The Frontstretch: Driver Report Cards: Part Three by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday June 16, 2005

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Driver Report Cards: Part Three

Thomas Bowles · Thursday June 16, 2005

 

“Second-term” report cards continued…to read Part Two (posted yesterday, just not on Jayski), click here. To read Part One, click here.

25 – Brian Vickers.
2005 Totals: 21st in points, 618 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, gained 7 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 2nd – Pocono.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 270.

What a difference a matter of inches can make. Just a few more inches in NASCAR’s Nextel Open and Mike Bliss would have been able to clear Brian Vickers, and soar onto a non-points win and an entry into NASCAR’s All-Star Race. Instead, Bliss was spun, Vickers won, and the 21-year-old has been on fire ever since. HE finished 3rd that night in the All-Star Race despite the controversial “spin-and-win,” nearly won Charlotte before getting trapped a lap down after making a pit stop, and then followed that up with strong runs at Dover and Pocono, where he finished a career-best 2nd. A season that once possessed all the traditional “sophomore slump” characteristics: tough luck, mediocre performances, and rumors of being released from his ride, now have turned around into a “career-year” type season. Vickers just has to keep his patience in check; he has an off-again, on-again habit of finding or causing a wreck, and a late-race crash at Charlotte that tore up a lot of good race cars in which a frustrated Vickers was at fault angered a lot of people in the garage. Grade #1: C. Grade #2: A-.

29 – Kevin Harvick.
2005 Totals: 7th in points, 347 behind Jimmie Johnson. 1 win, 3 Top 5s, 5 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 2 Top 10, gained 5 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 5th – Richmond.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 13.

At first glance, Harvick’s 2005 season is shaping up remarkably similar to how it was last year: great on the short tracks, ho-hum just about everywhere else. In 2004 at this time, Harvick had no wins, 3 Top 5s, and 6 Top 10s…compare that to the numbers above. Pretty similar, huh? But a closer look reveals that the #1 RCR team is improving, although the 29 isn’t running up front every week. Last year, Harvick’s success was completely restricted to Daytona, Talladega, and the short tracks. This year, Harvick has had Top 10s at both California and Las Vegas, as well as Pocono, a track where Harvick failed to finish higher than 20th in both races in 2004. And while Harvick still has his moments, such as his incident with Joe Nemechek in the All-Star Race, for the most part he’s been able to keep himself under control since February. The real key for Happy to continue to be successful is to continue to better those finishes from last year at tracks where he struggled, and Michigan & Infineon are two of those coming right up. If the 29 can overcome those demons, and get their magic back at Chicago, a track where Harvick has won twice, this team might solidify their spot in the Chase; and then, who knows? Grade #1: B+. Grade #2: B.

31 – Jeff Burton.
2005 Totals: 17th in points, 504 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 2 Top 10s, gained 3 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 3rd – Phoenix.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: None.

After high expectations to start 2005, it’s hard to look at Jeff Burton’s season and not be disappointed. Especially in this last segment of races, which started off so strong: Jeff finished a strong 3rd at Phoenix, and followed that up with a 10th-place finish in the Talladega wreckfest. Burton fans were chomping at the bit: at long last, Burton looked like he was ready to contend on a weekly basis, what people have been expecting for almost a year now since Jeff left Roush for RCR. But that push to the front never came; in fact, it seems Jeff’s taken a step back since then, suffering through several races with bad handling cars and finishing at the back end of the Top 20 due to either pit strategy or simply surviving the wrecks. Lowe’s especially comes to mind as a track where Jeff had a car that needed to be thrown in the junkyard, and without all the wrecks would have finished around 35th. With no laps led since Daytona in February, this team has a long way to go, but perhaps at flat tracks like New Hampshire up ahead, the team can continue their trend of occasional success. Grade #1: C+. Grade #2: B-.

32 – Bobby Hamilton, Jr.
2005 Totals: 37th in points, 1164 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, lost 1 spot in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 21st – Dover.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 0.

Man, what the heck happened here? Back at Atlanta Bobby, Jr. was sitting on the outside pole, and it looked like this team was showing some spark for a single-car team with basically a rookie driver. Here we are, 10 races later, and the team’s in turmoil, the car’s junk, and the sponsor’s rumored to leave. It seems there are several factors that played a part, and unfortunately bad luck was among them. Several mechanical problems and wrecks put this team behind the eight ball early, and once they fell out of the Top 35 in points, qualifying had to become the primary concern every weekend, ruining their chances at nailing a strong race setup. Then there came a large number of part-time entries at Charlotte and a DNQ, and suddenly any confidence left in the 32 was just taken out of their sails. Now, Bobby Jr. is talking openly about leaving to drive for his dad, Tide is saying “they’ll honor their contract” as if they’re stuck in some sort of abusive relationship, and a team with 2 Top 20 finishes after 3 races is still stuck on that number after 14. This is bad…wonder if we’ll still see this name on the report card with a “32” next to it after race 21. Grade #1: D+. Grade #2: F.

37 – Kevin LePage.
2005 Totals: 38th in points, 1311 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, maintained spot in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 12th – Charlotte/Lowe’s.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 1.

