We’re heading full steam toward the Dog Days of Summer, but there’s several NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars barking up the wrong tree. As the race for the Chase turns sharply into focus, there are just 17 drivers left with a realistic shot at the playoffs. That leaves a number of superstars, from Juan Pablo Montoya to David Reutimann, licking their wounds, watching the season finale of The Bachelorette in mourning while looking back at lost opportunities. Turning toward 2011 three months too soon, their bids long ago wilted in the summer heat through a series of ugly DNFs and CNCs – could not compete. But they’re not alone in holding multiple test sessions; men like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and even Denny Hamlin can pull some wild experiments along with them, their Chase bids all but assured while pursuing a “win ‘em, wreck ‘em or ride around and smell the coffee” philosophy all the way until the points really count come September.
So as those drivers fade slowly into the background – one of the many downsides to NASCAR’s current Chase – the focus now shifts towards two different groups in particular. You’ve got a handful of wheelmen battling to simply make the 12-men playoff field, fighting side-by-side with pending free agents looking for a different type of trophy: a paycheck to still come in the mail each week. So with the regular season winding down and contracts running out, which drivers are in the best spot to heat up and accomplish their goals? Find out in the latest edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup.
Carl Edwards: After seven months of trailing their rivals, Roush Fenway Racing is suddenly a darkhorse contender to win both the battle and the war each week in Sprint Cup. Edwards is leading the way inside the four-car fleet, armed with four straight top-10 finishes for the first time in over a year while surging into the top 10 in points. NASCAR’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is walking with a bit of a spring in his step, unfazed by his mid-July penalty against Brad Keselowski while bouncing back at what used to be his bread and butter: intermediate tracks. Can the momentum continue this weekend in Watkins Glen? If it does, the Chase is all but a certainty as he looks to put the Cinderella slipper on his latest championship bid.
Tony Stewart: Where there’s Smoke, there’s fire – in more ways than one. Stewart received some criticism for half-joking comments Friday in front of reporters, claiming the one change he’d make to Pocono was simple: ban the media. Maybe that’s because he wasn’t all warm and fuzzy about Ryan Newman’s fine; he “lied about his knowledge” of the Talladega penalty and refused to discuss it further throughout the weekend.
So maybe he’s not the best off-track interview right now. But on it, there’s no question the No. 14 team has far more momentum than when they were leading the points this time last year. Seven top-10 finishes in eight races leave him eighth in the standings, comfortably inside the Chase and fully loaded with equipment and experience to contend. Every year, there’s someone who slips into the playoffs and then turns around to be a top-three contender down the stretch. If Edwards can’t get the job done – and only six laps led is a major weak point for him – expect Stewart to become a surprise challenger this fall.
Honorable Mention: Richard Childress Racing (from losing Harvick to 3-for-3 on the Chase and possibly even gaining a fourth team – with a permanent sponsor attached – for 2011. Who played the lottery there and didn’t tell us?), Kurt Busch’s temper (the Johnson dartboard is working overtime this week), Kentucky Speedway (finally getting the Cup date they sought. It only took a sellout and a near-collapse of the industry…)
Greg Biffle: After Biffle’s winning press conference, I had to run out into the garage to confirm a story I was working on. It took a good 20 minutes to get what I needed, meaning darkness was setting over Pocono Raceway by the time I did an about face and turned towards the media center. But as I was walking, I saw a bright light on the side of the building, so I made a detour to take a quick look.
What did I find? Biffle signing autographs for an excitable group of fans with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face, gladly staying late until every single one had gotten what they wanted. You don’t think it’s a sigh of relief to end these types of winless streaks? Well, then you needed to be standing right there with me. I still don’t think the No. 16 is the best team inside the Ford stable… far from it. But the emotional boost from giving hospitalized car owner Jack Roush – upgraded to fair condition Monday – a much-needed victory should carry the Biff from dropping out of the Chase to finishing well inside the top 12 come Richmond.
Mark Martin: Maybe Martin thrives from the pressure of rallying to make the Chase. Only twice in five years has the 51-year-old made it easy, feeding into a lifetime habit of giving fans heart attacks before ultimately coming through in the clutch. With five races left, he remains on the outside looking in but with a season that’s quickly turning into the same old scenario of peaking at the right time. A 15th, then an 11th, then a seventh these last three weeks have him pushing the questions of “Where?” “When?” and “How?” for 2011 aside, focused on winning the championship he came back to win with Hendrick Motorsports instead. Right now, that’s nothing more than a pipe dream this year, but a playoff bid would not be too shabby considering the three-month effort to drown out the media and keep them from tearing the No. 5 apart.
