The Dog Days of summer are in full force in the Sprint Cup Series. Temperatures are expected near 90 degrees in Bristol, Tenn. this week, part of the hottest year on record down South leading up to Saturday night’s heated 500-lap showdown under the lights. But these ugly temperatures aren’t the only problem turning some NASCAR teams sick of the summer. For the Chasers who have all but clinched a spot – and this year, that means all but one of them – it’s like keeping elementary kids from turning the classroom upside down during the last month of school. For the most part, the tests don’t matter anymore, meaning it’s just three weeks of having to sit in class bored, going through the motions while growing impatient for when the real summer fun starts in just a few short weeks.
But for the rest of these teams, a handful of bubble drivers excluded, late August comes with it an ugly dose of ignorant reality. Already, TV and radio analysts are so busy with the “Race to the Chase” phenomenon they’ve forgotten that half of the rest of the field even exists. I guess considering the recent rash of start-and-parkers, that’s a good thing – except with sponsorship hard to come by, it might be nice to hear a few namedrops on some of these middle-class heroes every now and then. For them, a new semester of school starts in just a few short weeks, with classes like Your Sponsor Is Leaving 101 or a senior seminar on Nobody Really Cares About You… Unless You Win The Race or Touch a Chaser to Start a Weeklong Controversy. Ah, the joys of the new NASCAR in late summer…
At least nothing changes in the world of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not. So without further ado, let’s break down the drivers still caring the most during this dead time…
Kevin Harvick – Weird to say, right, that a guy leading the points by 300 wasn’t a legitimate title contender until his third win of 2010? You have to understand that for months, insiders have viewed him as a shocking Cinderella Story bound to break, just like Tony Stewart withered at the wrong time last season. But now, that victory on an intermediate track Sunday – at a place that’s long been Harvick’s Achilles’ Heel – elevates him towards heavyweight status at a time Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are hiding their cards. It’s another month before we know whether showing his hand was a blessing or a curse; but no matter what happens from here, 2010 is an A+ for a guy who was “entering the final chapter” with Childress – his own words just 12 months ago.
Carl Edwards – Cousin Carl’s another year older, but his team is two years wiser in summoning the mojo they lost sometime in 2008. For the second time in the last five weeks, the No. 99 was the fastest car at the end of a race – just without enough time to make up the distance. Yet as Carl said himself, if you do that enough his victory drought of 59 races will be snapped faster than you can say, “Brad Keselowski.” OK, maybe that wasn’t the best example, but it’s hard to take serious a guy who two months ago was divebombing out of the playoffs to spend his Fall begging for birdfeed with the AFLAC duck. That his season could become the best NASCAR trivia question of all time instead is one of the most shocking turnarounds this season, right along with…
Tony Stewart – Remember when this driver/owner was going to “make the highlight reels” this summer? I guess Stewart must be getting old, because the most he’s come up with is lying about his driver’s fine and getting a little cranky about double-file restarts. While Joey Logano is summoning the old Home Depot temper, he’s just busy racking off top-10 finishes to the tune of nine in 10 weeks. Now on fire in a different way, Smoke should finish second in the regular-season standings just three months after ending Memorial Day Weekend 16th. Talk about turning that Old Spice commercial into reality; I don’t know what deodorant they gave him, but that company is ending their sponsorship with a bang!
Greg Biffle – Quick, what driver has led the most laps in the last four races? It’s… it’s… Juan Pablo Montoya. But The Biff finds himself a surprising second, the lone Ford driver to visit victory lane as a rather unexpected leader in the Blue Oval camp. Hitting his stride at just the right time, some might not realize he’s already won championships in both the Truck and Nationwide Series. Hitting the trifecta would give him a historical first even Johnson can’t duplicate; but to do it, he’ll need to stop these second-half fades that cost him additional victories at Michigan, Indy, Bristol, Daytona… it’s a running theme.
Honorable Mention: NFL Football (Brian France already sent welcome-back flowers… with a “Please get me off this sinking ship! neatly written inside); Drivers loving the Red Bull lifestyle (is that the real reason Kasey Kahne wants Red Bull? So he can jump out of planes and get paid for it? That’s absolutely ridi… I mean, sign me up); People thinking Hendrick Motorsports has lost their Mojo (it’s called testing, people! They just do it during actual races!)
