NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2010 Food City 500 at Bristol Edition

It’s only Tuesday, but most people in America this week are already hot under the collar about something. Whether it’s their NCAA bracket getting thrown in the shredder, agony/elation over the healthcare bill or the five-minute socially awkward conversation otherwise known as “Tiger Woods Gives Some One-Sentence Answers,” there’s been plenty for people to get all fired up about.

But when it comes to NASCAR, a deafening silence falls amongst the crowd. A few might fidget, others might change the topic, and one or two might stand up and cheer. But the ugly truth is there’s just one driver hotter than everybody else these days… so hot for so long, in fact, he’s ready to join the sun as a permanent star in our solar system.

That’s the type of success you take for granted, and indeed most fans have chosen to ignore and/or block out our “sun” in favor of spending their Spring somewhere else. But before you leave NASCAR for good, non-Jimmie fans, stop and smell the coffee of realization that we’re only five races into 2010. Anything can and will happen in a sport that hasn’t completely lost its air of unpredictability; so take a deep breath, calm down, and just listen a minute. There’s a long list of drivers below that can take their shot in the No. 48 in the coming weeks, and it’s my job to make you believe in the latest edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.

But first, let’s take care of a little business….

Great Ball Of Fire

Jimmie Johnson: Yawn. I’m already bored. So let’s throw out the stat lines:

  • Bristol winless streak snapped: Now 1-for-17 in Thunder Valley
  • Won 7 of last 14 Cup races (Best run since Jeff Gordon in the summer of 1998)
  • On track for 21 victories this season
  • Six wins, 15 top 10s in 16 starts at Martinsville

Depressing for the non-Johnson fans, but Rick Hendrick does have it right: JJ doesn’t get half the credit he should these days. We’ve gone through all the reasons why fans don’t jump on the bandwagon, but 50 wins? There’s only nine drivers that have more, and Johnson’s about to bypass some pretty exclusive company. By the end of the season, he could be as high as eighth on the all-time win list, trailing only Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. That’s not your local club at the YMCA, kids… those are people that will all be either first ballot Hall of Famers or in there by the time 2012 is complete.

So even if you think Chad is cheating, Hendrick is evil, and watching Jimmie talk reminds you of a customer service robot that keeps you from dialing the operator (don’t you just hate those?) take a step back and at least give the guy his due before you turn off the TV and do something else. Because honestly, I’m not quite sure we’ll ever see this type of stock car performance again in our lifetimes.

HOT

Matt Kenseth: We’re still a long way off, but I’m beginning to see the 2010 title Chase as coming full circle: with Johnson’s biggest rival the same one he had to beat for his first championship in 2006. No, the answer’s not Kurt Busch or even Gordon. It’s Kenseth, who’s ridden a streak of five top-10 finishes to soar up to second in the standings, picking up the pieces of a career that was very much on the skids for much of the last two years.

Of course, this week’s switch from wing to spoiler will truly tell the tale on who’s got what this season. But it’s been a long time since we’ve heard this man issue Eeyore-like statements that make you think he wants to go chew on some thistles and stare aimlessly by the pool in the Hundred Acre Wood. Todd Parrott is a fresh boost of energy, and what nobody’s talking about in the Roush camp is how the ’03 champ has quietly leapfrogged Carl Edwards and slotted back into the No. 1 slot amongst the four-car operation. If Mr. Consistency is still on track for 36 straight top 10s by race number six, you know it’s going to be a good year… and he hasn’t disappointed.

Honorable Mention: Kurt Busch (1-3 finish in the last two races), Greg Biffle (5-for-5 in top 10s this year, like Kenseth)

WARM

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: It’s been so long since we’ve moved Junior up to this category, I’m surprised he didn’t pass away from hypothermia. But NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is doing his very best to make quite a popular comeback with a top-10 finish at Bristol, his first on an unrestricted track since, well, Bristol last August. That bumps him up to eighth in the points, the highest he’s been since 2008 and a prestigious second-best among the Hendrick quartet. Now, the key is to prove he can put these types of runs together in consecutive weeks. Martinsville, one of his better tracks, is a place where he finished eighth last spring. That should be a drop in the bucket in 2010 – especially considering where the Hendrick cars are running. The key for Junior now is to simply not to get too greedy, because all it takes is one wrong move at a short track to turn momentum into mush.

Jeff Burton: Quiet but consistent, his four top-11 finishes in five 2010 races have left him sixth in points. And while RCR’s performance in the “spoiler” era is perhaps the biggest question mark of them all, Burton’s got the benefit of Martinsville, Phoenix and Texas up ahead. He’s combined for five of his 21 wins at this trio of tracks, leaving him strong enough to weather a possible RCR come-from-behind storm should the Hendrick and Roush engineers make their Fridays miserable. It’s possible these changes could leave the teams with the right simulations a half-a-second faster the second they unload off the truck – an area that’s long been this organization’s weak point. Burton will have to rally the troops and make sure they’re caught up by the minute the green-flag drops on Sunday.

