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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2010 Autism Speaks 400 at Dover Edition

Typically, the Monster Mile is notorious for chewing up seasons and spitting them out into the crushing cement of its outside wall. But on a day marked by empty seats and single-file competition, the giant of 1-mile ovals chose to go all 21st century on us instead, using the laser gun accuracy of pit-road timing loops to destroy its closest competition. The biggest victim was its two-time defending winner, as Jimmie Johnson proved in defeat that sometimes, even a robot can malfunction in carrying a little too much speed out of the pits.

The day’s half-human, half-hate victor, Kyle Busch used the win to throw another punch into Johnson’s seemingly infallible record. But as the Joe Gibbs Racing teams heat up, is the heart of Hendrick Motorsports really cooling off? We’ll take a brief look, then remind you there are other teams competing on the grid each weekend in the latest edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.

HOT

Jimmie JohnsonLast week in this space, we made the argument over why Busch and Denny Hamlin are tearing up the Sprint Cup circuit. They did nothing to change that over the weekend, with Busch winning two of the three races he entered while Hamlin collected his first top-10 finish in Delaware since the dawn of time (or three years ago, whichever comes first). There’s no question they’re putting the most pressure on the No. 48 outfit right now.

But there’s also no question the Johnson camp isn’t far behind. Much has been made of the recent slide that’s seen him pile up two DNFs and just one top-10 finish the last four weeks. At the same time, he dominated the race on Sunday, leading 225 laps and only losing based on a pit-road speeding call that dropped him to 16th. Sure, that cost this team points… but do points really matter? It’s wins the No. 48 is going after, considering they’re 234 points ahead of 13th-place pseudo-teammate Ryan Newman for a spot in the Chase. Experience has taught this team winning the regular season championship doesn’t matter; it’s the 10-point bonuses you bring to the playoffs that really count.

So when we look at it from that perspective, Johnson’s still in the catbird’s seat. His 589 laps led rank him second in the series to Jeff Gordon, and he’s still tied with Hamlin for the most wins with three. Only Kevin Harvick has more top-10 finishes, and now we’re heading to a track in Charlotte where Johnson won in the fall, his sixth victory in 17 starts at a place that was once labeled “his house.” Call me crazy, but I think he might be a favorite to win there.

Bottom line in the Gibbs-Hendrick argument? Yeah, JGR has caught up. But I have a hard time believing the reigning four-time champs are suddenly off the pace. They’re well on pace to make their goal of winning several races while making the Chase with ease. Besides, proving themselves isn’t necessary. After all, didn’t the boredom-inducing four straight championships already do that for them?

Jeff Burton – Also last week, we mentioned how everyone’s swept the performance of points leader Harvick under the rug. Well, how about his teammate? Since pulling off a “conservative” fourth-place finish at Richmond, Burton’s scored three straight top-10 finishes while jumping from 12th to eighth in the season standings. But what’s even more encouraging is the rate at which his car is leading laps. He’s led at least one in eight of the last nine races, the first time that’s happened in a decade. That’s right, it was so long ago not only was the late, great Dale Earnhardt Sr. alive, he battled Burton throughout the season for second in the standings. Looking back, that was his best year in the sport, the one people thought would springboard to a number of wins and championships with Roush Fenway Racing. While that never happened, the way the No. 31 is performing now is giving him a sudden opportunity to make up for lost time.

Honorable Mention

Kevin Harvick – Still holds a 69-point lead in the standings after three top-10s at arguably his two worst tracks: Darlington and Dover. Hopefully, that’s enough of a mention to keep DeLana from punching me in the face.

Joe Gibbs Racing – See above. It actually got to the point where Rick Hendrick said Gibbs had “lapped him” this week after five wins in seven races. Really? I didn’t know there was a car owner series in NASCAR. Are they racing their Rolls Royces on top of a track made with their own money? Who wouldn’t want to see Rick Hendrick spin out Jack Roush, then see Roush to throw his hat at Hendrick in disgust? Someone should think about making this happen.

WARM

Ryan Newman – So much has been made of Tony Stewart’s struggles, you forget Newman’s quietly working his way up the standings for a second straight year. A quiet but consistent 13th at Dover is his sixth top 15 in the last seven races, leaving him on the precipice of the top 12 in 13th. Now, it’s on to Charlotte, where he has seven career poles and an average finish of 6.5 in a Stewart-Haas car. We all know Tony loves Ryan after his Phoenix victory; now, it’s time to see how much Newman returns the bromance with his teammate struggling. And again, making mention to the Hendrick “struggles” above, they still have all six of their chassis and engine cars in the top 16 in the Cup standings (with Dale Earnhardt Jr. bringing up the rear).

