If the infamous green-white-checkered accident didn’t happen on Sunday, Who’s Hot / Who’s Not would have looked completely different this week, but much to the dismay of most NASCAR fans, the wreck did happen.
The big loser in it all was Hendrick Motorsports, who not only missed out on scoring a 200th win, but also could have had two of the hottest drivers in the garage, right now. Instead, they own two of the coldest. How fragile momentum is in NASCAR racing.
Let’s see who took their place at the top…
*Ryan Newman* lucked into a win on Sunday, but it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t put himself in position to win in the first place, something Newman has been doing a lot of lately.
Indeed, the Stewart-Haas driver has been one of the most consistent drivers in recent weeks. Heading into the race at the half-mile paperclip, Newman scored a seventh, 12th and fourth in his previous three events. The win on Sunday moved him up to eighth in points and pretty much solidified his spot in The Chase… with 20 races still left to go.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* sits second in the standings and is coming off back-to-back third-place finishes. Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t as strong as his Hendrick teammates on Sunday, but he did spend the day consistently in the top 5, which is what he has been all season: consistent. He has yet to finish worse than 15th.
Earnhardt Jr. will have to win some races to prove he can be a threat in The Chase. But he has some time before the 26-race cutoff and if he keeps running in the top 5, the wins will come. Just ask Newman…
Everyone seems to be waiting for *Martin Truex, Jr.’s* eventual downfall. I just don’t see it coming. Many called him a longshot to make The Chase at the start of the season, but after six races he is now in a four-way tie for third in the standings. Truex isn’t eighth or 10th and barely hanging on; he is third and currently 25 points ahead of 10th-place Jimmie Johnson. With finishes of third, eighth and fifth in his last three starts, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver is sounding more and more like a Chaser.
*Jimmie Johnson* certainly didn’t get the finish (12th) that he deserved on Sunday, but he ran at the front once again and appears as strong as ever. If the green-white-checkered wreck didn’t happen, Johnson would have scored his fifth consecutive top 10, which would’ve led the league. After a 42nd-place showing at Daytona, it took the No. 48 team only five races to get back to the top 10 in the standings. Don’t expect them to go anywhere except up.
A fifth-place showing at Daytona and a sixth at Bristol were promising runs for *Jeff Burton*, a driver with a lot to prove after a dismal 2011 season. The No. 31 team may have made some progress, but the last two weeks have proven they still have a long way to go. Burton was 22nd at Martinsville and Auto Club and already has three finishes of 20th or worse. Burton should do much better this season than he did in 2011, but don’t expect him to compete for a spot in The Chase.
Another driver with three finishes outside the top 20 is *Kyle Busch*. Who would have thought? Along with his second-place run at Auto Club, Busch has been 36th, 32nd and 23rd in the last four events. He seems to have a black cloud hanging over his head because all of these poor finishes were because of mechanical issues or, in the case of Bristol, getting caught up in someone else’s wreck.
The only driver who might understand how Kyle is feeling right now is Jeff Gordon.
*Jeff Gordon* led 328 laps at Martinsville. He walked away with a bent up car and a 14th-place finish. It sums up 2012 for the Hendrick Motorsports veteran. He was running in the top 5 at Auto Club, but after not one but two late pit road penalties, ended up 26th. At Bristol, he was running in the top 10 when he made contact with a teammate, cut a tire and backed it into the wall. The end result was 35th.
When will the four-time champ catch a break? One of Gordon’s teammates might be wondering the same thing. For not wrecking his car last week, *Kasey Kahne* moved out of the Cold section of Who’s Hot / Who’s Not. Sadly, it didn’t take him long to find his way back.
Kahne was having his best run of the season at Martinsville, running in the top 5 all race until he engine detonated. He finished 38th. It was his third finish of 34th or worse in six races and a good reason why he is 31st in the standings, 36 points behind Mark Martin, who has run two less races.
Many of Kahne’s poor finishes have been his own fault, but the driver has had his share of bad luck, too. On a day where he did everything right to finally score a solid run, some of that bad luck caught up to him and now he’s faced with a tough reality. The team sits just 17 points ahead of the 36th-place cutoff, an embarrassment for the Hendrick squad which would force the No. 5 to qualify on speed.
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