Hot/Not: Woe is Hendrick, early in the Chase

The flagman didn't need the yellow rag much this weekend in New Hampshire, as all three NASCAR series (Sprint Cup, Trucks and Modifieds) combined for just nine cautions. Still, there was enough to tell who improved and who didn't — and we'll do just that today in Hot/Not.

NEUTRAL: Twenty percent of the way through the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and there's a new trend starting to shed light in the NASCAR world. Suddenly, Hendrick Motorsports' Chase entries are looking more and more like the rest of their competition has for the last five seasons.

They're suffering bad luck (Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s flat tire at New Hampshire), suffering bad performances (Jeff Gordon at Chicago, Jimmie Johnson in New Hampshire) and they're suffering self-inflicted wounds (Gordon's New Hampshire fuel issues). Who are these guys?

More importantly, can we write them off and tell Tiffany and Co. to take that Jimmie Johnson inscription template away from the championship trophy?

There's a lot of reasons to say yes.

We'll start with Johnson, now 29 points behind leader Tony Stewart. Is that an impossible margin with eight races to go? Nope, that distinction only applies to Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin (12th, -66). But the deck is now stacked against Johnson after his 18th-place finish in Loudon.

The postmortem from Johnson's finish seems to indicate trouble for Five Time's repeat chances. A minor in-car radio squabble between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus during Sunday's race hit a lot of the same tones the two used in their last unsuccessful championship campaign in 2005. Remember, it took quite a process for Johnson and Knaus to stay together after that trying season. It's irresponsible to say that is specifically the case today, but their performance at Dover this weekend (where Johnson has been dominant) could be the tipping point in determining their 2011 hopes.

Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon greatly needed the win he was on target for in Sunday's race after running out of fuel at the end of the Chicago race. The 24th-place run at Chicago was a shin shot at his championship chances, dropping him from second to 11th in the standings.

But then, more fuel issues at Loudon walloped his cushy on-track lead and later kept him from attempting a charge back to the front. His fourth-place finish tacked five points to race winner and championship leader Tony Stewart's lead, though it did move Gordon up six spots in the standings. {ysp:more}

Gordon, now fifth and 23 points back, is still more of a threat than teammate Johnson. Seeing how those points he gave up in New Hampshire play out will be interesting.

Returning to Earnhardt, driver No. 88 looked to be capable of a top-10 Sunday. Then he suffered a flat tire — twice — dropping him to 17th. After the race, Earnhardt blamed the issue on over-aggressive camber settings — or just the type of preparation error that shows its ugly head during the long green-flag run that finished Sunday's race.

Earnhardt is now 8th in the standings, 26 points back and squarely between Gordon and Johnson in carrying the Hendrick banner. Had Junior been asked before the Chase where he'd like to be after race two races, sitting between the No. 24 and No. 48 teams would likely have been easily approved by Earnhardt.

Yet, as it's played out, Junior is centering a team that has — to this point — underacheived from what many expected. How Hendrick Motorsports drivers recover will be telling.

And now, for those who deserve praise and those who don't:

HOT: Two straight weeks for Red Bull Racing with a "HOT" ranking? It only figures that they're looking at a looming shutdown of that Toyota team. Regardless, Kasey Kahne led 43 laps Sunday and teammate Brian Vickers finished fifth. Kudos.

NOT: See you next year, Denny Hamlin. Where did that team get so off? That's mind-boggling.

HOT: You've got to love how NASCAR wields its power. After growing weary of Kurt Busch's No. 22 team getting to the inspection line late for many weeks, they raised the team's blood pressure by holding the car until just before pre-race ceremonies.

HOT: Regan Smith earned his fifth top 10 of the year with his 10th-place run Sunday. You've got to think that team may break through for another win or near-win soon.

HOT: Brad Keselowski's second-place run at New Hampshire just about has me believing he'll be a factor by Homestead.

NEUTRAL: Remember when Greg Biffle finished third and no one noticed? Such is the life of a non-Chaser. That was just the second top five of 2011 for The Biff, the other coming at Texas in the spring.

HOT: Friday's NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying session was probably the best of the year thanks to the intrigue that looming rain provided. However, Juan Pablo Montoya didn't play it well. If the track was really too wet to race on, he should've pulled off or gone on NASCAR's 5-minute clock.

NOT: Sometimes NASCAR races just don't perform as they should. That was the story Saturday during the Camping World Truck Series race that featured just two cautions and Kyle Busch leading all but 10 laps. Such is sports, however.

HOT: Can we have the the modifieds as a support series at more races in the east? Even with college football on, I couldn't turn away from a series I knew next to nothing about. That's some great racing.

On to the Monster Mile...

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