Now that the Pepsi 400 is in the record books, the 2007 Nextel Cup Series officially enters the second half of its racing season. While that means much welcomed visits to familiar tracks for this year’s rookie class, there’s still one major obstacle they have yet to endure before moving forward – Professor Lumbis’s dreaded midterm grades.
OK, so maybe my evaluation isn’t exactly on the top of their list of concerns. However, it would not be a bad idea for each of these drivers to analyze the first half of their season, learning whatever lessons they can to help make the remaining months as successful as humanly possible.
No. 00 – David Reutimann
2007 Basic Stats: 12 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 6 DNQs
Average Finish: 32.4
Best Finish: 15th (Michigan, June)
Review: All you need to know is since the Easter Break, Reutimann has improved his average finishing position by a meager 4.1. When your average is down in the 30s to begin with, that’s hardly impressive. Even though this team and manufacturer, in addition to the driver, are new to Nextel Cup, they’ve undergone struggles far greater than the average new team on the circuit.
There are a few bright spots in what has been an otherwise dismal season, though. Reutimann brought home his best finish just a few weeks ago at Michigan, giving both himself and Michael Waltrip Racing some hope for the second half. However, Reutimann’s best run is likely the one he never got to finish; at Talladega, the Florida native was running in the top five with just a handful of laps to go when the engine expired. After several early DNQs, the No. 00 team seems to have qualifying figured out, mastering Fridays better than even his veteran teammates.
The Future: The goal for the rest of the season needs to be improving on Sunday for this team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them turn out a top 10 or two by the time the checkered flag flies at Homestead.
Midterm Grade: C
No. 01 – Regan Smith
2007 Basic Stats: 5 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, o top 10s, o DNQs
Average Finish: 27.4
Best Finish: 24th (Talladega, April)
Review: Asked only to run a portion of the Nextel Cup schedule, Smith has had less time to develop than his rookie counterparts, and, therefore, should not be held to the same expectations at this point in the season. However, given the advice of his Ginn Racing mentor, 35-time Nextel Cup winner Mark Martin, I would have expected Smith have improved his best finish by more than one position since my last progress report (25th at Bristol). The challenges will become increasingly difficult in the second half of 2007, as Bobby Ginn was recently forced to suspend Smith’s No. 4 Busch team, meaning even less valuable seat time for the young driver looking to move up.
The Future: Smith’s goal should simply be to take one start at a time each night, improving on the finishing position the more he gets comfortable.
Midterm Grade: C
No. 6 – David Ragan
2007 Basic Stats: 18 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 0 DNQs
Average Finish: 23.9
Best Finish: Fifth (Daytona, February)
Review: Judging Ragan’s 2007 season as a success or a failure thus far depends on whether your glass is half empty of half full. For those pessimists whose glasses are starting to run dry, Ragan’s season has shown very little improvement since the first week in April. In fact, I’ve barely had to change the statistics, as both the number of top fives and top 10s, as well as the best finish, have not improved amidst a plethora of poor performances. On the other hand, optimists whose glasses are only in need of topping off see the No. 6 team as building momentum for the second half, coming off a 12th-place finish at the Pepsi 400. This soft spoken kid from Georgia also leads his rookie class with eight highest-placing rookie finishes and remains within striking distance of Juan Pablo Montoya at the top of the ROTY standings.
The Future: For the rest of 2007, Ragan needs to ride the momentum that both he and Roush Fenway have been building over the past month. This team needs to build consistency and bring home top 10s as they revisit familiar venues. It’s time to step it up over in the No. 6 camp, and I think this driver will both answer and heed that call.
