There have been far more defining races at Kansas Speedway, as far as points are concerned, than Sunday’s Price Chopper 400 – where everyone left with virtually the status quo. However, Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson, one and two in the Chase both going into and leaving the race, let the standings behind them compress, as while despite starting the day on row one they finished seventh and ninth. Because of clever strategy and a fast pit stop, Tony Stewart grabbed the lead during the last caution sequence and held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon to win the event. But Chasers took nine of the top-10 finishing spots, leaving little room for other drivers to show much muscle and making the early “Jimmie Johnson wins the 2009 title at Dover” declarations look silly (especially since Martin has led the points the whole Chase). By the way, drivers leading the standings after race 3 have won three of the five Chases to date. But I digress….
Anyways, here are this week’s HOT, WARM, and COLD drivers of the week – as always, keep in mind that these are not in any kind of order nor are they the full list of every driver in each category.
HOT: Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya has become the Jeff Burton from three years ago, the Clint Bowyer from two and the Greg Biffle from ’08, securing the “Where in the Heck Darnation Did This Back-of-the-Top-10 Driver in the First 26 Races Come From?” award. At this point in the Chase the past three years, Burton led the points while Bowyer and Biffle held close to the lead in third. Montoya and the No. 42 team are following this same format… though nowhere near as quietly. Montoya has driven each of these Chase races like the last of his life, forcing the issue on almost every pass and worrying very little about street cred in the garage area for his driving tactics. Montoya took the Target Chevrolet four-wide at one point during the race at Kansas and gave Gordon a little love shove another time, likely stirring complaints from the veteran. Sunday’s fourth-place effort may not have been dominant, but it allowed Montoya to gain points on Martin and Johnson and remain part of the eight-driver brigade that is within 120 points of the leader – the closest Chase race in history, so far.
HOT: Gordon – Sunday was the first race in a while that Gordon actually moved forward in the closing laps. The No. 24 Chevy seemed to have this ability in the first quarter of the season, as Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte were on the same page with adjustments that improved the car as races wore on. But as Gordon’s aging back seemed to ache more and more, so did his ability to come back from problems through the summer months. Maybe the pain’s been receding a bit? Whatever the reason, Sunday’s runner-up finish not only moved him up a spot to seventh, it keeps the veteran just over 100 points out of first in the standings and gives the No. 24 team the feeling that they can still contend for Gordon’s fifth title.
HOT: Stewart – Placing Stewart in this category was not as easy as you might think. Though he won Sunday’s race and is now fourth in points, his methodology in doing so and history as of late are more of the WARM variety. Stewart started the race in fifth and led the majority of his 37 laps on the day after taking two tires during the final pit stop and gaining the leader’s clean air in the closing laps of the race. The No. 14 team’s victory was its first top five since winning Watkins Glen about two months ago. With quasi-teammates Johnson and Martin finishing in the top five and top 10 as often as Sunday, Stewart and his team need to up their ante to their midsummer levels, when they were the clear championship favorite.
WARM: Biffle – Biffle and the No. 16 Sherwin-Williams Ford team made a loud statement in Kansas, leading the most laps and painting a big stripe beneath their feet as the lowest-ranked real contenders for the title. Biffle was in position to win the race, but decided not to override crew chief Greg Erwin’s call to take four tires on the final pit sequence, causing him to relinquish the lead to winner Stewart. Roush Fenway Racing has not shown the firepower needed to contend for race wins much of the year – never mind the championship – but an unlikely Biffle is eighth in points and 114 markers out of the lead. If he avoids the Big One at Talladega, that likely will eliminate the title hopes of some ahead of him (like it took him out last year), and then, he has positioned himself well for the stretch run. By the way, Biffle has had an array of finishes at this week’s track in California, but did win there back in 2005.
WARM: Kasey Kahne – Blown engines, engine changes, merging madness, teammate uncertainty, manufacturer confusion, personnel turmoil and Saudi Prince-involvement are not elements a championship-hopeful driver and team want to deal with, but Kahne has seen these ominous clouds darken what had been a remarkable season for the tumultuous organization that is Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne’s 190-point separation from the points lead is well above the 165-point deficit that Johnson overcame at this point in the 2006 Chase, and Kahne has 10 times more drama surrounding him. Still, the Budweiser team can salvage this Chase, on the strength of two-straight top 10s, and make what has been a whirlwind 2009 a success.
WARM: Marcos Ambrose – Finishing 14th the past two weeks is not a lot to write home about, but Ambrose is a leader of sorts. The points standings can be divided, arguably, into six levels: “The Chasers” (spots 1-12), “The Best of the Non-Chasers” (spots 13-16), “The Never Had a Chance to make the Chase After Juners” (spots 17-24), “The We’re So Pathetically Awful, No One Cares Where We Are in Pointsers” (spots 25-36), “The Start-and-Park Full-Timers and the Upstart Part-Timers” (spots 37-46) and “We Got Fired, We Quit, We Never Had Much Sponsorship, We Only Have Sponsorship and Not Any Cup Experience, We Only Race Road Courses, or We Failed NASCAR’s Ambiguous Drug-Testing Policy and are Filming Our Own Demisers,” (spots 47-65). Ambrose leads level three, sitting 17th in points and is ahead of all of Richard Childress Racing and portions of several other powerhouse teams. He’s good, but will not be in the Chase next year as a sophomore in my opinion – though surely 1/4 of the NASCAR media will pick him as a darkhorse contender to do just that after the way he’s run as of late.
