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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not In Sprint Cup: 2010 Daytona 500 Edition

With the Great American Race in the books, it’s time to get down to business and begin the 2010 season in earnest. While the beauty of NASCAR’s new rules led to a record-breaking 21 leaders at Daytona, it’s hard to gauge right now if the sport’s momentum from plate racing can carry over to the cookie-cutters like Fontana, Las Vegas or Atlanta up ahead. Well, that same type of uncertainty transfers over into the driver’s seat, as everyone wonders whether one strong run can turn into a season’s worth of success rather than a one-hit wonder.

Recent history shows that’s easier said than done. Just take a look at the three most recent Daytona 500 winners – Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth – who combined for just one win and one Chase appearance after their season-opening victories (no wonder Jamie McMurray was crying in victory lane). Will the start of a new decade finally give us the power to buck the trend – or will the men on this week’s list be switched around by the end of the year?

Only time will tell; but right now, time’s a-wasting on my much-needed 12-hour Daytona recovery nap, so let’s get to the HOT/NOT drivers for this week:

HOT

Richard Childress Racing: With a three-month layoff, it’s hard to get some season-ending momentum and have it carry over to the following year. Scoring eight top-11 finishes in the final three races of ’09, the team scaled back from a four- to three-car effort in the offseason, focusing on the money and personnel they already had to stage a dramatic drive back into Chase contention.

So far, they’re well on their way. Harvick and Clint Bowyer combined to lead a race-high 78 laps at Daytona, finishing fifth and seventh, respectively, while Jeff Burton rounded out the trio in 11th. Things could have been even better, too, if the Harvick-Bowyer combo had worked together at the end instead of Harvick trying some banzai moves to grab his second 500 trophy in four years. Info-sharing needs to be at a premium this weekend, though, as RCR heads to a Fontana track that produced a best finish of 19th for the organization last February.

Martin Truex Jr.: In January, someone asked Jeff Gordon who his biggest non-Hendrick threat to the championship would be. Without hesitation, the first words out of his mouth were, “Martin Truex Jr.” The expectations for the pairing of Truex and Pat Tryson were that high, although so far they’ve lived up to the billing: a sixth-place finish by the newly-numbered No. 56 is the best for that team since a second at Loudon in June 2008. If not for Harvick nearly spinning him out at the finish heading into turn 1 – a move Truex called “dirty” – the NAPA Toyota may have very well ended up in victory lane.

WARM

Roush Fenway Racing: While a Ford didn’t win the 500 this year, all signs point to a resurgence for the Blue Oval brand in 2010. All four RFR cars finished in the top 16, while Greg Biffle led 27 laps and stayed in contention to win through the final lap before settling for third. Here’s the bad side: we’ve seen this movie before, as Kenseth won the first two races of 2009 before leading Ford’s slow but steady march off the face of NASCAR earth. It’s going to have hard to judge their performance until after Las Vegas (at the earliest).

Paul Menard: Plenty of flack went Menard’s way after my “story” earlier this weekend that he bought a spot to get into the Nationwide race. But give credit where credit was due; in the big show, Menard sliced and diced his way to 13th for his best run since Talladega last April. Not bad for his first run with a new team (RPM).

COOL

Hendrick Motorsports: No, one race does not a season make. But clearly, HMS’ plate-racing program has a way to go to recapture the glory days of old. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride was the only one to crack the top 10, and season champ Jimmie Johnson starts out 35th after breaking a rear axle. Add in a ho-hum 12th for Mark Martin, and you have a Speedweeks their organization would like to forget.

COLD

Regan Smith: Usually, when a team announces they’ll run full-time it’s a boost to the whole organization. But for Smith, that’s when things started to go downhill at Furniture Row. His last six starts produced his first three DNFs, and he was caught up in the first wreck Sunday en route to a 39th-place finish. Not exactly the scintillating debut they were hoping.

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