38 – Elliott Sadler. 8th in points, 263 behind Jimmie Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 4 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 2nd – Bristol. Laps Led: 36 in one race (14th overall).
It’s very common for drivers who suddenly have a “breakthrough” year to suddenly slide back down the points ladder the year after they emerge onto the NASCAR scene. But anyone who thought the 38 team and the term “one-year wonder” went together like peanut butter and jelly, just got a bunch of baloney burgers shoved down his throat. Other than growing out his hair, Sadler and his team are the same ol’ force they were last season, picking up right where they left off from a Top 10 points finish and a surprise spot in the Chase. Sure, they need to run up front more, as Bristol is the only race where the team has led laps this season. They also missed out on a chance for a major momentum boost at Texas, where Sadler was the defending champ, struggling all day before bowing out with handling issues. But, bottom line, the consistency is there; week in, week out, Sadler is now a shoo-in for the Top 10 every race if he doesn’t have a problem. Grade: B+.
40 – Sterling Marlin. 6th in points, 259 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 3 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 5th – Texas. Laps Led: 10 laps in three races (Tied for 17th overall).
Anyone who’s surprised at the recent announcement Sterling won’t be in this ride for 2006, you’ve got to be kidding me. Chip Ganassi’s got two young drivers waiting in the wings in David Stremme and Reed Sorenson, and no sponsor for a fourth Cup team; meanwhile, Mears has improved enough to keep his job in the 41. I actually think this is the best thing that could have happened for Sterling, because he knows he has to fight for a ride for 2006 from now, and is driving like a man that wants to keep racing in the Cup series. While pit strategy put him up front at the end of the past two races, the car has been the strongest of the Ganassi bunch in every race this season, and it seems the chemistry between Marlin and new crew chief Scott Boyer is strong. Some forget this team was dominating the series just three years ago at this time, and while it’s taken awhile, Marlin has positioned himself for a run at that elusive title once again. Grade: B+.
41 – Casey Mears. 17th in points, 397 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 2 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 4th – Texas. Laps Led: 15th in one race (16th overall).
It’s hard to figure Mears out. This time last year, he was the most improved driver in the Cup series, but he let a strong 2004 start fade away into a whimper of a finish by the end of the season. This year, it took awhile to get going, with a 7th at Las Vegas tempered by struggles at the short tracks. Mears simply has to figure out how to get around tracks that are a mile or less in order to be considered as a driver ready to take it to the next level. But when the kid puts it all together, he shows signs of being great, and runs like Texas are why Ganassi has had the patience to keep him developing in the 41 car. The problem is, other than Charlotte there really aren’t a whole lot of tracks that play to Casey’s strengths in the next segment. And he’s already 17th in the points. Grade: C+.
42 – Jamie McMurray. 14th in points, 318 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 2nd – Texas. Laps Led: None.
I’m a little surprised here. McMurray was on fire to end the season last year; if Jamie had made the Chase, he would have given Jimmie Johnson a run at the title. This team was hoping to take that momentum and turn it into a strong start for 2005, but the new Dodge Charger bodies have thrown them for a loop. Not only that, but the inconsistency early on in the season that put this team out of the Chase has shown up again. McMurray has again been involved in wrecks twice, in addition to having a tire problem at Martinsville when he was already running poorly. If this team can just get over the hump and get to Victory Lane, I think the afterburners will turn on and McMurray will be a rocket ship at every track we go to. But he always seems to be coming up just short, like at Texas, and every race gone by brings us closer to a career-changing decision about that 2 car in 2006. Will he go or will he stay? 14th in points, with no wins in two years, makes Ganassi a tough sell. Grade: B-.
43 – Jeff Green. 32nd in points, 555 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 16th – Daytona. Laps Led: 2 in two races (Tied for 27th overall).
All the time, people ask me how John Andretti could have been let go for the Pettys in favor of Jeff Green. And all the time, I keep telling people that Jeff Green is a good driver, and if Petty just has the patience to give Green time to mesh with the team, he can put the Petty cars up front. But I have to admit that Green’s in a situation where people are finally running out of patience. In his third year with the team, a 16th-place finish at Daytona should have been what they needed to kick themselves into high gear; instead, they continue to struggle. Green does continue to have some strong qualifying runs, with two Top 15 starts on the short tracks. But on raceday, the car just drops to the back, constantly finishing between 20th and 30th. That in itself is bad enough, but when Kyle’s running as good as he is, Jeff’s got to be feeling a little heat. Grade: D+.
45 – Kyle Petty. 19th in points, 416 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 8th – Bristol. Laps Led: 6 in four races (Tied for 23rd overall).
