Before we begin with the weekly numbers crunching that is “Hot/Not”, like everyone else I would like to extend my condolences to everyone affected by the death of Dan Wheldon. While this is a NASCAR-based column, a death in the racing community affects everyone and I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to one of IndyCar’s greats. So to echo the closing words of Marty Reid as ABC left the air on Sunday, “Goodbye, Dan Wheldon.”
However, the show must go on, and NASCAR is currently in the midst of three very tight championship battles. As the season winds down, the on-track action heats up, and momentum and speed are now more important than ever. As major players like Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson struggled in their respective races, their competitors took full advantage of the slip up and we’re left with more questions than answers for this season’s title hunts.
To begin, let’s take a look at the drivers who are heading into the weekend at Talladega with momentum on their side.
*Matt Kenseth* – I’m just as guilty as overlooking Kenseth as anyone else, but it’s pretty hard to ignore the guy who wins the race. The Wisconsin native won his third—yes, _third_ race of the season Saturday night at Charlotte, though many of us had completely forgot he even existed.
Looking at his recent finishes, though, it’s no wonder that Kenseth is sitting third in points, well within reach of leader and teammate Carl Edwards. Kenseth has finished inside the top 6 in the last four races and in the top 10 in seven of the last nine, putting the last driver to win the Cup before the Chase was implemented in prime position to win with the new format.
Of course he’ll have to go through Edwards and Kevin Harvick first but considering he is the only one of the three with a series championship, he might just have the upper hand.
*Kyle Busch* – For a driver who never wins any Chase races, Busch certainly looked well on his way to a victory in Charlotte before Kenseth snuck up on him. Busch led 111 laps on Saturday night which was pretty impressive compared to the combined total of 17 laps he’d led in the previous four Chase races.
However, the more things change the more they stay the same and clearly Busch was frustrated with the second-place run. He didn’t complain that Kenseth raced him too hard (unlike Edwards, who had words with Busch on pit road post-race), but instead owned up to the fact that he just flat out got beat. I wouldn’t call it a “mature” post-race interview, but at the same time it’s nice to see a driver who is satisfied with nothing less than winning.
Shrub isn’t out of this championship hunt either. An 18 point deficit is not insurmountable, especially considering that the series is heading to the crapshoot of Talladega Superspeedway this weekend. I have a hard time believing he’ll be sitting on the stage in Vegas in December, but he could very well be one of the last few drivers to give a speech.
I’m pretty sure that would be the only time Busch would be ok going last, though.
*Honorable Mention:* The corporate moneymaker known as *Carl Edwards* has the points lead heading into Talladega, and is on the path towards a potential career first Sprint Cup Series championship. However, if that’s going to happen he needs to quit whining about drivers like Kyle Busch racing too hard and focus on his own performance.
*Kevin Harvick* – There is a reason the top three in points are up there since Edwards, Kenseth, and Harvick finished right around each other last weekend in Charlotte. Harvick wound up just outside the top 5 (sixth) for the second week in a row, holding a firm grasp on the second points position and keeping leader Edwards well within reach in the Chase battle.
If you’re thinking this feels like déjà vu all over again, there is good reason for it. Harvick was in the midst of the championship battle last season too, finishing third to Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin that had us holding our breaths until the checkered flag flew. It’s shaping up to be yet another down-to-the-wire battle with Harvick yet again in the midst, but this time he has two Ford drivers he has to outrun.
Harvick has been consistently strong throughout most of the season, and has recently picked up the performance where it counts. However, he’ll have to have stronger numbers if he is going to beat the likes of Kenseth and Edwards, which is why he’s only “warm”. Top 10 finishes will only do so much for you when your closest competitors are finishing in the top 5.
*Justin Allgaier* – Let’s give some love to the Nationwide Series guys, who could really use some of it nowadays. Though he really had no part in it, Allgaier needed to redeem himself after teammate Reed Sorenson was canned for performance issues, even though he was higher in points.
