While Hendrick Motorsports gets hotter by the week, there were several key momentum shifts in Sprint Cup after Sunday’s race at the Monster Mile (June 3).
The Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were piling up top fives until they encountered Dover. After a strong performance in practice, Hamlin put up a dismal show (18th) in the race at arguably his worst track. Busch wasn’t doing much better at a place he’s got a pair of wins before pulling his car behind the wall on Sunday.
Gibbs’s struggles afforded an opportunity for another team to spend time at the front of the field and it wasn’t who most people expected. Richard Petty Motorsports drivers Aric Almirola (sixth) and Marcos Ambrose (10th) finished together in the top 10 for the first time in 2012. Finally, some momentum is building at RPM and it is coming at the perfect time.
Both drivers currently find themselves inside the top 20 in points, despite Ambrose not getting many of the finishes he’s deserved. That means the No. 9 in particular, with its driver’s past history of right-turn success still has a very good chance at making the Chase.
It takes a lot of confidence for a man to walk around in front of millions of people before and after a race wearing a rainbow-colored wig, but Jimmie Johnson has no shortage of it and for good reason. In three of the last four events (counting the All-Star Race) the rest of the field has been chasing the No. 48.
Johnson led 289 of the 400 laps on Sunday at Dover in a masterful performance. It also marked Johnson’s sixth top-five finish of the season. Subtract out his two DNFs (the most of anyone in the top 10) and Johnson would easily be leading the points. Even if he is mired in fifth, everyone in the NASCAR garage knows the driver they are going to have to beat each week and it isn’t Greg Biffle. It’s Johnson.
There was nothing spectacular about what Kahne did on Sunday. He ran outside the top 10 for much of the race, but improved over the course of the day and came home ninth. That comeback finish is significant, though because it was Kahne’s eighth top 10 in a row.
Kahne moved up another spot in the standings to 14th and is currently one point out of the Chase. That is what separates him from Newman, who also has a win, but has been cold as ice since. Newman, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer better all kick it into high gear because Kahne is coming behind them.
If the Chase started today, Matt Kenseth would be Johnson’s biggest rival for the 2012 title. Kenseth and Biffle lead all drivers in top fives (seven) and the No. 17 is on a streak of four straight top 10s.
That consistency has brought Kenseth within one point of the lead in the series standings. If I had to pick the driver I thought would be leading after Richmond, right now it would be the Roush Fenway wheelman.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been good everywhere the series has traveled in 2012; he just hasn’t been great anywhere. Junior leads the league in top 10s (10) and is following in Kahne’s footsteps in starting a hot streak of his own with three consecutive finishes of sixth or better (including the All-Star Race).
Fans still want to know when the victory will come, though. ESPN tries to convince us it could happen any week. Well, it can’t. But I’m telling you, it could happen at Pocono. In 2001, it was the spot Ricky Rudd finally broke an 88-race winless streak.
Rudd, much like Earnhardt was running at the front consistently for a top-tier team but just couldn’t break through until he got to Pocono. The same thing happened a year later, this time for Bill Elliott in the first race at the Tricky Triangle. Ten years later, could it finally be Junior’s turn?
Mark Martin got out of the gates like a ball of fire with top 10s at Daytona and Phoenix. Then, Brian Vickers got in the car at Bristol and ever since Martin has been quiet. Maybe they didn’t adjust the seat afterward and he can’t see over the steering wheel. What is more likely is that Mark has a case of Newman syndrome. He has been showing symptoms, with three poles already this season but nothing to show for it during the race.
Martin led 43 laps after starting in the top spot Sunday, but the No. 55 team couldn’t keep up with the racetrack and Martin gradually slid back to his finishing position of 14th. Since those season-opening top 10s, he only has two in his last eight starts.
Edwards is finally on the outside looking in to the Chase after placing 26th at Dover. Still, even if a hard hit to the outside wall he’s only 15 points outside of the top 10. So there is no reason to panic, right? Wrong. Dover has been one of Edwards’s strongest tracks in recent years, providing a chance for the No. 99 team to give itself some breathing room inside the top 10. Instead, the team qualified poorly and blew a tire on race day.
This team could legitimately miss the playoffs. Can you picture Edwards outperforming Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kahne or Keselowski to get back in the Chase before the cutoff? I can’t. And can you picture this team winning anywhere besides maybe the last race before the Chase at Richmond? I can’t see that happening, either. Time to panic.
This week’s Cold section is the special Stewart-Haas Racing edition. While Hendrick Motorsports was wrecking its entire fleet of vehicles early in the season, it seemed Stewart-Haas could do no wrong in its Hendrick-equipped Chevys. Stewart and Newman combined to win three of the first six races.
Once Hendrick turned things around, though Stewart-Haas went straight downhill. I touched on Stewart’s decline at intermediate tracks after his hot start in last week’s column, but he isn’t getting around concrete tracks any better.
Even with Steve Addington, the winning crew chief at Dover last fall, at the controls, Stewart qualified and practiced poorly, which put him in a similar position once Sunday’s race went green.
Stewart hit Landon Cassill in the opening laps to start the big wreck and the end result was 25th place for the second consecutive week. Suddenly, the driver no one could touch at Las Vegas and California is now only seven points out of 11th.
His teammate Newman is on much worse footing. The No. 39 hasn’t even cracked the top 10 since winning at Martinsville on April 1. That’s seven consecutive finishes of 14th or worse and now rumors are heating up the Rocket won’t be back in the fold for 2013 (despite Stewart’s public comments he wants Newman back).
If the Chase started today, Newman would still be in, but with Kahne being one of the hottest drivers in NASCAR – and only one point back – that won’t be true for long.
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