NASCAR’s longest and most grueling race, the Coca-Cola 600, represents a significant milestone in the 2009 season. It’s not quite the halfway point to the Chase (that comes the following week after Dover), but once the checkers fly late Sunday evening, we’re exactly one-third of the way through the 36-race schedule. With that in mind, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at how the Sprint Cup contenders (and pretenders) have performed thus far.

Grading The 2009 Sprint Cup Pack: Part One

NASCAR’s longest and most grueling race, the Coca-Cola 600, represents a significant milestone in the 2009 season. It’s not quite the halfway point to the Chase (that comes the following week after Dover), but once the checkers fly late Sunday evening, we’re exactly one-third of the way through the 36-race schedule.

With that in mind, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at how the Sprint Cup contenders (and pretenders) have performed thus far. As you might expect here at Frontstretch, we’re going to conduct a proper analysis — in two parts — starting today and concluding tomorrow. Today’s installment covers the best and worst of the nascent season; tomorrow, we will grade each team from an overall perspective to see how their cars stack up against the rest.

So, without any further ado, we’ll start with the No. 1 wheelman in 2009 (so far…)

Best Driver: Jeff Gordon
The four-time champ gets the nod in this category, in large part because of his relentless consistency. Gordon has the most top fives (six) and is tied for the most top 10s (eight), including a big win at Texas, a track at which he’s flat sucked in the past. He’ll still have to best the guy he shares a garage with at HMS for the title; but if he keeps this up, he’s more than capable of doing so.

Honorable Mention: Kyle Busch
Does anything else really need to be said about this kid? He just wants to win every freaking race, and unlike the vast majority of drivers who strap into the seats at each of the three top levels, he absolutely expects to win – again and again and again. “Points racing” is a term that, thankfully, doesn’t exist in Kyle’s vocab. Pity about those ridiculous sunglasses though…

Biggest Threat to Win the Title Not Named Jimmie Johnson: Mark Martin
Is this the year that Martin finally slays the second-place demons? Well, if he carries on like this, it might just be. Here’s hoping.

Honorable Mention: Tony Stewart
It’s been an unbelievable and unexpected start to the season for the sport’s newest owner/driver. Few thought he could make the Chase – myself included – and as my buddy Kurt Smith pointed out on Friday, he’s making more than a few of us so-called experts look pretty foolish. Stewart’s for real, no doubt about it.

Most Improved Driver: Kurt Busch
After years of repeated mediocrity and his younger sibling greedily gorging on all the best headlines (not to mention race win after race win) there were some whispers that maybe, just maybe, Kurt’s best days were gone for good. Not so, it seems, as Penske Racing and the Blue Deuce have bounced back and then some. One absolutely dominating win at Atlanta, where he led 234 of 330 laps, two more top fives and an additional three top 10s (with a worst finish of 23rd at Vegas) has catapulted Busch the Elder right up the standings. The Las Vegas native now sits in third place, just 55 points out of the lead and all but a lock to make the Chase field of 12. An impressive comeback, for sure, albeit for a guy who knows how to get it done at the Sprint Cup level.

Honorable Mention: David Reutimann
Okay, the Reut has now dropped out of the hallowed top 12, but few can deny his has been a tremendous start to the season. Three successive 20-something finishes have tempered some of the early optimism, but the Franchise is establishing himself as a bona fide Chase contender. Who would have definitively predicted that at the start of this year beyond the walls of MWR?

Biggest Disappointment Not Named Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Casey Mears
New ride, new team, same predictable “blah” results. Mears, despite his famous name, is going to run out of chances sooner rather than later if he keeps up this low level of performance. It’s a shame really, because you feel like he should succeed; but as with Jamie McMurray, you can’t help but wonder if it will ever happen.

Honorable Mention: David Ragan
Much was expected for the youngster from Unadilla, Georgia coming into 2009, especially with the looming contraction of teams at Roush Fenway Racing (from five to four at the end of the season). But just one top 10 — a sixth in the Daytona 500 — isn’t what the doctor ordered. Ragan, a preseason pick for the Chase, is looking like anything but an elite driver this year. Still, time is on his side and when all’s said and done, I’m figuring Ragan ends up with a pretty impressive career.

Driver Most Likely to Catch Swine Flu: Denny Hamlin
What does this guy have to do to win a race? Yes, no one disputes it’s damn hard to win a race at the Sprint Cup level, but Denny’s found more ways than most thought possible to lose a race that was his for the taking. Hamlin is a great driver, but does he have that “closer” mentality (if you’ll forgive the baseball reference) to really get it done when it counts?

