Matt McLaughlin · Tuesday May 22, 2007
Hey race fans, it’s that time again – with the regular season nearly half complete, the racing at Charlotte is as close to a midterm break as we get during the regular season. As such, it’s the perfect chance for Frontstretch Staff Writer Matt McLaughlin to evaluate most full-time drivers’ seasons in Nextel Cup and give them a report card on their progress. In Part One, Matt tackles the first block of drivers alphabetically, chronicling the struggles of A.J. Allmendinger all the way through to the success of Jeff Gordon.
_We hope you enjoy this four-part series, the first two of which debut today! For Part Two of Matt’s Driver Report Cards, click here
A.J. Allmendinger – F. Allmendinger has qualified for just four races in eleven attempts, and his average finish in those four events is a measly 37th. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don't see him claiming Rookie Of The Year honors anytime soon.
Greg Biffle – C+. With just two Top 10 finishes and an average finishing position of twentieth, one most note that Biffle is not performing up to potential. Sponsorship woes loom large on the horizon, and one can only hope Biffle is shipping via UPS and buying his auto parts at NAPA right now. The way the No. 16 has run, it's hard to recall this guy was once a legitimate title threat in the modern world of "What have you done for me lately?" stock car racing.
Dave Blaney – D. Blaney is the spearhead of the Toyota invasion. So what does that mean? He's only failed to qualify for one race, all while racking up only one Top 20 finish to date. “Oh, what a feeling!” indeed for him.
Clint Bowyer – B. A bit of a pleasant surprise this year has been the youngish Mr. Bowyer. After a 2006 season where he was one of the kids in the back of the class eating library paste with one finger up his nose, suddenly Bowyer is doing complex physics. He has six finishes of eleventh or better in eleven races.
Jeff Burton – A-. The high point of Burton's season to date was his win in Texas, but that win is offset by a blown engine at Richmond that left him dead last and fuming mad. While he's stumbled at times, Burton does have seven top 10 finishes in eleven races, and he's old and mature enough to keep his team on the same page when they do struggle. In an off track development, it appears high-buck sponsor AT&T will be allowed to continue backing the team under their own name rather than an alias, at least until NASCAR finds some judge on their payroll to intervene.
Ward Burton – D. I was really hoping that one day Ward Burton would get another chance in a competitive Cup ride. I'm still hoping one day that Ward Burton will get another chance in a competitive Cup ride. Burton has qualified for five races and failed to finish three of them; the only bright spot of the season was his eighteenth place result at Bristol.
Kurt Busch – B. While not in line for valedictorian honors, Busch is among those contending for the title of “most improved.” While he isn't consistently contending for Top 10 finishes yet, Kurt is running within the Top 15 at the finish most weeks. That’s after a 2006 season that made it appear Busch had a Toyota development engine under the hood of his Dodge, so any such consistency should be seen as steady progress. With Busch traditionally starting slow and getting on a roll later in the season, this team bears watching, even by others outside the Arizona Sheriff's Association.
Kyle Busch – B. The high point of his season was a win at Bristol and a chance to blast the Car of Tomorrow he despises in Victory Lane. The low points have been a series of violent wrecks both in the Cup and Busch series and several "almost wins." The misfortune resulting from all of that has left an already volatile Busch stewing and snarling as a result. Well, here’s a tip for Kyle: Feeling the sport owes you a win is a certain way to make sure you never earn one. Just look at what happened in the Winstonâ€¦er, Nextel All-Star Challenge.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – B. It's been an up and down season for Junior. He has four Top 10 finishes so far this year, and it's notable that three of those runs came in CoT races. But he also has three DNFs already, two of them as the result of expired powerplants. Any student of the sport could tell you the impending divorce from D.E.I. and relocation anxiety are likely to scuttle the 2007 campaign for the No. 8 bunch, but given good equipment, maybe Junior's results can live up to the hype in the future. Remember, everyone had pretty much written off his dad back in 1982…before he met a man named Richard and began the process of making a name for himself all over again.
Carl Edwards – B. While his season got off to a slow start, someone lit the fires under Edwards and the No. 99 team. Though he has just three top 10 finishes in four additional races, Edwards has finished eleventh or twelfth most everywhere he’s been this year.
David Gilliland – D. Gilliland was supposed to be the bright new star that defined the return of Robert Yates Racing to the forefront of title contenders. While he has posted two great results on the plate tracks, everywhere else M&Ms has stood for "maim and mutilate." After his Busch series win last year, Gilliland became the hottest commodity in a NASCAR world starved for homegrown stock car talent. This year, he's just proven that Davey Allison was a once in a century phenomenon.
Jeff Gordon – A+. Nobody has gotten off to this hot a start in a season since, well, Jeff Gordon in 1998. Prior to that, you have to go back to Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 1987. (For the record, Earnhardt won six of that season's first eight races.) To date, Gordon has Top 5 finishes in nine of this season's eleven races, three victories, and an additional Top 10 result as icing on the cake. His average finish this season is fourth, heady numbers in any league, let alone the tough competition Nextel Cup provides.
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