This year’s spring race at Phoenix was hampered by three things: faulty pit strategy, bugs and a race that was 100 kilometers more than it actually should be. Seriously, why in the world would organizers add laps to an event – on a Saturday night, no less – when the number one complaint amongst the fanbase is the races are already too long?
I know I’m preaching to the choir with that one… so let’s move on to the concert, shall we? The inside story from our time in the desert is not everyone has broken free from those darned gnats. Sure, a handful of drivers used the shock of a green-white-checkered finish to pull a top-five finish out of what had been a dreadful day. But for many others, the bugs within their season continue to multiply as they’re already 100, 150, in some cases 250 points outside the vaunted “top 12” everyone labels as the pass/fail moment of their season.
Which of these drivers will be able to turn their playoff chances around in time? Find out in the latest edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in Sprint Cup. I promise, no pests in this column (I’m sorry, the Busch brothers don’t count):
Jimmie Johnson: True story: the second Johnson left Phoenix, the city cooled down 10 degrees. It just goes to show that when even Mother Nature has the hots for this guy, you know destiny’s calling. Since you’re already booing, let’s hurry up and get this one over with….
– Leads the points by 36, hasn’t finished worse than 12th at Daytona…
– Would have had a guaranteed second-place finish if not for a pit-road decision for four fresh tires at Phoenix; even still, rallied from seventh to third in just two laps…
Heads to Texas, the site of his last poor finish at an unrestricted track courtesy of Sam Hornish Jr.‘s front bumper.
Yaaayyyy… Hey, stop that will ya? It’s never, ever prudent to wish for another driver to wreck during the race. Although I will admit, based on emails to us media if 80% of the fanbase were given torches, they’d run to the pits and light the No. 48 on fire at this point.
We’d better move on.
Matt Kenseth: Ladies and gentlemen, let me present your 2010 championship rival to Johnson! I know it’s only April, but the last time Kenseth showed this type of trademark consistency is when he won his lone Sprint Cup title in 2003. Did you know without that GWC bump to the back at Martinsville, he wouldn’t have a finish this season lower than eighth? Crown Royal Black must be thrilled with their new partnership. Now, if only everyone drinking it could stop blacking out and pay attention to the future. He may not be the world’s most talkative chap, Eeyore may be his best pal, and he doesn’t even hate the right driver (Jeff Gordon), but right now, race fans, he’s all you got if you’re sick of the No. 48. Who knew winning fans back in 2010 would depend on Kenseth growing a personality?
Honorable Mention: Ryan Newman. He’s halfway between Warm and Hot (is that WaHo? I’m not sure) after a shocking win at Phoenix. Armed with two straight top-five finishes, he’s bounced back to 16th in points after a rocky start; but will Texas (just two top 10s and five laps led since 2004) serve as a sudden roadblock?
Gordon: He’s got an average finish of 2.5 the last two races, is fifth in points and has led more laps (327) than anyone else in the series not named [Kurt] Busch. So why am I still off the Gordon bandwagon? The answer is simple: I’ve seen this plotline before. In fact, this time last year the No. 24 car came into Texas even hotter, leading the points en route to lighting the Lone Star State on fire. It was that day he came up with his 82nd and last Cup victory, one that put him 162 points ahead of the pack just seven races into the season.
So honestly, this team is a step below where they were a year ago. At the same time, they’ve become masters at giving away free trips to victory lane. It’s almost like Steve Letarte has a gun on top of the pit box he uses to shoot Gordon in the foot at all times. His late-race adjustments always seem to leave the DuPont Chevy close, but not close enough, and a two-tire strategy at Las Vegas cost them a chance to beat rival Johnson. In fact, they’ve gone 0-for-3 on using that strategy attempting to head to victory lane this year (Gordon’s driving was the culprit in the other two). With a total of seven runner-up finishes since their last Cup trophy, I’m half-expecting Gordon to show up as a bridesmaid to somebody’s wedding. The message is clear here: they have to, have to, have to get over that victory lane hump before the momentum from all these missed opportunities morphs into frustration.
Carl Edwards: Last week, I wrote an SI column where I worried about Edwards’s future with Bob Osborne. I still feel the next two months will be crucial to their marriage, but for now, everyone involved is putting their best foot forward to keep them from breaking up. Since being parked for making flapjacks with Brad Keselowski in Atlanta, Edwards has responded with three straight top-10 finishes to jump to eighth in the standings. Considering two of those runs (Bristol and Martinsville) came on tracks less than half-a-mile in length, where Cousin Carl was a combined 0-for-6 with top-10 finishes in ‘09, things appear to be heading back in the right direction. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, Ed-Head Nation, as marriage counselor I say Edwards needs to do two things:
A) Lead not just one lap, but a series of laps (somewhere)
B) Show he can contend at his bread and butter racetracks: the intermediates.
