Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In Sprint Cup: Kentucky-Daytona Edition

Rain tampered with the Nationwide Series race Friday, and then delayed the Sprint Cup Series race until Sunday at Kentucky Speedway. Fans who stuck it out were treated to an exciting race that featured high-profile accidents and varying tire issues.

A late-race gamble was enough to give Matt Kenseth the victory and end his June troubles, while two blown tires put Chase regular Denny Hamlin in a huge hole.

With nine races left before the Chase, Sprint Cup’s stars now travel back to Florida for Round 2 in Daytona, where Jimmie Johnson stood victorious earlier this season. This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that while some drivers are struggling to break out of midseason slumps, others hope to continue heating up during the summer months.

 

HOT

Despite having gone winless to date in 2013, Clint Bowyer has displayed incredible consistency this season and it continued in the Blue Grass State.

While Bowyer’s third-place run was enough to close within three points of Carl Edwards for second in the standings, it also helps to continue a 10-race stretch during which he has scored more points (361) than he did during a third-place Chase campaign last season (355).

The Michael Waltrip Racing driver started 15th, then dodged potential disaster and a spinning Kyle Busch on lap 43. From there he raced with the leaders for much of the day, before recording his first ever top-five finish at Kentucky.

Bowyer will now look to reverse a downwards trend of Coke Zero 400 finishes that includes crashes resulting in DNFs in the last two renditions of the Daytona night race.

Since Darlington, Joey Logano has been on a tear that trumps even his good showings at Fontana and Fort Worth early this season.

The 23-year-old driver is finally experiencing a level of success that has eluded him during much of his six-year Sprint Cup Series career. That success continued with a fourth-place finish at Michigan, despite constantly being off the normal pitting sequence of many other top teams.

As a result, Logano sits 10th in the standings, his highest running position since departing Auto Club Speedway in late March. After the penalty at Fort Worth and twoDNFs in subsequent weeks, the No. 22 team has now jumped from 19th back into Chase contention.

To keep things moving in a positive direction Logano must stay out of trouble at Daytona. And lately he has done just that – posting three top-10 finishes in the past four races there.

WARM

Matt Kenseth thrived on old tires during a race in which other Chase hopefuls struggled with Goodyear rubber, recording his first victory at Kentucky Speedway and fourth in Sprint Cup competition this season.

The No. 20 team decided on a fuel-only strategy for the final round of stops with 23 laps remaining and then Kenseth pulled away from runner-up Jamie McMurray to win the Quaker State 400 by 0.699 seconds.

That slim margin is enough to help the former series champion recover from the troubles that he has encountered largely since a blown engine at Dover put the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s title campaign under the weather. Even with the month-long slump, Kenseth remains fifth in the standings after his most recent trip to victory lane, a venture that helped to further solidify him a potential spot in the upcoming Chase.

Kenseth now has a chance to regain HOT status at Daytona, where he was the gold standard for Sprint Cup drivers during 2012 and dominated in the ’13 Great American Race before a blown motor ended his afternoon. Toyota’s more reliable engine setup could come in handy as he searches for a third career win at the 2.5-mile speedway.

Kurt Busch continues to put himself in the spotlight on race day with his on-track activity. This week the elder Busch brother was involved in an incident with defending champion Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle that left the latter two in the garage area for an extended period. Busch triggered the lap-49 wreck by driving down onto the apron and edging into the No. 2 car’s left-rear quarter panel, sending the Dodge spinning down and back up across the track.

The only reason his latest escapade qualifies as a positive is the end result. Busch apologized for causing the accident, the type of gesture that sometimes isn’t seen from the embattled driver. He also finished sixth and moved up to 13th in the standings, within striking distance of outlying Chase hopefuls.

COOL

Since snapping out of his early-season skid with a win at Dover and a string of top-five finishes, Tony Stewart has once again begun to struggle. After spinning out late at Sonoma, the three-time champion couldn’t regain momentum at Kentucky, posting a 20th-place finish.

Early on Stewart had his moments while battling the handling of the No. 14 Chevrolet, but tire issues flared up around lap 120, forcing him to surrender those gains. He was then forced up into the marbles on a late-race restart, causing him to fall to 23rd before rallying late.

