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Who’s Hot / Who’s Not: Kentucky-Daytona Edition
(Credit: Yvonne Leonard)

Who’s Hot / Who’s Not: Kentucky-Daytona Edition

Things were indeed blue in the Bluegrass State after afternoon showers passed over Kentucky Speedway.  Brad Keselowski rocketed back into immediate consideration with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ current top teams, making some history along the way.

This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not is as close to a one-man show as it gets.  Others made some notable contributions to the Quaker State 400, however — some for better and some for worse.

HOT

Brad Keselowski has graduated from sleeper status.

What appeared to be a season destined to have a Kevin Harvick/Hendrick Motorsports champion has a new focal character in Keselowski after he showed up at the Quaker State 400 and had a career night.

Penske Racing has been at the top of the charts at intermediate tracks in 2014, but Keselowski just took things to a new level Sunday.  The Blue Deuce’s average running order somewhere south of second doesn’t do him justice.  Keselowski was seconds ahead of other leaders for much of that time and stayed in position to cruise to his second victory because of flawless stops from the last pit stall.

Brad Keselowski hoists the checkered flag after winning at Kentucky Speedway. (Credit: CIA)

Brad Keselowski hoists the checkered flag after winning at Kentucky Speedway. (Credit: CIA)

Tracks similar to Kentucky Speedway make up the beef of the regular season and Chase schedule, making things all the better in the No. 2 camp.  Improved reliability has only made Keselowski harder to keep out of victory lane.  Hendrick drivers were the only ones capable of doing that over a recent three-race stretch from Dover through Michigan during which he finished at least third.

It seems like 2012 all over again, with Keselowski less concerned with whatever Jimmie Johnson is doing and more focused on the goal at hand.  He’ll just need to be more careful when handling champagne bottles the next time he decides to put on a racing clinic.

While hard to lead 75 percent of the laps at a place like Daytona International Speedway, the series’ next stop, a repeat of Kentucky’s result isn’t out the question.  It is restrictor plate racing after all, and Keselowski has improved there recently to the tune of three top eights in the last four track dates.

WARM

No one had anything for Keselowski, but Kyle Busch was at least luckier.  When a late-race caution interrupted a cycle of green flag stops, Busch inherited the lead and then fought for a runner-up finish.

The No. 18 team endured a dismal four-race stretch leading into Kentucky and got just the result it needed.  Busch has the haters hating again, but his latest slump might have softened him up a bit.  After the fiery driver went off on his crew, he promptly apologized to crew chief Dave Rogers over the radio.  That’s progress, people, progress.

Keeping the good vibes going in the Sunshine State will be complicated, given Daytona’s oftentimes unpredictable nature, but Busch has fared well there more times than not lately.  A 12th in the Daytona 500 was preceded by a spectacular 2012 that included a second and third, and a fifth the following year.

Searching for someone whose numbers over that span is even more impressive?  Look no further than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The No. 88 Chevrolet wound up in the Daytona 500 Experience after staking its claim in the Great American Race.  Junior was on the road to reestablishing himself as a restrictor plate maestro even before February’s breakthrough, however.  A 5.6 average finish over the last five races proves that Earnhardt isn’t a one-race wonder.  That figure is rivaled only by Mark Martin’s 6.5 — and he’s retired!

COOL

For the first time in a long, long while, Kyle Larson had a rookie moment.  No, not the good kind — the runner-up finish at Fontana or five other top 10s — Larson encountered the ugly underbelly of Cup’s steep learning curve, those moments that show why first-timers wear those shiny yellow stickers on the back of their cars.  On this occasion, the No. 42 Chevrolet ended up against the turn 2 wall because of a blown tire, and then went to the garage for the rest of the night.

The 40th drops Larson to 13th in the standings, meaning that he has fallen firmly onto the bubble comprised by drivers who still lack their first win.  It’s only the second DNF for Larson this season, the first coming in the season opener.  These aren’t things he wanted dwelling over his head going into Daytona, where was forced to an early exit after being knocked out by Austin Dillon.

Maybe there’s hope.  Larson stayed out of trouble at Talladega in May en route to a ninth.  He’ll need to use any lessons he learned in that event to keep his lead in the rookie of the year standings over Dillon from shrinking.

Another rookie, Alex Bowman, showed why he is a distant sixth in the rookie contest — and hurt the chances of several Kentucky hopefuls in the process.  Bowman threw up a cloud of smoke when he lost control of the No. 23 Camry in turn 4, which caused major problems for Aric Almirola and Jamie McMurray.

While not as memorable as Bristol’s infamous “toilet paper” incident, the wreck stands as another reminder of why Bowman has yet to score a top 20 through 17 career starts.

COLD

Denny Hamlin’s Sonoma troubles carried right onto Kentucky’s notoriously bumpy pavement.  Hamlin was the first casualty to depart because of tire problems, with the No. 11 crippled in a lap-27 blowout.

The 43rd takes the edge off last week’s 26th in all the wrong ways, making it the best finish over the past three stops.  The skid has dropped Hamlin to 17th in points, meaning that his Talladega win is the only thing keeping him afloat right now.

In some strange way, Daytona seems like the perfect place to end his current struggles.  That has something to with the aforementioned victory, but his all-but-forgotten second in the Daytona 500 is also a factor.  Even so, with the way he’s racing, it’s hard to have much confidence in him.

David Stremme should have paid better attention at Michigan International Speedway earlier this season.  If he had, he would have learned why not to overdrive corners as he did at Kentucky.  The track has become a two-groove venue as the pavement has aged and Stremme showed what happens when a driver ventures out into the upper reaches of the corners, just like Michigan.  He briefly lost control of the No. 33 early on, and later spun on lap 177.

Stremme’s part-time campaign teamed with Circle Sport has been among his worst.  He hasn’t finished on the lead lap this season and, worse, he has no finish better than 35th through six starts.

Stremme isn’t on the entry list for the Coke Zero 400 and maybe it’s a good thing.  He’ll have time to clear his head before his next attempt.

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.