Maybe Kyle Busch smashing that Sam Bass-crafted guitar earlier this year was bad luck after all. Saturday night’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway proved to play a different tune than Busch’s preference, though the racing Gods left enough light at the end of the tunnel for the No. 18 team to almost taste the Chase rainbow. But Brian Vickers and upstart Team Red Bull had other ideas, with Busch’s newly formed foe getting just enough leeway to qualify for its first ever playoff. Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth had just enough of a gap between himself, Busch, and Vickers to run mid-pack and still make the Chase, but instead fought a mighty ill-handling No. 17 en route to missing his first 10-race playoff since the Chase began in 2004.
As that drama line played out, Denny Hamlin put on another driving school lasting until the closing bell, claiming a Sprint Cup victory for the first time at his home track. And now, with the points standings reset, streaky Mark Martin and his four wins sit alone atop the points standings heading into Chase race No. 1, despite the fact that a small streak of bad luck could have forced the veteran out of playoff contention. Meanwhile, former top-two points men Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have started slumping at the wrong time in their otherwise impressive season – could that wind up derailing their Chase chances?
For thoughts on that and to find where some of your other favorites are trending lately, check out this week’s HOT, WARM and NOT drivers heading to New Hampshire this Sunday:
HOT: Hamlin – Gaining the most points of any driver in the last five races, Saturday’s race winner may be in the best position to win the title outside of Stewart and Johnson. With his second victory of the season, the No. 11 team finds itself just 20 points behind Martin and with the most momentum of arguably anyone entering the 10-race playoff. If Hamlin’s flat track success translates well next week at New Hampshire, where he has no finishes outside the top 15 and one win, he may be the points leader no one is expecting leaving Loudon.
HOT: Vickers – The second happiest driver leaving Richmond Saturday (and owner of the second most points in the last five races) had to be Vickers, who finally made believers out of those who questioned both his abilities and career choices over his relatively short time in the Cup Series. The 2003 Nationwide Series champ finished seventh in the race and did not lead a lap, but he did just enough to squeak by and end the night inside the top 12 in points. Vickers and crew chief Ryan Pemberton have always been a step behind the Cup Series’ regular contenders, though, and need to beef up their ability to run up front and win if they want to have any shot at the title heading to Homestead.
HOT: Jeff Gordon – The early season dominator atop the standings, Gordon surprisingly has as many top 10s (18) and only one less top five (12) than foe and quasi-teammate Stewart, whose surging stats have been the talk of the town until the past few weeks. But while Gordon may be consistent, he has only one win and has not run up front nearly as much as the likes of Stewart and Johnson. Like Vickers, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte need to find ways to gain back their edge. Saturday’s laps led in Richmond were a step in the right direction… but they can’t stop there.
WARM: Martin – As was seen in Kyle Busch’s elimination from Chase contention, consistency is everything and consistency, or the lack thereof, has plagued Martin’s No. 5 team this season. While Martin has scored four wins, six poles, 14 top 10s, led a lot of laps and many practice sessions, he has had trouble securing a string of consecutive top 10s. Martin’s current string of three straight top 10s, including a fourth-place finish Saturday at Richmond, is his third such stretch this season in a year defined by unpredictability. One more solid finish would tie his season high, as he had a four-race top-10 streak back in March and April between the Bristol race and the Phoenix race that he won. If Martin wants to claim his first season title, top 10s and top fives are critical to attaining that goal just as much as his defining victories that made him the Chase’s top seed.
WARM: Kyle Busch – And the race for “The Best of the Rest” begins with Busch in that all-too-forgettable 13th spot. Busch’s sudden spark of consistency in the No. 18 was too much, too late as his Chase bid got drowned out through a spring and summer of roller-coaster finishes. Despite being tied with Martin for the series lead in wins (four), Busch missed the playoffs by eight points after being unable to finish any higher than fifth at Richmond. Nonetheless, Busch has scored the third most points in the last five races and, as JD Gibbs and Steve Addington put it on Saturday night, he will be turned loose to throw caution to the wind and challenge for wins on the racetrack. So don’t be surprised to see a six- or seven-race winner at season’s end with no shot at the Cup.
WARM: Ryan Newman – After Newman got his season turned around in the spring and early summer months, with eight top 10s in 10 races, he has been streaky at best. But lately, Newman has run a bit better and scored three straight top 10s. Likely not a title contender, the No. 39 team still lacks the same front-running edge that the aforementioned No. 83 and No. 24 teams do. A win or two would not only help Newman’s championship hopes, but would also aid in the sponsorship situation that is still in limbo for the No. 39 Chevy heading into 2010.
COLD: Regan Smith – Smith has had a strange Cup career. After studying under Martin part-time in the Army car at the former Ginn Racing and DEI organizations, then losing that role to Aric Almirola, Smith landed a full-time ride in the barely-sponsored No. 01 Chevy at DEI and backed into Rookie of the Year honors last season. Lack of funding forced him into a part-time role at Furniture Row Racing, which will return to full-time competition in 2010. Smith has been the force behind the No. 78 team turning heads this year; however, the last two race weekends have been nothing short of a pain in the neck. Smith failed to qualify for his first race of the season (and second of his career) at Atlanta Motor Speedway, then scored his first career DNF after a blown tire at Richmond. The good news is that the team has added two more events to its schedule to gather more info, and will hopefully be on track to become a more viable operation next year.