Honorable Mention: Clint Bowyer (a valiant drive back up to 15th after getting caught in Kurt and Jimmie’s squabble), NFL training camp (when that’s beating national NASCAR news each week, you know the sport is struggling), Sonoma losing a Sprint Cup date (hearing that from too many people to simply ignore it), Pennsylvania (much better than the 100-degree days we had last week)
Scott Speed: Red Bull may give you wings, but their race team is flying by the seat of their pants these days, weighed down with more questions than a full-fledged episode of Jeopardy!. But while Brian Vickers’s future is a long-term panic attack for another column, the short-term issue concerns whether or not the Austrian contingent will go “Ja” on another multi-year contract extension for their eccentric former Formula 1 sophomore. I’ve heard that deal is all but done, but it’s disconcerting to hear Jay Frye say over the weekend their driver has clearly regressed over the past few months. Runs of 30th, 25th and 26th back up that theory, and it’s clear even if Speed does get another year with this group, he’s headed towards being a more exciting Sam Hornish Jr. than the circuit’s next Montoya at this point.
Matt Kenseth: While the rest of Roush Fenway has left the station, Kenseth stays stuck in neutral as the other drivers on the back half of the Chase bubble reel him in. Isn’t it hard to believe this guy was second in points, just one behind Harvick at Bristol in March? The crew chief swaps may have something to do with it, but somewhere in the midst of Kenseth calling the shots he seems to have lost some internal confidence in himself. Now nearly three months removed from the No. 17’s last top-five finish, you still have to sit and wonder whether a Martinsville victory – taken away by Jeff Gordon’s bump-and-done – could have been the breaking point for a season quickly going sour. At this point, after falling to ninth if he falls outside the Chase, a la a repeat of 2009 at Richmond, I won’t be surprised.
Honorable Mention: Elliott Sadler (cool to win the Truck race, even cooler he walked away from that crash… but when the smoke clears, his Cup career is still clearly on life support), Reed Sorenson (not exactly lighting his Red Bull ride on fire, either), Joey Logano (looked like he wanted to give up the firesuit in his family this Sunday), New York Mets (this happens to us every year)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: After a handful of lucky finishes kept him in playoff contention, NASCAR’s Most Popular driver is becoming the sport’s version of Anna Kournikova. Scoring three straight finishes outside the top 20, he’s dropping like a rock while struggling with equipment that’s putting Johnson and Gordon in position to lead laps and win races every week. Conspiracy theorists will tell you it’s not the same cars, but then why is shop-mate Martin suddenly clicking off top-11 finishes like clockwork? Now 129 points outside the top 12, perhaps a Chase berth was a bit ambitious one year after the worst season of Junior’s career. But it’s also an automatic expectation in Hendrick equipment, leading to a long three-month stretch of questions and another offseason full of restructuring unless the No. 88 team pulls off the miracle of miracles starting this Sunday.
Looking for hope, Junior fans? I’ll at least give you this much: Kenseth did charge back from 168 points down at this point to make the Chase in 2005. Earnhardt does have Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol dead ahead, three places where he could easily click off three top-five finishes under the right circumstances.
Travis Kvapil: Front Row Motorsports’ season was borderline competitive at best before the infamous “bleeder” incident at Pocono crippled Kvapil. After a 22nd-place finish in that race, an illegal pressure-building valve in the tires sent suspensions, fines and most importantly a 150-point penalty his way, knocking one of the Front Row teams outside the Top 35 and making simply qualifying every Friday the top priority. It’s shown on the final results sheet ever since, with no top-20 finishes for FRM’s most experienced driver while often becoming the slowest of the non start-and-parkers each week. Tough to get sponsorship when you’re running two, three or four laps down, and with owner Bob Jenkins funding these teams out of pocket, you have to wonder how much internal frustration is building up.
Marcos Ambrose: Ambrose forced himself into free agency last week, poo poo-ing a contract that ran through 2011 in favor of gambling on landing in a better situation elsewhere. But at this point, with a shortage of cash and career opportunities, you’d wonder if the best place for the Tasmanian native is back Down Under. If you hear some sizzling over on the grill, that’s not shrimp on the barbie but the sophomore’s season going up in flames. Now a “lame-duck” driver in the No. 47, his eighth DNF on Sunday – yet another TRD engine self-destruction – is part of a post-Sonoma swoon that’s seen him run five consecutive times outside the top 10. Will he be able to salvage one last run at a victory in Watkins Glen? If he doesn’t cash in, you wonder if it’s the last best chance he’s got in this series before bolting the country – that is, if Mr. Petty and some Blue Oval execs can’t come up with the cash to keep him in America.
Honorable Mention: Robby Gordon Motorsports (38th, 36th and 35th the last three races heading to the Glen), sponsorship searches (still without funding? Kasey Kahne, the No. 24, the No. 77, all of RPM… shall I go on?), Pocono’s safety record (better than you think, but skewed by an ugly crash at an ugly angle), Kevin Conway (the marketing tour inside a Sprint Cup car continues – and just think, you could be next! All you need is $4 million, a savvy idea and a willingness to go just enough to meet minimum speed).