NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix Edition

As the sun sets on the 2009 Sprint Cup season many unknowns float around the garage, such as the destinations of free agent drivers, the future of unsponsored teams, and the next step for the dozens that already have been laid off from race teams, or soon will be. One question that seems answered already is the who will claim the Championship, as Jimmie Johnson only has to finish 25th or better at next week’s race in Homestead to claim his unprecedented fourth straight crown. While the No. 48 team’s performance has had few kinks in it through the year, the competitiveness of several other teams has fallen from good to questionable through the season’s closing weeks, while some other teams and drivers seem to be turning the corner.

Here are this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers.

HOT: Jimmie Johnson – Don’t let the one incidental slice of bad luck he experienced last week deter you. Johnson’s team has been HOT for most of the season and proved that outright Sunday, by winning and leading the most laps. All but good for the championship, the Lowe’s team likely will be the force to beat in 2010 as well.

HOT: Jeff Burton – Sunday’s second-place run was the best finish for Burton and the Caterpillar Chevy this season and is the latest in a great run the last five races. Dating back to Lowe’s Motor Speedway last month (the site of Burton’s most recent win one year ago), the No. 31 scored two top 15s, followed by three top 10s. This record gives Burton the second-most points in the last five races, just 47 markers behind Johnson.

HOT: Denny Hamlin – The racing surges and slumps continue for Hamlin. Here are his finishes this Chase: second, 22nd, fifth, 37th, 42nd, first, 38th, second and third. Eliminate two engine failures and his driving mistake at California and the No. 11 was ill-handling for only one race – the 22nd place run at Dover. Just as he was entering the Chase the year, Hamlin will be a darkhorse title contender next year.

WARM: Mark Martin – His stats are good enough to place him in the HOT category, but Martin could not muster enough strength to mount a serious challenge to Johnson in Phoenix. While the No. 5 team will remain intact for 2010, there are surprisingly still a few races open for sponsorship on the car. Regardless, expect a stellar next season from the veteran and seemingly perpetually points bridesmaid.

WARM: Kurt Busch – Busch has not had the best Chase this season, but his last two races (first, sixth) have been his best consecutive Chase showings. Busch ran in the top 10 for the entire race Sunday, as the No. 2 continues to prove that it is the best entry not under the Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs umbrellas.

WARM: Greg Biffle – While Biffle’s 14th-place finish at Phoenix was unimpressive, his two races prior to that were fourth- and eighth-place finishes. Things have gone so poorly for Roush Fenway this season, three straight top 15s is actually something to smile about for the entire organization. As RFR rolls out its “next generation” cars and engines for 2010, hopefully (for the sake of competitive racing) the four remaining teams will be able to close the advantage that Hendrick Motorsports and its affiliated teams have.

COLD: Brad Keselowski – Since joining Penske Racing, Keselowski has been involved in on-track incidents (not necessarily of his doing) and finished 35th and 37th. Keselowski has not run poorly in the No. 12 Dodge, but speed has not come to him as fast in that entry as it has in the No. 25 and No. 09 Cup cars and the No. 88 Nationwide Series Chevy. Keselowski has impressed many this year, but joins the COLD ranks also because of his taking out of Hamlin in the NNS race Saturday. While a rivalry is great to follow, his decision to get into Hamlin and nearly damage several other racecars was poor. Hopefully either Hamlin or someone else will eventually give this talented but fiery driver the attitude adjustment he needs.

COLD: Brian Vickers – The 2009 Chase has been a joke for Vickers and the No. 83 team. Relegated to a 38th-place finish after wrecking in Phoenix, Vickers still has zero top 10s in the Chase, as opposed to the 13 he scored in the first 26 races this season. While this season was a breakthrough year for Team Red Bull, the pending resurgence of Richard Childress Racing and the non-Chase teams at Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing will make qualifying for the Chase very tough for Vickers in 2010.

COLD: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Running in the top 15 has not been a problem for the No. 88 team the past few races, but finishing these runs has been. Junior was running in just that position Sunday, before an oil leak and ensuing crash took the AMP Energy Chevy to the garage. The No. 88 team is one of the few struggling teams that will not have much momentum heading into next season, as team and driver morale appear to be very low.

Here are the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:

HOT: Silly Season in the Nationwide and Truck Series – While much remains in flux in the Cup garage, several deals came to fruition in NASCAR’s next two series in the past week. Brian Scott will race for Braun Racing in the Nationwide Series, while James Buescher also will run full-time in the NNS for Phoenix Racing’s No. 1 team. Trevor Bayne gets a full-time shot with the newly-formed Diamond Waltrip Racing No. 99 team in the NNS and Justin Lofton will run for the new Turner Motorsports Truck Series team next year. Seeing sponsors and young drivers pair up in competitive rides is a good sign for these two series, as the driver development pipeline has been dry the past few seasons.

NOT: “Complacence: Part Infinity”- Earlier this week, I read an Ed Hinton article on ESPN.com where he sat down with Sprint Cup Series director John Darby. Hinton met anonymously with some in the garage who pointed out several basic changes to make on the racecar that would make the cars handle better. Darby, instead of responding thoughtfully to the complaints, sang the same broken chorus we all have been hearing for the past year.

“What we know is that the racing today is better than it’s been in 61 years of our previous history. So why screw up the racing when it’s so much better today than it has been?”

Darby went further to discount every single suggestion the anonymous garage figure listed to Hinton, saying the pieces on the new car not only worked the same, but were actually better.

NASCAR honestly believes what it says, but with the bottom line being such a priority for the sanctioning body (and the profit numbers not looking as they did several years ago), you would think they would be up for suggestions. Unfortunately not.

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The final round of the 2009 season takes place in the 1.5-mile ring in Homestead-Miami Speedway. While Johnson likely will be crowned the champion, click here next week to see who ends the season on a high not and who is glad the swan song of 2009 is finally over.

Listen to Doug on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with host Captain Herb Emory Saturday from 12-1 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. Doug and David Chandler also co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader, on racefanradio.com, 1490wchm.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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