Watching the running order during Saturday’s Richmond race was similar to watching a yoyo go up and down. Pit strategy, brake wear, copious amounts of cautions, timely adjustments, and good ol’ fashioned hard-nosed racing worked in harmony to jostle both the running positions and the points standings all throughout Saturday night’s event. In comparison to the race a week and a half ago at Talladega, there may not have been an underdog winner or a series of spectacular crashes, but the numerous swaps for the lead and the constant side-by-side racing back through the pack kept its flame of excitement alive. With a solid Phoenix race a couple of weeks ago behind us and the popular and challenging Darlington race ahead, we are going to get to see four straight “good” races – a full month of them – after sometimes snoozing through the beginning of this season.
Speaking of snoozing, several teams saw bad seasons continue to get worse at Richmond, even after promising runs at Talladega. In the meantime, other drivers have strung together waves of consistency as the series begins to roar through the second quarter of the 2009 season.
Nonetheless, here are some of the HOT, WARM and COLD drivers this week as the Sprint Cup Series leaves Richmond until the fall.
HOT: Tony Stewart –
“Stewart-Haas Racing, who?”
“STEWART-HAAS RACING! You know, the team you all said wasn’t going to have a shot at winning races, making the Chase, or winning the title.”
I admit, I was a doubter, too. But Stewart’s second place run in Richmond, a track he always runs well at, was the latest top-notch performance from his team – one that allowed him to both capitalize on Jimmie Johnson’s brake problems and keep pace with the good runs of the Busch brothers and Denny Hamlin. The owner-driver of the No. 14 car now sits third in points, 39 markers behind leader Jeff Gordon, and is on the verge of becoming the first owner-driver to win a race since Ricky Rudd and the No. 10 team back in 1998. Stewart has never won at Darlington, the next race on the Sprint Cup schedule, but has a 12.5 average finish there in his career.
HOT: Ryan Newman – Stewart’s partner in crime at SHR, the driver of the No. 39’s fortunes continue to look up. Three top 10s in the last five races, including a fourth at Richmond, have propelled Newman to 10th in points. Much like his teammate and boss, Newman has never won at Darlington, but he has six top 10s at the Lady in Black in 10 career races there. Another fact about Stewart-Haas Racing: Stewart and Newman have scored the two highest points totals in the last five races. Talk about surprises…
HOT: Jeff Burton – After soldiering the No. 31 through adversity to a top 10 in Talladega, Burton repeated Step 1 at his home track in Richmond. Burton lost track position after getting spun out accidentally by Dale Earnhardt Jr., but his Scott Miller-led crew deployed the right strategy and adjustments, allowing Burton to finish third. Though the team still has not managed to lead many laps or contend for wins, their ability to not let in-race problems keep them down is a skill that can elevate them to title chasing glory.
WARM: Kyle Busch – Usually the winner of the race is automatically a HOT driver, but Busch is not this week. Though the No. 18 team had the driver and the car to win, the Richmond race was Busch’s first Sprint Cup top 10 since his win at Bristol back in March. To compare him to Burton, Busch and his team often fail to bounce back from problems they encounter. Expect last year’s Darlington winner and the Sprint Cup Series leader in wins to run well there – if he doesn’t cut a tire, spin out, or encounter a problem early in the event.
WARM: Denny Hamlin – Comparisons amongst Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin and Busch can be made similar to what I’ve already done with SHR. Both Hamlin and Busch know how to wheel a racecar – but see themselves and their teams collapse after problems during a race. Hamlin led a race-high 148 laps and was the car to beat early before a bad pit stop lost him track position. At that point, Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota began to fall off and out of the top 10, never to recover. If the Virginia native wants to win consistently, he has to learn to bounce back from trouble. An encouraging note to end with, though: he still sits fourth in points, one spot ahead of teammate Busch.
