NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 CARFAX 400 at Michigan Edition

What a weekend for Brian Vickers! After winning poles in both the Nationwide and Cup series at Michigan International Speedway, Vickers scored his second career Cup win on Sunday and came close to scoring the sweep Saturday in the NNS race. Now within 12 points of the Chase, Vickers’s place in this week’s column is no surprise. But with fuel mileage on the minds of many, the MIS race saw a team or two use their gas tanks to keep the momentum going, while several others saw their August success run dry before the checkered flag. Here are this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers following the 400-miler:

HOT: Vickers – The win that many have been predicting for most of the past two seasons finally came for sixth-year driver Vickers at Michigan. Though he won three years ago at Talladega, this victory was probably sweeter for the Chase contender simply because it was much less controversial – although in an interesting twist of fate, it took misfortune by Jimmie Johnson both times in order for the trophy to fall his way. Unable to seal the deal in victory lane after winning a season-high six poles, Vickers and crew chief Ryan Pemberton rolled the fuel-mileage dice to finally finish where he started. Nearly as important as the win is the fact that Vickers is now even closer to 12th-place Mark Martin than before, pulling to just 66 points behind ninth-place Ryan Newman as well. Now, with no teams in between them and 12th and “Big Mo’” on their side, Vickers and the No. 83 crew are in great shape to make the Chase.

HOT: Carl Edwards – Considering anything Edwards has done this season, HOT may be a bit of a stretch, but the No. 99 has not been that bad lately and “not been that bad” has been enough for Edwards to raise him to fourth in points. Sunday’s top-five finish at Michigan is actually a highlight for Cousin Carl, considering the No. 99 team has barely been a top-10 contender at tracks like Michigan this season. Yet despite his good standing in the playoff hunt, keep in mind that due to the Chase bonus system Edwards loses all that ground should his winless drought continue through Richmond.

HOT: Denny Hamlin – A modest 10th-place finish at Michigan, like Edwards’s fourth place run, was not great for Hamlin, but it was good enough to keep him fifth in the standings. With over 200 points between him and 13th, that should be enough of a cushion to gamble for wins leading up to the Chase. Hamlin and the No. 11 team still are not in championship form quite yet, but they could be a spoiler for the title if bad luck strikes the quartet of frontrunners above him.

WARM: Clint Bowyer – Three consecutive top 10s, including Sunday’s eighth-place run, are the saving graces for the No. 33 team’s Chase chances. Bowyer has come on strong in recent races, but these good runs don’t erase the fact that he has Vickers, Martin, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth in front of him, as well as Kyle Busch right behind all fighting for the bottom positions in the Chase. Bowyer runs well at Bristol (four top 10s in seven career races), which should work out to be a major plus – his main foe, Vickers, has zero top 10s at the track.

WARM: Bill Elliott – A solitary 16th-place finish in Michigan Sunday may not be much to write home about for many – especially an accomplished champ like Elliott – but it still deserves a nod. Driving the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford, Elliott qualified inside the top 10 and remained in contention for much of the race. Considering how much the team has struggled the past few years, the partial schedule they’re running this season has allowed them to up their competition level. Elliott has qualified the Motorcraft Ford in the top 10 over his last three starts, has finished 16th or better three times, and has ended four of his eight races on the lead lap. Again, these results are not spectacular, but are a great step in the right direction for this No. 21 team.

WARM: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Having the season from Hell, Earnhardt Jr. has actually seen his performance improve… though his luck has still been fairly bad. Sunday was an exception to the rule, though, as pit strategy led Junior to push the No. 88 Chevy towards a third-place finish, easily his best run since finishing second at Talladega in April. Bad luck derailed Dale Jr.’s good performances at both Indy and Watkins Glen, but promising runs in those races as well have led Earnhardt and the AMP Energy team to start believing in crew chief Lance McGrew. McGrew is still listed as the “interim” head wrench, but Junior’s continued turnaround likely will erase that moniker going forward.

COLD: Michael Waltrip – If you watched the race from flag-to-flag, you may remember one of the early shots in the race that showed drivers Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan and Edwards trying to advance their fast racecars from awful starting spots. You may also remember a blue and yellow car in that same shot moving backwards faster than those others were moving forward. That Toyota was driven by Waltrip, whose performance this season has not made one person second guess his move to step out of the No. 55 Toyota full-time next season. Waltrip has not finished above 20th since Martinsville (17 races ago) and is running far less competitively than his teammate David Reutimann and quasi-teammate Marcos Ambrose. His decision to replace himself with Patrick Carpentier on the road courses was a good one… but maybe he should consider that on some of the oval tracks for the rest of this season (with, say, Kelly Bires or Scott Riggs – just an idea).

