The restrictor-plate roulette wheel turned tragic Saturday (July 2) for some of NASCAR’s most successful superstars at Daytona. Between Dale Earnhardt Jr. complaining over the sport’s pairs-dancing draft strategy, Carl Edwards poisoned by carbon monoxide and Ryan Newman involved in seemingly his 1,000th Big One accident, it was hard to find anyone leaving the racetrack happy.
But in any type of crapshoot race, someone has to come out on top and the David Ragan–Matt Kenseth duo led a list of drivers who have not only survived, but thrived as the summer Chase race starts heating up. Here’s a look at some drivers to watch, both for the right and wrong reasons as the Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in NASCAR crowd comes barreling into Kentucky this week:
David Ragan: If Ragan was on the hot seat before the Coke Zero 400, now he’s simply five-alarm hot after breaking through into NASCAR victory lane for the first time in his career. What Ragan did in the closing laps was nothing short of impressive. With a crucial assist from Kenseth, Ragan held off all challengers (not to mention avoid any costly faux pas that might have cost him the win) and the end result is Ragan finally breaking through into victory lane and perhaps putting himself in a good spot for a wildcard in the Chase standings.
With two podium finishes the last six weeks, despite ho-hum results in between it’s been arguably the best run for the No. 6 car since Mark Martin left the fold back at the end of 2006. The big question for Ragan, now entering the crucial July and August months is can he keep the momentum going… or is it too little, too late to save his sponsor from going elsewhere?
Kevin Harvick: Consistency, much like last year, is starting to pay off for “the Closer.” He and Paul Menard had, arguably, the best two-car tandem at Daytona over the course of the race on a consistent basis. That strength, resulting in a seventh-place run by Harvick and a poor finish for Edwards gives Harvick the points lead going into the inaugural race at Kentucky.
For much of the season, Edwards has been garnering the press clippings for a fantastic season, virtually leaving Harvick as persona non grata despite three victories. But Harvick’s consistency, reformed ever since a hiccup at Daytona has put him back into championship contention. Now, he’s shaping up to be a solid contender for the Chase to potentially unseat King Jimmie from his throne.
Honorable Mention: Reed Sorenson. A third-place finish at Daytona in the Nationwide Series race gives Sorenson a bit of a cushion on his points lead, also making him $100,000 richer due to Nationwide’s Dash 4 Cash program. Going forward, that makes him appear to be the guy to beat in the Nationwide Series championship hunt in 2011.
Joey Logano: A few short weeks ago, Logano’s season could be best described as a bit of a disappointment. But after a sixth-place finish at Infineon Raceway and third at Daytona despite a melted cooling fan (plus a Nationwide Series win at Daytona), Logano has certainly started to, as Soulja Boy would say, “turn his swag on” as of late. If Logano can keep his performance on the rise, he could very well make lemonade out of a lemon of a season.
With Kentucky coming up on the schedule, which is a track Logano has won at before in the Nationwide Series (as in: three straight times) there’s no reason why “Sliced Bread” can’t rise to the occasion this week.
Paul Menard: The naysayers can say what they want about Menard, but the fact is he’s more than proving to be a good hire by Richard Childress with his on-track results. Did the driver get the ride due to money? Yes, but the on-track performance speaks for itself.
Menard has been particularly strong at restrictor-plate and mile-and-a-half tracks, as well as short-track racing this year and with three top fives and five top 10s in 2011, Menard is on the cusp of being the next driver to be a first-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series. And whenever that win happens, no one will be able to knock Menard again as a guy who’s incapable of succeeding at the sport’s top level.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Wallace. Coming off his first Daytona top 10 since his old PPC Racing days, Kenny now finds himself seventh in NASCAR Nationwide Series points, having somewhat of a career resurgence in 2011. Not a bad rebound for a guy who in recent years was known as a backmarker, driving subpar equipment for Jay Robinson Racing.
Carl Edwards: Yes, he’s second in points. Yes, he’s had a career year to date. But the fact remains that Edwards has finished well out of the top 30 in two out of the past three races. While it’s far from time for Roush and company to push the red button lettered “P-A-N-I-C,” for Edwards to be afflicted with these poor finishes at this stage has to be somewhat alarming. But it’s not as if Edwards is in dire straits here.
With Kentucky on the horizon and Edwards having a good track record on similar tracks, he could very well have a nice rebound in bluegrass & bourbon country. However, if he has another poor finish, things could get very interesting in the Roush Fenway camp in the coming weeks – especially as they’re negotiating to re-sign their top-tier driver for 2012 and beyond.
David Gilliland: Last week, Gilliland had moved into the “cold” territory before his top 15 at Infineon Raceway. This week, he had another solid finish, earning a 16th-place effort at Daytona. Back-to-back top-20 results for a driver that hasn’t seen very many runs in the top half of the field in 2011 is definitely worth commending. While it remains to be seen if Gilliland can earn a third straight top 20 at Kentucky, one has to give him credit for his efforts in the past two races this season.
Honorable Mention: Danica Patrick: While Danica did earn a top 10 at Daytona in the Nationwide Series race despite her final-lap incident, let’s not go anointing her for sainthood just yet. The fact remains she had difficulty adjusting to the draft and questionably never lifted in the final lap fracas. But the bottom line is Patrick earned another top 10 in her Nationwide endeavors, three more than she had in her limited 2010 schedule of 13 starts.
Trevor Bayne: Murphy’s Law has officially been in effect for Bayne since his Daytona 500 win where anything that could go wrong has gone wrong. First, there were all the crashes following Daytona on the Sprint Cup side. Then, he was sidelined by a mysterious illness, keeping him out of the race car for nearly a month and destroying any chance of a Nationwide Series title.
Now, in his return to Daytona, Bayne sets the dubious record of having the worst finish of a Daytona 500 winner in the July race with his 41st-place effort. At this stage of the game, Bayne has to be feeling like Charlie Brown did every time Lucy pulled the football away from him when he tried to kick it. It is certainly safe to say Saturday night was not the triumphant return to Daytona Bayne had in mind.
Mark Martin: Daytona started off with a bang for Martin, but fizzled out like a cheap sparkler on the 4th of July when he was caught in the Big One on the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. The end result sees Martin with a torn-up car and he plummets to 18th in the points standings. It can’t help right now that Martin is in a bit of a lame-duck situation at Hendrick with Kasey Kahne as the heir apparent to his ride for 2012. At this point, Martin needs another setback about as much as a drowning man needs another bucket of water.
Honorable Mention: Mike Wallace. Coming off of a surprising top-five finish at Road America, Wallace again had a strong car at a plate track. But again, like at Talladega, he had a potential top-10 finish nullified by a last-lap crash, one where he was little more than an innocent victim. Talk about going from euphoria to anguish.
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