13 of his 16 wins have come at tracks 1.5-2 miles in length, but he hasn’t snagged a top five there since a fourth at Michigan last August. If they do that, buy Jack Roush some flowers and a nice little Shoebox card with the message “If you make a change on the pit box, we’ll hold a national protest,” and keep from sending another car up in the air, things should work out.
Honorable Mention: Joe Gibbs Racing. A solid performance by Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, combined with a gutsy one by Denny Hamlin should have them leaving Texas with their heads held high. Question marks going forward:
How does Busch and Dave Rogers’s relationship suffer after Rogers’s bad call cost the No. 18 a win for the second time in 10 races?
Can Logano finally figure out a track in Texas where he’s got an average finish of 29th?
How long will Hamlin’s knee hamper his on-track results?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Don’t look now, but NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is pulling his very unpopular fade. Sure, the driver of the AMP/National Guard/Juniooooooorrrr No. 88 is hanging tough at 10th in the standings. But he’s just 86 points ahead of 19th, meaning one disastrous day is all it takes for him to fall behind (just ask Kurt Busch below). Most importantly, in a six-race stretch that’s crucial for Junior (we hit his six best tracks in succession during April and May) he’s pulled together a mediocre average finish of 13.5 two races in. That may sound OK now, but when he needs that cushion after running 30th at Pocono you’ll be pointing back to these Awkward April days as the culprit for sidetracking his bid for the Chase.
Kurt Busch: Poor Kurt. After Bristol, he received the equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx: us media labeled him the number one threat to topple Johnson and the No. 48. Naturally, all he’s done since then is run 23rd and 35th the last two weeks. Phoenix was perhaps the more shocking of those two: it was Busch losing it on his own heading into the turn in a wreck that also took out Kasey Kahne. In a heartbeat, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge has fallen to 14th in the standings, with more finishes outside the top 20 (four) than top 10s (three). Scott Speed tried changing his luck by shaving his head; maybe Mr. Busch should try and sell his newly-minted “label” on eBay before it’s too late?
Honorable Mention: David Reutimann. Three top-15 finishes to start the season led to a multitude of stories about Michael Waltrip Racing having a breakout year. Four straight finishes outside the top 20 (including two DNFs) have led to a multitude of stories about what at MWR will break next?
Kahne: Is it me, or do you get that same chilly feeling every time George Gillett and Mr. Kahne are in the same room? Oh, that’s right; they never are. Rumors RPM has defaulted on a $90 million loan (reported in the Sports Business Journal today) is the latest calamity to hit the program, with Budweiser also expected to take off at the end of the year. You think Kahne’s going to stick around for this mess? The driver’s latest Twitter post:
Had another rough race. This is getting old and its only race 7
— Kasey Kahne (@kaseykahne) April 11, 2010
Referring to three straight finishes outside the top 10 – including two of 34th or worse – they’ve dropped him to 26th in points and opened the door for potential free agency. At this point, you have to wonder if the stupid move would be for Kahne not to walk through that door.
Kevin Conway: You’ve got to give Conway credit; he’s not wrecking, causing crashes or getting in people’s way. Instead, he’s just enjoying a multi-million joyride on the Cup level. Who wouldn’t? The marketing genius has parlayed a full-season deal with Extenze into relaxing finishes of 28th, 31st, 31st, 31st, 33rd and 36th. In each of those events, he started 32nd or worse and finished at least three laps off the pace. But look on the bright side: he has some awesome, exclusive new photos to share of Johnson, Tony Stewart and all his NASCAR favorites driving behind the wheel! It’s easy to snap those digital snapshots when you’re going so slow….
Sadly, with Terry Cook performing even worse, Conway is virtually guaranteed to win Rookie of the Year. The only question is whether Raybestos will continue to sponsor it or Extenze will just buy that trophy, too.
Honorable Mention: Casey Mears. After being left on the sidelines, Mears signs in January with the underfunded No. 90 team, where he fails to qualify in five of six races. Then, he’s picked to be Hamlin’s “substitute,” which he’s never needed for while his replacement, Scott Riggs, not only qualifies his old car but races it better than Mears ever did. Famous name or no, his stock car career is listed in criticial condition at this point.