Midterm Grade: B
No. 15 – Paul Menard
2007 Basic Stats: 12 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, o top 10s, 6 DNQs
Average Finish: 26.1
Best Finish: 12th (Michigan, June)
Review: One step forward, two steps back seems to be the best way to describe Menard’s season to date. It seems like every time the No. 15 team starts gathering momentum, the Top-35 rule comes back to bite them, leaving the team suddenly halted with a DNQ, or two, or three. The braintrusts at DEI hoped to change this pattern by making a switch atop the pit box, replacing Tony Eury Sr. with Dave Charpentier. The move appeared to pay off at first, with Menard bringing home a season best 12th-place finish just two weeks after the change. However, the team reverted back to its old ways the very next week when they missed the show at Sonoma. Despite those inconsistencies, the third DEI team remains only 259 markers out of the much sought after 35th position in owner points.
The Future: For the last 18 races of the season, Menard needs to follow the footsteps of fellow Wisconsin driver Matt Kenseth and build the consistency needed to earn his team a guaranteed spot for the weekly show. Should he achieve this goal, he could very well become the solid teammate needed to compliment Junior… Martin Truex Jr. that is.
Midterm Grade: C+
No. 42 – Juan Pablo Montoya
2007 Basic Stats: 18 starts, 1 win, 2 top fives, 3 top 10s, 0 DNQs
Average Finish: 26.1
Best Finish: 12th (Michigan, June)
Review: Watching Montoya battle Jamie McMurray hard enough to beat him, yet remain smooth enough to conserve just enough fuel to finish during the final laps of the Sonoma race was one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen in Nextel Cup, especially by a rookie. Unfortunately, “smooth” is usually not the ideal adjective for describing the open-wheel star’s driving style. Montoya is perhaps better known for his altercations with fellow drivers than his breakthrough win at the California road course. Anyone who disagrees should ask Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Tony Raines, who have all felt the wrath of the No. 42 car. (Just what does this guy have against guys named Tony anyway? I’m a little offended). A telling sign is that despite his win, the Colombian’s average finish has actually dropped since the one-sixth mark of the season.
The Future: Montoya’s performance in his win shows that he has the potential to rewrite the record books if he can turn his aggression into positive energy. That needs to be the goal for Texaco Havoline driver for Chicago and beyond.
Midterm Grade: A-
No. 84 – AJ Allmendinger
2007 Basic Stats: 8 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 10 DNQs
Average Finish: 35.0
Best Finish: 31st (Lowe’s, May and Michigan, June)
Review: It’s only the halfway point of the season, but Allmendinger and Team Red Bull must have felt like they’ve been through three separate and distinct ones. The first involved making only two of the first nine races to start 2007; the team lacked both morale and motivation back then, so I wasn’t too concerned with the lack of results. The second season involved qualifying for six consecutive events like they’ve been doing this NASCAR thing for years, the peak of what has been, at times, a very difficult year. The third and current season has the No. 84 team once again searching for answers; the last race they made was back at Michigan… three weeks ago. Well, look up the definition of momentum or the lack thereof in the dictionary and the smiling California kid’s picture will be right next to it.
In his inaugural season, this former Champ Car winner has experienced the jaw-breaking bumps of Darlington, a failed fuel-mileage gamble at Pocono and having the Car of Tomorrow of Jeff Gordon land on his hood at Charlotte. Welcome to Nextel Cup Mr. Allmendinger! I still think this driver has great potential, which has been hindered by a learning curve the size of Paris Hilton’s ego. A few weeks ago, I would’ve said the goal for this team is to improve on race-day performances and finishes. Given the past three DNQs, its time to back to return to the basics and concentrate on simply making the show for the foreseeable future.
Midterm Grade: C-
Professor Lumbis is slightly disappointed in the performance of the 2007 rookie class thus far. Since the last progress report following the Martinsville race, this group as a whole has only earned one additional top five and two more top 10s, all coming from Montoya. I will admit that I graded on a bit of a curve given that this year’s rookie crop has dealt with some bigger challenges than many of their predecessors faced. This includes dealing the Top-35 qualifying rule with a record number of competitive teams than ever before entering each race and lofty expectations as most of these drivers entered the season with outstanding backgrounds, top-level teams or both. That being said, I expect a multitude of breakout performances by the newbies for the rest of this season, especially as they return to many of these tracks for the second time. Anything less will be unacceptable and will show in Prof. Lumbis’s final grades this November.
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