Now that everyone has had their fill of chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chickens, it's time to get back to racing. But before we head off to Texas, I thought six races into the new season would be a perfect time to grade each of the Nextel Cup teams on their performances to date. Nextel Cup is the cream of the crop in NASCAR racing; but there is a great disparity between the haves and have-nots in the sport. Of course there are the power house teams like the Hendricks and Childress' fighting for supremacy. But there are plenty of teams in the lower half, digging to get by every week, trying to make a name for themselves or trying to reclaim past glory. So put down the jelly beans and the peanut butter eggs, and let's find out what teams are hot and which are not so far in the 2007 season.
Drivers: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Casey Mears
If not for Mears, I'd give this team a Hot+ score. With three drivers in the Top 10 and four of seven victories so far this season, you can bet the Hendrick stable will have plenty to say about the outcome of the Chase at the end of the year. Gordon, who has yet to earn a win so far this year, currently leads the point standings and is one of only three drivers to have completed every lap this season. Johnson leads the series with three wins and Busch scored the team's other win at Bristol. The only weak link in the chain is Mears. Mired down in 33rd in the standings, he has only one Top 10 to his credit. He'll likely do better as the season progresses, but it would take a major turnaround to put all four Hendrick cars in the Chase.
Richard Childress Racing:
Drivers: Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick
One team that does have a good shot at putting all of their teams in the Chase is RCR. Their drivers are currently all in the Top 10 with Burton leading the way in second, just 28 points behind Gordon. Harvick has the only win for the team so far, but Burton has been a vision of consistency; scoring five Top 10s and also running every lap so far in 2007. Bowyer was expected to encounter the dreaded sophomore slump, but that has yet to pan out. All three drivers are strong and will have plenty to say about the championship going through Hendrick Motorsports as the year progresses.
Joe Gibbs Racing:
Drivers: Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, JJ Yeley
Once again, it's Hamlin leading the charge for JGR. After finishing a team high third in the standings last season, he is once again showing the way in sixth place heading into Texas. Stewart isn't far behind in eighth place and if it not for a couple bouts of bad luck could easily have two or three wins to his credit. The JGR cars were strong in the two short track Car of Tomorrow races, which bodes well for the team heading into the future. Yeley is still well behind his two teammates, but is showing improvement so far this season. While he's yet to earn a Top 10 finish, he isn't wrecking cars like he was last year and currently is 18th in the standings. Hamlin isn't showing signs of any freshman hangover and you know Smoke will catch fire in the mid-point of the season, which gives them two legitimate shots at the title this year.
Roush Fenway Racing:
Drivers: Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, David Ragan, Greg Biffle
It's no surprise that Kenseth is leading the way for the Roush Fenway five, but it is a bit of a surprise who is bringing up the rear. Kenseth has been his usual consistent self, scoring a win at California followed by four straight finishes in the Top 11. Edwards has picked up where he left off last year and has overcome early problems to rebound to ninth in the standings. McMurray has finally gotten it together at Roush Fenway, and has four straight Top 15 finishes after having some bad luck in the first two races. Ragan has been a pleasant surprise so far in his rookie year. A fifth place finish in the season opener at Daytona has been the bright spot, but he isn't making a fool of himself out there and currently leads the ROTY standings. Perhaps the biggest shock is Biffle. Currently 21st in the standings, he has yet to get it together this year after struggling much of 2006. His best finish was a fifth place run at Bristol, but finishes of 41st at Atlanta and 32nd at Martinsville are taking their toll in the standings. They still have a few strong players out there, but it sure seems like a long time ago that all five of their drivers made the Chase. I'd look for two, maybe three max, to represent this team this year.
