_Thanksgiving may be next up on the Holiday Hit List, but don’t be fooled; I just heard Christmas music on the radio today for the first time (God help us all). That scary pop Holiday cover did get me to thinking, though … with you poor millions of fans about to be bombarded with 5,000,000 columns on the Big Three and who’s got the edge heading to Homestead, me included, it’s high time you got an early holiday present of one column in which the *”Oh My God! Best Chase in history ever let’s all bow down to the magic of the championship unfolding before us season finale!”* wasn’t mentioned at all. So guess what? Here’s my Hot / Not gift from me to you, a guided tour away from all things Chase, Fed Ex, Lowe’s and Pennzoil into the world of other drivers whose seasons – and coverage – in the minds of many ended weeks ago. So sit back, enjoy, and take in some long overdue updates in the latest edition of Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in NASCAR._
*Todd Bodine:* Kevin Harvick has a better story on the stats sheet. Jamie McMurray’s tall tale of zero to hero will tear at your heartstrings. But in the working class category for Comeback Driver of the Year sits the biggest underdog of all, a man whose Truck Series team in all reality should have been on the auction block by June. Running for an unsponsored program that patched together discount deals and had an owner fueled by out-of-pocket passion, this group won their second Truck title together on determination, consistency, and staying out of trouble while watching their main rivals literally crash around them. Clinching one week early at Phoenix, the battle may have been a snoozer but everyone’s now wide awake as to how the Truck Series has salvaged this once Cup-also ran’s career. Elliott Sadler, take note, as five years from now this could be you.
*Reed Sorenson:* Don’t look now, but the young Georgian everyone labeled the next Casey Atwood may actually be making the most of his second second chance. No, that’s not a misprint, as the now 24-year-old Sorenson went from Ganassi gold to Richard Petty Motorsports bronze, blew both the opportunities and got both medals stripped on his way to the other side of the tracks – the “young gun” unemployment line from which few return. He caught a break, though, when Brian Vickers needed someone to share his Nationwide ride at Braun, then broke down healthwise to the point Sorenson could finish the season. Even pulling a stint on the Cup side for Vickers, filling in at Red Bull, his resume has been most impressive on the second-tier level, riding a string of five straight top-10 finishes while establishing himself as the “A” driver within the new Braun-turned-Turner organization over Jason Leffler. Will that last once Justin Allgaier comes into the fold come 2011? Considering this guy’s the one with sponsorship, the answer is probably yes … which makes the man a darkhorse championship contender should NASCAR’s possible Cup-banning rules allow him the chance to compete for one. If the Cup Series could ever get some new owners and cars into the garage, he … forgive me, I’m dreaming. Like that’s ever going to happen…
*Ford:* The Blue Oval’s third victory on the Cup side this season was also their most important: Carl Edwards snapped a 70-race winless streak while reasserting himself as their youngest, brightest superstar who’s falling into favor with fans once again. Behind him with top-7 finishes were *Greg Biffle* (fourth) and *Matt Kenseth* (seventh), one of which ended a long victory drought of his own this summer while the other is simply knocking on the door. How appropriate would it be if Kenseth wins a race at Homestead exactly three years after his last win with Robbie Reiser, then turns around in the offseason and begs for him to come back? It’s all part of that “three strikes and you beg your ex” rule … but I digress. The bottom line is it seems Richard Petty Motorsports going bankrupt has actually taken a huge load off of Roush-Fenway, who no longer has to hold up a four-car organization beyond this season and is now Ford’s primary focus. I think over the long-term, Roush will realize he needed that “B” team more than he might think at the moment, but in the short-term I see major benefits, as in my “SI.com”:http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/tom_bowles/11/14/five.things.from.phoenix/index.html prediction, I believe Edwards will lead the points in early Spring. We’ll see.
*Honorable Mention:* Joey Logano (7-6-5-4-3 finish means … I’m asking him to pick the my lottery ticket this weekend. Joey, you’ve been warned!); the movement to repave Phoenix with asphalt and a configuration where the competition won’t dry up like the desert; “Fire Chilly” and/or turn him into actual Chili with your bare hands columns (do people realize Brett Favre’s the one hobbling on a bad ankle, throwing all the interceptions?); making ridiculous, horrific changes to both the playoff system and Nationwide Series that make things worse, not better (let’s hope what I’m hearing never comes to pass … rumors I hope die on the vine for once)
*Jamie McMurray:* A finalist for my Driver of the Year without a Chase appearance to his credit, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner is now adding a third, more personal trophy to his credit: The How To Handle Adversity Medal. After hitting the wall on Lap 70 and a weird incident where he threw out a water bottle onto the track not long thereafter, it looked like a 30th-place finish was a certainty at Phoenix. Even this Spring, this group struggled with these type of performances that kept them locked out of the Chase despite their victories. But hidden amongst the title hype was a gung-ho comeback that left them 10th by the checkered flag — fuel mileage combined with formidable driving reminds us all this team will be Chasing a title come 2011.
*Johnny Sauter:* Bodine won the title, but kudos to this once 30-something castoff who has resurrected his career over in Trucks. 13 top-5s and 15 top-10 finishes are career highs for him in any of the sport’s top three divisions, and this former Richard Childress Racing driver outperformed young Austin Dillon en route to third in the standings with his underdog team. Still fiery, the youngest of the racing Sauters has learned how to be reserved at the right times, easily one of your 2011 title favorites along with teammate *Matt Crafton* as he seems to have found a home for the long-term.
*Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / Brian Scott:* The first half of this rookie duo shouldn’t even have a ride right now, while the other _really didn’t_ have one a month ago. But both are overachieving late in what’s shaped up to be an outstanding rookie race between the two. My guess is that Stenhouse will win the battle, taking home the yearly award although Scott has clearly won the war: money and connections have Joe Gibbs Racing fielding a full-time robbery vehicle with which he can pillage his competitors next season. Stenhouse? Well, what an admirable comeback, but crashing the equivalent to an entire new car lot full of Lexuses (I.E. – Roush Nationwide cars) in the first half of the year may still prove his undoing.
*Honorable Mention:* Bobby Hamilton, Jr. (has four straight top-15s in the Truck Series, driving underfunded equipment … it’s the best kept secret of 2010); Mark Martin (still in the hunt for “best of the rest,” or at 51, “best of the geriatrics”); starting-and-parking … again (especially in the Nationwide Series); Miami compared to Philadelphia (can’t wait to board the plane)
*David Reutimann:* Is it possible to label someone a “two-hit wonder?” The Chicagoland victory was supposed to propel this team to the next level but instead has it stuck in reverse. The MWR veteran’s led just three times for 40 laps ever since, a total of 16 races in which he’s accumulated just two additional top-5 finishes. That’s not too bad if you’re a first-year driver, even a sophomore, but in year four the expectations are rising to one day take this program to the next level. Trust me, that contract extension through 2012 didn’t come with the thought he’d finish 18th in points every year, making next season a critical one to see if one of Toyota’s top programs can take charge on a consistent basis.
*Ron Hornaday, Jr.:* What the heck is going on with this guy? Check out the mind-boggling stat of the year: the reigning Truck champ had six DNFs _total_ in the last five years running the Truck Series full-time. This year? He’s got six DNFs in all, each of them for wrecks that have decimated some of Kevin Harvick, Inc.’s top equipment. Longtime friends, Harvick and Hornaday agreed on a contract extension as of late but the program appeared so off this season you wonder if that might have been a move out of loyalty, not the reality that both might be better off starting a new chapter elsewhere. Not what you’d expect from the future first Hall of Famer from the Truck side…
*Bobby Labonte:* Here’s the good news: Labonte still hasn’t been fired from his 2011 ride at JTG Daugherty. But even after a solid 20th-place finish Sunday, this former NASCAR champ can’t get back into half-decent equipment soon enough. Barring a miracle, he’ll end the season without a top-10 or even top-15 finish for the first time since running his first two races in Cup back in 1991. Now 46 years old, you wonder if the best years have passed him by or it’s simply a case of bad timing, even worse equipment and terrible chemistry. Let’s hope for his sake, with Marcos Ambrose possibly in desperation mode and RPM’s future in doubt, there won’t be a sudden change of heart that leads to more bad timing: Labonte on the street.
*Honorable Mention:* The Washington Redskins with Donovan McNabb as their quarterback; Robby Gordon’s Sprint Cup future (does he have one?); America’s Racing Team (do they even still exist); inspecting the championship cars nearly two weeks before Homestead (does that really make anyone believe the NASCAR officials have more credibility?)
*Brendan Gaughan:* What a nightmare scenario. After six years, Gaughan finally gets a second chance at Cup, a one-race deal with a middling team (TRG) to show what he can do. Well, he sure put on a display Sunday afternoon: how to launch your car right into the wall. Just two laps into the race, the once-Penske driver’s day was done, the low point in an end-of-season slump that’s included just one top-10 finish in Nationwide during his last fourteen starts. Instead, there’s four DNFs to his credit for a Rusty Wallace, Inc. program limping to the finish line, wondering when or if it’ll ever live up to the full potential envisioned upon its creation four years ago. But hey, at least when all’s said and done this guy can hit up the slot machines for free at his dad’s own resort…
*Brian Keselowski:* For this struggling owner/driver, the start-and-park necessity combined with some ugly outings from Parker Kligerman running his number has turned disastrous. In the last seven races where his No. 26 has qualified, they’ve run a total of 14 – yes, 14 – laps. Oy yoy yoy. Where do you go with that? One of racing’s nice guys, it’s a blue collar story that wants to make it but doesn’t have any of the help or the sponsorship needed to do so. The independent story of success in the ‘80s is the one who today falls victim to the giant metal foot of Jack Roush, Roger Penske, yadda yadda yadda… you know the drill.
*Danica Patrick / Dale Earnhardt, Jr.:* With one race to go, racing’s first female remains without a top-20 finish on her ugly stock car resume. It’s not a matter of “how much worse can it get?” but “there’s nowhere to go but up.” And as for her car owner, a 14th-place finish Sunday at Phoenix can’t stop the impending freight train of offseason changes headed the No. 88 team’s way. Will it be enough to keep the Earnhardt-Hendrick partnership afloat past 2011? Future free agency will be one of the sport’s biggest stories if we see these types of struggles for either next season.
*Honorable Mention:* PRISM Motorsports (not even positioning themselves to start-and-park when they can’t qualify); Landon Cassill (worth so much more than the options he’s been given in the sport); Scott Speed (you know the drill); Sam Hornish, Jr. (ditto); North Dakota (buried in snow); Brett Favre (buried with the consequences of his own bad choices)