Surprise, surprise… Jimmie Johnson is the early favorite to win the Cup Series title. The three-time defending Chase champ dominated the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway en route to his fourth win of the year and season sweep at the Monster Mile. Johnson led 271 of the 400 laps and never had a real challenge once he assumed the point. The other clear Chase favorites, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya, finished second and fourth respectively, while Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin left enough on the table to raise doubts about their title hopes.
Outside the top 12, Kyle Busch also deflated the confidence of many in his easily being able to hold the title of “Best of the Rest”. Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 DeWalt Ford, likewise, was the fastest it had been since the last trip to concrete mile. Here is a look at this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers of the week.
HOT: Johnson – Yes, this is the same trio of HOT drivers as last week. Need proof that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus keep a big red switch in the Hendrick shop to flip on for the start of the Chase each year? No. 48’s finishes in the six races prior to New Hampshire (since his previous last win at Indy): 13th, 12th, 33rd, 8th, 36th and 11th. Since then, Johnson finished fourth at New Hampshire and then stunk up the show en route to a Dover victory. Whether the No. 48 team simply had bad luck during this six-race sluggish stretch or threw experimental setups under the Lowe’s Chevy does not matter. Johnson and the team are built to win and will, unless uncharacteristic demons drag this team to end of the season damnation.
HOT: Martin – Martin has been in the HOT category a lot recently and will remain here until he shows signs of weakness. The 50-year-old and the No. 5 team are on their best stretch of the year and have picked the best time to hit their stride, as they entered the Chase leading the points and still do after week two. Martin took a car barely able to run in the top 10 at Dover and nursed it to his 16th top-10 finish of the year. Martin may be getting set up, though, for another late-season choke, as no driver leading the points after the second Chase race has won the title. Just ask Jeff Gordon, who has done it twice.
HOT: Montoya – When Kasey Kahne burst onto the Cup scene in 2004 and reeled a whole slew of runner-up finishes, he was my pick to win a race every week for the rest of that year, though he failed to win until the spring Richmond race in a much less-successful 2005 campaign. Montoya’s score card is starting to shape up the same way. While the No. 42 team has been consistent all year, crew chief Brian Pattie and Montoya must keep a Target-red switch in the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing shop. After failing to record a top-five finish in the first half of the season, Montoya has scored four in the last eight races and three in the last four. Montoya and Pattie both said in the summer months that the team is just trying to run conservatively enough to hold a spot in the Chase. Now the team is a darkhorse to win the title, after muscling its way to the top of the charts not only during the last two races, but in qualifying and practice as well. If Johnson or Martin falter, Montoya has now moved a rung ahead of Hamlin (who finished 22nd in Dover) as the favorite to become King of the Hill (and not in a Hank Hill kind of way).
WARM: Gordon – Despite the points being tight, only half of the 12 Chase drivers changed spots in the standings and Gordon was the biggest gainer, moving up two spots from 10th. Gordon finished a solid sixth at Dover, but needs more than a bit of consistency, if he wants to make a title run. Now 122 out of the lead and eighth in points, Gordon and the No. 24 team need to set Dorothy’s home track of Kansas ablaze (with a ruby-red hue, of course). Having won twice at the track, Gordon has a good chance to do so. Johnson was also eighth in points after race two and sat 136 points behind then-leader Jeff Burton, before making his title run in 2006. This technically is doable for Gordon.
WARM: Kevin Harvick – The RCR camp has many questions to answer for 2010 and Harvick’s rumored desired departure earlier in the year are no longer a part of them. Apparently, some performance questions are already receiving some attention, as Harvick two top 10s and three top 15s in the last four races (including Sunday’s 12th at Dover). The No. 29 team still has a long way to go before returning to victory lane regularly, but they have made big strides of late.
WARM: Ryan Newman – Newman has been the quieter of the two drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing this season, but has made more noise of late than owner and teammate Tony Stewart. After Sunday’s 10th-place finish, Newman has marked five consecutive top-10 finishes. The bad news for the No. 39 is that the team still has lost points the past two weeks to the front-running teams in points. Newman likely will not win this year, but 2009 has gone much better than many expected for the Army team.