Stewart now finds himself 16th in points, clutching to the final wildcard spot heading to Daytona, where he won last season, but struggled during the ‘13 Daytona 500.

Paul Menard’s chances of returning to the top 10 in points took a major hit when the Richard Childress driver was involved in the same wreck that claimed Keselowski and Biffle. The No. 27 Chevrolet suffered front-end damage and struggled with handling issues from that point on, after restarting from the red flag four laps down.

Because of the bad luck, Menard has fallen to 15th in points, his lowest mark since the season’s second race at Phoenix. Turning things around at Daytona means he would need to improve upon his most recent results there (14th and 21st).

COLD

Denny Hamlin’s 35th-place finish puts him in greater need for wins and continues a run of finishes outside the top 20 that is preventing him from gaining wildcard eligibility.

The No. 11 Toyota was cursed by two blown tires, first on lap 38, then another on lap 147 that totaled the machine after hard impact against the Turn 4 wall. Hamlin was taken to the infield care center afterwards and later released with no serious injuries.

Despite news that he’ll test at Indianapolis Speedway Monday and race at Daytona Saturday night, things haven’t gone well on-track this season for the banged up veteran. Even when he’s been healthy, Hamlin hasn’t looked his familiar self – posting his lowest average finish thus far (19.2) of any season over his nine-year career.

After getting the bad end of a run-in with Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski didn’t have the type of race he needed at Kentucky. Instead of contending for a victory, the Blue Deuce was crippled from the incident and limped home with a 33rd-place finish after extensive repairs were made.

These types of results have been the norm for Keselowski since Richmond. With only one top-five over that span, this can only be characterized as one of the worst slumps of his career, so bad that he currently isn’t in a position make the Chase (13th) and it’s becoming alarming that he doesn’t have a win to help his wildcard case.

Daytona has a history of providing strange winners, so why not a victory for the ice-cold Keselowski? Recently, he’s improved his performance at the restrictor plate track – with finishes of eighth and fourth in the last two trips there – and he could definitely use one.

Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Charlotte-Dover Edition

The Coca-Cola 600 is proof that a driver who paces themselves and makes the appropriate adjustments can be better equipped to win in the Sprint Cup Series than a driver who goes 100 percent, torturing their equipment for the duration of an event.

NASCAR’s version of the endurance race was no different this time around, as many of the dominant cars faded after the sunset. Several were too heavily damaged in an onslaught of multi-car accidents to continue at full strength, while others suffered after an encounter with failed television equipment turned debris.

This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not beckons a change in momentum for many Chase hopefuls. With race 12 of 36 now history, some drivers look to continue what has been a dream run entering into the summer months, but many others look to reverse what has been a tumultuous stretch.

HOT

An already prolific closer, Kevin Harvick showed his ability as a survivalist by winning the Coca-Cola 600 while other top drivers fell victim to the tune of 11 cautions, including two extensive red flags.

The Budweiser Folds of Honor Chevrolet emerged from the carnage unscathed, first leading around the 500-mile mark before solidifying position during a flawless final stop. From there he outran Kasey Kahne to the checkered flag, claiming his second victory of the season and second career win in NASCAR’s longest race.

A continued stretch of excellent fortune has the No. 29 team surging of late. With two wins in the last four events, the Richard Childress driver sits seventh in the standings, firmly inside the ever-important top-10. “Happy” Harvick will be elated to know that drivers with multiple victories have never missed the Chase in a wildcard scenario since the rule’s inception prior to the 2011 season.

From here Harvick will shift attention to Dover International Speedway, where he has averaged a 9.5-place finish over the past three years with one top-5 and four top-10s.

Martin Truex Jr. was also among the drivers who managed a solid finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And what a surprise, after being left for dead in the Hot or Not sense, Truex has rallied from the brink of permanent COLDness with a steady ninth-place run serving as his latest step back into Chase conversations.

Since a horrific 40th-place effort at Martinsville, Truex has climbed from 25th to ninth in the standings, collecting several valuable finishes along the way. Outlasting the melees at Talladega was as impressive as the second-place finish he recorded in April’s visit to Fort Worth. Over that stretch the No. 56 Toyota has completed every lap, a sacrament to the team’s early-season struggles.

Now Truex returns to the site of his only career victory, “The Monster Mile”, where he has been one of the hottest drivers in Sprint Cup of late, with an astounding 6.5-place average finish in two starts last season.

