Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Texas-Darlington Edition

The Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway marked the second time that the Sprint Cup Series has visited a 1.5-mile track in seven races this season. Truth be told, there were clear similarities between the results from the Lone Star State and Las Vegas. Some organizations have the 1.5-milers figured out, while others encountered struggles that were all-too-similar to those seen in the desert earlier this season.

This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not highlights the harsh realities of faulty equipment while celebrating the escapades of a young veteran (yes, that’s right).

HOT

It’s safe to say that Team Penske has this 1.5-mile thing figured out. Joey Logano wound up in Victory Lane at the Great American Speedway after Penske’s other effort, the Blue Deuce, took the honors in Vegas.

Wins at Las Vegas and Texas? Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Team Penske are bringing it in 2014.

Penske drivers combined to lead 193 laps (or over half of the 340-lap distance) and ran 1-2 for much of the closing stages in Fort Worth. Logano, who now has two victories in his tenure at Penske matched the total he reached Victory Lane in four-plus seasons driving for his former employer, Joe Gibbs.

Jeff Gordon ran inside the top 5 for much of the day and did his best to spoil the afternoon for Logano in the clutch, utilizing a two-tire stop to grab the lead before a green-white-checkers countdown. However, the No. 22 battled back during the final two laps to win over Gordon and Kyle Busch.

That marks four career wins for the 24-year-old, a seven-year veteran at this point, and judging from his recent form more could be on the horizon. Logano is tied for the most top 5s in the series (with four) and moved up to fourth in the standings, just 24 points behind the driver that he bested Monday.

Gordon assumed the points lead with an uncharacteristic runner-up finish while donning Texas A&M University’s colors. Producing a major point haul while sporting an in-state school’s maroon on the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet — now that’s hot. Not bad for a driver who wasn’t getting nearly enough respect in last week’s Hot or Not.

Watch out, Gordon might not be done yet. The Hendrick Motorsports driver takes his series-best 7.4 average finish to Darlington Raceway, where he has a good chance to improve it. Gordon has seven wins at the track “too tough to tame” — the most among active drivers.

WARM

Gordon wasn’t the only driver to gamble on two tires during the final pit cycle. Brian Vickers also took chances, and while the No. 55 Camry wasn’t as good as the No. 24 during much of the day, it didn’t have to be. Vickers stayed with the leaders during the white-flag lap and came home fourth. That’s three top 10s over the past four races, moving Vickers to ninth in the standings — the highest he’s been since September 2009.

Here’s one other fact to keep in mind. Monday marked back-to-back races that have been affected by late two-tire strategies, after drivers benefited from them in Martinsville. Look for Vickers to roll the dice again in the near future.

Tony Stewart was one of two who gambled successfully at the Paperclip. While he didn’t take the risk this time around, he did score another top 10 — his third overall. Stewart started from the pole and led his first lap of the season, then led 73 more before crossing the line 10th.

Smoke is another driver to look out for at Darlington. He has experienced a sort of revival at the South Carolina track lately and is still hungry for a first-ever win there.

First-ever win? Try first-ever start. Kyle Larson will meet the Lady in Black for the first time in Cup and he’ll be doing so with a lead in the Rookie of the Year standings.

Larson has shown why Chip Ganassi took a chance on him recently and put on another rookie clinic in round seven, posting times that rivaled the eventual winner down the stretch en route to fifth. That’s two top 5s in three races for the No. 42 team and propels Larson to 16th in points overall.

There were plenty of other feel-good stories, too, including more solid finishes for Paul Menard (ninth) and Aric Almirola (12th). But not everyone was able to kick things into gear following Sunday’s postponement.

COOL

The best (or worst) example of this downside is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who might not have gotten enough sleep Sunday night. Whatever the case, Junior apparently wasn’t focused when he clipped the infield grass at 190 mph, completely destroying the No. 88’s front end after only 13 laps. The National Guard Chevrolet then caught fire before coming to rest along the inside retaining wall at the exit of Turn 2.

Junior was fine after the accident, but the No. 88 was a blazing mess. It’s his first DNF of the season and drops him to sixth in the standings after entering the weekend as the series points leader.

