Some teams came out of the block strong following good runs in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Due to the nature of restrictor-plate racing, fate can play a major role in which teams are successful and which head to California hoping to get their season on the right track. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of NASCAR’s Super Bowl, following intermediate track races at California, Las Vegas, and Atlanta will play a much larger role than Daytona in determining which teams and drivers are actually contenders and pretenders for the championship.
Here are the hot, warm, and cold drivers following the Great American Race:
HOT – Matt Kenseth: The winner of the Daytona 500 cannot be absent from “hot” status anytime soon. By capturing a checkered flag in the 500, Kenseth not only ended a winless drought that had been in place since Homestead in November 2007, but he also scored his first Cup win at Daytona. His only two other wins at the track were in the Nationwide Series in 2000 and in IROC in 2006. Kenseth has also never won at Talladega, making a restrictor-plate victory even more impressive for the driver of the No. 17. Kenseth also claimed victory in his first race with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer (after going to a backup car), who was making his Sprint Cup debut as crew chief. Blickensderfer, who worked with Kenseth on the No. 17 Nationwide Series team in recent years, scored a win in his first race with Carl Edwards in the Nationwide Series last season. With a monkey off their back in several categories, expect big things from the No. 17 in 2009.
HOT – Kyle Busch: Yes, I am talking about the same Busch who finished 41st in the Daytona 500. I am also talking about the same Busch that almost won the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races at Daytona, as well as his Gatorade Duel race on Thursday. Busch led 88 of the 123 laps he completed in the Daytona 500 and was easily the most dominant car on the track before getting swept up in the lap 124 wreck (there will be more on that crash later). Busch also led 14 laps in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, finishing fourth, and 18 laps in Friday’s Truck race, scoring a runner-up finish. This only goes to show that the random nature of attrition and success at restrictor-plate races does not allow some teams to show their true colors. Busch started 2008 very similarly, as he took several races to break into the win column in both the Nationwide and Cup Series despite being dominant the whole year. Once Busch won, he went on a tear. Hopefully for Busch, he and the No. 18 team will not be derailed if bad luck does catch up to them late in the year, as it did last season.
HOT – Kevin Harvick: “Happy” Harvick has tons to smile about following Speedweeks. The No. 29 team went to Victory Lane in the Bud Shootout and came one position short in the Daytona 500. Harvick, like Kenseth, started the race in a backup car and struggled early on in the 500. Early in the event, in fact, Harvick could not keep up with the lead draft and had to settle for a running position in the high 30s. As Todd Berrier and his team improved the car, Harvick gained positions on the track and found himself in the right place at the right time as the rain began to fall. Harvick also drove his own No. 33 Chevy to a decent finish in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race.
WARM – Tony Stewart: Stewart should be very impressed with his debut in his own No. 14 team. After running near the front for a large portion of the race, pit stops shuffled the Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy back to eighth position at the Daytona 500’s finish. Stewart also piloted his No. 80 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy to victory Saturday, pulling off a sly last-lap block on a hard-charging Busch. Stewart’s real test will come at the following intermediate race tracks, where the majority of the Cup schedule’s races run.
WARM – AJ Allmendinger: What a Speed Weeks for “The Dinger”! The driver of the new No. 44 team had to race his way via the Duels into the Daytona 500… and he did so successfully. ‘Dinger also had only raced in two restrictor-plate races in his career before Sundays, but his run was no fluke; he ran in the top 10 for at least half the race, and proved to more experienced drivers that he is a decent drafting partner. The biggest test for Allmendinger this season actually lies on the marketing department at Richard Petty Motorsports: can they secure sponsorship for the No. 44 that will the team to run the whole year? If Allmendinger continues the success this season that he began in the middle of last year, then sponsorship — and thus, more races — are likely to come his way.
WARM – David Ragan: Ragan had had a rough Speedweeks up until Sunday. The driver of the No. 6, with new sponsorship from UPS, wrecked his car in the Bud Shootout and damaged his car in the Gatorade Duel race. Ragan also spun out Martin Truex Jr. in the Duel race and Aric Almirola at the beginning of the Daytona 500. Ragan rebounded to climb through the field and stay in the top 10 for much of the race. His sixth-place finish is a good prelude for what many are hyping to be his first season inside the Chase.
COLD – Joey Logano: The rookie struggled in his initial Cup races last season and stumbled through this year’s SpeedWeeks. After practically falling out of the lead pack early in the Daytona 500, a caution allowed the No. 20 Toyota a chance to catch back up with the lead pack. As soon as Logano had a second chance to slice and dice with the big boys, he got punted off the racetrack and into the inside retaining wall ending his day. On the brighter side of things, I met my first diehard Logano fan, a 16 year-old Russian exchange student named Natasha who was attending her first-ever NASCAR race. Needless to say, she was quite disappointed to see a heaping pile of Home Depot wreckage. The biggest thing that Logano needs to succeed is confidence and Daytona may have left his self-esteem tank close to empty.
