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.

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NASCAR Pick’em Chicagoland

As the Chase kicks off with the Geico 400 at Chicagoland, the NASCAR fantasy season really starts to heat up.

For those who have never played, the premise is simple; score the most points over the course of the season in order to win.  Here are the rules and points system for my league:

  • Pick 10 drivers who you believe have the best chance of finishing in the top ten.  Next, put the drivers you selected in order.  The driver selected first is the projected winner.  The second through fifth drivers are selected to complete the top five.  The sixth through tenth drivers are selected to place in the top 10.
  • 10 points are rewarded for selecting the winner correctly.
  • Two points are awarded to your first through fifth drivers if they finish in the top five.  This includes the winner, if picked correctly.
  • One point is awarded to any of the drivers you picked, if they finish in the top 10.
  • A total of 30 points can be earned per week.

The winner of the league is rewarded a NASCAR T-shirt of their choice, courtesy of G14, the creator of the contest.

The odds of picking the winner are 1-43, making that aspect of the game very challenging.  I’ve done my best to sort prior race stats all season, and have managed to pick four different winners.  Unfortunately, I didn’t attempt five races and find myself 10th in the standings.

If you’re interested in joining G14’s fantasy league my predictions might help you.  Here are my picks for the first race of the Chase:

Winner: Jimmie Johnson- Johnson has seven top tens and five top fives in nine career races at Chicagoland.  The five-time defending champion is looking to rebound after a rough outing at Richmond last week.

2. Jeff Gordon- Gordon has three finishes in the last two races at Chicagoland.  He has also recorded a win at the track and has an 8.6 average finish there ranks him first among active drivers.

3. Kevin Harvick- Last week’s winner also has two career wins at Chicagoland.

4. Carl Edwards- Edwards has two top five finishes in six career races here.  He enters the Chase on a hot streak, after recording three straight top fives.

5. Matt Kenseth- In ten career starts at Chicagoland, Kenseth has an average finish of 11.8.  He finds himself on the pole for this race.

6. Kyle Busch- Rowdy has a win and two top fives in six career races at Chicagoland.

7. Kurt Busch- Kurt is looking to put last week’s mix-ups with Jimmie Johnson behind him.  Busch has five top tens in 10 career races at Chicagoland.

8. Tony Stewart- Tony has said that he doesn’t believe he can compete for the championship, but his career stats at Chicagoland say otherwise.  In ten career starts, Stewart has eight top tens, seven top fives, and two wins at the track.

9. Clint Bowyer- Bowyer is looking to make a statement after being denied a Chase birth.  The Cheerios driver has four top fives in five career races at Chicagoland.

10. Brad Keselowski- Bad Brad has been stellar of late, posting two wins, four top fives, and six top 10 finishes in the last seven races.