Did You Notice?… We’re a third of the way through NASCAR’s season? Next weekend, at Dover marks the halfway point of the regular season and so it seems as good a time as any to run through some report cards to date for the major teams. (Next week, I’ll go through the underdogs outside the top 25).
Jimmie Johnson: Two wins, including the prestigious Daytona 500, the points lead for ten of 12 weeks and a million-dollar bonus for taking the All-Star Race. What more do you want? Considering the No. 48 is already on cruise control, this early that means trouble for their top competitors entering the Chase. Grade: A+.
Kasey Kahne: Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, it’s not Bristol’s win but three second-place finishes on intermediates that define his season. Fifth in points, it’s clear this driver can be a contender on the “cookie cutters” and a pleasant surprise at short tracks like Bristol (his 2013 win). What’s not is whether, come crunch time, he’ll ever be able to rise above the No. 48 on the depth chart. Grade: A.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: The stats on paper tell you Junior’s having a solid year, on pace to have more top 10s (21) than he did a season ago. But just 48 laps led, 47 of them in one race (Phoenix, where track position was paramount) tell a bit of a different side story, one of a team still searching for some Victory Lane-type rhythm. Earnhardt’s shopmate has Gen-6 chassis that run rampant over the competition and the best the No. 88 can do is play the consistency game? With seven straight runs outside the top 5, plus an engine failure at Charlotte, NASCAR’s Most Popular Enigma remains too close for comfort with the postseason bubble. Grade: B+.
Jeff Gordon: If Gordon didn’t have bad luck, he’d have none at all; three DNFs are more than the rest of Hendrick Motorsports combined. Showing speed at all types of tracks on the schedule, you get the sense the No. 24 team is in far less trouble when it comes to making the postseason than a year ago. As long as the parts and pieces cooperate… Grade: B.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Matt Kenseth: Sometimes, it’s the quiet ones who do the most damage when you tick them off. Clearly on a mission to impress at Joe Gibbs Racing, after being unceremoniously dumped by Roush, the driver leads the series in laps led (893), has equaled his win total from a year ago and snagged two poles. On top of it all, there’s been an engine penalty virtually negated, an ability to hang with Johnson at Martinsville, of all places, and this aura of excellence we haven’t seen since Robbie Reiser was giving orders on top of the pit box. Guess 41 is the new 21 after all. Grade: A+.
Kyle Busch: Anyone remember the game show Press Your Luck? Seems like every time Busch races, he’s landing on Big Bucks + a spin…or the dreaded whammy. (Except in the Nationwide Series, where at this point they don’t bother with the spins and just award him the race trophy before it starts). The good is that every time out, on the Cup side it seems like the No. 18 car can win the race. The bad is that it only takes so many DNF whammies to knock you out of the game… or bring Busch’s kryptonite, those temper tantrums back into play. In his defense, when a nylon rope falls from the sky to cut your car… how would you feel? Grade: B+.
Denny Hamlin: With an average finish of 3.0, following his return from an L1 compression fracture this veteran is making a clear statement the Chase is still on his radar screen. But I fear his year, when all is said and done, will forever be defined by Turn 4, this March at Fontana. Grade: INC.
Brad Keselowski: Literally has had everything thrown at him but the kitchen sink, from a “reprimand” by NASCAR following a racy USA Today interview this February, to wrecks not of his making, to pit road penalties, to crew suspensions. Team Spunky, who won the title their own way has been reduced to Team Survival for these first three months. To their credit, they’ve fought hard, but that’s still left them 2-3 steps behind where they need to be. The real test will come this summer, once the dust settles and the No. 2 finally has some solid racetracks swing back their way. Grade: B.
Joey Logano: One thing we know for sure now: Sliced Bread will do what it takes to stand up for himself. You wonder, though, in hindsight, whether the whole spat with Denny Hamlin busted momentum in what otherwise would have been a Chase debut year. The 25-point penalty clearly doesn’t help, either but you get the sense things could have been far different here with a little extra dose of maturity. Grade: B-.
Richard Childress Racing
Paul Menard: People knock this guy for his lack of running up front, and there’s some truth to that. Since his gargantuan Indy upset, in 2011, Menard has just one top-5 finish in the Cup Series – and none this season. Still, heading to Dover he’s got something Tony Stewart, Gordon, and Logano would love to have – a Chase bid as of now – and that consistent 10th-to-15th-place performance, week in and week out has as good a chance as any to sneak through this year with so many veterans suffering through bad breaks. Grade: B.
Jeff Burton: The year’s biggest disappointment, for me. I really expected Luke Lambert, one of the top head wrenches in the business, to reestablish the chemistry he had with Burton back in late 2011. Instead, his driver’s looking old, the equipment’s looking sluggish, and a Chase bid is looking borderline laughable. Grade: C-.
Kevin Harvick: This “lame duck” still knows how to take advantage when the cards fall his way. He’s earned pocket aces twice in the first 12 events, but you still have to play the hand out and the No. 29 executed when needed. Their reward, for certain will be a postseason bid when their performance outside of those events would suggest otherwise. Grade: B.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Clint Bowyer: Has led all but one of his laps this season at Richmond, so it’s not like the No. 15 is running up front. At the same time, Bowyer – fourth in points – is running close enough for a guy who didn’t heat up last season until early summer. The question is how much speed they’re hiding, because Gibbs and Hendrick at this point seem a step above the fray. Grade: B+.
