Sometimes when stressed, the best medicine can be simply taking a few days to clear your head. That’s where I was at this past weekend, taking in the rays of a great beach vacation that has me rested and ready to rumble for the second half of the NASCAR season.
If only Mr. AJ Allmendinger could be so lucky, nearly in need of another career choice after jawing with the equivalent of NASCAR God. You can make fun of the Frances, take a swipe at the Earnhardts, but messing with The King? It’s a no-win situation that puts you in position to take a permanent vacation of your own. It was the lowlight of a nasty Daytona that had the NASCAR field turning into a bad Jerry Springer episode for the second time in three weeks.
Good thing the Sprint Cup circus heads to Chicago this week, the home of a talk show Goddess that could come to pretty good use right now. What drivers could find themselves crying on Oprah’s couch if they’re not careful? It’s Secrets: revealed on the latest episode of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.
Jeff Gordon – As usual, teammate Jimmie Johnson’s the one collecting the wins while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fighting off the press now that he and “Chase contender” can be mentioned in the same sentence without laughter. But in a season filled with disappointment for Gordon, he’s silently sneaking under the radar as of late. Now all but a lock to make the Chase, he’s second in points on the strength of nine top-five finishes in 18 races. It’s easily a NASCAR best, and right now he’s on a streak of four in a row, impressive despite leading only once for 13 laps during that stretch. Yeah, the goose egg in the win column will continue to be the albatross on Gordon’s back. But let’s not forget who was runner-up at Chicago last July – could there be any better time to end the drought with the Brickyard looming dead ahead?
Kasey Kahne – Last week on SI, I wrote about how Kahne’s Chase chances were all but gone for 2010. 154 points back with eight races left, I still think it’s far too large a mountain to climb. With that said… there’s no doubt Ford’s best driver right now also doubles as their lame duck. Three top fives in four races with 116 laps led during that stretch leaves the No. 9 knocking on the door of victory lane. If it wasn’t for that blown engine, it would be Kahne breathing down Carl Edwards’s neck in a cruel twist of irony, Ford’s future star readying for a TKO from it’s soon-to-be-ex-for-a-second time. Good timing, too, considering Rick Hendrick’s sponsorship search remains ongoing for 2011. He better hurry, ‘cause if I were Ford, I’d be switching out these cars with Edwards’s clunkers overnight.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia (record highs being experienced as you read this column), Kevin Harvick (his last three wins have been at plate races… the one before that? It came in 2006. He needs to change that), Kyle Busch (what do you think you’re going to get when you mess with Juan Pablo Montoya? Colombian Coffee? Seriously, Kyle…)
Kurt Busch – Here’s a fun fact: what do Kurt Busch, Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace have in common? Answer: They’re the only Cup champs without a Daytona or Talladega victory in the restrictor-plate era. While the Miller Lite Dodge didn’t accomplish its intended goal for the second straight week, Busch’s car continued to make progress in putting his rivals on notice. Seven days after bumping Johnson, this time he was playing rough with Edwards in scoring his fourth top-10 finish in five races. Johnson was rattled emotionally, while Edwards nearly rattled Busch and threw him against the wall – but in both cases, Busch made it clear he’s not losing this year’s title without a fight. The playoffs, to him, will be a physical battle royale putting “Have at it, boys” to the test… and all of NASCAR-dom should be grateful he’s taking those words literally.
Steve Park – You wonder why people get so upset at the TV coverage? Email and comments on Frontstretch these days have been centered on Park’s popular yet invisible 13th-place finish behind the wheel of Tommy Baldwin’s Chevy. Yeah, I understand it’s a plate race, a lottery where any driver’s number could get called. But to put Park’s achievement in perspective, consider these two things: he hadn’t had a Cup start since 2003, when the Car of Tomorrow was a funny little doodle on Brett Bodine’s desk, and car No. 36 has start-and-parked in three of the last six races. That run was nothing short of incredible, and it deserved more coverage the same way Park now deserves a second look at reviving a once-promising Cup career.
