Despite the multitude of events that happened over the weekend — from the huge crash at the end of the Nationwide Series race to Matt Kenseth’s tire strategy call to win his second race of 2011 — the one thing everyone is talking about most is NASCAR on FOX’s split-screen commercials towards the end of Sunday’s FedEx 400. It was definitely an interesting moment, but will it have any effect on the outcome of this season? Not a chance. Amazing how one off-track incident, one that may not even be repeated overshadowed everything else…
At least this column will stay focused on what makes you tune in every weekend to begin with: the racing. After the latest NASCAR tripleheader, plenty of drivers had some strong (or sour) runs that could define the rest of their Spring, establishing momentum or seeing it all fizzle out in the face of the Monster Mile. So let’s take a look at which ones made their mark in the latest edition of Who’s Hot / Who’s Not:
*Carl Edwards* – Make no mistake: Edwards is going to be a contender for the Sprint Cup championship. Through 11 races this season, he has finished outside of the top 10 only twice, consistency that’s kept him inside the top 3 in points since Las Vegas. Armed with that victory in Sin City, he’s finished runner-up twice more, behind two of the most endearing underdog stories in recent NASCAR history: Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith. In the process, he’s led the Ford Racing charge ever since the end of last season.
How good has it gotten this year? Edwards is currently leading the standings by 24 points over second-place Jimmie Johnson, a significant margin with NASCAR’s new 43-to-1 points system. Back in 2008, Edwards was Johnson’s biggest threat to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title but fell off significantly until regaining his mojo at the end of 2010. Now he’s evolved into one of the most consistent, competitive drivers once again and shows no signs of slowing down.
*Clint Bowyer* – Bowyer is another driver that has been quietly consistent over the last several weeks, peaking with a sixth at Dover after challenging for the victory before the race’s final caution. Only a slow start to the season and a cruel case of “wrong place, wrong time” at Darlington have left him eighth in the points; otherwise, he’d be right up there battling with Edwards for the top spot.
It’s been quite a turnaround for the No. 33, a team that started 2011 on the wrong foot. In the first four races, Bowyer’s best finish was 15th and he struggled to capitalize on opportunities. But since then, he hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 — except for Darlington — and has been a contender in almost every event.
So why hasn’t that helped him over the long-term? Bowyer’s contract with Richard Childress Racing is up at the end of this year, and he has made comments indicating he expects and wants to remain with the team. But as of mid-May, it appears neither driver nor owner is close to finishing off a contract extension beyond 2011. One element that is crucial to Bowyer’s re-signing with RCR is sponsorship, a troublesome yet pivotal aspect of every race team. Not only does a driver need to have a significant amount of marketability — which Bowyer does — but he needs to back it up with results on the track that make others take notice. To a point, Bowyer and his No. 33 team have certainly done that, but perhaps a trip to Victory Lane needs to be the last piece of the puzzle to sign on the dotted line.
*Honorable Mention:* Cole Whitt (finished second behind Kyle Busch in Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race, his best career finish and fourth top 10 of the year)
*Matt Crafton* – Always a consistent threat for the Truck Series title, Crafton is making his move again in 2011. Through six races, he has only finished outside of the top 10 once — an 11th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway. His lowest position in points? Sixth, a stat that leaves him in position to move up a spot to “Hot” with a few more top-5 performances.
At least he’s working on it. A third-place result Friday at Dover gained him two spots in the standings, as he is now leading the points by five over ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter. In fact, either Sauter or Crafton have been leading the points after every Truck race save one. Clay Rogers began the year ahead following Daytona, but ThorSport Racing has been atop the board ever since.
The difference? Sauter has a win. Crafton doesn’t. In fact, Crafton hasn’t seen the inside of Victory Lane since Charlotte of 2008. Consistent runs have been enough to keep him in the top 3 in points for most of the year, but winning a race or two would do the No. 88 quite a bit of good for their championship bid going forward.
*Jason Leffler* – It’s amazing how much Sprint Cup Series drivers change the game in the Nationwide Series. Even with NASCAR’s new points system — where drivers can only race for points in one of the three national series — they are still there every weekend shelling out victories and leaving the series regulars with the scraps.