Honorable Mention: Tony Stewart (second on Sunday, fifth in points – more on him in Did You Notice? tomorrow), Paul Menard (five straight top-20 finishes, hanging on to ninth in points)

COOL

Ryan Newman: For the second straight year, Newman and the No. 39 team have gotten off to a bit of a shaky start at Stewart-Haas. But after a sloppy 16th at Bristol, there’s a bit more evidence to indicate the dreaded “sophomore slump” label is just around the corner. If there’s one place where the Rocket Man excelled last year, it was short tracks; he went 6-for-6 on top 10 finishes at the bullrings of Bristol, Richmond, and Martinsville. So to qualify 21st for Sunday, then never even come close to a top-five car throughout the day has got to be a little disconcerting. Even more so is a precipitous drop to 26th in points, leaving Newman a whopping 149 points outside the Chase already just one month into the year. But hey, maybe Cup’s lone college graduate can take a lesson from his alma mater: After losing their leading scorer, no one expected No. 4 seed Purdue to reach the promised land of the Sweet 16. Instead, they spent the tourney’s first weekend getting half the country to simultaneously light their brackets on fire while doing just that. Can Newman make a believer out of doubters like me? He better start soon, ‘cause this season’s not getting any younger.

Brad Keselowski: It’s been a tumultuous two weeks for the “victim” in the Edwards–Keselowski wreck heard ‘round the world. But after the national publicity died down, a funny thing happened – both drivers emerged from their meeting with NASCAR all smiles. That’s not unexpected from my perspective, considering they’re both very similar types of drivers: Independent thinkers, intellectual guys who keep their friends close, their enemies closer, and aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves to prove a point. Plus, they both enjoy the same favorite hobby: Flipping.

Still, most expected Sprint Cup’s best “rookie” to get taught a lesson or two at Bristol this weekend. But that’s where Keselowski outsmarted them all. Not only did he emerge from 1,000 laps of racing without a scratch, but he raced his teammate Justin Allgaier clean (eventually settling for second on Saturday) before posting his best ever Cup finish with Roger Penske the following day (13th).

Is there room for improvement over at the No. 12 team? Absolutely, especially considering teammate Kurt Busch has a 1.7 average finish these last two weeks. But the key for Kes and Co. this weekend at the No. 12 car was simply to weather the storm, but they passed with flying colors. Sounds like a pretty “cool” three days of healing to me.

Honorable Mention: Kasey Kahne (wreck, wreck, top five, top 10, wreck – the type of season Six Flags builds a roller coaster out of), David Ragan (UPS package lost in space – no top-15 finishes in five 2010 starts)

COLD

David Reutimann: Michael Waltrip Racing’s top driver has instead become its prime example of why the team is literally breaking apart at the seams. Pulling a little “NAPA Know How” of his own from teammate Martin Truex Jr. (and without the karaoke), Reutimann acted like he was shot out of a cannon at Bristol, charging up to third from his 10th-place starting spot. But that’s when the engine went sour on his Toyota… before we’d even reached the 60-mile mark.

60! In 2010, that’s borderline absurd. It’s not like these are domestic Toyotas expected to fail amidst a barrage of stuck throttles and renegade engines. No, these parts and pieces are expected to work, because the auto company’s putting its hard-earned money into making the cars you don’t drive go fast – and even that’s not working. The total for MWR-supported cars is now five blown engines in 16 starts, which means exactly one car is expected to blow up each week.

So where’s owner Waltrip to help fix this mess? Hmm… somewhere in between hosting Fast Track To Shame and jumping in a start-and-park operation to make a celebrity two-lap qualifying appearance. Didn’t Waltrip retire from driving last year? Oh, that’s right – he retired from competing. Making money for a quick stint behind the wheel is apparently too good to pass up.

But these issues have affected Reutimann most of all. Seemingly dropping a notch on the totem pole this season with Truex Jr. and Pat Tryson in the fold, he’s fallen to 24th in points with his worst oval track on the circuit up ahead. Six career starts at Martinsville have produced no career finish better than 15th, leaving this Aaron’s team floundering more than their weekly commercials.

Kevin Conway: You know things are rough when you market a sexual enhancement product and people still wind up giving you the cold shoulder. But the driver of the Extenze Ford is going to have trouble “Extenz”-ing his career in NASCAR before long. With an average finish of 31.5, he’s lost a total of 29 laps to the leaders in four races while becoming the equivalent of a moving roadblock. Scanners were blasting Conway’s driving at Bristol, where he ran up to a second off the pace at times to the point it was a small miracle no one ever spun him out of the way. Other than Raybestos, Extenze executives, and Kevin’s extended group of friends and family, the garage insider poll is a little less divided than health care: I think the number who think he’s just not ready for Cup stands somewhere between 98 and 99%.

How long will he last? Well the answer comes in the form of cold, hard cash. So Conway better keep wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to “Extenze” his sponsorship: after all, the average time it takes a driver with limited talent but unlimited sponsor funding to succeed is about three-plus years (Menard).

Honorable Mention: Bristol (streak of 55 straight sellouts ended), Mike Bliss (failed to qualify No. 36 Friday, causing team to drop out of Top 35), Sam Hornish Jr. (three straight runs of 28th or worse while teammate tears up Cup circuit)

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