The July 4 bash at Daytona International Speedway literally ended with a bang, as Kyle Busch’s attempt at blocking Tony Stewart from taking the race win sent him bouncing off the frontstretch wall. While the finish stole the headlines, the plights of Chase-contending drivers permeated other post-race storylines. Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Reutimann, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers now sit in spots 11th thru 17th in points, and all of them were involved at least somewhat in wrecks or spins Saturday night.
At the same time, the race atop the points standings opened up, as Stewart took the checkered flag and Jeff Gordon got caught in the first Big One early in the race. The ability of drivers in this wreck-filled race to bounce back into contention is a major factor in determining this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers.
HOT: Stewart – Saturday’s race winner expressed more remorse than exuberance after his triumph because of the consequences to Busch, but the fact remains that Stewart earned the race win. With red, white and blue Burger King colors on the hood of the No. 14 Chevy for the first time Saturday, Stewart led a race-high 86 laps and took a modern day, textbook shot at Busch’s lead on the final lap. As a result, Stewart’s points lead increased significantly to 180, as Gordon had a problem-plagued night.
Stewart’s season-to-date has had that championship mojo, as evidenced by his pit crew’s perfection during the race. Whether this good luck can last or not will weigh heavily on Stewart’s championship chances. Remember last year? Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s team clicked like clockwork until the Chase, when it melted under pressure with the title almost in hand.
HOT: Jimmie Johnson – Johnson didn’t lead any laps Saturday night, but he kept the nose of the No. 48 clean and finished second. The three-time defending champ has five top 10s in the last six races and is within 14 points of catching teammate Gordon for second in the standings. Johnson has never won at this week’s stop in Chicagoland, but does have six top 10s in seven starts at the track.
HOT: Denny Hamlin – After suffering through a stretch of six races without a top 10, Hamlin and the No. 11 team have put together three top fives in the last four races and might have finished better in New Hampshire had the rains stayed away. Daytona’s strong performance was a big step in the right direction; in the past, Hamlin has been able to run well in restrictor-plate races but struggled to put a bow on a good finish, mainly because of his tendency to play rough in the draft (especially with teammates).
Sitting sixth in points, Hamlin’s spot is still not comfortable in regards to the Chase, as he is only 136 points ahead of 12th place – an amount surmountable in a single race.
WARM: Elliott Sadler – While Sadler struggled in New Hampshire, he and the No. 19 team have run noticeably better the past few weeks. Sadler has scored two of his three top 10s this season in the past three races, and scored a 12th the week before that stretch in Michigan.
While one can argue that these three top-15 finishes are anomalies (Michigan was a fuel-mileage race, Sonoma is a road course and Daytona is a plate race), the fact remains that Sadler has not run this well since scoring back-to-back top 10s last fall at Kansas and Talladega. With money getting tighter and Silly Season about to swing into full effect, this spark of consistency is exactly what Sadler needs.
WARM: Regan Smith – The media tide is turning in favor of hard-luck driver Smith. The supposed heir apparent to the Army car took a backseat at then-DEI last year, when Aric Almirola joined the team and became Martin’s fill-in in the No. 8. Forced to the hardly-sponsored No. 01 ride, Smith struggled through his first full season, but still managed a Rookie of the Year crown and a near win in the fall 2008 Talladega race.
That lack of sponsorship forced Smith from newly-formed Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to a part-time role with Furniture Row Racing, where he has flourished in the No. 78 Chevy, joining Bill Elliott and the Wood Brothers as the faces of “The Benefits of a Small Team Switching to a Part-Time Schedule Movement.”
Smith continued this role by guiding his car from a last-place owner points starting spot to the top 15 – and left it there. Smith now has gone 51 starts, his entire Cup career, without a DNF. Let’s tip our hats to this overachieving driver and team.
WARM: Montoya – JPM appeared to be out of contention twice in Saturday’s race, after sliding through the grass during the race’s first caution and then cutting a tire and pitting under green a while after that. But Montoya, running better than he ever has in his Cup career, still soldiered the No. 42 to a ninth-place effort. With four top 10s in the last five races and a 12th during that stretch in New Hampshire, Montoya has managed to find the perfect, sweet spot combination of running well, good luck and an ability to bounce back.
The Target crew has a bullseye on their back for a Chase spot, as they sit 11th in points. But, the No. 42 team has more fight than it ever has in the Montoya years and is performing stronger than other organizations that were thought to be better.
