Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Edition

The buzz generated by Sunday’s exciting night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway will likely reverberate through the NASCAR masses for a long time. The Pep Boys Auto 500 saw exciting racing for much of the event and saw someone not driving a non-Hendrick-affiliated car go to Victory Lane (though many were picking Jimmie Johnson to win). The race also did nothing to answer which drivers will be in safe mode for next week’s “race before the Chase” at Richmond. Kasey Kahne’s win moved him from 11th to sixth in the standings, while Carl Edwards’ oil pan problem regulated him to a poor finish and to within 85 points of falling outside the top 12.

Kurt Busch totaled his No. 2 Dodge and lost a lot of his points. Kyle Busch led laps but faded toward the end and ended up losing points to 12th place Matt Kenseth, despite Kenseth putting his No. 17 Ford into the wall twice in the first 20 laps. Brian Vickers’ No. 83 team bounced back from axle trouble, to finish seventh and leapfrog ahead of Busch in the points. Now 122 points are all that separate 14th in points Kyle Busch from fifth in points Edwards.

The racing in Atlanta was eventful, exciting, and very influential in the points. Here are the HOT, WARM and NOT drivers this week:

HOT: Kahne – The inconsistency of the No. 9 has displayed at times through the year led some (like me) to believe that if a team inside the top 12 were to drop out, it would be that one. Let’s take a step back from that statement. Kahne not only won the race Sunday night, but he had a car that was capable of running up toward the front the entire event. Now up five positions to sixth in points, Kahne is poised to qualify the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge inside the Chase for only the second time in his career.

HOT: Kenseth – Another bubble driver in need of a shot in the arm, Kenseth and the No. 17 team seemed doomed from the start of the event, damaging the R&L Carriers Ford extensively after two bouts of heavy wall contact. Arguably the most underrated driver and crew combination on the Sprint Cup circuit, Kenseth battled back and was running inside the top five, before settling for 12th. Kyle Busch’s early race success seemed damning to the 2003 champion’s Chase chances, but the Wisconsin native heads to Richmond, a track at which he has won and run well, on the right side of the Chase fence.

HOT: Denny Hamlin – With Farm Bureau Insurance on the hood of the No. 11 Toyota, Denny Hamlin ran near the front for the entire Pep Boys Auto 500 and officially insured himself a spot in the Chase with his sixth place finish. Hamlin has turned his season around since in the last 11 races, scoring one win, six top fives, and nine top 10s. Hamlin also has scored the most points of all drivers in the last five races, making him a dark horse title contender, if Tony Stewart, Johnson, and Jeff Gordon fall by the wayside in the waning races.

WARM: Kevin HarvickKevin Harvick needed this race. The No. 29 team has struggled more than mightily this season and not only did every piece fall into place to record a solid finish, but Harvick commenced to leading the second most laps in the affair (66 to fellow-struggler Martin Truex, Jr.’s 68) and finished second. Both this run and his dominant Nationwide Series win Saturday are a big shot in the arm and may put him in the mix of stealing some potential points from Chasers in the final 10 races. With so much left unanswered about Harvick’s rumored demand out of his RCR contract for 2010, Richard Childress Racing released a statement late in the week, saying for sure that both Harvick and Shell were returning next season. Affirmation of a future commitment seems to work well for Harvick. Remember 2006? After signing a fat contract extension with RCR early that season, he won five races in the Cup Series and won nine races in the Nationwide Series and the championship, as well.

WARM: David GillilandDavid Gilliland has had a strange year. He lost his ride at Yates Racing just weeks before the start of the season (getting replaced by Bobby Labonte), hooked up with TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevy and drove into the Top 35, began starting and parking when sponsorship money dried up, got a sponsor (Taxslayer.com) for Atlanta but got replaced by none other than Labonte, then signed to drive both the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 for Atlanta and Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 02. Gilliland capitalized on the chance to replace injured regular driver Bill Elliott in the No. 21 Ford in Atlanta, qualifying well and running inside the top 15, before bad pit stops and adjustments sent him spiraling toward the back of the top 30. Later corrections to that problem lifted Gilliland and the David Hyder-led crew to a solid 19th place run. The Wood Brothers’ limited schedule this year has worked so well, that they will likely employ the same strategy for 2010. Gilliland has now risen from the trash heap to the trendy pick to put in struggling rides… which is how he got his Yates ride in 2006.

WARM: Bobby Labonte – What a difference a ride makes! Few failed to see the injustice done to Bobby Labonte by Yates Racing officials last week, as we all learned that he was losing the keys to the No. 96 Ford for seven of the final 12 races, because the ride was unsponsored and Cup virgin and Roush Fenway up-and-comer Erik Darnell had sponsorship. Despite being the active wins leader at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Labonte was in search of a ride and in danger of breaking his 568 consecutive start streak. Fortunately for both he and the No. 71, old friend Slugger Labbe made a call to the 2000 champion and hooked him up with a ride. With sponsorship and the green light to go the 500 miles, Labonte drove like he stole the Taxslayer Chevy, hanging in the top 20 for much of the race, running as high as ninth, and finishing 18th. He has six more races in the car and now has a few eyes pointed in his direction, as both he and Hall of Fame Racing are looking for a team to align themselves next season, after a struggling 2009 and unceremonious demotion in the No. 96.

