For more info on this column or to look at other drivers, be sure to read Part One ...now let’s get right to it. This one’s a little shorter due to time constraints on a busy Wednesday…Parts Three and Four will fill out the drivers on Friday.
12 – Ryan Newman. 9th in points, 269 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 4th – Martinsville. Laps Led: 76 in five races (10th overall).
A rocket ship on qualifying day, 2005 has not turned out to be the season Newman envisioned back in February. His three poles in seven races lead all drivers, and with not as many teams truly going for the pole under the new “guaranteed” qualifying system, it’s not out of the question to think that this team can set a modern-era record with 15 poles in a season. Still, it’s means nothing to win the pole if you drop to the back shortly after the green flag. So far, a Top 5 at Martinsville based on pit strategy is the only finish where the 12 car’s been in contention. With Rusty doing well on the other side of the tracks, it’ll be interesting if Newman tries to actually make amends with Wallace during his last year. The refusal to share information may be getting to the 12 team in 2005, as Rusty will certainly get his way at Penske chassis-wise and setup-wise in his last season. And now that Rusty has a teammate open and willing to share in Travis Kvapil, why bother with Newman? Grade: B-.
15 – Michael Waltrip. 24th in points, 451 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 6th – Texas. Laps Led: 68 in three races (11th overall).
In the five years Mikey has been with this team, it’s been either feast or famine at the start of the year. Daytona 500 wins in 2001 and 2003 vaulted him to the Top 10 in points after seven races each year; but in the three years Waltrip HASN’T won, he’s failed to crack the points Top 20 in the same amount of time. And that’s where he stands now, 24th after miserable luck that included two straight engine failures to start the year. That would have made most teams throw in the towel; but instead, it’s seemed to make the 15 bunch even more anxious to prove themselves. The Eurys want to show they’re talented in their own right, away from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Waltrip is simply fighting for his job. DEI in general seems to be on the rebound, as both cars looked sharp at Texas. But this next stretch, which includes Talladega and Darlington, is oh-so-critical for Waltrip to truly have a shot at achieving his goals, which are a bit of reach as it is. Simply put, no more mistakes. Period. Grade: B-.
16 – Greg Biffle. 2nd in points, 135 behind Johnson. 2 wins, 3 Top 5s, 5 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 1st – twice (California, Texas). Laps Led: 559 in five races (1st overall).
Jimmie Johnson may lead the points, Jeff Gordon may have won the 500, and Carl Edwards may be the next superstar—- but no one’s had a better year than Biffle. Sure, this team was strong near the end of 2004, but who would have thought Biffle would dominate like he has in 2005? Had a car capable of lapping the field at both California and Texas. Should have won Bristol and Atlanta, too, except for bad calls in the pits that had him falling back at race’s end. Biffle has finally become a week-in, week-out contender in Nextel Cup, but there’s still a few warning signs. Biffle has a tendency to be involved in wrecks, and the one at Martinsville already cost him a shot at keeping Johnson within range. He’s also got a bit of a temper, openly criticizing his crew on national television after a blown call in the pits at Bristol. But if Championship-winning crew chief Doug Richert can keep those things in check, Biffle’s a man on a mission. One more segment like this first seven races, and he becomes the unlikely favorite to win this year’s Chase. Grade: A+.
17 – Matt Kenseth. 21st in points, 434 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 8th – Las Vegas. Laps Led: 109 in four races (6th overall).
Before you call Kenseth the worst-performing Roush driver this season, here’s a stat for you; the 17 car has led more laps in 2005 then fellow Roush drivers Kurt Busch and Mark Martin—- combined. When you add in Carl Edwards’ totals, the three drivers finally beat Kenseth…but not by much (135 to 109). Fact is, Kenseth had some of the best luck of any driver I’d ever seen when he won the 2003 Championship, to the point where I wanted to take him to the Red Sea and see if he could part the waters. But all good luck streaks come to an end, and the 17 seems to be catching up on lost time. Tire issues, engine problems, untimely pit stops…you name the problem, and the 17 car’s the victim. Still, the season is nowhere near lost; in this wacky world of 2005, 21st sits 145 points out of the Top 10, with 19 races left to the Chase. And consider this: not a good qualifier, Kenseth may be the driver that benefits the most from the new impound system; with more practice time devoted to race setup, this car could be a rocket ship by year’s end. Grade: B-.
18 – Bobby Labonte. 37th in points, 677 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 13th – California. Laps Led: 32 in one race (15th overall).
Imagine you’re Charlie Brown in a raging thunderstorm, trying to kick the football while Lucy holds it in place. Each time, you run up to the ball, ready to give it your best shot…and Lucy pulls it away, causing you to fall knee-deep into a puddle of mud, bruised and beaten even though it’s not your fault. But again and again, Lucy gets you to come back and try again. I can’t think of a better way to explain Bobby’s season. Why bother to analyze it? Who knows if the cars are good or not? I mean, I guess they are, cause Bobby did lead for awhile at Martinsville, and finished on the lead lap at California the one time his car made it to the end in one piece. But you can’t really figure a team out if they can’t make it more than 100 miles without getting in a wreck. Who knew firing Fatback McSwain would leave such a lasting curse? They may not be saying it, but you better believe Gibbs regrets that move now. Lucky Bobby’s champion’s provisional will keep this team safe until they can finish races and get back in the Top 35. Grade: F.
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