Marcos Ambrose recorded his third top 10 (eighth) in the last four races at Sonoma. Ordinarily, that would grant him a spot in the Hot or Warm section of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not, but anyone who watched the race and knows how talented Ambrose is at the road courses, saw Sunday as a missed opportunity for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver.
Ambrose currently sits in 16th in the standings and needs at least one win, along with some consistency the rest of the way to have a shot at the Chase. Unfortunately for Ambrose, he watched one of his two best chances to go to Victory Lane slip through his grasp on Sunday. After starting from the pole, he led laps early before fading and never reinserting himself as a factor. Ambrose wasn’t alone.
Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya each had separate issues, but both top-20 drivers heading into the event missed a golden opportunity to make their claim for The Chase at Sonoma. It is unlikely that Ambrose or Montoya will capture a victory outside of Watkins Glen, and Gordon seems to still have a black cloud hanging over his head. While Clint Bowyer seized the day at Sonoma, the race was about missed chances for several others.
Here is who’s hot and who’s not after Sonoma.
*Clint Bowyer’s* win on Sunday was overshadowed by Kurt Busch’s sobbing over the 89th top 5 of his career. Apparently third-place is the best finish an underfunded team has ever earned and Busch wanted everyone to know (sense the sarcasm?) Anyway, Bowyer’s accomplishment shouldn’t be overlooked. He out-drove Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and even Busch, at one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.
It wasn’t a fluke win, either. Bowyer dominated, leading 71 of the 110 laps. He also had some momentum on his side heading into the event. Sonoma marked his fourth straight top 10. He has jumped up to seventh in the standings, and with a win looks like he’ll be taking a spot in The Chase. Who would have thought at the start of the season that Bowyer would be in better position at this point in the season than his old teammate at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick?
*Jimmie Johnson* has easily been the most consistent driver on the circuit, and it’s not even close. A little off for most top drivers is 15th or 20th, for Johnson it’s fifth. His fifth-place result on Sunday was his fourth top 5 in a row. He leads all drivers with nine. Come Chase time, there is going to be no beating the No. 48.
Since finishing 25th for two straight weeks at Charlotte and Dover, *Tony Stewart* has rebounded about as well as any driver could hope to. Smoke has been third, second and second in the last three races. If he had one more lap on Sunday, he would have been in Victory Lane.
The No. 14 team still has work to do if it is going to defend its championship. Stewart could have done well at the last three tracks if he was driving a garbage truck. Smoke always is fast on fresh asphalt — Michigan and Pocono — and is one the best road course drivers to ever compete in NASCAR — Sonoma. How Stewart performs this weekend at Kentucky will be a better test of how well his team is clicking right now.
Many drivers don’t crack the Hot or Warm side of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in 36 races. *Brian Vickers* did it in just three starts. To jump in what really is Mark Martin’s ride, and drive to a pair of top 5s at two of the toughest tracks the series visits (Bristol and Sonoma) is unbelievable.
Vickers led 125 laps and was a factor to win at Bristol. If it wasn’t for a poor qualifying effort (21st) this weekend, he easily could have challenged his teammate Bowyer for the win. Overachieved isn’t a strong enough word to describe what Vickers has done for Michael Waltrip Motorsports. A number of teams in the garage have to be taking a second look at this guy.
*Martin Truex, Jr.* should have been in the top 10 with his MWR teammates, but a bump on the last lap sent him spinning to a 22nd-place finish. It was Truex Jr’s third finish outside of the top 10 in the last three weeks.
Truex Jr. has been the best horse in the MWR stable for most of the year, but after 16 races, he has fallen behind Bowyer in the standings and lacks a win. Truex Jr. has dropped to ninth and is going to need to show the consistency he showed in the first 10 races in the next 10 races to make The Chase.
*Juan Pablo Montoya’s* Chase chances all but died on Sunday, much like his car. After placing 34th, the EGR driver fell to 22nd in the standings. Even with a win at Watkins Glen, Montoya has dug too big of a hole to catch the likes of Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. The No. 42 is racing for pride and development for 2013 the rest of the way. The unfortunate part is Montoya, unlike Gordon and Ambrose, wasn’t even given a chance to prove himself at Sonoma. He was patiently working his way up when he first started experiencing the voltage issues.
Joe Gibbs Racing has joined Richard Petty Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing as teams to have multiple drivers in the Cold in the same week in 2012, and Gibbs earned it.
Two relatively quiet, but solid races for *Denny Hamlin* both ended in disaster at Michigan and Sonoma. Hamlin was hit by Newman at Michigan and sent spinning into the grass. It could have easily been an innocent spin, but one of his quarter panels was torn up and his car erupted in flames. Hamlin might want to check himself for whatever Jeff Gordon’s got.
At Sonoma, Hamlin was fighting for a top 10 when his own teammate, Joey Logano, spun him in Turn 11. Taking out his teammates might be Logano’s best shot at moving out of the No. 3 spot at Gibbs. Hamlin ended up 35th, and is now eighth in the standings. Luckily, he has two wins to fall back on if he needs them to get in the playoffs.
*Kyle Busch* didn’t blow up for the first time in years on Sunday, but still didn’t get the finish he deserved. Rowdy wheel-hopped heading into Turn 5, collecting Paul Menard and came home 17th. It’s better than 29th, 30th and 32nd, (three previous finishes) but still wasn’t what that team was looking for.
Busch has to be excited about the prospects of turning his season around this weekend at Kentucky. He won the inaugural event last year.
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