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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 Lifelock.com 400 at Chicagoland Edition

Writer’s Note: I want to offer special thanks to several readers for pointing out some obvious statistical errors in last week’s column. While the errors did not change my determination of who belonged in each category, there was no excuse for them being there. Next time I wait until the 11th hour to finish this column, I now know I need more caffeine and more patience to proofread. I appreciate your support, and please, never hesitate to call me out!

The twosome of NASCAR races at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend seemed to be shaping up in the same, slow way that we have come to grow used to at Joliet, Illinois’s cookie-cutter track. On Friday, the Nationwide Series race was nothing more than a parade of small floats attempting to give chase to the behemoth balloon that is the Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota-powered team. Saturday’s Cup race wasn’t much better, as the nose of Mark Martin’s Kellogg’s Chevy inhaled clean air and simply dominated, surrendering the point only to Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson at times.

Then, all of a sudden, came those last 50 laps….

Double-file restarts gave birth to several sheetmetal-shoving matches and lead swaps, although by the time the Fat Lady starting humming her scales, Martin got the lead back and took the checkered flag he deserved. But the aforementioned on-track skirmishes and other factors had intense Chase ramifications, as the LifeLock.com 400 did very little to make bubble teams feel secure. Here are this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers – and trust me, you may be surprised where some of them land:

HOT: Kasey Kahne – OK, so he may not be your No. 1 pick to put in this category but check out the stats: driver No. 9 has only two finishes outside the top 20 since Darlington, collecting five top 10s and even one win in that stretch. Entering race No. 11 on Mother’s Day, Kahne sat 17th in points, but he now sits eighth in the standings, having improved four more positions because of Saturday night’s third-place run. Over the last five races in particular, Kahne has scored the fifth most points of all drivers and is running better than anyone else immediately around him in the standings.

HOT: Jeff Gordon – Last week’s Daytona race was the only race in the last five that Gordon did not place in the top 10. In the closing laps Saturday, No. 24 crew chief Steve Letarte chose to have Gordon pit for four fresh Goodyears and then try to pick off cars with older tires. That strategy (plus the tangling of a few cars in front of him) worked to a T, as the National Guard Chevy finished second and possibly could have caught teammate Martin if the race were just a handful of miles longer. Gordon isn’t leading a lot of laps these days, but he is finishing off most races with an upswing in handling and luck to keep him second in the standings to Tony Stewart.

HOT: Juan Pablo Montoya – Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is commonly thought to be a place to leave and not stay, as Martin Truex Jr.’s decision to defect to Michael Waltrip Racing proved last week. It’s just someone forgot to tell the No. 42 team that, because Montoya and the Target Chevy seem to hang around and land decent finishes each week whether luck is on their side or not. Saturday’s 10th-place effort is another example of how their quiet consistency often trumps sporadic dominance of others ahead of them. Key to Montoya’s recent surge has been the Lucky Dog; for the second straight week, he needed at least one to get back on the lead lap and eventually surge up into contention by the checkered flag. Now ninth in points, Montoya actually sits ahead of Kyle Busch in the standings, an unheard-of proposition as little as two months ago. So whatever JPM and the Brian Pattie-led crew are doing, they need to keep it up… there’s a chance this Chase may not have room for two loudmouth, fiery drivers.

Note: Before moving on, I agree that Stewart and Johnson are HOT… but what more can I say about them. They never let up!

WARM: Martin – Alright, alright. Calm down. Yes, Martin leads the Cup Series in wins and is now on the right side of the Chase line at 11th in points. But Martin has had a season of feast and famine, with little consistency to back up his four first-place triumphs. Measuring his stats after each win, Martin has not followed any of his first three victories this season with top 10s. In fact, the veteran followed two of the three with finishes of 43rd and 35th, respectively. Also, Martin has all four of his wins in the last 12 races, but has only two other top 10s in that stretch. If the No. 5 team makes the Chase, even four wins in those 10 races will not necessarily erase bad finishes.

WARM: Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is another candidate that could easily be placed in the HOT category, considering his four top fives in the last five races. The No. 11 Toyota team is peaking at the right time, but Hamlin’s driving tactics in the closing laps Saturday were questionable at best. He over-drafted Johnson into turn 1 on a late-race restart, causing the No. 48 to lose traction and, thus, track position needed in order to challenge for the win. Then, Hamlin and Brian Vickers both tried to assume command of the race before they overdrove each other and opened the door for Martin to re-assume the point. Hamlin’s overaggressiveness may have been a product of his desire to win, but it also cost him and others (especially Johnson) a bit too much by the checkered flag.

WARM: Marcos Ambrose – Ambrose has made multiple appearances in the WARM category this season, because the No. 47 team always seems to keep its head just above water while other teams seem to splash in and out of the pool. However, although this underdog team never spends time in the very front of the pack (more on that later) and is not in realistic contention for the Chase, Ambrose has led it to four top 15 (three top 10s) in the last six races at the helm. With David Reutimann and Truex as teammates to Ambrose next year, expect each part of that trio to be in or near the Chase in 2010.

