In this short season, Denny Hamlin has asserted himself as one of the stronger drivers on short tracks. After nearly winning at Bristol two weeks ago before a fuel pickup problem relegated him to a sixth-place finish in the closing laps, Hamlin made his way to victory lane at his home track this weekend, earning his first and Joe Gibbs Racing’s second win of the year.
With back-to-back top-10 finishes, Hamlin claims a spot on this week’s HOT list alongside JGR teammate Tony Stewart; but who else is deserving of the recognition? On the flip side, Michael McDowell had an impressive first two-thirds of the race, but received some criticism after the event for racing the leaders too hard in the closing laps. Where does the rookie fall after his debut start? Was he wrong or right?
Check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup to find out.
Jeff Burton: Burton may have made some noise off the track this weekend with some harsh comments for rookie McDowell, but he has been making his share of noise on the track, as well. With points leader Kyle Busch running into problems, Burton’s third-place finish propelled him to the top of the standings for the first time since 2006. The Virginian won two weeks ago in Bristol and has recorded four consecutive top 10s. In fact, his worst finish in the first six races is an impressive 13th; and have I mentioned he’s the defending winner of the spring race at Texas?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Earnhardt was arguably the fastest car this weekend in Martinsville, but faded late and was forced to settle for sixth. Still, Junior has been so strong this season that this week’s finish is actually his worst since California, his only non-top 10 of the year. Not even Junior Nation could have predicted this type of early success for the sport’s Most Popular Driver.
Jeff Gordon: Much has been said of Hendrick Motorsports’ lack of dominance this year, but Gordon is quietly having a very good season. There was the suspension failure at Daytona and the accident at Las Vegas, but in his other four races he has three top 10s and one 11th-place finish. His second place at Martinsville pushed him back into the top 12 in points; he’s now up to ninth in the standings.
Hamlin: After finishing 17th and 41st in his first two events, Hamlin has bounced back with three top 10s in his next four races and a worst finish of 15th over that span. He could have won two weeks ago in Bristol, if not for the fuel problem, and won this weekend to complete a move from 31st to eighth in points in the past four weeks.
Kevin Harvick: Like his Richard Childress Racing teammate, Harvick has had a very successful first part of the season. In six races, his worst finish is 14th, and prior to his 12th-place run this weekend in Virginia, he had recorded four consecutive top 10s. Harvick’s points position has gradually improved from 13th to second since the Daytona 500.
Stewart: He may have had shorter hair and a waxed back, but it was the same ol’ Stewart this weekend. Stewart was on the verge of at least a top three at Bristol two weeks ago, but was taken out by Harvick in the closing laps before finishing fifth this week. Take away an accident at Las Vegas, and Stewart has four top 10s in his other five races, with his worst run coming at that Bristol event where he wound up 14th.
ALSO: Greg Biffle – third-, fourth- and fourth-place finishes prior to a 20th-place run in Martinsville; third in points.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer is very close to, and can arguably be on the HOT list this week. With three consecutive top 10s, he has moved from 24th in points to 12th, but is still not as strong as his RCR teammates quite yet.
David Ragan: Since finishing 42nd at Daytona, Ragan has been consistent, not finishing outside the top 25 since. An 11th-place run this week is just what the sophomore driver needs to build confidence to match the good equipment he seems to be in each week.
Mike Skinner: Sure, he has yet to finish better than 27th this year, but Skinner continues to qualify for races with cars that are outside the Top 35. He may be back in Cup serving as a mentor for AJ Allmendinger, but can someone give this guy a full-time ride?
The Busch Brothers: In addition to Kurt Busch taking baby brother out on lap 21, it was another rough day for the Busch brothers. Perhaps it was a result of the spin, but later in the race Kyle had to go behind the wall with transmission problems that resulted in a 38th-place finish, while Kurt had a rough day, finishing 33rd.
That led to some damage in the points for both. Kyle had led the standings since race two, but now falls to fifth after his run this week and a 17th-place finish two weeks ago at Bristol. After such a strong start, there are suddenly a lot of expectations for Kyle to live up to moving forward.
For Kurt, a second in the season-opening Daytona 500 has been one of the few bright spots for the No. 2 team. Solid finishes of 11th and 12th at Atlanta and Bristol and 13th at California are the consistent finishes the team needs, but one top 10 and finishes of 38th at Las Vegas and 33rd this weekend have dropped the team to 16th in points.
Ryan Newman: After starting the season with a win and a 10th-place finish in the first two races, Newman has yet to finish in the top 10 since. Two 14th-place runs are solid, but after a 33rd at Bristol and 19th this week, a good run at Texas couldn’t hurt.
Reed Sorenson: The 22-year-old opened a lot of eyes with an impressive month at Daytona, but it’s been all downhill from there. In his five races since, Sorenson has finished worse than 30th four times, with his best finish (18th) coming at Las Vegas.
Sam Hornish Jr.: The hard fight for teams to stay inside the Top 35 just got harder for Hornish, who now must qualify on time next week at Texas. With a season-best finish of 15th coming at Daytona, the rookie’s next best finish is 25th. He’s been consistently around that mark with finishes of 29th and 28th in his past two races, but a 43rd at California and a 41st at Las Vegas hurt this team’s bubble chances early on.
McDowell: Poor Michael, the rookie in his first ever Sprint Cup race was having an excellent run for much of the day, cracking the top 20 and staying on the lead lap. That good day went bad very quickly late in the going, however, when a number of impatient cars on the lead lap got upset with the young driver and decided to teach the kid a lesson. A pinball in the closing laps, McDowell had to pit with a flat tire and finished 26th.
His performance on the track for the first two-thirds of the race was impressive, but the end is what lands him in the COLD list. It is important for a rookie to earn the respect of your veteran peers; if, in your first race you already upset the series’ top drivers, it’s a bad start. The kid has a lot of talent, but needs to race the guys who have already earned respect with respect. That doesn’t mean he should back down, though, it’s a thin line he needs to learn to balance, and I’m sure he’ll figure it out.
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