Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Hot in Sprint Cup: 2009 Southern 500 Edition

If you are a sheetmetal supplier and you live in or near the Charlotte, N.C. area, congratulations – you are about to be very rich. The first-ever springtime version of the Southern 500 may have been a potent mixture of high speeds on newer pavement – but it also led to the same danger of racecars marring themselves with Darlington Stripes.

As the race’s 367 laps wore on, many teams, both HOT and COLD, experienced and inexperienced, fell by the wayside at the feisty hands of the track Too Tough To Tame, pushing the night’s caution total to a record-setting 17. In the end, a patient, steady veteran in Mark Martin may have been the star of the show, but rookies Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski also cracked the top 10 to show the Lady In Black isn’t afraid to reward both young and old.

With another challenging race in the books and a tight points battle remaining that way, here’s the scoop on the HOT, WARM and COLD drivers of the week as the Sprint Cup Series prepares for its annual All-Star Race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

HOT: Martin – Fifty’s the new 30 for the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. Martin had a great week – after announcing that he is returning full-time to the No. 5 for sure in 2010, he and crew chief Alan Gustafson decided to stretch their fuel towards the end of the race, a gamble which earned them the team’s second victory of the season as a reward. When did Martin last win two races in a season? How about 10 years ago in 1999, when he finished third in points.

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And the way things are going in 2009, the veteran’s headed towards a similar high-end performance. Currently averaging a sixth-place finish this season in races that he has not wrecked or blown a motor, the victory bumped Martin up four spots to 11th place in points – just above the cutline of Chase contention.

HOT: Tony Stewart – Stewart’s third-place effort in Saturday’s Southern 500 was his fifth top five in six races, allowing him to close in on leader Jeff Gordon in the season points race. But while leading the points, if only for just one race, would be a great benchmark for Stewart to reach in his own equipment, putting the No. 14 in victory lane is really what the two-time champion is looking to accomplish. A win in next week’s Sprint All-Star Race would not officially count, but would still be significant as a first victory for Stewart as an owner – coming in an event he has never been able to win before.

HOT: Ryan Newman – Newman is red hot and has not run this well week-to-week in several years. Saturday’s fourth-place result was his third consecutive top-five finish, bumping him up to eighth in points for the first time in this young season. Many questioned Newman’s move to the No. 39, considering the numerous uncertainties that surrounded Stewart-Haas Racing at the time he made the switch.

Now, the Indiana native sits almost 20 spots ahead of his old ride, the No. 12, in the standings with several tracks ahead of him that he runs well at coming up. Barring any bad luck, do not expect Newman or his teammate and boss Stewart to fade from the limelight anytime soon.

WARM: Greg Biffle – The Biff is having one of the quieter seasons on the circuit, though he did manage to lead 117 laps in the Southern 500 – almost twice as many as any other driver – and finished eighth. Biffle’s short-track struggles this year (an average finish of 28th) have kept the No. 16 from making a huge impact in the points standings, but the 3M team’s runs at other tracks have been more than respectable. Count on Biffle breaking out and winning a couple of races before the curtain drops on the 2009 season.

WARM: Gordon – Gordon’s finish at Talladega was an aberration in light of the remarkable consistency and resiliency the No. 24 team has possessed all season long. Gordon struggled much of the night Saturday with his car; but, like many veterans do, kept it in good shape when it counted. Gordon squeezed a fifth-place finish out of a rough night, recovering from a loose wheel after crew chief Steve Letarte pulled a similar move to Martin’s and played the fuel-mileage game at the end of the race. As a result, he now leads the Cup Series in top-five finishes with six.

WARM: Logano – Maybe that ride around Darlington with Cale Yarborough was just what the doctor ordered for Logano. The No. 20 was on a rail Saturday night, and the rookie proved the perfect pilot in a race that could be a serious confidence builder for the rookie’s transition into Sprint Cup. Surprisingly keeping the Home Depot entry in one piece, Logano did not just nurse the car to a solid finish through the carnage – he passed a lot of cars and even led 19 laps in the Southern 500 en route to his second ninth-place finish in three races.

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This rookie has encountered some serious scrutiny this year, especially considering his young age and the high profile ride he inherited. When the 18-year-old led the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to an average finish of 30.29 in the first seven races, some speculation even began to arise regarding his future with the team. But since then, Sliced Bread has begun to live up to his moniker, putting together a solid if not spectacular average finish of 14.5 in just the last four races. Expect Logano’s numbers to pick up even more when he visits some tracks in a Cup car for the second and third times later this year.

COLD: David Ragan – Ragan’s first season with UPS has not delivered the results that anyone has expected. The No. 6 team is not simply a victim of bad luck – its 31st-place position in points is largely due to poor setups and driving mistakes. Remember his debut at Martinsville in the fall of 2006? Ragan finished on the lead lap but also brought out a couple of cautions and raised the ire of several drivers. After an up and down rookie year and an impressive sophomore effort following that day, 2009 was supposed to be a year that the sport birthed a new star.

