Writer’s Note: Before we begin this week’s column, I want to thank a couple of readers from last week who took me to school. Thanks to Ginger for pointing out my glaringly obvious error on Brad Keselowski’s Nationwide Series sponsorship. For some reason, I said that he was still sponsored by the U.S. Navy (a total brain freeze), but she reminded me, of course, that GoDaddy.com is the main backer of his No. 88 Chevy. Thanks also to James Edwards for schooling me on Elliott Sadler’s plight during last week’s race.
Now, we move on to this week’s matters….
Joey Logano stole some history at New Hampshire on Sunday, becoming the youngest driver to win a Sprint Cup race by not pitting his No. 20 Home Depot Toyota during the last round of pit stops, taking a gamble and hoping for rain at his home track. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli’s decision quickly made up for Logano’s run-in with Ryan Newman, as well as the resulting flat tire and spin that resulted from it midway through the race. But while Logano’s upset victory continues to be the big story, there were a few other upstart runs, as well, considering that rained-out qualifying placed the top points contenders in the top-starting positions. And while few relinquished their top spots Sunday, there were some that broke through and in hopes of reversing their unlucky trends so far this season. Here are the HOT, WARM and COLD drivers for this week… the first of the 10 races that precede the advent of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
HOT: Tony Stewart – The points leader and fifth-place finisher Sunday has five straight top 10s, finishing 11th or worse a total of only four times this season. Stewart wrecked his primary No. 14 Chevy in practice, but kept his top-starting spot because the team did not change their motor and wrecked the car before qualifying was supposed to take place. Stewart’s hot run should continue Saturday in Daytona, as he always runs well at restrictor-plate tracks and his Hendrick horsepower should make him the class of the field.
HOT: Kasey Kahne – Kahne remains in the HOT category despite not setting the world on fire in New Hampshire. Still, he kept the No. 9’s momentum moving forward by scoring a 10th-place finish Sunday to follow up his impressive win last week. Kahne is not known for dominating at restrictor-plate races, but a good run next week at Daytona should elevate him into the top 12 in points. Right now, he sits 13th, just one point behind Juan Pablo Montoya in 12th and six points away from Matt Kenseth to enter the top 10.
HOT: Jeff Gordon – Yet another driver that will stay in this category for a second consecutive week, Gordon had one of the cars to beat Sunday, leading the second most laps and getting incredible jumps on close challengers on restarts. After hitting a small slump, Gordon and the No. 24 team are back to early season form and are sitting second in points, just 69 markers behind Stewart and 100 points ahead of third-place Jimmie Johnson. Gordon has also won plenty of restrictor-plate races throughout his career, leaving him to be a threat in Daytona on Saturday.
WARM: Logano – Yes, the winner is usually in the HOT category, but Logano and the No. 20 team are not quite at that level right now. As mentioned before, Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli did exactly what David Reutimann and his crew chief Rodney Childers did to sneak away a win in the Coca-Cola 600: stretch their fuel mileage and not pit when everyone else does to inherit the lead. That move turned the win into a colossal upset, as Logano not only cut a tire and spun out during the race, but he also fell off the lead lap before that… simply because the Home Depot Toyota was ill-handling. Logano is WARM, though, because this is the second decent race he has run in a row. Remember, the 19-year-old rookie was en route to a top five at Infineon before contact with fellow rookie Scott Speed derailed his race. Congrats to Sliced Bread on his first win… and on the fact that he got to do it at his home track!
WARM: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Like Logano, Earnhardt, Jr. was en route to a good finish at Infineon before getting spun out by David Ragan, who received a love tap from teammate Carl Edwards in the process. Junior followed up that disappointment by driving the No. 88 Chevy from the middle of the pack to the top 10 and keeping it there the whole event… almost! Earnhardt Jr. ended up 13th, simply because several teams did not make their last pit stops before the rain. Still, before that the Lance McGrew-led team held a position near seventh for most of Sunday’s event. Junior almost snuck into the lead, thanks to Johnson, Kurt Busch, Gordon and Stewart mixing together in a battle for the lead on double-file restarts. And with Daytona on the horizon… perhaps the No. 88 is on the verge of a turnaround, after all.
WARM: Casey Mears – There’s most certainly hotter drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit, but Mears’s 11th-place effort at New Hampshire deserves a mention. The No. 07 was one of three Richard Childress Racing cars involved in the multi-car pileup triggered by the chain reaction of Earnhardt Jr.’s spinning of his tires – which resulted in Kyle Busch’s spinning of Martin Truex Jr. Mears sustained some damage, but remained on the lead lap and made what should have been a disappointing run into a good one. Mears now sits seven spots ahead of teammate Kevin Harvick in the points – who would have guessed that going into 2009?
COLD: Jeff Burton – The great beginning to 2009 that teammates Bowyer and Burton saw has soured greatly. While Bowyer and the No. 33 team have begun running better, Burton’s team has struggled and had lousy luck. Burton was also caught up in the lap 176 melee that Mears was caught up in, but he was forced to go to the garage for repairs and returned to the track with a No. 31 modified-looking car instead of the full-bodied COT. Burton settled for a 31st place result and fell another spot in the points to 16th, but still sits only 108 points out of 12th.