COLD: Busch – Not only did Busch give the cold shoulder to the media by not offering his take on his last-lap loss of the win and subsequent crash, but Busch’s luck and decisions on the track have been downright poor as of late. If the No. 18 team peaked too early last year, they are losing their luster at a bad time now. Busch has finishes of 34th, sixth, 23rd, 22nd, 13th, 22nd, seventh and 14th since his win in Richmond back in May, but still has managed to hang on in the top 12.
Since teams sitting near Busch in the standings are running on the same rollercoasters of inconsistency and mediocrity, Busch may be able to earn a Chase berth without much thought. However, simply trying to make the Chase should not be the conversation being had about the No. 18 team.
At this point last season, Busch had as many wins as he has top 10s this season. Busch and Carl Edwards (winner of nine races in 2008) were supposed to be igniting their rivalry this season, stealing checkered flags from one another and carrying on an epic battle for the championship. Instead, parity reared its head, opened up a bottle of 2007 glitter and spilled it all over Hendrick Motorsports (which has leant a significant portion of the sparkle to Stewart). As said in this column early this season, drivers in the past 10 years have rarely scored big win totals in consecutive seasons – and Busch is the latest example of that.
COLD: Ryan Newman – After reeling off consecutive top 10s in six races, Newman has finished 17th or worse in the last four, including Saturday’s 20th-place result. Newman has had rotten luck of late and at least managed to drive his damaged Chevy through the Daytona carnage to that top-20 finish, which was a fairly remarkable comeback. Newman is seventh in points and has won and run well at Chicagoland, but needs to finish races more like his points-leading owner if he wants to gain daylight on 12th place.
COLD: David Stremme – Caught up in numerous crashes this season and running miserable of late, you could say that Stremme is the “Paul Menard” of Penske Racing. Stremme has surpassed Menard (if you can call it that) as the lowest-ranking driver in points (33rd) that has competed in every race. Both drivers have zero top 10s, and both have led only three laps all season. Stremme has only one top 20 since the Coke 600 and only two top 20s since Phoenix.
The main difference between Stremme and Menard, though, is that, unlike Menard, Stremme’s father is not sponsoring his team. Even though Verizon’s touch on the No. 12 is in the paint scheme, the wireless giant has to be thinking that even green up-and-comer Justin Allgaier, who is a major part of their Nationwide Series marketing and running fairly well, is an upgrade over a journeyman driver who has never won in NASCAR national competition.
Here are this week’s HOT and NOT topics:
HOT: Limited commercial interruptions – For the third consecutive year, TNT offered its “Wide Open” coverage of the Daytona night race and it did not disappoint. The network came up with an innovative way to adjust the graphics to accommodate the in-race commercials. With positions changing so quickly at restrictor-plate races, this type of format needs to be put in the works and discussed by FOX and ESPN as well. There is only one big problem, of course: NASCAR will not let them do it, according to a source I spoke with. I guess that is just another move to please the fans, right NASCAR?
NOT: Trimming back Leffler’s schedule – Jason Leffler has never set the world on fire as a driver, but the veteran sure has paid his dues at Braun Racing, having kept the No. 38 team running near the front despite the presence of Cup teams and drivers. Leffler has also been a great poster child for longtime sponsor Great Clips, sporting a mohawk for nearly his entire duration with the team. Last weekend, Leffler was paid back by receiving news that former No. 38 Great Clips driver Kahne is extending Richard Petty Motorsports’ partnership with Braun into 2010 – by taking the wheel of Leffler’s Toyota for eight races of the 35-race schedule.
This leaves Leffler with 27 races, which is not enough to let him contend for a championship (although he will run eight more in another, companion car for Braun). Regardless, the move is enough to help everyone forget that he is no longer of great enough importance to the team.
The fact is, of course, that 27/8 split with Braun is his best option for a NASCAR ride. What is he going to do? Drive for Armando Fitz or Jay Robinson? Leffler instead is going the way of Scott Wimmer: a non-successful Cup veteran demoted to decent Nationwide team, with no chance to be a star because successful Cup veterans attract Nationwide Series sponsors. Braun Racing has to strive to survive, and Leffler has to struggle to remain on the radar just because of these simple words: “I’m Jason Leffler and I drive in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.”
All of a sudden, we have reached the midpoint of the 2009 season and many questions have been left unanswered, while many answers have only produced more questions. What result will the economy really bring to some struggling teams, and how much money can the big teams keep spending to outrun each other? Meanwhile, Silly Season is set to begin today, with the big announcement at Michael Waltrip Racing about the team’s future in 2010. Turn here to see how this and Saturday night’s race at Chicagoland affect all the struggling and Cup Series teams.
Listen to Doug every Saturday from 2-4 p.m. on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with host Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com.
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