Mark Martin: At 54 years old, it’s an awful thing to say but the veteran appears to be feeling his age. Without a top-5 finish since Daytona, he struggled filling in for Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, has been the trigger for a number of on-track incidents and already announced he’s a “lame duck,” diminishing his status at MWR. Even the great Harry Gant hung it up at this time in his life; will Martin be soon to follow? Grade: C-.
Martin Truex, Jr.: Six races into 2013, without a top-5 finish and sitting 25th in Sprint Cup points, it would have been easy to write the NAPA Toyota team off. I certainly did. But since then, one of NASCAR’s quietest talents has shown a new knack for fending off adversity, pulling together six straight runs of no worse than 17th while leading nearly 200 laps. Now up to ninth in points, he’s the “wild card” in a battle for Chase position I expect to go right down to the wire. Grade: A-.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Jamie McMurray: It only took three years, but McMurray is back knocking on the door of running up front once again. In fact, with three top-10 finishes, he’s already eclipsed the season total from 2012. Being threatened with a pink slip can work wonders these days, right? It’s going to be a very tough decision for Ganassi, going forward, if they can’t find sponsorship for Kyle Larson; Montoya has his heart, but McMurray’s making him use his head. Grade: B-.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Yes, Montoya had a win virtually stolen from under his nose with a late caution at Richmond. He’s led more laps this season than Harvick and Greg Biffle combined. Still, I get the sense that stock cars are never going to quite work out for him. If not now… when? We’re in year seven of this experiment, and at this point you’ve got to think Mr. Ganassi’s loyalty, with the Colombian sitting 23rd in points, is being severely tested. Still way too many bad situations created here for my taste. Grade: C.
Roush Fenway Racing
Carl Edwards: The Phoenix win provided the boost of morale this superstar so desperately needed. Jimmy Fennig on top of the pit box provides both consistency and trust. Now, he needs Ford to go back to the drawing board and find some speed. The Chase bid has already been secured; the summer will be all about fine-tuning. Expect Cousin Carl to dip under the radar, with the occasional bid for a win here and there but don’t forget about him. You’ll regret it later. Grade: B+.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: Running a rather clean rookie campaign, no matter what Mr. Stewart has to say about his blocking techniques post-Charlotte. Could have won Kansas if the cautions fell the right way; other than that, he’s been just another freshman learning the ropes. As long as the car keeps coming back in one piece, or close to it, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for this long-term prospect. Grade: B.
Greg Biffle: Gave his best friend Kenseth lightning in a bottle, as a going away gift or so it seems. The problem is, poor Biff didn’t save any of that stuff for himself. With no laps led outside of Phoenix, an average finish of 27.0 the past five weeks and Fords a step behind the curve, you get the sense this season could have already slipped away. Grade: C+.
Ryan Newman: With a third of the sponsorship of his teammates, fighting with equipment behind the times Newman has somehow kept his head above water. The effort is there, and with six top-10 finishes he’s squeezed the most out of his situation. All you can do is put yourself in position; the summer stretch will likely make or break his career at SHR. Grade: B-.
Tony Stewart: The year’s big surprise disappointment. I was one of a few who expected Burton to succeed; in contrast, the world marked down Smoke as a Chase automatic, just two years removed from a title. What’s to blame for just two top-10 finishes, leaving him a distant 20th in points? Eldora distractions, Ms. Patrick, the Gen-6, Steve Addington, and perhaps a little bit of temper gone overboard. Ouch. After writing that sentence, I wonder if that’s too many things to correct in just 14-15 weeks. Grade: C-.
Danica Patrick: Daytona will obviously and forever be the highlight; unless, of course, you count her Jumbotron Richmond date appearance with boyfriend Stenhouse. Seriously…. could she have done more? Absolutely. Should we expect more? Absolutely not, considering the abysmal record in the Nationwide Series and the sharp learning curve expected. I’d look for slight improvement, an occasional top-20 finish outside the plate races but not much more as we hit the Dog Days of summer. Grade: D+.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Aric Almirola: One of the biggest, unexpected surprises to 2013 with a run of four straight top-10 finishes to wriggle his way into Chase contention. Will he make it? Nah; he’ll fade over the course of the summer. However, in a sport that needs new faces to shine you at least get the impression a win is possible at a place like, say, Michigan if all the chips fall his way. Shout-out to Todd Parrott, Dale Jarrett’s former championship crew chief who has taken this season to remind the world he still exists. Grade: B.
Marcos Ambrose: Virtually invisible for the first three months of the season, again. Bound to pop up when we head to the road courses, but me thinks the Australian superstar needs a little more success if we’re not going to lose him to Down Under come 2014. Grade: C-.
Furniture Row Racing
Kurt Busch: Another one of those drivers who has run far better than the finishes show. The big difference, though this year is Busch has persevered through the bad luck rather than used it to bash everyone around him. That’s important, considering the job opportunities open next season and a longshot to make the Chase if this team could ever get the breaks to fall their way. If the No. 78 team isn’t in Victory Lane by the next time we do these things, in August I’ll be shocked. Best bets: Sonoma, Michigan, Daytona in July and (believe it or not) Indianapolis. Grade: B+.
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