With the Sprint Cup tour preparing for its second break in a little less than four weeks (courtesy: the Easter Bunny), it’s time to sit back and take stock once again at which drivers have all the momentum. And for those who don’t have any, there’s plenty of time to kick their season into high gear… Right?
Six races means almost one-quarter of this year’s regular season is already complete. As I told you last week in SI, according to history approximately nine of the 12 drivers you see currently entrenched in this year’s Chase will be there once the checkered flag flies at Richmond this fall. That leaves just three openings for a long list of stars outside the cutoff, some of whom are already 200 points or more behind 12th – leaving their Easter filled with a whole lot of chocolate eggs, some ice cream, and a pity party over a season gone wrong.
Um… that’s not exactly what the Catholic Church had in mind for this holiday but hey, to each his own, right? So let’s figure out who’s breathing easy this week – along with who’s eating a few extra Cadburys and heading to therapy with Mr. Bunny in the latest edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.
Greg Biffle: Certainly, Jimmie Johnson is the obvious choice here as the points leader. But ever so quietly, Biffle is putting together the type of consistency that won him championships in both Nationwide and Trucks. The only driver to nab top-10 finishes in each of the first six races, Martinsville (10th) was perhaps his most impressive performance for two reasons. One, he escaped the Tasmanian Devil (aka Marcos Ambrose), who spun him out during his Monday audition to play a miniature tornado on Storm Chasers. That left the No. 16 at the back of the lead lap – directly in the eye of the short-track storm – but he fended off all threats en route to a remarkable comeback.
Which leads me to my second point: Martinsville is to Biffle what Butler is to your NCAA Bracket Office Pool: complete and total self-destruction. In 14 previous starts at the paperclip, he’s got just one other top-10 finish (seventh) and has led just 21 total laps while recording half-a-dozen finishes of 28th or worse.
What does that all mean? If Biffle can contend at Martinsville, that means he could contend anywhere, anytime… and with tracks like Texas and Darlington not far off, don’t be surprised if the Biff breaks into victory lane (ending his 50-race drought) sometime within the next few weeks.
Honorable Mention: Johnson (took over the points lead despite the equivalent of a 43rd-place run at Martinsville for him (ninth)).
Jeff Gordon: Sure, Gordon’s none too happy about a late-race Martinsville win that slipped from his grasp. It’s almost like someone gave him a gift, only for him to unwrap and find out it was a half-hour DVD of the best of Fast Track To Fame. You get the picture: Don’t give someone a gift if all it’s going to make them want to do is throw up.
But while the No. 24 would have been perfectly fine snagging a third-place finish without the theatrics… that drama is bound to invigorate them. It seems like Gordon’s at his best when riled up, and it’s the perfect time with a three-race string of Phoenix, Texas and Talladega ahead that’s been very good for him the last few years. I still feel Gordon’s got the fourth-best equipment in the Hendrick stable this season; but hey, don’t they have to break that “never got all four teams in the Chase” record at some point?
Brian Vickers: Sure, a sixth-place finish with zero laps led doesn’t exactly scream out “I’m back!” But to understand Team Red Bull’s veteran leader is to know short tracks aren’t exactly his cup of tea. So to barrel through the Bristol-Martinsville swing with a 10.5 average finish (catapulting him to 12th in points) isn’t just a “win” for this team… heck, in Europe somewhere Mr. Mateschitz might be throwing a ticker-tape parade. It’s just hard to say this team’s shaken out of their slump for good, though, until we see a top-five finish at their bread-and-butter: intermediates. It’s where Vickers picked up his last win (Michigan, 2009); in the last 19 races since, he hasn’t so much as sniffed the top five. Just like the formula in Red Bull sugar free, that needs to change for him to reclaim his trendy Cinderella label.
Martin Truex Jr.: Speaking of the fairy tale queen, recent gossip has her hanging out in the paddock of Mr. Truex (I wonder how longtime girlfriend Sherri Pollex feels about that). With three top-12 runs in the first half-dozen races, he’s already matched Michael Waltrip’s total from all of last season combined. Indeed, the quick turnaround of the No. 56 (formerly No. 55) crew has been one of the under-reported stories this season, with crew chief Pat Tryson leading them to two Tissot Pit Road Awards and a solid run to 18th in the season standings. Now, if they could only get Toyota to stop fixing their accelerator pedals and start focusing their attention where it really counts – Michael Waltrip Racing engines – then we might have a sleeper Chase team on our hands.
Honorable Mention: Brad Keselowski (so much for drivers “teaching him a lesson” – made it through the short tracks with back-to-back top 15s and not so much as a scratch on him).
Kasey Kahne: Seems like the only time we’ve heard from Kahne lately is to remind us he “still doesn’t know” if he’ll become a free agent. But the way his team is running lately, will he even have a choice? Never a short-track ace, runs of 34th and 17th have halted all momentum and dropped the driver to 20th in points. How bad has it gotten for Kahne? The go-to man on this team is now named Paul Menard.
Seriously, Kasey… read that sentence over for a second. Is that the way you really want your tenure with the No. 9 to end? Let that be your motivational speech for the next three races and beyond….
Elliott Sadler: Once upon a time, there was a NASCAR driver named Sadler. A lovable, talkative Virginian, he had a great personality that made him loved both on and off the track. With a handful of wins, his career peaked with a Chase bid in 2004 that made him a “young gun” to watch going forward.
Too bad his ammo was full of blanks. Last spotted losing the lead in the 2009 Daytona 500, Sadler’s whereabouts have remained a mystery ever since. Sources claim someone in the No. 19 Dodge has registered six finishes of 19th and 27th to start 2010. Sadler just hasn’t been shown on TV in so long we’re not sure if it’s him.
Where and when will Sadler pop up? I’m not sure how the next chapter goes, but I can tell you two words that lie just a few short pages away: “The End.”
Kyle Busch: Busch gave new meaning to “take one for the team” when a late-race spin gave the green-white-checkered finish Denny Hamlin needed to win Martinsville. But while Busch had an admirable run, a faulty call to pit for tires late killed any momentum the No. 18 could have gained. That leaves him still searching for a top-five finish six races into the season, firmly stuck in 16th, 31 points out of the Chase. He’s also bringing up the rear in this Joe Gibbs Racing trio; and with no Nationwide Series title to hang his hat on, you wonder how much longer Mr. Busch will put up with third-string status – along with a roller-coaster, inconsistent relationship with crew chief Dave Rogers.
Mark Martin: Just when you think Martin’s ditched the bad luck for good, the black cat always seems to find its way back inside the life of the 51-year-old. Runs of 33rd, 35th and 21st have dropped him like a rock to 17th in the standings, leaving him the worst of the four-car Hendrick stable. When the organization announced the No. 5 team would help prop up the No. 88 this season, I don’t think sharing a year’s worth of bad karma was exactly what he had in mind….
Scott Speed: You know things are getting bad when you’re willing to shave off blue hair you just created. But that’s exactly what Mr. Speed is doing after runs of 31st and 33rd on the short tracks killed his early momentum in 2010. Announcing the move on his Twitter feed, that caps a week in which he also lost $100 to friend Kyle Busch on a pit-stop competition and guessing the wrong ending to Up In The Air. Um, maybe they’d be better off putting money on which one snaps out of their season slump first?
Honorable Mention: Regan Smith (36th, 32nd, two totaled racecars at Bristol and Martinsville)