With the checkered flag at Watkins Glen, NASCAR’s two-race road-course experiment has been shelved for another season. If only Marcos Ambrose had four more ahead of him, we might see the No. 47 in victory lane, after all. Instead, he and Juan Pablo Montoya must adjust to the daunting prospect of all left turns at Michigan and beyond, a tougher sell than expected that’s turned their seasons into a long list of wreck-related DNFs. That’s why they’re nowhere near the playoffs, just like there’s not a third road course for the Chase…
But enough about NASCAR’s two foreign-born, right-turn stars. They’ve gotten plenty of coverage in the 48 Hours post-Watkins Glen. Let’s not forget about the 40 others who finished behind them, trying to position themselves for the jobs, the playoffs, the garage or five seconds of TV time that remain this season. Here’s who stood out in the latest edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.
Kevin Harvick: At a time where no one wants to step up and nominate themselves as title favorite, Harvick’s the best possible option in a maddeningly inconsistent world. An 11th-place at Watkins Glen was the result of a flat right-rear tire on the final lap, only the second time in the last six races he’s finished outside the top 10. Yeah, he’s still without a win in a non-plate event, making people reluctant to embrace the No. 29 as a legitimate heavyweight. But what would you rather have: a guy who’s running fifth, third and second all the time or someone who’s running second, then 37th a la Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and others? The NASCAR Sprint Cup points system chooses option No. 1.
Jeff Burton: Speaking of consistency, Harvick’s teammate is chugging along at a pace that may make RCR 1-2 in the regular-season standings by Richmond. A ninth place at Watkins Glen capped off a streak of five straight top-10 finishes, made all the more impressive for two reasons. 1) Burton and road-course racing mix about as well as oil and water. 2) This streak occurred after a poor pit call at New Hampshire handed a win to Johnson on a silver platter in June. Some would have imploded after that mess; instead, Burton’s used it as motivation for long-term success. And should I mention Loudon’s the first race on the Chase schedule this September?
Carl Edwards/Tony Stewart: We don’t usually mention drivers two weeks in a row here, but both of these men are too hot to leave off. Edwards’s first-ever road-course pole was followed up by a fifth straight top-10 finish, leaving him 190 points ahead of Clint Bowyer in 13th and virtually assured of a Chase spot. So much for crashing Brad Keselowski messing up his mojo….
As for Stewart, a seventh-place finish was disappointing Sunday, breaking a six-year streak of first or second at Watkins Glen. But it’s maintained a summer hot streak that could leave him third – yes, third – in points after Michigan on Sunday two months after being mired back in 16th. Where there’s Smoke, there’s… momentum. Ha! Surprised you with that one.
Honorable Mention: Brett Favre a Ladies’ Man… and not just with his wife? (NOTE: This link is NOT for the faint of heart,) Brian France throwing the schedule in a blender, pressing the ON button and seeing what happens; Busch’s fan club and hate mail in his inbox after calling the Hendrick drivers “pretty boys;” Boris Said being mad at Stewart (at least, he should be… maybe that’s his problem. Too laidback about things instead of adding a new chapter to “Have at it, boys!”)
Ryan Newman: While the 12th-place hoopla surrounds 51-year-old Mark Martin trying desperately to sneak into the playoffs, it’s Newman who’s quietly climbing into contention. Ironically, it’s two 12th-place finishes that have brought the No. 39 within 83 points of 12th place, leaving Michigan a must top-10 before the friendly confines of Bristol give him a chance at an upset victory. A 10th, a win, a 15th at Atlanta and a top-10 at Richmond should be enough to get this Stewart-Haas stepchild over the hump. But with a Hendrick vs. SHR battle to the end, will Newman have the right equipment underneath him when it really counts?
Sam Hornish Jr.: Don’t look now, but Penske’s IndyCar success-turned-stock car failure is fighting off the pink slip with some brief momentum. Two straight top-15 finishes for the first time in over a year have the No. 77 riding high towards Michigan, once a Penske track that typically favors his Dodges. I have to say Watkins Glen may have been the most consistent run for Hornish this season, staying planted within 10th and 15th throughout with a car and a handling package that could run with the top contenders. Still, when you’re teammate’s sitting there running for the win, and 14th is the best you can do… there’s a disconnect within that shop that needs to be fixed for all three cars to experience long-term success.
Honorable Mention: Kasey Kahne to Red Bull Racing in 2011 (officially announced this morning); Paul Menard (five straight top-20 finishes; will the top 20 in points be next?); Jeff Gordon (another top-10 finish, another baby… but another week of sleepless nights with a new, second child may make Michigan a bit of a rough weekend); Shane Hmiel in another series (clean and continuing to progress in open-wheel… makes you wonder when, if ever, NASCAR will drop that lifetime ban)
Kyle Busch/Denny Hamlin: Kyle and Denny, sitting in a tree, T-W-EE-T-I-N-G. The back-and-forth banter for Hamlin has publicly cost him $50K, while Kyle simply uses it to thank sponsors, blow bunny kisses to his wife or make fun of Scott and Amanda Speed. But maybe both men should turn their attention to what’s happening on the racetrack instead? I know, I know, they’ve all but clinched their playoff spots and are in that ugly “no man’s land” where anything other than a win is simply a waste of their time. Clearly, seven wins between the two of them will leave them at or near the top of the seeding system come September.