WARM: Sam Hornish Jr. – Two top 10s in the last three races? Who saw this coming out of the oft-struggling No. 77 camp? Hornish is very much a part of a Penske resurgence this year, one that has seen Kurt Busch run up front and David Stremme and Hornish often run in the top 15. Hornish now has more top 10s than David Ragan, Elliott Sadler, Bobby Labonte and Casey Mears, but his poor finishes to start the year leave the second-year Cup Series driver 30th in points. Hornish’s next step in his progression toward success is learning to keep his and others’ cars in one piece.
COLD: Carl Edwards – Carl has scored only one top five this season and has not run up front at the frequency he and the No. 99 team did last season. After the last-lap Talladega crash, more problems at Richmond relegated Edwards to a 26th-place finish. At both Talladega and Richmond, Edwards had a chance to run well late in the race before seeing it turn away in a flash. Now ninth in points this season after nine wins last year, Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne need to step up their performance before they end up the biggest flop of 2009.
COLD: Kevin Harvick – The crew swap with Mears’s No. 07 team may have helped step up Harvick and the No. 29 team’s performance – but their luck unfortunately remained the same. Contact with Hornish cut down a tire on the Shell Chevy, sending Harvick into the wall and costing him any chance at a solid finish. The resulting drop to 34th place sent Harvick to 23rd in points, only one spot ahead of Michael Waltrip and one spot behind Reed Sorenson. Harvick’s season absolutely must turn around at Darlington if he wants to have even a slim chance at making his fourth straight Chase for the Cup.
COLD: Kasey Kahne – After Kahne and the No. 9 team turned in gradually better performances over the season’s first few races, the last few have been more than disappointing. A trio of top-20 finishes at Martinsville and Texas, followed by early disaster at Talladega and an absolutely dreadfully handling car in Richmond leave Kahne 17th in points. The bright side of the issue for Kahne is that he sits less than 90 points from the Chase cutoff spot, so consecutive solid finishes will help eat into that deficit. The two-week stint at Charlotte – where Kahne is the defending champ of both the All-Star Race and the 600 – can’t come fast enough.
Here are the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: The points race – At this point in most years, the strata of types of drivers are easy to identify. The top 10 or top 15 take flight, the next series meddle around in the mid-20s in the standings, and the rest swap spit in the race to stay above 36th in points. This season, though, the top two groups are extremely tight.
Gordon has held the points lead for most of the year, but gave it up last week and only leads by 10 over Kurt Busch. Behind them, only 134 points separate Hamlin (fourth in points) from 12th place Chase “bubble” driver Matt Kenseth. Another 138 points separate Kenseth from 20th-place under-performer Mears – who just scored his first top 10 of the season Saturday.
Though the season is early and anything can change, seeing the parity amongst this many teams is quite encouraging. Is it a coincidence, or are the new testing rules and the CoT finally compressing the field a bit? Who knows; but let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
NOT: The new operations’ struggles in Sprint Cup – There have been so many good stories to come out of the new teams that have formed this season. Fast forward only a month and a half, however, and storm clouds are now forming on these paltry operations. Tommy Baldwin Racing and Mayfield Motorsports, as detailed last week, have struggled to even make races – much less run in them. The TRG No. 71 team and driver David Gilliland have done nothing encouraging since their good Las Vegas run, except qualify for each race – and they still sit just outside the Top 35. Larry Gunselman’s team is missing races and running in the back of the ones it makes, while the Prism No. 66 team simply starts and parks its cars. Finally, Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 team ran well in Talladega, but has been known to retire early from events because they cannot pay the tire bill. To make a long story short, efforts to make an entry into the Cup Series easier are not really working – although they are evening out the playing field of the more established teams.
A date with the Lady in Black is next on the Sprint Cup Series calendar, as the teams travel to one of their biggest challenges of the season this Mother’s Day weekend. Who will earn their stripes and run well in Darlington, and who will wound their cars and their chances at victory this Saturday night? Find out here, next week.
Listen to Doug every week on Captain Herb Emory’s Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. Doug is also a pit reporter this Saturday for the Georgia Asphalt Series and the GAS Radio Network. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. on racefanradio.com for the race no. 3 this season at Lanier National Speedway in Braselton, Ga.