Jimmie Johnson also paid the price for Junior’s mistake. Johnson was running behind the No. 88 as the accident unfolded and wound up getting a windshield full of parts and pieces from his teammate’s car. The impacts were so forceful that it caused the No. 48’s Lexan windshield to collapse into the braces that help to hold it in place.
The Lowe’s team had little issue returning the machine to race shape, but a flat tire later cost Johnson several laps and he was unable to recover. He finished 25th despite running competitively afterward.

Johnson’s path to a potential victory was derailed for the third straight race, but he’ll be among the favorites in Darlington if the No. 48 possesses the speed that it’s shown during this rough stretch.

There are a few other perennial threats that could have a shot during Cup’s next stop, as well but they can’t seem to keep their cars on the track.

COLD

Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have combined for 49 Sprint Cup victories, including two this season, but neither has shown the consistency needed to be anywhere near the top of the standings. While the other five winners are battling for the points lead, the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates are struggling to remain inside the cutoff for Chase eligibility (30th).

Harvick bowed out second this week — the victim of a blown engine that put the No. 4 behind the wall after only 28 laps. He has only completed 82.9 percent of laps ran this season and has four finishes of 36th or worse over the past five races.

Busch’s No. 41 Chevrolet, meanwhile, was a common sight during FOX’s telecast for all the wrong reasons. The Outlaw was responsible for back-to-back cautions on lap 177, then again on lap 220 for individual spins. He later had a flat tire that was responsible for the blowout that obliterated the rear quarterpanel of his car and accounted for a 39th-place DNF.

Busch’s run-of-the-mill Darlington numbers of late — a 20.6 average finish over his last three trips – aren’t helping his prospects of pulling out of the rut he’s in right now, 25th in points.

Having a driver drop from hot to cold in one week is a rare occurrence in Hot or Not, but that’s been (almost) the case for multiple SHR drivers this season. Since expanding to four cars, the organization has had isolated successes here and there but cannot put things together for more than a race. Its teams rank 14th, 25th, 26th, and 29th respectively in owner points, making SHR the most disappointing major organization this season.

Boom-or-bust setups or not, these new Chase guidelines have definitely produced some odd trends.

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in NASCAR Sprint Cup: Daytona-Phoenix Edition

The Daytona 500 got off to a blazing start. It became apparent from the beginning that all three lanes could sustain action, a definite improvement over last season’s races at the track. All seemed balanced and just in the NASCAR universe… then the rains came.

A six hour and 22 minute weather delay did little to slow the action once drivers got back onto the track Sunday night, however. In fact, the cars were faster under the lights than they were at any other point during Speedweeks.

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that the night time was the right time for some, while others failed to readjust. Here is a look at where drivers rank out of the gates:

HOT

Dale Earnhardt Jr. greeted the long-awaited return of the No. 3 with a Daytona 500 story of his own, late Sunday night – a win. Junior called his victory “unbelievable” from inside the No. 88 Chevrolet after the race. However, it was highly believable for anyone who stuck around to watch the rain delayed masterpiece.

Saying the National Guard SS was strong would be an understatement; Earnhardt’s was simply the dominant car of the 56th Great American Race. Teammate Jeff Gordon also helped, providing an important bump draft after the final green flag with three laps to go, but it appeared a piece of debris – a garbage bag or wad of tape that blocked the grill opening – gave Earnhardt the added speed and eventual cushion needed to capture a second Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Earnhardt was congratulated by fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick in victory lane, where he acknowledged favorable odds to be the first driver to qualify for the 2014 Chase. The hardest part is over for Junior, who needs only to finish within the top 30 in points to secure a playoff spot.

NASCAR’s most popular driver left Daytona with the first and only Sprint Cup Series WINNER decal – a sticker symbolizing the spoils of victory in a climate where winning now translates into instant championship contender, which will be visible alongside Junior’s name, above the driver’s window of the No. 88. As simple as it may seem, this small piece of décor is bound to create a lot of envy in the Phoenix garage area. Drivers like Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski will be doing their best to obtain one for themselves, after getting oh so close to partying at the World Center of Racing.

WARM

OK, there will be more than a just few drivers hungry to add a shiny sticker to their collection in the first stop of Cup’s desert detour, and some have no reason to be disappointed just yet; after all, surviving Daytona’s big wrecks is surely reason to smile.

