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: 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.