If controversy and drama are the keys to survival, NASCAR’s battery would be fully-charged. Even over the weekend, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series had a controversial finish of its own when NASCAR took the victory away from Johnny Sauter for changing lanes before the start/finish line on the final restart, awarding the win to Ron Hornaday Jr.
Then, following the Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono, it was announced that Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota had failed inspection, with penalties announced almost immediately on Monday morning. And if controversy and drama are indeed the keys to survival, Busch will be around for a long time.
But, regardless, in the midst of all the debating, bickering, and opinions that fly like bullets in a war zone, there are drivers on streaks that deserve a mention and those that are consistently flying under the radar — for very different reasons.
Joey Coulter – Coulter certainly hasn’t flown under the radar as of late, but his name has been thrown around for reasons other than his two consecutive fifth-place finishes. While Coulter is slowly becoming a regular name in the top 10 in the Camping World Truck Series, his team-owner Richard Childress and the aforementioned Kyle Busch were “having at it” following the race at Kansas Speedway just a couple of weeks ago.
Childress reportedly took several swings at Busch following a post-race congratulatory (seriously, does anyone actually believe that?) tap from Busch on the cool-down lap after Coulter and Busch traded paint in the closing laps of the race. Childress was eventually fined for the incident, but Coulter’s strong run was swept under the rug amidst all of the fist-flying testosterone.
Not to worry. He followed it up with a top-five run last weekend in Texas, too. In fact, Coulter has been in the top 10 in three of the last four Truck Series races, which has put him in the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Coulter is currently ninth in points, 72 points out of the lead.
Kurt Busch – Ah, how time flies. It seems like only yesterday the elder Busch was spouting off at the mouth to his team, screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs regarding the handling of his car…
…Wait a minute! That was only a few weeks ago!
Yet, look at Busch now. Amidst all of the scanner arguments that surprisingly never left Busch hoarse, it seems as though he finally got through to them. Following seven consecutive weeks of finishes of 10th or worse beginning in Fontana, Busch has since shown a return to form that should eventually lead to a victory lane appearance for the No. 22 team.
The turnaround seemingly began in Charlotte where, fuel mileage race or not, Busch earned his first top-five finish since the Daytona 500 and even led a few laps for the first time in several weeks. Busch then dominated the race at Kansas Speedway after starting on the pole, falling short on fuel and instead watching Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski take the win. However, a ninth-place run certainly didn’t show the strength Busch had that day. In Pocono, Busch again had one of the strongest cars, leading 37 laps and finishing second to Jeff Gordon.
Busch is the only driver who has been in the top 10 in points through all 14 races this year, though you wouldn’t know it with all of Busch’s protests through the past few months. While I don’t necessarily agree with Busch’s tearing apart of his crew every time the car isn’t up to par, you definitely can’t argue with the results it’s brought about.
Honorable Mention: On Sunday at Pocono, Gordon won his first race since his victory at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Could this be the year?
Well, no, if we’re talking championship it probably won’t be. While I’m not convinced that will ever be the case, this might be the season we finally see Earnhardt return to winning form. In fact, the argument could be made that he already has.
While victory lane has eluded the No. 88 team through 14 races this year, Earnhardt has still spent a significant amount of time in the top 10. In the last three races, Earnhardt has finished sixth, second and seventh, and while he’s only led two laps in the last three races, he’s been competitive. That’s more than you could say for the last couple of seasons where a top-10 run for Earnhardt was an exception rather than the norm. In fact, it was typically a relief in a long line of poor finishes.
As it stands, Earnhardt certainly looks like Chase material with only 12 races left before NASCAR’s playoff begins. He is currently third in points, 10 points out of the lead. Seriously, NASCAR’s most popular driver is only a top 10 or two away from taking the points lead. What a difference a year makes!
Denny Hamlin – Last year’s almost-champion is finally picking up the pace. While his 19th-place run at Pocono doesn’t show it, Hamlin had almost certainly one of the strongest cars of the day and was able to lead 76 total laps before succumbing to a flat tire that would deal a final blow to Hamlin’s already rollercoaster of a day.
