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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in NASCAR: Michigan/Sonoma Edition

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in NASCAR: Michigan/Sonoma Edition

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Forget about the seven second-place finishes since his last win, the race at Pocono was the first time in four years that Dale Earnhardt Jr. deserved to be in Victory Lane. The second-place results might look better on paper, but none of those were close calls. His eighth-place run at Pocono truly was the closest he had gotten to winning.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that one week later he finally got it done at Michigan to end a 143-race winless drought. Now the talk will turn from, “When will he win?” to “Will he win the championship this year?” The pressure is always on the No. 88 team, but they are handling it well. No team has more momentum right now than Earnhardt Jr’s.

No surprise here: JUNIOR is the hottest thing in NASCAR at the moment.

*HOT*

*Dale Earnhardt Jr.* most likely spent his Monday morning petitioning track owners to repave all of the speedways in the Sprint Cup Series. Junior seemed to really like the fresh asphalt and high speeds at Pocono and Michigan. Unfortunately, that run ends at Sonoma, where the speeds will drop dramatically for 11 turns of road course fun.

Junior has shown as much promise on road courses as Boris Said has shown on ovals. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 at a road course since Watkins Glen in 2004, and hasn’t finished in the top 10 at Sonoma ever. Enjoy the ride now, Earnhardt Jr. fans. The No. 88 team is probably feeling pretty good right now about contending for a championship after Junior’s win, but all they have to do is look across the shop at Hendrick Motorsports to realize they might not be there just yet.

*Jimmie Johnson* had his least competitive car since Richmond on April 28. He finished fifth and got as high as third in the late going Sunday. At Pocono, Dover and Darlington, Johnson was the fastest car out there. He probably would have ended up third at Charlotte if it wasn’t for a pit road violation. The point is, this guy is right there every race, unlike any other driver in the series right now. Unless another team can figure out how to do that, the No. 48 is winning a sixth championship in 2012.

*WARM*

With all of the talk centered around Martin Truex Jr. in the first quarter of the season, *Clint Bowyer* was flying under the radar at Michael Waltrip Racing. If Bowyer continues to run the way he has in the last three weeks, it is going to be tough to not notice the No. 15 car.

The Kansas native has put up results of fifth, sixth and seventh in the last three races and has as many top 10s as any other Toyota driver with eight (he is tied with Truex Jr. and Hamlin). The next step for Bowyer and Truex Jr. is to prove they can win races, which neither has done to this point in the season.

While two wild card contenders, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano both wrecked on Sunday, *Marcos Ambrose* put forth another solid run. It’s important because Ambrose could easily win this week in Sonoma or before the Chase starts at Watkins Glen.

Bad luck early in the season dug the No. 9 team in a hole, but finally Ambrose is putting together some uneventful races, which is just what this team has needed. He was 10th on Sunday and has top-15 finishes in four of the last five events, including three top 10s. The way Ambrose has run this year, he should much farther up in the standings, but if he stays consistent, that and one win might be enough to beat out the likes of Ryan Newman, Kahne and Logano for a Chase spot.

*COOL*

*Brad Keselowski* didn’t perform like he wanted to at his home track. Keselowski was one of the slowest cars in the first practice session at Michigan, and while he improved after NASCAR made the left-side tire change, the No. 2 was still outside the top 10 for the fourth time in the last five races.

Qualifying day has been one of the biggest obstacles for the No. 2 team in 2012. In 15 races, Keselowski has qualified in the top 10 only three times. Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart used to be the guys known for their inability to turn fast laps in qualifying, but those drivers have stepped up their game, which is something Brad is going to have to work on.

*Carl Edwards* seems to have a habit of finishing 11th. He’s done it three times in 2012, including in the last two races. It’s also where he currently sits in the standings, and if he’s not careful, it is where he is going to be after the Chase cutoff. Sitting in 11th without a win after Richmond has to be a lonely feeling.

If Keselowski’s struggles continue, Edwards may have a shot at the magic 10th spot, but the top nine drivers are all running much better than the No. 99. This team really needs to win a race, something it hasn’t done since Las Vegas in 2011. They aren’t going to do it if they keep running 11th.

*COLD*

*Ryan Newman* is not making the Chase, and he doesn’t deserve to. Since his fluke victory at Martinsville on April 1, Newman still hasn’t finished in the top 10. He was 15th on Sunday.

With Kahne, Ambrose, Edwards, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and even Jeff Gordon around, Newman doesn’t have a chance. And if the rumors are true, Newman is looking at heading elsewhere in 2013. Situations like this don’t necessarily have to be filled with drama, but they don’t end with playoff-runs and championships either.

Despite the reports, *Kyle Busch* has not retired from Sprint Cup competition. The reason Rowdy has seen as much track time as Joe Nemechek in the last three races is because something has broken in his engine for three straight weeks. Which makes me wonder, is Busch getting Nemechek’s motors? Is Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor building the motors at Toyota Racing Development?

Either way, three engine problems in three weeks at the highest level of racing is inexcusable. We haven’t heard a peep of Kyle, but if he were to unleash some type of Kurt Busch-level tirade this week, it would be understandable.

“Contact Brett Poirier”:http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/33361/

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