The usual suspects played “follow the leader” at Martinsville in what proved to be a fairly competitive race. Jimmie Johnson, winner of five of the last six races at the track, led a large portion of the middle of the event, eventually losing the point to Denny Hamlin. But Hamlin, who had a score to settle with Johnson after getting bumped out of the way for the race win back in March, was able to hold Johnson off on several restarts in the waning laps to capture his second win at his hometown track. After two lousy weeks, Hamlin needed a victory, and methodically worked through the pack to get it.
The only problem this poses for fans of a tight points race is that Johnson finished ahead of his closest championship competitors. Anything short of wins in the closing races for Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya, considering how team No. 48 continues to compete, will guarantee Johnson the Sprint Cup crown. As you might expect, solid finishes by all the top teams in the standings made them the main ones to gain favorable consideration in the HOT and WARM categories this week, while driving blunders by the Great Unwashed permeate the COLD cluster. Find out below if your driver fit in any of the three categories.
HOT: Johnson – A second-place finish at The Paperclip is only surprising because Johnson is so used to winning there. Things are going so well for the team that crew chief Chad Knaus told an ESPN pit reporter before the final restart that he was fine if Johnson finished second. That’s because he knew the Lowe’s team would expand its points lead to 118 over Martin, as the window of opportunity for other teams to catch him starts easing shut. So expect a similar settling attitude for Johnson and Knaus at Talladega, where Johnson only has one win and a 17.7 average career finish. They were fine with settling for ninth last fall….
HOT: Jeff Gordon – There is a Rage Against the Machine song called “Settle for Nothing.” But while RATM likely is not a favorite on Gordon’s iPod, he and the No. 24 will chant that mantra for the rest of the season. Gordon did not run where he needed to at Martinsville, though he did manage a fifth-place run to score his fourth consecutive top-five finish. At Talladega, expect Gordon and Johnson to hang around the back of the pack before they unleash their Hendrick attack on the front of the field late in the race. This strategy failed for the team at Talladega in April, though, as they were caught up in an early Big One. But if they do make their way to the front, Gordon will likely need to drive the race of his life, while Johnson can afford to waffle in the back of the top 10 and keep his points lead intact.
HOT: Montoya – The No. 42 team continues to stand out as the biggest surprise of the Chase. Many figured that the team’s bad run at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, combined with an unlikely chance of success at Martinsville, would both be momentum killers for Montoya. Now a dim title favorite, Montoya has driven aggressively at each track (pulling it off with little consequence) and likely will continue that tradition at ‘Dega Sunday. Sans last week’s fluke bad run at LMS, Montoya absolutely deserves to remain in this category.
WARM: Hamlin – A great argument could be made for Hamlin to receive the HOT Pass upgrade, but two bad runs cannot be cured by a great run at a track where he is expected to perform well. Hamlin led more than the last third of the Martinsville race, drove like a pro, made few mistakes, and decided not to let a seven-month-old grudge against Johnson cause him to do anything dumb. This maturity may not last a week, however, as Hamlin has been known to ruffle more than a few feathers in the coop at Talladega. Tapered aggression is the best potion at the towering 2.66-mile track.
WARM: Martin – After Sunday’s eighth-place finish, Martin is still within a stone’s throw of his teammate’s points lead and is glad to be that close after Martinsville – a track he skipped in his semi-retirement. But another big obstacle for the oft-cursed driver is Talladega, where he has finished in the top 10 in roughly half of his races there (and also skipped in 2007 and 2008). Four of his last five finishes at the track are also outside the top 30. So if there ever was a race in the Chase for the No. 5 team to have a bad weekend, Talladega probably would be the one.
WARM: Ryan Newman – Sunday’s pole-sitter needed a good run and found it in Martinsville. Newman’s seventh-place effort was his third top 10 in the Chase after disappointing runs of 22nd, 15th and 11th at Kansas, California and Charlotte, respectively. The Sprint Cup trophy will certainly not be Newman’s this year… but a Talladega trophy might. He finished with a wrecked racecar, but had a third-place run in the spring race and three top 10s in the last four ‘Dega races before that. Newman knows how to manage the draft (as witnessed in his 2008 Daytona 500 win, and his ability to pull away from the field with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in both the Cup and Nationwide Series races in April) so he will likely be a factor on Sunday – if he avoids the big wreck.
