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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 Sylvania 300 Edition

Was that New Hampshire we witnessed on Sunday? Was that the same track that, at times, has lent itself to single-file boredom? Especially in the closing laps, Sunday’s Sylvania 300 was a barnburner, with Chasers Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya sparring against each other for the lead. And while Martin went to victory lane, seven other Chasers filled out the rest of the top 10, while all but Kasey Kahne finished in the top 20. Meanwhile, a couple of other drivers also had surprising runs and Kyle Busch had a quiet but solid day, establishing himself as the likely Chase spoiler of those drivers on the outside looking in. So, as the Cup Series leaves the Granite State for the final time this year, let’s take a look at this week’s HOT, WARM and NOT drivers.

HOT: Martin – No surprises here. Not only did Martin stave off two faster cars (Hamlin and Montoya) on the final restarts to win the Chase opener, but he heads to Dover with an extra spring in his step. Kellogg’s, primary sponsor of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy for a decade-and-a-half, has been rumored to be on the outs from the team, as its contract is up at the end of this season. On Friday, that crisis was corrected, with Martin and HMS announcing he would run in the No. 5 full-time through 2011 with GoDaddy.com sponsoring the majority of the races in each of the next two years. In the midst of a streak of four consecutive top fives and armed with a great track record at Dover, Martin has every reason to believe that the title is his to lose.

HOT: Montoya – If the title is Martin’s to lose, then Sunday’s race was Montoya’s to win. Unfortunately, the third-year NASCAR driver experienced the same late-race luck with a dominant car at New Hampshire that he did with the same speedy ride in the Brickyard 400. Montoya won the pole, led the practice sessions and then led the most laps during the Sylvania 300 en route to what could have been a commanding victory. But during the second-to-last long green-flag run, his Target Chevy lost the handle a bit, forcing him to play catch-up in the closing laps after losing track position due to pit strategy. But even when some late-race cautions bunched up the front of the field, Montoya failed to pass Martin on the final restart and then gave up second spot to boot. One strike against Montoya moving forward, though, is his overaggression on the track at NHMS. He was able to escape several bouts of contact with competitors because he had a good car, but this type of driving can come back to bite you later on. With the Chase points so tight, Montoya cannot afford to fall in the standings at the hands of a wrecked racecar.

HOT: Jimmie Johnson – Johnson and the No. 48 team remained quiet for most of the race, leading only once for 14 laps. Yet despite this toned-down performance, Johnson managed to score his first top five since his win at Indy two months ago. After ducking out of the spotlight for the past few weeks, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are turning up the heat and ready to freight train the competition en route to a fourth straight title. With no known controversy back at the HMS shop and plenty of playoff experience, Johnson is in the perfect spot heading to Dover.

WARM: Kurt Busch – Busch had a great car at NHMS, running near the front of the pack for much of Sunday’s event. He ended up fading to sixth at the end of the Sylvania 300, after losing a few positions during the smash mouth final restart or two. With five top 10s in the last seven races, the No. 2 team seems to be riding a significant head of steam. However, the announced departure of crew chief Pat Tryson has turned over some stones that point to a possible weakness for the team. Since Tryson is leaving the team for Michael Waltrip Racing (after some sort of conflict in the Penske organization), he is only allowed in the Penske Racing shop once a week. Though the team will remain highly competitive, expect the internal distractions to subtly pose difficulties for Busch to claim the Sprint Cup crown.

WARM: Greg Biffle – The porch of his house may have been HOT on Friday (when a gas leak back at his home ignited a fire), but Biffle has only managed to hold in the WARM classification this time around. His ninth-place finish Sunday was quiet and overlooked, but it was also the best run of his Roush Fenway stablemates, including fellow Chaser Carl Edwards. If Biffle wants to be part of the title talks, he needs to lead more laps and win at least two races. Remember, there’s also the lousy run he will likely have at Martinsville late in the Chase still to go, a place where he and his team have struggled mightily.

WARM: Elliott Sadler – One driver whose job may be in jeopardy, believe it or not, is Sadler. Though his name was mentioned by Richard Petty Motorsports officials as a driver traveling to the new operation with Yates Racing, Jamie McMurray, who was once thought to be traveling to Yates with the Roush Fenway No. 26 team, is rumored as a possible replacement. Sadler took the rumors in stride (if he knew about them) and drove a great potential auditioning race at New Hampshire. Rebounding from an early involvement in a crash, he finished eighth for his best effort since the Daytona 500 back in February. Sadler and Casey Mears both could be on the chopping block, yet showed tepid flashes of brilliance in scoring needed top-10 runs.

