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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not In Sprint Cup: 2010 Shelby American at Las Vegas Edition

With cars, casinos and caution lights run amok, Vegas had a little something for everyone this weekend (or in the case of Kim Kardashian, no one). But as you’d expect with most trips to Sin City, only a handful of drivers came out a winner in a race that was dominated by one of the sport’s multi-car powerhouses. In case you were off watching hockey, I’ll give you a clue: Starts with “H” and ends with “Endrick.” Trust me, it was less exciting than overtime….

But while the rest of the us watched Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon play with house money, there were a few lucky souls who still left the 1.5-mile oval with their heads held high and their optimism intact for Atlanta. Who’s still in the same timezone as the No. 24 and No. 48? Come take a stroll down the Vegas strip one last time in the latest edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.

THE BURN DOWN THE HO– USE PICK (Let’s Just Get It Out Of The Way)

Johnson: I know you’re tired of hearing about him, so I’ll tell a story instead. On Saturday night, I gambled at the casino called Circus Circus and sat down to play a game called three-card poker with a friend. The key to the game is to get a straight flush – three cards in the same suit – and the casino will pay you at 40/1 odds. Of course, that payout never happens ‘cause the chances are nearly impossible, right?

Well for those who know the game, three guys caught three such flushes in no more than 10 minutes. 10! Sadly, it happened to neither one of us but the whole rest of the table cleaned up on the house. The odds of this happening were borderline astronomical, leading me to think at this moment…

This is the type of stuff that would happen to Johnson, although my grandfather always told me talented people make their own luck. Seriously, why doesn’t he sit down and play slots somewhere? I know he doesn’t need the money, but if he ever walked in and simply pulled a lever at some casino he’d walk out of there with every last dime.

And with that sobering thought, I’ll leave you with some facts: Two straight wins in 2010, 15 victories all-time at 1.5-mile ovals (a new record), and a jump to fifth in the season standings despite a Daytona DNF.

Yeah, I hate it for parity’s sake but the No. 48 is still the team to beat. Next!

HOT

Kevin Harvick: Somehow, Happy Harvick’s already gotten big for his britches, claiming on Sunday “[Hendrick] knows we can run with them” after a second consecutive runner-up finish. Well Kevin, Miss America knows her first runner-up can fill in for her if she’s ever unable to perform her duties, but that doesn’t mean there’s fear she’ll steal the crown. Until you actually beat these guys, I wouldn’t go around talking junk just yet – especially considering RCR remains in a rebuilding stage after going 0-for-4 on Chase appearances in 2009.

Alright, well with that disclaimer out of the way we’ll give credit where credit’s due: Harvick’s off to his best start ever in Sprint Cup. The point leader by 47 over Clint Bowyer, he’s been in the top 10 all three races and led the most laps in the Daytona 500 only to come a drafting partner short of the win. Add in a Nationwide comeback for the ages at Las Vegas, fighting from behind not once but twice after awful stops, and he’s suddenly looking like the most attractive free agent on the market for 2011 – if he chooses to leave the No. 29.

Joey Logano: It’s very rare I use the same driver for this column two weeks in a row, but this sophomore deserves it after back-to-back top-six finishes for the first time in his Cup career. He missed out on fifth by inches to Matt Kenseth at the line, but Logano’s slow-but-steady racing strategy keeps him in check and leaves the car in perfect position to contend down the stretch. Considering neither one of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have scored a top-five finish yet, it’s looking like the beginnings of a breakout year for this 19-year-old prodigy.

Now, the next step is to get rid of those “likes,” “yeahs,” and “ya knows.” After all, I grew up 20 minutes away from him in Connecticut, but sometimes, when I interview Logano I feel like I’m talking to a random guy from Milwaukee. “Ya know, what that Favre guy, ya know, did to us with those Vikings was just, ya know, terrible. Ya want some cheese?”