However, the results are beginning to speak for themselves. While Hamlin contending for the win at a track like Pocono is no surprise (Hamlin won his first career race there), up until recently he hadn’t been much of a contender in anything, let alone for the championship.
Aside from Pocono, four of Hamlin’s last five finishes were inside the top 10, a promising streak considering that Hamlin only had one top 10 in the first eight races of the year.
However, panic is eventually going to set in for the Virginia native. Though Hamlin is only nine points out of the top 10 in points, the “safe zone” for Chase drivers, he may indeed have to rely on a wildcard spot if he is not able to shake off some of these inconsistent runs. His last several weeks have shown a change in direction for the No. 11 team, but will it be enough to secure him a playoff berth? Stay tuned.
Honorable Mention: Matt Kenseth’s eighth-place run at Pocono was his third top 10 in the last four races, continuing to lay down strong numbers in a season where Kenseth has already won two races.
Kasey Kahne – I thought for a while there that maybe Kahne’s move to Red Bull Racing wasn’t a bad idea after all, but the more I watch, the less I’m convinced. Since Darlington, where Kahne very well may have won the race had it not been for a late-race restart, Kahne has yet to finish inside the top 10, with results of 12th or worse coming in the last four races.
Based on the spotty results this year, Kahne probably can’t wait to jump ship to Hendrick Motorsports, who recently announced that Farmers Insurance would be Kahne’s primary sponsor next season when Kahne takes over Mark Martin’s No. 5 car.
David Ragan – I can’t make up my mind on Ragan. Every time I start to think Jack Roush may indeed have been right about this guy, he winds up disappearing from view and finishing exactly where everyone expects him to: mid-pack.
Aside from a second-place run at Charlotte where Ragan and company used fuel mileage to their advantage, and a fourth-place run at Richmond International Raceway, Ragan has five finishes outside of the top 10 in the last seven races, three of which were outside of the top 20.
With Hamlin starting to pick up the pace, Ragan’s sponsor UPS would have to be frustrated watching Hamlin carry FedEx to another near-title run. Heck, even a Chase appearance — which won’t be happening with Ragan — might be enough for UPS to decide that another driver might provide more positive exposure (Carl Edwards, perhaps?).
UPS’s contract is up with Ragan at the end of the year and, without sponsorship, Ragan might follow them right out the door.
Honorable Mention: Regan Smith has finishes of 15th or worse in three of the last four races, a disappointing follow-up to his win in Darlington.
Jeff Burton – Almost every driver this year, no matter how poorly they’ve run, has still managed a top-10 finish here and there.
Burton isn’t one of those drivers. His best finishes of the year were two 11th-place runs at Texas and Dover and he’s never led more than 12 laps in a single race this season. In fact, in total, Burton has only been up front for 29 total laps in 14 races this year.
Burton’s team of Richard Childress Racing added on an extra car over the offseason, the No. 27 of Paul Menard, a move that didn’t work very well when they added Casey Mears to the mix in 2009. When Childress scaled back to three cars for the 2010 season, all three cars made the Chase and two of the three even won a few races. Now, with four teams again stretching resources thin at the organization, Burton is the one left scraping for solid results while he watches his teammates enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Todd Bodine – Rumors of Bodine’s firing from Germain Racing were floating around Twitter after Ray Dunlap tweeted that he had been released from the organization. While the rumors were eventually found to be untrue, all is not well at the Germain camp.
With limited funding already the status quo in the No. 30 camp, only two top 10 runs and three DNF finishes aren’t helping the team’s cause. The two-time Camping World Truck Series champion and his team are struggling to make ends meet as they head to the racetrack week to week, with much more funding still needed in order to finish out the season.
It’s a sad sign of the times when someone like Bodine may not have enough to race on any given week, but unfortunately it seems as though things may get worse before they get better.
Honorable Mention: Menard hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Texas in early April and has finished outside the top 20 four times since then.
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