For some, reading this article comes in between fits of crying, temper tantrums, pencil-throwing or downright hysteria. That’s right, kids; it’s back to school time! (And you shouldn’t be playing hooky by reading right now. Although we’re happy you are). Best of luck in the upcoming year, and if you’re a teacher – particularly a middle school one – best of luck simply surviving between now and the end of your first day managing a bunch of hormone-filled, energy-injected, playing-with-my-smartphone-instead-of-listening-to-you teenage terrors.
But while summer winds down for millions of Americans, the real heart of the NASCAR schedule is apparently just heating up – or so we’ve been told. The sport’s Brian France version of the playoffs looms just around the corner, the race to the Chase so good someone forgot to tell the drivers 13th on back in the standings to make it interesting. Get on the airplane, relax and take in those hours upon hours of pre-Chase analysis that this year, you’ll never get back. Crazy theorems about what happens if Greg Biffle decides to start and park, if Clint Bowyer misses his flight and all sorts of other ridiculous, inane propositions lie ahead – all of which attempt to make the playoff battle much more interesting than it actually will be coming down the stretch on Saturday night.
However, hidden beneath all the Richmond faux drama will be drivers throwing caution to the wind, a final regular-season race that means nothing unless a Chaser can bring home the 10-point bonus from Saturday night’s Air Guard 400 at Richmond. Believe it or not, for one night people will actually be focusing on a win, at a short track no less, giving this upcoming gem the potential to make its way into “Best Race of the Decade” category before the green flag ever drops. Talk about high expectations…
Who’s best positioned to cash in “no guts, no glory?” And who’s in desperate need of a solid night out in order to avoid throwing up an ugly playoff stinker? It’s all ahead, folks, your first in-school distraction in this latest edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
Carl Edwards: It’s a rare case that second place really isn’t the first loser, but Cousin Carl is kicking butt and taking names right now – and all without flipping someone into the wall on a whim. A second-place run at Atlanta leaves him lifting four top-five finishes in the last five races, a heck of a workout regimen pulling him up from Blue Oval weakling to bonafide title contender in the matter of a month. The big secret is the Chase tracks have always set up well for Edwards, who makes a living off the type of 1.5-to-2 mile “cookie-cutter” intermediates that consistently comprise five of those 10 tracks in the playoffs. If the No. 99 bunch can simply replicate their May Richmond performance – that fifth-place finish was the lone top-five at the time in what looked like a long season – they’ll be primed and ready to throw Denny Hamlin out of the ring and wear the crown of Jimmie Johnson’s biggest challengers. Sorry, Brad Keselowski-ans, there ain’t nothin’ you’re gonna do about that… your man’s busy cooking up bigger Busches to fry.
Kyle Busch: Quick, name the Joe Gibbs Racing driver with back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in nearly three months? If you guessed Hamlin, you’re no longer in tune with who’s got the best chance to win the title out of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Truthfully, the answer is no one – another topic for another day – but if I have to pick, you gotta respect the resiliency of the man they call Shrub behind his back. Nearly two laps down at one point this Sunday, Kyle came charging back with the help of some lucky caution flags, then sliced through traffic like he was cutting cold cuts at the deli en route to a comfortable fifth-place finish. Other than a fight to third at Charlotte with a car that barely had its sheetmetal intact, it’s by far the most impressive drive I’ve seen during Busch’s tumultuous season. And as we know in racing, it’s not the victories but the fight for top fives like those which separate the men holding the trophy from the ones who wished they did.
Honorable Mention: Spongebob Squarepants Band-Aids (listed as a “Hot” back to school item by Office Depot – really?); Fantasy football drafts (Someone needs to redo NASCAR fantasy to compete… ‘cause we all saw how well that worked with the Chase); Kevin Harvick (don’t let one faulty wheel fool you – this team is still the real deal); Todd Bodine (winning the race, then slamming 3,000 words of disses in Kyle Busch’s face? Ohhhh no you didn’t…)
Jeff Burton: While teammate Harvick cruises towards a regular-season points title, it’s Burton sitting pretty on the cusp of consistency: a 4-5-6-7-8-9 run of six top-10 finishes in just the last eight weeks. Where the No. 31 team excels is gaining five to seven spots after a strong list of late-race adjustments; where it doesn’t is actually coming close enough to spend time at the front. Averaging a sixth-place finish is all well and good, sure, but zero laps led in the last seven regular-season races? That doesn’t exactly have championship trophy written all over the stat sheet. J.B. moves to sentimental favorite with Mark Martin all but locked out of the postseason, but warm and fuzzy feelings don’t come packaged with extra speed. This team needs to go from good to great, starting… now.