COLD: Sam Hornish, Jr. – Despite raising a few eyebrows and collecting six top 10s in his second full season in Sprint Cup, Sam Hornish, Jr. still seems to have trouble manhandling the No. 77, as he demonstrated twice in Sunday’s race. Hornish spun his Dodge twice on the exit of turn four and had his hands full for much of the race, finishing 35th (his second straight finish in that position) five laps off the pace. The Defiance, OH native seems to have the tools under him to succeed, but probably has one more season, tops, to turn it around, or he may go the way of his teammate David Stremme.

COLD: Max Papis – Hornish, Jr. is not the only open wheel convert struggling in the Cup Series. When Max Papis is on-camera or on a road course, he is a media darling and the talk of many. When he is on an oval track in the No. 13 GEICO Toyota, especially a fast one, his presence is in the back of the pack. My view from the grandstands Sunday often focused on simply how far off the pace Papis was. His Germain Racing team has the funding to at least compete for top 25 finishes, but Mad Max struggled to keep his car in the top 40, battling for position with soon-to-be start and parkers Dave Blaney, Mike Bliss, and Joe Nemechek. Papis’ car eventually put itself out of its misery, as a right front tire went flat, forcing him to pit early. After his exit from pit road, whatever tire rub that caused the original flat was not fixed and the tire went down again, forcing Max into the wall in the entrance of Turn 3. “Bootie” Barker is the new crew chief for the team, but maybe the driver is the real cause of its bad performance.

COLD: Clint Bowyer – After stringing together several solid runs, Clint Bowyer seemed to have a respectable shot at putting the No. 33 team back into the Chase. Then Bowyer’s momentum went the way of the Atlanta Braves’ (my team), with finishes outside the top 20 at both Bristol and Atlanta. With the Chase essentially out of play, Bowyer can take some chances and try to win the race at the Richmond next week, site of his last win back in 2008.

Here are the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:

HOT: Atlanta the new Darlington? – Before the death threats start streaming in, hear me out. Atlanta Motor Speedway definitely put on a show that proved to be worth the hype this weekend. With a large crowd on-hand, the racing action proved to be exhilarating, but challenging at the same time. Many cars left AMS with “The Atlanta Stripe”, as cars had trouble finding the right balance on the worn out pavement. The asphalt chewed up tires and spit cars silly all over the track and sometimes into the wall. March winner Kurt Busch even lost control of his car on the Turn 4 exit, dooming his night. No track can ever fully replace Darlington on Labor Day, but the ingredients seen at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend seem to be the perfect mix to be the next-best replacement.

NOT: Uncertainty – With the economy in the shape it is in, this NASCAR Silly Season will prove to be one of the strangest in memory (with last year’s mergers and Stewart circus taking the cake). The destinations of many drivers and sponsors in all three series are unknown. While that may seem bad to the fans and media alike, the stalemate of the unknown is worst on the parties involved.

Early Saturday afternoon, I spoke briefly to Reed Sorenson before Cup Happy Hour about several issues. The last question I asked was, “Is everything all set for you to return to the No. 43 next season?” His response: “I’m not sure” and he started laughing. This is how ridiculous the stalemate has become. Sorenson has driven a couple of times recently for the Phoenix Racing Nationwide Series team, which campaigns Chevy’s. RPM is in talks with Dodge and possibly Toyota about its manufacturer affiliation next season, but Chevy has not really been a large part of the negotiations. Is Sorenson moving on?

Where will Jamie McMurray end up? He still hasn’t signed with EGR’s No. 1 and who knows if Bass Pro Shops is staying there? Performance issues and sponsorship voids with teams such as Elliott Sadler and the No. 19 and Casey Mears and the No. 07 may lead to early terminations of driving agreements. With a potential shortage of funded teams and a potential plethora of available drivers this off-season, some quality drivers could end up out of a ride in the Cup Series. With drivers like Sorenson unsure if they are on the chopping block or not, their chances to land with another decent team may be compromised. There will be a lot to write and talk about after Homestead in November.

Saturday night’s Richmond race may will again combine high stakes with high quality racing action, which is what seemingly happens every second weekend in September at the track. Turn here next week to see which teams enter Chase race one at New Hampshire in the right groove and which others may stumble out of the playoff starting blocks.

Listen to Doug on The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader with co-host David Chandler, every Saturday from 10-11 a.m. on ESPN 1240 The Ticket in Gainesville and online at racefanradio.com Then tune-in for a combined GAS and ASA/SAT non-points race live at Lanier National Speedway, with coverage beginning around 9 p.m. on the same affiliates on the Chandler Communications Radio Network.

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