Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in NASCAR: 2011 Michigan-Sonoma Edition

So we finally saw a finish that was not determined by fuel mileage, though it would have been had Dale Earnhardt Jr. not smacked the wall with less than 10 laps to go. My question is, why was the caution called for Earnhardt’s brush with the wall when Kevin Harvick had done the same thing just a few laps earlier and the race stayed green?

These inconsistent calls have been getting under the skin of fans for a while now and specifically when it comes to Earnhardt. Now, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but even I have begun paying attention to what generates a call to the flagman to wave the yellow and what doesn’t. The bottom line seems to come down to the fact that the final call is NASCAR’s and if they don’t see a need for a yellow, they won’t throw it. I’d just love to know what exactly that “need” is.

Meanwhile, the biggest conspiracy in the Nationwide Series was a Cup Series regular once again taking the win from a Nationwide Series regular — but not by much. Edwards passed Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with just eight laps remaining, but don’t think that losing the race in any way detracted from Stenhouse’s continued improvement this year.

Speaking of which…


Stenhouse Jr. – When I first heard Carl Edwards’s contract was up at the end of this year, I assumed he’d re-sign no problem. But here we are, almost to July, and both Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing are dancing around questions when asked, with comments such as “Ultimately I’d like to stay at Roush” comments that I’m starting to believe less and less. The only other “grass might be greener” option out there right now is Joe Gibbs Racing, and rumors have been swirling around that they may indeed have their eye on Roush’s star driver.

With Stenhouse waiting in the wings, though, RFR might have just decided to let him go. Each and every week, Stenhouse is up front contending with the Cup Series regulars and, though we’ve only seen him in victory lane once this year, everyone knows who he is and what he’s capable of. If he carries this through to the end of the season, and Edwards and RFR still haven’t “negotiated” enough, Stenhouse may very well be next in line for a Cup ride.

However, Stenhouse isn’t the only option to fill Edwards’s spot.

Trevor Bayne – Remember Bayne? Daytona 500 champion? New face of NASCAR? The driver who disappeared from NASCAR competition for over a month for symptoms that no one seems to have a diagnosis for?

He finished fifth in his second Nationwide Series race back from a hiatus that sent Bayne’s boatload of bandwagon fan girls running back to Justin Bieber and left the rest of us wondering if he’d ever be able to get behind the wheel of a car again.

But, like the Brian Vickers story from last year, Bayne was able to jump back in the seat once cleared by doctors and continue right on as if nothing had happened.

In fact, double duty wasn’t even an issue for the 20-year-old driver, coming home in 16th place in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race. So if Stenhouse is a candidate for the No. 99 car, you can bet the farm that Roush is looking at Bayne too.

Honorable Mention: Kyle Busch finished third while battling an upset stomach, his second third-place finish in a row. Penalties may be coming for Joe Gibbs Racing after NASCAR discovered that all three cars — including Busch’s teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano — were using unapproved oil pans.


Ryan Newman – Not much has been said about Stewart-Haas Racing other than the fact that they’ve kind of sucked this year. A few top-10 finishes here and there have Newman inside the top 10 in points, but barely. Newman holds a measly two-point advantage over 11th-place Tony Stewart, who did I mention is Newman’s team owner?

Two points. That’s two positions. And with the bonus points NASCAR awards for winning the race and leading a lap, the difference between making the Chase or falling short might as well be winning the race and watching the leader’s bumper as he takes the checkered flag.

And isn’t that exactly what NASCAR wanted?

Newman’s last three finishes are sixth, ninth and 15th. Not bad, but he’s going to have to do better than that if he wants to secure himself a Chase spot.

Elliott Sadler – Sadler celebrated his first Father’s Day with son Wyatt last weekend and had a lot to smile about following an eighth-place finish in Michigan. Sadler has had a fantastic season through 15 Nationwide Series races, with his worst placing of the season coming in the form of a 13th at Nashville.

Alright, actually his worst finish of the season was 38th in Daytona, but that was just a minor splotch on an otherwise nearly spotless record this year.

Sadler is only two points back from leader Stenhouse and you’ll remember what I said about how little that is. Heck, it was a tiny margin with the old system, but now it’s just a heckuva lot easier to explain!

Honorable Mention: Instead of retaliating on Kyle Busch now that his probation period has expired, Harvick finished 14th after leading only one lap through all 400 miles. He even smacked the wall in the closing laps of the race, but still managed a top-15 run.


