The season may be winding down, but for a number of NASCAR drivers facing pink slips this offseason, the pressure to perform has never been higher. A win now, even a top-5 finish could mean the difference between collecting that unemployment check or sitting on the grid, attempting to make the 54th Annual Daytona 500 in February. Opportunities with this racing economy, as we’ve seen this season come few and far between; one extra position, causing a few extra seconds on television in front of Fortune 500 decision-makers could make the difference.
Of course, we know who the hottest drivers are heading to the desert: title contenders Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. But it’s these “fringe” drivers whose futures hang in the balance, where these trends mean more long-term than the title trophy at Homestead. So this Hot / Not takes a look at who else is achieving their own 2012 goals in different ways (like, landing a job, rebuilding after a rough year) while examining others who are stumbling to the finish line in shame.
It’s been a long time since *Martin Truex, Jr.* has had three straight top-10 finishes. How long? Truex was still driving the No. 1 Chevy, with *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* as his teammate, closing out the 2007 season with top-10 runs at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead. What makes the 2011 streak more impressive is the Barnum & Bailey Circus through which this veteran has persevered: he lost his crew chief, Chad Johnston, to “windshield-gate” at Talladega, then watched teammate David Reutimann earn a pink slip last week. Sure, a high of eighth during the streak has kept the driver far away from the front; at the same time, don’t you need to walk before you can run? This combination, when firing on all cylinders could be one to watch come 2012.
Surely, *Ron Hornaday, Jr.* is no longer hot – more like hot under the collar after what Kyle Busch did to end his championship chances. Still, looking back this KHI veteran should be commended for what was done with essentially a “lame duck” effort. During a five-race span, the defending champion secured a sizzling average finish of 2.0, winning twice and closing up his points deficit from 47 to a rather manageable 15. That Busch destroyed that effort, under caution will be a tragedy Hornaday will take months to get over; but maybe, just maybe someone saw enough to take a flyer on this aging veteran in 2012.
*Honorable Mention* – *Kasey Kahne,* on the heels of a third-place performance at Texas now has five top-six finishes in the last six events. Looks like dissolving Red Bull Racing isn’t waving the white flag of surrender just yet.
*Marcos Ambrose* has not had a great season, but it hasn’t been terrible either. He’s scored a win and has been competitive on a few ovals this season, building blocks for the future on the one track type in particular that’s been an Achilles Heel: intermediates. In this Chase alone, Ambrose already has three top-11 finishes at 1.5-milers: ninth at Kansas, fifth at Charlotte, and 11th in Texas after battling for the lead. Now, we come to Phoenix, where the track is often referred to as a “roval:” part road course, part oval. Everyone knows that Ambrose can get it done on road courses, already capturing a victory at Watkins Glen and a newly reconfigured Phoenix track could play out in his favor. It is going to be a wide open weekend, putting everyone on the same page noteswise and that just might lend itself to Ambrose finally scoring that first oval win.
*Brian Scott* has been a midpack runner, finishing in the teens for most of this season but as of late he’s stepped it up with his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11. He has scored two top-5 finishes in the last five Nationwide races, while the three other finishes were 11th, 12th, and 17th. Having just announced the addition of Dollar General as a sponsor for his Nationwide ride for next season, Scott has even more incentive – and financial support – to finally break into the win column in the Nationwide Series. At this point, it is only a matter of time; should we mention he was ninth at Phoenix in the Spring?
*Honorable Mention* – *Danica Patrick* almost scored a top 10 this past weekend at Texas (11th) as her stock car development continues. Plus, it’s Danica so we know we can get some more cheap views by putting her name in the column so, c’mon, can ya really blame us? Seriously, though, Phoenix is a track where she has actually run twice already in a full-bodied stock car. Don’t be surprised to see her land another top-10 finish this weekend in the desert.
*David Ragan* is busy fighting for his future, fully realizing Roush Fenway Racing won’t need his services for 2012. The problem is, during what could have been one of Ragan’s best stretches the No. 6 Ford has struggled to simply stay competitive. 11th, 28th, 33rd and 12th last week at Texas are not exactly the eye-popping results for an audition. Included in that stretch is Talladega, a restrictor plate oval that’s long been Ragan’s specialty; in fact, his lone victory occurred at sister track Daytona this July. And when you’re fourth out of four Roush cars at Texas, also slotting behind the two RPM Fords what does that say about how your operation stacks up against the rest? Add in a blown engine in the Nationwide race, driving the low-budget No. 08 in a one-race deal and Ragan may find searching for a job this offseason a little bit harder than he might have anticipated.
*Steve Wallace,* losing 5-Hour Energy as a sponsor in the Nationwide Series is desperate to find funding for 2012. But as the pressure heats up, the performance has faltered with Rusty’s son posting eight straight finishes outside the top 10. It’s not like the driver of the No. 66 is tearing up equipment; in fact, all eight of those runs have been somewhere between 13th and 20th. But in this series, you need to be running up front in order to attract multi-million dollar support. The way Wallace is going, quietly coming home midpack every week just isn’t going to cut it.
*Honorable Mention* – *Juan Pablo Montoya* hasn’t sniffed a top-10 finish since New Hampshire in late September. Plus, at Texas he and Geoff Bodine got caught up in an incident where he spouted off on the radio, claiming Brian Vickers turned Bodine right in front of him. Think Montoya will cut his rivals some slack down the stretch? Nah.
Anything that can go wrong, has gone wrong for *Jamie McMurray* this season. A mechanical failure, burning up a cylinder led to the No. 1 ending the day a distant 35th at Texas. That’s the fifth straight week of results outside the top 20, where handling woes have combined with awful luck to bring the one-time Earnhardt Ganassi contender to his knees. Wrecking at Phoenix this Spring, the team is simply hoping to survive the final two races; in the process, McMurray is almost certain to go winless, a far cry from his three-victory season in 2010.
Poor *David Reutimann.* The veteran, released from his Michael Waltrip Racing ride has few options to turn to so late in this year’s Silly Season. But with no top-10 finishes since July, two DNFs and zero laps led during that span it’s no surprise MWR felt like they needed to take action against him. Mark Martin should make this car better over time; but, at 41 will the driver he replaced have a chance to better his career ever again?
*Honorable Mention* – *Kurt Busch* has two finishes of 30th or worse registered in just the last three races. Like brother, like brother? They’re both not in title contention anymore…
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