Technically, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circus didn’t take last week off. But after a 100-lap, four-segment exhibition where only the last 15 minutes seemed worth watching, it’s hard to add to those regular-season trends which typically define this Hot/Not column.
So just like everyone else is about to do this Memorial Day Weekend, let’s take a break and celebrate the start of BBQ season by going on vacation. Between Nationwide, Trucks and IndyCar, there’s plenty of places looking for some summer lovin’, and we’ll do our best here on Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.
Todd Bodine – For a while, The Onion was just a funny newspaper whose Manhattan offices used to be in the same building as mine back in the day (how cool is that?? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here to get your fix. But all of a sudden, racing’s youngest Bodine brother is busy making some noise again. A runner-up Charlotte finish handed the point lead to this bald-headed talent, the coolest thing to happen to the Bodines since brother Geoff gave us an Olympic gold medal with his bobsled. What’s so surprising about Todd in 2010? He’s doing it with Terry Labonte-style consistency, not the Kyle Busch-like aggressiveness that earned him a second nickname back in the day: cue ball. Apart from a Martinsville mechanical problem, he’s got six top-five finishes despite just 40 laps led in seven starts. Mr. Hornaday, we have a challenge….
Penske Racing in All Walks of Life – Here’s a fun fact: no car owner has ever won the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. Could Roger Penske be the first? Hours after seeing his cars sweep three of the top-four spots at Indianapolis, he swooped in to watch Kurt Busch’s No. 2 Dodge take advantage of opportunity in Charlotte. Talk about a perfect day….
In the shocking department, it’s also the newest item on clearance. Believe it or not, that was his first Cup win at the 1.5-mile oval where he’s a combined 0-for-72 in points-paying events. It’s quite a contrast from his Indy dominance, where his 16 pole positions combine with 15 wins to form a Richard Petty-like record book that won’t be breached.
Considering the Penske/Ganassi show that is the IndyCar circuit these days, the car owner has virtually a 50/50 shot at adding another chapter to his IndyCar legend. And if Jimmie Johnson has a bad pit stop again… look for Busch to put a rubber stamp on a new record.
Brian Scott – In a stock car world so rough for driver development these days that the Cup Rookie of the Year Award is getting purchased by a sexual enhancement pill, there’s someone who’s growing comfortably into his own NASCAR skin. One of the few rookies showcasing steady, consistent growth, Scott now has two top-10 finishes in 11 starts to slip into 10th place in Nationwide points. More importantly, he hasn’t chosen to use his opportunity to become a giant wrecking ball unlike his fellow freshman classmates. He has just one wreck-related DNF, and has failed to finish on the lead lap just three times as he focused on bringing the car home in one piece. Too bad that with the Cup guys in there, the third-highest Nationwide-only driver is already about 15 laps down in the championship chase.
Aric Almirola – Sometimes, you need to take a step back in order to go forward. Looking back, the best thing Almirola ever did was quit Phoenix Racing and James Finch shortly after their Sprint Cup sponsorship fell through. He could have spent the year starting and parking, making millions like several others while putting the future of his own development on hold.
Instead, Almirola went the championship route, choosing a full-time focus on the Truck Series level with a team run by Billy Ballew capable of giving him top-tier equipment. Two months later, he’s not only won a race but sits second in points with six top-10 finishes, one more than the five top-20s earned in his part-time Cup Series career (30 starts in all). Over across the way, Phoenix is sitting in tatters, the Cup and Nationwide program up For Sale as owner James Finch starts searching for the door. And people think start-and-parking is a way to keep your career alive? Think again.
Steve Wallace – Remember that story about Wallace going Cup racing sometime this year? Maybe he should try finishing in the top five in his own series first. Driving for one of the few teams armed with money to play with the major leaguers, one of the top minor-league teams has yet to finish better than sixth in a year where Wallace was supposed to take the next step and contend for a title. Instead, there appears to be regression in a career resume that reads just three top-five finishes, 51 laps led and 21 DNFs in 133 career starts. Ouch. Could you imagine if Kevin Conway or Paul Menard had that type of track record? They’d be fir … oh wait, I forgot. This trio shares the comfort level either offered by a rich daddy, or a sex … you know what, we already went there. Let’s move on.
Brian Ickler – How would you feel if your car owner just went on record as saying his team costs too much? I’d be afraid of a pink slip, too, which is why he just ran across the way and into the arms of Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series. In some ways, Ickler can’t do much worse than Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who’ve torn up enough sheetmetal to start their own crash museum. But as the new kid in town, third on that totem pole, you wonder how many Nationwide starts he’ll wind up with? Four? Five? A side job producing Carl Edwards’s workout video?
Yeah, I understand the man’s fighting for his racing life. It’s just he was third at Martinsville in KBM equipment; hard to leave that and put yourself in a part-time situation where you don’t ever know how much support you’re going to get.
Danica Patrick – Honestly, I don’t think you could draw up a worse start to 2010 for Danica. Consider that in an IndyCar, it’s been nearly a year since her last top-five finish, a fifth at Richmond last June. The Indy 500 was supposed to stop that slump. Instead, she berated her crew after a 23rd-best qualifying effort that very nearly got bumped during the wildest Bump Day at Indianapolis since the turn of the century. Don’t believe me? She only ended up with the 29th-fastest time out of 37 cars who made a qualifying attempt. Not exactly something to hang your hat on when you’re supposed to be one of the Race Day favorites.
Add in the NASCAR struggles, and racing’s GoDaddy girl is suddenly on the verge of a PR nightmare. Patrick claims her stock car foray – two Nationwide DNFs in three starts – hasn’t been a distraction, and it’s true all of Andretti Autosport seems out of sync (Marco Andretti was the fastest-qualifying car in 16th). But with three other women in the 33-car field, Patrick runs the risk of getting overshadowed on Sunday, leaving some nervous NASCAR execs sitting on a marketing bubble that could be bursting right before our eyes.
Baker/Curb Racing – One of the mainstays in the Nationwide Series, the team lost its longtime sponsor Kleenex the end of last season along with its veteran leader in Jason Keller. They recovered nicely at first, with Greg Biffle, Johnny Sauter and others challenging for wins with an old school sponsor in RedMan backing the No. 27. It seemed like everything would be OK… until the U.S. government sent it all crashing down. A new rule prohibiting chewing tobacco sponsorship has RedMan heading off the car and the team’s future in question, even an overachieving second car driven by Scott Lagasse Jr. A telling sign was no participation in the new Car of Tomorrow test at Daytona this month. After all, why put one out on the track if you don’t have the money to compete. Uttering the dreaded “start-and-park” word a few weeks ago, it’s the latest sign of the times in a series where all the non-Cup teams are headed the way of the Dodo Bird unless NASCAR does something.