I’m back from the glorious paradise that is Puerto Rico and arrived just in time to catch the rain that ruined any chance of getting a decent race in on Sunday. My return may be to your dismay, as Tom Bowles and Mike Lovecchio did a heck of a job sizing up the Cup Series drivers last week.
This Monday’s race wasn’t half bad, considering it was held at Pocono and it was a Monday holdover (or rain check, if you want to call it that). Much like the Richmond and Darlington races of this spring, the 500-miler had a little bit of everything. There were wrecks, not too many and not too few cautions, lots of position-changing, a couple of come-from-behind efforts, an on-track rivalry, a breakthrough win, and an emotional victory lane celebration. That is a lot more drama than recent past Pocono races have provided. All that being said, here are this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers of the week.
HOT: Denny Hamlin – This pick is pretty much a given. Hamlin knows how to get around Pocono and probably had a decent shot at contending for a win back in June, if not for mechanical problems on the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin’s heartbreak at that race and several others took a seat this week, at least partially, as the fourth-year driver replicated his 2006 success at the track and claimed victory. Hamlin led the most laps and had a car fast enough to usurp any tricky pit strategies employed by others through the day. After having a dreadful stretch through the springtime months, Hamlin now has had fast cars at almost every track. Look for his Mike Ford-led team to be contenders as the series winds toward the start of the Chase.
HOT: Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya is as red hot as his paint scheme and has never achieved this level of consistency in his Cup career. Gainers of the fourth-most points in the last five races, Montoya and the No. 42 Target team have been extremely competitive at each kind of track through the year. Let this stat sink in: since Bristol in March, Montoya has scored only THREE finishes outside the top 15. His runner-up effort at Pocono moves him two spots up in the points to eighth and gives him a comfortable cushion inside the Chase, especially considering Watkins Glen is the Cup Series’ next stop and he knows a thing or two about road-course racing.
HOT: Kasey Kahne – Kahne came very close to scoring his second career Pocono victory Monday and seemed very determined to put his Budweiser Dodge into victory lane by making several aggressive moves in the closing laps. Like Montoya, Kahne has been very competitive over the past two months; but unlike Montoya, Kahne struggled through March and April. Expect driver No. 9’s success to continue, as his lone win this season came on a road course and the winding turns at Watkins Glen are on next week’s slate.
WARM: Kevin Harvick – Welcome back from Purgatory, Kevin Harvick. Having easily the worst statistical season of his career, “Happy” Harvick has not lived up to his nickname at all, going as far as to ask for a release from RCR after this year. The controversy surrounding his possible departure may actually be helping the No. 29 team, as Harvick finished sixth last week in Indy and 12th at Pocono. That is his best two-race stretch since finishing 12th in Las Vegas and fourth at Atlanta early in the year. A few more good runs may keep both sponsor Shell and the driver happy enough to stay together and with RCR through at least 2010 – and maybe beyond.
WARM: Brian Vickers – Vickers is getting hot at just the right time. Seemingly out of Chase contention a month ago, the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota has reeled off four consecutive top 10s, including a sixth place run at Pocono, and is now 104 points behind 12th place Greg Biffle. Watkins Glen may be a road block for Team Red Bull, as Vickers has scored only one top 10 at the New York track in five starts.
WARM: Clint Bowyer – Bowyer came close to pulling off just his third career win Monday, but could not hold off the likes of Hamlin and Montoya and settled for third. Nonetheless, the No. 33 team has to be encouraged by its turnaround recently. Despite running 18th at the Brickyard, Bowyer has run much better of late and finds himself just behind Vickers in points. Looking ahead, the two-time Chaser’s biggest obstacle may not be the points he has to overcome to make the playoffs, but the number of drivers he has to contend with to get there.
COLD: Bobby Labonte – Rumors have swirled regarding the future of both Labonte and sponsor Ask.com with the No. 96 Hall of Fame/Yates team. There is also no guarantee that Yates Racing will field the Hall of Fame Racing No. 96, either. So, if the 2000 champion Labonte is auditioning for a ride for 2010, he needs to step up his game. His crash Monday prolonged a stretch of nine races (since Charlotte) that he has not finished inside 20th. Whether you blame Labonte, his ill-handling racecars or bad luck, he is having his worst full Sprint Cup season ever. He has seen his top-10 total dwindle from eight in 2006, to three in 2007, to two in 2008, to just one (Las Vegas) this year.
COLD: Jeff Burton – His first season with sponsor Caterpillar has been extremely disappointing. Quietly consistent to start the year, Burton has seen his results plummet ever since, much like his Richard Childress Racing teammates. Unlike two of his RCR companions in the WARM category (Bowyer and Harvick), Burton’s luck and results have not begun to turn around. His 21st-place finish at Pocono made his last top 10, a ninth at Pocono back in June, seem even more distant. The No. 31 team had an outside chance of making the Chase going into this weekend, but those hopes too have gone the way of the dodo.
COLD: Robby Gordon – Gordon has been on the COLD list recently, but he deserves a re-appearance after his most recent display of recklessness Monday. Never shy to scrape his No. 7 against the wall or others’ fenders, Gordon and fellow straggler David Stremme got into several on-track skirmishes, with Gordon getting the raw end of the deal twice from Stremme. After getting the boot the first time, Gordon insisted on retaliating, something that he cannot afford considering both his sponsorship situation and placement in points. And while the fire in the drivers’ is good to see, Gordon’s most recent display of hot-headedness took him from a promising top-20 run to a 33rd-place finish.
Though you did not get a skillet full of HOT/NOT issues in the sport last week, I decided to refrain from that segment this week. The rest of the writers at Frontstretch will tackle those issues in the various columns through the week. So in lieu of my normal segment, here is my best Jeff Foxworthy impersonation:
You know you are watching rain delay race coverage when…
- 33rd in points Robby Gordon gets interviewed when he is NOT at a road course or after wrecking.
- Rusty Wallace actually runs out of things to say.
- ESPN starts running packages used a week and a half ago on NASCAR Now.
- You start seeing footage of last week’s race, starting at lap 60, to fill the time hole after the race has been called.
- You see replays of what the radar looked like earlier in the day.
- There is actually analysis of the Nationwide and Truck Series races.
- David Ragan, surprised he is actually being interviewed, actually chugs Coke Zero from a two-liter instead of a 20 oz.
- When commentators say “hope” more than Obama did during the Presidential campaign.
Watkins Glen is next on the Sprint Cup circuit, and a whole mess of drivers remain just outside the Chase cutoff, working hard to make that all-important top 12. Turn here next Tuesday to see which drivers leave Upstate New York on an upswing… and which ones see their momentum put out to pasture.
Listen to Doug every Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with host Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta or online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear him as a co-host on the racing show The Lead Lap, which airs Saturdays from 10-11 a.m. on ESPN 1240 The Ticket out of Gainesville, Ga. and online at racefanradio.com.