After a few years on the sidelines, it’s time to bring back my favorite type of column. You know, the column where I check on how each team is doing and analyze their progress, while you, the fan, either congratulate me for my amazing insight if I give your driver an A, or email me with threats if I give them a C. That’s right, kids, it’s driver report card time!
Now, if you’re a longtime reader that followed me from Stock Car City, not only are you questioning your sanity but you must be wondering why I’m doing these so early in the season (I used to refrain from judging any driver’s season performance until Charlotte in May). Well, my answer to that is this: with the Chase for the Championship format, the beginning of the season has been changed like never before. We’re already a quarter of the way into the pre-Chase period, and seven races is more than enough time to get an initial judgment on how a team and driver are handling the 2005 season. Not only that, but with Silly Season starting earlier every year, a poor six-or-seven race stint may cause you lose your ride before we even get past Talladega, let alone Charlotte. So, I’ve decided to divide the year into five segments, and check on teams’ progress after races 7, 14, 21, and 28.
One more thing before we dive right into it; remember that a grade can be based on expectations as well as results. For example, a driver who is 35th in points with a team not expected to survive past Daytona will likely get a better grade then a driver 15th in points who was picked to contend for the title. Fair or unfair, that’s always been my grading system…
0 – Mike Bliss. 25th in points, 478 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 12th – California. Laps Led: None.
Take a look at Mike Bliss’ season, and the numbers look real familiar. Decent start to the season with four Top 20 finishes that showed flashes of potential for a team with Hendrick support and a driver with something to prove. Those were followed by problems on the short tracks that killed off momentum, and has the team scrambling to regroup. Who’s had this type of start before, you ask? Why, Ward Burton…last year, in this very same car! In fact, Ward did slightly better, with one Top 10 and four Top 20s in his first five races before struggling at Bristol, Martinsville, and Texas. Ward’s season never recovered, as a panicky owner made multiple crew chief changes to try and fix a ship that wasn’t broken. That owner’s still a part of this team, so one can only hope Bliss doesn’t end up down the same road. Grade: C+.
2 – Rusty Wallace. 3rd in points, 237 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 4 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 5th – Bristol. Laps Led: 204 in two races (4th overall).
Between Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace, most thought Mark would have the better shot at getting into the Chase in his final season on tour. But Wallace has proved the naysayers wrong in putting together a solid start to his “Last Call” in the Nextel Cup Series. Sure, there were no wins on the short tracks, despite having the car to beat at Bristol, and the team’s had its share of bad luck that has plagued it through the years. But the bad luck has come in pit road penalties and minor malfunctions rather than race-ending wrecks and engine failures, and because of that Wallace has just one finish lower than 13th—- a 27th-place run at Atlanta. Sure, the field is pretty bunched up behind Johnson and Biffle in the points; but who’d have thought Rusty would be 3rd at this point? Interesting to see how that confidence boost will play out during this next segment. Grade: A-.
4 – Mike Wallace. 35th in points, 627 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 23rd – Martinsville. Laps Led: 2 in two races (Tied for 27th overall).
Under the new qualifying system, cars outside the Top 35 to start the season must do whatever it takes to qualify for each race, even if it means impounding with an awful race setup which causes them to simply survive for 500 miles. Still, if you collect a decent finish, you will sneak into a guaranteed spot after the fifth race, and then you can work on race setup and begin the process of contending. And that’s exactly what Mike Wallace and Morgan-McClure have done. Mid-pack qualifying runs have been followed up with ho-hum races, but they’ve avoided bad luck just enough to sneak in the Top 35 after Sunday. But considering where this outfit was last year, they’re light-years ahead of the game, and for the first time in years this group feels like they’re on the verge of turning things around. Capable of a Top 15 finish now that they can work on the race setup. Grade: C.
5 – Kyle Busch. 27th in points, 497 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 2nd – Las Vegas. Laps Led: 2 in one race (Tied for 27th overall).
For the younger Busch, it’s been the type of rookie year you’d expect 10 years ago, before people like Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. started winning races in their first season. Flashes of potential: a pole at California, and a runner-up finish at Vegas. Flashes of the wall: wrecks at Daytona, Bristol, and Texas. And flashes of controversy: rules violation at Vegas, costing him 25 points. Still, through it all he’s leading the rookie points, working well with crew chief Alan Gustafson, and making the 5 car look competitive again after an off-year in 2004. Could be better…but considering his Cup stats from last year, it could have been a LOT worse. Grade: B-.
6 – Mark Martin. 7th in points, 260 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 3rd – Martinsville. Laps Led: 7 in three races (22nd overall).