Leffler currently sits third in the standings, even though five of his last seven finishes have been outside of the top 10. They haven’t been _bad_ performances — he’s never finished any lower than 15th — but a quick glance at the stats sheet this year would have me guessing he’d be, at best, somewhere around eighth in points or below. Finishing between eighth and 15th every weekend isn’t usually the best way to earn a championship.
But remember, there are Cup drivers involved here. That means Leffler is third in points, 15 back from leader Elliott Sadler despite what’s been a C+ season to date. The argument could be made that Leffler would have better finishes if the Sprint Cup Series drivers (Nationwide-whackers?) weren’t dominating. That’s probably true, meaning Leffler can get away with top-15 runs and still make a bid for the title. It may not be the preferred way to do things, but it’s a nice cushion to have on bad days nonetheless.
*Honorable Mention:* Brad Keselowski (followed up his third-place showing at Darlington with a 13th at Dover for Penske Racing)
*Jeff Gordon* – I never thought Gordon would have to rely on a “wild card” to make the Chase, especially after his win at Phoenix earlier this year. Many folks — myself included — thought 2011 was going to be a rebound year for Gordon, a February victory acting as the proverbial kick in the pants needed to propel the four-time champion back into championship contention.
Instead, Phoenix was the only bright spot to what has so far been another dismal year. Aside from a fifth at Martinsville and a third in Talladega, Gordon hasn’t had a top-10 result and his average finish is just 18th. Not good.
Gordon hasn’t been a championship contender since finishing second to teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2007. For some reason, that seems to be a trend among Johnson’s competitors, but that’s another topic for another time. You could say that Gordon’s loss of crew chief Steve Letarte and moving from working in the same building as the No. 48 team to moving next door with the No. 5 has had an impact — and maybe it has. But what’s the excuse for the last three years? At some point, the old Rainbow Warrior needs to step up and prove he’s not past his prime.
*Ricky Carmichael* – Carmichael. The name itself generates images of motocross races, countless trophies, and maybe even a G.O.A.T. (meaning Greatest Of All Time, of course).
But when it comes to NASCAR, bent-up sheet metal and sparks flying will be the more realistic images people remember. In six races in the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, Carmichael has only finished three of them, a clear regression in his stock car learning curve gone awry. Last year, he only had five DNFs all season, finishing 13th in points with nine top 10s.
I’m going to give Carmichael a pass since he’s still sort of a newbie to the NASCAR scene and this season is only his second full one. But, right now if he can’t finish races… how can you learn?
*Honorable Mention:* Ryan Truex (finished 18th at Dover, his third consecutive result one or more laps down)
*Juan Pablo Montoya* – Montoya has a tendency to get under his competitors’ skin, much like that of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, or Ryan Newman. The difference between Montoya and those three drivers is that they have the on-track results to back it up. Montoya doesn’t.
Take a gander at the Colombian’s last five finishes, beginning with Texas Motor Speedway and going all the way through last weekend’s race in Dover: 13th, 30th, 29th, 23rd, and 32nd. That’s dropped him right out of Chase contention and into a distant 15th in points.
Yes, Montoya has four top-10 showings this year, even spending a little bit of time up front when the series was in Richmond a few short weeks ago. But maybe he could be more consistent if he focused less on retaliation and aggressive driving and more on producing solid results.
*A.J. Allmendinger* – Dover is one of Allmendinger’s best tracks, giving the former open-wheel star a chance to shine in an otherwise lackluster season.
But he didn’t. Instead, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver succumbed to a blown engine and retired from the race on lap 166 (there were 400 laps total). Before the engine failure, he’d been hanging around the top 10 and, though it’s hard to say because of the tire strategy, could have been a contender for the win without mechanical failure.
Instead, the Californian finished a dismal 37th and fell from 11th to 16th in points. With only two top-10 finishes this year, Allmendinger may have to rely on a wild card spot if he wants to make the Chase.
*Honorable Mention:* Brian Scott (finished 30th in the Nationwide Series race, was involved in a crash for the second week in a row)
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