The Frontstretch: Driver Report Cards: Part Two by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 15, 2005

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Driver Report Cards: Part Two

Thomas Bowles · Wednesday June 15, 2005


“Second-term” report cards continued from yesterday…to read part one, click here.

12 – Ryan Newman.
2005 Totals: 6th in points, 329 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 4 Top 5s, 7 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 3 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s, gained 3 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 3rd – Richmond.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 95.

Don’t look now, but Rusty’s not the only driver with his act together at Penske Racing. After winning three poles in the first seven races, Newman has won just one more since, but is no longer falling back through the pack during races like he did at the start of 2005. In fact, the team is beginning to gel and show some consistency after having to overcome major obstacles, among them continued animosity with teammate Rusty Wallace and rumors Newman himself, along with crew chief Matt Borland would be jumping ship to Roush for 2006. But that talk has seemed to die down after Penske’s buyout of Rusty Wallace, and should no longer be a concern. The “Big One” at Talladega did temporarily push Newman out of the Top 10 to 15th in points but since then, he’s been lightning quick. The 12 car has four Top 10s in five races, and only poor pit strategy and a blown tire at Pocono kept it from being 5 for 5. And what’s more, we’re coming up on tracks where Newman has done well in the past, including this Sunday at Michigan, where Ryan’s won twice in his last three starts. And when Pocono is the first race ALL year you start outside the Top 10, you must be doing something right. A developing championship contender. Grade #1: B-. Grade #2: A-.

15 – Michael Waltrip.
2005 Totals: 15th in points, 483 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 3 Top 5s, 6 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 3 Top 5, 4 Top 10s, gained 9 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 2nd – Phoenix.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 55.

Quick fact: what five drivers scored the most points these last seven race races? The first two are easy: Greg Biffle & Jimmie Johnson, followed by Carl Edwards, Elliott Sadler…and Michael Waltrip. That’s right; in the daily crisis world that is DEI in 2005, the 15 team is one piece of the puzzle that no one should be talking about changing. Take away the debacle at Lowe’s in which Waltrip was crashed by his own teammate, and this team would likely be in the Top 10 in points. Michael is driving better than at any time in his career; he put together back-to-back Top 5s for the first time since March 1991 at Phoenix & Atlanta, and his pole at Pocono was Waltrip’s first in 14 years (Michigan – June 1991). Hard to believe after two blown engines in the first two races that the 15 would be in this position; clearly, the driver/crew chief combo of Waltrip and Tony Eury Jr. seems to be working out. And with Michigan, Daytona, and Chicago looming, Waltrip has a real opportunity to move into position to make the Chase. Grade #1: B-. Grade #2: A.

16 – Greg Biffle.
2005 Totals: 2nd in points, 123 behind Jimmie Johnson. 4 wins, 5 Top 5s, 9 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 2 wins, 2 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s, maintained spot in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: Win – Darlington, Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 331.

After a strong start, Biffle continues to maintain his position as the unlikely challenger to Jimmie Johnson’s bid for a title. Now leading the circuit with four victories, he’s posted wins at Darlington and Dover to add to his resume, and posted strong runs anywhere from the superspeedway of Talladega to the short track of Richmond. The occasional part failure continues to be a problem, as mechanical issues showed themselves at both Phoenix and Pocono, but Biffle’s managed to maintain his second-place spot while continuing to put distance on the rest of the pack. The occasional whining after a bad run continues to be a problem, but Biffle’s been in title chases before, and can pretty much cruise his way into the final 10 races at this point. And with Michigan in store next week, a track where Biffle is the defending champ, he looks to be on pace to grab a strong start to this next segment. Not bad for a guy who this time last year was sitting in 23rd in the points. Grade #1: A+. Grade #2: A.

17 – Matt Kenseth.
2005 Totals: 24th in points, 700 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10, lost 3 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 7th – Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 3.

Someone was talking to me about Matt Kenseth’s situation the other day, and brought up a good point; in this day and age, the demands of modern NASCAR are so tough that the chemistry between driver and crew chief can only peak for so long before it burns out. Some of the best championship-winning driver/crew chief combos have been broken up in the past few years because of this: Dale Jarrett/Todd Parrott, Bobby Labonte/Jimmy Makar, and Rusty Wallace/Robin Pemberton, just to name a few. Sadly, I’m beginning to think we’re about to see the same result for Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser. The whole team just hasn’t been the same since Kenseth slammed into the pit road entrance at Dover during the 2004 Chase, and momentum to get back to the top of NASCAR’s elite appears to be lacking. This is the latest into the season Kenseth has gone without a Top 5 since 2001, and it’s got to be embarrassing for them to be so far off the pace when the other four cars in the Roush stable are doing so well. Still not too late to fix it, but getting close… Grade #1: B-. Grade #2: C.

18 – Bobby Labonte.
2005 Totals: 29th in points, 785 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 3 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 1 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, gained 8 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 2nd – Charlotte/Lowe’s.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 11.

