Don’t you just love summer vacations? For me, the countdown is on; I’m just 48 hours from sitting on a beach, turning off the cell phone, and forgetting about the world for a few. Sure, I’m sad to miss the 400-mile melee at Daytona Beach – my favorite track to visit on the circuit – but it’ll be nice to watch it on a beach of my own, for pleasure without having to take notes every two minutes. At least once a year, I think everyone needs a little time away to fall in love with what you do all over again.
If only struggling athletes could stop their schedules and insert that same luxury. At this point in our season, there are plenty of NASCAR drivers looking for a little vacation of their own, in various states of disrepair during seasons that have spiraled out of control. Only half the field is left with a realistic shot at the playoffs, the rest already busy either fighting for a 2011 contract or simply trying to finish out the year in one piece. Sure, they’re making a lot of money in the process, but they’ll also spend the next four months being miserable doing it. I’ve had more than one guy tell me going through an underachieving season is the worst type of pressure imaginable; can you imagine being a part of the racing tabloids while your team goes through disrepair? As 2009 Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be the first one to tell you, it’s the type of pressure you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and the worst part is you’re powerless to fix it – waking up every day dreading to read the headlines, then going to the track on the weekend armed with a car you know can’t contend.
So as we get into our usual look at drivers on both sides of the fence, I raise a glass to those whose seasons have gone ice cold. Daytona’s one of the few places where everyone starts on pretty much the same playing field; here’s to hoping they have one phenomenal weekend to hold onto during what’s bound to be a final four months filled with torture.
Alright, on to the Hot/Not drivers of the week…
Kevin Harvick – With three top-five finishes the last four weeks, Harvick’s on cruise control towards his first “regular-season” points title. Of course, nowadays that earns you nothing more than a five-minute photo op and a peck on the cheek from Miss Sprint Cup. It leaves Harvick relaxing on the side, playing a whole lot of golfing bromance with his Business Manager @mother_function (you tweeps know what I’m talking about) while patiently waiting for September to come around.
Two things concern me going forward, though. Number one is crew chief Gil Martin’s admission they’re taking the next few weeks to “score some points.” Umm… Gil? Have you checked out the standings? Earnhardt Jr. is 13th, 472 points behind. It’s over! The playoff berth is yours! I know it would be nice to pretend you’re holding a trophy, but the bottom line is first or 12th doesn’t matter: making the Chase is making the Chase. So regular season title be damned; instead, this team needs to take some chances and work on worry number two: winning. Did you know Harvick has averaged less than one lap led in the last 11 races? If he faces Jimmie Johnson with that type of golfing handicap, he’ll be chased off the course by the second hole.
Tony Stewart – Where there’s Smoke, there’s fire. At this point, it’s a four-alarm blaze in the form of four top-10 finishes this June, knocking on the door of a Chase bid again while righting the ship of an ugly start. Yes, Stewart’s still standing there without a win, but would you believe he’s Saturday night’s defending champ? Talk about peaking at the right time.
One other note about Stewart: you know he’s happy when he goes through an entire weekend without pissing off the media. Funny how good finishes make it easy to handle his version of a “stupid question….”
Honorable Mention: Johnson (back-to-back victories – been there, done that), Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series (four wins in last six races), Loudon Police (who learned Bruton’s trying to scam them out of the same overtime other cops ask for at other tracks), hurricane season (and if we’re saying that already…)
Earnhardt Jr. – Ya don’t say? June was supposed to be the month Earnhardt’s team melted into chaos and depression: the sequel. But to steal a line from the NASCAR version of Chris Berman: “THAT’s why they run the races.”
Now, Junior’s three points from a reeling Carl Edwards in 12th, heading to a Daytona track that likes to gift-wrap top-five finishes for him as if they’re stocking stuffers. Add in the emotional boost of running his dad’s No. 3 on Friday night, and you’d have to think the Coke Zero 400 is his for the taking… right?
That’s where the plot thickens for me. Every time the past few years where Earnhardt’s looked ready to get over the hump, something happens for him to wind up flat on his face… again. The worst possible thing that could happen is involvement in the Big One, a 35th-place finish, and a sudden scramble to get back in the hunt with bullets to dodge in Chicagoland and Indianapolis ahead. Do I think he’ll stumble? My gut says not this time… but this team doesn’t make anything easy. Expect some dicey moments if nothing else.
