Hot/Not: Recognizing the best of NASCAR’s 2011 regular season

26 races are now complete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' 2011 season, meaning that the 12 Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers are now having dreams of ice cream, sugar plums and the Sprint Cup trophy. The previous 26 races, though, still meant something. Before we leave them in the dust, let's take a look back at the meat of NASCAR's 2011 season.

HOT: NASCAR's loop data system captures some pretty cool data these days, recording speed, passes and much more during the course of every event. Best of all? NASCAR's crack stats team crunches those numbers in a recognizable format giving us this — a way to recognize who has been the best in many areas in NASCAR's first 26 races. The results are in, and some may surprise you:

Best average running position: Kyle Busch, 9.96
Most green flag passes: A.J. Allmendinger, 3,202
Fewest times passed under green: Carl Edwards, 2,109
Total times w/ fastest lap: Kyle Busch, 594
Most laps in the Top-15: Kyle Busch, 5,945 (79.5%)
Highest % of laps led: Kyle Busch, 15.8%
Most laps completed: Juan Pablo Montoya, 7,441
Best closer (most spots gained in final 10% of race): A.J. Allmendinger, +3.4/race
Most laps completed on lead lap: Dale Earnhardt Jr., 93%
Fastest in traffic (car within one car length): Kyle Busch

It's really of no surprise, of course, that Kyle Busch has a bunch of those categories in hand. Regardless if New Kyle Busch or Old Kyle Busch shows up, that No. 18 is virtually always fast. The biggest surprise in my book is that Juan Pablo Montoya has completed the most number of laps of anyone in 2011. I'd bet Clint Bowyer wants a re-count in that department.

Anyways, continuing on with your regularly scheduled HOT/NOT...

HOT: The Chase for the Sprint Cup could be the most competitive, top-to-mostly-bottom yet. Kevin Harvick seems rejuvenated, Jeff Gordon is sweltering hot and Tony Stewart is staging a comeback. Oh, and Kyle Busch is just a few mistakes from sheer domination so far, while Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards could kill 'em with quiet consistency. Someone invited that Johnson character back, too. {ysp:more}

This should be good.

NEUTRAL: Denny Hamlin ran 9th Saturday night at Richmond. I know he's in the Chase, but it seems like he's sort of crashing a party he wasn't invited to.

NOT: Kurt Busch, however well he may be doing on track, was just inordinately dumb after the race. Tearing up a transcript sheet to make a point to one reporter and verbally tearing into another was far from necessary in the situation.

HOT: How about some credit for Stephen Leicht and Tommy Baldwin Racing. The oft-start-and-park team went the full distance Saturday night, finishing 24th. The career-best finish for Leicht came in just his second Cup start, and first since 2006. He hasn't raced full-time in any NASCAR division since 2007, when he got a win in the Nationwide Series.

NOT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. probably satisfied a ton of marketing folks associated with his racing endeavors by making the Chase. However, anyone who thinks the No. 88 can step up to championship caliber now is in for a long 10 races.

HOT: The Jimmie Johnson-Kurt Busch feud is terrific for NASCAR if it continues in to the Chase. It's an element of drama that I don't want to see leave anytime soon, and it'll be fun to see how it plays out. The outcome may not be so fun if you're a fan of Busch or Johnson, however.

NEUTRAL: I'd like to see a conclusive replay of Paul Menard's spin to bring out the race's final caution on Saturday night. Currently, it reeks of being a suspicious move intended to help a fading teammate in Kevin Harvick. Any improprities, if true, like are just plain bad for NASCAR.

HOT: I chided Clint Bowyer a bit last week for his reaction to the mostly-racing incident with Juan Pablo Montoya at Atlanta. Impressively, Clint admitted before the Richmond race that trying to fight the bull that is Montoya by the horns isn't the best way to do it. Good on ya, Rawhide.

NOT: Kevin and Delana Harvick announced Friday that the racing operations at their self-owned Kevin Harvick Inc., would merge with Richard Childress Racing for 2011. You can mostly read into it that several good drivers and more good employees in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series are going to be without jobs. And you can also read that when even a successful team like KHI can't stay in business, there's something seriously wrong with the NASCAR minor league business model.

That's just sad.

Onward to the Chase, and to kind of near Chicago!

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