With three races in the books, the NASCAR season has now kicked into high gear.
The completion of an early West Coast tour, plus the running of the Great American Race has given organizations tons of Gen-6 information on a variety of track types. But for several teams, serious questions remain unanswered this season after watching their drivers struggle to maintain control throughout the day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Intermediates make up the majority of the 36-race schedule; struggle here, and you're stuck in purgatory for up to 40 percent of the season.
So where are we at? Hereâ€™s a look at whose left standing in the Sprint Cup Series, heading to Bristol and who has serious ground to make up at Thunder Valley.<div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\">
<img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15529.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"178\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Matt Kenseth burned it up at Las Vegas, earning him the top spot in Who's Hot/Who's Not.</p></div>
Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear <b>Matt Kenseth</b>! Now youâ€™re on top of <b>Whoâ€™s Hot and Whoâ€™s Not</b>!
Winning in Sundayâ€™s Kobalt Tools 400 means that Matt Kenseth has recorded his first victory with Joe Gibbs Racing and made some history in the process, joining a select group of drivers to accomplish a rare birthday feat. The 41-year-old now sits alongside the legendary Cale Yarborough and JGR teammate Kyle Busch as the only Sprint Cup drivers to visit Victory Lane on the anniversary of their big day.
Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff gambled on a fuel-only stop that propelled the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota to the lead during yellow flag pit stops with roughly 40 laps to go. Once the caution was lifted, Kenseth assumed the point and held off a tenacious charge from Kasey Kahne to claim the spoils.
After the cool-down lap, Kenseth aligned his Camry facing the tri-oval wall and blew celebratory burnout smoke into the grandstands. It's a fine metaphor for how he's been smoking the competition to start 2013. Unwrapping the special first-place finish vaulted him up to seventh in the standings, a pleasant gift after Daytona 500 engine troubles left the driver in an early hole. So far this season, the newest member to the team's got 128 laps led - which paces all drivers - and has shown speed at each variety of track on the circuit. Could a second title, ten years after the first be in the offing?
Earning an honorary mention is the man who nearly spoiled Kensethâ€™s birthday. The No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet appeared to be the dominant car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway â€“ leading the way for a total of 114 laps â€“ before crossing the line in second place. <b>Kasey Kahne</b> might have headed this weekâ€™s list if it werenâ€™t for late pit road troubles that restarted the Hendrick driver sixth after the penultimate caution. Yes, he's not where he wants to be in points but the No. 5 car was a Daytona 500 contender before Kyle Busch's bumper ended those \"Super Bowl\" hopes. Kahne's also part of a Hendrick Motorsports stable that, with Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have shown they're a step ahead with NASCAR's Gen-6.
While Kenseth and Kahne raced in a league of their own, <b>Brad Keselowski</b> came home in the third position. Seeing the defending championâ€™s name in the HOT category has become commonplace, especially now that heâ€™s the only driver whoâ€™s 3-for-3 on top-four finishes. The reigning champ, second in points has started off his title defense sizzling.
One more week in the desert sun turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for <b>Kyle Busch</b> after struggling in Phoenix last week. A wonky day turned out OK for Rowdy, who posted a fourth-place finish at his home venue.
The Sin City native flirted with the lead early before a pit road speeding penalty left him in danger of going a lap down. From there, he quickly became one of FOXâ€™s \"Biggest Movers,\" an upward trend that culminated in an appearance at the front of the pack with less than 60 laps remaining. Buschâ€™s rollercoaster ways are also reflected in the manner his position in the standings has fluctuated, rising 16 spots up to 17th in points. The key for him, going forward is for both he and the team, with Toyota's motor woes to stop shooting themselves in the foot.
<b>Mark Martin</b> may not make the headlines quite like his on-track opposite, Mr. Busch. At 54 years of age, he's not even running a full-time schedule. So why is he deserving of a WARM mention, despite middling finishes of 21st and 14th during NASCARâ€™s West Coast escapades?
The 31-year veteran (yeah, heâ€™s that old) part-timer is still just as competitive and consistent as others who were born long after Martinâ€™s rookie season back in â€˜81. Plus, he now temporarily bows out while Brian Vickers pilots the \"Lucky Dog\" at Bristol Motor Speedway next weekend â€“ queue Martinâ€™s inevitable freefall down the standings â€“ making this Tuesday an appropriate time to include him. If not for poor pit strategy at Phoenix, which left the car back in traffic the results might actually be much better.
The No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota started the day second on the starting grid after posting speedy times during practice leading up to the main event. But for <b>Clint Bowyer,</b> it quickly became apparent the MWR machine wasnâ€™t to his liking.
Bowyer was at the forefront of a sizable group of drivers complaining about extreme loose conditions immediately after the drop of the green flag. The setup seemed so far off that it appeared the team had prepared his ride for a different speedway, reminiscent of owner \"Michael Waltripâ€™s infamous commercial.\":http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po0Of1PePRM
An unscheduled stop on lap 18 would prove that the sensation brought about by a self-diagnosed flat tire was actually caused by the carâ€™s poor handling. That decision to pit under green would be a costly one, leaving Bowyer two laps down â€“ a position he would never fully recover from â€“ before managing a 27th-place finish. Yes, last year's runner-up is still ninth in the standings but that type of run at NASCAR's bread and butter has to concern MWR. So far this season, Bowyer is on pace to lead just 12 laps compared to 388 a year ago and hasn't been in position to run up front.
Meanwhile, <b>Danica Patrickâ€™s</b> rough week in Clark County started long before Sundayâ€™s struggles.
Earlier in the week, Patrick told reporters that she was hit in the head by a rock during a visit to the LVMS dirt track Thursday night, while still in recovery from a hard wreck suffered at Phoenix. While the near-concussive experience isnâ€™t being held against the rookie, two consecutive sub-30th place finishes are definitely enough to cool her off after opening the season in memorable fashion.
An inability to tap into that Daytona magic made Patrick a nonfactor in race 3-of-36. She started 37th after qualifying was rained out, and never ran higher than 27th before finishing six laps down in 33rd place. That's left her well outside NASCAR's top 20, falling off the pace of fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and facing a tough challenge ahead in Bristol, where she struggled mightily last August.
Continuously dogging one driver might seem cruel, but sometimes circumstances create the need for repeat offenders in the Hot or Not basement. And unfortunately for <b>Ryan Newman</b>, two consecutive DNFs merit an icy, cellar dweller rating for back-to-back events.
After leaving his No. 39 Chevrolet SS crushed against the wall, and proceeding on a bizarre, avoid-me-like stroll across PIR a week ago, Newman appeared to be putting the past behind him following a promising 14th-place starting spot in leg two out West.
However, a reverse of fortune was put on hold by a blown engine that ended his day with only 32 laps remaining. The malfunction originated when the Stewart-Haas driver accidentally missed a shift as the pack became bottlenecked entering Turn 1 after a Travis Kvapil induced caution ended, just five circuits earlier.
Newman took full blame for the incident but that leaves him reeling, 31st in points. With so many of the sport's top stars already well positioned, inside the top 10 in the standings that's a tough hole for the No. 39 car, third on the totem pole at Stewart-Haas Racing to climb out of.
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