As the 2009 season wears on, some of the teams that have had early success are finding themselves in a point standings freefall. As they disappear from view, the composition of the top 12 is starting to take form, with annual contenders slowly creeping towards and into that coveted threshold. The season may be early and the beginning of the Chase months away, but these men are proving they will be threats nearly every week.
At the other end of the points are heavily-funded teams that find themselves one bad race away from beginning Martinsville, the first race that uses 2009 owner points, without the comfort of being locked in via the Top-35 rule. For them, the upcoming week off will be filled with little sleep and lots of worry, their very futures hanging in the balance on the high-banks of Bristol in two weeks.
Here are some examples of both these scenarios unfolding, further developing after many teams struggled to find a setup to complement a hard tire and an irritable racecar this past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway…
HOT: Clint Bowyer – His season in a nutshell: walk quietly and carry a big stick. Bowyer is second in points, 43 behind leader Jeff Gordon, with his only non-top 10 finish occurring in the Auto Club 500. Bowyer was lucky to not have pitted during the early-race green-flag stops at Atlanta, when most of the field got trapped one or more laps down after the untimely “crewman caution.” He remained in the top 10 from that point on, running as high as third before slipping to a finish of sixth.
HOT: Kurt Busch – So far, what a difference a year makes. It’s clear four races into the season that Penske’s decision to implement Dodge’s new motor appears to be paying dividends — at least for their Miller Lite Dodge. While most drivers struggled during Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, Busch dominated, leading six times for 234 laps in all. Like Bowyer, Busch has three top 10s, and has quietly shown that his team is one of the early favorites to remain in Chase contention. Busch also sits only three points behind Bowyer, jumping to third in the Sprint Cup standings after his victory.
HOT: Gordon – One reason given for Gordon’s absence from Victory Lane is his trouble adjusting to the CoT. But at this point, it looks like the Rainbow Warrior has finally gotten over the hump of handling this ultra-loose racecar. Seeing Gordon daringly swing the No. 24 under Carl Edwards for second place and nearly overtake Busch at the very end of Sunday’s race is the latest proof the veteran may be back in winning form. Seeing him explain that he’s gone out of his way to get in better physical shape is yet another sign a winless 2008 was a wake-up call for the four-time champ, whose victory drought is on the verge of ending within the immediate future.
WARM: Martin Truex Jr. – Truex literally was hot in this race. Not only did Truex keep a handle on a wobbly racecar, but the Bass Pro Shops Chevy developed an alternator issue that forced him to shut off the in-car cooling system. All this happened just 12-18 hours after Truex was in the emergency room with kidney stones, leaving Ron Hornaday standing by in case he couldn’t leave the hospital and race. The No. 1 team has struggled this season, but Sunday’s race had to boost morale in the EGR camp. After an off kilter 2008 and a mediocre start to 2009, a 10th-place run like Sunday can start a needed wave of momentum if this team is to contend for the Chase once again.
WARM: Brian Vickers – Vickers has done an amazing job of bouncing back from his Daytona debacle, grabbing top-10 honors in each of the three races since. Not only did Vickers pad that total with a fifth-place run on Sunday, but he was in second place and reeling in leader Busch before the final pit sequence shuffled the No. 83 too far back in the running order. Now 11th in points and in real sync with new crew chief Ryan Pemberton, Victory Lane may not be far away.
WARM: Edwards – The third-place finisher in Sunday’s race took on two tires before the green-white-checkered after his pit stall location had cost him precious track position all day. Edwards is one of the few drivers that enjoys the challenge of Atlanta Motor Speedway’s old pavement versus NASCAR’s new car, and it shows out on the racetrack — he’s led a total of 159 laps in the three CoT races held there since 2008. Now fourth in points despite losing a motor late in Las Vegas, the ’09 preseason favorite to unseat Jimmie Johnson for the season title seems to be building up momentum towards a run to the top. Let’s not forget, Edwards is the last driver to have won at the Sprint Cup Series’ next stop, Bristol Motor Speedway.
