I’ve done this column twice so far in 2010, and both have been when I’m physically less than 100%. At this rate, it seems like my body is mimicking the attendance at virtually every race ever run at Fontana (Zing!) But seriously, folks, the second race of the season gave us a solid look at who’s going to be running up front in 2010. With intermediate tracks making up the bulk of the 36-race schedule, cars and drivers that run well here can rest easy knowing they’ll make it through the next few weeks at Las Vegas and Atlanta without pulling their hair out.
On the flip side, the drivers whose cars handled like junk this past weekend have far more cause for concern. As we’ve seen in the past, a poor start to the first four races can take you a good three to four months to dig out of, turning a possible bid for the Chase berth into a chase for a new ride in 2011. See which side of the list your driver fits on below – all in the latest, strep throat edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.
Jeff Burton – Teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer may have more points, but stretching back to 2009, no one’s hotter on the circuit than RCR’s veteran leader. It took the better part of a year, but the Caterpillar Chevy’s finally bulldozing its way through the competition, with the key coming in the form of a crew chief change in late October. Since former Harvick head wrench Todd Berrier jumped over to the No. 31, the duo hasn’t finished lower than seventh, scoring six top-10 finishes along with more points than anyone during that stretch. More importantly, for a man who doesn’t always lead laps, Burton’s already on pace to lead 828 of them this season, which would be his highest total since his 2000 championship-contending season with Roush. And to top it all off, Burton’s heading to the same track this weekend (Vegas) where he pulled off a third-place finish in 2009. Jimmie Johnson, meet your new championship rival.
Mark Martin – OK, so Martin had himself a rough Daytona 500 after winning the pole, slumping to 12th and never seriously contending for the win. But after a fourth at California on Sunday, he sits sixth in the standings and is the highest-ranked of the Yankees… er, Hendrick powerhouse. Considering how this time last year, Martin had suffered through an engine failure en route to three straight DNFs, he’s well on his way to building the type of early cushion for the Chase his No. 5 team never had last year. Perhaps that will be the slight difference needed to take that comfy cushion away from the No. 48 and Johnson, which they needed to coast through the Chase to the title. And let’s not forget this guy is 51; what 51-year-old do you know whose athletic peak may not have happened yet?
I’m still waiting for your answer.
Scott Speed – We’ll dedicate this space to two second-year drivers fighting off the term “sophomore slump.” While Joey Logano has the better average finish (we’ll get to him), it’s Speed showing signs of life after a self-described nightmare of a rookie season. All of a sudden, he’s got back-to-back top-20 finishes for the first time in his Cup career, punctuated by an 11th on Sunday that leaves him 15th in Sprint Cup points. That’s a magic number for him, as a spot in the Top 35 in owner points – elusive for much of a flunking freshman year – is all but assured as long as the No. 82 Toyota makes the next three races on time. Some of the credit here needs to go to crew chief Jimmy Elledge, who’s gone off the beaten path on strategy the last two weeks, stretching Speed’s fuel tank to get him track position late in the race. But for those types of moves to work, you need a driver who’s able to run well on old tires, and the Formula 1 convert’s shown some stock car versatility in holding firm against top-level competition.
“So I haven’t totally forgot how to drive,” he Tweeted last night. “Great for my confidence, last year was harder than anyone will really know.”
So far, this year’s gone better than anyone could have ever imagined.
Joey Logano – Logano’s the more hyped of these two men, so the expectations were there for gradual improvement in 2010. His weekend at Fontana showed just how far this 19-year-old has come. This time last year, he was struggling to finish 26th at the 2-mile oval, one of several ugly lowlights early in his Cup career that briefly put his job security with Joe Gibbs Racing in question. This weekend, he drove a flawless performance en route to fifth, tying his career high on an intermediate track while putting himself ninth in Sprint Cup points. What’s more, he should have left the weekend with a win in the Nationwide Series if not for an ill-timed bump by Greg Biffle (the second straight race here these two have tangled – could we see a rivalry blossoming? Not exactly my first choice of drivers… but hey, anyone will do at this point).
Getting back on topic, Logano’s stretch of good fortune goes all the way back into last season. You might not have realized it during the Jimmie Johnson Make You Crave The Library Tour 2009, but Sliced Bread toasted his competition with two top fives in the final six races, quietly moving into the top 20 in the final standings. Now, he’s ninth in points, and with the level of improvement we’re seeing here… I don’t see him moving out anytime soon.
Jeff Gordon – Much of the focus at Hendrick remains on Dale Earnhardt Jr., but it’s Gordon who’s raised my eyebrows the last couple of weeks. Daytona was a bump-drafting roller coaster that ended in disaster for the No. 24, who totaled two cars in two weeks en route to a 26th-place finish. California found him third-best among the Hendrick foursome, a top-10 runner at best until a faulty engine left him clinging to 20th at the finish. With the “all hands on deck” policy continuing at Hendrick to help Junior until further notice, I’m still a little nervous they’re not capable of putting all four cars up front at once. That leaves Gordon’s situation worth watching, as he’s gone without a top-five finish for the last six races. Doesn’t sound so bad, you say? Well, consider the last time that happened was when Steve Letarte first took over as crew chief… back in the fall of 2005.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin claims his torn ACL isn’t an issue. He’s certain opening a new nightclub – Butter – isn’t distracting him from day-to-day responsibilities. And he says no statement is needed to cement the preseason pick as the man most likely to knock off Johnson for the title.
OK, then. Well, I guess we’ll have to go by the facts.
Fact: Hamlin’s finished 17th and 29th the last two weeks, the worst average performance out of the Gibbs cars.
Fact: He’s put himself in aggressive situations in both Speedweeks and Fontana, ending up with either a wrecked racecar or a cut tire in both instances.
Fact: Drivers were calling Hamlin a “wild man” at Daytona, and it was his inability to find a drafting partner that led to a disappointing finish.
Fact: Carl Edwards was the trendy title favorite to start 2009, only to go through a similar slump. He never recovered.
Fact: Hamlin’s still a free agent at the end of this season… and anything can happen.
Yes, it’s still early, and yes, we’re only two races in. But if I were Denny, I’d start picking up the pace before that end-of-season momentum from last November gets snuffed out for good.
Marcos Ambrose – Two DNFs in just two races? Some might say that’s what you get for trying to avoid winter altogether (Marcos spent the winter in his native Australia, where it’s spring and summer during the months of November, December and January). But the trendy pick for everyone’s Chase sleeper is suddenly working with an engine shop that’s sleeping through their builds. Two races have led to two engine failures so far for the No. 47 Toyota, who’s run less than 500 miles in a season that’s already hit over 1,000. What’s frustrating for Ambrose is these types of mechanical failures were exactly the reason he missed a shot at the Chase in 2009. Something tells me already we’ll be pointing to these problems as the culprit for a second straight year.
Kasey Kahne – The trendy pick would be to go with someone like Ryan Newman here. But because of Kahne’s pending free agency, I think his two-race slump means more. Two top-five qualifying runs have ended in disaster for RPM’s headline driver. At California, a spin of his own making dropped him from the top 10 to a disastrous 34th. In fact, you could make the case that both of his wrecks were self-induced (although Daytona’s a monster all his own), lowering his free agent value while raising the likelihood he’ll be departing his current ride all at the same time. It’s tough enough to fight back from an early slump when you’re tearing up good cars with a long-term contract. It’s another one altogether when driver and team have an uncertain future after 2010. But if there’s any duo that knows how to work through chaos, it’s the introverted Batman/Robin duo of Kahne and Kenny Francis – so don’t bet the house against them in Vegas, just yet.