Matt Kenseth proved that he still has it with a sixth in the opener, after leaving disappointed in last season’s finale. It was not solely fun and dodging wrecks for the Joe Gibb Racing star however; he also rebounded from a unique pit road adventure. An evasive X Games-like 180-degree spin kept Kenseth from overshooting his pit stall early, and the crew serviced the Toyota from the opposite direction.

Perhaps NASCAR should invent a sticker for that.

The No. 20 team wasted no time jumping the wall and getting into position to assist Kenseth, begging the question: does JGR regularly practice backwards stops for just such an occasion? It was that smooth.

Greg Biffle did his part to improve contract talks with Roush Fenway Racing. Biffle has been with RFR for his entire career, and Sunday’s performance shows why. The No. 16 3M Ford got plenty of prime camera time, aggressively leading the pack on several occasions over the final 50 laps. Biffle even stuck around to finish eighth.

Roush teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also flexed some newly added muscle on the final lap, punching Kyle Busch out of the way to secure a seventh-place spot, a move that was anything but sophomoric.

Then there is rookie Austin Dillon, who battled for 200 laps, and secured his first Cup top 10 to go with the Coors Light Pole Award he scored during Speedweeks. It was not easy, but Dillon made it through the carnage when other rookies could not, and earned an early lead for the Rookie of the Year.

COOL

Unfortunately, there are two sides to that coin. Where Dillon was successful regarding points and exposure, he was a huge failure in driver relations. The No. 3 Chevrolet fueled two multi-car accidents that damaged or ended hopes for 13 different drivers, including five rookies.

What was already a long night for fellow ROTY candidate Kyle Larson, was made worse when Dillon scooted up into Larson’s left-rear, sending the No. 42 spinning in the middle of three-wide traffic. Dillon escaped on that occasion, and would survive another self-started calamity 32 laps later that collected Richard Childress Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Brian Scott.

Add the No. 27 Chevrolet’s mismatched front end and 32nd-place result – product of a nightmare ride through the infield grass – to that list, and Dillon’s finishing position becomes the only positive takeaway for RCR.

Kasey Kahne’s restrictor plate woes overflowed into this season’s first race, but he should not blame himself for the No. 5’s latest struggles. The NASCAR rulebook’s finite punishment for pit road speeding deserves a second look, after he was forced to break the 55-mph limit to avoid being hit by a sliding Michael Annett. Kahne’s penalty cost him a lap, and his single-car spin while exiting the pits 53 laps earlier another. Heavy involvement in two wrecks was even worse, making Kahne’s 31st seem like a pleasant gift.

Kurt Busch can relate.

Contact from Trevor Bayne damaged the No. 41 Chevrolet’s rear fender brace before a lap-90 pit stop, and complications only compounded as the race progressed. Busch later went spinning into the infield mud sometime after the brace broke completely, but officials elected not to throw the yellow flag, and he finished a lap off the pace.

COLD

Busch was just one part of a lost week for Stewart Haas Racing.

A fuel pressure malfunction hampered Tony Stewart’s return to Cup competition, and wrecks claimed Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick. That is a big 4-for-4 in the wrong category – damaged and destroyed SHR equipment.

That was not the only premier organization to take multiple hits; Michael Waltrip Racing was even worse, while failing in an attempt to mend a tainted reputation.

The No. 55 Dream Machine was severely damaged during a lap-148 wreck; driver Brian Vickers continued afterwards, finishing 30th, and that was the organization’s best effort. Restrictor plate ringer Michael Waltrip wrecked his backup car after totaling the primary in Thursday’s Duel.

Clint Bowyer put on the best show of all, for all the wrong reasons. Bowyer self-diagnosed a blown engine quickly enough to climb out of the No. 15, throw his gloves and helmet into the car, and walk away before the crew closed the hood of the smoked-out Camry. His dream of winning Daytona ended in 127 laps.

MWR castaway Martin Truex Jr. did not even last that long, after starting the race from the rear of the field. The No. 78 Chevrolet’s engine expired after only 30 laps, making Truex the inauspicious recipient of one driver point.

Aside from a certain six-time champion, drivers like Truex, who were forced to go with backup cars, probably did not enjoy the Daytona 500. Nevertheless, those unable to meet expectations will have a chance to start anew this week in Arizona.

After all, it only takes one win to earn a sticker.

My article is also available on Frontstretch.com.

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