COLD: Joey Logano – Logano’s spectacular wreck at Dover was reminiscent of what can happen at a track with such close quarters at such high speeds. Sunday’s 42nd-place result puts an exclamation point a dry spell that has existed for the rookie since the June New Hampshire race that he won. Since then, he has only one top 10 and finished in the top 15 only three times. Logano’s numbers should have picked up more, since he was revisiting most of those tracks. Logano is surrounded by other struggling drivers in the points and remains 20th in points. “Sliced Bread” is also a lock for Rookie of the Year, as Scott Speed has had a nightmarish season at Team Red Bull.
COLD: Jamie McMurray – One driver auditioning for a ride next season may need to re-memorize his speaking lines. Jamie Mac has not at all been immune to the Roush Fenway Racing struggles this season, as his 28th-place run Sunday at Dover helped show. Though he has had a top 15 run here or there, he has zero top fives this year, three top 10s and zero top 10s since the Richmond race… in May. With the Yates-Richard Petty Motorsports merger still left in the air and McMurray’s presence on that team still a possibility, he needs to do more to convince the brass at RPM, Yates, RFR and Ford that he deserves to roast marshmallows in that camp. If that is not enough pressure, he also has to compete with likely or certain free agents: Bobby Labonte, David Gilliland, Elliott Sadler (maybe) and Casey Mears (maybe) for a select number of open rides. Good luck….
COLD: Robby Gordon – A lack of hard liquor sponsorship next season will not alleviate hard times for Robby Gordon Motorsports. Jim Beam announced last week that it would leave the team to sponsor Kid Rock (another washed-up veteran of his profession) and his world tour. Gordon says that he has already talked to sponsors and likely will fill that void, but that will only keep the team alive, not competitive. A decent amount of money does not erase a team’s problems necessarily, just like a stiff drink does not get rid of any problems in life. Gordon is still unwilling to merge with another team (after the disaster last season was as “partners” with Gillett Evernham Motorsports) and still tears up too much equipment to make much progress. No matter the color or the crew chief on the No. 7, expect the same results in 2010.
Here are this week’s HOT and NOT issues:
HOT: The downfall of PC (with apologies to Mr. Gates) – You may have noticed these past two weeks the sudden spring-up of rivalries in the fall. Last week, Montoya did not take kindly to being blocked by Martin at the end of last week’s New Hampshire race and Dale Earnhardt Jr. held very little back in reference to being unceremoniously dumped by David Reutimann at the end of the same race. In the Nationwide Series this week, not only did Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have a dust-up both on and off the track Saturday, but Hamlin went far enough as to call Keselowski an ‘idiot’ in his TV interview…and that was after he had time to cool down. And in the Truck Series last week, Ron Hornaday and Harvick had to give each other post-race attitude adjustments. Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Brian France promised that the sport would allow drivers more leeway in this regard, because it wanted the series to “return to its roots.” A year-and-a-half after the fact is better late than never. Political correctness will always persist in NASCAR, as long as big money is involved, but at least we have seen more fire this year, it seems, than in the past couple before.
NOT: Complacency from behind the catchfence – It is hard to compliment NASCAR without tagging on a complaint. The aforementioned France does not seem too concerned about a dying interest in the Chase races. After seeing ratings increase significantly over the races prior to the Chase (in comparison to the same races last year), the Chase TV ratings for New Hampshire were down from 3.8 in 2008 to 3.2 last week.
In the words of France: “It’s one race and I think if we keep having the kind of racing and the Chase unfolds the way I think it’s going to, that will take care of itself. We don’t have a concern about that. & The Chase has got the right storylines, the right things going on [and] the racing is very good.” Maybe the racing is good (at least it was at New Hampshire), but the Chase storyline is extremely over-played by the media (including us here at Frontstretch). Maybe the Chase story has enough facets that it has become a crutch to lean on when we get “storyline block”. Nonetheless, the continuous bombardment of the “NASCAR playoffs” combined with Johnson’s continual dominance of the format will not help NASCAR stop losing ground to the NFL on the ratings front.
Kansas Speedway is next on the docket. As the Chase standings take form, the race for the Top 35 and the status of many drivers and teams hang at least slightly on the balance of the results garnered over the rest of the year. Turn here next week to see leaves Kansas with a whirlwind of momentum and who sees any chances at salvaging a good season blow away like dust in the wind.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with host Captain Herb Emory Saturday afternoons on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug as a co-host with David Chandler on The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader, Saturdays from 10-11 a.m. on racefanradio.com.