COLD: Drivers from Georgia – The last week or two has been tough on the Georgia Driver Brigade. Bill Elliott had to skip his hometown race at Atlanta Motor Speedway because he broke a couple of ribs in a dirt bike tumble (he instead went and saw his rising star son, Chase Elliott, compete in one of his first super late model races in Indiana). Meanwhile, Reed Sorenson was running well at AMS before getting caught up and damaged in Kurt Busch’s wreck off turn 4. Sorenson then lost his ride as a byproduct of the Petty-Yates merger. David Ragan was also having a solid run at Atlanta, before getting knocked out of the top 30 by a pit-road speeding penalty. He went on to struggle and finish poorly at Richmond, as well.
In the Nationwide Series, John Wes Townley failed to qualify his No. 09 Ford for the Atlanta race (another chapter in a disastrous season for the rookie) and was then replaced by Travis Kvapil for the Richmond race. Ken Butler III, who has been racing part-time in the series in the No. 23 R3 Motorsports Chevy with his family’s Aaron’s sponsorship, has also lost his ride in favor of Kevin Conway. Conway signed a multi-year deal with the team, bringing along his Extenze sponsorship to replace the money the team might lose with Aaron’s departure.
COLD: Casey Mears – Prior to his last two finishes (25th and 30th), Mears had scored three top-15 finishes and despite them, sits a disappointing 20th in points. Mears is also in a precarious position, as his No. 07 team is likely in search of extra sponsorship (Jack Daniel’s is rumored to be seeking a part-time schedule for next year). With available drivers on the market (like Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray and David Gilliland) and the number of sponsorship dollars at a premium, Mears and the team are picking a bad time to slump. It looks like the driver himself could be on the chopping block, especially if someone with money and similar stats comes along.
Moving on from drivers to news, here are this week’s HOT and NOT issues to think about:
HOT: The stove – All it took was one Silly Season domino to drop, and now others may start falling into place. Few saw the Richard Petty Motorsports – Yates Racing merger coming, though. In case you haven’t heard, RPM has spurned both Dodge and prospective suitor Toyota, moving to Ford while taking three of its teams along with it. The organization will join forces with Paul Menard’s funded Yates car, meaning that both Sorenson and employees of the No. 26 Roush Fenway team are left wondering what their plans for next year will be.
The soon-to-be-former driver of the No. 26, McMurray, has seemed a sure-lock to replace Martin Truex Jr. at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing next year, though Labonte’s name is being linked with the ride (much like he had been linked with EGR last offseason after the formation of RPM). Labonte is now also rumored to be a candidate for the No. 07 Richard Childress Racing ride, even though it has not been offered by the team yet and Mears is its supposed driver next season. Throw into the mix available drivers like Gilliland (who will end 2009 having driven for four teams in the last 13 races), David Stremme, even Almirola (who lost the No. 8 ride because of sponsorship and is making up for it by driving the wheels of the Billy Ballew trucks) and there may be plenty of Silly Season moves yet to go here before we’re all said and done.
NOT: Mergers – Now that Richard Petty Motorsports and Yates Racing will field a four-car Ford campaign next year, the pains of this connection are immediately being felt. Mark McArdle, the Managing Competition Director and Vice President of RPM, has already parted from the team, reportedly because of an argument over who was going to assemble the new team’s engines. Roush-Yates is actually going to supply the powerplants for 2010, meaning most of the engine shop at RPM will be no more in just two short months. With one team shutting down at RPM, another one fielded by Yates (and owned by Hall of Fame Racing) either being downsized or up for grabs, and a whole group of chassis builders likely wondering where they will work (since Roush Fenway Racing will provide those), the new RPM team will be lean and mean… but also slim.
Mergers may make the most sense for sizable teams to remain viable, but the after-effects are always tough to stomach. DEI laid off a ton of employees both before and after its merger with Ganassi and since Ganassi defected to Chevys, Ernie Elliott’s engine shop instantly became nearly obsolete (and is completely, if you ask Carl Long).
These moves remind me of the mergers that took place in the radio and television world after deregulation, where big companies scooped up many of the small signals and streamlined the personnel of the stations, giving them an opportunity at making a similar product at a fraction of the cost. Complain all you want, but this endless circle of business decisions is the world we live in. At times, it has its advantages; but seeing perfectly good employees without a place of work in the NASCAR garage is a shame.
Looking ahead, Chase race number one is on the docket this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. See which drivers survive the first of 10 races with luck and which others will find themselves in an immediate hole heading back home when you turn here next week.
Listen to Doug host The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 this Saturday from 3-3:45 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. Doug also co-hosts The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader, each Saturday from 10-11 a.m. on ESPN 1240 The Ticket in Gainesville, Ga. and online at racefanradio.com.