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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 AMP Energy 500 at Talladega Edition

Honestly, I’m more torn than the rest of you about the events during Sunday’s AMP Energy 500. Of course, my view on the issue may be skewed by the fact that I was sitting low in the grandstands, near the entrance to pit road, and could only see a half of a lap or so in person. With the radio broadcast booming over the loudspeakers and the freight train of horsepower bellowing through my chest and inverting my eardrums, I was slightly more tolerant of the periods of single-file racing. In my opinion, the dialed-down racing allows anticipation to build before the pack breaks loose and unpredictability reigns.

That restrictor plate predictable unpredictability (that sounds weird) definitely shakes up the HOT, WARM, and COLD categories, as the equalizing draft allows some struggling teams a chance to shine. Here’s how the Sprint Cup boys shape up this week.

HOT: Jimmie Johnson – This story gets old, but Johnson’s “HOTNESS” (strictly in terms of Sprint Cup dominance) remains. The No. 48 team ran in the back the entire race, started mounting a charge with only a few laps remaining, pitted before everyone after the red flag was lifted and tiptoed to a sixth-place finish. He now leads Mark Martin by 184 points, and simply has to finish 10th or better to insure his fourth straight championship. See ya’ in Daytona….

HOT: Joey Logano – After a sluggish late-summer run, Logano and the No. 20 team have strung together some consistent runs. Before ending up third at Talladega, Logano had consecutive finishes of 14th, fifth and 12th at Fontana (a 2-mile track), Charlotte (a fast, tricky 1.5-miler) and Martinsville (the toughest short track on the circuit). That is versatility and that trait will prove very valuable, especially if “Sliced Bread” makes the Chase in the next year or two.

HOT: Kasey Kahne – Kahne and Denny Hamlin have had similar runs in the 2009 Chase: every race that isn’t ruined by a crash or parts failure is a good one. Kahne appeared to be out to dry Sunday, losing the draft in the opening laps (after starting last) and then losing it again, after sustaining right-front fender damage. The No. 9 team fought back, avoided the Big Ones, and waited until the last possible moment to snag a second-place finish. Comeback-ability always scores well here.

WARM: Jamie McMurray – One thing that is being said about McMurray that shouldn’t be said, is that he lucked into his victory at Talladega. That could be argued, if he came roaring out of nowhere to lead only the final lap (which, pretty much, is what happened at his last win at Daytona in July 2007). McMurray led the most laps (32) Sunday and had a very good shot at holding that lead, before the caution flag stunted any pending charges by anyone else. After going through a terrible COLD phase, he followed his sixth-place run at Martinsville with his 3rd career win, which should do wonders in giving him an edge for landing the No. 1 ride next year.

WARM: Greg Biffle – The Biff is another driver who had obstacles to overcome Sunday. He lost the draft and went down a lap after getting a pit-road penalty during green flag stops, but used the Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap. Even then, Biffle’s chances at a good finish seemed dim, as he is not known to own the competition at plate races. Sunday’s fourth-place run was his best in 14 starts and his second straight top 10 at Talladega, where he had ZERO top 10s in his first 12 starts.

WARM: Jeff Burton – After a year of incredibly lackluster results, the reorganization at Richard Childress Racing seems to be working. Every team except for Burton’s has begun to show some life in the last month or two and now the Caterpillar crew is showing its teeth. The No. 31 Chevy has three straight top-15 finishes, including a third-place podium run on Sunday. With new crew chief Todd Berrier on board, Burton has momentum swinging in the direction heading toward 2010.

COLD: AJ Allmendinger – Landing a DWI this past week does not help his standing, but the ‘Dinger does deserve props for biting the bullet, displaying sorrow and admitting his wrongs. With that cloud already hanging over the No. 44 team this weekend, the repeated tire troubles that sent Allmendinger to pit road during the green flag only made things worse en route to a 33rd-place finish. Allmendinger has only two top 10s since the spring Martinsville race and sits 26th in points. After starting the year strong, 2009 can’t end soon enough for the third-year driver.

