With six races to go until the NASCAR Sprint Chase for the Cup cut-off begins, the major NASCAR touring series all invaded Indianapolis with the big boys at the Brickyard and the Nationwide and Truck Series having their swan song at Lucas Oil Raceway Park. There was plenty of drama (and a couple of upset winners to boot). Now, we’ll see who’s “hot” and who’s “not” following Indy.
Paul Menard: After five years of competing at NASCAR’s highest level and gradually improving the past couple of seasons, Menard not only proved that he truly is for real in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ranks, but he now belongs in the NASCAR record books, holding off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon in the closing stages of the Brickyard 400. Menard has also put himself in a good position to make the NASCAR Chase via the wildcard slot with his win Sunday afternoon (July 31). Coming up next for Menard is Pocono, a track where he ran very well at earlier in the year. Now the question becomes, “Can Paul Menard make the Chase?”
Jeff Gordon: If anyone has been wondering if this year has marked a bit of a resurgence in the career of four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Gordon, let the doubts officially end after his performance at Indy. He had the car to beat for much of the afternoon and charged like a bat out of hell from 15 seconds behind the field with 15 laps to go to right on the heels of eventual race-winner Menard. Certainly an impressive performance for Gordon and it certainly proves that he just might have something to say about teammate Jimmie Johnson’s quest for six championships in a row.
Honorable Mention: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Leading 187 out of 200 laps at the Kroger 200 and expanding the points lead over Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler has to be a decent consolation prize for getting unceremoniously knocked out of the way by Brad Keselowski and not winning the final Nationwide Series race at Lucas Oil Raceway Park.
Tony Stewart: A sixth-place finish is not where Stewart would have liked to finish at his home track, but this performance puts Stewart back in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup Series points. Couple that with Stewart’s reputation as having a strong second-half to his season, and this could give the other competitors in the garage area at least some cause for concern. If Stewart can get into victory lane soon, there just might be one other legitimate contender to factor into the Chase.
Brad Keselowski: What a difference a year makes! Last year, while he was curb-stomping his Nationwide competition, Brad Keselowski’s first full season in Sprint Cup Series had to be considered a box-office disappointment. But with the addition of Paul Wolfe as crew chief and a bit of a revival in the Team Penske camp on the NASCAR side of things, Keselowski has found himself contending for top-10 finishes more often in Cup competition.
Of course, he muscled past Stenhouse at Lucas Oil Raceway Park on Saturday, stealing the win in the process. With these recent good runs Keselowski has been stringing together, that potential that so many pegged him with may be finally coming to the surface.
Honorable Mention: James Buescher. Three top-three finishes in the ARCA, Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series in one weekend at LORP further proves that Buescher’s break-through win is just around the corner.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: When a 16th-place finish is considered a “good day” for Earnhardt, that just shows how much his team has fallen in the past month. At one point, he was third in the championship standings and seemed to be on the cusp of breaking his three-year victory lane drought. Now, after a rash of bad luck and bad finishes, Earnhardt and company find themselves struggling to even stay in contention for the Chase. He and his team have got to pick things up in the last six races or they could be on the outside looking in come Chase time.
Denny Hamlin: To say that Hamlin is glad for Indy to be over is the understatement of the week. He blows an engine during practice and was never really a factor for the win on Sunday. It seems as if Hamlin and company have back-slid into the woes and misfortune that has plagued them throughout the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Granted, Hamlin does have a wildcard to fall back on, but it’s safe to say that at the start of the season, no one on the Joe Gibbs Racing staff had to imagine that the 2011 season would be so tumultuous for Hamlin after a fantastic 2010 campaign.
Honorable Mention: Steve Wallace. When the notable event of Wallace’s weekend is a massive brain fart in judgment on the track that was obvious to everyone except his ESPN analyst father when he tried to accelerate through an accident involving Tim Andrews and teammate Michael Annett, it’s safe to say it was not a good week for Wallace.
Jeff Burton: It’s hard to believe that Burton has fallen so far from his Chase campaign in 2010. To not have a single top 10 on the season and a never-ending stream of bad luck has to be wearing on Burton and a blown engine at Indy is like putting lemon juice on an open wound. It’s pretty much safe to say that this season has been a disappointment for Burton and one can only hope that he bounces back from this adversity somehow.
David Reutimann: Also residing in Bad Luck City, USA is Reutimann. The 2011 season has been nothing but a struggle for Reutimann and after a blown tire resulted in another torn-up racecar at the Brickyard, Reutimann has to be wondering exactly just what else can go wrong. Hopefully, Reutimann can at least close out his season on a strong note.
Honorable mention: Travis Kvapil. To lose a full-time Truck Series ride and fail to qualify for the Brickyard 400 all in the span of a week and a half? Ouch Town, population you, Mr. Kvapil.
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