COLD: Paul Menard – Two more bad races were added to Menard’s resume this weekend in New Hampshire. After losing an engine in the Nationwide Series race Saturday, Menard got caught up in some trouble on Sunday, finishing six laps off the pace in 30th. However, a restrictor-plate race may be just what the doctor ordered for the struggling No. 98 Yates Racing team and Menard. His last top 10 came at Talladega in October of 2008.
COLD: Harvick – Harvick has been perpetually trapped in COLD Purgatory since his last top-10 finish back in Atlanta in March. Sunday was yet another solid run ruined for Harvick, for he, too, was caught in the big crash that ruined Burton’s chances at contention Sunday. The No. 29 has now sunk to 27th in points, behind such notables as Sam Hornish Jr., Mears, Logano and Marcos Ambrose. This team’s poor runs and bad luck have gotten to the point that primary sponsor Shell, in the last year of its contract with the team, is rumored to be looking elsewhere (possible the No. 5 of Hendrick Motorsports, which is searching for a sponsor and is running much better than the No. 29). After starting their relationship as strong as they could, with a win in the 2007 Daytona 500, Shell and Harvick have not visited victory lane in a points-paying race since. Not many were expecting that.
Here are some other HOT and NOT issues from the week in racing:
HOT: Fire – That sounds redundant, I know, but seeing several drivers get fired up after crashes during the weekend’s events was refreshing. Truex Jr.’s fake helmet throw and subsequent critical comments about Kyle Busch’s impatience after their tangling Sunday added some excitement to the already good racing action. Brian Vickers jumped on the same train as Truex and made similar comments following an on-track incident with Cup teammate Speed during the closing laps of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. While these comments may not amount to rivalries down the line, seeing drivers actually show emotion (without destroying a trophy) is a great flashback to how NASCAR used to be and a direct contradiction to the politically correct, sanitized personas that owners, sponsors and NASCAR want out of their wheelmen.
NOT: The future of the Truck Series – 13. That is the number of teams listed as “out” of Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race in Memphis. While a couple of the teams may have had legitimate problems, most of them started the race and then parked before the halfway point. With manufacturer support for the series lessening and sponsorship money not exactly flowing like wine, questions have risen about the health and longevity of what has become NASCAR’s most competitive series. NASCAR VP Steve O’Donnell reassured drivers during their meeting Saturday, and fans during a SPEED interview, that the series is moving ahead strong and will run in 2010. Camping World has also spoken in support of the Trucks and affirmed that they are remaining the title sponsor of the series. But although the NCWTS may run next season, the number of competitive teams is dwindling… and that is never a good sign for any series.
HOT: Waltrip’s impending departure from the No. 55 – Michael Waltrip has had a long but unillustrious Cup career and, with a July 7th announcement from Michael Waltrip Racing pending, it appears to be coming to an end. Early this year, Waltrip said that he was seriously contemplating stepping out of the No. 55 NAPA Toyota and would consider remaining in his own car if he made the Chase. Now safely out of title contention, and with hot shoe Truex Jr. on the free agent market, Waltrip seems to have found the perfect time to retire and simply stick to being an owner and TV personality. It’s a move he should have made long ago…
Much like Kyle Petty was in the closing years of his career (assuming that he is retired from Cup competition), Waltrip has been a moving chicane since he started his own Cup team. An extremely disappointing first venture in 2006, followed by failing to qualify for almost every race in the first half of 2007, to not contending at all for wins and crashing a lot in 2008 and 2009 are signs that Waltrip is long overdue to retire. With Reutimann’s No. 00 team contending for the Chase and Ambrose’s No. 47 team running better than expected, MWR needs the best driver in position to drive and share information from the No. 55 Toyota. Unfortunately, Waltrip is not the guy. Kudos to him, though, for doing one of the hardest things a driver can do… stepping aside in favor of progress.
NOT: Reckless reporting of rumors – Following legitimate Silly Season rumors is one of the most fun things to do as a NASCAR reporter (especially if you get to break them), but reading some of the unfounded, unlikely rumors that are being published lately brings some thoughts to mind. Simply printing rumors without any base, or printing information as fact that may not actually be, can be very damaging to the parties discussed. Take the Danica Patrick to NASCAR rumors – the scenario printed this weekend that had Patrick replacing Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports and Junior leaving that team to drive his own JR Motorsports Cup entry is preposterous. Despite what one source might say about something, a writer should weigh the probability of that thing actually happening.
Last season, ESPN reported that Truex Jr. had re-signed with DEI’s No. 1 team, but that was not actually true. Truex, who at the time was talking with other teams about a ride, was quite perturbed by the publishing of that rumor as fact. Eventually, he signed with DEI, but that news bit could have ruined his chances with another team had the DEI negotiations not panned out.
In a crazy economic time like this, rumors will run wild and writers will mention them. We all, though, should take caution in what we report, since so much is at stake for both drivers and sponsors.
That wraps things up for this week. Turn here next Tuesday to see who heats up under the fireworks in Daytona Beach, and which teams fizzle out like bottle rockets this July 4th.
Have a great week!
Listen to Doug on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 Racing Show with Captain Herb Emory from 4-5 p.m. this Saturday on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug as a pit-road reporter for the Georgia Asphalt Series this Friday at 7 p.m. on racefanradio.com, as the GAS Series runs at Lanier Speedway in Braselton, Georgia.