COLD: Greg Biffle – After a fairly consistent stretch between the Texas and Michigan races, not much has been heard of from Biffle this summer. The No. 16 team struggled Saturday night in Chicagoland, finishing two laps down in 31st after two pit-road penalties left him suffering right from the start. Usually a contender at 1.5-mile tracks this year, Biffle’s finish dropped the team out of the top 12 for the first time since Phoenix – and they had nothing to blame for the nightmarish run but a bad setup. Now on the outside of the Chase bracket looking in, Biffle better hope his Brickyard chassis is better than that Chicagoland piece.

COLD: Robby Gordon – There are two sides of the coin to consider when sizing up Robby Gordon’s venture into team ownership. On the one hand, he has managed to stay in existence by attracting sponsors and running just well enough to stay inside the Top 35. On the other hand, Robby Gordon Motorsports seems to have made little progress the past couple of years and is in the Top 35 by default, since there really are not enough competitive teams to oust him from that spot. Gordon has only one top 10 this year, choosing not to pit before the rain at Charlotte and finishing third, and regularly totals his racecar in a wreck. Maybe Gordon should pick and choose the races he runs (like the road courses) and place better talent behind the wheel of his own car on the ovals – now known as the Michael Waltrip Theory – so his team can move forward.

COLD: Dave Blaney – Even mentioning drivers of start-and-park teams in this category isn’t fair, but here is a funny stat: Blaney has led three laps this season (by staying on the track while leaders pitted during early cautions before going to the garage). Yet despite the No. 66 Prism Motorsports team ducking out of every race early enough to catch Sunday Night Baseball, Blaney’s three laps led are more than Ambrose (18th in points, zero laps led), AJ Allmendinger (27th in points, zero laps led), Jamie McMurray (19th in points, one lap led) and Brad Keselowski (one win, one lap led). Blaney also has led as many laps as David Ragan, Casey Mears, Sam Hornish Jr., Paul Menard and John Andretti. Blaney’s three laps led are also more than any other fellow start-and-parker on the circuit. Hey, if you’re going to be good at something… shine. For when it comes to actually running the race, Blaney also has the worst average finish of any driver that has started more than one event so far this year.

Here are this week’s HOT and NOT topics:

HOT: Double-file restartsJeff Burton and others may be complaining about the consequences of double-file restarts, but that format may have been the saving grace in Chicagoland. The LifeLock.com 400 was a certified snoozefest until the last few laps, when drivers turned their intensities up while gunning for as many spots as they could get. Burton’s complaints are understandable, as he has gotten the raw end of several of the shootout-style restarts, but they help correct for the passing difficulty caused by the Car of Tomorrow. Without double-file restarts, Johnson likely would have waltzed to victory lane, and we would all be talking about how lame the race was. Instead, Johnson lost the lead to Hamlin and Vickers (both with long winless streaks), then yielded the lead back to winner Martin. Johnson, meanwhile, drove like a bat out of hell to get back to the front, but side-swiped Kurt Busch (the second on-track incident between the two in four weeks). This prompted Busch to retaliate, cut down a tire in the process and settle for 17th instead of a top 10. What a finish!

Yes, double-file restarts pose a restrictor plate-like danger and restrictor plate-like quick change in results – but they also generate plate-like excitement, and every driver is on an equal playing field with them. NASCAR… don’t you dare change a thing.

NOT: TNT’s swan song – TNT sure threw in the towel Saturday night. The crew missed several crashes while the commentators in the booth remained silent during some exciting in-race sequences, including one late pass for the lead. Ralph Sheheen’s presence in the booth as a fill-in for Bill Weber has been a breath of fresh air, but he did show his greenness Saturday night, at times failing to really take the announcing reins and lead Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach in discussion and calling. The TNT team also had the opportunity to talk about some drivers back in the pack when the racing up front was stationary – but chose to refrain from that. However, TNT’s coverage was better than FOX’s at face value, simply because annoying figures like DW and Digger were out of the picture. However, the team – now in its third year – should be building more chemistry together despite the absence of Weber.

Summer vacation for the Cup Series began Sunday and will last until the July 25th race at the Brickyard in Indianapolis. I will be on vacation for that one, but do not let that keep you from turning here to see which drivers leave Indy in decent shape while which other ones could have used another week off from the circuit.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with host Captain Herb Emory Saturdays from 2-4 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com You can also hear Doug as a pit road reporter this Saturday for the Georgia Asphalt Series race in Cordele, Ga. David Ragan will be in the race. Listen-in on racefanradio.com or ESPN The Ticket 1240 AM WGGA in Gainesville, GA at 8:30 p.m.