AJ Allmendinger – What would be your reaction if in February, I said Allmendinger would be one point behind Kasey Kahne in the standings? You’d probably say I’m next in line to fail NASCAR’s drug policy. But here we are, heading to the halfway point with the ‘Dinger in better shape to make the Chase. Riding a high of six straight top-15 finishes, he’s now headed to a track where he may have had the best car for this year’s 500 until trying too hard and spinning out. So if you’re looking for a darkhorse, look no further than the man that’s the key to RPM’s future – if they even have a future.
Honorable Mention: Kurt Busch (learned like the rest of us that when you bump Jimmie, he actually bumps back), Jeff Gordon (three straight top-five finishes… but only three laps led since Memorial Day), Ocean City, Md. (where I’ll be spending my vacation… 80 degrees and sunshine in the forecast!), Ghana (hard to beat an entire continent)
Edwards – Watching Edwards go two laps down under green was painful to watch Sunday. It’s like Johnson saying something controversial or Juan Pablo Montoya making it through a whole race without hitting someone: borderline impossible. But that’s how far Roush Fenway’s fallen, their nine-time winner in 2008 reduced to leading less laps this season than Mattias Ekstrom. Ja… Ja.
Some might say the full-time Nationwide schedule is a distraction. While that’s a valid argument for most other drivers, I don’t think it applies to Edwards; he breaks all the molds when it comes to being in shape. So what’s the problem? Honestly, I think the truth is no one really knows where to point the finger. Edwards loves Bob Osborne, so it’s a bit of a risk to get him replaced. Should the crew chief be blamed for engineers that can’t find the speed in the shop? Has Edwards just lost too much confidence after going 53 races without a win? Is there a lack of leadership within Roush Fenway in general? I don’t have the answer for you… but I do know there are a whole lot of hungry drivers ready to stampede right over him for 12th. They need to figure it out quickly at the No. 99 … like, right now.
Paul Menard/Scott Speed – Remember when these two were supposedly this year’s Cinderella story? I think I saw their dresses on eBay for 99 cents the other day. Truth be told, both have sucked since oh, about the beginning of April, posting just one top-15 finish apiece ever since. That’s sent both into the rumor mill for 2011, Menard looking for the best place to spend Daddy’s money while Speed is hoping these wild rumors about a Red Bull/Hendrick partnership don’t end with him on the sidelines. At least he’s got one of the best Twitter accounts in NASCAR going for him; too bad over 10,000 followers doesn’t get you 50 bonus points.
As for Menard, well… he’s been running every race in Nationwide and still sits behind two drivers in the standings – Kyle Busch and Harvick – that haven’t even run every race. Even in AAA, with top-notch equipment… you know what, I rest my case.
Honorable Mention: Montoya (looking like one too many DNFs to make the Chase), Kahne (now he can get busy picking out that cool Hendrick uniform for 2011), Mark Martin (“the man” at 50… over the hill at 51?), Morgan Shepherd after spinning Danica Patrick (hey, he can look on the bright side… instant TV time for the rest of the year)
Bobby Labonte – Kudos to Labonte for leaving a ride where he was forced to start-and-park to survive at TRG. The problem is… I don’t know what other options remain for a 2000 Cup series champ that hasn’t even won a race since the end of 2003. In talking with a colleague the other day, I was reminded of how badly Richard Childress wanted Labonte for his Cup team two years ago. A choice to spurn him for Petty Enterprises may be the dagger that finally brings this distinguished, possibly Hall of Fame career to a close.
For now, patchwork rides remain in the No. 7 and the No. 09. But the fact remains he has yet to score a top-20 finish this season. This year can’t end fast enough for him.
Sam Hornish Jr. – Must be relieved Patrick’s running races; it takes the heat off him being the worst open-wheel convert inside a stock car. Nearly a full year removed from his last top-10 finish, when are we finally going to see that white flag of surrender come out?
Dave Blaney – Statistic presented without comment: in his last 44 Cup Series starts, Blaney has finished just two of them. During that time, he’s earned $3.39 million.
Man, I want that job.
Honorable Mention: David Ragan (UPS delivering ultimatums to Roush as we speak), Roger Federer (even the greats see their careers start to crumble), Kevin Conway (perhaps the worst Rookie of the Year winner in our history), Regan Smith (broken wrist, 38th and 33rd the last two races… and his girlfriend subjected him to Twilight)