_One down, nine to go. For better or for worse, NASCAR’s ten-race playoff began with a better-than-expected start, bumper cars and backfiring pit strategies leaving fans entertained after Clint Bowyer nearly made a mockery of it all early in the going. And as expected, the start of the Chase meant the return of Cinderella, granting slippers to not only the winner but several drivers in the 43-car field that need a little magic themselves to get their act together for 2011._
_Who’s sitting pretty for their postseason push, and who’s ready to choose start-and-parking over having to run the rest of the year? My friends, that’s why we have this little table we’ve titled Who’s Hot / Who’s Not. Let’s get started…_
*Clint Bowyer* – After dialing it back three years and pulling a second straight 12 seed upset, how could you not leave the Hamburger Helper car on the top of your Chase dinnertime list? It’s clear that 2007 success story leaves him armed with the same type of healthy, focused, nothing-to-lose attitude that will make him a dangerous foe going forward. And while the Dover statistics are rather underwhelming – he’s never had a career top-5 there in nine starts – adrenaline can be a funky thing when you position it behind the wheel of a race car. His team has already proven they’ve got the “fuel” to go an extra mile, and this Chase has been sold as one full of surprises – so maybe first impressions mean everything? If nothing else, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are both doing a double take after that performance – and that’s more than was ever expected from the No. 33 Chevy this Fall.
*Denny Hamlin* – A fifth-year veteran, you can see this Joe Gibbs Racing leader finally growing up before our eyes. Candid, refreshing honesty surrounded a second-place finish on Sunday that he fully admitted immaturity would have prevented a year ago. I can just imagine it now: Hamlin gets spun out by Edwards, he drops to 22nd, whines to Mike Ford the whole time, tries to nail the No. 99 on the cool down lap and slogs home a desperate 25th. But no more. This man is a force to be reckoned with, reconstructed knee and everything, building a 35-point cushion on the rest of the field heading to his worst track on the circuit. Remember, Hamlin scored more points down the stretch than the No. 48 last season. So, if you’re Johnson, the strategy has to be stab him in the heart with as many points as possible this weekend. The Lowe’s car, honestly, may not get many more chances except for a wild card Talladega wreck.
*Kevin Harvick* – Looking for a second darkhorse Chase pick? Harvick yelled at his crew like he was a drill sargeant in the Army Corps all day, to the point you’d have expected a cop in the pits to be waiting, arrest warrant in hand for verbal assault. Yet somehow, this team responds well to abuse — whether it’s getting tired of hearing that voice on the radio or simply getting scared straight. A litany of late-race adjustments at New Hampshire turned a 27th-place car into a 5th-place finish in no time flat. The longer this team stays in the Chase, the more tracks tilt in their favor … and third in the points, 45 out is probably as good as they could have expected leaving there.
*Honorable Mention:* Kansas City Chiefs (2-0? Seriously? Don’t they know there’s a stinker of a track in Kansas nearby…); Rick Hendrick on the radio with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Hmm, a father figure calming down Dale and he responds … what a strategy! I think they used that at DEI from oh, about 1999-2005); Kyle Busch starting feuds with Truck Series drivers (first the Onion, than Buescher the Bulldozer … more fuel for the fire of an upcoming Homestead payback celebration)
*Jamie McMurray* – Sure, the No. 1 car didn’t make the Chase. But as Jamie Mac has said oh so many times, it doesn’t make a difference when he’s kissing that Silver Brick trophy from Indianapolis before bed every night. He’ll also be the first to admit consistency wasn’t his strong suit this season, a weakness that felled not only him but also teammate Juan Pablo Montoya from playoff contention. That’s what they plan to work on over the next ten weeks, and they’re making progress. Now, instead of a 3rd and a 30th in back-to-back races, McMurray will get a 3rd and around a 17th. At this rate, by February he won’t just be a top 12 lock – he’ll develop into a darkhorse contender to win it all. Jamie McMurray, 2011 Cup champion! How much would you have laughed at me if I uttered that statement just eight short months ago?