The younger Labonte is slowly becoming a classic example of how you CAN take yourself out of the running with too much bad luck in the first few races of the season. While the 18 team and Labonte have done an amazing job to raise themselves back into the Top 30, they’re almost 785 points behind Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team at this point, and a place in the Chase will be next to impossible to achieve. Now up to four engine failures, parts are just one of many things a struggling Joe Gibbs racing outfit needs to figure out in order to be successful again. Other then Michigan, the next few tracks on the slate don’t necessarily play to Labonte’s strong points, so don’t expect dramatic improvement over in this corner anytime soon. Rebuilding is a long process…hopefully Gibbs will have the patience for it. Grade #1: F. Grade #2: C+.

19 – Jeremy Mayfield.
2005 Totals: 13th in points, 403 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s, gained 3 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 4th – Talladega, Charlotte/Lowe’s.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 1.

Despite leading just a handful of laps all year, Mayfield has quietly flown under the radar and put together a solid season. Mayfield has put together two 4th-place finishes during this most recent stretch, and is working on a streak of four consecutive Top 15 finishes. Like we’ve said with so many drivers so far, consistency has become the key to success, and the #19 team has just one DNF (Darlington) in 14 attempts. Mayfield continues to benefit from new crew chief Slugger Labbe out of the DEI stable, and now has a car capable of finishing between 5th and 15th on any given track. Most importantly, Evernham made sure to tie up Mayfield with a long-term extension, so Jeremy is not under the type of pressure some of the other guys trying to make the Chase will put on themselves. A true darkhorse. Grade #1: B-. Grade #2: B.

20 – Tony Stewart.
2005 Totals: 10th in points, 380 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 3 Top 5s, 6 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, gained 1 spot in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 2nd – Richmond, Talladega.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 145.

While Stewart has been the only one of the three Gibbs drivers capable of any type of success this season, the 20 car is still hanging on for dear life in terms of the Chase. Once considered someone who could make the Chase for the Championship in his sleep, Stewart continues to struggle with poor handling race cars and tire issues, causing his frustration to slowly increase. The Tony Temper of old came out on the track at Dover, where Tony’s race car was sliding all over the place, and Stewart made sure it slid into Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and several others. Tony’s remained on the radar screen with strong runs at the restrictor plate tracks and the short tracks; you take those finishes away, and the 20 car has finished no higher than 10th at any of the intermediate tracks. With a bunch of those types of tracks coming up, Tony’s finishes at Daytona and Infineon become especially critical during this next stretch of races. Grade #1: B. Grade #2: B.

21 – Ricky Rudd.
2005 Totals: 33rd in points, 891 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, lost 3 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 11th – Richmond.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 1.

Honestly, I want to know what happened with Rudd before the 2005 season began. Did seven black cats walk in front of his path? Did he rip up a four leaf clover? Did he pick up a face-down penny? Seriously, the 21 has suffered from some of the worst luck I’ve ever seen during the course of the season. When the car finishes the race without a problem, it’s a Top 15 car, but Rudd continues to fall victim to wrecks not of his own making—- 3 in the last 7 races, in fact. Add engine failure at Charlotte and a tire problem at Pocono where the car blew 5—- count ‘em—- 5 flat tires, and it seems like Rudd’s incapable of catching a break. A chance to make the Chase has been lost, and now the bigger question is whether Rudd will stay with the 21 for 2006. My gut feeling there is yes, and if Rudd gets the contract out of the way this team will continue to gel and be a darkhorse contender for the win at a place like Chicagoland. Grade #1: C (A- without the DNFs). Grade #2: D+ (B without the DNFs).

22 – Scott Wimmer.
2005 Totals: 35th in points, 973 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5, 0 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 win, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, lost 2 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 20th – Richmond.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 1.

Hard to believe the team Wimmer is driving for won the Daytona 500 back in 2002. Three years have passed since then, and Bill Davis has yet to come close to that type of success with Wimmer at the wheel. Wimmer’s had nothing to brag about, with just three Top 20 finishes in 14 races, and only 1 lap led all season long. Desperate for a teammate, this single-car team has been performing like one, and there’s no reason to think improvement is on the horizon anytime soon. With Davis continuing to spearhead the future development of Toyota as they plan to enter Nextel Cup, his Cup team will continue to suffer until a Toyota actually makes it on the track. Wimmer’s in a bad spot. Grade #1: D. Grade #2: D.

24 – Jeff Gordon.
2005 Totals: 9th in points, 362 behind Jimmie Johnson. 3 wins, 5 Top 5s, 6 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 1 wins, 2 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, lost 4 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: Win – Talladega.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 213.

Having finished in the Nextel Cup Top 10 for 11 straight years, Jeff Gordon’s team has been so successful some say they could make the Chase in their sleep—- and that’s exactly what the 24 team seems to be doing. While teammate Jimmie Johnson has been dominating the season, Gordon’s been wildly inconsistent; only Greg Biffle has won more races, but Gordon’s 5 DNFs are the most of any driver in the Top 25 in points. In fact, being involved in three straight accidents from Richmond through Dover dropped Gordon right out of the Top 10 for a race. Still, it’s impossible to imagine a Chase without Gordon involved; Infineon should be an automatic win for the 24 coming up, and all it’ll take is 5 or 6 Top 10 runs in a row to get the Rainbow Warriors comfortably within striking distance of the points lead. They’re just taking their sweet time putting those runs together. Grade #1 A-. Grade #2: B+.

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