LePage continues to trudge along valiantly with an unsponsored car, and continues to achieve some amazing results. The team picked up another Top 15 at Charlotte, finishing on the lead lap, and continues to remain just within striking distance of the Top 35 in owners’ points and an automatic qualifying spot, despite missing five races (two in this last segment). The owners have shown incredible dedication, and LePage continues to show he can get the most out of limited equipment, a strength that goes all the way back to 1998 and his rookie season driving Joe Falk’s unsponsored #91. However, as of late the team has fallen further and further off race pace in the races they’ve ran, and you wonder if all the money it takes to just make yourself competitive in this sport may finally be catching up with them. The pressure appears to have mounted, as longtime crew chief Billy Poindexter was replaced by Glenn Darrow before the Charlotte race. For sure, this is a team that desperately needs a sponsor soon. Grade #1: C. Grade #2: C-.

38 – Elliott Sadler.
2005 Totals: 3rd in points, 281 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 7 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, gained 5 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 6th – Talladega.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 141.

Despite being voted off in NASCAR’s Sexiest Driver competition, Sadler’s kept his chin up and has stayed on course, continuing to impress those who felt he’d fall off from his 2004 performance. Not only is Sadler five spots higher in points then he was at this time last year, he’s shown the consistency needed to make a serious run at a Nextel Cup title (who woulda thought someone would be saying that about Sadler five years ago?). Elliott and the 38 team continue to conserve their equipment and be there at the end, avoiding the Talladega and Charlotte wreckfests to post strong finishes, and persevering even when things go wrong (Sadler finished 10th at Dover with no power steering). Still, in order to be considered a serious threat for that Nextel Cup trophy you gotta run up front, and while Sadler tends to run strong early, the car seems to go backward on its adjustments during the day and fade by race’s end. That’s not a trend you ever want to have, even if it’s making you fall from 3rd to 10th instead of to 35th; still, you’ve got to like the way Sadler’s not backed down after a career year. Grade #1: B+. Grade #2: A-.

40 – Sterling Marlin.
2005 Totals: 22nd in points, 666 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 3 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, lost 16 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 16th – Pocono.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 1.

The last time we did report cards, after the 7th race of the season, rumor had just gotten out that Sterling Marlin would be released from the 40 car for 2006, despite two straight Top 10 finishes that had him sitting 6th in the points. Had Sterling kept up that performance, he might have actually had some leverage in fighting to stay with Ganassi, something it looked like he was initially trying to do. But if there was any hope of continuing in the car Sterling’s occupied since 1998, it’s quickly dissipated since, as the season for the 40 has come apart faster than a Pocono left front tire. Speaking of Pocono, Marlin finished 16th there, his only Top 20 finish in what has been a miserable seven-race stretch. An engine failure, three accidents, and poor handling cars have caused Marlin to go from contending for the Chase to looking for the nearest exit, supposedly to Roush and the 6 car for 2006. Such a shame, because for awhile there this team really looked like it had the pieces together this year; now, all we do is watch and wait to see not only where Marlin will end up next season, but if Ganassi will allow Sterling to finish out the year. Grade #1: B+. Grade #2: D.

41 – Casey Mears.
2005 Totals: 25th in points, 759 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 2 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, lost 8 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 14th – Talladega.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: 1.

Speaking of drivers wondering whether they’ll finish out the year, here’s another driver who appears to be in trouble. When the day Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s crew chief gets released, your crew chief is rumored as an immediate replacement, you’ve got to wonder what’s going on behind the scenes at the 41, regardless of any family ties between the Earnhardts and Mears’ crew chief Jimmy Elledge. The chemistry between the two which had produced a remarkable improvement for Mears in 2004, now seems to be heading for the scrap heap. Mears’ tumble hasn’t been quite as bad as Sterling’s, but that’s because he wasn’t that high in points to begin with after 7 races, and now he’s fallen to 25th, his lowest standing in points since his nightmarish season of 2003. Patience isn’t exactly in Chip Ganassi’s vocabulary right now, with a disastrous Indy 500 under his belt, 3 NASCAR teams that continue to underperform, and a 19-year-old phenom named Reed Sorenson lighting it up in the Busch Series. The good news is that Michigan, Infineon, Daytona, and Chicagoland all play to the 41’s strengths after a horrible stretch. The bad news is that Mears now may need to win at one of those four tracks to save his job. Grade #1: C+. Grade #2: D+.

42 – Jamie McMurray.
2005 Totals: 12th in points, 392 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 3 Top 5s, 6 Top 10s.
Last 7 Races: 0 win, 1 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s, gained 2 spots in points.
Best Finish – Last 7 Races: 5th – Talladega.
Laps Led – Last 7 Races: None.

I know it’s mentioned everywhere you turn, but it’s worth saying again: Jamie McMurray has yet to lead a lap in 2005. Kevin LePage, Morgan Shepherd, Mike Wallace, Robby Gordon, and around 40 others have ALL led more laps then McMurray, despite the fact the 42 car is contending for the Top 10 in points! The 42 has a second-place finish under their belt already this season, and yet they still haven’t found their way to the front. It’s a true sign of how badly Ganassi’s teams have been struggling right now; still, considering the crisis over at the 40 and 41 camps, the 42 is a godsend to this organization right now. 10th-place is nothing to scream about, but that’s around where Jamie finishes when he doesn’t have a problem, a far cry from where the 40 and 41 have been running. The qualifying has improved, as McMurray has a worst start of 17th in his last six races, and, most importantly, the “Jamie to the 2 car” rumors are dying down, simply because no one expects Ganassi to replace all 3 of his Nextel Cup drivers. It’s true the 42 has to finish better, but they also haven’t dug themselves a hole in the points, and that may come back to help them dearly if they get it together around August or so. Grade #1: B-. Grade #2: B.

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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