Bruce Martin
Friday March 21st, 2008

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- While NASCAR parks itself for a weekend of Easter celebrations and the NCAA basketball tournament, there are plenty of drivers who are hot, but even more who are not.

The first natural break of the 2008 Sprint Cup season allows a chance to evaluate who is riding high and who needs to get it in gear for next week's 500-lap showdown at Martinsville Speedway.

Kyle Busch: So he didn't win at Bristol and spun out while leading the race after his steering failed coming out of the second turn; this guy has the look of a potential champion to be in 2008.

It's not the fact the younger brother of '04 Cup champion Kurt Busch is leading the standings and winning races; it's the way he is driving on the race track that impresses even the most seasoned veterans of the sport.

"Right now, he is the 'Wheel Man' of the series," Mark Martin said. "I can't use the explanation that I might in the garage. But he's doing it. He's getting her done this year. He's doing it.

"When you watch Jeff Gordon drive, Jeff Gordon goes really fast. But you don't see a whole lot there other than going fast.

"You watch Kyle Busch drive and not only is he going fast, but you see he is taking your breath, too. I've been there before. When you are at the very, very top of your game. He's got car control and he is smart enough to be able to make it. He's not wrecking them and bringing them back on a roll back. He's putting it all together."

That is high praise from one of the most respected drivers in the garage,but the 22-year-old Busch isn't letting the compliments go to his head.

"It's pretty cool to have people talking about my abilities like that and to have my abilities for people to be able to talk about -- that's pretty special to me, Busch said last Friday at Bristol."I just go out there and drive the wheels off anything that I can drive the wheels off. Whether it's a go-kart, a Cup car, a Nationwide car, a truck or a late model car -- it doesn't much matter to me.

"I'm just going out there to have some fun and do what I can behind the wheel. Obviously my talents propel me forward to win races."

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The big question entering this season was how Earnhardt fit into a Hendrick Motorsports team that already included such star drivers as two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time title winner Jeff Gordon?

So far, Earnhardt has answered definitively.

Not only has he adapted to HMS, he has been the team's best driver through five races.

"He's done a great job," Johnson said. "He and Tony [Eury] Jr. both have done an amazing job. I think it was real smart of everyone to kind of switch gears midway through last year and get Tony building the cars and getting his people around him. And then when Junior came in, the transition has been kind of seamless.

"He really has done an amazing job. He came out and won a couple of the non-points races. He's been running well up there in the points and really doing a good job. So, I've been impressed with his performances and impressed with his involvement in the race team and also the level of feedback he is giving from inside the car. He is doing a great job.

"I don't think any of us knew what to expect, to be quite honest. We've all watched races where he's been real fast. We've watched him win races. He has been in points battles in years past. I don't think anybody knew what to expect. I think all of us at Hendrick had an open mind and welcomed him as we should and as we always support new teammates. He's doing a great job."

Earnhardt continued his streak of being the highest finishing Hendrick driver in four of the first five races this season with a fifth-place finish at Bristol.

"It is nice relief," Earnhardt said of fitting in to the new team. "You do tend to let yourself feel good about it, but you can't too much. You really can't think about it. You have to really concentrate on what is ahead of you and focus on that.

"It is just like winning the semi-final game, you can enjoy it just a little bit, it is a good mood, but you can just as well be going home next week and be miserable.

"You have highs and lows in this sport. The lows are low, low, low ,and the highs are real, real high. You just have to be able to handle that swing. It seems that I have the opportunity now, with the equipment and the team that is around me, to enjoy more success over an average this year and throughout. We just have to keep our heads on straight, be smart, not let our egos swell up and not let anything get the best of us and just try and do our job."

Greg Biffle: "The Biff" has had the best season of any driver other than Busch, and that has the Roush-Fenway veteran second in the standings, just 30 points out of first place. He has three top-five and four top-10 finishes this season and has been in position to win since the green flag dropped at Daytona.

But in true Biffle fashion, he is often overlooked when it comes to assessing the top drivers in the series, much like his teammate, Matt Kenseth.

These two drivers would rather let their on-track performance speak for them.

Richard Childress Racing: After scoring a 1-2-3 finish for the first time in his career, team owner Richard Childress has a lot to be proud of after last Sunday's Bristol race.

Fresh off his first win at Bristol in 29 tries, Jeff Burton has become one of the elder statesmen of the Sprint Cup Series. With two top-five and three top-10 finishes in five races, he isn't ceding anything to the younger drivers in the series.

