NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not In Sprint Cup: 2010 Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Edition

As the month of May pushes racing sharply into focus, who’s on top of the Sprint Cup world is more blurry than ever. You’ve got a points leader, Kevin Harvick, that’s leading by 110 but is driving for a team that has neither a 2011 sponsor nor a contract ready for him to sign. There’s the curious case of Jimmie Johnson, whose hot start with three wins in the first five races has been replaced by some startling inconsistency (two DNFs in the last six) and the percolating profanity of one Chad Knaus on the radio. Charging up behind them both are the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, armed with four wins total in the last six races and hungrier than John Daly at a Hooters, but armed with more distractions and enough emotional volatility to leave Dr. Phil on standby.

Add that all up, and it’s enough to make your calculator give you that dreaded “E” for an answer. The truth is, we just don’t know who’s a clear favorite, so with a Monster of a challenge looming, building the most momentum is the name of the game right now as everyone jostles for position on the Chase scale.

Can we figure out who’s moving up the ladder the quickest, at least? We tackle that in this latest edition, as well as take a sad, sad look at those who’ve fallen behind the fracas:

HOT: The Obvious Candidates

Kyle Busch, Hamlin: The JGR duo was melting the asphalt at Darlington this weekend. Not only did Hamlin sweep both the Nationwide and Cup races for the first time since ’93, but Busch finished runner-up on Friday night before charging from last to first on Saturday, failing to win the Cup race only due to a bad set of adjustments over the final 100 laps of the race.

To give you an idea of how quickly these two have made their charge, let’s look at where they stood after four races:

Busch – 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 15th in points. Laps Led: 37
Hamlin – 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 22nd in points. Laps Led: 39

And let’s look at what they’ve accomplished in the last seven:

Busch – 1 win, 2 top fives, 6 top 10s, +12 spots in points (third). Laps Led: 390.
Hamlin – 3 wins, 4 top fives, 4 top 10s, +16 spots in points (sixth). Laps Led: 305.

Along the way, both of them attacked their biggest weakness. For Kyle, people felt like he lacked the consistency needed to compete for a title (top 10s = problem solved?) For Hamlin, people wondered whether he could put together the type of win streak you need for the No. 48 to take notice (three wins, six races, problem definitely solved).

Dover will go a long way to ensuring their recent surge in momentum takes a firm hold. After winning there in ’08, Kyle put together disappointing runs of 23rd and 31st last year. And for Hamlin, it’s by far his worst track, with an average finish of 25.1, some ugly DNFs and even a fight with current TV commentator Kyle Petty on his resume. It’s the type of race Jimmie Johnson also dominates; so can these two make a statement?

I’m not dumb enough to predict that answer. But based on some crazy cheering from the grandstands on Saturday once the No. 48 got torn to pieces, there are a lot of fans out there who would love to see one.

HOT: The Not-So-Obvious Choice

Kevin Harvick: For someone that’s leading the standings by 110 points, it’s amazing to see how few people are taking the No. 29 team seriously. I admit, until recently I’ve been one of those but when you take that big of a lead in the standings this early, I sit up and take notice no matter how cloudy the future may be. It’s true Harvick has just one more lap led (five) than top-10 finishes over the last four races, but he’s also visited victory lane in that span (albeit in a restrictor-plate race). Perhaps that’s what’s needed for Happy to get everyone’s attention; after all, his last unrestricted win was at Phoenix in November, 2006. But no matter what happens from here, a team that appeared to be on the verge of divorce as early as July of last year has clearly surpassed expectations.

WARM

Kurt Busch: Remember when everyone thought Kurt and not Kyle would contend for the title this season? A rough patch in April cost the No. 2 team their “flavor of the month” status, but three top-10 finishes in four races have them perfectly positioned at eighth in the standings. With the long-term deal signed and Silly Season all taken care of at the No. 2 car, now Busch and crew chief Steve Addington can focus on championship, not contracts. We’ll see how the “no distractions” road plays out over the next month or so when everyone else (i.e. – Hamlin, Busch, Harvick) is using them to propel their teams to new heights.

Jamie McMurray: Sure, two of his three top-five finishes this season have come on restrictor-plate tracks. But that’s why Saturday’s runner-up performance was so important to give his comeback season legitimacy. Coming within a stubborn recovering ACL of his first unrestricted win since Charlotte in October, 2002, McMurray remains within striking distance of the Chase (16th) while heading to tracks like Charlotte and Dover that have historically been good for him. Considering the sponsor search for 2011 is already well underway (Bass Pro Shops is expected to move over to Stewart-Haas), it’s a good time for the No. 1 team to put their best foot forward.

COOL

Roush Fenway Racing: Here’s a fact that ought to blow your mind: Roush Fenway’s last unrestricted win came courtesy of Matt Kenseth in February, 2009 at Fontana, now some 45 races ago. Amazing that one of the sport’s premier teams has fallen so far behind powerhouses Gibbs, Penske and Hendrick in the battle for NASCAR supremacy. Greg Biffle and Kenseth started off well, with 13 combined top-10 finishes in their first 16 starts of 2010. But neither one has come close to that mark the last three weeks, combining with Carl Edwards’s two laps led all year and David Ragan‘s disappearing act to create a head-scratching disappointment for the Blue Oval crowd. Charlotte next week is typically the time we see organizations step up and make major changes; could Dover be the swan song for either Biffle’s or Edwards’s driver/crew chief combination? This team may be fighting the Monster for more than just a victory on Sunday.

Joey Logano: This sophomore used to be the trendy pick to lead JGR out of the doldrums in 2010. Instead, it’s his other two teammates who found the spark while Logano’s promptly died out. Runs of 28th, 36th, 18th and 27th the last month have left him floundering to 19th in points, dropping right back to third on the totem pole at JGR while searching for answers as to how the No. 20 car lost its speed. If that’s not enough to worry about, this time might also be as good as any to mention Home Depot’s contract is up at the end of 2010… so just like any college student, Logano might be spending his weeks searching for money in order to party on the weekend soon.

COLD

Tony Stewart: For the first time in his Cup Series career, Stewart’s finished outside the top 15 for six straight races. Add in the shock of a sponsor departure (Old Spice), and it’s doubtful the No. 14 team is showing any type of swagger back in the shop. Keep in mind the big question when Stewart bought into this organization is whether he’d have the leadership qualities needed to drag his team out of a potential slump. Well, that landmark moment is here; so can Stewart cut the crankiness this season, get his hands down and dirty and be the type of manager that handles the bad times as well as the good? He doesn’t have long to figure it out, as 18th in points nearly halfway through the season is perilously close to cutting off his Chase chances.

Paul Menard: What a trendy Cinderella pick the No. 98 was at the start of the season. But all too often, those fairy tales end up with a glass slipper shattered, a dream destroyed, and a behind-the-scenes tell-all on E! I wouldn’t book your DVR yet, but Menard’s rags-to-riches (or is that riches-to-riches?) success story is quickly headed in the other direction. These are his last five finishes, in order: 29th, 35th, 25th, 27th, 30th. Just like that, he’s 23rd in points, 201 behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 12th which leaves the Chase a little more than a pipe dream. But hey, let’s look on the bright side: it’s not like his sponsor’s going anywhere anytime soon, which is more than most drivers in this sport can say right now.

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