Coming off a somewhat tame, yet historic race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Sprint Cup series heads into their final off-weekend of the season. It gives drivers, teams, and fans a chance to cool off and regroup before the last 12 races, including the 10 in the Chase for the Cup. For some (ask Jimmie Johnson), the off-week could not have come at a better time. Others, such as Kyle Busch, would love to keep racing. We have two more regular-season races left, and while it seems like the top 11 in points are all but set, anything can happen and we won’t know for sure until the checkered flag falls at Richmond. Let’s see who is heating up and cooling down with the unofficial end to summer just a few days away.
Kyle Busch – Whether you like the guy or not, there is no denying the amount of talent Busch has. Winning the truck race Wednesday night after starting in last place (at Bristol, of all places) is an unbelievable accomplishment in itself. But, sweeping the weekend heated Kyle’s season to the boiling point. Perhaps most impressive is that he did it in three entirely different vehicles with three different crew chiefs. As cool as it is to be the first driver to win three NASCAR-sanctioned events in its top series in one weekend, pending rules changes make it very unlikely such a feat will ever happen again, making the sweep even more special. With NASCAR looking at ways to limit Cup drivers from competing in Nationwide races, it will be much more difficult for guys like Kyle and Kevin Harvick to complete the sweep. Many will say it’s not a big deal simply because not many have tried it, but it is huge because getting just one win in any series is an honor.
Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya hit rock bottom just a few weeks ago at Indy. Not only did he lose after the leading the most laps for the second consecutive year, he had to watch his car owner celebrate with teammate Jamie McMurray (It’s nice to see your teammate win, but everyone wants to be the number one guy).
Things picked up two weeks later when he got his first win in over three years in dominating fashion at the Glen. And after a seventh at Bristol for just the second time this year, Montoya has now finished in the top 10 in three consecutive races. Even though his Chase chances are about out the window, Montoya’s fan base certainly multiplied after taking out Saturday’s dominant driver and four-time defending Cup champion Johnson.
Honorable Mention – Brian Vickers (so great to hear he will back next year, but most importantly that he is on the path to recovery); Bristol attendance (good crowd for all three races, great improvement over the spring race); Bristol Motor Speedway (I, for one, love the progressive banking; it promotes side-by-side racing and you can still use the bump and run); and Greg Biffle (ever since his strong run at Indy, this team has really turned their season around (four top-10s in five races) despite still being 11th in points)
McMurray – Jamie is having quite possibly the most roller coaster-like season in NASCAR history. Take a look at his past five finishes, for example: first, 22nd, sixth, 20th, third. Otherwise, 2010 has been a dream season for the eight-year veteran, and his Chase hopes once again appear to be alive. Not only is he just 100 points out of the playoffs, he no longer has any drivers between him and that coveted 12th position. If he can somehow sneak in, McMurray will be a huge sleeper for the final ten events.
Matt Kenseth – Like McMurray, Kenseth has also experienced an up and down year. After posting top 10s in six of the first seven races, Matt and the No. 17 team went cold, finishing in the top 10 just twice in a span of 15 events. Whether it’s the new engine or maybe the third (crew chief) time’s the charm, Matt has posted two consecutive top-10 finishes with a fifth at Michigan and 10th Saturday at Bristol. Kenseth will need to build on this momentum if he wants any recognition as a championship contender, though.
Honorable Mention – David Reuitimann (overcoming food poisoning to nearly pulling off a stunning upset should put some confidence back in his No. 00 team); Carl Edwards (a streak of six straight top-10 finishes ended, but he is suddenly fourth in the points?! Who saw that coming?); and Harvick (he has an “off” night, yet still finishes 14th… Last year, that would have been a terrific night for the No. 29 team)
Johnson – The fact that he has been running strong is why I can’t say Jimmie is cold. After leading 175 laps from the pole, he clearly had the car to beat Saturday night before getting taken out by Mr. Montoya on lap 263. However, there is no question that the No. 48 team has been missing something since their win at Loudon back in June. Now sitting ninth in the points and 255 points ahead of 13th, they can no longer afford to experiment with new things (if that is what they have been doing to begin with). If Jimmie encounters even more bad luck at Atlanta and Richmond, missing the Chase is not entirely out of the equation.
Kurt Busch – A ninth-place finish usually wouldn’t qualify anyone as “cold.” That is, unless you are Kurt Busch, who just finished ninth at your best track. Kurt was hardly noticed during Saturday night’s race, leading zero laps after leading 278 at this track in March. What’s worse, now he is no longer considered the best Busch at Bristol. He was just as uncompetitive at Michigan last week, but at least his engine bailed him out of a long struggle of a race. Fact of the matter is, Kurt doesn’t look to be the title threat that he once seemed to be earlier in the year.
Honorable Mention – Hendrick Motorsports (I know Tom said last week they are just testing, but Martin and Earnhardt are way off the map, and when was the last time all four Hendrick cars finished outside the top 10 in consecutive races?); ESPN (my pet peeve is a broadcast missing the restart, and they missed the very last one)
Scott Speed – Remember when Scott was in the top 12 in points after Atlanta? Yeah, neither do I. Since that race in which he finished 10th, Scott’s best non-restrictor plate finish has been a 16th at Texas. Not only does Scott need to be concerned about his season, he needs to be worried about his future with Red Bull Racing. With Kasey Kahne on board for next season and Vickers announcing he will return for the 2011 Daytona 500, Speed’s seat continues to get warmer each and every week. A best finish of just 25th since the Coke Zero 400 will not cut it, so it’s time for Scott to speed up or he will be in the slow lane next year.
Brad Keselowski – Doesn’t it seem odd how much Keselowski gets talked about despite having zero top 10s this year? Despite having his car plastered on every NASCAR promo thanks to Carl’s flipping him at Atlanta, 2010 has not met the expectations anyone had for the young Penske driver. In the Nationwide series, where Kes has led the points standings for about the entire season, his consistency has dropped off as of late. After yet another run-in this past weekend (this time with Kyle), it is getting more difficult to think Brad is an innocent victim. I will be the first to say Kyle was in the wrong Friday night, but the more incidents Brad gets in, the more I believe he needs to change the way he races or he will continue to get taken out.
Honorable Mention – Mark Martin (it’s amazing he still has any shot at the Chase with only one top 10 in the last 10 races. Should he not make the playoffs, it will be the first time he misses out as a full-time driver); Michael McDowell (now that Dave Blaney is out at PRISM, McDowell is the new No. 1 driver. He has two top-40 finishes in 17 races this year… YUCK!)