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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 Brickyard 400 Edition

With Doug Turnbull off this week, it’s time for the editing 1-2 punch of our own Tom Bowles and Mike Lovecchio to give you the latest trends in the Cup Series after the Brickyard. We might not have Doug’s usual commentary, but what we do know is which drivers are speeding back to Pocono on the fuel of a red-hot July… and which ones have invited winter into their lives about five months too soon. Read on to see who’s in position to nab a playoff spot or a pink slip heading towards the Dog Days of August in our latest edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in Sprint Cup.

HOT

Jimmie Johnson: Uh oh… it’s that time of year again! Johnson may have come from seemingly out of nowhere to claim his second consecutive Brickyard 400, but the three-time defending has been RED HOT as of late. Johnson has been quietly consistent as of late with five consecutive top-10 finishes and seven in his last eight races and has quickly positioned himself as the favorite for yet another Sprint Cup. In the series’ last trip to Pocono the No. 48 team finished seventh.

Juan Pablo Montoya: Okay, so he lost his chance at being the lone driver to win both the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis 500 when he sped on pit road. The entire situation stunted Montoya’s chance at history – something that may not be done again. But the truth is, the No. 42 team’s dominance Sunday has been brewing for some time. This week’s 11th-place finish was Montoya’s seventh consecutive top 15 and ninth in the past 11 races. The Colombian may have finally mastered the art of points racing as opposed to racing for wins, but those wins are right around the corner. He should be one of the favorites next weekend at Pocono, a similar track to Indy where he finished eighth over one month ago.

Tony Stewart: The current hottest driver in the series had another solid run at Indianapolis, finishing third. That now makes five consecutive top fives for the owner-driver with no signs of slowing down. Don’t expect it to happen this week at Pocono unless the No. 14 team runs into mechanical issues or bad luck as the Cup Series returns to the site of the team’s first win this season.

Jeff Gordon: Throw away the wildcard Coke Zero 400 and Gordon has six consecutive top-10 finishes, including three second-place finishes over that stretch. Gordon has flown under the radar a bit as Mark Martin and Johnson have garnered most of the headlines at Hendrick Motorsports, but he knows what it takes to win a championship and should be considered a threat moving forward.

WARM

Martin: Always a bridesmaid in marquee races, Martin was forced to settle for a second-place finish this weekend at the Brickyard. It was a great way to follow up his win two weeks earlier at Chicagoland and moves him to ninth in points just three weeks after a 38th-place finish in Daytona relegated him to 13th in the standings. The wily vet just keeps getting done is starting to strike fear in other championship contenders.

Brian Vickers: Solid finishes haven’t necessarily followed great qualifying efforts for the No. 83 team, but in his latest three-race stretch, Vickers has been able to muster three straight top 10s. It’s now 120 points between Vickers and the Chase cutoff, but as the number of races until the start of the postseason winds down, the No. 83 is going to have to find away to stay consistently strong. Add the team’s Chase chances to the list of question marks facing Red Bull Racing right now.

Kasey Kahne: Kahne is slowly starting to reel together some solid runs, and because of it his Chase chances are increasing. A seventh-place run at Indy keeps the No. 9 team eighth in points and is their fifth consecutive top 15 and fourth top 10 in five races. They’ve been able to maintain the momentum started with a win at Infineon, but can they keep it up through Richmond?

COOL

Kurt Busch: He may be a lock for the Chase, but Busch isn’t exactly in perfect position to contend for the title just yet. Winless since April, Busch has struggled to two finishes of 17th and 27th the last two races while watching Kahne blow by him in the Dodge camp. What’s troubling is his pure inability to run up front – Busch has led 40 laps since the beginning of May – combined with the awful performances of two teammates that threaten to drag the No. 2 down. When your race shop is dealing with two crashed cars each week, it can’t be helping the third who’s struggling to keep the whole organization afloat.

Ryan Newman: Newman struggling? We won’t go that far. But a 14th at Indy continues an odd stretch where the No. 39 has scored just one top 10 in the last six races. Leading just 18 laps during that stretch, the veteran driver has fallen to seventh in the standings and leaves himself slightly vulnerable to a charge by Kyle Busch or others should he continue to struggle down the stretch. Two top fives would be a nice way to seal the deal on his Chase bid in the next two races at Pocono and Watkins Glen.

Bill Elliott: Don’t get us wrong; how Awesome Bill has qualified the No. 21 car into races has been something special the last few weeks. But for all the pomp and circumstance behind the Wood Brothers amazing renaissance, they need to get back to finishing off those stellar starting spots by staying there until the checkered flag falls on Sunday. This weekend, Elliott was a solid top-15 contender until a botched final pit stop left him one lap down in 26th. Turns out a lugnut got sandwiched between the left-front wheel and hub during his final pit stop, something team owner Leonard Wood claimed he’d never seen happen before. Nevertheless, the freak accident leaves the team with an average finish of 27.5 the last two weeks, below the team’s expectations for what is clearly a top-20 car every time it takes to the track.

COLD

Michael Waltrip: I actually thought Waltrip might get a bit of a boost after officially announcing this will be his last full-time season in Cup. Instead, it looks like the No. 55 is simply packing it in and holding out for Martin Truex Jr. in 2010. Finishes of 20th and 35th the last two weeks – combined with an ugly 37th at Waltrip’s best track, Daytona, just before the decision was made official – has sent the team tumbling to 31st in owner points.

Jeff Burton: You gotta feel for Burton, whose Sprint Cup season continues to unravel in the face of nothing more than poor racing luck. One of only two RCR teams to run worth a damn this season, he’s now been wrecked or cut a tire on no less than five double-file restarts since its inception in June. The problems with his Goodyears at Indy proved costly, as the pit stop under green for fresh rubber left him a lap off the pace in 25th. Without a top 10 in his last six races, Burton now sits an ugly 17th and an all-but-insurmountable 228 points out of the Chase.

Scott Speed: The struggling rookie finally took a step in the right direction Sunday, finishing a race without a DNF. After crashing out of the last three races, Speed hit the wall again Sunday by lap 11… but this time, was able to slug around the race track and finish 31st, three laps off the pace. That still continued a startling streak of seven straight races outside the top 30, enough for the once-trendy pick to challenge Joey Logano for Rookie of the Year to worry a bit about job security with GM Jay Frye’s upcoming visit to Austria this week to meet with owner Dietrich Mateschitz.

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