Welcome back Bristol – we missed you! Or maybe you never left and we just had to get used to a few less shoving matches in the Thunder Valley bullring. Nonetheless, the Sprint Cup Series capped off an exciting week of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway by seeing Kyle Busch break out of both a bad streak in the Cup Series and in the public relations realm. The win over dominant Mark Martin allowed Busch to inch closer to the Chase threshold and put fellow contenders Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer in his rearview mirror, with just Atlanta and Richmond left before the start of the playoff. Toward the top of the standings, both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon clinched Chase berths, while points leader Tony Stewart had a rare poor outing. Heading into this off weekend, here are the HOT, WARM and COLD this week:
HOT: Kyle Busch – The No. 18 team may be hitting their stride at just the right time, as the Chase nears. Last season, the M&M’s team was extremely dominant for the entire season prior to the Chase, only to absolutely flop once it appeared in the playoffs. Busch’s four wins tie him with Martin for most in the series, but there is a possible chance that neither could make the Chase and a very real chance that Busch could not (considering he is still not in it yet). Busch may have taken steps to prep his mind to be a Chaser, by not taking Friday’s crash as hard as he had taken runner-up finishes in the Nationwide Series the past few weeks.
HOT: Greg Biffle – One of the quieter drivers on the Cup circuit this season, Biffle and the No. 16 team have followed suit with the rest of their Roush cohorts and slightly under-performed. He would be easy to pick as the driver that Busch could supplant from the Chase, but the stats spell differently. Biffle has scored the second most points the past five races (behind Vickers) and ran surprisingly well at Bristol (fourth), considering the Roush teams have really struggled on short tracks this year.
HOT: Vickers – Speaking of Vickers… 12th place is not exactly setting the world on fire, Vickers’s night could have been much more detrimental to his Chase chances. Starting mid-pack, Vickers was running near the back of the top 25 Saturday, but clawed his way closer to the front. While his main adversary both on the track and in the points may have won the race and passed him in the points, Vickers kept step with Busch after Saturday’s event and could easily drive his way into the Chase.
WARM: Martin: Usually quietly consistent, Martin’s season has been extremely streaky. After following up his Chicago win with consecutive top 10s for the first time all year, he finished 23rd and 31st at Watkins Glen and Michigan respectively. If he wants to assure himself a Chase spot, firing off two more top 10s would go a long way.
WARM: Marcos Ambrose – The Aussie driver with the Spanish version of Martin’s first name had an impressive third-place run Saturday, hanging in the top 10 for much of the race. Ambrose now finds himself just one spot in the points (17th) behind teammate David Reutimann, who not so long ago was considered to be a practical shoo-in for The Chase. Ambrose also sits ahead of Jeff Burton in the points, going further to point out just how impressive a first year he is having.
WARM: David Ragan – In the Cup Series, Ragan has a long way to go before he and the No. 6 team can be feared contenders again. Considering his extreme difficulty with the track before, his quiet 14th-place run is a big step toward righting the errant ship of his season. He also got his second career Nationwide Series win Friday night at the track and did a masterful job holding off charging teammate Carl Edwards in that race.
COLD: Stewart – Consecutive finishes of 17th and 33rd in spite of all the success he has had this year may not mean much, but they do conjure up the question of if Stewart’s No. 14 team may have peaked too early. His season has been one to remember, but could end up like Kyle Busch’s last year, if a couple of bad runs creep into his closet during the Chase.
COLD: Sam Hornish Jr. – Hornish Jr. has definitely gained a few spots on the respect ladder in the garage this season, but still finds himself snakebitten many weeks, either messing up and crashing his No. 77 Dodge himself, or getting caught in someone else’s mess. He’s 28th in points, but has three more top 10s (six) than anyone else near him in the points. Now he is just missing the needed consistency to keep him near the Chase contenders.
COLD: John Andretti – The only bright spot in both Andretti and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team’s season is the fact that they have remained inside the Top 35 in owner points. With Andretti crashing yet again Saturday and rookie Scott Speed finishing 15th, the No. 82 is now within 115 points of Andretti’s spot. With better drivers searching for rides, you have to wonder how long Andretti remains in the driver’s seat of the Taco Bell Chevy.
Here are this week’s HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: BK PR about joining PR – Brad Keselowski got pushed big time by reporters Friday at Bristol, who were begging him to announce his pending agreement to replace David Stremme in Penske Racing’s No. 12 Dodge next season. Keselowski did everything he could to deflect questions asking him specifically about his Silly Season news, but at least he didn’t flat out lie and say there was nothing to the rumors. More often that not, PR reps, drivers and others simply lie to conceal to truth from the public. Keselowski told us what we all needed to know Friday without saying all that much. Thanks for that.
NOT: No room in the inn – The reason that the Keselowski story is so interesting is the fact that he is now looking to achieve success in the short term for an organization other than the most dominant in the sport. BK seemed to have it made with JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports, but his wishes to go Cup racing in that umbrella evaporated after Martin decided to run the full schedule in the No. 5 Chevy. While he is taking flight elsewhere, this situation has to remind you of how other situations like this have ended up.
Kyle Busch has thrived outside the Hendrick banner at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he was forced to sign after losing his HMS seat in favor of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Developmental drivers in the NNS have not been so lucky to find roots elsewhere. Landon Cassill was supposed to be a huge star with Hendrick Motorsports, but has seen no action in the NNS this season, since the No. 5 Chevy lost sponsorship and could only get on the track with Cup stars driving it. Cale Gale, Erik Darnell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Colin Braun (notice how the last three are Roush drivers) are others in the developmental pipes of big teams that have no foreseeable place to land with their Cup or NNS affiliations full-time in the near future.
Hopefully this good talent will be able to take flight and produce good racing for years to come in NASCAR’s future. There definitely are too many tired drivers ahead of them that should move aside.
The last off week of the season lies ahead as the Cup teams gear up for the last two pre-Chase races at Richmond and Atlanta. Turn here to see which Sprint Cup drivers enjoy the time under the Atlanta lights and which ones wither with the spotlight shown on them.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with host Captain Herb Emory Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. Also listen to Doug co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing News Leader on ESPN 1240 The Ticket in Gainesville, Ga. and online at racefanradio.com Saturdays from 10-11 a.m.