COLD: Brian Vickers – This is a pretty obvious pick for the category. Vickers entered the Chase as the Jeremy Mayfield of 2009 (this is, of course, referring to the “Cinderella Mayfield” that won the fall Richmond event in 2004 to race his way into the Chase). The Red Bull team had everything going for it, but seemingly has used up its bad luck mulligans and much of its muster, as Vickers’s blown engine and 37th-place finish Sunday leave him 250 points out of the lead. Better luck next year, Brian.
COLD: Erik Darnell – After finishing 30th in his first two Cup races, rookie Darnell inched forward on the learning curve with a 29th Sunday at Kansas. That’s one way to look at Darnell’s dismal effort, so far, as a sponsor-gap-stopper in the No. 96 Ford. The other way, of course, is to wonder vehemently why an untested rookie replaced 2000 champion Bobby Labonte unceremoniously in that ride. Don’t blame Darnell – he would be dumb to turn down the opportunity. Instead, blame two entities: Northern Tool and Equipment and Yates Racing (with Roush Fenway help). I don’t know how the talks to replace Labonte for seven of the final 12 races went down, but if I’m the marketing guy at Northern Tool and Equipment, I’m not going to have any trouble having Labonte in the car, even though Darnell has been a loyal driver for my company for a few years. If I’m Yates Racing, I’ve dealt with declining veterans (a la Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and Ernie Irvan) and know that, even though their numbers are down, they still can handle a racecar. How did they let this happen? This mismanagement will be a great mix with the erratic style that the Gillett family employs at Richard Petty Motorsports (assuming the two parties merge).
All of this madness, of course, leaves Labonte as this year’s unlikely hottest remaining free agent. Wh’ould’a thunk it?
COLD: Paul Menard – While Yates Racing is getting heaped upon, Menard might as well get thrown into the COLD category. His season in the No. 98 has not turned around, as he has only three top 20s since Darlington and got damage in the pileup on lap 11 Sunday. Menard, though, need not worry. Since his dad is writing the checks that determine his Cup career, he not only will keep his ride, but he may be able to strongarm his way into a better situation, since he reportedly is not happy with the RPM-Yates merger. There’s still a bit of life in Menard’s 2009 season, as he is in a hot battle with David Ragan, Labonte and David Stremme for the race to be the lowest-ranked driver that has run each race. Menard currently leads Ragan by 80 points for this dubious honor.
Here are the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: Earlier start times? – According to published reports, NASCAR is looking into standardizing start times for races next season. While nothing has been announced, one idea being tossed around is to have most races, if not all of them, start at 1 p.m. ET on Sundays. While this may not help west coast ratings, it will certainly make racing more attractive to watch where its most potent fanbase is located – on the east coast. With the moving of the California race date from Labor Day and this reported early start time uniformity underway, maybe NASCAR is finally listening to its fanbase. Or maybe I shouldn’t jinx this.
NOT: Stories falling through the cracks – While the mainstream NASCAR media has flocked to stories such as, The Chase, the No. 5 and No. 48’s dominance and ‘illegal’ racecars, Danica-mania and Dale Jr. dismay, it is forgetting to update two stories that unfolded in the spring months.
Carl Long was likely all eyes and ears as the story about NASCAR’s tolerances of the No. 5 and No. 48 cars unfolded. As those got away without penalty (and likely rightfully so), Long has just begun returning to the racetrack and says that he will not be able to race unless he pays a $20,000 fee every time he enters a NASCAR event, as he still owes his large fine to the sanctioning body. Long’s engine back at Lowe’s Motor Speedway may have been big, but the circumstances surrounding his penalty (like the fact that he ran it in practice for a non-points-paying event) made many wish that NASCAR had some tolerance for the small teams it claims it wants to protect. Yet since the initial uproar over Long’s suspension and fine, there have been few reports following up on the driver or hawkishly watching other penalty situations to see how they are handled for bigger teams. Too bad.
Another big story development to go fairly unnoticed in the past week or two is Mayfield’s hiring of Mark Geragos to represent him in the ongoing lawsuit and court battle against NASCAR for his testing positive for methamphetamine and subsequent suspension. While a familiar name to many, the Geragos hire may not help Mayfield in the court of public opinion. Geragos represented at some time or another both Michael Jackson (in his 2005 molestation trial) and Scott Peterson (for the murder of his pregnant wife). Mayfield seemed to have public opinion swinging in his favor in the initial weeks following his suspension, but since then has not only had his suspension left in place, but also gotten sued over the engine and parts of his race team, and, in an even more damning development, has seen more people besides his hated stepmother come forward and claim he used meth in NASCAR affidavits. This story has gotten old, but these details also got passed over of late and are certainly more detrimental to Mayfield’s case than the quagmire of half-truths that comprised this story when it broke.
The stars of NASCAR meet the stars of Hollywood at California Speedway next week. While the points are guaranteed to stay tight, just know the racing action may prove not to be at the often-maligned track. Turn here next week to see which drivers (if any) break away from the rest in their title hopes, and which others see their Sprint Cup championship chances set over the western horizon.
Listen to Doug each Saturday afternoon 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 co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader, Saturdays from 10-11 a.m., 1240 ESPN Radio in Gainesville, Ga. and online at racefanradio.com. You can also download Doug’s Bill Elliott Racing Podcasts on BillElliott.com and ChaseElliott.com.