Chip Ganassi Racing:
Drivers: David Stremme, Juan Pablo Montoya, Reed Sorenson
Two of the biggest surprises after six races of the season have come from the Ganassi stable of drivers. Stremme is leading the way with an impressive 13th spot in the rankings and rookie teammate Montoya is not too far behind in 16th. Stremme is heads and shoulders above where he was at this point last year when he was 37th in the standings. He turned it on late in the year in '06 and has done a fine job in carrying that over into 2007. For his part, Montoya shocked many when he scored his first Nextel Cup Top 5 at Atlanta and has done a good job gaining valuable experience, scoring zero DNF's so far this year. The odd man out is Sorenson, but had it not been for a pair of crashes at Fontana and Bristol, he too would be up there near his teammates. With Sorenson currently 25th in the standings, all three Ganassi machines are securely in the Top 35 and quickly becoming a team that is poised to steal a win or two away from the big boys at some point this season.
Robby Gordon Motorsports and Hall of Fame Motorsports:
Drivers: Robby Gordon and Tony Raines
No, there hasn't been a merger between these two teams that you haven't read about yet. But they do have something special in common. They are the only two single car teams that are currently in the all important Top 35 in owner points. Gordon, the series only remaining owner/driver, is currently 23rd in the driver standings and has a season high finish of 15th (Daytona). Not surprisingly, with limited resources the team struggled at the two Car of Tomorrow races, but should rebound shortly; especially at the road courses. Raines isn't far behind in the standings, sitting 26th during the off-week. His best finish of the year came at Las Vegas when he finished 19th, but looked poised to leave Martinsville with a Top 15 or possibly a Top 10 finish before making contact with Montoya. These two teams aren't lighting up the track; but I give them a lot of credit of doing so well with so little.
Dale Earnhardt Inc.:
Drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard
Before all the Junior fans get all upset; yes, I know that he is currently 11th in the standings and has finished in the Top 10 the last two weeks. But as much as he tries, he can't carry this entire organization on his own. All three drivers got off to a rough start to the year, with Menard not even making the Daytona 500. Junior has rebounded from his two DNF's to kick off the year; while Truex looked to be coming back strong from his own issues. But where Junior, Earnhardt that is, has continued to improve, the other Junior in the building hasn't been able to keep up the momentum. Back to back finishes of 29th or worse have put Truex 24th in the standings. Not terrible, but he should be running better by now. As for the third DEI team, they aren't even on the radar right now. Menard has struggled to qualify for only three races and continues to have to fight an uphill battle each week just to get into the show.
Drivers: Elliott Sadler, Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs
After posting six wins in 2006, Kahne was the star at Evernham Motorsports (much to the dismay of former teammate Jeremy Mayfield). But so far in 2007, it's Sadler who is leading the way, sitting 14th in the standings, despite having just one Top 10 finish. At least he is safely in the Top 35; that can't be said for his two teammates. Kahne started off well at Daytona, but his seventh place finish seems like a distant memory after racking up two DNF's in the five races since. Heading into Texas, he has a 27 point cushion in the battle for a guaranteed spot each week. The good news is some strong tracks lie just ahead for the No. 9 team. On the other side of the dreaded Top 35 line is Riggs, 37th in owners' points, 28 points out of the Promised Land. He did manage a Top 10 at Martinsville, but in the five races prior had accumulated two DNF's and no finish higher than 23rd. It's not so much poor performance with this organization, rather more bad luck. All they can hope is that it finds another home for the rest of the year.
Drivers: Mark Martin, Joe Nemechek, Sterling Marlin, Regan Smith
Martin started off the year like a man possessed with four Top 10s, and then came Bristol and his self imposed vacation. After two weeks off, he currently sits 15th in points; still ahead of his two full-time racing teammates. Nemechek got off to a good start in his own right, with 9th and 14th place finishes. But a lack of owner points from last year, came back to haunt him at Bristol where he failed to make the race. That DNQ is partly to blame for his 27th place in the standings. Right behind him is Marlin in 28th. With just one Top 20, this year has been a struggle for the No. 14 team, who saw a promising finish go bad in the closing laps at Las Vegas with a blown motor. In his two races in relief of Martin, young Smith managed to keep his nose clean and put in decent runs of 25th and 26th. The interesting thing to watch with Ginn will be if Martin's return to the track sparks the entire organization.