Instead, Ragan has resorted to some of the same driving mistakes that caused fellow driver Stewart to label him a “dart without feathers” during that infamous Martinsville debut. Saturday saw the 23-year-old have run-ins with a couple of drivers before his day mercilessly ended with a hard wreck into the outside wall. The dustup leaves him just one spot behind Logano and towards the back end of the Top 35, far from the top-12 spot he was expected to contend for. 2009 may not be a total wash for the team, but hopes of making that Chase have clearly been swept away at this point.

COLD: Michael Waltrip – M-Dub’s 40th-place finish Saturday night may have been due to an engine failure, but that result is the lowest in a recent line of lower-than-mediocre finishes for the driver/owner. The fiery ending to the No. 55 Toyota Saturday night literally added fuel to the fire to what has been a miserable spring for his flagship team.

After an impressive start to the year, Waltrip has fallen to 27th in points and taken himself out of contention several times due to driving errors. Waltrip says he wants to win a championship before he retires; but considering his luck and accomplishments the past few seasons, a top-20 points finish is even considered a stretch at this point.

COLD: Clint Bowyer – After beginning the season in a similar quiet, consistent fashion that Biffle has been sporting of late, the wheels of the new Richard Childress Racing No. 33 team are slowly coming off. Bowyer, whose non-DNF streak came to an end at 83 races (one short of the record), after hard contact with the inside and outside walls, has finishes of 22nd, 26th, 39th, 18th and 37th in the last five races. The finishes in the 30s are due to crashes not of his making, but the other lousy performances for Bowyer have much more to do with poorly handling racecars instead.

In those last five races, only Bobby Labonte, Waltrip and AJ Allmendinger have scored less points than Bowyer among drivers who have competed in all five events. His 37th-place blunder in the Southern 500 has now pushed the No. 33 team to the wrong side of the Chase cutoff in 13th.

Here are some other HOT and NOT issues of the week:

HOT: A string of good races? – After seeing Saturday’s Southern 500 at Darlington, fans can confidently say that they have seen three good races in a row – at least (I am of the opinion that Phoenix was pretty doggone good as well). Saturday’s race saw drivers barely hanging on to their monstrous hunks of metal, passing each other on a ragged edge just inches from the wall.

Pit strategy came into play, there were more than a few wrecks and, just like the last three races, several unexpected drivers jumped out and ran near the front. Providing such good racing year in, year out, Darlington needs its second race back – and we knew that already. Saturday night’s gem was further proof of what many have been pleading for several years at plenty of other tracks on the circuit.

NOT: More talk of changes at RPMElliott Sadler has had another rough year, despite making some laps in the top five Saturday in Darlington. Monday, reports surfaced that there are talks about possibly benching the driver of the No. 19 or the entire team and moving that sponsorship over to Allmendinger’s. Editor’s Note: The team has since denied these rumors. The feasibility of these changes seems low… but that is not the biggest problem with a team struggling to simply maintain the basic tenets of racing professionalism.

Sadler may need a change of scenery at this point; but simply kicking him out of the No. 19 again, after picking up the option on his contract last season while he was attempting to be RCR’s fourth driver, then asking him to take a pay cut to stay with the team, then releasing him in favor of Allmendinger, then taking it all back after Sadler threatened a lawsuit is just not the way a race team should handle its business.

There is not much reason to think that Sadler will remain with the team past this season; but if RPM actually decides to shut down a fully sponsored car to partially fund a semi-sponsored one that is on a similar performance level, they need to truly reconsider their plans.

HOT: A young Elliott chasing the dream – There may be another legend in the making in north Georgia. Chase Elliott, the 13-year-old son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, won his first late model race in the highly competitive Georgia Asphalt Series. Elliott is a smooth driver, learning his father’s skills and improving weekly in the various races he has run. With only a handful of late model races under his belt so far, expect big things to speed out of the mountains of Dawsonville, Ga. in the coming years.

NOT: Drugs – They are bad, very bad. Jeremy Mayfield’s positive test during the Richmond race weekend brings the issue as close to home to fans as it has ever been before. Mayfield has not been a household name in recent years, but he did make the Chase in 2004 and 2005 and has five career wins. With the recent death of twice-suspended driver Kevin Grubb, drugs will be a hot issue yet again in the NASCAR ranks. If indeed Mayfield did not fail the test because of a mixture of allergy medicines, he is reckless, ignorant and will never earn respect back in the garage.

NASCAR returns home to Charlotte for the next two weeks. Check here at Hot/Not to see who impresses the home crowd at Lowe’s Motor Speedway during the All-Star Race, while finding out who may be ready to hit the road as soon as the Coca-Cola 600 is over.

Listen to Doug on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with Captain Herb Emory racing show on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com this Saturday, from 2-4 p.m.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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