Bristol WHO?! Following the race at Richmond, there is a new sheriff in town when it comes to beating and banging on the NASCAR circuit, and in front of a packed house no less. All week long, Richmond was hyped up as the end-of-the-line, exciting, down to the wire, Dale Jr. might be in the Chase extravaganza and for a while I thought it might not live up to expectations.
It did. While I had originally predicted that the 12 Chase drivers heading into Richmond would be the same 12 once the checkered flag flew—a prediction that would up being correct in the end—there were a few instances during the race where I held my breath and wondered if there may indeed be a tremendous upset. After all, the competitors who simply had to finish the race were spending extensive time in the pits, while those who had no choice but to win in order to be a contender were running in the top 5.
Eventually, though, it all sorted itself out and the original 12 were all standing and grinning (or gritting their teeth, depending on the driver) for their photo ops in Victory Lane.
This leads us into what is the weekly numbers game of Hot/Not, an analyzing of statistics and momentum that may be important now more than ever heading into a 10-race stretch that will eventually determine our champion.
Let us begin.
*Carl Edwards* – Fresh off a runner-up finish in Richmond where he surprisingly avoided the use of his bumper on the final lap (though he admitted post-race he would have used it had the opportunity presented itself), Edwards has been reset to fifth in the points after earning himself merely one victory over the course of 26 races. His 2,003 points leave him 9 points out of the lead heading into Chicagoland, and ready to again contend for a title.
Edwards certainly has momentum on his side this weekend, holding top 10 finishes in three of the last four races and 17 all season. Between the Kurt Busch meltdown on and off-track, Jeff Gordon winning his 85th race, and Kyle Busch continuing to, well, be Kyle, Edwards has been surprisingly absent from championship discussions. However, one can only imagine the Missouri native has been biding his time, and could very well return to form and inside Victory Lane this weekend in Chicago.
*Jeff Gordon* – Speaking of Gordon, he’s doing pretty well on the momentum side, too. Gordon followed up his win in Atlanta with a third-place run in Richmond, and his fourth consecutive finish inside the top 6.
In fact, Gordon has been on an impressive hot streak since the race at Kansas Speedway last June. In the last 14 races, only thrice has Gordon finished outside of the top 10 and only once was he worse than 15th. In addition, he’s led a total of 504 laps, including 409 in the last four races.
Talk about peaking at the right time! Gordon went from almost being an afterthought to one of Johnson’s biggest threats for the championship over the course of a few short weeks. And Gordon knows a thing or two about winning championships since he has four of them. The question is, how long can he maintain this hot streak and will it be enough to beat Johnson?
*Honorable Mention:* *Kevin Harvick* won in Richmond for his first victory since Memorial Day weekend, proving that whatever was wrong with the team for the last couple of months has been amended. Just in time.
*Kyle Busch* – A short span of double-digit finishes has left Busch with a steady amount of momentum, but not enough to put him with the likes of Gordon and Edwards just yet. Yes, Busch has the points lead, but the inconsistency of this team (and Busch’s attitude) is going to hurt them in the next 10 weeks if they aren’t able to fix the issue.
Consider Busch’s most recent 10-race stretch, from Daytona to Richmond. 7 finishes were inside of the top 10, with five of those ending in the top 5. That’s an impressive run, and one that would be worthyof a spot in the “hot” section if not for the other three finishes drawing some serious red flags.
It seems for the No. 18 team, when it rains it pours. The other three finishes are 36th, 14th, and 23rd, and in a points system where champions are determined not only on the good days, but on how well you handle the bad days, I highly doubt Busch will be able to win the title with those numbers. Though it could certainly be worse, any result outside of the top 20 could be, in essence, catastrophic. That is, unless, his closest competitors have the same issue.
Aside from the numbers, Busch’s attitude could also get in the way. If he runs with the same patience and veteran-like driving style he showcased in Richmond, he’s a serious threat. If he instead exerts an aggressive driving style similar to that of the Truck Series race at Bristol where he intentionally wrecked Elliott Sadler following contact between the two, he might as well start focusing on next year.
*Tony Stewart* – Again just in time for the Chase, Stewart is once again driving like a champion. Following top 10 finishes in three of the last four races, Stewart has secured himself a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs, even after at one point declaring that his own race team wasn’t deserving of a spot in the Chase.
Unfortunately, a few post-top 10 finishes in the last month or so are still enough to doubt Stewart’s ability to contend for this title, a sentiment that Stewart seems to share.
“It’s definitely been a good two weeks for us,” Stewart said following a seventh-place run. “But we’ve got a long ten-week stretch ahead of us and we’ve got to be better than we’ve been the last 26 weeks.”
