Another one bit the dust in the sands out west at Phoenix Saturday night. But as the smoke cleared from the Cup Series’ eighth race of the season, we’re left with plenty of storylines from a weekend’s worth of action at PIR. Mark Martin became one of the oldest drivers ever to win a NASCAR race, scoring his first victory in nearly four years, while points leader Jeff Gordon surrendered nearly half his lead because of a late-race pit-road miscue – garnering him his first finish outside the top 15 all year. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart’s solid finishes will keep Gordon honest atop the standings heading into this weekend’s restrictor-plate showdown at Talladega.
As for Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, they were just a few of the Chase contenders who struggled to get a grip on the 1-mile D-shaped oval. But which one did I think has been slumping long enough to earn a spot in this column’s freezer? Read on to find out who – as well as the other HOT, WARM and COLD drivers in Sprint Cup halfway through the month of April:
HOT: Martin – Four straight top-10 finishes culminated with a win this past Saturday, Martin’s first since the fall of 2005. That victory vaulted him and the No. 5 team from 18th to 13th in points, leapfrogging floundering stablemate Dale Earnhardt Jr. for third-best out of the four-car Hendrick stable. After a dreadful start to 2009, Martin has improved from the cusp of the Top 35 to knocking on the door of the Chase in just four short weeks. But even with the recent momentum, a lifetime’s worth of bad luck has him nervous heading to Talladega for the first time since 2006. It’s a track where Martin has won twice throughout his stellar Cup career – but that last trip to victory lane came back in the spring of 1997. Ever since, he’s been victimized by more wrecks (nine) than top-10 finishes (seven) on the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
HOT: Stewart – Stewart’s first three top 10s in his self-owned No. 14 were all eighth-place finishes. That quick start proved impressive enough; but his last three races have been third-, fourth- and second-place runs, showing how far this team has come just two months into his first year at the helm. Stewart also led 16 laps in Texas and 19 laps in Phoenix on Saturday, where he scored his best finish of the season to date. Smoke now has the same number of top-10 finishes as Gordon and looks to steal more of his points lead at Talladega, a track where Stewart normally runs quite well and won for the first time in Cup last October.
HOT: Johnson – The three-time champ is in peak form already just two months into the season. While his bid for a four-peat fell short at Phoenix, the fourth-place finish left him, Stewart and Gordon as the only drivers with six top 10s this year. Not known for running this strong this early, Johnson’s fourth straight top five and fifth consecutive top 10 have left him with his best eight-race start in the points since 2006 (second place). After practically halving teammate Gordon’s lead atop the standings, look for Johnson to continue to close the gap at Talladega. It’s a track where the No. 48 rarely falters: he’s got an average finish of 6.5 in his last four starts at the speedway.
WARM: Sam Hornish Jr. – It’s no secret the former Indy Racing League champ has struggled in his transition to NASCAR. But his recent performances over the last two weeks may be a sign he’s finally on the verge of turning his sophomore stock car season around. Following a strong top-15 run at Texas before fading to 17th, Hornish finished ninth at Phoenix for his first top 10 of a Cup career that’s already 44 starts old. The Defiance, Ohio native still sits 31st in points, however, and needs more than a few good runs to get out of the clutches of the Top 35.
WARM: Marcos Ambrose – The Aussie is two or three bad luck-riddled runs from being a Chase contender. Ambrose rebounded from engine problems at Texas to finish 14th in Phoenix, the third time he’s run top 15 or better in a Cup race over the last month. His 26th-place standing in the points does not reflect how solidly the No. 47 Michael Waltrip Racing-affiliated JTG Daugherty Racing team has run; and let’s not forget, this man is seeing many of these tracks in a Cup car for the very first time. Don’t expect much noise from Ambrose at Talladega, though, as “rookies” do not usually get much love in the draft on restrictor-plate tracks.
WARM: Busch – Despite what Busch may say on the radio, the No. 2 team has not collapsed. Busch and Pat Tryson’s crew were able to string together enough decent runs without the car handling well (like in Martinsville and Bristol), keeping them up in the points standings after their win at Atlanta in March. Getting back on track with a top five in Phoenix, Busch remains third in points and has closed to just 93 back from leader Gordon at the top. Busch may also be a darkhorse pick in ‘Dega this weekend, as Penske has run very well at restrictor-plate tracks over the last few seasons (See: 2008 Daytona 500).
