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.

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.