By knocking Tony Stewart out of the way with two laps left on the board, Kevin Harvick has proven he's not afraid to do whatever it takes to win a race, although in this instance, he had to settle for second place behind Burton. Harvick has two top-five and four top-10 finishes this season.

And Clint Bowyer continues to show that he's no longer a star of the future but a star of today with an impressive driving style.

In the offseason, the RCR drivers believed they had narrowed the gap on Hendrick Motorsports, and through five races this season they have surpassed NASCAR's elite team.

Jimmie Johnson: After two nearly flawless seasons that resulted in Cup titles, Johnson has stumbled out of the gate in '08. He is 13th in the standings with only one top-five and one top-10 finish -- a second-place in the season's second race at Fontana, Calif.

Since that time, Johnson has puttered around in mid-pack. He finished 29th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he had won the previous three races. He then was 13th at Atlanta and 18th at Bristol, leading many to wonder if after two championships, has this team become stale?

"We had a great race at California and at Vegas, thing didn't go as we wanted," Johnson said. "And we had some back luck in Daytona. But we knew that the competition was closing up. We knew that this year we were going to have challenges with the Car of Tomorrow on larger tracks, and we're not where we want to be but we're working very, very hard to get on top of things.

"I wouldn't expect us to have a poor performance much longer."

Jeff Gordon: Throw in this driver and teammate Casey Mears, who is way back in 33rd place, and the entire Hendrick Motorsports team could be in this category if not for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s impressive start.

Most of Gordon's bad luck came when he crashed in the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished 39th. Since that time, he was third at California, before knocking the wall down at Vegas while he was trying to get up to second place late in the race. He came back to finish fifth at Atlanta but dropped to 11th at Bristol.

So, does that mean Hendrick Motorsports is officially in a slump?

"We'll talk about that in December," Jeff Burton said. "I can assure you that the 24 didn't run the way today that you normally see them run here. You wake the sleeping giant, they're going to be hard to beat. There's no getting around that.

"We can answer that question in late November. We can't answer it today."

Carl Edwards: How can a driver who won two races in a row already be in this category?


He suffered transmission failure while running away from the field at Atlanta before dropping a lap off the pace and finishing 16th at Bristol.

But don't expect Mr. Backflip to take this lying down. He would still be in the top 10 in the standings if he wasn't docked 100 points when the lid came off his oil box at Las Vegas.

Edwards has all the ingredients to add a Sprint Cup title to the championship he won last year in what was then called the Busch Series.

Dario Franchitti: The reigning IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 winner kept saying the transition to NASCAR wouldn't be easy and he is proving that.

Never mind the top 10, Franchitti hasn't been able to sniff the top 30.

He has been remarkably consistent in one category -- he has finished 33rd three times, 32nd once and 36th last Sunday at Bristol.

This has to be a shock to the driver from Scotland who usually ran near the front of the IndyCar Series, but, of course, open-wheel race cars are part of his racing heritage.

Word in the garage area is that some crew members are already being pulled off Franchitti's car and reassigned to other parts of the Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates operation because this car hasn't attracted the sponsorship the team had hoped.

Franchitti brought a very high-profile career to Ganassi and was assured of making the first five races of the season after taking over the ride that David Stremme secured after finishing 24th in last year's standings.

Last Sunday was the cutoff race for the top 35, and at 38th in the standings, Franchitti is going to have to race his way into the starting lineup through time trial speeds.

With 15 or more cars trying to make the final seven positions in the starting lineup, Franchitti could be facing "Bump Day" every Friday.

"Dario has less experience at this than I have," said fellow IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr., who made the top 35 and is safe for at least another race. "I'm sure he is thinking about it, too. It's not an easy feeling knowing you aren't in the top 35 and you want to be. We've had some bad luck issues that have kept us from even being in the top 25 in points.

"I came over here to learn and to challenge myself. I knew that is what it was about. Dario making the decision to do it without running these cars may be feeling that way and scratching his head.

"That's where you figure out who is smarter. I knew what I was getting into and I didn't. I knew how tough it would be so maybe I'm not the smart one in that situation."

Tony Stewart is known for many things in addition to his outstanding racing ability and his two NASCAR Cup titles -- his quick-temper, his "Rebel with a Cause" attitude and his proliferation of facial and body hair that has made him look like Lon Chaney Jr. in the old Wolfman movies.