I doubt Stewart will be a huge threat come Homestead, which may be a good thing for him since he doesn’t enjoy answering questions from the media anyway.
*Honorable Mention:* Stewart’s teammate/employee *Ryan Newman* has somewhat of a better record, having finished inside of the top 20 in every race since the July race in Daytona, including a victory under his belt that might come in handy as the Chase winds down.
*Greg Biffle* – Biffle has just one bright spot on his record in the last several months: a dominant performance at Michigan International Speedway that saw him lead 86 total laps. Even then, Biffle got killed on tire strategy in the second half of the race and wound up finishing 20th.
A few top 10 finishes here and there might ease the blow somewhat, but missing the Chase has to be a huge morale-killer after such a strong showing the last three seasons. What’s strange is that all three of Biffle’s teammates are doing just fine. Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards are solidly in the Chase with three wins between the two of them, and even David Ragan was a force to be reckoned with in Richmond and had a shot at a Chase spot thanks in part to his win in Daytona. Biffle didn’t have a shot at all of getting in without a victory at Richmond, a scenario that clearly wasn’t going to happen even with six laps led during the event.
However, there always seems to be that one driver in a four car team that gets the short end of the stick, regardless of how strong the other three might be. Just ask Mark Martin.
*Jamie McMurray* – McMurray’s whole season has just been sad. Disappointing. Soul-crushing. Following a season that made even some of NASCAR’s most successful driver’s envious, McMurray entered 2011 with both high hopes and expectations and handled them with grace. Yes, there was some pressure in following up a season that saw him win three of NASCAR’s biggest races, but it was a _good_ pressure. He would at least make the Chase, right?
Nope. In fact, McMurray was never even a Chase-hopeful. The only instance he was inside the top 20 all season was after the Daytona 500, and since then he’s been under the radar and out of the spotlight. With only four top 10s all year, the Chase was never even a viable option and that successful 2010 season seems like nothing more than a distant memory. McMurray’s relevancy this year has been sorely lacking, but hasn’t been noticed enough for anyone to really miss it.
On the bright side, those Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 trophies must look nice on a mantle, and those are two wins no one will ever take away from him regardless if he is ever as competitive again in his career.
*Honorable Mention:* McMurray’s teammate *Juan Pablo Montoya* is only relevant in the sense that he’s considered dangerous on the racetrack by his competitors and their fans. I’m sure Clint Bowyer could attest to that.
*Clint Bowyer* – Oh yeah! Bowyer! Almost forgot about him.
Well, not really, considering he’s been in the headlines for virtually the entire season, mostly because of his current contract situation. During pre-race press conferences in Richmond, Bowyer and even team owner Richard Childress said that it’s unlikely the two will be working together next year. That’s a shame for Childress, but Bowyer has some talent so I’d be surprised if he couldn’t find a ride elsewhere.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many good rides open and the team that’s had the loudest rumors—Richard Petty Motorsports—would be a step back for the Kansas native. However, his options are limited, since his most recent statistics (and the numbers both sponsors and team owners alike will be looking at) are underwhelming with only one top 10 result in the last 10 races.
What really sucks for Bowyer, to put it bluntly, is that Richmond could have been a very strong race for him. Following a spin early on in the race, Bowyer’s crew made repairs to the car and from then on he was one of the fastest cars on the racetrack. Pit strategy and an ill-handling racecar eventually bit the team, and he wound up 22nd. Still, though, I have to give them credit for attempting to capitalize on what seemed like an impossible feat. They just don’t have the finish to show for it.
Unlike the rest of the non-Chasers, though, Bowyer will remain in the spotlight until his contract negotiations have been resolved. Whether he re-signs or resigns, Bowyer will be the next domino to fall in this year’s Silly Season … and _then_ he’ll be obsolete.
*Marcos Ambrose* – Did anyone actually believe Ambrose would somehow become relevant in this series after his win in Watkins Glen? While it was hard not to be happy for him, it really had little to no impact on the season, especially after Ambrose’s incident with Brian Vickers on Saturday night.
Sure it was possible for Ambrose to get in if he won the race, but it was also possible a meteor would strike the earth at the exact same time the green flag flew. And I’d probably have bet on the meteor before betting on Ambrose.
Maybe that’s why I’m not a gambler.
*Honorable Mention:* After winning the pole for Saturday night’s race, I’m sure *David Reutimann* enjoyed being in the spotlight without being on a set with team owner Michael Waltrip. Unfortunately, fans saw more of Reutimann during the commercial breaks than they did during the actual race. Reutimann hasn’t finished inside the top 15 since Kentucky back in June, so I guess that’s not really surprising.
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