Monday, August 29, 2011

Who's Hot, Who's Not With Two Races To Go

Just two races remain until NASCAR culls its championship herd and selects the 12 contestants for the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. With the preliminaries now all-but completed, a handful of drivers have stepped forward as favorites to hoist the championship trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

Others, unfortunately, have established themselves as candidates to be watching those festivities from home, on television. In an effort to separate NASCAR’s wheat from the chaff, here’s a partial listing of who’s hot – and who’s not – on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Hot: Brad Keselowski. The Miller Lite Dodge driver has ripped off two wins, a second and third in the four weeks since suffering an avulsion fracture to his left ankle in a testing crash at Road Atlanta. A championship afterthought just 30 days ago, he is now within a stone’s throw of the Top-10 in points and the nine bonus points that will come with it. If he succeeds in bumping Tony Stewart from the all-important 10th position – and the way Smoke’s running lately, he is a solid bet to do so – he’ll enter the Chase second only to Kyle Busch in the championship standings.

Not: Tony Stewart. By his own admission, the two-time Sprint Cup Series champion is a long shot for title number three this season. Stewart’s familiar midsummer surge has not materialized, with a season’s best finish of second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway more than a month ago. He is clinging to the tenth and final Chase spot by his thumbs, and admitted last week that even if he makes the Chase, he and his Mobil 1/Office Depot team are unlikely to compete for the championship. Where there’s Smoke, there is not always fire.

Hot: Kyle Busch. Love him or hate him, NASCAR’s MVP (Most Volatile Performer) at performing at his peak right now. He’s tied with likely championship nemesis Jimmie Johnson at the top of the Sprint Cup standings, and even after struggling to an uncharacteristic, 14-place finish at Bristol Saturday night, his average finish in his last four starts is 5.0. If he can maintain focus and not become distracted by the senseless feuds he seems determined to embroil himself in, Kyle could finally establish himself as something more than a regular-season only threat.

Not: Clint Bowyer. If Richard Childress Racing really wants Bowyer to sign a new, multi-year contract, cars like they gave him Saturday night will not help. With their backs firmly against the playoff wall, Bowyer and his Cheerios/Hamburger Helper team laid an egg at Bristol, running in the second half of the field all night long en route to a 26th place finish. He hasn’t recorded a Top-15 finish in over a month, and while he’s still 12th in championship points, if the regular season ended today, he would not a part of the Chase.

Hot: Jimmie Johnson. Cool, efficient, methodical and peaking at just the right time. Sound familiar? Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet team may not be the jugular-stomping juggernaut they were a year ago (or two, or three...), and two Top-5 finishes in their last five starts do not strike fear into the hearts of the competition. But the five-time defending champions will not be unseated without a fight. Ask Kyle, Carl or anyone else in the garage who they fear most in the Chase, and if they don’t say Johnson, they’re lying.

Not: Denny Hamlin. What a difference a year makes. Just 12 months ago, Hamlin was the heir apparent to Johnson; the best bet to unseat the (then) four-time champion from his throne. Today, he’s clinging to the final Wild Card slot and praying that nobody with just a little bit of momentum drives to Victory Lane in the next two weeks and bumps him from the playoff roster. He has been the walking, talking embodiment of inconsistency in recent weeks -- reeling off finishes of 14th, 6th, 42nd, 4th and 20th in the last five races – and has shown none of the title worthiness he displayed a year ago.

Hot: Andy Lally. How can someone who finished 25th at Bristol be classified as “hot?” If that finish pushes him to a comfortable, 49-point lead over 36th place in the all-important owner points battle. Steady – if unspectacular -- performances over the last five weeks have given Lally’s TRG Motorsports team a one-race pad with 12 to go, making him a solid bet for a guaranteed starting spot in the 2012 Daytona 500.

Not: Robby Gordon. The veteran driver is apparently not selling enough of that SPEED Energy drink to keep his #7 Sprint Cup Dodge running. As a result, he announced this week that he will start and park in all but three of the remaining 12 races. He ran just 10 laps Saturday night before making his way behind the wall, and fans can expect him to make full race day efforts only at Chicagoland, Kansas and Texas the rest of the way.

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