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Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Phoenix – Las Vegas Edition

Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Phoenix – Las Vegas Edition

Tornadoes threatened the Daytona 500, but conditions were near-perfect in the desert Sunday. Nearly 27 years after a lightning strike ignited the main grandstand at Phoenix International Raceway, there was plenty of sunshine for The Profit onCNBC 500k.

The track transformed into a refreshing desert oasis for certain drivers troubled by Daytona results, yet still, some found no relief in the first stop of the Sprint Cup Series’ West Coast journey.

To turn things around, they may be tempted to take a gamble in Las Vegas this week.

This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not might project a growing divide in Cup, but the new Chase rules package leaves ample reason for all to stay optimistic. No need to panic – here is the rundown:

HOT

The only downpours in Phoenix did not interfere with the racing action.

Kevin Harvick enjoyed a Budweiser shower in Victory Lane, following a commanding win at the track that he has absolutely owned of late.

Penske Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano made noise from their front-row starting positions, but it did not take Harvick long to take over. Once he assumed the lead, no one could touch him — aside from Logano on a few well-timed restarts.

Not all of Stewart-Haas Racing is celebrating so far in 2014, but Kevin Harvick is one of the circuit’s hottest drivers at the moment.

Not all of Stewart-Haas Racing is celebrating so far in 2014, but Kevin Harvick is one of the circuit’s hottest drivers at the moment.

Bumps from the No. 22 did not rattle Harvick’s cage — nor did Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who could not stop Harvick from joining the WINNER decal club despite another strong outing to follow up his Daytona 500 win.

Earnhardt, Jr. might have fallen short in a bid for back-to-back wins, but his quick start is a birthday present for Bruton Smith. Junior Nation is presumably flocking to Las Vegas Motor Speedway — one of several tracks under the ownership of Smith — to watch their favorite star.

YouTube sensation Jeff Gordon has been very busy lately. Less than a week after playing a supporting role to Earnhardt, Jr. at Daytona, Gordon starred in the newly-released “Test Drive 2”, a follow up to 2013’s debated Pepsi MAX commercial.

In the sequel, he plays a fugitive-turned-taxicab-driver, who takes one of his biggest critics for a wild ride. Since the video’s Feb. 27 YouTube upload, it has received more than 11 million views.

Oh yeah, Gordon also finished fifth Sunday, rallying from 10th over the last 21 circuits, to secure his second top 5. It’s the first time Gordon’s scored back-to-back, top-5 results to start the season since 1997.

WARM

Jimmie Johnson and Co. stayed hot for the second consecutive race partially because of a mastery of Phoenix’s unique backstretch, highlighted by the dogleg, a sweeping curve that adds to the section’s roller coaster-like effect.

Cutting the dogleg also provided a shortcut to recovery for drivers ailing from Speedweeks.

Ryan Newman answered his 136.508 mph fast lap in Happy Hour with a similarly speedy effort over 500 kilometers. Newman quickly moved from 15th on the starting grid into contention, where he remained for much of the event thanks to his Luke Lambert-led No. 31 team’s focus on tightening the car over several stops.

Carl EdwardsKyle Busch and Jamie McMurray finished directly behind Newman. Each has one thing in common: they were among those wrecked in Turn 4 at Daytona, just before the No. 88 crossed the line for the final time. This time around, these three were able to go the distance without damage and an anti-climactic conclusion.

There was no slipping and sliding for Kasey Kahne, Phoenix’s winner of the best comeback award. The No. 5 went free-falling toward the rear before the competition caution because of loose conditions. A lap 181 Lucky Dog put him back on the path to 11th.

Maybe Kahne learned a thing or two about never giving up in his pre-race time with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

COOL

NASCAR might have created a new reason to watch weekly preparations with thegroup qualifying approach, but it is clear that the format will need changes after debuting in the Sonoran Desert.

The most noticeable issue is the cool-down process. There is a major tradeoff to these purposefully slow laps meant to promote good engine health, a reaction to regulations preventing any sort of mechanical-aided cooling in the pits.

Drivers who went out early in Friday’s opening session put on a good show, but then things got crowded. Afterward, those who posted early times returned to the track with no tape on their cars’ grills.

Then, problems arose.

Drivers who went out later were forced to maneuver around those off the pace, slowing their times. Kahne, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, for instance, each went out near the end of the knockout phase and did not start higher than 10th.

Hamlin was the last to attempt a run, waiting until the final minutes to bring the No. 11 onto the track. Whether this effort was a planned tactic or due to Justin Allgaier’s early wreck is an unknown, but he was only able to complete one lap before officials signaled the opening round to a close.

Phoenix is possibly the least desirable track to start from the back, but Allgaier made the most of his backup car and ominous 43rd spot, rapidly gaining 13 positions after the race began. However, a lap 171 wreck with Danica Patrick and Travis Kvapilput an abrupt end to that momentum.

Hey, at least Allgaier made the race.

COLD

Josh Wise and Landon Cassill missed the race due to a lack of speed in qualifying. Nevertheless, they were able to outperform Dave Blaney, who also missed Phoenix, a week after wrecking his only available car in preparation for the Daytona 500. Cassill was hurt the most, posting a DNQ just one week after a promising 12th-place finish in the Great American Race.

Meanwhile, drivers are trending in all directions at Stewart-Haas Racing. While Harvick is now an instant championship contender, Tony Stewart is still rediscovering himself and Patrick went looking for Allgaier after the checkered flag. Then there’s their other teammate, Kurt Busch.

Busch lost a cylinder, lost a lap and then lost a respectable finish — all in 92 laps. The No. 41 finally went up in smoke while running in the 33rd position. The Outlaw was pricked by a saguaro cactus and went home crying, figuratively speaking.

It has been that type of experience two weeks in a row for one of SHR’s new incumbents. Busch has not been struggling to keep pace when his Chevrolet is on point, but tragedy has struck often — which accounts for his 30th-place position in the standings exiting Phoenix.

It could be worse; at least Busch is not in Parker Kligerman‘s situation.

Kligerman’s season with Swan Racing could not be much more undesirable. Thanks to an early exit at Phoenix, he has two DNFs. It has not been the ideal start for a driver trying to secure a long-term Sprint Cup contract. Now, he travels to the home of his worst Nationwide Series numbers. Kligerman will need more than good luck to break even in Las Vegas — a 32.5 average finish suggests that he might need a miracle.

One of Vegas’ many nicknames, though could give Kligerman and other struggling rookies a reason to stay positive. It is called the Capital of Second Chances, so anything is possible, right? If not, there’s always $4.99 steak and eggs.

About Brad Morgan

Brad Morgan
Brad starts his third year with the Frontstretch in 2014, in charge of our weekly Sprint Cup trends column Who’s Hot and Who’s Not (Tuesdays). Brad also contributes to our free e-newsletter while popping up at just about every Sprint Cup race Talladega has ever had. He lives in Alabama.