Honorable Mention: Mike Bliss (three restrictor-plate races with underfunded teams, two top-10 finishes), JJ Yeley (19th-place finish the best for first-year team Whitney Motorsports), David Reutimann (10 straight top-20 finishes… but is that really Chase material?), Jersey Shore: Season 2 (You think it’s not going to be as good as the first… but then you see the trailer and you’re weirdly intrigued)
Joe Gibbs Racing – Remember the days when Gibbs was going to burn Johnson in effigy, win all 10 Chase races, finish 1-2 with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, then go on tour with Joey Logano‘s new band, DeLana Harvick’s Firesuit Down In Flames? I think that fizzled sometime around the moment Hamlin’s hood popped open while running full speed at Infineon. In their last nine starts, this group has just one top-10 finish, with Hamlin and Busch the worst of the trio: they’ve combined for an ugly 23.7 average. The troubling inconsistency, the type that leaves your Chase in the doghouse, has spilled over into the emotional realm as well, Hamlin sulking and Kyle cranky like the olden days spent languishing in the Desert of Lost Opportunities. What’s worse is I don’t see a chance to stop the bleeding, really, until Denny’s chance to sweep Pocono on August 1st. Will that be too late? This Magic 8-ball says, “Maybe.”
Juan Pablo Montoya – True story: in one out of every three races this year, Montoya has failed to finish the race. Any questions why he won’t make the Chase? Good, considering he’s 2-for-2 on DNFs since I made him the upset pick to sneak in a couple of weeks back. Sorry; that’s why sportswriters aren’t paid to be psychics on the side. But now that we’ve got Montoya in desperation mode, isn’t it going to be fun to see him fight for wins, ticking off rivals like Gordon and Kyle Busch all the way? This guy could still be the biggest wild card of the playoffs in September, October and November without even being in contention for anything more than 15th in points. Now that’s a guy with real power.
Honorable Mention: Earnhardt Jr. winning in the No. 3, being a Dale Jr. fan (at this point, you can officially take that paper bag off your head), really big sunglasses, seeing Lance Armstrong challenge for the Tour De France at almost 40, seeing The King show some passion (but what’s uncool? AJ yelling at the King… it’s honestly equivalent to swearing at the Pope), Roush Fenway Racing (a major offseason overhaul can’t come soon enough – no one in the top five at Daytona).
Martin Truex Jr. – Since the second Truex got out of that racecar at Infineon, he’s acted like a man that knew his 2010 goose was cooked. The problem is, he’s got to keep the No. 56 team from waving the white flag along with him. Crappy cars and poor luck have now combined for eight straight finishes outside the top 10. Forget Chase material, it’s not even Michael Waltrip-worthy with a team who once looked like they were over that nightmare. With two wrecks in the last three races, the focus has to shift towards rebuilding the solid foundation that has this group primed for a breakout year in 2011. There’s plenty of time to put the pieces back together, and the second they do… they need to take this pent-up frustration and let it go.
David Stremme – The former Chip Ganassi driver with a once-bright future has been lauded for his underdog performances with the No. 26 of Latitude 43 Motorsports. But following a top-10 finish by fill-in Boris Said at Infineon – a run which put this team within striking distance of the Top 35 – Stremme picked the worst possible time to throw up some stinkers. His last three runs with the team have also been his three worst, finishes of 30th, 31st and 37th that have kept them from reentering the promised land. Now 96 points behind Front Row Motorsports for that 35th and final spot, this team is still avoiding a possible DNQ every week and doesn’t have another big chance to make up a giant chunk of that deficit until Bristol in August. Tough break for one of the few single-car efforts going the distance in every race this season.
Honorable Mention: Johannesburg, South Africa (World Cup site has a high of about 60 degrees all week – can we fly there?), Joe Nemechek (has a sponsor and still can’t last more than 40 laps), Regan Smith (three straight finishes outside the top 30), Daytona repaving (it seems the majority of drivers are worried sick over it).
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