NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in NASCAR: Richmond/Talladega Edition

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Kyle Busch hasn’t had a season worth remembering so far in 2012. He has flown under the radar and off our TV screens for much of the year. On Saturday, he reminded everyone that he is still one of the best drivers in the series and a guy that can catch fire at any point in time.

While Busch was finally building some momentum, Who’s Hot/Not favorites Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. proved their race cars and teams are far from perfect. Parity has been a big story in 2012, and the standings prove it, with the top eight drivers separated by 31 points.

Here is who’s hot and who’s not after Richmond.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been seen at the front of the field far more often of late, making him HOT this week.

*HOT*

Finishing second at Daytona is one thing, but a runner-up finish at Richmond is another. That was an impressive performance from a driver who is showing he is ready to win again. *Dale Earnhardt Jr.* has three finishes of third or better in his last five races and sits five points out of the lead.

Heading to Talladega shouldn’t hurt either. Junior has had mixed results there lately, but so has everybody else. Even if he doesn’t win on Sunday, there is a very good chance he’ll leave Talladega as the championship point leader.

*Denny Hamlin* followed up his win at Kansas with a fourth-place run at Richmond. The No. 11 team is certainly building momentum.

Hamlin quietly has moved up to third in the standings, only nine points out of first. He has that 2010 Denny Hamlin swagger back and could reel off some more wins in the near future.

*WARM*

*Jimmie Johnson* is making a mainstay in the hot and warm sections of this column because he runs well every week. He had a car capable of competing for the win at Richmond, but a late pit penalty cost him a shot at the win. He still rallied to get sixth.

There were a lot of question marks before Richmond about when Kyle Busch would finally breakthrough. Now that he has, our focus should turn to Johnson, who has been in contention every week lately.

*Tony Stewart* has been inconsistent in 2012, but when he is on, the No. 14 is hard to beat. Stewart easily could have left Richmond with a league-leading third victory, but a pit issue and a poor restart cost him.

Inconsistent runs may have Stewart toward the bottom of the top 10 at the end of the regular season, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t have the most wins, and therefore the point lead heading into the Chase.

*COOL*

*A.J. Allmendinger* ran in the top 5 for most of the race on Saturday night, but in the final 100 laps he dropped like a rock and ended up 16th.

The ‘Dinger sits 21st in the standings and isn’t living up to expectations at Penske Racing. In nine races, he has one finish of 14th or better, and that was second at Martinsville. Right now, Roger Penske has to be glad he only signed Allmendinger to a one-year deal.

*Richard Petty Motorsports* has as many top 10s as its former driver, Allmendinger. That number is one. Marcos Ambrose (22nd) finished one lap off the pace and Aric Almirola (26th) was two laps off the lead at Richmond.

On top of that, Greg Irwin, who did so well with Allmendinger in the second half of 2011 has been replaced on the pit box by Mike Ford and there is talk of this team going to Dodges next season. While a mid-level team such as Michael Waltrip Racing took a huge step forward this season, Richard Petty Motorsports has taken an equally big step back.

*COLD*

It’s time to panic *Jeff Gordon* fans. Gordon finished a lap down in 23rd on Saturday at a track he almost won at in the fall — let’s not forget the infamous Paul Menard spin. He has been solid competition for Casey Mears in the last two weeks, with finishes of 21st at Kansas and 23rd at Richmond, but doesn’t look like someone that can compete for a fifth championship.

And then there’s that other thing. He is 57 points out of 10th place right now and he isn’t winning races. Hit the red button.

Another uninspiring run by *Joey Logano* has him back in the cold. While teammate Busch was winning the race and teammate Hamlin was getting fourth, Logano finished a lap off the pace in 24th. It shouldn’t have come to a surprise to anyone considering he hasn’t finished on the lead lap since March 11 at Las Vegas.

That’s six consecutive races of finishing at least one lap down in a Joe Gibbs race car. The driver nicknamed Sliced Bread continues to under-perform in Sprint Cup and soon he’ll be toast.

“Contact Brett Poirier”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/33361/

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