*Ryan Newman* – Stewart-Haas’ second car hasn’t exactly set the world on fire lately, with teammate Stewart armed with plenty of speed to go for broke, lead laps, and even run some gas mileage gambles all his own. The shocking part is it’s the No. 39 and Newman himself who was influential in getting the organization back on track, providing Stewart with setups over the summer when it was the Army car, not the oh-so-spicy deodorant commercial Chevy running circles around the rest of the field. So, while it’s frustrating for Newman to be the helper and not end up getting his just reward, a run of four straight consistent top-10 finishes is at least assuring 2011 will be somewhat of a better year for both.
*Honorable Mention:* Hurricane season (like six in the last three weeks, what’s that all about? Isn’t Fall right around the corner?); Mark Sanchez (it’s only one game … let’s not go crazy); Carl Edwards (still Ford’s brightest hope, but 10th and 11th? That’s perilously close to cooling off); Regan Smith (two top-20 finishes in the last three races, which for that independent team is the equivalent to pulling off a miracle)
*Greg Biffle* – Remember back when Biffle won Pocono, making him a darkhorse pick for the Chase? This team has been pretty much Chasing the handling of their Ford ever since, stumbling into the playoffs and showing absolutely zero signs of life in a 17th-place finish that could have been far worse. Avoiding the wrecks was admirable, but that’s hardly a ticket to championship stardom for a team seemingly destined to join good buddy Matt Kenseth in the playoff cellar. Dover is typically a Roush stronghold, so while I don’t bury guys after one bad Chase race (usually) – two bad showings like this one puts the nail in the coffin for this guy.
*Kurt Busch* – Probably not a good idea to start the Miller Lite Farewell Tour by driving drunk, right? But that’s what Mr. Busch did Sunday — outward frustration justified after his ill-handling Dodge decided to take a second career as a battering ram. I’m not so sure many others were so happy to see him get the gig, a list including Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler among others having their days ruined indirectly by Kurt’s indiscretions. Runs of 18th and 13th the last two weeks have shown some cracks in the No. 2’s seemingly impenetrable foundation earlier this summer. And hey! Things were so bad, even Sam Hornish, Jr. outran him on Sunday. That would be a cause of major concern for the next nine races if I were him…
*Honorable Mention:* Paul Menard (no top-20 finishes the last five weeks, ironically occurring after a public announcement he’s leaving for RCR in 2011 – let’s just say Kasey Kahne can relate); Kyle Busch’s reality show (no, it was actually really cool … every driver termed evil until proven tolerable should do one to prove they’re actually normal people); Brad Keselowski (yes, a pole and two top-20 finishes – but to him, they’re not good enough considering a certain Miller Lite teammate might fight for a title); Making fun of the Cowboys and Vikings this week (do it before things turn around)
*Mark Martin* – Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevy has been looking more like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 as of late, their shocking disaster the talk of NASCAR in 2010. Now six races removed from his last top-10 finish, the 51-year-old has been looking more like a younger version of Morgan Shepherd as of late, Jesus not around to save him from a long line of mediocre performances making last year’s runner-up miracle a distant memory. Can Earnhardt’s shocking Sunday fourth provide a boost of energy over in Martin’s direction? Only if this team is truly over missing the Chase and focused on getting their program turned around for 2011 – and no, that doesn’t mean becoming Jimmie and Jeff’s R & D car the next nine weeks. Why can’t legends ever retire with dignity?
*Front Row Motorsports* – They’re suing a former driver and sponsor. There’s no financial backer to replace them. And the handling of their cars looks to be getting worse by the minute. This team didn’t start 2010 as an automatic backmarker, but lately they’re virtually guaranteed to be the slowest cars in the field still running – Sunday was their second straight race where its trio of entries ran outside the top 30. 32nd, 33rd, and 34th-place finishes are far below the modest goals this team’s set for itself while trying to simply survive this awful NASCAR economic climate until November.
*Honorable Mention:* Bruton Smith insulting Cubans (seriously, enough already); any sort of Chase expansion (didn’t Sunday show us if you’re going to keep the darned thing – keep what you have?); Barrow, AK (temperature of 31 degrees tomorrow night – the cold my friends, it’s coming); Michael McDowell (Richmond DNQ followed by wrecking the primary at Loudon – even for a start-and-parker, that’s not a good resume); Team Red Bull (can 2011 come fast enough? 29.5 average finish among both teams the last two weeks)