Summer of '14: Sizzle and Fizzle

Joey Logano

The summer of 2014 has been a good one for Joey Logano, with a victory at Bristol and a guaranteed spot in the post-season Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. (Photo: Getty Images)

When Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 takes the checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it will mark the unofficial end to the summer stretch which kicked off at Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 back in May.

During that 14-race span, several drivers took major steps forward and enjoyed a successful run.  On the other hand, as Bananarama so aptly sang, it was a "Cruel Summer" for others:

Jeff Gordon

It’s been a throwback summer for Gordon, who's running like he did during his golden days in NASCAR.  A pair of wins at Indianapolis and Michigan International Speedway have highlighted Gordon’s warm-weather stretch, which saw him rattle off four straight top 10s in June and surge to the top of the Sprint Cup Series point standings.

Joey Logano

Sure, the stats show Logano had a pair of 40th-place finishes during his summer of 2014.  But throw those out the window.  The bigger picture shows Logano solidifying himself as a legitimate championship contender by basically being in the picture on a weekly basis and adding win No. 3 to his season total last week in Bristol.  Logano is riding a hot streak of five straight top-10 finishes into Atlanta.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His win in the season-opening Daytona 500 was just the beginning of what has arguably been his best year in Sprint Cup.  The summer didn’t start very well, with a 19th at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend.  But "Junior" was in the top 10 the following six weeks including a trip to Victory Lane at Pocono.  Not to be outdone, he took another Pocono checkered flag when the series returned in August and is set up to make a strong run at a first-ever Cup title.

Jimmie Johnson

To say Johnson’s summer has not been a "day at the beach" is an understatement.  It started strong with three wins in the first four races of the stretch - and victories at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan.  But things went sour in a hurry for Johnson, including a streak that saw two straight 42nd-place performances with a 39th and 28th thrown in for good measure over a five-race period.  Johnson finally snapped the string with a ninth at Michigan, but even that didn’t come easy with a broken shifter providing a huge challenge.  He’s had down cycles before and has always bounced back, which is something Johnson & Co. are banking on when the Chase kicks off at Chicagoland Speedway.

Kyle Busch

The summer of 2014 could be a defining career moment for Busch, who has plummeted to 17th in the Sprint Cup Series standings.  He’s managed only four top-10 finishes since Memorial Day weekend and has four performances of 40th or worst in the same period.  Since coming home second behind Gordon at Indianapolis, Busch’s record shows runs of 42nd, 40th, 39th and 36th.  Last week’s blow-up with crew chief Dave Rogers at Bristol has only compounded the woes for the No. 18 team.  Despite team owner Joe Gibbs chalking it up to frustration, the underlying current of dissatisfaction makes it hard to consider Busch a contender for the title this season.

Marcos Ambrose

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver faced three make-or-break races in his quest to grab a Chase berth and came up short every time.  The road-racing ace finished a distant eighth at Sonoma to end the month of June and went to the next road course on the schedule at Watkins Glen as the clear favorite.  But his battle to the finish line with AJ Allmendinger ended up in a second-place run and he wasn’t able to punch his ticket to the post-season.  Ambrose looked at Bristol, where he’s always run well, as another shot.  But a track-bar problem early knocked him from contention.  With rumors swirling of his departure from RPM and NASCAR for a return to his native Australia to run V-8 Super Cars, it looks as if Ambrose is ready to ride off into the sunset.

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