Johnson: Guess who’s back? Seasoned observers were well aware Johnson never really left the building, leading a bulky 386 laps in just the last seven races alone. A wreckers-or-checkers philosophy has left the No. 48 dangling on the end of the regular season Chase table, but let’s not forget the reigning four-time champ will fall no lower than the playoffs’ second seed. A podium finish Sunday (third) showcased the ability of this team to still finish what they start, and who knows? Without a Keselowski half-spin, he might have been sitting in victory lane after another thrilling side-by-side finish with Edwards. Do I expect the No. 48 to win sometime within the next three weeks? No. But he doesn’t lose his Chase favorite label until someone wrecks him; and even then, he’s dangerous until the checkered flag falls at Homestead.
Honorable Mention: More from the Office Depot “Hot Back To School List” – The TI-84 Plus Graphic Calculator – Silver Edition (I haven’t been out of school that long, and boy have things changed – that thing looks like its own smartphone); Palm Zire 21 (‘cause students aren’t distracted enough by random, unnecessary electronic items); Matt Kenseth (riding the coattails of his Ford teammates with three straight top-11 finishes)
Jeff Gordon: It’s one week to go, and the biggest zero in the win column still belongs to the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. But what’s more disturbing about Gordon’s victory drought is two months ago, he deserved to have four, five, six race trophies sitting on his 2010 resume. Now? He couldn’t sniff the front with a pack of dogs, some smelling salts, and Pinocchio’s nose. Runs of 10th, 27th, 11th and 13th the last four weeks have left him quietly defeated in the face of Chasers showing their hand. When it comes to the No. 48 team, we know they’re saving their best for the playoffs. With Gordon’s recent history? I’m not so sure, meaning a seventh or eighth-place finish among the Chasers each week is a kiss of death for the latest Drive For Five campaign growing weaker by the minute.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Keep Lance McGrew. Dump Lance McGrew. The gossip surrounding Dale Jr.’s crew chief is buzzing louder than any of the top stories on Entertainment Tonight. So far, Rick Hendrick is defending his dynamic duo like it would be a horrific split the likes of Abbott and Costello. But is this marriage really worth throwing your weight behind? Just one top-15 finish in the last seven races, waning confidence behind the wheel and disparaging comments by Ray Evernham and others saying, “It’s the driver’s fault” aren’t helping matters at all. Here’s the bottom line: you can push Junior all you want, but the man’s job comes packaged with a “no pink slip” clause that keeps him behind the wheel for the foreseeable future. So, if the driver’s not pushing himself, you’ve got to get someone else in place who can motivate him. Someone, anyone… but this type of status quo just doesn’t work. It can’t.
Joey Logano: Somewhere in between a firesuit, a Ryan Newman fight and the latest filming of Daddy: Let Go, Logano happened to lose his on-track mojo. We knew the sophomore slump was going to come, and guess what? It’s just in time for a “Back To School” special where the 20-year-old learns from his mistakes all over again. Let’s spout out the last five finishes: 25th, 33rd, 10th, 18th, 27th. That’s nothing special, just like this season after starting out with such Chase-worthy promise.
Honorable Mention: Dave Blaney (24th in his first ride not start-and-parking with Front Row – but just the fact he ditched start-and-parking after a year-and-a-half is cool); Kasey Kahne vs. Newman (good to see two guys you wouldn’t expect steal the “Have at It, Boys” spotlight); Casey Mears (new driver in the GEICO car – but same old result (26th))
Elliott Sadler: For a man who started August slamming into a concrete barrier with his life on the line, I guess we should just be happy Sadler’s alive. But at some point, you want a little success to get added to your story, and that’s where the likable Virginian’s Cup career has long fallen short. A ninth-place finish buried within runs of 34th, 29th, 29th and 41st the last five weeks… it’s not exactly a sparkling audition to give to potential start-and-park Cup employers. Perhaps the icing on the cake was another hard crash not of his making Sunday; a Biffle bump into the wall that left him hurting today and likely confining his career options to Nationwide or Trucks. But would winning behind the wheel of Harvick’s No. 2 really be so bad?
Hamlin: A last-place finish with a busted engine left Hamlin saying his run was “50/50” over at Joe Gibbs Racing. At first, I believed him, and I respect the stride in both maturity and composure he’s made in times of crisis over the last 12 months. But the bottom line is this guy’s supposed to be a championship favorite, and he’s sitting there with the worst average finish of any Chaser over the last four races (29.0). I know we’ve seen that from Johnson… but Hamlin has a history of blowing up inside the Chase. You have to think internally, there’s a lot of sleepless nights and worried people over at JGR right now. From stud to dud in just 10 weeks? I hope that’s not what we’re about to see from a guy who was a motivational story with his torn ACL.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Conway (new team, same problem staying competitive); JJ Yeley (from failing to qualify a car that’s down 40 horsepower to qualifying a car that’s guaranteed to start and park – I’m not sure which one is better); Scott Speed (great guy, talented driver, but that fire underneath the engine was later used by Jay Frye to burn his contract with Team Red Bull. Let’s put it this way – Mattias Ekstrom has a better chance at a full-time ride with the team in ’11. Ja.)
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