That’s not to say Allgaier has done poorly either. He hasn’t finished outside the top 15 in the last nine races and is a solid 4th in points with one victory. However, Sorenson was in the top 5 in points with a victory, too, before he was replaced by Vickers. The loss of Dollar General to Joe Gibbs Racing next season probably didn’t help matters, but there has to be more to this than meets the eye.
Regardless of what happened to his teammate, though, Allgaier deserves props for his performance. Let’s just hope he isn’t later met with the same fate.
*Honorable Mention:* Speaking of performing in the Nationwide Series, *Ricky Stenhouse Jr.* is owning this Nationwide Series championship battle. Currently holding a 15 point lead over veteran driver Elliott Sadler, nothing short of a major foul-up will take the trophy out of Stenhouse’s hands. However, he is still a mere sophomore, so there is still the possibility of meltdown which is exactly why Sadler needs to stay on his toes.
*Paul Menard* – Considering that we’re talking about Menard, his finishes as of late really aren’t all that bad. However, considering that he’s driving for Richard Childress Racing, it’s not wrong that we should expect better.
Menard has had top 20 results in the past five consecutive weeks, finishing on the lead lap in all but one of them. While Menard isn’t known for his abundant talent, the one thing that he does have going for him is that he doesn’t wreck racecars every week. When the team loads up the car and takes it back to the shop, they can focus on improving upon their notes from that week instead of trying to get the car repaired.
In fact, Menard only has two DNFs all season and is higher than veteran driver and teammate Jeff Burton right now (Menard is 21st, Burton is 24th). Even if it doesn’t sound like much, that’s a lot less pressure and stress on a race team to not have to worry about fixing the sheet metal. So while the results are nothing to write home about, I’m at least willing to give credit where credit is due.
*Brian Vickers* – While teammate Kasey Kahne is running up front more and more often, Vickers is still struggling for top 10s. He only has one such result in the last nine races and has five finishes outside of the top 15.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Vickers has _got_ to start running better in order to ensure his own future. The fact that Kahne is doing so well might help Vickers convince potential investors to jump on board and save the sinking ship known as Red Bull Racing, but it would be much easier if he were showing his potential as well.
It’s a double edged sword. Vickers and RBR need investors so they can start running better, but probably won’t see any money until they start doing just that. Hopefully Vickers can dig down deep and find a little extra magic under the hood of those Toyotas before the season comes to a close.
*Honorable Mention:* It’s probably unfair to put *Greg Biffle* in this spot since he’s been the most competitive of the non-Chasers and has even held his own against the championship contenders as of late. However, this isn’t as much about performance as it is momentum and finishes and Biffle doesn’t have much of either. Two results outside of the top 20 in the last five races have thrown Biffle a curveball amidst the top 10 runs, and it’s that kind of inconsistency that kept Biffle out of the Chase in the first place.
*Mark Martin* – We’re winding ever closer to Martin’s “final” season as a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver (we’ve heard this story before) and the Arkansas native is still struggling mightily to be competitive.
While he’s done a little bit better than he was through the middle of the season, that really isn’t saying much. With only three races resulting in a top 10 in the last seven races, Martin now only has five races remaining this season to ensure he goes out with a bang and that he isn’t forgotten.
Unfortunately, I’d be more prone to believe that would be the No. 5 car hitting the wall rather than snagging a victory.
*Jamie McMurray* – There isn’t much left to say about McMurray that hasn’t already been said, other than the Bass Pro commercial that is currently airing is a bunch of bull. In it, McMurray and professional bass angler Kevin VanDam are sitting in a boat and VanDam looks at McMurray and says, “Jamie, you’ve had a great year on the track.”
Maybe someone should tell VanDam to stop watching reruns of last year’s races on SPEED and watch the new ones every weekend.
Unless the commercial was filmed last year, of course, in which case it’s just really poor timing that McMurray happens to be running like crap, to put it bluntly, the year they started airing it. We’re talking four finishes outside of the top 20 in the last 5 crap. Maybe VanDam just has really low standards?
*Honorable Mention:* Poor *Regan Smith’s* success was so short-lived. The closest he has come to another victory since his first career win in Darlington this season was third-place finish back in Indianapolis. In July. Since _that_ race he’s had only one top 10. I guess there is always 2012.
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