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: 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.