The 2009 Sprint Cup season rolls into April, and while nothing is carved in the sand, let alone stone, things are starting to become a little clearer for several teams. While some are living up to preseason expectations, others are struggling to live up to them. I’m going to take a closer look at the seasons of five of our preseason favorites – and see where they shake down six races into the year.
Carl Edwards was a driver that several of our staff picked to win the Cup, and with good reason – he led all drivers with nine wins in 2008. By this time last year, Edwards had two wins and three top 10s. He’s struggled a little this year in comparison, with two top 10s, including a best finish of third at Atlanta. His other four finishes have been 14th or worse. He’s led laps at three tracks but has not qualified higher than 16th on speed (the field was set by points at Martinsville). I thought that this would be the team that the test ban hurt the least, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s taking more of a toll on them than I anticipated. While the No. 99 team has gotten off to a relatively slow start, they are by no means falling behind. Edwards is eighth in points and is heading into a stretch of races where last year he won at Texas before going on a tear that saw him finish outside the top 10 just once between Texas in the spring and Sonoma in June. The long term outlook for this team is good, but they will have to be great to wrench the title away from the competition.
Kyle Busch on the other hand has started 2009 at full speed, winning two points races (Las Vegas and Bristol) as well as a qualifying race at Daytona, and posting a top five at California to boot, leaving Busch sixth in points early on. That’s actually a little better than his first six races last year, when he had the same number of top fives but only one win. His team hasn’t seemed to do well when they experiment, as the Joe Gibbs Racing set did with their brake package at Martinsville, and that could potentially hurt them without the ability to test. If issues follow innovation for more than a race or two, it will be a problem. Busch’s other question mark is his maturity and his ability to perform under the immense pressure of the Chase come September. The team had a rather spectacular fold in 2008, and if Busch and his team can’t stay out of the vicious cycle of blame and anger, they don’t stand much of a chance against the cooler heads of Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. Don’t get me wrong, this team is scary good and isn’t going anywhere, but they have yet to distinguish themselves in Chase competition. The hot start is great, but it isn’t a sure thing.
Speaking of Johnson, the three-time champion hasn’t made much noise this spring, finally breaking into the win column at Martinsville, but his start is, by the numbers, better that either Edwards or Busch – he’s the only one of the three with four top-10 finishes – twice as many as this time a year ago, and he’s led more than 10 laps at every track so far with the exception of Daytona. The trick for Johnson and Company will be to avoid the summer slump that traditionally plagues the team when the temperatures get hot, especially since their traditional fix was to go out and test and test again until they got it right. That will not be an option this year, so they are under the gun to be consistently right every week. Johnson is better than anyone at playing the Chase game, though, so if the team stays equal in equipment, he’ll contend to bring home a fourth straight Cup – something that’s never been done before. In that regard, odds and the law of averages are against Johnson, but this is a driver and team who take great pride in proving people wrong. This team is the best in NASCAR until someone else proves otherwise.
Mark Martin was a sentimental favorite, returning to full-time competition after two years of limited schedules, but on paper he was a favorite for a top points finish. Has that changed? Well, unfortunately, yes. Martin has two top-10 finishes so far, but no top fives; three of his other four finishes are 31st or worse, and the veteran sits 27th in points. Even with a 200-point pad on 35th place, that’s still a position where the team has to look over their shoulder as well as ahead, and that can take a real toll. The upside is that the No. 5 team has had freakishly terrible luck, with their performance more attributable to rare parts failures and accidents. It’s not Martin’s driving, and it’s not the team – if either were the case, the situation would be dire. It isn’t that bad yet, and there is a long way to go, but I haven’t seen anything that tells me this team is championship caliber, and six races in, that’s worrisome. They still have a shot, but it’s rapidly becoming a long one.
Joey Logano and Scott Speed, the two rookie sensations, are having a spring that is anything but sensational. Not that that’s a terrible thing for two very raw rookie drivers, but it is in stark contrast to the hype they both saw before the season started. Logano has just one top 20 finish – a 13th place at Las Vegas – and he’s tested the limits of his car/wall relationship on several occasions. His average finish is 30.3, which is three spots better than Speed’s 33.2, but not what many prognosticators had in mind. Speed’s best finish also came at Las Vegas, where he posted at 21st. Both struggle to stay in the Top 35 in owner points – Logano’s No. 20 is 34th, and Speed’s No. 82 is on the outside looking in in 38th. For a veteran, the start would be abysmally bad, but these are rookies, and Logano, with just three Cup starts before this year, was the more seasoned stock car driver of the two. Speed used strategy to lead at Martinsville, and both are learning their boundaries and their cars’ limits. There’s nothing wrong with that, or with their seasons. But if the numbers don’t improve by fall, it will lead to some serious conjecture about their readiness for NASCAR’s top series.
Sure, April is way too early to make any real judgment about the season. However, the outlines are beginning to come into focus for some of the teams that we played Nostradamus with in February. For three of them, it looks to be status quo-and it’s s status quo of greatness. For one it will take a valiant effort to overcome mediocrity, but the driver still has the drive to do it if he can avoid the wrath of the Luck Fairy. For the last two, mediocrity would be acceptable, though neither one will accept it with grace. But the beauty of it all is, the season is still young. Anything could happen.