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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR : Homestead-2011 Edition

_Sad But true: the 2010 racing season, for all intents and purposes, is over. Sure, we’ll see ten drivers polish off their skills in public speaking, reading off a script this December before trying to gamble millions’ worth of salary away in Las Vegas. But for all intents and purposes, the NASCAR circus has ended its Ringling Brothers Tour, a three-month hiatus hopefully building towards the excitement of a new-age, newly-repaved Daytona 500 in February._

_Certainly, the hottest drivers concluding the season are easy to figure out: Carl Edwards (two straight wins), Jimmie Johnson (five straight titles), and other series champs Brad Keselowski (Nationwide) and Todd Bodine (Trucks). But before we close the book on the season, it’s time to recognize several others who have made an under-the-radar impact, one they hope can carry over into the limelight of center stage come 2011. It’s the runs you might not have noticed – buried underneath “points as of now” – that now have my attention for a moment before a long winter’s hibernation. Oh, and we’ll talk about some pink slips too, an ugly necessity for a column always titled Who’s Hot … and Who’s Not._

*HOT*

*Aric Almirola* – Hard to believe how far this driver has come in nine months. Let’s not forget, back in February his future in any of the sport’s top three series was in doubt, a sponsorship deal dissolving on the No. 09 James Finch car that magically turned his Cup ride into a race-by-race litany of start-and-parks. But as luck would have it, Billy Ballew needed a replacement driver after Kyle Busch went to start his own team in Trucks, funding from Graceway Pharmaceuticals just enough to run a full season with someone new. Almirola jumped at the chance, two underdogs forming a fan favorite that won twice, then finished second in the standings behind eventual champ Bodine. In the process, he scored a third-place run at O’Reilly Raceway Park in the Nationwide Series, an August audition that led to his full-time placement in 2011: driver of the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

What a long list of accomplishments for a driver staring at a possible career-ending disaster just a few months earlier. But the icing on the cake came from subbing for a team whose future also hangs in the balance: Richard Petty Motorsports, a fourth-place finish Sunday easily a Cup career best. The Budweiser Ford came out of nowhere and shockingly had the long run speed to keep pace with the leaders, never faltering even after being put in the precarious position of championship contenders around him. It capped a last month of experience that’s bound to serve him well in 2011, potential Cup employers starting to drool if only they had the key to sign this talented young man: money.

*Johnny Sauter* – Sure, Todd Bodine took the Truck Series title while Kyle Busch stole the show in Victory Lane. But Sauter had the truck to beat at Homestead, his No. 13 Chevy a formidable foe until a poor pit stop and some ugly wall contact on-track damaged his chances enough to keep the No. 18 out in front. At the time, Sauter seemed an angry mess on the radio, but fully composed himself in time for a line of post-race interviews that all pointed out this Polly Positive fact: four top-3 finishes in the last four races, the only Truck Series driver to do post those numbers down the stretch other than Busch. Without a title in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions, the driver is hungry and so is this team, coming within a whisker of capturing the trophy with Matt Crafton back in 2009. What does it all add up to? High expectations and a belief anything second or worse in the standings will be a major disappointment next year.

*Honorable Mention:* Chad Knaus turning on the jets just in time, Rick Hendrick / NASCAR conspiracy theories, confusion over why we end our season in a desolate location in south Florida, multiple grooves at Homestead – why can’t we have that at every other intermediate?

*WARM*

*Martin Truex, Jr.* – This name seemed to fall off the map midsummer, the second Jeff Gordon’s rear bumper helped ruin a top-5 result at Infineon and take a potential longshot Chase bid off the table. But ever so quietly, the once-flagship team at Michael Waltrip Racing has been getting its act together, peaking with a 62 laps led, near-victorious performance at Homestead before an equalized tire left him 11th. Still, for Truex that marks his third top-15 finish inside the last four races, a first since August and a crucial building block to starting off 2011 on the right foot. Considering a strong performance in last February’s Daytona 500, the restrictor plate prowess of this organization combined with past history makes him a favorite to contend again; and any type of longshot victory (Jamie McMurray, anyone?) could make him the sport’s next comeback story under the right circumstances.

*Ryan Newman* – In the end, the “Best of the Rest” glory of 13th in points went to Mark Martin. But Stewart-Haas Racing’s straggling second team got its act together late, runs of second and seventh suddenly giving them more momentum than even the boss, Tony Stewart, heading into a wide open Chase field for 2011 that they’ll be favored to make. Righting the ship ever so slightly, the No. 39 car also welcomed a new fan into their fold, Ryan Newman’s daughter, Brooklyn, born happy and healthy while providing a mental boost that’s bound to last into next season.

*Honorable Mention:* Kasey Kahne (first pole with Red Bull); Bill Elliott (first top-15 finish of the season for the Wood Brothers); investor interest in Richard Petty Motorsports (but will it be enough to save them?); Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (from the outhouse (eight wrecks through May) to the penthouse (Nationwide Rookie of the Year))

*COOL*

*Juan Pablo Montoya* – Finally, Montoya made it into the headlines, but for all the wrong reasons at Homestead: tussling with Joey Logano, then paying the price for “Sliced Bread’s” temper, temper in getting wrecked in retaliation under yellow. Most importantly, it’s the ninth time in ten races the Colombian ran outside the top 10 inside the Chase, putting the punctuation mark on a lost season that remains without a sense of direction for 2011. Will the Colombian get it together before giving up and heading back to open wheel? Early struggles could make that a potential storyline going forward.

*Elliott Sadler* – Sure, this Virginian said all the right things in leaving his ride with the Gilletts (er, Richard Petty Motorsports) following the Homestead finale. But a trio of runs outside the top 20 – 23rd, 23rd, and 28th – showcase an ending more accurately reflecting a four-year reign of disappointment with the program. Kudos to Sadler, though, for recognizing the Cup career needs to be rebuilt and for doing it with one of the sport’s more established Nationwide programs: Kevin Harvick, Inc. beginning in 2011.

*Honorable Mention:* Jeff Gordon (two winless seasons in the last three years, zero titles to Johnson’s three), Sam Hornish, Jr.’s future in 2011, The Northeast this weekend (snow over Thanksgiving? Yes, it’s possible)

*COLD*

*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* – Ten races. Just one top-5 finish. Not the Chase Mr. Earnhardt anticipated this season, even more so considering his No. 88 wasn’t in it. While crew chief Lance McGrew seemed to make an early impact here, their partnership faded over a year-plus of stagnating results that have taken their toll. Can Junior find a new head wrench that works before it’s too late? Or is his Hendrick team cursed forever? That’s bound to be one of the biggest stories heading into 2011.

*Honorable Mention:* Start-and-parks (why would you do that in the last race of the year? Yet the Cup side had four), Front Row Motorsports (all three cars 25th or worse), Kevin Conway (Rookie of the Year. So?)

_Ending Note: This column is my last in NASCAR … psych! Far from it. In all seriousness, though, it’s the last time you’ll see me writing Hot / Not on this site as I transition to more of a managerial role in 2011, focusing on Wednesday’s Did You Notice?, editorial/ownership stuff, and special projects instead. So thanks for coming along with the ride this year. It wasn’t a column I anticipated writing, but once I got into a rhythm it turned out to be highly enjoyable for me, a chance to flex some creative ideas in a different way. I hope it worked for you!_

*Connect with Tom!*
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