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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not In NASCAR: 2015 STP 500 at Martinsville Edition

Burnouts (Hot)

Timing can be everything in life, so when Brad Keselowski charged to the front on the final lap Sunday afternoon at Fontana, he put himself on the hot list. Keselowski has been pretty good this year, but not quite good enough to make it to victory lane. It appeared that was going to be the case again Sunday, but there were particular times in the race where he had the best car on the track. That would happen on the first two laps or so of each restart before Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick would take over. So when the final yellow flew with Busch out front, forcing another restart, Keselowski suddenly was in the running again and he didn’t miss his opportunity to earn his first win of the season and a guaranteed spot in the Chase for the Championship. Maybe the best part of Keselowski winning came before the race, via a story relayed on MRN radio afterward. He signed an autograph for a young fan, who then asked Keselowski if he was going to win. Keselowski said he knew Harvick and Busch would be tough to beat, but he sure would try. Well, that’s all a guy can do and you have to give Keselowski some credit for that, too.

It’s not like Harvick disappeared in this race. He challenged Busch for the lead all day, led 34 laps, and eventually ended up second. That means he’s been first or second in all five races this year and seven straight races overall. He proved once again he’s still the guy to beat and if you’re going to beat him, you better be good or have good timing, like Keselowski. Harvick has been so good this season it’s hard to think he won’t be the guy to beat again this week at Martinsville.

OK sure, you might think it would be nice for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make this part of the list for his performance, but he once again used social media to come up with a great idea. He has implored NASCAR to sell throwback souvenirs and gear. It would be a great way to teach new and younger fans about the past. Maybe that history lesson, too, would turn some mild fans into diehards. It’s certainly worth a shot.

Tire Rubs (Warm)

Kurt Busch was probably one less restart away from making the first part of this list. Busch led a race-high 65 laps and seemed to have the dominant car. That would have been at least a bit of a feel-good story, given that two weeks ago it was unknown when, or if, Busch would race again. But he’s responded to two top fives in two races and it’s clear that Busch and Harvick will be a force. The real shame in Busch not winning though, was not as much for him, who some people like and others don’t, but for crew chief Tony Gibson, a guy who pretty much everybody likes. It would have been nice to get to see him celebrate a victory, too.

One thing the NASCAR points system still rewards is consistency. So, when you look at the top of the standings and then you look at the only three drivers to finish in the top 10 in each of the first races, there are Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. While it may not be a surprise to see Harvick and Logano do that, it is a bit of a surprise to see the single-car Furniture Row Racing team of Truex in that group. The key here is that there have been times in these first five races where Truex has been running in 20th place or worse, but he and the team have that don’t give-up-attitude that will more than likely make them Chase-worthy at the end of the 26 regular-season races.

In the Cooler (Cool)

It’s not like Kyle Larson’s season has been a complete disaster, but with such high expectations with the way he finished last year on the way to winning Rookie of the Year, it is a bit disappointing that he has not seriously competed for a win yet. Larson is certainly talented enough to win anywhere at any time and the question before the season wasn’t “if” Larson would win, but “when” he would win. Right now though, it looks like that first Sprint Cup win will come later rather than sooner for Larson, who is 18th in the points standings.

Tony Stewart has ascended to the cool list now. After being firmly entrenched in the cold list for the first four races, this is at least some improvement for the three-time champion. Maybe the biggest surprise of the season has been the lack of competitiveness for the No. 14 car, which finished 14th Sunday for its first top-20 finish of the season. Stewart did appear on the front row a couple of times Sunday, taking two tires on one pit stop and then not pitting late in the race to start second each time on two restarts. But both times it almost looked like he was going in reverse at the green flag as he had tires that were just a little bit older. Maybe getting to at least sniff what it was like to be up front will help motivate him and his team to get there in a more legitimate fashion in the coming weeks.

Parked in the Pits (Cold)

It’s hard to say if either Matt Kenseth or Denny Hamlin would have challenged for the lead in the final laps, but some bad fortune put both of them and their Toyotas on the cold list. Kenseth was leading when he came into the pits late in the race and broke an axle, apparently when the car came down off the jack. So, he went from the lead at the time and had to settle for 31st after leading 43 laps on the day.

Hamlin was also running in top five much of the day, leading 56 laps, only to get hit with a pit-road penalty when a tired rolled just out of the zone outlined on NASCAR’s new computerized pit road enforcement system. He had to settle for a 28th-place finish. While both cars were fast, and that’s good news, it was a shame for both drivers and their teams to see quality rides have such poor performances.

Brian Vickers just can’t catch a break health-wise. Vickers will likely miss at least three months after it was discovered last week that he had a recurrence of blood clots. Vickers is likeable and has proven he can win. Maybe the most important thing is that he’s got his priorities in order, putting health before racing. Here’s hoping he can get this problem solved partly for his racing future, but mainly for his personal future, too.

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