Another point for Mother Nature! Once again, the crabby ol’ witch decided that it’s just not right for NASCAR to be run on Sundays and postponed the race to another Monday morning extravaganza. I must give it to the fans who showed up, though, with 42,000 listed as the official attendance number for the day. In a related story, a record number of people called out of work with the “24-hour flu” on Monday, an epidemic that has scientists baffled.
Anyways, back to business. With all three series racing last weekend, one of which was the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the word “momentum” was thrown around quite a bit. Once again, Hot / Not is here to show you who has it heading into Loudon, and who could use some of their own.
First things first…
*Brad Keselowski* – You know you’re hot when 12th is considered “off your game.” A sub-top 10 run in Richmond was Keselowski’s only finish outside of the top 10 in the last eight races, but he made up for it with a fifth-place showing in Chicagoland.
The top-5 finish also propelled Keselowski up several spots in the standings, from 11th to sixth. I originally shrugged off the idea of Keselowski potentially contending for this championship, but he’s only one point out of the top 5 in points and 14 markers out of the lead. Not to mention, he’s on the streak of a lifetime and has every major contender looking over his shoulder.
I know nine weeks is a long time, but Keselowski has been consistently fast in every race in that amount of time. No, he hasn’t been as dominant the last couple of weeks, but Chicago definitely showed the team is championship caliber. Why? Keselowski was complaining about his car during the beginning stages of the race and they had a sixth-10th place car at best. Instead, they rebounded to finish in the top 5. Was there some help from fuel mileage? Well, sure! But just ask drivers like Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch how well fuel mileage worked out for them last week and see if they’d take Keselowski’s finish if offered.
Make no mistake. This No. 2 team is here to win, and they have the speed, know-how, and talent to do so.
*Aric Almirola* – It’s easy to forget there are still two other major NASCAR series to follow when the Chase is receiving all of the attention, but those drivers are still focused on their championship and if any of us have any brains at all, we’ll tune in. Both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series are shaping up to be barn burners of a title run.
One driver who is realistically out of the title chase but still deserves a mention is Almirola, who has 17 total top-10 runs in 28 races this season, including nine of the last 10. With those statistics, it’s hard to believe Almirola is a whopping 64 points out of the lead in fourth place, but the Nationwide Series has been extremely competitive this year among points-eligible drivers. Reed Sorenson (third in points) has one win this season while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (first) has two wins, but both Stenhouse and Elliott Sadler (second) have top 5s in the double digits (Stenhouse has 12, Sadler 10). Almirola has a goose egg in the wins column and only seven top 5s to his credit.
Still, Almirola has consistency on his side and might be higher in points had his season not started out so slow, with only four top 10s in the first 10 races. Even if the youngster continues this current hot streak, it probably won’t be enough for him to contend for the title. However, it might be enough for a trip to Victory Lane if he plays his cards right.
*Honorable Mention:* *Austin Dillon* won his second race of the season on Friday night, moving up to second in the standings and is now three points back from leader James Buescher. What’s interesting is Dillon has struggled with consistency as of late, with two finishes outside of the top 20 in the last three races but six runs inside of the top 10 in the last eight. However, it’s working for him, and apparently so is his post-race slide through the grass!
*Kurt Busch* – Busch continues to run his mouth to his pit crew every time the car isn’t to his liking, but the team has decided to grin and bear it in order to do well in the Chase. Busch has finished in the top 10 in three of the last four races, but the media center transcripts were safe after Chicago since only the top three are required to make a visit there after the race (Busch finished sixth).
With the top-10 run, Busch earned himself a fourth-place spot in points, and is now 11 points out of first. More importantly, he has an 5-point advantage over rival Jimmie Johnson. And that’s what’s _really_ important, right Kurt?
*Mark Martin* – It’s too little too late for the Arkansas native, who has finished in the top 10 the last two weeks but only after he was ineligible for a Chase spot. At a disappointing 16th in points, Martin has had one of the worst seasons of his long career, and with the powerhouse of Hendrick Motorsports no less!
An explanation can be made for that, though, since Martin was given Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s team from last year including crew chief Lance McGrew. Kasey Kahne had better pray he’s not given the same group of guys when he takes over that ride next season, or else he’ll be left wondering, “What was I THINKING?”
However, hopefully Martin can finish out the year with some strong finishes, because the last thing he wants is to end his final full-time season without anyone even noticing. After all, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a NASCAR season without Mark Martin.
*Honorable Mention:* A 10th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway fell short of the win *Jimmie Johnson* was hoping for, but his bid for a sixth consecutive title is not out the window just yet. We’ll pick up this conversation again in a few weeks.
