Three drivers. Two races. One championship. However, they’re far from the only major storylines as the Sprint Cup season heads to a whirlwind close over the next two weeks. Let’s not waste any time after an action-packed Texas; instead, it’s time to figure out who’s in the best position to capitalize on their late-season success – or run from their failures – with Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in NASCAR.
Denny Hamlin – Here we are, 13 days before the end of the Sprint Cup season and Jimmie Johnson’s ironclad grip on the Sprint Cup title has finally been hospitalized in critical condition. That’s courtesy one priority overnight FedEx knockout punch, Hamlin packing a Texas tornado in the form of a season sweep that left Johnson 33 points behind and suddenly the underdog in a Chase that was on the verge of being named in his honor. Instead, the challenger that may bring down racing’s version of the Roman Empire holds the confidence, charisma and plain on-track speed to bring Johnson to his knees where others have failed.
Six months from his own knee reconstruction, the way Hamlin has approached the Chase is brilliant, staying on his feet and beating Johnson at his own game by making a living on “playing it safe.” Only at tracks like Martinsville and Texas has the No. 11 Toyota risen to the challenge, maximizing opportunities at places where they were favored to win while simply “surviving” in the form of top-10 finishes elsewhere. What you’re left with is a scintillating Chase average finish of 5.8, two wins and a low mark of 12th where consistency has combined with this cunning mental game to bring J.J. and company to the precipice of losing the throne. The key now is for this healing ACL patient not to get too big for his britches, as already Mike Ford, Hamlin and Co. were starting to play mind games with some off-the-cuff comments about how they’re in a much better position than the No. 48. Every time Hamlin’s talked the talk, he’s walked the walk in this postseason. But the more you wrestle with a sleeping giant… let’s just say he’s been warned.
Mark Martin – It’s too little, too late for the 51-year-old to make the Chase, but perhaps seven straight top-15 finishes can build a solid foundation as he works towards a “final” full-time season in 2011. It’ll be known as the Mark Martin Does Anybody Still Listen To My Retirement Plans XI Tour, one last gasp at a title in Hendrick equipment that’s finally responding to the changes both Martin and Alan Gustafson are throwing at it. A darkhorse to land a surprising Phoenix victory, this team took over 13th in the standings after Texas and is the prohibitive favorite to end the season armed with the title of “best of the rest.” Oh boy, just what NASCAR’s Charlie Brown needs; another runner-up finish award.
Joey Logano – Looks like school’s out for this college-age kid whose sophomore slump ended sometime in early December. Runs of seventh, sixth, fifth and fourth have set a new high mark in a Sprint Cup career and actually have him saying things like “Heck yeah!” and “Cool, man!” in interviews instead of trying to passive-aggressively insult Kevin Harvick’s wife. A calmer, more confident Logano is just what Joe Gibbs Racing needs in the shop this week with Hamlin privately a nervous wreck and Kyle Busch publicly verbally assaulting anyone within a 50-foot radius. For 2011, he becomes the darkhorse to be the sport’s first new playoff participant since 2008. But right now, he’s just the upbeat, level-headed kid that gets to fly under the radar and watch his teammates swallow up the attention for another two weeks.
Honorable Mention: Trevor Bayne’s future Sprint Cup prospects (can one top-20 finish be enough to topple Kevin Conway for Rookie of the Year?); Throwing Johnson’s fifth straight title bid under the bus (after all, it’s not over ‘til it’s over); dumping on the Dallas Cowboys until the blue star turns red with embarrassment; Pretending all is well at RPM when the truth is anything but
Clint Bowyer/Kevin Harvick – One driver was penalized 150 points, left for dead and given the scraps of a Harvick crew their former driver said didn’t perform. The second wheelman won the regular season points title going away, has been putting pressure on both Hamlin and Johnson during the Chase and is a trendy pick alongside Jamie McMurray for Comeback Driver of the Year.
Yet for both these men, the Chase will be just as memorable in completely different ways. Only Hamlin has as many wins than Mr. Bowyer this postseason, with the latter scoring one at Talladega last week even with his regular crew chief and car chief sitting at home. That “never give up” attitude has been critical for Richard Childress’s youngest Cup driver, showing his peers how it’s done while merely doubling his win total in the midst of pure chaos surrounding him these past eight weeks.
Then there’s Harvick, leading RCR’s first serious title bid since losing the man they call the Intimidator (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) a decade ago. This man intimidates in his own way, all kinds of creative expletives on the radio making it remarkable the men on pit road actually come out and service the car. But the tough love routine can’t be doubted when the man would have clinched the championship under NASCAR’s old system this weekend – the would have, could have, and should have routine that is useless to debate because it will never be. Now 59 points out with two races left, this No. 29 team is free to go for broke, ready to see what happens but don’t be surprised if they find themselves needing to pass their own obstacle in the closing laps: Bowyer and the No. 33.
Matt Kenseth – Ever so quietly, the man most thought didn’t deserve to make the Chase could now be in position to grab the ultimate steal. Despite just six top-five finishes, the 2003 Cup champ is fifth in points and poised to rise as high as fourth after a second-place finish at Texas that literally came out of nowhere. Sure, this man would like to end a 68-race losing streak that dates all the way back to the February, 2009 race at California. But considering the ugly year Ford’s had combined with the fact he’s on his third crew chief this year, anywhere in the neighborhood of fourth to sixth in the standings would make him this year’s Chase Cinderella by a longshot.
