Before we begin this Hot/Not article, let’s bring you a word from our sponsor: the Number Seven. Seven races remain until the Chase, and seven drivers between 10th and 16th in the standings remain within 161 points of each other. More than likely, that means the final spots will be settled amongst these men: Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, David Reutimann and Ryan Newman. That is, of course, unless Matt Kenseth goes a seventh straight week without a top-10 finish at Indy, making him vulnerable, too.
But what’s to make of this playoff field filled with seven drivers who haven’t won a race yet? In the Chase’s seventh year, that’s rather disheartening for a system that’s yet to capture the interest of the NASCAR fan base. How bad are things right now? LeBron’s NBA free-agent decision scored itself a 7.3 rating, just a shade below this year’s Daytona 500 audience of 7.7.
But hey, maybe this year will be different. Seven men inside the current top 12 have yet to win a championship: points leader Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Edwards, Biffle and Bowyer. Or perhaps a first-time owner/driver title will do the trick? Tony Stewart is trying hard to fill the shoes of that last legendary man: Alan Kulwicki, who drove the No. 7 to an Underbird victory in 1992.
OK, I think we’ve had about enough. But as we spend the next seven days enjoying the week off and preparing for the second half of the summer stretch, know the seven weeks ahead are crucial for the future of the sport. Richmond needs to have a little drama surrounding who’s going to make and miss the playoffs, with enough of a push from those at the bottom for fans to think they can knock Jimmie Johnson off. For in the end, no amount of playing with numbers makes a difference if no one’s around to read or care.
Moving on… let’s get to the column this week:
Reutimann – OK, so maybe this guy isn’t sizzling, posting an average finish of 9.0 over the last three weeks. But when you score your second victory by coming out of nowhere to do it, passing a four-time champ with 44 laps to go … I think it’s time for bonus points! The best part is Michael Waltrip wasn’t even there, so Reutimann didn’t have to spend an extra 60 seconds praising every sponsor who’s ever been on his car in victory lane. Instead, he and Rodney Childers can now focus on the question du jour in a slow news week, whether the NASCAR nice guy can turn this momentum into actual points that put him inside the Chase. I’m hedging on that answer for now, looking to see Reut’s skills at something the rest of us do every day: make right turns. No road course expert, his average finish at Watkins Glen in August is a paltry 29th-place finish, nowhere near good enough if they’re pushing to pull the Chase upset.
Burton – Today’s “under the radar” hotspot is reserved for that other Jeff, who’s got runs of 12th, eighth and seventh the last three weeks to go along with 100 laps led. Sure, he threw away a victory at Loudon, but isn’t that something “brother” Jeff Gordon has done four or five times this year? It doesn’t seem to be bothering that legend, so you’d expect the same from a similar veteran presence over at the No. 31. Out of Burton, Harvick and Bowyer, I still think he’s got the most upward potential of the three RCR entries this fall. But check out this stat: no champion inside the Chase era has ended the season with fewer than three wins. You’d have to think this guy’s going to need at least one to be a serious contender, right?
Honorable Mention: Gordon (772 laps led… no victories, but some really nice consolation prizes for playing “Jimmie Johnson’s Lackey!”), Miami (will more people be at the Homestead race, or at the airport the next time LeBron lands in the city?), the No. 3 (Dale Jr. wins at Daytona, Austin Dillon wins at Iowa with the old RCR number alongside), Phoenix (high this week of 110 – aren’t you glad we don’t race there until November?)
Bowyer – RCR’s “other” driver amongst the trio stole the spotlight this week, posting a fourth-place finish for his best run since February’s Daytona 500. The July race wasn’t so kind to him, though, making this type of bounceback one week after a win-to-spin 17th-place dud that much more important. It leaves him squarely on the Chase bubble in 12th, where he wants to be but still in danger due to two uncharacteristic DNFs earlier in the year at Bristol and Texas. But considering that’s more than his last three years combined, you’d have to think a third one isn’t on the horizon, right? I see this team firmly in control of their own destiny, especially if those top-10 finishes keep coming like clockwork – he’s got 10 so far, more than anyone not named Busch, Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin. Hey, Clint, Juan Pablo Montoya’s on the other line. Something about stealing his strategy…?