COLD: Mark Martin – Here’s Martin’s 2009 season to date: Two blown motors, a wounded car because of a failed tire, and a modest 16th-place run in the Daytona 500. That’s left him 35th in owner points and in danger of being forced to qualify on speed following the fifth race of the season at Bristol. Nope, you are not reading this wrong — Martin in the No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports is 15 points and one points position behind the No. 71 TRG team and driver David Gilliland. Not only is the TRG team a single-car, underfunded operation, but in case you forgot, they missed the Daytona 500 with former driver Mike Wallace. Even sitting on the front row and having fast cars in practice isn’t enough to cure the ills of NASCAR’s hardest-luck driver these days. Martin’s first pole since May of 2001 was nice to put on his resume, but that hardly accomplishes a season-long goal of making the Chase and returning to Victory Lane for the first time in over three years.
COLD: Travis Kvapil – The third Yates Racing driver, who does not have a full-time sponsor, has made three of the season’s four races — but has little to nothing to show for it on Sundays. Mired in 39th in owner points as a result of an engine failure at Atlanta, Kvapil likely will spend most of 2009 having to time himself and the No. 28 team into each race. And that’s if Kvapil even sticks around that long — owner Doug Yates has yet to commit to running the car beyond the first five races of the season. But as bad as Kvapil’s luck has been, Paul Menard has been locked into every race this year in the No. 98 — and he’s only 24 points and one position ahead of his teammate. Ouch.
COLD: Sam Hornish Jr. – Hornish has shown that he can run well for periods of time in certain races, but fate and the inability to master the control of a 3,500-pound stock car leaves the former Indy Racing League and Indy 500 champ with no top 10s in 40 career Sprint Cup starts. Hornish’s inability to hang onto his racecar in the Kobalt Tools 500 cost both him and hometown Dawsonville, Ga. favorite Bill Elliott shots at top-20 finishes. Four races into the season, Hornish sits 31st in points, a major disappointment for a man who once dominated the IRL earlier this decade.
Here is some more of the HOT and the NOT from the week in racing
HOT: The finish to this weekend’s races – Both the Truck and Cup events at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend featured competitive racing and clever pit strategy as the checkered flags neared. In the Cup race, Busch held off a hard-charging Gordon and Edwards after passing them both in the final laps. In the Truck race, winner Kyle Busch managed to rebound from losing ground during restarts because of a faulty transmission to pass and hold off Kevin Harvick, a driver who was one push away from knocking Busch out of the way on the last lap. These great endings made up for a lack of lead-lap cars in both races, caused by dominating performances from the cars running up front.
NOT: The lack of cars finishing the weekend’s races – Not only were there multiple start-and-parks in the Truck Series Saturday, but Mike Bliss and the No. 09 Dodge called it a day with “overheating” issues just 21 laps into Sunday’s Cup race. This wasn’t the only car to wind up in the garage, however. Mechanical failures and crashes left the Cup Series with 10 retired cars and the Truck Series with 11 DNFs – almost one third of their 36-truck field.
HOT: Starting the Atlanta race at a decent hour – After three straight weeks of late starts and finishes, the green flag flew at around 2:20 p.m. Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while the race ended at around 6:30. This is still later than most people would like to see the checkers fly — but at least it did not last until bedtime. Atlanta Motor Speedway and NASCAR each deserve a pat on the back for handling the start times the right way this weekend.
NOT: Lack of Truck Series sponsors – Todd Bodine has finishes of first, second, and third, respectively, in the first three Truck Series races of 2009. Yet while speaking to the media after Saturday’s race, Bodine — sporting a one-race sponsorship from Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery in Atlanta — said that he does not know if his Germain Racing No. 30 team would even go to Martinsville. Likewise, the longtime Truck Series veteran told me on Friday that his team would not be able to support itself and could cease operations at any time. For a series that provides the best racing within the sport’s top three divisions, the economy has really taken its toll. Several start and parkers and other teams on the verge of closing shop are not the recipe of success for a series that continues to earn rave reviews despite it all.