Honorable Mention: Brad Keselowski, your 2010 Sprint Cup regular turned Nationwide Series champion; Roger Penske, who wins his first NASCAR title in any of the sport’s top-three divisions – just not the one he covets the most; David Ragan (two top-10s in the last four races; impressive considering he had three in the previous 66, but UPS isn’t paying over half-million a race for the occasional top-10); IndyCar making deals and getting interest from other manufacturers, including Chevrolet in a possible partnership with Chip Ganassi in 2012 (who’s looking at NASCAR? Your used car guy down the street?)
Juan Pablo Montoya – Has anybody called Juan Pablo’s house lately? I haven’t seen him on the track these last two months and I was wondering if or when he might show up. A man who was once considered a Chase wild card – an impressive title seeing Montoya isn’t actually involved in the playoff – is now resigned to little more than racing out the string, just one top-five finish in the same postseason where he was a pesky obstacle in Johnson’s fourth straight title bid last year. It seems the oomph and the swagger is out of this team on raceday, an August victory at Watkins Glen now a distant memory as momentum comes in the form of simply trying to finish inside the top half of the field. Can this Colombian learn from McMurray in 2011? Did we really just print that sentence? That’s how far his stock has fallen as of late.
Chad Knaus – Speaking of falling, the man who’s the mastermind of four straight title runs is going out of his way to ensure he can do everything possible to ***k (rhymes with cluck) this one up. Not only was pulling his own over-the-wall crew a terrible move, it distracted the man from the one thing he’s supposed to be doing on the radio with Johnson: making the right adjustments. Think back to Martinsville, where a team who once counted that track as an automatic victory simply struggled to run in the top five while the guy on top of the pit box shrugged his shoulders and basically said to Jimmie, “I don’t know how to fix it.” It’s the same man who’s struggled to account for both race trends and other cars like usual, leaving the No. 48 the equivalent of a dead anchor in traffic when succeeding in this series has become all about mastering short runs. And now, he pulls the equivalent of dropping Peyton Manning’s offensive line two weeks before the Super Bowl as a way to “invigorate” this ailing program? How in the world will Johnson and the guys in the shop respond to that? Don’t you win and lose as a team, not when it’s convenient for you?
I really respect Knaus for all that he’s done with this program. He’s undoubtedly one of the great crew chiefs in NASCAR history. But this latest rash of decision-making has me scratching my head and wondering if the magic, at least for now, has gone on hiatus.
Honorable Mention: Changing the Chase format under any circumstances other than its complete and total elimination; Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed remaining in NASCAR; the performance of pit crews contending for a championship; my fantasy football teams, one of which has lost three straight after a 5-1 start; Brett Favre making the worst decision other than LeBron’s Decision, ever, by coming back to the NFL
Kurt Busch – Over at Penske Racing, the offseason will be filled with plenty of engineering and team improvement meetings all asking the same question: “What happened in the Chase?” A trendy darkhorse pick to contend for the title has done anything but, Busch armed with just one top-10 result this postseason – a fourth at Dover – to go along with five laps led and an ugly streak of five straight finishes of 16th or worse. Maybe he’s trying to get the Miller Lite folks prepared for their switch to Keselowski? Could a similar Harvick-like series of tirades have finally worn down the enthusiasm of his pit crew? Or did this team suffer from a lack of Dodge “teammates” when the rest of the cars in the Chase had a mountain of manufacturer sharing at their disposal? Who knows. All I can tell you is not even making the banquet in his hometown of Vegas – which is right where Kurt sits at 11th in the season standings – would be the equivalent to a personal embarrassment.
Jeff Burton – It isn’t just the 1-2 punch from Jeff Gordon that has this well-respected veteran feeling blue. Two straight DNFs for wrecks have highlighted a two-year period where this driver has been involved in more than his fair share of crashes, many not of his making as the innocent victim card makes him guilty of an extended period of winless frustration. Still without a victory since the fall 2008 race at Charlotte, this man’s been reduced to nothing but a dignified assistant for the next two weeks as it’s a pair of successful teammates poised to go for all the guts and the glory of both wins and, if Harvick’s lucky, a Sprint Cup title. With maybe one, two more full-time seasons under his belt you wonder if Burton’s getting resigned to the fact such success may never happen to him – a crazy statement considering a decade ago people were labeling the man the next successor to Gordon. See, there’s something these two share other than a couple of awkward shoves and the same first name!
Honorable Mention: NASCAR officials’ feelings towards Kyle Busch (and trust me… they’re reciprocated); Joe Morgan’s future in MLB broadcasting; Front Row Motorsports (two blown engines within the first 25 laps Sunday, the fourth team DNF in just the last three races after only incurring four since the beginning of May); Manhattan, Mont. (not to be confused with the Big Apple; 29 degrees and a Winter Storm Warning in effect. Arctic chill, coming soon to an East Coast city near you)