Monday’s race at Watkins Glen did not provide many answers as far as the Chase is concerned. Most contenders finished well enough at Watkins Glen to keep the points race tight, despite many eyes trained on road course ringers like Boris Said, Andy Lally and Ron Fellows to pull off some upsets. However, when push came to shove bad luck and mechanical failures wound up ruining their runs, leaving almost all Cup regulars as the ones up front once the checkered flag flew.
But not every full-time driver had their (Mon)day in the sun at the Glen. Plenty of others saw their seasons remain mired in mediocrity or misery as the season has now passed the two-thirds point; for them, the end of the year can’t come soon enough. Read on to find out who they are as here are this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers heading to the Irish Hills of Michigan this week:
HOT: Tony Stewart – What more can be said about Smoke? His third points-paying win of 2009 came at a track at which he has dominated. Expect at least one more win out of this No. 14 team before the beginning of the Chase, as Stewart only has to start next week’s event in Michigan to clinch a playoff berth. That means he can roll the dice aggressively from here on out, accumulating more wins and bonus points up through Richmond in September. When will this team break? Maybe never, as it has very few races left now to slump before the Chase begins.
HOT: Marcos Ambrose – Drivers in this category usually have a streak of consecutive top fives, top 10s, or have won the most recent race. Ambrose has done neither; but in this case, we’ll make an exception as his star rose to a new level this weekend. He captured the Nationwide Series victory Saturday and then drove from the front, to the back, to the front again on Monday, garnering a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen. Though technically not a rookie, Ambrose and his No. 47 team’s effort in their first full season are one of the best stories of 2009 – and the amount of coverage he got at Watkins Glen has to make his quasi-owner Michael Waltrip pretty jealous.
HOT: Juan Pablo Montoya – While never a winning factor at Watkins Glen, Montoya and the No. 42 team did exactly what they needed to do on race day… they finished sixth. Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie were likely tempted to try a radical fuel strategy (like Montoya did when he won Infineon in 2007) to get to victory lane, but they could have paid dearly if they had taken that risk. Instead, Montoya’s continued a string of good finishes that has propelled him to seventh in points; however, he is still less than 100 ahead of 12th-place Matt Kenseth.
WARM: Jimmie Johnson – His unspectacular 12th-place finish at the Glen prolongs his winless streak at road courses and deepens his deficit in points behind standings leader Stewart to 260. That being said, the No. 48’s ability to bounce back from sure death to a decent finish last week at Pocono, as well as his survival on the final road course of the year, go further to prove Johnson’s probably the only driver with the tools and momentum, at this point, to challenge Stewart for the points crown.
WARM: Greg Biffle – Biffle has been one of the series’ best drivers at the road course in Infineon, but he has not had such luck at Watkins Glen, where his best finish before Monday had been 10th. Needing to gain a points cushion over the Chase cutoff spot, Biffle stayed in the top 10 for much of the race and ended up fifth. He now is a modest 33 points ahead of 12th place, but does have one driver as a buffer between himself and teammate Kenseth.
WARM: Carl Edwards – Yet another driver in need of a good, but not great, run, Edwards is not known for his road-racing prowess. However, he took advantage of being away from a Roush Fenway disadvantage to gain ground on the track and in the standings. Edwards started 33rd, but let the road-racing equalizer (more on that later) play to his favor by playing the right pit strategy and driving a masterful race en route to a third-place finish. Since aerodynamics and certain handling characteristics do not apply at road courses, areas Roush Fenway has been behind with this season, Edwards was on a more level playing ground with the more dominant teams. He now sits sixth in points as a result, and has a good head of steam heading to owner Jack Roush’s backyard in Michigan.
COLD: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – One year ago, what would you have thought if someone told you that Earnhardt Jr. would be one spot in the standings behind AJ Allmendinger? You may have thought that Team Red Bull (Allmendinger’s team at the time) had built on the momentum it had been gaining and had its driver on the verge of a Chase berth. You also probably would have also thought that Junior had taken a bit of a step back in the points, and that maybe the dynamic between him and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was playing out badly. Instead, the ‘Dinger is at a different team and having a mediocre year and Junior has had an inconceivable mixture of bad luck and poor performance in the No. 88 Chevy. His crash at Watkins Glen, the result of a brake failure, ruined a strong run and likely has him wishing this miserable season would come to an end.
COLD: Reed Sorenson – The fourth-year driver has not seen his luck change in his first year at Richard Petty Motorsports. After suffering through a dismal 2008, Sorenson has seen little improvement in the No. 43 car and experienced the same poor racing luck as he’s always had. Last week, he was the victim of a crash triggered by fellow young, struggling wheelman David Ragan. This week, he was at the wrong place at the time that Earnhardt Jr. lost his brakes. His 31st-place finish mirrors teammate Allmendinger’s 13th-place finish at the Glen, ironic considering their crews will mirror each other at Michigan. In a move to improve performance, RPM has switched the crew chiefs and crews of the No. 43 and 44 teams, pairing Sorenson with veteran crew chief Sammy Johns. Maybe he will help spark the talent this youngster once showed before he lands in the hot seat.
