NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Post-Pocono Feud Edition

Much has been written about Denny Hamlin’s late-race charge to the front, but Pocono’s action-packed ending only had room for so many to make a comeback. For every Hamlin and Kyle Busch, there were two Kasey Kahnes who saw a top-five finish blow up in the form of wrong cautions at the wrong time, not enough Sunoco and an untimely trip through the air on the final lap.

OK, so maybe that last one just happened to Kahne; but for several others, that vicious multi-car wreck left the Sprint Cup garage looking more like your local junkyard after the race. Whose season is heading towards the trash heap along with it? Let’s put on our own Who’s Hot/Who’s Not firesuit, not DeLana’s, and sort through the wreckage to find the diamonds and dust in the rough.

HOT

Joe Gibbs Racing – Even the best teams have their own damage control to deal with this week. After being on the verge of a 1-2-5 finish, Gibbs will spend the next few days keeping Joey Logano in hiding, letting him cool off from the Kevin Harvick brouhaha that turned a penchant for taking the high road into a high-pitched temper tantrum that aged him from 12 to 20 in a heartbeat. Should they have canceled Monday interviews for a boy who technically became a man, well, two years ago? Probably not, but let’s not dwell on it; there will be enough written about Logano this week. The bigger on-track story is Busch and Hamlin catching fire ahead of him, combining to win six of the last nine Cup races. In the process, they’ve surged from outside the top 12 to second and third, respectively, sharing the Burger King birthday crown of Jimmie Johnson’s biggest challenger each week. Will they hold the throne three months from today, when such accolades actually start to matter? Who knows. But if nothing else in 2010, they’ve added more hardware to their trophy case than most teams will earn in a career.

Jimmie Johnson – I’m just in a mood to get people all riled up. I know you’re yelling, but before you start to argue, let’s take Johnson’s name out of it. Where would you put someone who has 261 laps led in the last three races, including a top-five finish in that stretch? At times, Johnson appeared to have the fastest car at Pocono, too, but suffered from a poor 25th-place starting spot that never gave him the track position needed to challenge up front. Considering the late-race shenanigans that reminded me of the old inverting the field in the All-Star Race, Johnson could have easily ended up 25th. Instead, he joined Hamlin, Busch and Harvick as perhaps the only drivers to avoid the ugly fate of seeing a solid run torn to pieces with NASCAR’s bad timing on their competition … err, debris cautions.

Maybe in truth, Johnson’s more towards the “warm” category as others are running circles around him in victory lane; after all, you can’t claim to have a winning car if you don’t actually finish the job. But how about that “JJ is struggling” storyline I heard pounded into every top-12 press conference this weekend? I think some people might have been a little bit off base; like it or not, the No. 48 remains a force to be reckoned with that’s far from landing on the Chase bubble.

Honorable Mention: Harvick’s patience with 20-year-old drivers – especially those whose last names begin with the letter L, Gil Martin (angry over his crew pinned by Logano’s No. 20 Chevy), Pocono before the rain delay, Simona de Silvestro’s IndyCar (for far too long), trendy YouTube ideas to fix the oil spill – none of which BP is paying attention to.

WARM

AJ Allmendinger – He certainly didn’t win over the teenage girl crowd with his last-lap block of Kahne. But ever so quietly, the ‘Dinger is building the type of consistency that’s been lacking inside the Richard Petty Motorsports shop of chaos. He now has three consecutive top 15s for the first time since Texas-Phoenix-Homestead last year, a stretch that marked his first three starts in a Ford that had so many thinking “breakout year” for him. Instead, after a lackluster season he’s got to worry about the team breaking apart in the wake of this latest melee; although you also wonder, with Kahne a lame duck is it even worth bothering for the ‘Dinger to kiss and make up? Maybe his wonderful Canadian wife could offer a free chiropractic massage as a compromise? Kahne’s got to be in pain after spending three years doing nothing but carrying this team on his back.

