66 drivers have started their engines at Sprint Cup level this season. From the high banks of Daytona to the high banks of Thunder Valley the Sprint Cup season has been in part thrilling, part farcical but for the most part, despite all the flaws (yes, even the really obvious ones), still utterly compelling.
With 24 down and 12 to go, we’re exactly two-thirds of the way through the season and just two races from the start of the 2008 Chase. So for no better reason than a statistical milepost, it’s time to take a look at who’s leadings all the laps and who’s struggling to keep up with the back markers as I grade the pack after two trimesters.
Best Driver – Kyle Busch
Concrete Carl might have won two in a row, but I’m still giving this award to the dastardly pantomime villain from Las Vegas. His little temper tantrum at Bristol this past weekend was priceless and Edwards’s reaction even more so. Still, despite all the silliness, KB is still the driver to beat this year.
Honorable Mention – Edwards
He’s had a spectacular five-race run with three wins in the last four (Pocono, Michigan, Bristol) events, a second place at Indy and a lowest finish of ninth at the Glen. It’s hard to argue against his chances of winning the championship, but it likely will take more of the bump-and-run style moves we saw Saturday night if Cousin Carl is to secure his first Sprint Cup title.
Biggest Threat – Jimmie Johnson
How could this not be Jimmie J? We all know the stats… back-to-back defending champ, most Chase wins, but not even Chad Knaus would claim they’ve been the top of the pack this season. But the driver of the Lowe’s No. 48 Chevy knows how to get it done when the title is really on the line. Only a fool would rule him out at this stage.
Honorable Mention – Jeff Gordon
He’s been so bad and yet… and yet this might be the season when Gordon “steals” a fifth Cup crown. OK, he’s still far from locked into the Chase, but for all the problems he’s had this year, who’s to say he won’t put it all together in the final 10 races? Far stranger things have happened.
Best Ad – Vitamin Water (Edwards)
Here’s one category Edwards wins hands down. Yes, I know I mentioned the Vitamin Water “he’s calling for a koi change” commercial a few weeks back but for me, it’s easily the best spot of the last few months. The Karate Kid rules! The Aflac duck ad isn’t bad either.
Honorable Mention – Elliott Sadler Sunoco Promotion
As timely a promotion as you’re ever likely to get. Yes, it’s utterly inane to dress Sadler up in a fake wig and mustache – the majority of ad agency creative directors would reject the ad out of hand at concept stage – but there’s something deeply comedic about his performance. Good stuff from one of the nicest men in NASCAR. Great promotion, too.
Feel Good Story Award – Mark Martin to run the full season
And speaking of nice men in NASCAR, the Feel Good award has to go to Martin. It’s a testament to his fitness, durability and savvy that he’s running a full schedule at 50 years young. It would be, quite simply, one of the most unbelievable stories in NASCAR history if the old raisin man took the title in 2009.
Honorable Mention – Stewart-Haas Racing, for now…
Right now, it’s all sweetness and light and talk of the right people and full sponsorship. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I can’t wait to see what happens with Stewart-Haas Racing, who might just be the most compelling stories of next year.
Best Paint Scheme – The No. 28 Car
Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the ’80s, or maybe it’s because it just looked super cool, but that No. 28 Knight Rider paint scheme they raced this past weekend was awesome. Even when he hasn’t had paint, Travis Kvapil has had some classics: the white car with 11 million in big letters, the old-style Ford paint scheme at Darlington, the CHIPS (California Highway Patrol) cars at Sonoma. Hats off to the marketing and sponsorship folks at Yates Racing – they’ve been creative this year, that’s for sure.
Jeff Burton’s Olympic paint scheme was the most popular showcar anywhere in NASCAR this past couple of months. Dale Jr. was right when he talked about racing in the Olympics last week. It’s something the IOC (International Olympic Committee) should look at. We had BMX this year, after all. Racing for medals once every four years – how awesome would that be?
Best Command – Brendan Fraser (Michigan)
Brendan Fraser, the Grand Marshal at the Lifelock 400 at Michigan in July, delivered the finest “Gentlemen Start Your Engines” I’ve ever seen.
Best Race – Dodge Charger 500, Darlington
Well, It’s not been a banner spell of racing this summer, now has it? After race 12, I was still hyped up from ‘Dega when I graded the pack at the one-third mark, but with the benefit of some pure 20-20 hindsight, I’m upping the Darlington race to the number one spot (so far). It’s just a shame we’re not going there this weekend.
Worst Race – The Brickyard Fiasco
Welcome back ESPN! I nearly went to this race and I can only say thank the good Lord above that I didn’t end up making the trip. What an absolute horror show
Most Dramatic Moment – The Watkins Glen Crash
I was going to title this most dramatic moment “not involving Michael McDowell“… oh, wait. The Glen pile-up was a strange and brutal crash that came out of nowhere and caused complete carnage. The good thing is no driver was seriously hurt despite the severity of the incident – yet another reminder that there is one fine feature of the box on wheels.
Honorable Mention – Brian Vickers‘s Charlotte Tire Incident
How the tire that flew off Vickers’s No. 83 midway ’round a lap in the Coke 600 didn’t do more damage, I’ll never know. And kudos to the people watching from the RV next to where the tire landed, not a single one of them flinched. I get NASCAR has to check things out, but you can’t help but hope they gave the tire back to those fans after they’d finished checking it out. Yeah, right…
Biggest Disappointment not named Casey Mears or Jamie McMurray – Ryan Newman
Yes, fans of the No. 12, I know he won the biggest race of the year, but despite the inane “on the bubble” category he had on the ESPN ticker, the reality is his chances of making the Chase are non-existent. It’s been all downhill since the big win in Daytona.
Most Amusing Moment – The Nationwide Race in the rain in Montreal
Okay, this isn’t technically Sprint Cup but it was brilliant television. Chaos. Utter chaos. Cars spinning out under caution, the mad rush to install the wipers, the fools that chose to go without them, Edwards squeeging his front window and Ron Fellows winning for the fourth time in 13 NASCAR road race attempts.
Honorable Mentions – Speed Channel dropping the ball on the Tony Stewart press conference
Ooops. Such a shame for Speed, a network that produces a ton of good NASCAR television, to blows the live coverage of one of their biggest announcements of the year. Deeply amusing too, though, to be fair.
Best Frontstretch Column – What being a NASCAR fan used to be like
Matt McLaughlin’s walk down memory lane. It may never be the NASCAR I’ll know but I like the sound of it back in the day.
Best NASCAR Show – Trackside Live
Speed Channel, given its relative budget, really knows how to do NASCAR, and Trackside Live is perhaps its masterpiece. How they persuaded Dario Franchitti to play Guitar Hero with Sadler in the middle of the fans, I’ll never know. Franchitti was released that weekend… oops.
Honorable Mention – This Week in NASCAR
TWIN is a gem of the show. Chad Knaus – so earnest – tries to control everything. Michael Waltrip is an irascible rascal. He misses Schrader, so he makes up for it by rambling inanely for much of the hour. Required watching for me each week.
Most Amusing Broadcast “moment” – FOX saying goodbye for the season
Seriously chaps, seriously, you treated the broadcast like it was the last race in the history of NASCAR. We get you love it, but call the race first and cry all you want when the cameras click off.
Best Broadcast Moment – TNT’s Limited Commercial Interruption
To those who complain about TNT’s picture in picture, limited commercial interruption broadcast of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, all I can say is what are you smoking and can I have some? This is simply a must for NASCAR – no question – and could be the single most important off-track change the powers that be could make.