COLD: David Stremme – Stremme looked like a stud last season in the Rusty Wallace Racing No. 64, and many felt bad for him for losing his Cup ride after only two seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing. However, the tides have turned for driver No. 12, as he often appears to be driving over his head. Constant crashes week in and week out (including a couple at The Glen), along with the on-track skirmish with Robby Gordon at Pocono (one that mirrored David Gilliland’s bonehead move on Montoya at Texas in fall 2008) have caused public opinion to change against the driver. If scanner traffic is any indication, Stremme also does not have much respect from his competitors on the track, either. With quality drivers like Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski looking for Cup rides next season, a total of zero top-10 finishes must leave him on the way out from a team that won the Daytona 500 just last February.
Here are some HOT and NOT issues from the week in racing:
HOT: The road course reset – There are three “R” word equalizers in the Sprint Cup Series: restrictor plates, rain and road courses. When one or more of these factors show up at an event, the advantage that big teams hold seems to lessen and sometimes flat out disappears. The bunched up fields and large crashes in restrictor-plate races allow some teams and drivers greater chances to run near the front, as evidenced by Keselowski’s coming from nowhere to win his first career Sprint Cup race at Talladega in April. Rain during races (and the strategy that surrounds it) also allowed David Reutimann to claim his first Cup victory in the Coke 600 in May and led Kenseth to his first Daytona 500 this year.
Though many fans do not relate to road course racing like they do to ovals, seeing teams like both RCM Racing and Boris Said and Andy Lally (Frontstretch interviewed Lally prior to his Sprint Cup debut) and TRG Motorsports qualify well after missing events was a welcome sight. Even seeing Marcos Ambrose run well (who won Saturday and finished second Monday) adds interest and other storylines to a sport that often sees too much repetition.
NOT: Resistance to rain racing – While NASCAR has been quick to adopt some of its own ideas (the Top 35, the Chase, and the CoT), sport officials have not been so willing to adapt the ideas of others. With rain and a road course appearing together this week, talk of using Goodyear rain tires and trying to race Cup cars in bad weather has come up. While driver reviews of the idea have been mixed, NASCAR has pretty much said that the idea is nowhere close to fruition.
Goodyear, however, did test rain tires at its Texas testing ground after last season, with driver Montoya taking reps for the oft-criticized tire company. While Goodyear has been at the butt of public opinion, they tried hard to fix the tire problems at both Indianapolis and Atlanta Motor Speedway, plan on debuting a wider tire that will mesh better with the CoT, and seem open to trying new things (like racing in the rain). Hopefully NASCAR will take note and seriously take a look at something that inferior racing series do.
HOT: Logano growing a personality – For much of his NASCAR career, 19-year-old Joey Logano has been solely focused on just trying to fit in with his team and in the garage. Surrounded by competitors and other figures largely his senior in age, Logano has managed to keep his nose clean through most of the past two seasons. While doing this has been wise for Logano, seeing him speak his mind after his on-track tangle with Robby Gordon after Saturday’s Nationwide Series race was entertaining.
“It’s a pretty raw deal. You can’t fix stupid, it’s forever. You put that in your memory bank.” These were young Logano’s words following the final incident between the two, which resulted in his No. 20 Toyota becoming a scrap heap after contact with the tire barrier. Logano may have been in the wrong with some of his on-track actions, but seeing him speak his mind (like the former driver of the No. 20 Home Depot car) is quite refreshing.
NOT: Sponsored prayer – Find the irony: “Dear God, thanks for allowing us to run the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen…” These were the words of the selected pastor that prayed before the race both Sunday and Monday at Watkins Glen, as Sunday’s pre-race ceremonies took place before the rain delay and postponement. Did the pastor really just day “God” and “Heluva” in the same sentence? I chuckled when I heard this Sunday and laughed out loud when I heard it a second time Monday. But irony and humor aside, I kind of see a problem with forced sponsor mentions in prayers.
Inserting race sponsors into pre-race prayers is nothing new, as I have seen it done many times over the years. Every time I see that, though, I cringe. While “Heluva Good!” is paying good money to be the title sponsor of the race, can’t the prayer be left alone? Can there be one sponsorless, sacred moment in the whole weekend circus? It’s as tacky as Ricky Bobby’s “baby Jesus prayer” in Talladega Nights. Just a thought.
The Sprint Cup Series’ second trip to Michigan International Speedway will have more questions to answer than the last time, as the points race between several drivers gunning for the final spots in the Chase got even tighter after the Glen. Turn here Tuesday to see which drivers leave Michigan for Thunder Valley with a spring in their summer step and which ones will be looking for a big turnaround at Bristol.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com, on Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. You can also hear Doug co-host a North Georgia racing show, The Lead Lap, Saturdays from 10-11 a.m., on ESPN 1240 The Ticket in Gainesville, Ga. and online at racefanradio.com.