Too bad Martin can’t go on a retirement tour every year. The fact that his Cup career and crazy schedule will soon be coming to an end has done wonders for Martin’s psyche. It’s like a giant weight has been lifted from his shoulders; you can see him smiling and laughing at the track on a regular basis. But don’t be fooled; Martin is focused more than ever on that first title. He’s run well at times, with top fives at both Martinsville and Atlanta. Still, there’s a problem they have to fix, as Pat Tryson’s race cars don’t get going for the first 10 to 20 laps of a run. With 2005 becoming the Year of the Caution, it hasn’t given the 6 team a chance to truly shine. Still, all Mark wants is to be comfortably in the Top 10 when the Chase starts, and he’s easily achieved that goal. Grade: B+.
7 – Robby Gordon. 39th in points, 817 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 20th – Martinsville. Laps Led: 4 in one race (25th overall).
One has to wonder what Robby’s “worst case scenario” was when he started his own team for the second time—- and whether 2005 has beaten even the worst of his nightmares. Seven races, two DNQs: including the Daytona 500. In the first three races he did make the field, Gordon saw Jon Menard’s new Cup engines expire each time, well before the scheduled distance. Texas saw a decent run; and a wreck of his own making to finish it off. If it wasn’t for a 20th-place run at Martinsville, you wonder if the team would have ANYTHING to build on by now. Robby says better engines and cars are coming down the pipeline. He better hurry; the last time Gordon ran his own team in 2000, it didn’t last the season, and they started off a heck of a lot better than this bunch. Grade: F.
8 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. 15th in points, 355 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 3rd – Daytona. Laps Led: 2 in one race (Tied for 27th overall).
You just read the one stat you have to remember about this team. Two laps led in 2005 for Little E; the same amount as Morgan Shepherd and Randy Lajoie, one less than Ken Schrader, and two less than Robby Gordon. This time last year, Dale Jr. had already won twice, including the Daytona 500, led in 4 of 7 events, and was a solid 3rd in the standings. Pete Rondeau appears to be the right crew chief long-term, but needless to say, they’re taking their lumps. Dale Jr. hasn’t really helped things much either; he’s complained about everything from the new spoiler to the lack of space at DEI, not exactly spurring a comeback with his words. The next three weeks should tell the tale of where this team stands: Earnhardt Jr. won back in Phoenix in November, dominates Talladega, and favors Richmond. Poor runs at two of those three, and they’re officially in trouble with the Chase. Grade: C+.
9 – Kasey Kahne. 23rd in points, 444 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 2nd – Martinsville. Laps Led: 1 in one race (Tied for 33rd overall).
Apparently we’ve found out how Kasey Kahne likes to drive, and let me tell you, it’s not a loose race car. There may not be a single driver out there who’s had to adjust more to the new rules, but Kahne is definitely able. Most driver’s confidence would be shot after two self-made wrecks at California and Las Vegas, but Kahne fought back. He’s succeeded where we’d least expect it, on the short tracks, and finally appeared to be his old self at Texas before the bad luck bug bit him again. Sophomore slumps are expected, but not for this kid; still, the magic is there for that first win to break through at any moment. Grade: C+.
10 – Scott Riggs. 18th in points, 409 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 3 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 4th – Daytona. Laps Led: None.
Riggs is 2005’s top candidate for the Casey Mears Award: driver who should have been fired on his way to Comeback Driver of the Year. To tell you how much I know, I thought Ward Burton would be in this car by now, with Riggs on the outside looking in. But the 10 car came out of the gate as if it were shot by a cannon. Impressive Speedweeks and 4th at Daytona has led to strong runs in the most of the next six races; if not for the bad luck bug, this team would easily be in the Top 10 in points. The key is not to let those bad days get to them, like the wreck at Texas Sunday; as long as they don’t, this team is strong, and Riggs appears on a mission to prove himself. Grade: B.
11 – Jason Leffler. 34th in points, 619 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 12th – Martinsville. Laps Led: None.
Car owner Joe Gibbs has Fed Ex’d more cars back to the junkyard then he’s done in the past three seasons—- combined. Unfortunately, Leffler’s a big reason for that. He’s snuck into the Top 35 in points with the new team, but how he did it is beyond comprehension. Daytona: wreck. California: engine. Bristol: wreck. Texas: wreck, two days after it was reported that Leffler was in danger of being replaced by Ward Burton. Others have been quick to point out that Jason has a multi-year contract, and Gibbs has never fired anyone in the middle of their contract in 13 years as a car owner. But big Joe is busy running the Redskins, there’s a first time for everything, and Fed Ex surely doesn’t like spending the most money to run 35th every week. So, while there will be some patience, Leffler better pick it up; and quickly. Grade: D.
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