Pssst… pay attention! Don’t make me blow a vuvuzela in your ear. I know you’re still fast asleep, stuck on the couch after that Michigan snoozer. But guess what? Every race pays the same amount of points, no matter how exciting or boring it is. Plenty of teams ran the emotional gambit of happiness and hell during your nap, working their way up the typical list of Hot / Not categories. It’s something we have to sit here and analyze just as much as the three-wide, heart-fluttering Truck Series finish at Michigan the day before.
So stop groaning, saddle up, and look back before the official summer stretch begins in the beauty of wine country. Just don’t tell your boss you’re reading; he’s still looking for you after you didn’t show up for work today…
*Denny Hamlin* – Clearly, the momentum tilts Hamlin’s way right now, with career-best numbers registered in multiple categories. Among them: Wins (5), Average Finish (11.8), and DNFs (zero at this point in the year). That last stat is what keeps me hesitant, though, in jumping on the Denny Hamlin plane to a championship that sold out on Orbitz sometime once the No. 11 pulled into Victory Lane Sunday. (Side note: Can we stop anointing greatness before it actually happens? Between Stephen Strasburg of Major League Baseball, Tim Tebow of the NFL, and Hamlin, I’m about ready to pull my hair out.)
For all we know, Hamlin’s going to wreck in the next five races, miss the Chase, and be headed towards a second surgery with the doctor and his pesky ACL. Sounds unlikely, but then again, no one thought he’d pull a five wins-in-ten race miracle in the middle of this whole operation, right? My point is we need to calm down, take a deep breath, and see how the No. 11 does throughout this summer stretch. At some point, they will hit that month-long slump that haunts even the best champions: Earnhardt, Johnson, and Stewart all had them during their title-winning years. Once it hits, how will the No. 11 bunch react? When Kyle Busch becomes a true title rival and not a one-week nuisance during an exhibition race, how does the shop stay focused on a common goal? These are the questions that won’t be answered until sometime around mid-September. So until then, sit back, relax, and just see how many wins Hamlin can rack up as he works towards the top seed in the playoffs. My guess, looking at the rest of the schedule, is eight.
*Kurt Busch* – Busch had a brilliant first 100 miles Sunday, and for all we know half the fan base still thinks he won after falling asleep sometime after that first caution. But while the No. 2 couldn’t keep up with the No. 11 when it counted, another podium finish (third) was plenty good enough to build distance between him and 13th place in the standings. If there’s any man who’s proof positive Joe Gibbs Racing should keep their confidence in check, it’s Busch. Following Daytona last July, he sat fourth, 313 points ahead of Mark Martin in the standings. But by August, two untimely wrecks followed by a sudden bout with inconsistency cut that gap to 95, leaving him vulnerable all the way through the last race of the regular season at Richmond. While crew chief Steve Addington is new, he’s also well aware of the dangers after being the 13th-place man last year, losing out by eight points with Kyle Busch in 2009. That means in this camp, the message is clear: every point counts, and consistency is key to survival. With eight straight top-20 finishes, looks like they’re right on track to reach their goals.
*Honorable Mention:* Dropping the Splitter off the CoT – about time, “I Wear The Firesuit In My Family” T-Shirts, U.S. Soccer post-England, The NASCAR Baby Boom (now it’s Wendy Venturini having a kid), and JacquesDebris on Twitter (he apologized for causing the Michigan caution Sunday – you can’t make this stuff up)
*Tony Stewart* – Just two weeks ago, I wrote how June would be the make-or-break month for Stewart’s 2010. Predictions are like the lotto, but with this one I seemed to hit on all the right numbers – just without winning the millions that go with it. From fiery comments about his fellow drivers to back-to-back top-5 finishes on-track, Stewart has emerged from the doldrums this June, becoming the outspoken force his team needs to set their season straight. In the meantime, losing two distractions – Kahne’s potential home for 2011 combined with the running of last Wednesday’s Eldora Prelude to the Dream – leaves him free to concentrate on the most important piece of his future: the Cup program. Already up to 11th in the standings, the No. 14 is strengthening their Chase position I no longer expect them to relinquish.
*Jeff Burton* – In the news more for his emotional outbursts than on-track success lately, the No. 31 team is quietly working on the consistency they’ve lacked at times this season. Sure, Burton hasn’t had a winning car the last two weeks, but runs of seventh and eighth have quieted the crowd and kept him out of the spotlight for joining the Finger Pointing Hall of Fame. And if you take that Busch-Burton debacle out of the mix at Charlotte, this program has five top-10 finishes, 51 laps led, and no start worse than 17th over the past six weeks. Are those championship numbers? Not quite. But they’re building blocks heading into a summer where Richard Childress can fine-tune the pieces needed to bring home a title for his veteran.