Clint Bowyer – For seven races from Fontana to Dover, life was good for Bowyer. Only one race in that time frame did he finish outside of the top 10, and he was competitive in nearly all of them, leading a handful of laps at tracks like Richmond and Martinsville. Even without a win, it looked like 2011 could shape up to be a banner year for Bowyer, a season removed from the debacle last season that saw a post-Chase penalty knock him off his feet and out of championship contention.

Lately, though, he seems to have lost his touch. His eighth-place run in Michigan was his first top 10 since the May 29 race at Charlotte and he hasn’t led any laps since Dover.

The series is hitting a lot of the mile-and-a-half racetracks that seem to be Bowyer’s Achilles’ heel, an obstacle he needs to overcome if he wants to truly contend for a championship. And fast. Bowyer is losing his grip on his Chase spot, holding onto the 10th position with only a one-point advantage over 11th with 11 races remaining until the Chase begins. Eleven races is a long time, but Bowyer hasn’t been higher than seventh in points all season and may wind up fighting for a Chase spot before he fights for a championship.

Vickers – Vickers’s return to NASCAR after missing over half the season last year due to blood clots was supposed to be a storied comeback where he continued Red Bull Racing’s upward trend from becoming a new, struggling team to Chase contenders and race winners.

Now, though, it looks as though RBR may be closing its doors. Here is a statement from the team:

“Red Bull Racing Team is currently seeking outside investors as we evaluate next steps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. We are not at liberty to comment on details while negotiations are under way. Red Bull fully supports NASCAR for the remainder of the 2011 season as we fight for victories and a position in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.”

Both the Associated Press and FOX Sports are reporting that the organization is planning on leaving the sport at the end of the year, which would leave Vickers without a ride. Kasey Kahne is already scheduled to drive for Hendrick Motorsports next season.

With that said, Vickers needs to pick up the pace if he wants to prove to another team that he deserves a ride. Vickers is currently 24th in points, with only five top 10s in 15 races this season. His top-10 finish in Michigan was his first since finishing fifth at Dover back in May, finishing outside the top 15 in all three races in between.

Not to mention the fact that Vickers has spent a total of ZERO laps up front, has seven finishes outside the top 20 and eight finishes off the lead lap. If he doesn’t kick it into high gear, he may find himself at the end of the unemployment line.

Honorable Mention: AJ Allmendinger only has three top-10 finishes all year, one of two drivers struggling at Richard Petty Motorsports, a team that almost went belly-up at the end of last season.


Bobby Labonte – It’s strange to associate Labonte with a Sprint Cup Series championship when looking at the kind of results he’s had at JTG Daugherty Racing this season, but that’s exactly what he is. The 2000 champion has only one top 10 through 15 races this season and hasn’t finished inside of the top 20 since his 18th-place run at Dover.

Labonte, who raced for a variety of different owners last season, landed a full season deal with JTG Daugherty Racing for 2011 and has had various sponsors on board such as Little Debbie, Bush’s Baked Beans and Clorox.

But sitting 27th in points and struggling for top-20 finishes aren’t going to help them in their sponsor search and certainly won’t make Labonte relevant again anytime soon.

Marcos Ambrose – Ambrose, the driver who Labonte replaced, isn’t doing much better in his ride either. Ambrose has four top 10s, two of which were in the top five, but other than that Richard Petty Motorsports hasn’t exactly generated the results that Ambrose might have thought they would.

I talked to Ambrose during Media Day in Daytona at the beginning of the season and he said there had been some communication issues between him and his crew chief, but nothing that ultimately made me think would cause them to struggle.

Instead, I assumed they’d struggle because RPM had to fight so hard at the end of last year to even stay afloat. Now with only two teams remaining, the team is surviving, but not thriving, in an otherwise strenuous economic climate.

Heading into Sonoma, though, Ambrose may very well find a bright spot in an otherwise cloudy season, where the road-course racing expert has contended for the victory on several occasions only to fall short. He’ll be on many fantasy lineups this weekend, but make sure to remind him to not turn off the engine while going uphill this time around!

Honorable Mention: Martin Truex Jr. has been mediocre at best this season, with only four top 10s and a 20th-place spot in points to his credit through 15 races in 2011. Truex is currently working with his new crew chief, Chad Johnston, after Pat Tryson was released from Michael Waltrip Racing following the June 5 race at Kansas Speedway.

About the author

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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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