In the midst of Dale Earnhardt Jr. overkill, the 12-car Chase field was set in stone on Saturday night. Looking at the final list of contenders, are there any surprises you see on that list? Anyone you think doesn’t deserve to be running for the title, and if so, who would you replace him with?
Now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. watch is over, the focus over the last 10 races of the year will be on the 12 drivers making a run for the Nextel Cup championship. With his second straight victory, Jimmie Johnson put the competition on notice that they will have to take on the No. 48 team in order to take the trophy that they earned last season. But with six of the Chase drivers finishing in the top 10 at Richmond, many others are proving to be up to the challenge of trying to take down the top seed. So, who left Richmond riding high and ready for battle, and which drivers walked away wishing they had a little more time to prepare? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase for the Championship to find out.
Career Cup victory and third top-10 finish at Richmond International Raceway for Chevy Rock & Roll 400 winner Jimmie Johnson.
1. The Dale Earnhardt Jr. 400 – Oh, you mean that wasn’t the name of Saturday night’s race? Could have fooled me. Earnhardt’s odds of making the Chase were ridiculously slim going into Richmond, making ESPN/ABC’s singular focus on him both ridiculous and way over the top.
One week ago, Johnny Sauter was headed straight towards the edge of a cliff. Sauter set the pressure cooker on high by struggling to 30th in Fontana. That disappointing finish dropped the No. 70 into a tie for 34th in car owner points, just 52 ahead of the 35th and final locked in spot and in serious danger of falling out altogether. It was the closest Sauter had been in quite sometime to losing the team’s automatic exemption, and with seven consecutive runs outside the top 20, it was clear that both he and his crew needed a spark.
When racecar driver Leilani Munter made the move from stock cars to Indy cars a few months ago, she expected to face her share of challenges. Attacking the new opportunity with characteristic enthusiasm and intelligence, Munter has proven herself a quick study with great racing instincts.
Ever since Brian France took over at the helm of NASCAR, it is well documented that it has been his dream for it to become as popular as your traditional “stick and ball” sports, most notably, professional football. In the first few years of his reign, his unabashed comparisons and ramblings about racing’s ratings vs. the NFL’s became so extreme, sometimes it made me wonder whether he was trying to make up for a bad football bench warming episode during his formative years. But let’s face it; before Brian Z. took over, the NFL was what it was and NASCAR was, well, NASCAR.
Enter Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel, executives with the Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Baseball franchise. Following a swift majority buyout of Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach’s Hall of Fame Racing team, the two hard-ballers nabbed the No. 1 available free agent on the market in JJ Yeley, and will follow parent-team Joe Gibbs Racing to the Toyota camp at the conclusion of the season. Those are awful big moves in an awful short period of time for two gentlemen that have held the title, “majority owners” for just over one week.
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t make the Chase – and right now, it certainly isn’t looking good – how will the No. 8 team perform the rest of the season?
Three things easily sum up this weekend’s race at California Speedway: hot, hot and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Countless Earnhardt fans were on the edge of their seats just waiting to see if one of the drivers at the bottom of the top 12 would slip up, giving their man a chance at making the Chase and the rest of us were forced to go along for the ride as the entire race seemed to be a case of “Where in the World is Dale Jr. Now?” At the end of the night, Earnhardt finished a solid fifth, but still is a long shot to make it into the post season Chase. But as the summer sun baked the drivers, crew members and the scarce number of fans in the stands; Jimmie Johnson came out on top to score his fifth win of the season and looking like he barely broke a sweat. So what other drivers thrived in the sweltering heat and which ones shriveled up under the pressure? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not to find out.
Today’s expected announcement that Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) will end a 15-year relationship with General Motors (Chevrolet and Pontiac) in favor of forging a new alliance with the behemoth Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota indicates just how far from the “moonshine” days of NASCAR’s infancy its race teams have come. All indications are, that if anyone was knocking on doors, it was Toyota selling themselves to the highly successful JGR organization. In other words… Toyota needed Gibbs more than Gibbs needed Toyota.
10. The Sahara Desert.