But it’s one thing to limp into the playoffs off a few bad finishes, another to miss the boat for two months altogether. Hamlin and Busch have been simply nonexistent since the former’s dominant Michigan win, combining for one top-five and four top-10 finishes in the seven races since. Busch is the one really licking his wounds, with no run better than eighth in a stretch where the old Kyle has reigned supreme – yelling at the crew, then dominating in Nationwide and Trucks at the expense of truly focusing on the Cup program. Hamlin’s not exactly running on eight cylinders, either. The best he could muster is a fifth-place run at Pocono at a track where he could win blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back. Could this team turn it around this Sunday, at a track they dominated last time out? Absolutely. If not? JD, I think we’ve got a problem…
Keselowski: The 2010 Nationwide Series champion-to-be has now all but accomplished his goal, nursing a 327-point lead over his fellow Cup full-timer, Edwards, while the rest of his minor-league foes are in critical condition. But what’s to make of his Cup program right now? After all, that’s what Penske really hired Keselowski to do. Minor-league trophies mean as much to him as having the fastest car on day 2 of Indy practice. On the one hand, what we see is a consistent run of success, as four straight top-20 finishes leave the program headed onward and upward. On the other hand, Kes has two teammates – Hornish and Busch – who have left him in the dust these last two weeks, and Busch has more wins than Keselowski top-10 finishes OR Sprint Cup wrecks with Edwards. Clearly, there’s no shame in finishing 20th, but honestly when you look at the stat sheet there’s not much difference between him and former driver David Stremme. Yeah, I said it; Keselowski may have 10 times more talent, but at some point that’s going to have to translate into results.
Honorable Mention: Bowyer’s equipment on road courses (two races, two broken mounts; someone’s not using the superglue), Joey Logano (average finish 29th the last two races), the Mets’ chances of making the playoffs, Alaska (60 degrees for a high in Anchorage… wouldn’t you kill for that right now?)
Max Papis: Rumors popped up Monday Papis is going to lose his ride to everyone’s favorite seatwarmer Casey Mears at the end of the month. When fans heard the news, I think every single one of them had the same reaction: “Someone at GEICO finally turned on the TV and watched a race!” It’s probably the first time in six months that happened, otherwise this long-awaited substitution would have happened in February. On a serious note, we all love Max as a person but when Kevin Conway is giving you a run for your money every race weekend, you know things just aren’t working out. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, six straight runs of 42nd or worse, not all of which were start and parks, helped seal the Italian’s fate this summer, along with Sunday’s 22nd-place finish at Watkins Glen. Ironically, that was his best finish of 2010 but paled in comparison to an impressive eighth-place result a year ago. While I don’t have definitive knowledge on the Mears talk – it’s simply a rumor at this point – virtually everyone in the know would consider it a shock to see Papis behind the wheel of this car in next year’s Daytona 500. A Nationwide or a Truck is more his speed, where he’ll have a chance to grow at a pace that’ll have him ready for Cup the second time. Good for GEICO that rumors say that’s exactly what they’re looking to do.
Robby Gordon: How difficult it is to be a single-car owner dangling by a thread in Cup these days. June’s Gordon announcement he’d need to start-and-park at a handful of races led to a sudden surge of support, even Bobby Labonte jumping in the car for a week following a shocking second-place finish at Sonoma. That road course gave us both Gordon and RGM’s best performance in five years, offering hope the summer season would finally bring the No. 7 both the finishes and funding it needs.
Fast forward through the month of July. No, seriously, fast forward through it: 38th, 36th, 35th and a 12th on Independence Day left Gordon with a stretch to forget. Now, the Dog Days of Summer are suddenly the longtime owner/driver’s last stand, with Gordon stepping out of the seat at Pocono – having PJ Jones start and park – before throwing all his eggs in one basket at the Glen. That was supposed to be the site of an August renaissance. Instead, a bad transmission spoiled all those eggs, left Gordon with a fourth straight DNF and now has him heading to Michigan with no money and an uncertain future to speak of. Oh, and did I mention he may be on the verge of suing former “partner” Beth Ann Morgenthau for breach of contract? That’s the type of BAM! announcement that ends a team with a thud.
Honorable Mention: Rain at Michigan (how many times has the August race been delayed? Right now, the forecast says sunny for Sunday… which probably means 80% chance of t-storms by the time we actually get there); Elliott Sadler in Cup (are we happy he survived without a scratch after Pocono? Of course! Can we ignore the fact he has no top-20 finishes the last five weeks? Of course not!); Nationwide Series regulars (did they even race at Watkins Glen? I certainly didn’t see them).