The Frontstretch: Happy Hour’s Best Drivers In NASCAR, Part One: Drivers #15-11 by Kurt Smith -- Friday June 5, 2009

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Being the Official Columnist of NASCAR is not an easy job. It’s not a matter of simply handing over a few million to NASCAR, as with most “official” entities. It takes effort. Column topics must be selected with care, as opposed to just hitting the escape key and writing something about Junior when news is dull. A thoughtful angle that no one else has observed should be provided. A position has to be taken on racing issues of the day.

OK, that’s B.S. This job is fun and the difficulty level is in stark contrast with my salary of untold millions.

Still, while my “official” title is self-proclaimed, it does carry certain responsibilities, and among them is one that I have long tried to avoid. And that is deciding upon and sharing who I think are the best drivers in the sport today. There isn’t any right answer. No matter who I put in my list here, someone will take issue with some or all of it. That’s okay; that’s great in fact, because maybe in a discussion I could learn some things that I didn’t know.

My choices generally aren’t based on statistics. I did look up certain things, because hunches need to be confirmed to some degree. But for the most part, I’ve purposely based this list on simple observations from watching nearly every Cup race over the last 6-7 years. Statistics don’t tell the whole story and I only have a week to write a column.

General criteria for my list include things like: Is the driver consistent? Does he do well at difficult tracks like Darlington or Martinsville? How good is he relative to his teammates in similar cars? How does he fare on road courses? Does he avoid DNFs? Does he win more on-track battles than he loses? Does he not, in the immortal words of D.W., beat himself? And there are criteria that do not figure in at all, like restrictor plate track success and more success on intermediates than anywhere else. It sounds egregious, but Daytona 500 wins count for almost nothing here.

So keep this in mind and let me know what you think of this list. Remember, it’s just my observation-based opinion, but also remember that how much of a fan I am of a driver counts for nothing. Trust me on that.

Now, let’s get started with the list of the five drivers that did not make the top 10:

15) Clint Bowyer

Clint Bowyer didn’t set the world on fire in his rookie season, but he did manage a few good finishes while he learned Cup cars: a fifth at Phoenix, fourth at the Brickyard, third at Fontana and an eighth at Dover. In 2007, he surprised everyone by jumping into the points lead winning the first Chase race at Loudon, and then he managed to stay at least remotely in the hunt against a Hendrick duo that was leaving everyone else mere dots in their rear view.

Bowyer has scored consecutive fourth-place finishes at Sears Point, so it’s doubtful that they were both flukes. He also seems to fare well at short tracks, with a win at Richmond and a fifth at Martinsville in a year (2009) when Childress is having a bunch of trouble.

Just from personal observation, it seems to me that Clint doesn’t win as many on-track battles as he needs to. I could be utterly wrong about that, but that’s just the way it appears. And despite leading the points standings for a brief period this year, Clint needs RCR to get its act together to show what he can really do out there. Unlike Kevin Harvick or Jeff Burton, I haven’t seen that…yet…from Bowyer. He makes the top 15 by putting up similar numbers to the 29 and 31, but he hasn’t earned a top spot.

14) Greg Biffle

Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch share an all-out driving style, and more so with Biffle, that tends to lead to inconsistency. When Biffle is on, I believe he is as good as anyone. But when he isn’t on, he can look very average as a driver. Biffle is extremely streaky, often going from five or six top fives to five or six mid-pack runs. That would make him appear, at least partly, to be much better at some tracks than others.

Biffle has won at the Lady in Black, which is almost enough in itself to make my list. He won at Loudon and Dover last year, so he has shown some versatility. But except for a 7th in 2007, Martinsville seems to be a weak point of late for the 16 bunch.

It seems that Biffle often wears out his equipment more than most drivers do, and in Biff’s early years with Roush and their fast but fragile engines, that hurt him considerably. Biffle’s victories, Darlington excepted, tend to come at the intermediate tracks, the strength of Roush Fenway. We know he owned Homestead, but until he consistently does better at places like Martinsville, he doesn’t make the top 10.

Ryan Newman, the 2002 Rookie of the Year, is one of the hardest competitors to pass on the track, placing him the 13th best driver in the sport.

13) Ryan Newman

Rocket Man, you may remember, beat out Jimmie Johnson for 2002 Rookie of the Year, and he wasn’t driving Jeff Gordon’s cars. Then he struck gold in 2003, winning eight races and spurring debate about his finishing sixth in the standings in a year when the champion won just one. Maybe someone should have questioned how he finished sixth.

Newman benefited a few times from the lucky dog rule at the time enabling a driver to top off with fuel another time, since he would be at the back of the field anyway. People were wondering how he seemed able to go eight laps longer than anyone else on a tank of fuel, until NASCAR disallowed more than one pit stop for lucky dog recipients. A win is a win and the 12 team simply exploited a loophole as any team would and should, but those wins weren’t because of any driving skill on Ryan’s part. In fact, falling a lap down was a big part of helping him win.

Still, Newman has definitely shown racing ability in the heat of battle. He can make things very difficult for drivers who want to pass him, a skill he may have learned from Rusty. Watching him in on-track duels is always fun. In close to equal equipment, Newman can be harder to pass than a pound of cheddar. I’ve seen him outrace Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, and that is saying something.

Newman may get higher on this list once he starts showing what he can really do in a Stewart-Haas car, but his record with Penske wasn’t spectacular enough to rank him there yet. There are a few top 10s mixed in with some dismal performances in several years.

12) Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Junior is better than his results have shown, particularly this year. Maybe it isn’t a scientific or rigorous observation on my part, but Tony Stewart did once proclaim Little E a “multiple championship driver”—and this is when Junior was driving the No. 8 car for DEI. Smoke’s opinion is probably worth more than mine.

Earnhardt, Jr. might even rank higher on the list if it weren’t for his occasional mental mistakes, as we’ve seen this season. Like Kasey Kahne, Junior excels at running a high line, but this often bites him running in a less rubbered part of the track. And costly pit miscues will drop a guy a notch. You don’t see it as often from higher-ranked drivers on this list.

Junior may be getting outshined by his Hendrick teammates for the moment, but don’t forget that he was easily the top performer at DEI when his engines held together, and that includes outracing a two-time Busch series champion in Martin Truex, Jr. In 2007, Junior finished 7th and 5th at Bristol and had a 5th at Martinsville. He finished 8th at Darlington in 2007 and topped that with a 4th in 2008. Junior is consistently competitive at Martinsville and has won at Bristol, something you can’t even say about Jimmie Johnson yet.

The most talked about driver in NASCAR makes my top 15, but until he starts proving he can get it done in the best equipment available, I can’t put him in the top 10. As our Girl Friday Amy Henderson has said, now is the time.

11) Kevin Harvick

Happy is another guy whose talent often exceeds his equipment, especially this season, but I still put this guy near the top 10. Harvick may be best at short tracks like Richmond and Bristol—he had a second and fourth at Bristol last season—but name the type of track and Harvick has probably had a good finish there recently.

Harvick set the bar high with his rookie season, stepping into the biggest shoes imaginable after Dale Earnhardt’s untimely passing. He won in just his third start, edging Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds in Atlanta, and then won another race on his way to a ninth-place finish in the standings without the benefit of Daytona 500 points. Maybe Earnhardt might have done better, but one could hardly fault Harvick’s performance. Since then, like most drivers, Harvick seems to rise and fall with the fortunes of his team in general.

Last year Harvick put together a string of nine top 10 finishes, only two lower than sixth, at a most diverse variety of tracks: Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, California, Richmond, Loudon, Dover and Kansas. That’s what I’m talking about with consistency. In 2006 Harvick put up wins at Phoenix (twice), Richmond, Loudon, and Watkins Glen, and he didn’t finish lower than 11th at Bristol or Martinsville. For short tracks or road courses, you could do worse than to put Happy in the car.

As awful as Harvick has been in a season where Childress can’t seem to get a handle on anything, I’d still put him in one of my cars before all but 10 other guys.

So there it is friends, the list of drivers that make the top 15 of the Official Columnist of NASCAR’s list. I had reasons for excluding Kasey Kahne (nearly all of his wins are at intermediate tracks), Brian Vickers (not enough strong performances in a Hendrick car), and Martin Truex, Jr. (hasn’t shown consistently good results yet), but that didn’t make it any less difficult to do it.

I think it speaks volumes that before I have even dented the top 10, I’ve listed five drivers that could have been selected in the beginning of the year as at least sleepers to win a title without laughter. That says a lot about the parity in the sport today, even if it makes this evaluation that much harder.

And so now that I’ve got your attention, tune into Happy Hour next week and see the even tougher choices of drivers ranked #10 through #6. No Shorts while all of this is going on, unfortunately. I’ve taken enough of your time.

Now tell me how wrong I am so far.

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Dans Mom
06/05/2009 10:37 AM
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Oh Denny… Kurt’s going to be so proud of you.

How are you going to put Denny Hamlin in the top 10? His 4 wins hardly justify his placement higher than 3 of the top 10 winnigest drivers of the decade (see Tommy Bowles article… I did notice). And that’s IF you rank him 10th.

Half of his wins were at Pocono with vastly superior eqipment. Contend for a championship (not implode like the past two years) and I’ll be convinced.

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/05/2009 10:41 AM
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DM, I am going to rank Hamlin in the top ten, where exactly I’m not quite sure yet.

I won’t get into why, but briefly, low win total aside, he gets in the top 5 and top 10 an awful lot. And wins at Pocono aren’t insignificant, regardless of the equipment.

Dans Mom
06/05/2009 12:20 PM
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After reviewing your criteria for ranking, I have to agree that DH is consistent, performs well at difficult tracks(especially Martinsville), road courses and hangs with Rowdy in similar equipment.

However, he never seems to be a contender to hang in with the big boys when it counts – in the end. And that is where my questioning comes into play. There is no arguing that he’s had a rash of bad luck, leading a majority of the race and having mechanical or tire issues ruin his day. But I don’t see the intangible killer instinct within him. He often seems complacent when his stuff gives out, and he folded bad in both the 07 and 08 Chases. The ability to close the deal against your competition speaks volumes IMO.

As I continue to struggle to find factual information to support my rebutle; I’ll point out that the list is for “Drivers in NASCAR“ which would include the nationwide and truck series as well. Under that umbrella Kevin Harvick’s performances in lower series and Truex’s two championships have to carry some weight.

Ultimately, the top 4 drivers are clear-cut. The champ, Rowdy, Smoke and Icy-Hot. Arguments for rankings 5-15 could easily be made for each candidate with much validity.

mike
06/06/2009 08:57 AM
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Denny Hamlin in the Top 10? No F’n way. If I were in charge of Gibbs I’d drop him and try to get Truex….or Kahne.

People harp on Kyle for his attitude but I think Denny is worse. He just doesn’t get the media attention as much.

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/07/2009 07:44 AM
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Well ok, you can dispute Denny Hamlin in the top ten next week. But I am putting him in there, if you’re kind enough to check in you can see why, and then I’ll be glad to read your rebuttals.

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