The pleasant surprise of the Cup season. After 2004, Kyle made a bunch of smart decisions about this team that are paying huge dividends. Investing in Evernham engines has finally given the team the horsepower they need to succeed. Hiring veteran Paul Andrews, used to getting the most out of underdog teams, was the best hire the team has made since Robin Pemberton a few years back. And, most importantly, the team seems to have gotten a hold of the Charger and its handling characteristics quicker than any of the other Dodge teams. That having been said, Kyle and company still have a long way to go. Some of the good finishes this year have been based on Lucky Dog breaks due to 20 yellows a race, and Kyle driving conservative, staying out of the wrecks and then turning on the afterburners in the last 50 laps. But, no doubt, this team has made strides, and the car has improved handling-wise from start to finish at every race this year. Can they keep the momentum going? Grade: B+.
48 – Jimmie Johnson. Leads the points. 1 win, 5 Top 5s, 7 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 1st – Las Vegas. Laps Led: 271 in five races (3rd overall).
What can you say here? It’s hard to criticize any aspect of Johnson’s season, other than the “Fendergate” at Las Vegas that cost them 25 points. The team hasn’t been as hot as winning four out of five races at the end of last year, but it’s been pretty close. In addition, they’ve had some rough starts during several races, most recently Martinsville and Texas, and been able to bounce back, make the handling of the car better, and end up in the Top 10 when it’s all said and done at the end of the day. That’s the mark of a Championship team. In this day and age, a streak of 13 Top 10 finishes is pretty much unheard of, and Johnson shows no signs of slowing down. Looking ahead, Charlotte’s a win if the car runs half as well as it’s ran there the past few years, and the 48 could easily end up in victory lane at Dover, Richmond, or Talladega. Note to Championship contenders: you’d best be in the Top 10 at the end of race 26. Because at this rate, we’ll be lucky if SECOND place is within 400 points of the leader, let alone the rest of the Top 10. Grade: A+.
49 – Ken Schrader. 31st in points, 545 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 14th – California. Laps Led: 3 in one race (26th overall).
Schrader’s a great driver and a wonderful ambassador for the sport. That said, in my view his time with BAM Racing is quickly coming to a close. There was definitely a time where Schrader was integral to helping this team build and grow, having some impressive runs with an unsponsored team in 2003, allowing them to acquire a sponsor for the next three years after that. But the team and Schrader appear to have reached their peak together some time ago. Schrader has struggled mightily since the start of the year, with only one Top 20 finish in seven races. The most troubling sign is his short-track finishes; once the strong point of BAM, Schrader was never a factor at Bristol or Martinsville, and ended up crashing at Bristol. Schrader has openly said that he wants to retire from the Cup series following the 2006 season. He may very well be forced to retire long before that. Grade: D.
66 – Hermie Sadler. 40th in points, 883 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 29th – Texas. Laps Led: None.
Yuck. 2005 appeared to hold such promise for the older Sadler brother, but it’s turned out to be a nightmare instead. With a full-season sponsor for the first time ever, moving into Travis Carter’s shop, and the hiring of one of the most underrated crew chiefs in the business (James Ince), Sadler’s team appeared like it was ready to surprise as a relatively decent single-car team. I was wrong. Speedweeks was a disaster; Sadler was never up to speed and got in a wreck in the Gatorade Duel less than 10 laps into the race. At California, the team DNQ’d again, and just like that, super crew chief Ince was gone. The rest of the season so far has been more about just making the field with qualifying setup, which as we’ve seen will not get it done on raceday. Sadler’s been so far off with race setup I’ve yet to see him pass a car on the track. The unfortunate thing is there’s almost no chance of climbing back into the Top 35 in points, so Sadler has become a victim of the new qualifying system. He’ll make the field, just don’t look for him to do any damage. Grade: F.
77 – Travis Kvapil. 29th in points, 517 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 7th – Bristol. Laps Led: 9 in one race (19th overall).
Based on the way the 77 ended last year with Brendan Gaughan, all Kvapil would need to do is finish a race with this team and it would have been an improvement. But not only has Kvapil been finishing races, he’s been running relatively well. He survived Bristol for a Top 10, and even led Las Vegas under green-flag conditions for awhile before fading to 26th. There have been some rough spots; he didn’t complete a single lap at Atlanta, and lost an engine at Martinsville with just a handful of laps left. But Kvapil has a big thing going for him, and that’s the ability to get along with Rusty and share information. For the first time in a long time, two Penske teams are working together, something the 77 needed from the beginning in order to get up to snuff with the other two cars. Now that the short tracks are over, expect more mid-pack finishes, but Travis appears to be headed in the right direction. Grade: C+.
