NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in NASCAR Sprint Cup: 2010 Indy-Pocono Edition

Here’s the final stat line for Juan Pablo Montoya’s last two years at Indy: 202 laps led out of a possible 320 (63%), two front-row starting spots, zero wins, zero top-10 finishes, one pit-road speeding penalty, one faulty debris caution, one bad pit-road call.

If you guessed those numbers knocked Montoya off the Hot list this week, congratulations! Let me hand you a first grade diploma right now. But simple math also adds up to one big fat “I.O.U.” from Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Mr. Montoya. If nothing else, 2011 will at least hold that type of semi-dramatic buildup for this race, with the man aiming to be the first ever Indy 500-Brickyard 400 winner, building a resume that could one day resemble Dale Earnhardt’s lost love affair with the Daytona 500 he (almost) never won.

Of course, the 400-miler wasn’t just about Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi, the Triple Crown and crappy attendance. Plenty of drivers positioned themselves well for the playoffs, on the right side of the Hot/Not list of fire and ice. So let’s tell their stories before I say something that might get me fined or censored; after all, I’ll need a fundraiser, not a checkbook, to pay that $50,000 NASCAR will ask for to keep my job!

HOT

Kevin Harvick – Overshadowed once again on Sunday amidst McMurray’s miracles was the workmanlike effort of his runner-up. Harvick once again made a mountain out of a molehill, taking a top-10 car at best and running second through improving with each adjustment, combined with a key pit call at the end of the race that gave him track position. It’s one thing to have A-level cars, but it’s another one to learn how to turn a B-level one into an A+ finish, something Harvick and Co. have struggled with off and on throughout his career. That Harvick is clicking off top-five finishes now showcases an increasing on-track maturity, one that overrides all the off-track antics that occasionally get him in trouble. I still think he needs to win races, but with Budweiser’s sponsorship announcement a week away, Ron Hornaday winning on KHI’s truck team, and Carl Edwards’s probation providing the leeway to hand out potshots whenever he wants, there’s three words to utter in the Harvick camp: life is good.

Clint Bowyer – Harvick’s not the only RCR guy running up front. In what’s by far the most shocking stat I’ve found all year, Bowyer’s fourth-place run on Sunday gives him back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his Cup career. That’s 165 starts, two wins and 23 top-five finishes if you’re counting at home and/or eating your Wheaties. But it didn’t take a Fuel car to fuel the Chase fire over at the No. 33, whose efforts this season have been undermined more by bad luck than bad performances. Currently on pace for a career-high 18 top-10 finishes, I think it would be a surprise to most in-depth observers if this team stubbed its toe and missed the Chase. It may be the team on the bubble, but of the five currently eighth through 12th I consider Bowyer safer than anyone not named Tony Stewart. And I partially say that because in crossing Smoke, I know I play with Fire….

McMurray – I think we’re already on Ganassi overload this week, so I’m not going to spend too much time on this one. Yes, we’ve got two top-five finishes in a row here, to go along with an outstanding Winston Million and Indy track record of first, first, second, second and second in the sport’s five biggest events (Daytona 500, Talladega, Southern 500, Coke 600 and the Brickyard in case you’re wondering). The big question now, two weeks after everyone jumped on the David Reutimann bandwagon, is whether McMurray can do the same and bounce back to make the Chase. For the answer, I refer you to the following: Reutimann’s Indy knockout punch (28th), the definition of inconsistency, and the last time McMurray scored a top-five finish at any of the six tracks left on the regular season schedule (2006). But McMurray said it best in his post-race comments on Sunday: who are people going to remember, the man who finished third in the points or the guy who won Daytona and Indy both in the same year?

Looks like Brian France might need to study that statement before making the Chase the equivalent of your local fireworks show run by amateurs.

Honorable Mention: Jeff Burton (fifth + sixth + seventh = consistency; zero bonus points = unacceptable), Helio Castroneves (in his defense, I would be too if I had a win stolen away just for kicks. He and Regan Smith should start a support group), Ganassi (did he make history or something?), the battle to be Danica Patrick’s teammate at JR Motorsports (Aric Almirola vs. Steve Arpin vs. Josh Wise… can we get a cage match and/or reality show for this one?)