*Joey Logano* – Sure, Kevin and DeLana Harvick took the bull by the horns following that awkward Pocono post-race with Logano. After marketing a line of T-Shirts, then putting forth a blistering review of the year’s most meddlesome parent you’d think Harvick’s haughty boasts would leave Joey down for the count.
Hardly. This sophomore responded by holding firm, never apologizing while letting the on-track performances do the talking. When the smoke cleared, it was the youngster who won the latest round of this fight, running 10th opposed to Harvick’s 19th while closing to within 107 points of the Chase. Add in a Saturday Kentucky win, and despite all the controversy, this young man’s moving forward without so much as skipping a beat. There’re still lessons to learn in public relations – not canceling day-after interviews would have been a good start following that mess – but it’s clear this incident won’t derail his chances to make the playoffs. Harvick and Joey fighting for the same season-ending trophy? It’d be a fantastic subplot come September … we can only hope.
*Honorable Mention:* Infineon this weekend (Forecast in the 80’s), The FR9 engine (no DNFs in its full-field debut … just not wins), the buildup towards Danica Patrick’s return (now one week away), Aric Almirola’s stock (second Truck Series win has some teams raising eyebrows for 2011)
*Carl Edwards* – Here’s the good news: Edwards remains in good spirits following one of the most frustrating seasons of his career. I’m continually impressed by how his public persona doesn’t change: whether it’s sixth or 36th, he refuses to blame the crew or poor simulations for this extended slump. But the No. 99 bunch has to be lashing out in private over plenty of issues, including that late-race debris caution that hurt them over anyone else. In this case, whether it should have been thrown is irrelevant; the bottom line is it took a top-5 finish away and handed them a disappointing 12th. That’s the third such finish outside the top 10, worrisome since this streak happened at three of Carl’s best tracks: Charlotte, Pocono, and Michigan. Now, the Cup Series heads to Sonoma and Loudon, places that produce an ugly track record of just four top-10 finishes in 16 career starts for Cousin Carl. Close enough to the bubble already, simply surviving within the top 12 should be the goal here through the end of the month.
*Jamie McMurray* – McMurray’s season is reminiscent of the type he endured at Ganassi in 2004 and 2005. This time, he’s been able to get over the hump and head to Victory Lane, but the feast or famine mentality remains throughout a troubling inconsistency that may doom his chances for the Chase. Sunday was a troubling waste, a front row starting spot turned into a 24th-place disaster of a day. Yet it fits right in with the roller-coaster last six runs from this program: 19, 2, 32, 2, 36, 24. Trust me, that doesn’t unlock the code to put him inside NASCAR’s 12-man playoff.
*Honorable Mention:* Sam Hornish, Jr. when he’s in dirty air, Nationwide Series regulars (let the Cup guys run 1-2-3 at Nashville and Kentucky), Martin Truex, Jr. (NAPA “No How” to run at big tracks), races that end in under three hours (those are actually cool – don’t know a single person upset about it)
*Red Bull Racing* – It was bad enough Brian Vickers is out for the season with blood clots. But for his interim replacement Casey Mears to spin out Scott Speed at Michigan? Seriously? At the same track where the No. 83 won a year ago, rock bottom seemed to be too light of a term for the depths of despair growing inside Red Bull Racing’s walls. The ever-optimistic Speed was OK after having some time to calm down, but six straight runs of 20th or worse is clearly listed as unacceptable after winding up 28th.
As for Mears … you’d think his friendship with Vickers makes taking him out of the seat nearly impossible the rest of the year. But after that awkward incident, he ran into David Ragan on pit road, broke a spindle, and then hit the wall with ten laps left after a flat left-front tire. That leaves him yet to finish inside the top 20 with a program Vickers took to Victory Lane; and with one-race replacement Mattias Ekstrom showing up at Infineon, GM Jay Frye has some time to ponder a change. Will it happen? I don’t think so … but it’s a far closer call than anyone expected.
*Front Row Motorsports* – Sure, Travis Kvapil’s 150-point penalty, combined with a handful of 12-race suspensions left the No. 38 team in a bind for Michigan and beyond. But a program that was supposed to be markedly better in 2010 has struggled to capitalize on some promising starts. Kevin Conway is an absolute mess, recording a 40th-place mechanical DNF Sunday; it’s his latest misstep in a rookie year that has yet to include a lead-lap finish. And while Kvapil and David Gilliland are capable veterans, neither one has scored a top-20 finish since Kvapil did so at Talladega the end of April. Clearly, the overall struggles within Ford Motor Company have hindered this group’s overall development. But considering owner Jenkins finds himself footing much of the bill, how much longer will he tolerate his cars being the slowest in the field not to start-and-park?
*Honorable Mention:* Adam Sandler / Kevin James (what the heck type of “start your engines” call was that?), England’s soccer goalie, road course ringers (just a handful hired for Infineon), TRG Motorsports’ future (money sorely needed)