Edwards – It’s amazing what happens when the one Ford team running worth a damn actually gives you their notes. Kasey Kahne’s cheat sheet worked wonders with the No. 99 at Chicago, Edwards looking like a man possessed in a good way after charging to second for his best run since Pocono last June. Most importantly, he’s now led a total of four laps on the year, jumping him ahead of Paul Menard in that category but still trailing Travis Kvapil, Mattias Ekstrom and even David Ragan. Small steps… on a serious note, he’s spending his off week biking all the way from his hometown to St. Louis. When you have that type of fitness regimen in your off week, well, I’m not going to bet against you.
Honorable Mention: Stewart (five top-10s in the last six races, with the lone exception when he ran the Burger King car… that’s what happens when you “accidentally” chew on the hood, Smoke); Jessica Simpson (the former Dukes of Hazzard and C-list music star is back in the news for a possible pregnancy); Bennie Ertel and Martin’s temper (Hey! Have you heard the latest rumor…)
Elliott Sadler – So apparently Elliott’s not coming back to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2011. In other news, the sky is blue. The crazy part is the last three weeks have actually been his best stretch of the year with a 19th, a 21st and a 22nd. When finishing in the top half of the field is considered a major accomplishment – especially considering the six or so start-and-parkers per race – then you know it’s time to move on to your next career. On a side note, if he retires this offseason does that make him eligible for the Ward Burton Accent Hall of Fame by 2015? I hope that’s a special section in the NASCAR Hall someday. At least Mr. Sadlah has been good at Indy in recent years, so that’s good for his future. At this point, a big run in a big race is what’s needed to save his career.
Earnhardt Jr. – Will the real Earnhardt Jr. please stand up? I feel like you could make a killer roller coaster out of this guy’s last four weeks alone. Let’s do some one-word comparisons for the SAT. Sonoma=Shocking. Loudon=Encouraging. Daytona=Frenetic. Chicagoland=Crap. Someone call a sports psychologist, please. Again.
At some point, you’ve also got to wonder if Rick Hendrick thinks about the price he paid for moving the current No. 88 engineers over from Martin’s No. 5. Now, instead of an “A” team and a “D” team in that shop, he’s got two “B-“ ones, neither of which may make the Chase. Betcha Martin’s not just mouthing off in public!
Honorable Mention: TNT (I would say more, but I have to cut to commercial); Newman (all his restrictor plate does is restrict momentum); Bashing LeBron in any sentence, under any circumstance (when has someone gone from loved to hated so quickly?); sponsorship searches (shouldn’t we have some answers by now?)
Sam Hornish Jr. – Followed a familiar pattern on Saturday; qualified fifth, then fell backwards like the engine dropped out. But before I rail off the usual criticisms, let’s take a step back for a minute and remember what type of driver he was just four years ago. Sam wasn’t just a great IRL wheelman, he was headed towards legendary status: two championships, an Indy 500 win and a virtual lifetime contract with Roger Penske. Could you imagine what he could have accomplished by staying on the open-wheel side of the fence? He’s not quite Michael Jordan, but this stock-car sidetrack reminds me of all the great time we lost when MJ decided to retire and try baseball. The only difference is, he came to his senses within a reasonable period of time. For Sam, it’s been four years. Doesn’t this guy have advisors? I want to see a great guy excel in great equipment once again… where he belongs.
TRG Motorsports – Want to know about the state of NASCAR today? At a restrictor-plate track – where it’s worth it for the poor teams to go the distance, since they know they can compete – the No. 71 Chevy scored their best ever NASCAR finish with Mike Bliss. One week later… they go from ninth to starting-and-parking with Hendrick free-agent floater Landon Cassill. After 18 months of doing everything right: being financially conservative, hiring top-quality people, slowly building up their fleet while focused on a foundation of solid finishes – this organization is no closer to being a permanent mainstay on the circuit. Does that make sense? Because it sure doesn’t to me.
Honorable Mention: Casey Mears (paging Steve Park… Steve Park, to the No. 36 car); Bill Elliott (not exactly Robby Gordon’s biggest fan at the moment – but who is?); Cleveland (as in cold-blooded towards LeBron James); Danica Patrick (24th still not good enough to get the job done)