COLD: Scott Speed – Speed made his debut in the Cup Series in the Team Red Bull No. 84 one year ago and finished poorly. Things haven’t gotten much better since, although the Rookie of the Year candidate (not that the race is close) was running respectably at Martinsville Sunday before entering a corner with just a bit too much speed (that is the understatement of the column) and destroyed his No. 82 Toyota, prompting the green-white-checkered finish. His 31st-place finish did nothing to help the team gain ground on what is, essentially, a lost push for the Top 35. Yet while this year’s rookie race between Speed and Joey Logano has been a joke, next year’s is set to be worse – as there are no candidates. The good news for Speed is that he is returning to Talladega, the site of his only top 10 of the year, a fifth back in April.
COLD: Greg Biffle – Biffle has had a forgettable Chase this season, but several of his runs have been ruined by other people getting into him late in the race. However, Martinsville was a bad race on part of the No. 16 team solely. Biffle was never a factor (though he did lead a lap when out of the pits) after starting 20th. He spent most of the event either a lap down or close to that mark, then took the checkered flag in 25th. Biffle admittedly is bad at Martinsville, a track where he has never scored a top five. Not known to be a large presence at plate tracks (though he did win the July Daytona race in 2003), do not expect The Biff to be a standout at Talladega, either.
COLD: David Stremme – Stremme had another forgettable race, as his second stint in Sprint Cup racing fades to black. His 33rd-place run, coupled with getting into teammate Sam Hornish Jr. and getting admonished by NASCAR for aggressive driving, are all indicative of his and the No. 12 team’s flaws this season. With hardly a Cup ride available next season and few funded Nationwide and Truck series rides open as well, Stremme needs to re-focus and try to end this year on a good note.
Here are the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: Tony Eury Jr. re-unites with Dale Jr. – in a way – News broke late last week that Brian Campe was being replaced atop the No. 5 JR Motorsports Nationwide Series pit box by Earnhardt Jr.’s ousted, former crew chief and cousin Eury Jr. While his removal from Junior’s No. 88 Sprint Cup team was a popular one, considering the lack of results, his demotion to Brad Keselowski’s No. 25 part-time team seemed like a waste of a talented mechanic. With no love lost, he joins a Nationwide Series team that needs some guidance if it wants to catch up to the Joe Gibbs teams that dominate the series. And with Junior rarely behind the wheel of that No. 5 Chevy and safely behind the owner’s headset, this combination may work.
NOT: Ignoring the killer Nationwide and Truck series races – As important and pertinent as the Chase races and Johnson’s dominance are, repetition may be a factor in the declining ratings of NASCAR programming. While seemingly unoriginal production teams kept churning out the same stories during the endless hours of pre-race coverage on both SPEED and ABC/ESPN, hardly any attention was paid to the great Camping World Truck and Nationwide series races on Saturday.
On the Truck Series’ own network, SPEED made just brief mention of Timothy Peters’s first career win in the series – and driving a different numbered truck at that! SPEED also offered little analysis of the absolutely crazy Nationwide Series in Memphis during its pre-race shows. That same NNS race was barely mentioned, if at all, during the ABC broadcast – and that company carried the race on ESPN2! Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag after pulling off an unorthodox, three-wide pass for the lead and then nearly getting spun out at the finish line by Kyle Busch. Also forgotten were several large crashes, Carl Edwards coming back from a late spin to score a top 10 and a post-race altercation between Matt Kenseth and Steve Wallace. Fans love this stuff, but then again – only the Chase and Johnson are worth talking about. Too bad.
This coming Sunday can be summed up very simply: Talladega equals wild card. Many can win, many can wreck… but few will leave happy. Turn here next week to see where the points and your drivers pan out.
Listen to Doug this Saturday on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with host Captain Herb Emory, from 11-11:30 a.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug and David Chandler co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader, Saturday’s from 10-11 a.m. on racefanradio.com and 1240 ESPN Radio in Gainesville, Ga. Doug also hosts the Bill Elliott Racing podcasts, which are posted each week on BillElliott.com and ChaseElliott.com.