WARM

Greg Biffle/Kenseth: Biffle and Kenseth are best buds off the track, so it’s only appropriate we group them together for the sake of this column. Both are off to sizzling starts, being two of four drivers collecting top-10 finishes in all three races this season (Harvick and Clint Bowyer are the others). What’s keeping both from moving up another notch on the ladder? For Biffle, he needs to get rid of those costly pit road mistakes, popping up yet again on Sunday in the form of being trapped in his box. That took a top-five car, left it 25th and forced him to spend the rest of his day giving 110% just to make it back to 10th.

As for Kenseth, week 2 of Todd Parrott continues to go far better than expected. But as he said to me on Sunday, this duo’s still in the “honeymoon stage.” With Roush pinning an interim label on Parrott, let’s give it another week and see if three time’s the charm down in Atlanta.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Sure, 16th shouldn’t be something to crow about if you’re driving in Hendrick equipment. But for Junior, that’s called “progress” as his Vegas finish was the best for him at an unrestricted track since Bristol last August. Now, if he could just get by Atlanta with a semblance of a top 20, this team moves to the short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville which are supposed to be Earnhardt’s bread and butter. Am I sold? Absolutely not. But I’m intrigued enough to stay tuned.

COOL

Carl Edwards: Carl’s in this spot on the list for two reasons. Number one, having a baby is the absolute coolest thing in the world, and I think we can all join together in wishing both him and Kate the best with their new addition to the family – Annie Edwards.

But what’s not so “cool” is how he’s struggled at intermediate tracks that used to be his greatest strength. With Kenseth and Biffle running circles around him, the No. 99 has dropped to third in the Roush Fenway camp on the heels of a 12.5 average finish at Fontana and Las Vegas. That’s the type of stat that’ll get him in the Chase, but Edwards is at a point where he wants to win. And with a big fat zero in the laps-led column, right now it doesn’t look like that’s around the corner anytime soon – even with one of his best tracks, Atlanta, up ahead.

Michael Waltrip Racing: So much was expected of this team after a fifth and a sixth from David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. at Daytona, respectively. But they’ve stumbled out of the blocks ever since, with zero top-10 finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas while Truex and Marcos Ambrose have endured a series of engine failures. In the process, Michael Waltrip’s been popping up everywhere NASCAR will give him a microphone, from some oddball talent show Fast Track To Fame to the serious, in-depth analysis offered by Showtime’s Inside NASCAR. But with his team in the midst of a rocky start, one wonders if Waltrip will suddenly stop, smell the coffee, and turn his attention back to where he was having the most impact – his race shop.

COLD

AJ Allmendinger: On a personal level, AJ’s known as one of the nicest, most fun guys to be around in the Sprint Cup garage. But as we saw with Casey Mears, personality can only get you so far in this sport. Armed with high expectations after finishing 2009 with a handful of top-15 finishes, the same driver that led RPM’s transition to Ford was supposed to shine in the No. 43 this year. Instead, he’s been slumping with runs of 32nd, 25th and 25th that leave him a far cry from the third-place Daytona 500 finish of ‘09 that snagged him a long-term contract. To Allmendinger’s credit, he’s genuinely frustrated and is giving his all to get better. But considering he’s in his fourth season of racing on the NASCAR circuit, the window of opportunity to perform is closing fast.

NASCAR TV Ratings: Yes, I know NASCAR’s been up against Valentine’s Day, the Olympics and USA-Canada hockey. But the numbers through the first three weeks just can’t be ignored. So far this season, we’re averaging a 5.6, and that number includes just a 7.7 for the Daytona 500 – the worst performance for the race since 1991. But what’s more disturbing is when you look at these numbers versus the peak of NASCAR’s TV viewership five years ago. In 2005, through three races we were averaging an 8.4. (Do the math, and you’ll find a 33% decrease between now and then.) That just goes to show how many fans have walked away in this era; and while the sport’s working hard to win them back, it’s not going to be as easy as rolling the dice and winning a bunch of money on the craps table.