COLD: David Reutimann – Where did the luster go from the Aaron’s Dream Machine team? Reutimann was an early, underdog favorite to sneak into the Chase this year (replaced in the waning races by Brian Vickers), but has really sputtered since finishing fourth at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Reutimann has only one top 10 since then and has finished 18th, 15th, 16th and 26th (Sunday). While some teams are worse off, Reutimann still has not shown the strength expected of him, after being stronger earlier this season.

COLD: Kurt Busch – Sunday was a nightmare for Busch. He lost two laps early (after blowing a tire, spinning and damaging his car) and then fought his way back into contention fast enough to get taken out by his future teammate, Brad Keselowski. The No. 2 team’s performance has slumped the past few weeks, as the direction of the team is still undecided because the crew chief for 2010 is yet to be named. Busch’s good seasons at Penske have been off again, on again (2006: one win, 16th in points; 2007: two wins, seventh in points; 2008: one win, 18th in points; 2009: one win, somewhere in the Chase but not the title), so 2010 may be a back-of-the-top-20 kind of year for him.

Here are this week’s HOT and NOT issues:

HOT: Potential bad bed partners – Penske Racing announced yesterday that Keselowski is stepping into the No. 12 Dodge three races early, replacing David Stremme, whose Cup career is going the way of the Wimmer and the Leffler. Lame duck Penske crew chief Pat Tryson, whose No. 2 Dodge had just been wrecked by Keselowski, was on record fuming about the incident after the race. Maybe Keselowski will need some extra time to get cozy in the Penske quarters – a place where teammate dysfunction is not uncommon (i.e. Rusty Wallace vs. Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace vs. Ryan Newman).

An under-noticed potential mismatched teammate situation is McMurray’s likely arrival at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Not only did Jamie Mac leave Chip Ganassi’s team on tense terms at the end of 2005, but McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya, EGR’s star driver, also had a run-in earlier this season. At Bristol, Montoya and McMurray got into a sheetmetal shoving match over some real estate, that left McMurray, the assumed calmer of the two, unwilling to engage Montoya in any kind of diplomacy or accept his apology a week later. This is not the first time that McMurray has joined a team with tapered fanfare. When McMurray was dispatched in mid-2005 to join Roush Racing, Matt Kenseth was less-than-pleased and even said that he did not approve of the move. This, of course, was because of some on-track disagreements the two had experienced at the time. But things went well for Jamie Mac at RFR, right? Oh wait….

NOT: NASCAR not getting it – NASCAR’s decision-making process seemed to be turning a corner in the past month or two, with the advent of earlier, consistent start times, a Nationwide CoT that looks sporty, and allegedly being open to making changes to the Cup CoT to make it race better. How could NASCAR ignore these gripes by the fans?

On the other hand, the sanctioning body continues to make bone-headed moves, like giving the drivers too many driving conditions at Talladega, absurdly making the restrictor plate holes smaller at Talladega, raising the catchfence instead of eliminating rows of close seats (that I sat in) at ‘Dega. NASCAR also lost big points in the public opinion court by its extreme stance on Carl Long and its lack of transparency in the Mayfield case.

Following the Martinsville race (where the racing was excellent and NASCAR was emanating more positive vibes), NASCAR decided at Talladega to do the equivalent of smearing feces on a brand-new tuxedo right before prom by instituting the pointless conditions on drafting. The problems of restrictor-plate races are more complex than a few hard shots in the draft and NASCAR should listen to the pleas of the drivers, the media and the fans, if they don’t know that already.

Texas Motor Speedway is next on the slate and if everything is big in the Lone Star State, do not expect Johnson’s points lead to get any smaller. Turn here to see where your driver ends up next week.

Listen to Doug Saturday on the Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with host Captain Herb Emory from the end of the Georgia Bulldogs game (about 7 p.m.) until 8 p.m. You can also hear Doug and David Chandler co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader, Saturdays from 10-11 a.m., on racefanradio.com and 1240 ESPN Radio in Gainesville, Ga. Doug also hosts the Bill Elliott Racing podcasts on BillElliott.com and ChaseElliott.com.

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