Denny Hamlin – After June’s victory at Michigan left him flying high, two months later a return trip found this Toyota team driving a jalopy ever since. Alas, a second straight shot into the heart of the American automaking capital just wasn’t in the cards for Mr. Twitter. However, a second-place result served its purpose of healing the wound from a summer that’s left some questioning his title chances. Is there really a horsepower problem at a JGR ensemble that’s in a whole other RPM level when it comes to the Nationwide Series? I think it’s more Hamlin’s confidence that needs to be massaged in what’s become a pivotal time for his title chances. Off the track, he looks happier and more relaxed than ever, but inside the car it’s easy to make that simple mistake that kills your season. Hamlin should know; he’s made it a habit of it each of the last three years.
Martin Truex Jr. – It’s taken months, but the post-Jeff Gordon therapy finally appears to be taking hold after the four-time champ ripped Truex’s heart out on the road course. Rebuilding his confidence took time and effort, but the patience of Pat Tryson’s paid off in the form of two top-10 finishes inside the last three races. Quietly, a top-15 spot in the points is now possible for a program that’s performed far better than the stat sheet shows all year. Maybe the awful karaoke served as bad luck… I would take Saving Abel over NAPA Know-How any day….
Honorable Mention: Old Kyle Busch (did the new one get smothered to death?); Kahne (good, but not great… the story of his last four years at RPM); Elliott Sadler (season’s first top-10 two weeks after a wreck that left him happy to be alive – now that’s something to cheer); Logano (both in temper and on-track results)
Reed Sorenson – Remember Daytona, when we were complimenting Sorenson on how he had walked into an awkward situation at Red Bull and made it awesome? I think we all drank a little too much energy drink that night, getting peppy over a plate-race eighth-place finish in which literally half the field got knocked out by wrecks. Runs of 27th, 32nd, 35th, 38th and 26th ever since have reminded us how Sorenson lost his Cup status in the first place; too young, too green, and in over his head with a team that’s not exactly winning the championship anytime soon. Will he last the rest of the year? Well, Casey Mears has another ride elsewhere, so I don’t know where else you turn. Mike Skinner? Ken Schrader? Not exactly the type to get the Austrians’ heart pumping… but I’m beginning to think another change is possible before the Kahne/Vickers era begins at the end of November.
David Reutimann – After digging out of an early-season hole, it appears Reutimann’s year peaked with one unlikely Saturday night shocker in July. That Chicagoland upset was just his second career victory, pulling him within 100 points of a playoff that suddenly looked like a remote possibility. But runs of 28th, 17th, 23rd and 16th Chased those chances right away, and now the man they call Beak is stumbling through a back-to-school session no one expected. Good, but not great is the story of his career, and it appears we’ll wait a fourth straight offseason to see if the 40-year-old can take the next step towards superstardom.
Honorable Mention: Scott Speed (no top-10s in five weeks while making passing mentions he has a Red Bull contract for 2011… this could get interesting); throwing cautions for half-spins and drivers bumping each other really hard (I thought that just happened in video games… but apparently, this is the “new” NASCAR); Richard Petty Motorsports (gains Marcos Ambrose, loses two sponsors… how does this add up again?)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Let’s put it this way: Junior and Lance McGrew are still married, but I saw a fat lady clearing her throat and working with divorce papers on the pit box. A 19th at Michigan – the one track where the No. 88 has been consistently good throughout their tenure – should mean the writing’s on the wall for a serious change to make this team successful. Will Hendrick pull Alan Gustafson away, ruining Mark’s final season just months after leaving him the center of the rumor mill? Will Ray Evernham return with a superman cape, knocking the beer out of Earnhardt’s hand, yelling for 20 pushups and pushing him straight towards victory lane? Or will NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver battle with his alter ego, Danica Patrick, for the cover shot on the new Ben Folds Five retrospective: The Battle of Who Could Care Less? At least the silver lining in all this mess is: we won’t go through the whole Chase focused on just 12 cars. Junior’s current self-destruction – on pace for the lowest laps led total in his entire career – won’t allow it.
JJ Yeley – Yeley’s push with an underdog team, actually trying to run races to completion is a cute little story. But to make the highlight reel, you must first make the field, and that’s where the No. 46 is coming up short. After making eight straight races partnered with the cash-strapped program, Yeley’s failed to qualify for four of the last five, including the year’s second-biggest purse at the Brickyard. It’s put a grinding halt to this hopeful fairy tale, and they must stop the bleeding before their small story finds an early ending – inside some publisher’s trash bin.
Honorable Mention: Atlanta NASCAR fans (if you want to keep your races, you might want to pay to attend them); Robby Gordon (at some point, won’t dignity win out over money? He’s just not the start-and-park type); Dave Blaney (Finally reclaimed his own dignity… after making $5 mill to park it every week); Kevin Conway (look at it this way; at least he’s clinched Rookie of the Year!)