Drivers: Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman
Busch and Newman are another pair of underachieving teammates running neck and neck in the standings. Currently 17th and 19th in the standings respectively, neither driver has performed consistently well this year. Busch had his good run at Daytona go bad with a crash and has managed just one Top 10 (California) all year. Newman got back to his pole winning ways at Atlanta, but scored his sole Top 10 of the year at Las Vegas the week before. There isn't one glaring problem that sticks out with this organization, but the Captain's Cup efforts aren't near his results in the IRL. Could it be that Rusty Wallace took this team's best days with him into retirement?
Drivers: Bobby Labonte, Kyle Petty
After revamping their organization and bringing in Labonte in 2006, Petty Enterprises looked to be making the slow climb back towards the end of the season. But like many other teams, they haven't been able to carry that over into 2007. Labonte had three Top 5s and eight Top 10s last year, so not all hope is lost. So far in 2007 his best effort came at Las Vegas where he finished 13th. Petty has had a tougher time of it this year. With a best finish of 20th, he currently sits back in 31st in the standings and is once again flirting with that Top 35 line in the owner standings. Add in the fact that he plans on stepping out of the car this summer and it will be difficult for this team to really build any momentum.
Haas CNC Racing:
Drivers: Jeff Green, Johnny Sauter
Sauter surprised many with a decent start to the year, 16th and 18th in the first two races, but then reality quickly set in. In the next four weeks, he failed to make the race at Bristol and has finished in the Top 30 just once. For his part, Green had a great run at Bristol and earned his first Top 10 since October 2006. But that one good performance does little to overshadow his five other finishes of 25th or worse. Sauter is right on the Top 35 line and Green is only 53 points ahead of him, leaving the possibility of a very long season a sad reality.
Robert Yates Racing:
Drivers: Ricky Rudd, David Gilliland
Daytona must seem like a long time ago for this team. After losing both of their drivers in 2006, RYR came into Daytona and stole the limelight, giving their fans something to cheer about finally. But the cheers have slowly quieted as the season has progressed. Rudd scored his first Top 15 finish last week at Martinsville, while Gilliland hasn't come close to the Top 10 since Daytona. They aren't in crisis mode just yet, but you can bet they are counting the days until the next plate race.
Michael Waltrip Racing:
Drivers: Dale Jarrett, David Reutimann, Michael Waltrip
Speaking of crisis mode, MWR has been in crisis mode since before the cars hit the track at Daytona. We all remember the fuel scandal that has put Waltrip in a deep hole. So deep in fact, it might be another year before he gets out of it. He has only made one race this year and currently has negative, yes that's right, negative 29 driver points. Jarrett for his part has made all six races, but hasn't scored a Top 20 this season and only has two past champion provisionals remaining. Reutimannâ€¦ well there isn't much better news there. He's missed two races and hasn't finished higher than 33rd. I tried to find a silver lining for this team, but I just couldn't.
Teams: Team Red Bull, Bill Davis Racing, Wood Brothers Racing, BAM Racing, Morgan-McClure Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Front Row Racing
The nine drivers from these teams have combined to make just 26 starts so far this season. Dave Blaney leads the way with six starts for BDR, but not even he is in the Top 35 in owner points. Brian Vickers has the best finish of any of these drivers, with a 10th place run at Fontana. But that is quickly overshadowed by three DNQ's. Obviously these drivers are talented or they wouldn't be racing at this level. But with the wide gap between the haves and have-nots in this sport; this is going to be a VERY long season for these seven teams.
This week we get back to racing with a trip to the Lone Star state. Can Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick compadres continue their dominance? Will Jeff Gordon finally break his 0'fer streak there? Can Kasey Kahne put some distance between himself and the bottom 35? Or will RCR put a kink in the Hendrick armor? We'll just have to wait until next week to find out Who's Hot and Who's Not.
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