COLD: Harvick – Someone needs to clean the gunk out of the No. 29 these days, as the Shell commercials say. Harvick has plain been outrun in three of the last four races, bringing up the rear for RCR at tracks that are usually considered his strength. An ill-handling car, not just bad luck, led to finishes outside the top 25 in Bristol, Texas, and this past weekend in Phoenix. What is even scarier for the team, however, is that these struggles occurred at three very different types of tracks, meaning the RCR team cannot place one as a scapegoat for its problems. If Harvick pulls a fourth straight so-so performance at Talladega, RCR’s supposed flagship program could suddenly be in some serious championship trouble.
COLD: Michael Waltrip – It took eight races, but make no mistake – we are back to Mikey being Mikey. Another uncalled for dustup with Robby Gordon at Phoenix relegated both drivers and teams to poor finishes and wrecked race cars. While the rest of his MWR organization has continued to improve, Waltrip and his No. 55 team have been in a points-standings free-fall, plummeting from inside the top 12 after Las Vegas to his current placing of 25th. But if there’s any place for the veteran to turn his season around, it’s Talladega. Waltrip, as many know, has had almost all of his Sprint Cup success on plate tracks. But the 2003 Talladega winner shouldn’t expect to get too much drafting help this time around – in my opinion, his respect level amongst drivers is about as high as the banking at Martinsville these days.
COLD: Scott Speed – After failing to qualify for the Texas race, Speed and the No. 82 team at least had enough of the rookie driver’s last name to time itself into the Phoenix show. The No. 82, though, must have burned all of its “jet fuel” on Friday (taking lessons from fellow Toyota team MWR) because they finished a dismal 34th, two laps down at Phoenix. So far in 2009, Speed has just one finish inside the top 25 in seven starts – and that was in Las Vegas over a month ago. Team Red Bull should have enough horsepower under the hood to keep Speed from a DNQ at ‘Dega – but don’t expect him to contend.
Here are some other HOT and NOT topics from the week in racing:
HOT: Saturday’s race length – 312 miles. That number may turn your stomach, but that is the actual length of the races in Phoenix. Of course, the race had “500” in its title and ran at a slower speed, but its overall distance (500 kilometers, not miles) seemed perfect for several reasons. First off, the race started at 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday night on the east coast, meaning that it would have ended well after midnight had there been more laps. Secondly, the shorter length means that there is less time available for drivers to simply ride around and save their equipment – they have to race! That is what NASCAR is supposed to be about! The idea of shorter distances has been tossed around by many drivers as a great way to make the racing better; however, the idea of shortening races is not popular amongst track owners and many others on the flip side of the cash register in this sport. But with fuel at a premium, the economy sagging, and interest in the sport decreasing, maybe a good change like this one is exactly what we need.
NOT: JR Fitzpatrick running a reduced schedule – Lost in the blur of the desert this week is some bad news from one of the underdog stories in the Camping World Truck Series. TRG Racing and driver Fitzpatrick announced that the schedule for the barely-sponsored No. 71 truck team is being downgraded from full-time to part-time. Team officials said that funding was a major factor in the decision, with out-of-pocket expenses for their one-car Cup team making it tough to sustain an operating budget for Trucks. The 20-year-old had run fairly well so far in 2009, finishing fourth in Daytona and having competitive trucks at the rest of the races – only to have other top finishes spoiled by bad luck.
Hopefully, both the Cup and Truck teams of TRG will be able to secure the funding needed to hang around for a long time. Goodness knows the last the thing the Truck Series needs is another organization closing its doors.
OK, that’s a wrap on the week’s events at Phoenix. As for Talladega, look for those Indian mounds to bring some crazy twists and turns to Sunday’s 500-miler. It’s a track where the Upset Special is more often served as a main course, giving underdogs a chance at an unlikely top 10 while throwing some normally-contending teams into a semi-annual track tornado also known as the Big One. Turn here next week to see who lands where after the second restrictor-plate race of the season…
Listen to Doug this Saturday from 2-4 p.m. on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com.