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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not In Sprint Cup: 2010 Crown Royal 400 at Richmond Edition

Here’s the $5 million question: What’s the track with the fewest lead changes so far this season?

Fontana? Nope. That’s actually sixth on the list (although you may not have been awake to see it).

Atlanta? Nope. That’s number three (although the next version of this race may be run somewhere in Kentucky.)

Hmmm… Las Vegas? Texas? Phoenix?

Wrong. Sorry, folks… your answer is Richmond, with 12. Shocked? Considering most fans, drivers, and media put that place on their “can’t miss” list, I’d say that’s a resounding yes. It just goes to show that until you set the drivers loose, you never know what’s going to happen on the racetrack; one of the hottest places on the circuit can turn into an iceberg of a snoozer under the right circumstances.

That’s what happened Saturday night, as when Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon left for their own planet, everyone else seemed to circulate at half-speed. Leading 370 of 400 laps, you’d think they’d dominate the HOT part of our Hot/Not category this week. So why is only one above the cutline? Read on to find out, as well as sort through the carnage they lapped (err, left) behind to see who’s hurting just in time to get a fresh hit to the outside wall. ‘Cause remember, drivers, if Richmond’s short-track slugfest didn’t punch you in the gut, the Lady In Black has a Mother’s Day present for you.

HOT

Kyle Busch – Moves up to the top category this week after breaking his 21-race winless streak at Richmond. But perhaps the more important number is that ugly 0-for-12 with crew chief Dave Rogers, filled with enough “would haves, could haves, should haves” Steve Letarte was jealously taking notes for future ways Jeff Gordon could finish second (we’ll get to that a little later). Now that they’ve both kissed a trophy and made up, attention turns to a surging Joe Gibbs Racing operation that’s won three of five with Busch and Denny Hamlin. But with Busch just 109 points behind Jimmie Johnson in the standings, he’s currently got the edge within that stable right now.

So what’s the next step to get to the top? Silly enough, where he stands with his extracurricular activities. Just 84 points out of the Nationwide Series lead, Busch stands one month away from the standalone races that’ll determine whether he tries to defend that title, giving up his Cup Series focus in the process. And then, there’s his Truck team; at last check, there are also quite a few construction companies standing there holding torches (and lawyers) over $3 million in money they’re owed. Can you say “distraction?” Yeah, I guess you probably can after all the ones Busch has dealt with off the track the last two years. Let’s see if he can nip these in the bud this time.

Carl Edwards – For Carl to be considered a weekly contender again, he needs to do two things: lead laps and run strong at racetracks that typically eat him alive.

Well, the month of May means mission accomplished in that department… for now. Not only did the No. 99 finally get off the schneid by leading two solitary laps at Richmond, he departed armed with his first top-five finish since Michigan last August. Oh, and did I mention it came at a track where he’d never run better than sixth? In 11 previous starts at RIR, Edwards had led just once (for 15 laps in ’07) while piling up five ugly finishes of 21st or worse.

That puts Edwards in front of the cameras at a crucial time for his future. Back inside the Chase, all it’ll take is another top five at Darlington to ensure Bob Osborne is up on the pit box for the long haul. I’m thinking he’s a little safer, but then again, I thought the Mets were safe pitching a Cy Young award winner Johan Santana against a 47-year-old pitcher for the NL East lead Sunday night.

They lost 11-5. No, I’m not bitter… but I don’t want Edwards fans to be, either. So be prepared for the worst, expect the best, and hope the duck doesn’t drive at Darlington. That might be bad for everyone.

Honorable Mention

Kevin Harvick – Mentioned prominently in this column last week, so let’s push him into the background despite a third-place finish (he also earned the points lead by 10 over Johnson). I guess we’re just honoring his Talladega wish in victory lane: giving Shell as little positive PR as possible on their way out the door, right?

Starting and Parking – Just when we thought this practice was close to getting nipped in the bud, a season-high 17 combined cars in both Cup and Nationwide pulled in early. It’s easy to start the season on high hopes and no sponsorship, but once debt piles up parking makes a whole lot more financial sense, doesn’t it? In a failing business model, the risk of running the distance is only good enough until the first call from the bill collector comes.

WARM

Ryan Newman – One month after a drought-breaking win, the No. 39 continues to build a foundation towards future Chase success. Runs of 11th and eighth at the unrestricted tracks the last few weeks have him 16th in points and just 71 out of a Chase spot. Heck, if not for that ugly wreck at Talladega he’d be in it; you think we better tell him that? It’s not like he needs any more motivation to sneak into that track in the middle of the night and blow it up.

So let’s leave him with a positive thought. At Darlington last year, Newman led 48 laps and had arguably the best car at times before fading. Repeat that performance, and he’ll likely end the day inside the top 12 and heading to Charlotte breathing easy.

