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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2008 Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix

Very rarely do you see a former champion show so much admiration for another. But when Kurt Busch finished runner-up to points leader Jimmie Johnson this weekend at Phoenix, he admitted that the No. 48 team was “something special,” and told fans to tune in or come to watch NASCAR’s next big dynasty. It’s true that nobody has been able to touch Johnson, Chad Knaus and Co. in the Chase, and this week’s race was no different. Carl Edwards finished in the top five yet again, but lost points to the two-time defending champion, who won his seventh race of the year and increased his point lead to a nearly-insurmountable 141.

Johnson and Edwards have certainly been in a league of their own these last few weeks, but who else has been HOT as the season winds down? Check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup, Chase Edition to find out.

In a league of their own

Johnson and Edwards: After 35 races, there are just two drivers left standing with the Sprint Cup in their sights. Let’s face it: Johnson and Edwards are the two hottest drivers in the series right now, and have been for much of the season. And while Edwards needs a miracle to prevent Johnson from winning his third consecutive title, both of these drivers have been nearly unbeatable as of late.

Let’s compare these two drivers’ Chase stats:

Johnson: 9 races, 3 wins, 5 top threes, 6 top fives, 8 top 10s.
Edwards: 9 races, 2 wins, 6 top threes, 7 top fives, 7 top 10s.

Edwards did all he could this weekend, finishing fourth, but lost ground to the points leader, who left Phoenix with his seventh victory of the season. The two now head to the season finale at Homestead with Johnson needing merely a 36th-place finish to claim the championship.

HOT

Kyle Busch: Lil’ Busch is slowly regaining the consistency that made him the talk of the series for the first two-thirds of the season. With an eighth-place run this weekend, the No. 18 team has now finished in the top 10 for three straight weeks and four of the last five. In contrast, Busch started the Chase with five finishes of 15th or worse.

WARM

Jeff Gordon: Gordon had been one of the hottest drivers in the series, but took a hit in the points this week with engine problems that resulted in a DNF and a 41st-place finish. It was Gordon’s second engine failure of the Chase (Talladega: finished 38th), but in the seven other races, the No. 24 team’s worst finish is a respectable 14th, with six top 10s along the way.

Kevin Harvick: Seven has been Harvick’s lucky number as of late, as this week’s seventh-place run was the No. 29 team’s third seventh-place finish in the last four weeks. As a result, the No. 29 team jumped up two spots into the top five in points (from seventh – where else?), pulling just seven ahead of teammate Clint Bowyer with one race remaining. Harvick has been consistently strong this Chase with six top 10s and eight top 15s while never finishing worse than 20th.

Bowyer: Bowyer hasn’t really done anything special this Chase, but, like his teammate, has not finished outside the top 20. The No. 07 team finished 12th for the fourth time during the nine-race postseason this week, marking the best stretch of the year for Bowyer since late-April, early-May when he had seven consecutive top 10s. These playoffs aren’t as good for Bowyer as his Cinderella third-place run of 2007, but they’ve still left him within striking distance of finishing the year in the top five.

Greg Biffle: Biffle was eliminated from the championship picture this week following an 11th-place run at Phoenix, one that came after a transmission change left them starting shotgun on the field. The No. 16 team is still within striking distance of the runner-up spot in the standings, however, and rightfully so. Biffle was the victim of an accident at Talladega, but has finished in the top 15 in every other race in the Chase, including wins in the first two events.

Matt Kenseth: Winless Kenseth heads to a track where he won in 2007 this week. But while the No. 17 team looks to end its drought this season at Homestead, they have been strong in the past month, with four consecutive top-15 and three top-10 finishes. Kenseth sits eighth in points, but remains just four away from falling to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the 10th position – so he’s got a lot to race for, making any point penalties for a last-lap payback wreck of AJ Allmendinger potentially devastating.

Denny Hamlin: The biggest mover in points this week, Hamlin jumped up three spots to ninth after Phoenix. Hamlin’s Chase has been indicative of Gibbs’s struggles in the postseason, but he has three top fives in the last four races, including a fifth-place run on Sunday.

Earnhardt Jr.: The No. 88 team is getting better and better each week. After a disappointing start to the Chase that saw Junior with just one top 10 in the first six races, he has two in his last four – and keep in mind that one of those non-top 10s came on botched fuel strategy. Earnhardt moved back into the top 10 in points this week, but is just seven markers ahead of Kyle Busch for a spot on the stage in New York. That could be a problem, as he has yet to finish in the top 12 in any of his eight starts at Homestead.

COOL

Jeff Burton: Burton started the Chase strong with five consecutive top 10s, but has cooled off a bit as of late. He may still be in the top five in points, but a ninth place run this week was his first top 10 in the past month.

COLD

Tony Stewart: Next week’s race at Homestead will be Stewart’s last with Joe Gibbs Racing. The combination has been one of the strongest teams in the past decade, but they’ve really struggled during these playoffs. Stewart has just one top 10 in the last eight races, and sits dead last in the Chase standings.

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