COLD: Kahne – Kablwoowee! That’s what happened to the power plant on the Budweiser Dodge barely 20% of the way through the Sylvania 300. The only good news for Kahne is that the five start and parkers beat him to the garage, leaving him 38th in the final rundown. Kahne has run well this year and could still rebound in the Chase, but the turmoil at RPM, with the rumors of Reed Sorenson’s pro bono driving, the departure of Mark McArdle, and the pending elimination of many engine department and chassis shop jobs leave Kahne at a disadvantage before having to overcome a now 161-point deficit in the Chase. Kahne also is very much in the dark about RPM’s leadership decisions. That means Dodge’s only two teams in the Chase are at a distraction-caused disadvantage… it’s a good thing Dr. Z is not part of the Chrysler picture anymore, or HE would be the one asking all the questions.

COLD: AJ Allmendinger – Not that RPM needs to be poured upon, but Allmendinger spun out enough at New Hampshire that Maytag should sign on as a sponsor of the team. Allmendinger got turned at the hands of Marcos Ambrose, after aggravating the Aussie not long before that. ‘Dinger was also involved in a tangle with David Stremme just before lap 200 and then brought out the race-ending caution on lap 300, spinning out alone. Allmendinger has made tremendous strides in his NASCAR career, but is now in the midst of longest stretch this year without a top 10 (his last one was at Sonoma back in June). With sponsorship up in the air for his team and with the brass at RPM having about as much patience as Donald Trump in waiting for drivers to develop, Allmendinger needs to keep his nose clean and step up the effort ASAP.

COLD: Michael Waltrip – The end of the season cannot come soon enough for the NAPA team. Waltrip was involved in a multi-car wreck Sunday, sending him off the pace early and en route to a seventh straight finish outside the top 20. This lack of focus is nothing new for Waltrip and the No. 55 team, and it shows in the washed-up driver’s thinking. While announcing Saturday’s Truck race, MW seemed more interested in sponsors and their exposure than actual racing itself. With Pat Tryson now on the VIP list of those joining the team next season, Waltrip will have much more to brag about to potential sponsors than his one top 10 in 25 starts this year.

Here are the HOT and NOT issues of the week:

HOT: The resurgence of the small team – While bigger teams are merging, surging, and sometimes struggling, some lower-budget, newer teams are elevating to the hype that surrounded them earlier in the season. In particular, the No. 71 TRG Motorsports car has seen its popularity and sponsorship increase significantly since adding Bobby Labonte for seven of the final 12 races. With money on board, the team has been able to run the distance and has outperformed much “better” organizations with more resources at their disposal. As a result, this car may be the sexy pick to forge an affiliation with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing or Richard Childress Racing if either of those teams want a satellite team to share notes with (TRG already has some assistance from RCR). Meanwhile, Tommy Baldwin Racing has not run well, but has worked to secure sponsorship for some races while Furniture Row Racing and the Wood Brothers’ hopes are looking up. Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 team is even rumored to be close to securing sponsorship for next season. As the economy slowly works to turn around, these smaller teams are starting to benefit, which is good for the sport.

NOT: Harvick’s whiny Truck Series raceKevin Harvick, Ron Hornaday and Kyle Busch put on a heckuva show in Saturday’s Truck Series race at NHMS. Unfortunately, Harvick’s team owner bossy pants must have cut the circulation off to his head. For a large portion of the second half of the race, Harvick battled hard in the part-time No. 2 with teammate and employee Hornaday Jr. in the No. 33. Harvick was able to drive to Hornaday’s inside, but could not make the pass. The team owner then tried hopelessly to relay to Hornaday’s spotter that the championship contender should pull over and let him go, just so he could chase down Busch’s No. 51 Toyota. For his part, Hornaday thought he was giving Harvick the room needed to pass, but it was not enough. So while the two squabbled, that allowed Kyle Busch to skip away with the checkered flag for the event. After the race, Harvick complained to both Hornaday and the TV cameras, calling a driver and crew meeting in his hauler to settle the matter. Hornaday said he had no idea of the team orders… after Harvick said something to him in private before the cameras got there.

Huh? In the heat of the moment, Harvick must have forgotten that Hornaday is running for a championship and, though he leads by a hefty margin, needs every point he can get. Remember, Hornaday lost the championship last season after teammate Ryan Newman passed him for the win at the fall Atlanta Motor Speedway race. Harvick the team owner should know more than anyone about big-picture points racing, and even fired now-foe Matt Crafton for not racing aggressively enough for wins. Hornaday held his position and did not hold up Harvick from passing him; but even if he did, Harvick had little right to demand that from his employee.

Plenty of drama is already playing out in the Chase as the Cup Series heads to Dover. Not only is the points title on the line, but many teams’ and drivers’ futures hold in the balance based on their season-ending performances. Turn here next week to see which teams keep hitting – or missing – their marks during the season’s final stretch run.

Listen to Doug this Saturday as he co-hosts The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader with co-host David Chandler, on ESPN 1240 The Ticket in Gainesville, Ga. and online at racefanradio.com.

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