs inside the top 12 in his last six races.
David Ragan: Could Ragan possibly sneak into the Chase? He’s flirted with the top 12 for two months now, but with the number of regular season races winding down, he’s stepped up his game. Focusing in to the tune of three top 10s in four races and a 14th last week at Indy, Ragan peaked with a surprising fifth-place run at Pocono Sunday afternoon. That shortened his deficit to 46 from 12th place, and makes this week crucial for Ragan’s Chase hopes. He finished 32nd at the Glen last year, and 40th in the series’ other road-course race at Sonoma earlier this season.
Kevin Harvick: Early problems last week at Indy resulted in a 37th-place finish and a drop from the top 12, but with similar problems early in the race this week, Harvick recovered to post a solid fourth-place finish. With two top fives in his last three races, Harvick has run well – he just needs to maintain consistency to make the Chase.
Michael Waltrip: Things cannot get any worse for Waltrip as a driver or an owner. As an owner, he’s recently seen his No. 00 team fall out of the Top 35 in owner points with Michael McDowell at the helm, and as a driver, three consecutive races outside of the Top 35 combined with engine problems this week have dropped the No. 55 just 63 points from the bubble position. This is the first time this season Waltrip has failed to finish inside the Top 35 in three consecutive races.
Paul Menard: After a crash this week and an eventful race at Indy last week, Menard has now finished worse than 40th in consecutive races. While it’s been an improved year for him and the No. 15 team, neither can afford to slip in the final stretch of the season.
Juan Pablo Montoya: It’s hard to believe Montoya was flirting with the Chase in April. In 12 races since, the No. 42 has finished 30th or worse in an absurd eight times. With an accident last week and an engine failure this week, the road course ace has his eyes set on improving his season with a solid run at Watkins Glen.
Kurt Busch: Both Buschs have struggled to post solid finishes of late, but the older Busch has raced himself right out of the Chase. Four finishes outside of the top 25 in his last six races and back-to-back finishes outside the Top 35 have left Busch and the No. 2 team looking for answers.
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