Clint Bowyer – Lagging behind his Richard Childress Racing teammates, Bowyer came out of nowhere at Pocono, dominating the race’s first half by leading more laps (59) than he had led the entire season up to that point (49). A bout with the outside wall dinged up Bowyer’s Chevy, his confidence, and left him with only a ninth-place finish on a day he could have had so much more. But when you look at the big picture, back-to-back top 10s when some of the other Chase bubble drivers have struggled leaves him back inside the top 12. Right in line with his regular season philosophy of “make the Chase” before he starts making noise, the No. 33 team is right where they want to be heading toward a trio of tracks – Michigan, Infineon and Loudon – that have been very good to him in the past.

Honorable Mention: Fake driver Twitter accounts (@OldKyleBusch vs @NewKyleBusch), Sam Hornish Jr. (season-best 11th after fuel strategy put him up front late at Pocono), Paul Menard (back-to-back top 20s for the first time since the first six races), Wal-Mart (rumors heating up they’re looking at NASCAR, the biggest “duh” sponsorship deal since Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Budweiser)

COOL

Jeff Gordon – You know how celebrity deaths come in threes? With Jeff Burton and then Logano losing their cool, you wonder if Gordon’s next after two months’ worth of driving winning cars ended in zero trips to victory lane. As predicted, you can only stay on top of this sport for so long, and now the No. 24 team is paying the price for those missed opportunities after getting mired in a slump that’s left them 11th, sixth and 32nd the last three weeks with only three laps led. Quietly noticeable in the wake of the Harvick-Logano fiasco is Gordon pointing at a reporter to send them in Kahne’s direction after both were a part of a last-lap wreck; he quickly waved off an interview himself while breaking out in a run to the Hendrick hauler. To me, that’s the latest sign of building frustration after a 43-race drought that keeps piling up. And as if things can’t get any worse, just look at the Michigan results from last year, where Gordon earned himself a season sweep… of finishing in the runner-up slot.

Greg Biffle – After a solid start to 2010, Biffle’s the latest Ford driver to get stuck in a rut. Runs of 32nd and 28th the last two weeks, both for wrecks, have taken the wind out of the sails of a once championship-contending team who now finds themselves sitting squarely on the Chase bubble. Can the Biff turn that frown upside down? Seeing as he never smiles, probably not. However, he does have two career wins at Michigan, meaning there’s no better track to finally put the Blue Oval’s 0-for winning streak – and Biffle’s 58-race victory drought – behind him. The clock is ticking….

Honorable Mention: Pocono post-thunderstorm (Thank God), Pocono Raceway officials (seriously, they’re totally cool, as in rad; saved me during an embarrassing moment Sunday morning), pavement tearing up on the racetrack (two in one year is too many), Martin Truex Jr. (not riding the recent momentum of Philadelphia Flyers success)

COLD

Elliott Sadler – If there’s any better example of RPM’s dysfunctional family, it’s a driver who’s only in the seat because of threatening a lawsuit over a possible divorce. Too costly to work through the court system, the team’s patiently awaiting his expiring contract in what’s been one of the most disappointing pairings in recent history. Consider that since signing the contract extension Sadler inked in May, 2008, he’s led just 78 laps in 74 starts, an average of one lap per race while racking up only three top-five finishes. If I were him, I’d make sure not to miss a Trackside episode the second half of the season; he may need to make it a backup employment option for when February 2011 comes around.

David Ragan – Talk about getting off on the wrong foot this month. Rumors persist that if sponsor UPS doesn’t bolt to Richard Childress Racing, they’re demanding a change in the No. 6 car for 2011 because of how much Ragan has underachieved. This weekend didn’t help his cause; he hit other drivers not once, but twice at Pocono, ending the day of Jamie McMurray in the process of trying to audition for Roush’s full-time Nationwide ride-a-wrecks. And then, there’s that ugly term we call the “bottom line,” which in Ragan’s case is filled with three straight runs of 24th or worse that have all but ended his shot at the 2010 Chase. Remember when he almost made the darn playoff at Richmond a couple of years ago? Are we sure it wasn’t father Ken driving the car as an imposter that year?

Honorable Mention: Start-and-parks infiltrating NASCAR (a season-high seven at Pocono, with perhaps more on the way this weekend), Geoffrey Bodine and Bobby Labonte (NASCAR legends who participated in said S&P practice), Ted Musgrave (missed the race with Robby Gordon’s No. 7 in aborted comeback Cup attempt), Robby Gordon (DNQ for his No. 7 team was their first in five years)

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