COLD: Bobby Labonte – The last time I compared Labonte to Waltrip was when I was writing one part of a Side-By-Side article for this site, when both drivers were still in the top 12 in points after the Las Vegas race in March. Now their faults, poor results, and bad luck have made their solid starts all but a distant memory. Labonte and Waltrip each have struggled nearly equally over the spring and summer month, as since the same Martinsville race mentioned in Waltrip’s blurb, Labonte has only two finishes above 20th (to Waltrip’s zero). Adding insult to injury this Sunday, Labonte’s engine failure at Michigan came so early that even the start-and-park teams could not beat him to the garage.

COLD: Ragan – Ragan’s season is going so badly that even his good runs end up in the tank. Ragan and the No. 6 UPS team used pit strategy and a strong racecar to race into the top five at Michigan before contact two different times in the race (neither one of his making) cost the team crucial track position. Nursing a wrecked car to the finish, 30th place on Sunday goes down as yet another result in which Ragan’s team performed well below expectations. Maybe 2010 will bring better luck for a 2009 that has been nothing but disappointing.

Here are some of the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:

HOT: Dale Jr. speaking out – Though he doesn’t speak very loudly or emotionally, Earnhardt Jr. has sent some hard-hitting charges toward NASCAR in recent days. At a media event in Atlanta last Thursday, he not only made highly publicized criticisms of the CoT but also talked in-depth about how races should be shorter and that the Cup Series should not travel twice a year to places like Pocono and Dover – especially if places like Atlanta Motor Speedway are rumored to be losing dates. While these statements were meant as constructive criticisms of NASCAR, Junior also applauded the sport for enacting double-file restarts, saying that drivers now look forward to “phantom debris cautions” many times because they can then make up spots on the track easily. Junior did say, though, that double-file restarts likely will not cure the spreading out of the field at AMS. Hearing Junior speak about more than his poor season was nice, to say the least.

NOT: Kyle Busch whining out – I know that everyone and their mother has written or is writing about this, but Kyle Busch’s crybaby attitude is so bad, I wonder if maybe he does it on purpose just to get a reaction. His complaints about Vickers racing him too hard for the win and allowing eventual race winner Brad Keselowski to pass them by on the last lap of Saturday’s Nationwide race were lame. He even went further to take a jab at Junior Nation, saying he was sure that they were happy Keselowski won. As for Vickers, he retaliated well, saying he thought they were supposed to race hard and that he was unaware the race was renamed “The Kyle Busch Show.” Busch made himself look bad even before the comments, however, by confronting Vickers on pit road and trying to start a sissy fight with him still in his car. But while the drama is fun to talk about and watch, seeing Kyle Busch complain again and again has to make you sick.

HOT: The next three races – As Dale Jr. mentioned in the same set of comments he made Thursday, the summer stretch in July and early August is dominated by tracks that do not always lend themselves to good racing and can be a bore for both drivers and fans. While the road courses can be fun, Daytona is exciting and the Brickyard is very historical, the rest of the summer race schedule is by and large very… blah. The next three races, however, may help to change the complexion of summer’s closing weeks. Bristol, though it has not been as exciting the last few races (after the track’s repaving) will definitely produce more action than some more recent races at other tracks on Saturday night. Next up after that is Atlanta Motor Speedway, which will be hosting its first race under the lights and make for higher speeds and more excitement in the air. Then there’s Richmond, one of the best tracks on the schedule and the final race before the Chase. The normal excitement level at the track will only be elevated this year with so many drivers left vying for Chase spots.

NOT: Continuing problems with TV coverage – The length of pre-race shows has been a much-discussed issue this season, since green flags seem to fly later and later. But if pre-race coverage is going to last so long, then at least the networks should cover all of the big NASCAR news stories. On Sunday, ESPN dropped the ball on several of those, including Dale Jr.’s comments on the CoT, Mike Bliss being fired from Phoenix Racing’s NNS team but still being retained as driver of their start-and-park Cup operation, and maybe, most importantly, not mentioning that there was rain near the racetrack (weather that ended up stopping the race for about 20 minutes). Why can’t ESPN fill their show with some more good reporting instead of endless commentaries and promos?

Looking ahead, that thunder you hear in the distance is the sound from the Valley of Bristol, ready to host all three of NASCAR’s top series this week. With just three more races remaining before the Chase, turn here to see which drivers get a short-track boost and which ones leave the bullring in need of a Band-Aid.

Listen to Doug 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 and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug as a co-host on The Lead Lap from 10-11 a.m. every Saturday on ESPN 1240 The Ticket in Gainesville and online at racefanradio.com.

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