19 – Jeremy Mayfield. 16th in points, 362 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 11th – Texas. Laps Led: 104 in four races (7th overall).
If there was a “sneaking under the radar” award for the 2004 Chase, Jeremy Mayfield would win it, hands down. It was a solid, but not spectacular season for Mayfield the first 25 races of the year; nothing to write home about, but consistent enough to keep him in contention for the Top 10. Then came Richmond, a stunning victory, and all of a sudden, the 19 team was racing for a Championship. Fast forward to 2005, and we’re seeing the same strategy played out again. Sure, Mayfield’s off to a poorer start. At this point last year, he already had a runner-up finish; this year, he has yet to crack the Top 10. But Mayfield had led more laps then all but six drivers, has four straight Top 20s, and finds himself lurking in 16th, 73 points out of the Top 10. Keep in mind that as the Dodge Charger improves, so will his finishes; not to mention that Richmond is coming up in the next seven races, along with three other tracks Mayfield scored a Top 10 in 2004. Grade: B-.
20 – Tony Stewart. 11th in points, 293 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 3 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 3rd – Bristol. Laps Led: 399 in three races (2nd overall).
Some fans are upset that I openly wondered on Mirror Driving how Tony could have been in the Top 10 in points with the way he’s been running. I still feel the same way, but it has to do with the setup of the car, not Tony’s driving skills. Every week, the 20 starts out strong, and then just fades as the race goes on, as if the team makes the wrong adjustment every time they pit. The car got so bad in Atlanta, by the end of the race I thought it’d be black flagged for going too slow; only cautions saved him from falling off the lead lap and a 30th-place run. California, ditto. Daytona, same thing, after leading the most laps in the race. Add in a chunk of bad luck required for any Joe Gibbs team in 2005, and Stewart has fallen out of the Top 10 for the first time in nearly two years. The good news is that a mature Stewart has been great at keeping the Gibbs teams pumped up. But when you’re worse at the end of the race then you are at the beginning, it’s a sign the driver and crew chief aren’t on the same page. And I’ve been wondering that about Stewart and Zipadelli for a while. Grade: B.
21 – Ricky Rudd. 30th in points, 544 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 7th – Martinsville. Laps Led: None.
Bobby Labonte’s had problems, but it’s been Ricky Rudd who’s been screwed the most by the bad luck bug this year. Don’t be fooled by the no laps led stat above; this team may be the 5th or 6th best team in Nextel Cup right now. Daytona, they had a Top 10 car and got wrecked. California, Top 15 car before the engine blew. Atlanta? Mechanical failure ruined a second-place car. No doubt, super crew chief Michael McSwain has this team running on all cylinders, and this is the best the Wood Brothers team has looked since Morgan Shepherd drove for them in the mid-1990s. Yeah, Bobby hasn’t finished more races, but his team isn’t Chase-caliber right now, while Rudd’s is; and who knows how many more chances Ricky will have at the title. While the rocky start has probably cost them a realistic shot at the Chase, it’s a team with something to prove, and Rudd is hungry for a win. Don’t be surprised if he snags one. Grade: C; but an A- when you don’t factor in the DNFs.
22 – Scott Wimmer. 33rd in points, 584 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 16th – California. Laps Led: 8 in one race (Tied for 20th overall).
The Daytona 500 can boost momentum for an entire year, or throw the rug out from under you in five seconds flat. It’s the nature of the business. Bill Davis Racing experienced the momentum in 2002, winning the 500 with Ward Burton, and with 25 laps left at Daytona in 2005, it looked like the jackpot for Davis again. Both Wimmer and Davis’ second car, the 23 driven by Mike Skinner, were the strongest Dodges in the field, and clearly in contention to win the race. 15 laps later, Wimmer went airborne, Skinner rear-ended someone, and Bill Davis Racing had two cars in the garage. That second team with Skinner likely lost a full-season sponsor deal in the aftermath, and hasn’t been seen on the track since, leaving Wimmer as part of a one-car team with no factory support. In today’s world, you’re not gonna do well with that combination, and the 22 teams’ results back that up. The big question is, can this team convince Caterpillar to keep sponsoring them until Toyota makes it to Cup in 2007? And will Wimmer wait that long to be competitive? Grade: D.
24 – Jeff Gordon. 5th in points, 247 behind Johnson. 2 wins, 3 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 1st – twice (Daytona, Martinsville). Laps Led: 94 in four races (8th overall).