*David Ragan* – It’s sad to say, but I think we’re seeing the last of Ragan in the Sprint Cup Series. With UPS jumping ship to Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards next season and poor finishes failing to give sponsors reason to come on board, no funding might just mean no ride for the Georgia native for 2012.
Ragan’s best option might just be pulling an Elliott Sadler and finding a competitive ride in the Nationwide Series if at all possible. A team like Turner Motorsports or even a Cup-affiliated team like Richard Childress Racing might be good options if they can find funding, and maybe Ragan can add to his numbers in that series. Regardless, RFR has some talented drivers waiting to move up to the Sprint Cup Series and Ragan hasn’t shown the talent or potential to keep his ride. Whether the team moves down to three cars or they find another driver, Ragan had better take a good look around in the Cup Series garage in Homestead because it might just be the last time he sees it as a driver in the series.
*Kasey Kahne* – Kahne is _praying_ for the end of the 2011 season so he can head over to the “grass is greener” team of Hendrick Motorsports. With only one top-10 finish in the last eight races, Kahne never even sniffed a chance at a Chase berth and even a pole position in Atlanta was ruined in the form of an engine failure.
As I said earlier, though, I’m having a hard time believing Kahne will be any more successful at HMS than he is at Red Bull Racing. Not because he’s not a good driver, but because there is always that one team in the organization that struggles. Currently, that “one team” is the No. 5 car of Mark Martin, the very ride that Kahne will take over once 2011 ends.
However, Rick Hendrick proved last season that he’s not against making wholesale changes to improve the team, and there is no reason to think he won’t do just that in order to ensure Kahne can be successful going forward.
Either way, it’s not like it could be much worse than what Kahne is already dealing with … right?
*Honorable Mention:* Speaking of Red Bull Racing, *Brian Vickers* is racing for his career in the remaining races of 2011 … and he’s doing a terrible job. Vickers hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Michigan, and only has five top-10 runs all season. In a way, it’s a double-edged sword for Vickers. With RBR indefinitely shutting down at the end of 2011 (without outside investors, of course), Vickers needs to finish well in order to prove he deserves a better ride. But a driver is only as good as his equipment and, let’s face it, RBR isn’t exactly top caliber. Vickers is going to need all the luck he can get.
*Denny Hamlin* – I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Hamlin’s championship chances are _done_. Finished. Kaput.
The confident, trash-talking, winning driver of 2010 is now a thing of the past, and instead we have a dejected, downtrodden, and uncompetitive Hamlin in its place. A 31st-place finish at Chicagoland has him dead last in the Chase, 41 points behind leader Kevin Harvick with only nine races left to make up the distance.
To be fair, much of what has happened to Hamlin has been bad luck and at times he’s done a good job of rebounding. However, it’s the mental side of Hamlin that has me worried. Last season, he was happy to be there, enjoying the season, and it seemed like nothing in the world could bring him down. However, after losing the championship by no fault of anyone but his own, the bitter taste of defeat has soured Hamlin’s optimism and it seems as though he still hasn’t recovered from that missed opportunity.
And that’s why I have a hard time seeing Hamlin as a champion any time soon. Just look at Jimmie Johnson and see how he handles bad days and missed opportunities. Mr. Five-Time accepts it, shrugs it off, and simply moves on to the next week. Hamlin has yet to get over something that happened almost an entire year ago and, while I can’t say I blame him, it’s the ability to overcome the bad days that defines a champion in this sport. Maybe he’ll shake it off in time for 2012.
*Matt Kenseth* – I still don’t understand the penalty from Chicago. For those of you who need a refresher, Kenseth ran out of fuel on the last lap of Monday’s race and received a push from J.J. Yeley, which is illegal according to NASCAR’s rule book (as long as it’s “determined by NASCAR” to be illegal). Kenseth was not given credit for the lap and was scored as the first car one lap down in the final running order, which earned him enough points for 21st place instead of the eighth position in which he crossed the start/finish line.
OK, fine, so Kenseth benefitted from the push and NASCAR punished him for it. But why wasn’t Yeley punished since he initiated the contact even though Kenseth didn’t ask for it? Sure he didn’t “benefit,” but Kenseth wouldn’t have either without his help.
I feel for Kenseth since this penalty is going to make his run for the title that much harder (he is now 10th in points, -24 out of the lead). With two victories this season, he would have been a good darkhorse pick for the title but now he’s a serious underdog. Amazing what one little innocent move can do to your season.
*Honorable Mention:* *Ricky Carmichael* just can’t catch a break. With only four top 10s all season, his learning curve is seemingly getting “steeper” rather than easier, and four wheels just isn’t working for this former motocross hotshot.
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