Carl Edwards returned to victory lane this weekend at Atlanta and is now one win behind Kyle Busch for the series lead, but Jimmie Johnson utilized late-race pit strategy for an impressive runner-up finish. The second-place run improves the No. 48 team’s stranglehold on the rest of the Chase field to 183 points, increasing the likelihood of what would be a third consecutive championship.
Johnson has garnered the most headlines since the Chase began seven races ago, but it’s one of his teammates who has quietly been one of the most consistent drivers right along with him. To see who that is and who else has been strong as of late, check out this week’s version of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup, Chase Edition.
Johnson: Let me say this right now: Johnson may not have mathematically clinched the championship with a second-place run this weekend, but crew chief Chad Knaus’s late-race pit gamble for tires that propelled the No. 48 team through the field may have “officially” won this team the title. Johnson went a lap down early, but was awarded the Lucky Dog after a Kasey Kahne spin. After slowly climbing through the field, the No. 48 zipped past Denny Hamlin on the final lap for the runner-up finish that widened the points gap. Now, Johnson needs just three runs of ninth or better to secure the first three-peat since Cale Yarborough‘s run in 1976-78.
Edwards: This week’s winner said it best in a post-race interview: Edwards has to win the next three races AND hope for bad luck for the No. 48 team to have a shot at the championship. How dominating has Johnson been? Edwards has five top-three finishes in seven Chase races, yet is still 183 points behind the series leader.
Jeff Gordon: While his teammate and points leader is getting all of the accolades, Gordon has been quietly consistent the last seven weeks. Sunday’s ninth-place run was his third consecutive top 10 and fifth of the Chase. What leaves Gordon sixth in points is zero wins this season and an engine failure at Talladega.
Hamlin: After four consecutive non-top 10s, Hamlin sat last in the Chase standings three weeks ago. Last week, the No. 11 got back on track with a fifth-place run at Martinsville and backed that up with a third-place finish at Atlanta on Sunday. Hamlin sits 11th in the standings, but is just 64 points out of eighth and could salvage a spot on the stage in New York.
Matt Kenseth: Nobody has been more “Hot/Not” than Kenseth this Chase. In the seven races, the No. 17 team has three DNFs, but they also have four top-10 finishes. This week’s fourth-place run is Kenseth’s second consecutive top 10 and moves him into ninth in points.
Greg Biffle: Biffle was one of the series’ hottest drivers at the start of the Chase with three top-three finishes to open the playoffs. But after a crash at Talladega, the No. 16 team has struggled to regain its form with finishes of seventh, 12th and 10th in the last three races. Recovering from a lap down for a top-10 finish this week was a solid effort by Biffle, but the win by Edwards dropped him back into third in points.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer has to be ecstatic that his weekend at Atlanta is over. Everything happened to the RCR driver this weekend, from a crash in Happy Hour to a pit-road accident with Juan Pablo Montoya on Sunday. The result was a 20th-place finish, Bowyer’s first non-top 12 of the Chase.
Kevin Harvick: The best moment of Harvick’s weekend was watching his two KHI trucks battle it out for the win en route to a 1-2 finish on Saturday. The next day, Harvick had a so-so afternoon that led to a 13th-place finish – one that left him hanging on to fifth in points by a thread over Gordon. Unfortunately, the No. 29 team has done little to pick up ground on the competition lately, with three non-top 10s in the last four races.
Busch: The mystique of the No. 18 team diminished after four non-top 10s to start the Chase, but Lil’ Busch is starting to show glimpses of returning to his winning ways. Since that poor start, the No. 18 team has two top fives in its last three races, including a fifth this weekend, but still finished 29th last week at Martinsville.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A streak of four consecutive non-top 10s came to an end last week, as Junior looked strong en route to a second-place run at Martinsville. This week, the No. 88 team had an up-and-down race that ended in an 11th-place finish. Junior drops to 10th in points this week, but is happy to head to Texas, where he was once one of the most dominant drivers on the 1.5-mile oval.
Jeff Burton: Ever since moving into the runner-up position in the standings three weeks ago, Burton and the No. 31 team have struggled. With a 17th-place run last week and an 18th this week after a late-race crash, Burton has dropped to fourth in points, 218 behind Johnson and all but out of title contention.
Tony Stewart: Stewart’s tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing is coming to an end, but unfortunately for him, his good runs have as well. Since winning at Talladega four weeks ago, Stewart has yet to finish inside the top 10 and has dropped outside the top 15 in each of the last two weeks. A 17th-place run this week drops the No. 20 team to more than 400 points behind Johnson and closer to falling out of the top 10 in points.