It’s been a bit of an up-and-down start for the 24 bunch. When they’re good, they’re very, very good, and they’re good at the right races (wins at Daytona and Martinsville, the site of the Hendrick plane crash). But when they’re bad, they can be awful, as they were at Texas last Sunday. Add in some weird luck in the form of an engine failure, unheard of with the 24 team, and a first-lap wreck in Atlanta and you’ve pretty much summed up Gordon’s season. Under the old system, we’d say it’s that type of inconsistency that’ll keep him from winning the title. But for Gordon, the team’s so good the Chase is almost an automatic, so you wonder if the team is taking some risk on setups, feeling they have a ticket punched to the postseason already. If I had Jimmie Johnson as my teammate running like he is week in and week out, heck, I’d do the same thing to try and win. Grade: A-.
25 – Brian Vickers. 28th in points, 507 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 6th – Atlanta. Laps Led: 1 in one race (Tied for 33rd overall).
This year, Vickers team is working closely with Kyle Busch and the 5 car the same way Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson work together at Hendrick Motorsports, to try and improve results on this team. But so far, it’s the rookie Busch who’s outshined the second-year “veteran.” Other than a strong Atlanta run and an outside pole at California, Brian hasn’t done much to speak of as of yet, other than yell at Dale Jr. after causing his wreck at Las Vegas. Vickers is paired this year with his old Busch Championship-winning crew chief, Lance McGrew, but so far that hasn’t really turned anything around. In my view, it’s Vickers out of all the Hendrick drivers who should be dabbling around in the Busch Series. Why give Jimmie Johnson extra seat time when you’ve got a younger, more inexperienced driver in need of a confidence boost? Grade: C.
29 – Kevin Harvick. 12th in points, 297 behind Johnson. 1 win, 2 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 1st – Bristol. Laps Led: 133 in 3 races (5th overall).
While 12th is just too spots higher than where Harvick wrapped up the year in 2004, Kevin’s got to like where he stands at this point compared to last season. The win is already out of the way, with Bristol ending a 1 1/2 year losing streak, and Harvick appears to be playing better with others than at any time in his career. He actually takes advice from teammates Jeff Burton and Dave Blaney, and hasn’t made himself the eye of the storm on the track like he has in the past with his aggressive behavior. Off the track, there was the blatent fuel cell cheat in qualifying that led to crew chief Todd Berrier being suspended, but the penatly was really meaningless other than the 25-point loss; Harvick actually won his race with Berrier on the sidelines. The fact that the team did so well without him should give them a big boost this weekend, when he returns to the track. Grade: B+.
31 – Jeff Burton. 20th in points, 428 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 12th – Texas. Laps Led: 6 in one race (Tied for 23rd overall).
It’s been a little surprising to see Burton get off to this slow a start. Most people had this team pegged to contend early, but Jeff’s been consistently mediocre, with five Top 20 finishes in seven races, just two of them in the Top 15. Still, Jeff’s presence continues to pay huge dividends for Richard Childress, as he’s helped with the maturity process of Harvick, while giving the organization veteran leadership it’s lacked in the driver’s seat since the loss of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Texas was a great time for the team to have its best run of the year, as Phoenix begins a string of tracks where Burton runs really well. 20th is nowhere near out of the running for the Chase, but a move needs to be made now for Burton to truly be a contender. Grade: C+.
32 – Bobby Hamilton, Jr. 36th in points, 667 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 11th – Las Vegas. Laps Led: None.
Think Bobby Jr. is finding the transition to Cup a little tough? After a horrible Speedweeks at Daytona in which the car never really got up to speed, the Tide team was slowly picking up momentum, with an 11th place finish at Las Vegas followed up by an outside pole position at Atlanta. But Hamilton, Jr. wrecked, and followed that up by triggering a 14-car crash at Bristol that took out several machines racing for the win. The team has yet to finish in the Top 35 since, and now finds themselves out of the guaranteed starting spots entering this weekend’s race at Phoenix. And that worries me, because a single-car team is easily capable of having one off-day; an off-day for Bobby on Friday, and he goes home with the season half in the tank. Grade: D+.
37 – Kevin LePage. 38th in points, 782 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 9th – Daytona. Laps Led: None.
LePage deserves a B-level Driver of the Year award, there’s no question about it. The 37 team was struggling to even make fields when Kevin first came on board in 2004, and now they have a miracle of a Top 10 under their belt in 2005 as they hang just outside the Top 35 in owner points. LePage would solidly be in there if the team hadn’t DNQ’d for two events already…but when you only have nine guys employed for you, it was easy for the Daytona buzz to wear off once the team needed to prepare for other tracks. You never want to see anyone else have trouble, but this is a team that truly needs to be rewarded with a guaranteed starting spot in recognition of all their hard work. Grade: C.
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