Juan Pablo Montoya – I hate to leave the same driver in the same category two weeks in a row. But Montoya continues to taunt us, delivering the type of top-10 finishes that got him in the Chase last year but without the cushion of no DNFs to let him sneak in. In this case, he needs to be A+ the rest of the way, and B+ is just not good enough. So when’s Brian Pattie going to give the OK for this car to start spinning people? A long line of NASCAR fans (millions) might like to see it.

Honorable Mention

Martin Truex Jr. – Quietly racked up finishes of ninth, 12th and seventh the last three weeks to become Michael Waltrip Racing’s top contender in Waltrip’s old car. Too bad for the team Waltrip thinks he can still drive every once in a while. The stats say otherwise.

COOL

Gordon – I know, I know. How could a runner-up finisher be banished to the wrong side of the cut line? It’s just that you can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before you run out of toes. And in the recent Gordon/Steve Letarte partnership, I don’t know how the heck they’re able to walk anymore. Susan Lucci could learn some lessons on how to lose an Emmy Award from these two; just when it seems they have it in the bag, victory lane is donated to the nearest eligible nominee while driver and crew in the No. 24 are left to find the best way to stutter and bow out gracefully.

Sure, 599 laps led (tops in the league) and sixth in points is nothing to sneeze at. But one bad day is all it’ll take to leave Gordon staggering outside the top 12 – he’s just 96 points ahead of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 13th – and don’t you think he’s due for a car that’ll run 20th, not two-tenths of a second better than the field? Eventually, those clunkers will come (as they do for everyone) and JG might wish he’d picked up a few more points on the table than the 31st, 22nd, and second he’s pulled with winning cars the last three weeks.

Scott Speed – In this category for not one but two reasons this week. Speed has offered to pie Kyle Busch in the face if he gets voted into the All-Star race, a move that might result in both record ratings for SPEED and a television highlight non-NASCAR sports reporters can speak through and smile (seriously, it amazes me how many people I work with in the business who not only report NASCAR with a frown, but never even lift a finger to learn anything about the sport. Another topic for another day).

Sadly for Mr. Speed, after a hot start little gimmicks like that are the only way he’s actually going to make the field. Winning is the furthest thing from his mind, and the top 10 seems a distance blur after six straight finishes of 15th or worse (including a 35th at Richmond Saturday night). With Brian Vickers also dropping like a rock, looks like Red Bull needs a recharge to its formula quickly before it’s too late. Either that, or they could field about four more teams… that seems to work well for Roush and Hendrick!

Honorable Mention

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Fell from eighth to 13th in points after unscheduled green-flag stop leads to 32nd-place finish. In other news, five NASCAR Vice Presidents are in serious condition tonight after heart attacks triggered shortly after realizing Chase ramifications. Also, fess up now… you’ve Google searched the name Amy Reimann this week. Come on! You may not believe the sleaze… but you fell victim to temptation nonetheless. That’s how the National Enquirer sells its mags….

COLD

Sam Hornish Jr. – Once upon a time, there was a championship IndyCar driver who wanted to try his hand at another sport. So, he decided to ask his car owner if he could go from avoiding walls to trying to hit them… in a stock car!

So far, this new career has been going swimmingly. In fact, Hornish’s latest wall-smack also served as his first DNF of the season! (At Richmond) Sadly, though, for some reason corporate sponsors stopped wanting to back a car that hits the wall every week. Apparently, it’s just too expensive; so sometime in September, everyone stopped the charade, an IndyCar driver announced a glorious return to his other sport and proceeded to win many more races and championships.

Want to learn more? Don’t worry; the book will be out soon. There’s not many more NASCAR chapters left to write.

Terry Cook – Left his ride this week amidst trepidation over Whitney Motorsports’ future direction (as in, there’s not enough money to run the whole race so we won’t). He leaves the Sprint Cup Series with three starts in 10 attempts, a best finish of 34th (Phoenix) and paves the way for Kevin Conway to win the Rookie of the Year Award unchallenged.

Sorry to make you choke on your Extenze. I just state facts; and one thing I do know (for a fact) that while Cook flopped in Cup he is one heck of a Truck driver. Here’s to whatever car owner is willing to bite the bullet and pick him up for their growing operation over there; they won’t be sorry!

Honorable Mention

Richmond – Not exactly the way to follow up a fireworks-style performance last September. What’s worse, the spring race has averaged just 12 lead changes over the last three years. Perhaps restrictor plates would help?

Bobby Labonte – Has exactly zero top-20 finishes in ten 2010 races thus far. 10 years ago, he was well on his way to his first and only Cup championship. How far one can rise and fall in a decade?

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