Stewart has so much hair on his torso that fellow driver Jimmie Johnson once spotted him on a boat on Lake Norman in North Carolina and greeted him with the Chewbacca sound from the movie Star Wars.

If Stewart shaved first thing in the morning, he would probably have a full beard by that evening.

So one day after he got rear-ended by Kevin Harvick while running second and third in the final laps at Bristol Motor Speedway, Stewart got his hairy back waxed by the same driver on Monday night.

To prove there were no hard feelings from the Bristol bumping incident, Stewart invited Harvick to be his guest on Stewart's Monday night radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Later in the show, Stewart made good on a longtime bet with Harvick.

After some teasing about his hairy torso, Stewart said a year ago that if Harvick was able to raise $100,000 for the Victory Junction Gang Camp, he would agree to have his back waxed.

With Harvick having reached the goal with fan donations and a matching contribution from himself, Stewart made good on his promise, undergoing the painful procedure Monday night live on Sirius as Stewart's co-host, Matt Yocum, and Harvick provided rip-by-rip commentary for Sirius listeners.

Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs pledged $15,000, and NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson donated $10,000 to bring the total donation for Victory Junction Gang Camp to $125,000.

Asked during the procedure if the pain was worse than hitting the wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stewart laughed and said, "Yeah, it does actually. It does hurt worse than hitting the wall at Vegas. It just isn't lasting as long."

Despite suffering from severely inflamed vocal chords, it didn't keep Darrell Waltrip out of the FOX broadcast booth for last Sunday's telecast at Bristol. Waltrip's voice was so bad someone thought it was Babe Ruth in the broadcast booth.

Waltrip went to the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic in Nashville, Tenn. on Wednesday and was treated by Dr. Katherine Grant. She ordered Waltrip to shut up for a while, leading many listeners to rejoice that their prayers had finally been answered.

Just kidding, DW.

Dale Jarrett may have driven in his final Sprint Cup race this past Sunday at Bristol, but he has one more appearance in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 17.

Jarrett unveiled the No. 44 UPS Toyota Camry he will drive in the Sprint All-Star Race, which features a special paint scheme that pays tribute to several of his career accomplishments. The unveiling marked the first time Jarrett viewed the metallic-gold design, which unites the past with the present. The car displays design elements from both Jarrett's current No. 44 UPS Camry as well as the No. 88 Quality Care entry that he drove during his 1999 championship season.

But, before Jarrett straps into the UPS car for the final time, he'll do something fans have eagerly anticipated, he's going to "race" the truck.

After Jarrett is introduced prior to the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, he will step into the UPS Race Truck from the UPS ad campaign and take one lucky fan for a ride around the 1.5-mile superspeedway.

The winner will be randomly selected from fans who have purchased tickets in the "DJ's Deal" section or have sent a postcard labeled "DJ's Ride-Along" to Lowe's Motor Speedway, P.O. Box 600, Concord, N.C. 28026. Contestants must include complete name, address, day/night phone numbers and e-mail address on each postcard entry.

"This is obviously going to be a big weekend for me, my family and everyone at UPS," Jarrett said. "The opportunity for my last race to be at what I consider my home track is something I appreciate and look forward to. With everything that is going on that night-the ticket package, racing the truck and making my last start-and the activities we have planned leading up to that race, I feel quite certain it will be an emotional night."

While most of the Sprint Cup competitors take Easter weekend off, several of them will be at Nashville Superspeedway for Saturday's Nationwide Series Pepsi 300, including Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and David Ragan.

"Concrete can be a little treacherous when there isn't a whole lot of rubber on the track, since it gets pretty slick," said Busch, who won an ARCA race here when he was just 17. "Once we get some rubber down on the track in practice, it gets a lot better. The first few years I ran at Nashville, the track was really slick. But then they ground on it and built some grip into the track where we can race well with each other there. It's a great place. It's a really fast and cool mile-and-a-quarter-or-so race track, so everybody seems to have fun there."

Nashville gives its race winners one of the coolest trophies in sports, a Gibson Les Paul Guitar.

"Of course, I'd like to bring home another one of those guitars," Busch said. "I've got one from an ARCA race there ('03) and came close twice in the Nationwide Series, but could never close the deal. I'm hoping we can change that with the Z-Line Designs Toyota this weekend.

"We've had two second-place finishes and then two tire issues. It's time to try to change some of our luck around and get our car back to the front when it counts."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.