Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday May 31, 2013
Going into a race season, we all have expectations when it comes to certain teams and drivers. Some, everyone expect to be title contenders from the day they roll off the truck in Daytona. Others, we place lesser potential on, whether they be large teams we just don’t expect to make the cut this year, or small ones we simply expect to see less lofty results from. Teams, of course speculate all the time, but so do media and fans. But that doesn’t mean that we’re right.
Sometimes, a team or driver steps to the plate and delivers beyond expectations. And sometimes, the would-be slugger strikes out.
At the halfway point of NASCAR’s “regular season,” it’s a good time to look back at those early expectations—and who’s living up to them…or not. Here are three drivers and teams who’s performance has gone above and beyond, and three who haven’t done what they looked like they might early on
Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team I thought they’d be good, but this good? Not even close. Kenseth has proven through the years that he can drive and that even if he’s not in contention for the win each week, he’s racking up top 5’s and top 10’s and making himself a contender. There’s no question that Kenseth can win races and a title; he’s done both.
What I didn’t count on was the equipment. The No. 20 hadn’t been performing up to par for a few years, and while some of that had to do with the relative inexperience of Joey Logano compared to his predecessor, Tony Stewart and to Kenseth, it was still surprising to learn just how much of that team’s lack of performance was apparently coming from the driver’s seat alone. It’s not that they aren’t a good team, but it looked as though they had fallen a step behind their JGR teammates. Kenseth was a threat from the first day he strapped into the seat, though, and his red-hot start was something of a shock-he hadn’t performed as well at Roush-Fenway as he did a few years back, the No. 20 team hadn’t looked up to speed…so to see them gel into the best team in the garage on a weekly basis this fast was definitely a bit of an eye-opener.
Paul Menard and the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team Menard has always had a couple of things going for him: an ability to be consistent, if unspectacular and bring race cars home in one piece; and his family’s money. He also tends to have a decent start to the year—in part because he is consistent and avoids trouble during a part of the year where one bad race can have a larger effect on a driver’s standing because of a small number of races run. But this year, Menard has stayed in the top 12 for over three months and while he hasn’t really been a threat to win, he’s staying consistent where in the past he has slid a little.
RCR has been a mixed bag this year, and I have to admit, I’m also pleasantly surprised by Kevin Harvick, because I thought he’d be virtually ignored as the team focused on Jeff Burton and Menard as well as preparations for Austin Dillon’s full-time Cup debut. But Harvick has the talent to be a title contender, which is why he’s still less of a surprise then Menard. The No. 27 team has been solid as well as their driver, and RCR recently announced that they have re-upped with Menard’s to sponsor the No. 27 for a few more years…and by default, that means Menard will be in the car, so his solid start has paid off.
Landon Cassill and the No. 33 Circle Sport team Sure, he’s 36th in points. But that alone is deceiving, because this team has come a long, long way in a short time this year. Consider this…the team has already finished more races in 2013 than they did in the entire 2012 season. And while you can argue that their best finish is just 22nd, this team has been much, much better than it looked to be in February. Cassill is underrated as a driver, and that’s part of it. He’s smart, calculating, and knows how to play the game.
But owner Joe Falk has made a committment to the team to run as much as they can this year without having to park early due to lack of funding. That means they have to prepare the car to the same extent that all of the top teams do. The difference? Circle Sport has just six people to do that, while the big teams have dozens. The No. 33 buys used parts from other teams to save money so they don’t have to park—and that’s admirable. A lot of drivers couldn’t, wouldn’t drive 500 laps at Martinsville on used brakes…but Cassill did, and he finished the race. This team is in another realm from the JGR’s and RCR’s of the racing world, but they’re just as big of a pleasant surprise.
Surprising…but not in a good way
Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team If you were new to NASCAR in 2013, would you even suspect that less than 24 months ago this team was celebrating the Sprint Cup championship? Yeah, me either. After a lackluster 2012, the 2011 champ is really struggling this year. Stewart, a three-time title winner, is mired in 20th in driver points with just two top-10 finishes this year. He has no wins, not even a top 5. And it’s not as if Stewart is just having terrible luck every week; driver and team are just not performing, it’s as simple as that.
Perhaps Stewart made a mistake when he fired crew chief Darian Grubb, with whom he won that 2011 title, in favor of Steve Addington. Perhaps Stewart’s slow move away from the Hendrick Motorsports way of approaching races (SHR runs Hendrick chassis and engines) and toward the JGR way he knew as a driver was the wrong direction. After all, JGR last won a Cup title in 2005, and that was with Stewart at the wheel. Hendrick has five titles since then, plus Stewart’s championship in their equipment with a Hendrick-trained crew chief. Whether you can pinpoint exactly where it went wrong or when is debatable…but that the performance is not even close to where it should be is not.
Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team Is Gordon past his prime at 41? Perhaps, but it’s hard to believe he lost so many steps in just a couple of seasons. That’s what makes Gordon’s slow 2013 a bit of a surprise. 2012 started off in a similar fashion, but Gordon suffered from so much bad luck it was hard to pin the performance on him or his team. But this year, they’ve just looked like they’re a step behind their Hendrick teammates, all three of whom are in the top 6 in Cup points right now. Gordon, arguably the most talented among the four HMS drivers, is 15th and hasn’t looked like a contender to win at all this year. His average finish is 17.8. Compare that to Jimmie Johnson’s 8th-place average, and it’s plain why Gordon is outside the top 10…but not so clear what’s caused the lack of performance.
They’re not qualifying badly; Gordon’s average start is 11.5, just over a spot behind Johnson’s 10.2 and better than six drivers inside the top 10. The No. 24 clearly has speed, but the team hasn’t been able to keep up with it through the races. Gordon’s best years may be behind him, but, based on his past performance and the current performance of his teammates, he should be in the top 10 in points. That he isn’t has to be disheartening.
Danica Patrick and the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team If you were expecting a top 15 season for Patrick, you were probably setting yourself up for disappointment, but Patrick has underperformed this year in terms of what a driver of average ability should be able to do in equipment of the caliber of hers. Based on the caliber of her cars alone, Patrick should be in the top 25 in driver points, but she’s just 30th. Her position is less perplexing than Stewart’s or Gordon’s because Patrick isn’t the caliber of driver they are, but it’s still a little unexpected simply given the equipment she drives. Patrick drives perhaps too carefully—sure, she’s still learning and she doesn’t want or need to be tearing up equipment, but she often looks like she’s hesitant, even afraid, to put a car on the ragged edge and drive it there.
And that’s where she differs from the drivers near her in points—they do take their equipment to the limit, and it shows after a while. Patrick has an average finish of 26.5, and while that’s better than her average start (that’s always a good thing), even if you think that SHR as a whole is a step behind, it’s pretty dismal when compared to drivers like David Gilliland, Bobby Labonte, David Ragan, or Casey Mears, all of whom have a better average finish and all of whom are ahead of Patrick in driver points, despite having far inferior equipment to hers. That’s the real surprise with Patrick—not that she’s not contending for wins or the Chase, but rather that she’s not even outperforming drivers in far lesser cars.
No matter what someone’s expectations are headed into a racing season, it’s almost a certainty that by the end of it, those will change. Some teams and drivers will make you look foolish, others will merely make you scratch your head. There are always surprises, good and not-so-good, in racing…and perhaps that’s what makes us pay attention.
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