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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2010 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Edition

Perhaps it’s appropriate a weekend of wild weather accompanied 500-plus miles of racing at Talladega. For by the time the checkered flag dropped, the point standings looked like they just got hit with a thunderstorm all their own.

That’s the blessing and curse of restrictor plate racing all in one; points get dealt not by who has the fastest car but by who can pin the tail on the donkey blindfolded. Apparently, Ryan Newman’s not very good at that game, because he doesn’t want ‘Dega to count in the points anymore (and if I wrecked in three straight races there, heck, I probably wouldn’t want to even show up). Considering he’s the lone NASCAR driver with a bachelor’s degree, there’s probably some semblance of intelligence behind that theory. But whoever said the Chase was concocted by somebody smart?

No, this roulette wheel not only counts, but also will likely make the difference between making and missing the playoffs for some unlucky soul who had their car torn to pieces. Which drivers are busy shedding those Talladega tears this week? Read on to find out in the latest edition of Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not.

HOT

Kevin Harvick – Mr. Harvick’s hot in more ways than one this week. Let’s just look at all the reasons he’s spitting fire like his Twitter symbol:

A) Assaulting the media for their lack of “common sense,” (as in, the common sense not to print the name of a source bashing him so Harvick’s not charged with attempted murder). Apparently, hinting at an impending departure from your current team stings all the more when…

B) Your primary sponsor (Shell) pulls the rug out from under you just months after hinting they’ll stick with you whenever, wherever. Didn’t Shakira write a song about that? Shell must not have been paying attention. And if that wasn’t hard enough for Harvick to take, the company’s moving to a guy in Kurt Busch that’s arguably less popular, has fewer Daytona 500 wins and more Maricopa County speeding tickets than he does. What an insult.

C) Oh yeah, he took the anger out on Jamie McMurray Sunday, setting him up for the perfect slingshot pass exiting turn 4, then de-pantsing him in front of the start/finish line to end his winless drought that’s lasted since the 2007 Daytona 500. So who says the winner of the Great American Race gets cursed? One win every three-and-a-half years… at this rate, he’ll catch Richard Petty’s record when he’s winning races at the Bakersfield Nursing Home sometime around 2100.

On a serious note, Harvick’s now second in points and just 26 behind Jimmie Johnson. Can he fend off the distractions and make a serious push for the points lead? Richmond will likely tell the tale; after all, short tracks are RCR’s bread and butter.

Mark Martin – Man, kicking this career-long bad luck habit has got to be harder than anyone at Hendrick might have thought, as three straight wrecks seemed to leave the 51-year-old back in the clutches of Chase life support. Which has made the last three weeks even more miraculous: Martin has gone out there and brazenly stolen three straight runs of sixth or better. It’s such a high-quality theft job, I’m surprised he hasn’t been hired as a main cast member for Ocean’s 14.

Taking top-20 cars and magically making them fifth – the new Martin philosophy. Hey, whatever works I guess, right? But that nice little bump from 13th to sixth in points give them plenty of time to fix that whole running like crap for the first 400 miles thing going forward.

Honorable Mention

Denny Hamlin’s Driving Skills On One Knee – Since announcing he’ll have ACL surgery, two wins have combined with three top-five finishes to launch him up into the top 10 in points. And now, with the Bobcats season over Michael Jordan has time to come to the race as a VIP. Seriously, four years ago what odds would you have put on this guy ever becoming friends with MJ? 2 million to 1? 3 million to 1? Perhaps the most shocking rise to glory in pop culture’s history since the name Snooki first got uttered on the Jersey Shore.

Phoenix Racing When Posted On Craigslist – One top-10 finish (Mike Bliss) since James Finch announced what those in inner circles knew for months: the No. 09 is for sale. Maybe he can sell the team piece-by-piece on Craigslist? Someone just make sure he doesn’t drop it in the personal ads by mistake.

WARM

Kyle Busch – Don’t look now, but the shrub has finally come home to roost inside the garden of Sprint Cup. Three straight top-10 finishes over here have come packaged with an ugly Nationwide wreck Sunday – the type that makes you say, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t run for a championship and beat up on all the little kids in AAA.” If that happens – watch out.

Juan Pablo Montoya – How bad has it been for Montoya? He was pretty much assuming he’d leave Talladega wrecked, the latest in what would be a long line of crash landings for the one-time title contender. But the bottom line is he did make it to the checkered flag intact, nabbing a third and setting himself up for a longshot comeback bid to make the Chase. If only Brian Pattie can keep a little bit of the tortoise inside him, this hare may try and make a run at this year’s playoffs yet.

Honorable Mention

Clint Bowyer – Not blessed with the winning car of teammate No. 1 (Harvick) or the ugly bad luck of teammate No. 2 (Jeff Burton). Does that make his strategy of collecting top-10 finishes just right?

David Ragan (Since He Nearly Got A Pink Slip) – An average finish of 10.5 since word surfaced he could be replaced in the No. 6 for next year. Funny how the threat of job insecurity drives performance these days….

COOL

Kasey Kahne – After bucking the trend of “lame duck” drivers with a fifth at Texas, Kahne quickly crashed back to reality with a 21st-place run at Talladega. It’s all part of a disturbing trend where the Bud team’s becoming a one-trick pony. At intermediates, he’s got three top-10 finishes in four starts; but everywhere else, he hasn’t finished inside the top 15 yet.

Matt Kenseth – In racing, one moment can make or break the momentum of your season. Without question, for Kenseth right now it’s the untimely Jeff Gordon tap at Martinsville, a move that cost the No. 17 a near-certain win and left him scratching and clawing just to finish 18th. He has yet to score a top-five finish since, dropping to fourth in points while everyone’s still scratching their head and throwing darts at Gordon’s in their spare time. It’s high time for the Kenseth camp to take a step back, refocus, and get their season back on track.

Honorable Mention

Joey Logano – His Talladega reminded me of that game you played as a kid where you pushed down all the fake alligator’s teeth. You push, push, push every button (in this case, a tooth is a button) but in the end you lose no matter what. The monster comes back to bite you.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon’s Friendship – When your teammate is also your car owner, chances are they’re not going to let this little spat escalate any further. But after Gordon saying the word “pissed” made it on every national sports highlight across the nation, it at least bears watching just to make sure.

COLD

Regan Smith – Fact: I interviewed Smith the weekend of Martinsville. Fact: He hasn’t had a top-25 finish since. Coincidence: I think not. I hope he talks to me again….

Kevin Conway – The fact he couldn’t keep up with the draft on Sunday put a capper on this guy’s less-than-stellar year. Aren’t we all just waiting for Extenze to call and say, “I’ve had enough?”

Honorable Mention

Elliott Sadler – No wonder why he’s so mad at wrecking in plate races. They’re the only chance left he has to finish inside the top 10 in a race.

Joe Nemechek’s Bank Account – Times are so tight, the No. 87 couldn’t afford to run the distance in a race they finished inside the top 15 last year. One of the few S&Ps who really would race if given the chance, his absence at a favorite track gets me worried about the future for him.