It’s fair to say Juan Pablo Montoya and the Turn 3 jet dryer at Daytona got hotter than any of the drivers or teams in NASCAR will this season. But let’s take a look at Who’s Hot and Who’s Not after Sprint Cup race number one…
*Matt Kenseth* has to top the list. Who else could? After winning his 150 on Thursday, crew chief Jimmy Fennig joked that there must have been an accident for Kenseth to end up in Victory Lane at a superspeedway race.
Or not. On Sunday, Kenseth proved that maybe he’s got the hang of this superspeedway stuff, leading 50 laps en route to the win – his second career Daytona 500 victory. Fennig might have to start giving his driver a little more credit.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* didn’t earn second on this list strictly because of his runner-up result in the Great American Race, but it didn’t hurt. The biggest reason he’s in this coveted spot is due to his comments and reaction right after the race.
Earnhardt Jr. said he was disappointed because he wanted to win, but more importantly, he believed that he should’ve. The confidence Junior has been displaying throughout Speedweeks has been missing in recent years, and his fans have to be pretty excited to see that streak in him again.
*Jeff Burton* led 24 laps and finished fifth in the Daytona 500, which had to feel like a win. Burton had a miserable 2011 season, rallying late just to grab 20th place in the driver standings. In fact, one more top-5 result and he will equal his total from a nightmarish 2011. Burton just might get it this week in Phoenix, the spot of his last top-5 finish in November. A lot of people wrote the veteran off, but he may be back to contend for a Chase position in 2012.
Newly expanded *Michael Waltrip Racing* quietly had a successful 500. Mark Martin was 10th, Clint Bowyer 11th and Martin Truex, Jr. was 12th. Truex Jr. also led to the halfway point and earned his team an extra $200,000. Most importantly, this mid-level team didn’t pay the cost in damaged race cars that most others did (see below). Sunday was the solid start MWR was looking for.
*A.J. Allmendinger* had the best offseason of any NASCAR driver. After losing his sponsor at Richard Petty Motorsports, he was thrust into one of the sport’s top rides at Penske Racing. Earlier in 2012, Allmendinger was part of a winning Rolex 24 team in the 24-Hour race.
But once Speedweeks started, all the ‘Dinger’s good fortune stopped. He wrecked in practice for the Shootout, wrecked in the Shootout and was involved in one of the strangest incidents of Sunday’s 500 (The title goes to Montoya). Allmendinger was driving down pit road when Ryan Newman’s tire fell off, leaving the No. 22 with nowhere to go but into the back of Newman, destroying his radiator. If that isn’t bad luck, I don’t know what is.
It could be argued that *Kurt Busch* belongs in the Cold category. After all, he wrecked everything he drove in the last week. The driver wrecked in a practice session, the Shootout, caused the big tangle at the end of the Nationwide race and crashed in the 500.
Busch had as frustrating of a week as anyone, but not once did he complain — at least not when the cameras were rolling. He’s been claiming that he is taking steps forward with his anger issues, and this week proved that he is.
Outside of Earnhardt Jr’s second-place finish, the Daytona 500 didn’t treat *Hendrick Motorsports* any better than the rest of Speedweeks. Jeff Gordon ended the race on his roof in the Bud Shootout, ran poorly in the 150 and suffered an engine failure in the 500. Jimmie Johnson wrecked cars in the Shootout and on the second lap of the 500. Kasey Kahne spun in all three races and in a practice session. Sounds like an expensive week, and it was: crash damage is estimated to be as much as $1.5 million. Rick Hendrick had to be happy just to see his teams exit Florida without any hauler accidents.
In what will most likely be his one and only Sprint Cup Series start for Richard Childress Racing, *Elliott Sadler* bump-drafted the series’ five-time champion into the outside wall just after the completion of lap 1 Monday night.
During the caution period, several drivers — most prominently Kyle Busch — expressed their feelings about racing with the Nationwide regular. Sadler has made a point of saying that he belongs in the Sprint Cup Series and wants to get back there in the right situation. Unfortunately for him, the only thing people are going to remember is that his over-aggressive driving caused the big accident on the first lap of NASCAR’s biggest race.
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