WARM

After starting sixth, Kasey Kahne paced the field for a race-high 161 circuits before finishing runner-up to Harvick. His night was uneventful compared to many of the drivers who began around him, safely dodging the fallen FOX camera cables and a number of wrecks that left the No. 5 Chevrolet in contention for the duration.

Despite coming up just short, positives can be taken from Kahne’s third second-place finish of the season. He showed the ability to be competitive on old tires during the last green flag run, staying ahead of a hard charging Kurt Busch even after Harvick snuck past. More shocking was his ability to pilot the Hendrick machine competitively for that long; after being diagnosed with the flu earlier in the week, the driver’s status had been cloudy leading up to race day.

Denny Hamlin was a lock for Sunday night’s festivities as he continues to recover from a fractured vertebra in the lower spine suffered at Fontana. He showed no signs of weakness in an impressive fourth-place run that spring boards him into 24th in driver points and closer towards becoming wildcard eligible.

The No. 11 team will aim to better its string of two consecutive finishes outside the top-15 when Hamlin arrives at Dover. A return to ’10 form, when he recorded finishes of fourth and ninth, would help to get Miles the Monster off his back.

Marcos Ambrose and crew put on one of the season’s great shows of resiliency to date by overcoming potential disaster after the No. 9 Ford was damaged by the collapsed overhead support cable. The Fusion suffered undercarriage and rear brake line problems, but the Richard Petty Motorsports team was allowed 15 minutes to make needed repairs. From there Ambrose drove to his first top-10 finish since Martinsville.

COOL

The other RPM Ford wouldn’t have a happy ending, despite running inside the top-20 at times; Aric Almirola was involved in an incident that shredded the No. 43 Fusion and claimed Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, among others.

The U.S. Air Force machine’s condition there after wasn’t the only thing going against Almirola, he also dropped to 12th in the standings as a result. This isn’t a good sign for a driver who isn’t known for his ability to win races at NASCAR’s highest level. Almirola has been relying on consistency to place among familiar Chasers this season, but that steadiness has eluded him for two straight races.

Almirola must turn things around in a hurry to prevent the loss of more valuable ground in the standings, and what better place to do it than Dover. The 1-mile concrete oval is home to his best average finish (12.5) of any Sprint Cup circuit.

Mark Martin faired no better in the multi-car accident that claimed Almirola, but his race was going the wrong way even before the lap 325 crash ended his night. The Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota was among those cars which were damaged by the tri-oval cable that snapped, but unlike Ambrose, Martin couldn’t regain pre-red flag form and quickly went down a lap after action resumed.

He inevitably settled for a DNF and accompanying 34th-place finish, continuing a trend of subpar finishes which began a month ago at Richmond International Raceway. This doesn’t bode well for a part-time driver whose future at MWR remains uncertain. Especially since it was reported that owner Michael Waltrip is pursing a full-time deal with fellow part-timer Brian Vickers for 2014 earlier this month.

COLD

Things continued to go south for defending champion Brad Keselowski in Charlotte. After a broken transmission forced Keselowski to an early exit from the Sprint All-Star Race, his night ended prematurely once again after a lap 317 tangle with rookie Danica Patrick.

Over the past month Keselowski has gone from contending from the points lead with current leader Jimmie Johnson to struggling to remain inside the top-10. His current 10th-place standing is the lowest for the Penske driver since Loudon in July of 2012.

While it’s still too early to panic in the Blue Deuce camp, its alarming to see the team struggle to this degree after being nearly unstoppable since the Chase last season. Another top-tier team with similar ups and downs over the same span is that of Kyle Busch.

The No. 18 Toyota seemed cursed during the Coca-Cola 600. After dominating early – leading 65 laps before the halfway mark – Busch’s Camry was heavily damaged by the TV cables. His crew heavily taped the right side of the vehicle in response to photos that Busch snapped during the red flag. While the repairs seemed to hold up, his night would eventually end because of a blown engine on lap 257.

When he travels to Dover a top-10 finish isn’t out of the question, but he’ll need to be wary of the engine bug that’s now cost him in two events, after suffering the same fate in the FedEx 400 last season.

This article is also available via The Frontstretch.