Martin Truex Jr. – There was no better way for Truex to move into a Chase spot than by doing it at his home track. Site of his lone Cup Series win in 2007, a 12th-place finish ironically boosted the New Jersey native into the 12th and final spot in the Chase. Yet considering the way NAPA stuck with Michael Waltrip and his marketing gold mine of a personality through thick and thin, you wonder how much they’re truly enjoying a borderline Chaser whose lone addition to their off-track profile is some really bad karaoke. I will say this much, though; if the execs in the boardroom aren’t convinced yet, just wait until they actually make the Chase for the first time and see that their car actually makes it on the radar screen after the second week in September.

Honorable Mention

Matt Kenseth – Sunday might have been a turning point after his post-Jeff Gordon knocking him out of a win at Martinsville career. In true Gordon fashion, it took two months to recover.

Carl Edwards – Four straight top-15 finishes, including an eighth at Dover. But he always runs well there, so it’s hard to gauge how much better this team really is.

COOL

AJ Allmendinger – Has had one of the faster cars on the grid the last few weeks and never got a chance to show it. It started with the Talladega Russian roulette wheel, where he was in the top five with 10 laps to go only to fall in the wrong line during a series of green-white-checkered finishes. Then, that 19th-place run was followed soon after by a Darlington race where he had another top-10 car at worst. It’s just the brakes had other ideas, taking him out along with Johnson in an awkward 37th-place finish that left 100 points on the table. Add in Dover this weekend, where he ran as high as second until a botched pit stop and a speeding penalty left him languishing in 14th, and you’ve got to think one of the sport’s most emotional drivers is getting a little frustrated behind the scenes. I guess now’s not the right time to tell him about Richard Petty Motorsports’ mounting pile of debt?

Mark Martin – We’ve toyed with the idea for weeks there’s something wrong at the No. 5 car. And after running a legit 15th at Dover – the equivalent of a last-place finish for a guy who hypes this racetrack to the point you think he’s part-owner – you know something just isn’t clicking. The risk you always take when you take a healthy team and you try and make a sick one better is that you wind up making both of them sick. And considering the way Earnhardt Jr. and Martin have performed as of late, you have to wonder if the awkward chemistry of the No. 88 is bringing their counterparts in the same shop down with them.

Honorable Mention

Kasey Kahne – See Kasey run. See Kasey run bad. See team make resumes in their spare time while losing interest as he prepares for a life at Hendrick Motorsports.

David Ragan – With so many sponsors bailing, he’s got to be happy UPS’s contract lasts through 2011 with the way things have been going. You just wonder if Roush is going to follow through on cutting his short.

COLD

Sam Hornish Jr. – Penske keeps standing behind his man as someone who’s going to drive in Cup far into the future. But this team has a history of making news when it wants, denying possible changes until the very last minute despite several rumors to the contrary. And murmurs are building that after another year filled with crashes, we’re going to see this open-wheel star return to the series in which he really belongs. No matter how many IndyCar championships he’s won, it’s hard to sell a potential sponsor on a man who has just one top-15 in 12 starts this season… unless you’re Waltrip.

Marcos Ambrose – Remember when we thought the Tasmanian Devil would add a little spice to the Chase? Instead, he’s busy chasing virtually every other competitor in the 43-car field. Sunday’s multiple wrecks at the Monster Mile led to his fourth DNF in a dozen 2010 races. That equals the same total he had in his first 47 Cup starts, a shocking result to an organization that entered the season with more funding and seemingly more momentum than their two pseudo-teammates. Instead, it’s a question of when Ambrose will stop being a train wreck and actually turn that train back in the right direction. Infineon? Watkins Glen? Either one is way too late.

Honorable Mention

Bobby Labonte – Seeing a former NASCAR champion park his car was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in this sport. At some point, you’d think pride and not $$ will force Labonte’s hand and he’ll take a trip to the rocking chair instead.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – I’ll get into specifics about his tenure with Lance McGrew later this week. But when you’re bringing the car down pit road and nothing’s actually wrong, well, it’s kind of hard to blame the crew completely, isn’t it?

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