The Starr Report · Cami Starr · Monday May 22, 2006
With no points race this weekend, this week’s column grades each of the drivers running full time in the Nextel Cup series; for once, there can’t be any complaints that your driver didn’t make the list! You may not like where he’s ranked, but trust me, he’ll be here somewhere. Instead of basing the list solely on their current season performance, how much they have improved (or fallen off) their 2005 results was also considered. So what drivers have gotten better and moved forward so far in 2006 and which have taken a turn for the worse? Read this week’s Starr Report to find out.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson is the only driver to find himself at the exact same position he was at after 11 races in 2005…on top of the heap. His three wins are tops in Cup, and he has more Top 10’s (8) than any other driver. Following his win at the All-Star race, the safe bet looks to be he’ll pick up win number four this weekend to extend his point lead and diminish some of the hopes of those chasing him.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth is the most improved driver at this point from last year to now, gaining 18 points positions from where he was in 2005. Last year, he had only one Top 10 in the first eleven races; compare that to seven this year, plus his win at Fontana, and you don’t have to look far to figure out why he’s third in the standings. Twice he’s been the point leader this year, finishing in the top three in all but five races. Kenseth came on late in 2005 to make the Chase, and with the kind of results he’s had this year, it seems that momentum has carried over into 2006.
Denny Hamlin: Not many people had Hamlin pegged to win this year’s competitive Rookie of the Year battle, and while it’s not a lock by any means, he’s certainly making a serious bid for it. Four times Denny’s been the highest finishing rookie, with a career best second place coming at his home track in Richmond. With a 13th place ranking in the standings and three Top 10’s in the last five races, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Hamlin carry on the winning rookie tradition.
Other Hot Drivers:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Kasey Kahne: With two wins and six Top 10’s, Kahne has seen his sophomore slump go by the wayside. He’s seven positions higher than he was at this point last year, and seems to be in position to make the Chase. But three straight finishes of 20th or worse have lowered his stock slightly. As crunch time for the Chase draws near, now is not the time for Kahne to slip back to his old ways.
Kevin Harvick: This year, Harvick and his RCR teammates seem to be racing with a renewed vigor. Already this season, Harvick’s rebounded from a slow start to rattle off five Top 10’s in six races and to claim a spot in the Top 10 in points. With a contract extension in hand and any controversy about his future put to bed, Harvick & Co. are working to return RCR to its glory days.
Robby Gordon: At first glance, 28th place in the standings doesn’t really give many drivers a warm feeling. While Gordon probably isn’t too excited about it either, the direction his team is headed should. In 2005, Gordon had a disastrous thirteen DNF’s and only two Top 10’s. So far in 2006, he’s run competitively in several races and already has one Top 10 finish. Gordon hit a rough patch with a few engine issues, but does seem to be rebounding and remaining his usual aggressive self.
Carl Edwards: Edwards got off to the worst start possible at Daytona with a 43rd place finish. He’s had his share of ups and downs this year, but has climbed as high as 13th in the standings following Richmond. Still, he’s slightly off pace from his rookie year in 2005, and went through a crew chief change, losing Bob Osborne to the 26 team. The four positions in points he’s down from last year may not seem like a lot, but since it looks like only 10 teams will be Chase eligible, every spot counts.
Other Warm Drivers:
Greg Biffle: Biffle cleared a major hurdle with his win at Darlington last week. He’s been running well in 2006, but plain old fashioned bad luck has him down 12 places from where he was at this time last year. He’s worked his way up to 14th in points, but is still almost 100 behind the cutoff for the Chase. If two straight Top 5’s are an indication that the bad luck has passed, making up that difference shouldn’t be too tall of an order.
Bobby Labonte: His change from Joe Gibbs Racing to Petty Enterprises caught many people off guard. So far, it seems to be a move in the right direction for both the team and the driver. Labonte’s 27th place in the standings is four positions higher than he was after eleven races in 2005. He’s finished in the Top 10 on three occasions this year…along with his share of poor runs and mechanical failures that have cooled him off. Still, those good runs have the potential to continue to warm up Petty Enterprises.
Brian Vickers: Just when Vickers can get everything together and put in a strong run, he follows it up with two or three bad ones. His run at Talladega and the two races that followed are a prime example. He came close to taking home his first Cup checkered flag and finished third at Talladega, only to finish 37th and 41st the next two races. On the bright side, he is five spots ahead in the standings of where he was last year, but unless Vickers can shake the rollercoaster routing, that won’t last for long.
Elliott Sadler: With his teammate Dale Jarrett leaving in 2007, Sadler may be on a sinking ship. He’s 11 positions lower in the rankings than he was in 2005 and hasn’t developed any consistency this year that would give you confidence that he can turn things around.
Other Cool Drivers:
Martin Truex, Jr.
Ryan Newman: 2006 looked bright for Newman after a third place finish in the Daytona 500, but any bright spots since then have been few and far between. Four finishes of 30th or worse have him twelve positions lower than he was at this time last year. Currently 19th in the rankings, it’s safe to say his Chase hopes are slim to none, although two straight Top 10’s may keep a glimmer of hope alive.
Jeremy Mayfield: While his teammate is flourishing, Mayfield is sinking into the shadows. A staggering 18 places lower than he was following eleven races in ‘05, Mayfield can’t seem to get anything positive going this season. With no Top 10s and finishes out of the Top 30 in five races, it’s no wonder the 19 team is battling to keep its head above the 35th place mark in owner points.
Travis Kvapil: Kvapil hasn’t found nearly the success in the Cup series as he enjoyed in the Trucks, and so far this year isn’t shaping out to be any different. With the struggling PPI Motorsports team, he has missed two races and hasn’t produced all that well in the ones he has been in. His best finish of the year was a 19th place finish at Talladega, and with 2 DNF’s, it doesn’t take much to see why he’s back in the pack at 38th in the standings.
Other Cold Drivers:
At this point last year, a total of 19 drivers were eligible for the Chase. This year, that number is down to just ten, with an additional four within 100 points of the 400 cutoff mark. With the top teams not showing any signs of slowing down, those drivers on the outside looking in have themselves an uphill battle. Will any of them make it? Will we finally see more than ten teams in the playoffs? That all depends on Who’s Hot and Who’s Not following race 26.
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