88 – Dale Jarrett. 10th in points, 289 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 5th – Bristol. Laps Led: 1 in one race (Tied for 33rd overall).
I may question why the heck Tony Stewart is as high in points as he is with the way his season has gone, but Dale Jarrett is a very close second in that category. The laid-back North Carolinian has pretty much admitted that even he doesn’t know how his team is in the Top 10 in points. It’s not that the car’s been bad; it just hasn’t been great. What Jarrett’s done, it seems, is keep it out of trouble, with five Top 15 finishes in seven races to his credit. But my no means has the car been a contender up front at any track so far. His one Top 5 was a pit strategy call, and the team continues to lag behind the performances of teammate Elliott Sadler. One would think Hmiel’s “too old” comment at Bristol will fire Jarrett up; but if he’s going to gain any momentum from that confrontation, he better do it soon. Grade: B-.
97 – Kurt Busch. 4th in points, 245 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 3 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 2nd – Daytona. Laps Led: 86 in four races (9th overall).
The reigning champion, Busch has been putting together a relatively decent title defense. He hasn’t won yet, but he’s been close, nearly stealing the Daytona 500 at a track where Ford has struggled since Dale Jarrett’s victory there in 2000. The luck that shined on him during the Chase has turned away a time or two, as Busch had consecutive finishes out of the Top 30 at both Atlanta and Bristol. He’s also been involved in three hard wrecks in a row at Bristol, Martinsville, and the Texas IROC race, which have taken a bit of a toll on his body. But for a defending champion, the most important part of the following year is to maintain your momentum in the middle of all the increased obligations and time commitments you have. At this point, it’s safe to say Kurt’s done that. Grade: A-.
99 – Carl Edwards. 13th in points, 309 behind Johnson. 1 win, 2 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 1st – Atlanta. Laps Led: 42 in two races (13th overall).
Everybody knew Edwards was good. No one thought he’d succeed this quickly at the Cup level. Edwards’ thrilling win over Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta brought the crowd to its feet, and the charming, down-to-earth personality has made Carl the new young superstar of the circuit. All of a sudden, people were talking up Carl as a title contender; the problem is, the team hasn’t really capitalized on the momentum the way they should. Edwards has followed up the win with three wrecks in a row at Bristol, Martinsville, and Texas, reminding us all that he is a rookie, still learning the ins and outs of these tracks in a Cup car. Making the Chase, to me, is still asking too much out of this kid. But Edwards appears to be having the time of his life, constantly wearing a smile on his face and reminding everyone how lucky he is. Hopefully, that won’t wear off. Grade: B+.
01 – Joe Nemechek. 26th in points, 483 behind Johnson. 0 wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 10th – Martinsville. Laps Led: 65 in two races (12th overall).
Behind Bobby Labonte, Nemechek has got to qualify as one of the biggest disappointments of the year to date. A darkhorse pick for the Chase, very early on it appeared the 01 team would pick up right where it left off at the end of last year, riding momentum from a surprising win at Kansas. The car was stout at Daytona and finished a strong 13th at the 500; Joe followed that up by taking control of the race at California. But with less then 100 laps to go, Nemechek’s engine went kaput, taking a near-certain Top 3 finish away. It seems the team has never recovered; Nemechek hasn’t led a lap since, and the car is not even close to contending, apart from a little 10th-place run at Martinsville. Nemechek’s not fallen completely out of touch like Labonte, but he can’t waste any more time picking up the pace; his chances for the Chases are already approaching zero. Grade: C-.
07 – Dave Blaney. 22nd in points, 435 behind Johnson. 0 win, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10.
Best Finish: 8th – Atlanta. Laps Led: 8 laps in two races (Tied for 20th overall).
If all 36 races were run at high-banked, 1.5 mile tracks, Dave Blaney would be your Nextel Cup champion every single time. His car has again been strongest at tracks like Atlanta and Texas; Texas was the only place where Blaney pulled off the finish though, finishing a solid 8th. The rest of the season has seen its share of ups and downs. Blaney wrecked in both qualifying and the race at California, finishing dead last and tearing up two race cars. He’s had solid Top 15s at Daytona and Las Vegas, while having a continual tire problem at Martinsville that had him pitting for fresh rubber every 15 laps or so. Still, Blaney is a refreshing change for Childress from the temperamental Robby Gordon, and he seems to be working well with teammates Jeff Burton and Harvick. Getting all three drivers on the same page will be enough for Childress in terms of results. At least, for now. Grade: C+.
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