The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is typically the busiest day of the year for auto racing in America.
Memorial Day itself? It’s a time to relax and procrastinate (as well as honor our troops), which is why this column is getting penned while sitting on a couch shortly after midnight. But I’m not the only one needing a break; after a 600-mile NASCAR marathon, several superstars found themselves chewed up and spit out by the “Beast of the Southeast.” From Juan Pablo Montoya to Jimmie Johnson, no one was immune to the trickiness of the 1.5-mile oval. The track combined with a slippery spoiler and a heat wave that made a Mark Martin workout seem tame, eating up contenders the way Dover’s Monster Mile failed to do two weeks prior.
The race also marked the halfway point in this year’s 26-race dash towards the playoffs. Who survived the carnage to put themselves in perfect position for the long summer stretch ahead? We’ll answer that question, while putting the pieces back together on many a superstar’s wrecked race car in the post-Charlotte, post-BBQ edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
Kyle Busch – Yeah, it’s his brother who stole the show ahead of him in leading 252 of 400 laps at Charlotte. But it’s nights like the one Kyle had Sunday that build his title-contending resume. After knocking heads and cars with Brad Keselowski on pit road, Busch discovered a new word in his vocabulary – patience – in taking the time to let crew chief Dave Rogers work with him on fixing the car. And wouldn’t you know it, sometimes good things really do come to those who wait. A third-place finish marked his seventh consecutive top-10 finish in the Cup Series; during that stretch, he’s led a total of 557 laps, won twice, and charged from 16th to second in Cup points. Just think, he’s done all that despite starting a family feud within his own organization AND angering one of the sport’s most respected veterans in Jeff Burton. Lots of people get angry when Busch gets compared to Dale Earnhardt, but the two are beginning to share the same attribute of simply not caring who they piss off and when. In the past, Kyle would put on a public front yet seemingly waver in private with his emotions. Now? I’m not sure exactly who or what is going to stop his growing confidence.
Kevin Harvick – Typically, an 11th-place finish doesn’t earn you elite status on this list. That is, unless you earn it at a place where you have three such career finishes in the past nine years. Charlotte has been the track Harvick’s dreams go to die, leading just two laps there his entire career (just think about that for a second; he’s no spring chicken) while collecting five awful performances of 31st or worse. For him to finish that high, fighting back from an unscheduled pit stop that for a time left the car trapped a lap down, speaks volumes to how far his Richard Childress Racing team has come with consistency. In the month of May, they rattled off top 11s at three of Harvick’s weakest tracks (Charlotte, Dover, and Darlington) while protecting a points lead that now stands at the oh-so-ironic 29 headed to tracks this team could actually win at. Who would have guessed that 13 races in, this program would not only be your championship leader but already remarried into a long-term partnership for 2011 and beyond?
I see your hand up. Don’t lie. One person in Vegas is a very wealthy man; and the rest of us? That’s why it’s called Sin City.
Honorable Mentions: Dario Franchitti (Indy 500 winner), Ashley Judd (Indy 500 tabloid fodder), America over the oil spill (how in the hell is that not fixed?), Burton (although not for good reason), Hendrick Motorsports pit strategy (Martin fourth, Jeff Gordon sixth after staying out late in the race, sweeping under the rug the fact neither one seemed to run worth a damn all day)
Kurt Busch – How could Sunday’s winner be sitting stuck on a mid-level floor? It’s not just the fact I didn’t realize the Miller Lite I picked out of the cooler was warm the other day (Mental Note: Liquids need more than 10 minutes to cool). No, instead the Blue Deuce doesn’t live up to its number; putting two solid finishes together is more of a struggle than it should be. Allow me to read off the last eight finishes for Kurt: 23rd, 35th, fourth, 8th, 18th, 3rd, 19th, first. Not exactly the numbers Johnson uses to polish the hardware of his championship trophy, right?
Don’t get me wrong, now; what Busch did this weekend was fantastic, leading 252 laps while denying Chip Ganassi history and earning the first point-paying win at Charlotte for Roger Penske. Clearly, he’s reasserted himself as a possible title contender to watch. But all those trips to victory lane won’t make up for all those 35th-place finishes the race after. This team needs to put its head to the grindstone and remember a little magic each week goes a long way under this point system.
David Reutimann – Now, don’t get the Aaron’s Dream Machine working up that racing fantasy just yet. But after being left for dead, three DNFs seemingly deeming 2010 “The Mechanical Massacre” for this veteran, the man they call The Franchise is suddenly beginning to mount a comeback. A fifth-place finish at Charlotte gives him back-to-back top fives for the first time in his Cup career, impressive especially considering both teammates ran like they had an anchor attached to them all night. Now 19th in points, he stands just 125 markers outside the Chase, armed with five consecutive top 15s and heading to a track where he ran third in the same race last June. What a comeback for a guy who spent the first four months as an afterthought within a team he’s kept on the map through sheer grit and determination.
Honorable Mentions: Charlotte (WAY too hot for this time of year), the media center after way too many paparazzi snapped camera shots of the A-team (I’m also now partially blind), Paul Menard on 1.5-mile tracks (first top 10 since Atlanta in March)
Juan Pablo Montoya – Putting together a classic case of why you can’t lose too much ground too early. After four top-six finishes in five weeks, the Colombian had us properly tricked he might contend for the Chase this year after all. But two straight DNFs, one for luck, one for driver error, have negated those gains while dropping him 176 behind 12th place at the halfway mark. More importantly, he remains 20th in the standings and will be forced to leapfrog several quality drivers above him to make it, including teammate Jamie McMurray. Last year’s trendy darkhorse pick could be this year’s “crashing to the ground with a thud” unless a win comes sometime in the next few weeks.
Bill Elliott – I know it’s a bit of a random choice, but weren’t you expecting a little more out of Awesome Bill this season? Combine the new FR9 engine with the promise the Wood Brothers showed at the end of 2010, and it seemed like the No. 21 was poised to be Ford’s experimental success. Instead, they’ve largely regressed, with Elliott posting just one top-20 finish to go along with runs of 25th, 27th and 27th. Turning 55 in October, you wonder if Father Time finally is starting to tap the 1988 Cup champ on the shoulder and say, “Let’s Go.”
Honorable Mentions: The cast of the A-Team (cool to see in person, cool reception considering the ‘80s movie is going to be so much better and they turned their guest appearance at the race into the equivalent of a 15-minute segment on E!), everyone driving a Ford (no one ran in the top five Sunday), Kasey Kahne (when you’re 12th at a track where you’re usually an automatic contender to win… you know the team’s in lame duck mode)
Marcos Ambrose – The new spoiler doesn’t seem to sit well with Australians these days. Struggling to find the handle lately, this sophomore has now collected three crash-collected DNFs, causing four cautions in the last two races alone. Now armed with five early trips to the garage, just eight races running at the finish marks the lowest total of anyone in the series not starting-and-parking. You have to feel some sort of change within this team is coming, especially since they’re putting themselves in position to fall outside the Top 35 in owner points. Right now, it’s clear the issues are compounding themselves by Ambrose overcompensating for an ill-handling car; and in racing, he’s proof positive there are tough consequences for trying just a little bit too hard each week.
Robby Gordon – Could this be the beginning of the end? Gordon turned the wall into his own personal pancake mix at CMS, cooking up quite a healthy batter while turning the right side of his car into mush over most of the 600-mile distance. That left him 33rd, dropping outside the Top 35 and now sponsorless heading to races in June that are difficult to near-impossible to find funding for. The last three weeks have produced three straight runs outside the top 30, with no sense of urgency combined with internal strife leaving this group on the ragged edge of disaster going forward.