As Yogi Berra once said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Another fall race in Fontana is complete, and for the third straight year another victory (and in this case, the point lead along with it) went to Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, and company. Any fan who has followed NASCAR even remotely over the past three years knew coming into the Chase that Johnson was one of the favorites, and thus far, he has not disappointed. So while there are still more than a handful of drivers who have a shot at the 2009 crown, it’s the No. 48 team that leads what’s becoming no more than a two-team charge behind him to topple that reign.
The trio atop the standings also leads this week’s HOT list, but read below to see who could use a win this weekend at Lowe’s the most – as well as which drivers are as COLD as a Phillies-Rockies playoff game.
Johnson: Here we go again. The clinic that Johnson has put on this Chase with four consecutive top 10s, including two wins over that stretch, has the three-time defending champion back atop the points standings with six races to go and heading to Charlotte – a track he has had quite a bit of success at in the past. We all knew coming into the final 10 races that it would take a lot of consistency – and more importantly, luck – to knock off the champion, and to this point Johnson has held serve better than anyone expected.
Mark Martin: Martin has done everything he can over the past month, but still finds himself in an all too common position for him – second. With seven straight top 10s, including three top fives and a win in the four Chase races, Martin is enjoying the greatest two-month stretch of his season. Can it translate to a championship? Most definitely, but he and crew chief Alan Gustafson must finish ahead of their red hot teammate down the stretch.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Rounding out the top three, Montoya continues to defy critics by running well at tracks that he hasn’t had success at previously. With four consecutive top-five finishes, Montoya is now just 58 markers behind Johnson and 46 behind Martin. Still, despite his recent good runs many don’t view Montoya as a viable championship contender. He has half the number of top fives (six) as those around him in the standings – Johnson (12), Martin (12), Stewart (15) and Gordon (14) – and is still winless on the season. Sure, consistency is still needed to win championships, but in today’s day and age of Chase racing, wins are as well. And as this week proved more than most that if you don’t win, chances are you lost points to your closest competition.
Jeff Gordon: The only race keeping Gordon from the HOT category is his 15th-place run in the Chase opener, but the No. 24 team has run extremely well over the last three weeks. Thanks in large part to back-to-back runner-up finishes, Gordon has moved from 10th in points after New Hampshire to fifth, 105 points out. For obvious reasons, Martin and Johnson have stolen the headlines at Hendrick Motorsports, but the No. 24 team has started to improve its car throughout the race and has become a contender in the closing laps. Can they contend for a championship as well? Let’s put it this way: there’s no room for error left in his latest Drive For Five bid.
Tony Stewart: Like Gordon, a subpar Chase opener put Stewart in a hole, but he, too, has responded with three consecutive top-10 finishes, including a win two weeks ago and a fifth-place run last week. Stewart hasn’t run as consistently well as Johnson or Martin – or even Gordon, for that matter – but is just 84 points out of the lead and can narrow that margin with a couple of wins.
Casey Mears: Sure, Mears isn’t as WARM as Stewart or Gordon, but despite the current status of the No. 07 team Mears is having his best stretch of the season. With a solid 11th-place finish this week in Fontana, Mears now has four consecutive top 20s, finishing on the lead lap in each of those contests.
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex is leaving for Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season; and right now, it looks like his current team has packed it in for the year. While teammate Montoya is lighting up the leaderboard, Truex has slumped with eight finishes outside the top 20 in his last nine races. Twice in the last five races, the No. 1 team has DNF’d because of crashes and has shown no signs of snapping out of its funk as of late.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: It’s clear to see things are turning around for the No. 88 team, but the finishes still aren’t there. Earnhardt has run more consistently towards the front, including this weekend when he rallied from 37th starting spot, but an engine problem two weeks ago and a crash this week have eliminated potential top-five and top-10 runs. The Chase portion of the Hendrick team is red hot right now, but although Earnhardt isn’t at that level right now Junior Nation has a lot to be happy about.
Brian Vickers: Last of the top-12 drivers, Vickers has had the Chase from hell with no top 10s and back-to-back finishes of 37th and 29th. The No. 83 team has absolutely no shot at the title, but these last six races are critical to building momentum heading into the offseason.
Jamie McMurray: It’s been a down year for the entire Roush Fenway organization, but while Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have found more consistency as of late, McMurray has gone backwards. With his 36th-place run this weekend, McMurray has back-to-back finishes outside of the top 30 and just one inside the top 20 (18th – New Hampshire) in his last six races.
Next week, the Cup Series heads back to Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where the usual cast of characters are expected to battle it out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnson, Martin, Stewart, Gordon and Montoya all in the top five as the number of Chase races dwindle down and each race becomes more important than the next. Doug Turnbull will also return next week to break down all of the sport’s HOT and COLD drivers, as well as the HOT and COLD current events in Sprint Cup.