WARM

Stewart – One of NASCAR’s most outspoken drivers has cut out the smack talk during what’s been a quieter-than-normal summer. Sure, the numbers are plenty good enough – six top-10 finishes in seven races have him sitting pretty inside the Chase – but just 11 laps led during that stretch? Those are his worst statistics during this portion of the schedule since 2001, and that big fat zero in the win column is hidden only by other big superstar’s slightly larger droughts (Jeff Gordon, Burton, Edwards). Smoke says his team is ever so slightly off, and it’s looking more likely teammate Ryan Newman will spend this fall on the outside looking in on the Chase. But this is one guy who remains dangerous as long as he’s somewhat in the hunt; and with Watkins Glen and Bristol still on the schedule this month, there’s plenty of time for the No. 14 to turn things around.

Joey Logano – Quick, which Joe Gibbs Racing driver has scored the most top-10 finishes over the last five Cup Series races? Denny Hamlin? Kyle Busch? How about the guy whose biggest summer highlight is calling out a driver’s wife on her at-the-track clothing. Sliced Bread isn’t exactly slicing it up on-track – two ninth-place finishes are the best he can offer us this summer – but he’s handling the recent downturn at Joe Gibbs Racing better than the rest. And heading to the scene of June’s Harvick crime, all eyes will be on the sophomore to see if he could enact some revenge on the points leader come Pocono – 2. Sitting 205 points out of the Chase, he might as well take some chances since the No. 20 isn’t quite playoff material … yet.

Honorable Mention: The possible demise of the Brickyard 400 down the road (no fans in the stands will fuel that fire), Randy Moss pulling out of NASCAR (A football player dipping their toe into this sport, then leaving? We’ve never seen that before), Paul Menard as a free agent (Welcome to the 2010 Silly Season Clearance Aisle. Hurry, items won’t last!), Mark Martin’s impatience with, well, everything (Rick Hendrick, are you listening?), driver dissatisfaction with NASCAR (I’d say more… but I’d be censored)

COOL

AJ Allmendinger – It’s not like the ‘Dinger is running dead last. But an average finish of 22nd over the last three races – including an ugly Daytona crash with arguably the best car – isn’t doing his agent any favors during contract time. Rumors run rampant everyone but the kitchen sink is talking to the open-wheel star, with Penske the most likely fit beyond Richard Petty Motorsports considering their IRL ties. Could we be watching the most dysfunctional family we’ve ever seen to hit the NASCAR circuit in 2011: Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Allmendinger on the same team? Not unless he starts picking up the pace these next few weeks.

Robby Gordon – Gordon left Infineon filled with momentum this June, fresh off a second-place finish in his No. 7 Toyota. A 12th-place run at Daytona proved a nice consolation prize… two straight DNFs, well, that wasn’t in the cards. But that’s exactly what’s happened in what devolved into an ugly July; now, Gordon’s sitting with a bunch of wrecked racecars, no sponsorship at Pocono (which is forcing PJ Jones to start-and-park), and the future of his team uncertain. Watkins Glen can’t come soon enough….

Honorable Mention: NASCAR’s Baby Boom (it’s not bad, just cool… since when have you seen so many big athletes in one major sport become fathers all at the same time?), David Stremme (DNQ at Indy – his season is reminding me of the Itsy Bitsy Spider Poem), no-hitters in baseball (Bravo!), ESPN’s Sprint Cup coverage

COLD

Max Papis – I know the Italian is going through a learning curve, but come on! The last six races (some of which are admittedly start-and-parks) have seen him finish no better than 42nd place. There’s sophomore slumps… and then there’s sophomore slumps. If that poor gecko survived the ball of fire at Indy, I worry about the future of him supporting what is truly one of the nice guys in the Sprint Cup garage. The closest person I’d compare Max to is Casey Mears… but we all know how that’s working out, at least lately.

Bobby Labonte – Labonte’s spent the last month bouncing around after leaving TRG Motorsports for greener pastures. But for a 45-year-old that hasn’t won since 2003, the righteous decision to leave a start-and-park operation – which I agree with – hasn’t meant the grass is greener on the other side. A 16th at Daytona with the No. 09 team has been surrounded by runs of 29th, 30th and 31st, and that makes it harder than ever for Labonte’s agent to convince future clients his man’s still got it. Four sponsored races remain with TRG, and with an uncertain future beyond that Labonte needs to make the most of his second chance at the No. 71.

Honorable Mention: Sam Hornish Jr. (A valiant effort to fight his IRL return… but when the team’s talking to another IRL driver to take your place, don’t you think the writing’s on the wall?), David Gilliland (DNQ-ing not what he bargained for with Front Row Motorsports), Indy attendance (140,000… and dropping. A 50% decline from 2005)

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