COLD – Scott Speed: Speed lost three racecars during the Weeks section of the season named after him. He is the only other driver eligible for Rookie of the Year besides Logano and both sustained damage in the same wreck, just prior to the race’s midway point. Speed has more of an upswing than Logano, because he is a race with more experience and has less pressure on him. Speed, though, is racing in inferior equipment to Logano’s and may struggle at no fault of his own during more races than “Sliced Bread.”
COLD – Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Dale Jr. once again proved his inability to race well in the clutch during the Daytona 500. His over-aggressive move on Brian Vickers took out several cars. Getting into another lap down car in front of the whole field, with a large portion of the race left, went to show that Junior seems to struggle when the pressure pours on him. Junior acted immaturely after the race regarding the wreck, but at least confessed to overshooting his pit box (which put him a lap down). Junior is in his mid-30s, and is in his 10th full-time season racing Sprint Cup. He also is racing in top notch Hendrick Motorsports equipment, and is supposed to be a favorite for the championship. If he and his team do not begin running well when running well counts most, Junior’s move to Hendrick Motorsports could be considered one of the most over-hyped flops in NASCAR history.
Here are some other issues or events that have made the “Hot” or Not” list:
HOT – The weekend’s races: All three races at Daytona were exciting and had enough storylines to make an episode of The Hills blush. Fortunately, unlike last October’s Talladega Cup race, there were no giant “yellow line” controversies. Sure, Sunday’s 500 ended because of rain and there were few lead changes, but the racing was fairly clean and many positions in the field switched hands. Both of the last laps for the Nationwide and Truck Series races also had awesome finishes.
NOT – Jason Leffler’s penalty: NASCAR penalized Leffler five laps for aggressive driving after wrecking Steve Wallace during the Nationwide Series race. The ensuing wreck took out several other cars. Unless a driver intentionally takes another driver out and it puts other cars in danger, like the wreck between David Gilliland and Juan Pablo Montoya at Texas late last season. David Reutimann ran over Ryan Newman during Thursday’s duel and received no penalty. Earnhardt and Brian Vickers received no disciplinary action from NASCAR for their over-aggressive actions and resulting wreck during Sunday’s wreck. Drivers should not have to peek over their shoulders when they are making split-second decisions during races, wondering if NASCAR is going to penalize them for their moves. Logano was unfairly assessed a penalty by NASCAR during the Toyota All-Star Showdown, and Saturday’s decision to penalize Leffler sets a nasty precedence for punishment that could leave drivers and teams in fear — especially as the short-track races come closer.
HOT – The teams that made the Daytona 500: There were several teams attempting the Daytona 500 this year that were only hoping to make that race alone, score the big payday, and then go home packing. With so many teams trying to start up this year and run the full schedule, seeing ones that were trying to get into the race actually make it was in the best interests of the sport. Scott Riggs is planning on running a full season in Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36 Toyota, and made the race to give his team new life. The same lies true for Jeremy Mayfield in the No. 41 Toyota, Terry Labonte in the No. 66, Travis Kvapil in the No. 28 Ford, and even Allmendinger, who will run full-time if sponsorship comes along. The success of these teams hinged upon making the big race, and even a lousy result means more income that will allow them to continue. Bill Elliott in the No. 21 and Regan Smith in the No. 78 timed themselves into Sunday’s race and their teams do not intend on making a full run this year, but that is not as infuriating as seeing John Andretti and the No. 34 make the race via a locked-in Top-35 guaranteed position… and that team is not planning to run the whole year. Yes, the system has flaws, but worked for the most part, for the Daytona 500. Also refreshing was the fact that MSRP, now Prism Motorsports, had two entries that failed to make Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. Both the Nos. 90 and 91 teams are known to be start and park entries. Starting and parking is not real racing.
NOT – The lack of competition in the Nationwide Series: One reason that fans like restrictor-plate racing is because it puts most teams on a nearly level playing field. The restricted engines tighten up the racing pack and help enable small teams to rise to the lead pack in a flash, something that is more than daunting on other racetracks. This was not true, however, during Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. Many teams wasted little time falling off the pace and out of the lead pack. None of the teams appeared to be start and park entries, but the No. 52 of Donnie Neuenberger was a lap down by lap 11. Only 10-15 cars really had a shot at victory Saturday — and that is a liberal estimate. NASCAR needs to limit Cup involvement in the Nationwide Series or at least enable some cost-cutting measures if it wants that racing series to remain viable in the future.
Listen to Doug on a racing radio show this Saturday from 1-3 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta — and online at wsbradio.com.