Welcome back to the South, NASCAR! After two mediocre races in California and Las Vegas, Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway quickly reminded fans of the show that NASCAR drivers can produce at some of the circuits more senior tracks – like they did in Daytona last month. As often happens at the 50 year-old track, the old pavement took its toll on tires and contenders, allowing some different faces to have a look at the lead pack. While several drivers with surprising runs held their momentum, Brad Keselowski was less than two laps away from his first top 10 with Penske Racing, before new nemesis Carl Edwards took him for a mid-air ride. How did these drivers and others fair on the HOT, WARM, COOL and COLD charts – let’s find out….
HOT: Matt Kenseth – Second in the standings after firing your crew chief after one race? That does not happen very often in the Sprint Cup Series, but Kenseth’s trademarked consistency is back in a big way so far this season. After a runner-up finish at Atlanta, Kenseth has a top 10 in each race. But the Roush Fenway program struggled on short tracks last year and with Bristol looming, the No. 17 team needs to find the magic that won Kenseth back-to-back night races there in 2005 and 2006 and six straight top 10s at Thunder Valley from 2002-2004.
HOT: Kevin Harvick – Yes, he was in the HOT bracket last week, but “Happy” has reason to be all smiles after Atlanta. Strong through the first three races, the No. 29 missed the setup Sunday, as often happens to Harvick in Atlanta Cup races. But the driver did his job and kept the Shell/Pennzoil Chevy off the wall, used numerous late-race cautions to his favor and eventually ended up with a ninth-place finish. This was good enough to keep him in the points lead by 26 over Kenseth. Also 4 for 4 in the top-10 department this year (the only other driver in this category besides Harvick and Kenseth is third in points Greg Biffle), this ability to comeback will be paramount for the No. 29, if it wishes to topple the No. 48 team from the peak of the racing mountain.
WARM: Paul Menard – You’re thinking to yourself, What, Paul Menard? C’mon Doug, you’ve got the wrong guy. Actually, no. As pointed out through the weekend in the Frontstretch Newsletter, Menard and the No. 98 team have been light years better than they were last year. His fifth-place finish was only the third top 10 in his career (the first of which also came at Atlanta in 2006) and his fourth top 20 in four races. Menard actually almost took the lead in the gaggle of cars contending for the point at the end of Sunday’s race and now the Wisconsin native sits ninth in points, yes – P9. Can this success last for the highest-ranked Richard Petty Motorsports driver? Probably not… but tracking this will be fun to watch.
WARM: Kurt Busch/Penske Racing– The only thing keeping the driver of the Blue Deuce out of the hot bracket has been his two inconsistent finishes at Daytona and Las Vegas. Those finishes, though, were not indicative of the strong cars Busch had at each track. He won the pole at Vegas and led 33 laps in Daytona before getting caught up in late-race trouble. Not only did he win the Kobalt Tools 500 at AMS for the second year in a row, which broke a yearlong winless streak, but he also led the second=most laps, was the fastest car at the end of the race and made a gutsy move to take the lead on one of the closing restarts. Teammates Sam Hornish Jr. and Keselowski also spent much of the day in the top 10, before motor troubles soured Slidin’ Sam’s run and The Carl took the No. 12 out of contention in a big way. Add Penske to the list with RCR, as teams that have the ability to chip away at Hendrick Motorsports’ turf.
COOL: Ryan Newman – Stewart-Haas Racing is off to a start similar to last season, where the No. 14 Tony Stewart team floats around the back of the top 10 and Newman’s No. 39 has as much bad luck as Avatar had Oscar nominations. Sunday’s race was the latest example for Newman, as the Tornados Chevy was one of several entries that lost tires, had to pit under green and lost precious track position. Eventually, Newman took the wave around and got up to 17th by race’s end. While too early to tell, Newman and the No. 39 team appear to be missing a spark that would make them legitimate contenders each week.
COOL: Jamie McMurray – After winning the Daytona 500, McMurray and the Bass Pro Shops team have failed to extend that momentum past a pole run the following week in California. McMurray accidentally wrecked his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya last week and then got loose and triggered another big wreck on the first lap of the first green-white-checkered restart Sunday. McMurray gained a reputation during his tenure in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 26 Ford as being a driver that used a lot of equipment. Performances these past two weeks are helping affirm that notion and will negatively impact how other drivers on the track treat him.
COLD: Brad Keselowski – Since joining Penske Racing three races before the end of last season, controversial driver Keselowski has a best finish of 21st at California. While the No. 12 team has struggled since before Newman left after 2008, Keselowski failed yet again at following through with a good finish in the best car he has had in a while. He may be gaining ground and learning how both the CoT and the Penske cars run in relation the Nationwide Series cars and Hendrick, but that momentum is stunted when he brings unnecessary drama in between himself and good finishes, which is exactly what would not have happened, had he lifted more for Edwards on Sunday, preventing their first dustup early in the race and the major payback later on.
COLD: Carl Edwards – While Roush Fenway teammates Biffle and Kenseth sit near the top of the standings with four top 10s a piece, Edwards and the No. 99 team have just one top-10 finish and sit 20th with only one top 10. While this may not be entirely of their own doing, Edwards will now have the additional distraction of fielding dozens of questions about his retaliatory move on Keselowski Sunday and the possible re-payback that could be coming his way. Also likely on the horizon is discipline from NASCAR that could range from a small fine all the way to a possible suspension. The penalty likely will rest somewhere in the middle, meaning there is a good chance Edwards could lose money and points. If he loses the standard 25 markers, he would fall another spot in the standings.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.