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.

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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.