Best Race: Martinsville
The venerable old paperclip rarely disappoints. Okay, this visit didn’t witness the last lap duel we’ve seen in the past, but there was a real relentlessness to this race that kept me hooked from lap one. After a vaguely disappointing race at Bristol (by Thunder Valley’s own high standards), Martinsville got the Cup Series back on track after a lackluster start.

Honorable Mention: Darlington
First change I would make if I took over as NASCAR’s head honcho: Restore a second date to the famed Lady in Black. Despite Johnson having nothing for the rejuvenated Martin in the closing laps, this was still a terrific race to watch. Simply put, NASCAR needs to race here twice once again. It’s only right and proper, and it’s infinitely preferable to more cookie-cutter blandness.

Worst Race: Fontana
With sincere apologies to loyal Frontstretch reader Kevin in SoCal, I’ve gotta go with Fontana for this one. On the bright side: it was better than the rain filled 24-hour debacle in 2008.

“Dishonorable” Mention: Daytona 500
A little harsh, perhaps, because rain was clearly in the forecast, but after a long winter break (and not even any testing to satiate my quest for NASCAR news), the 500 felt like a big ol’ letdown. I’m not debating the merits and demerits of NASCAR’s decision, and sure, Matt Kenseth’s a worthy winner, but that was still a massively disappointing beginning to an important season for our sport.

Best Ad: Home Depot’s “Welcome Joey”
Project: Win Sprint Cup Races. “We can help you with that.” – Great follow up spot to last season’s Tony/Joey double act. In a year devoid of truly great advertising in NASCAR, this spot stands out.

Honorable Mention: NASCAR: What’s your Favorite Sound?
I loved this spot; a ton of schmaltz, sure, but it’s still an emotive ad that hits all the right notes. And as my much better half will tell you, I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of advertising.

Honorable Mention: Old Spice, Stewart
This ad has been overplayed, but it’s super funny and the sort of commercial only Smoke could pull off with such élan.

Honorable Mention: Allstate
Dear Allstate execs: I humbly thank you for not creating a Kasey Kahne “pink hearts” firesuit follow up ad. I’m sure there are dissenting voices elsewhere, but I, for one, am delighted – totally, utterly delighted.

Worst Ad: Earnhardt, Jr. in anything to do with Wrangler
Maybe I’m the wrong demographic here, but the Wrangler/Junior ads of the past couple of years make me weep copious tears for the poor ad agency account exec that followed that ad from concept through final on-air version. Imagine having to watch it 500 times and more throughout the creative process… urgh.

Most Dramatic Moment: The Talladega Finish
I know I’ll get panned for picking the 200 mph equivalent of bumper cars, but this race was fascinating to watch. From the unexpected first-time winner in Brad Keselowski, to the Carl Edwards crash and subsequent Ricky Bobby run to the finish line, to the pair of “Big Ones,” the drama of this race never abated.

Hard Luck Moment: Elliott Sadler in the Daytona 500
The 11-year veteran was just one lap away from winning the biggest race of them all. But listening to his foreboding, woe is me, “Eeyore” style bleating about his luck on the radio as the laps ticked down and rain got closer just proved he didn’t believe he could win. And if he didn’t, no one else was going to do it for him.

Most Amusing Moment: Edwards’ Ricky Bobby Run
For one horrible moment, I thought the official was going to stop him from completing his mission before Edwards actually pulled it off. It was good stuff from Cousin Carl — especially considering what had just happened.

Honorable Mention: Ella Sofia Gordon in Victory Lane.
How much of a natural is she already? The little touch of the SPEED microphone toward the end of the clip is classic.

Most Amusing Broadcast Moment: Jeff Hammond’s Texas “Outfit”
In the immortal words of one of my old bosses: “What were you thinking? Were you even thinking?” Clearly not, in Jeff’s case.

Most Annoying Broadcast Moment: Digger
I’ve resisted the urge all season long but enough’s enough, I can’t take no more… so here goes, I’m venting my spleen. Digger is the single worst broadcast decision made by the FOX team this year. How they think this furry moron can sell NASCAR to the kids defies reason. Enough already.

Best “Regular” Paint Scheme: The No. 24 car
A great upgrade for Jeff. The flames are way cool, as is the firesuit. Is it any coincidence he’s running so well with the new paint?

Best Command to Start Engines: Michael Strahan, Subway 500
I’m not one of those “frustrated driver” columnists and to be honest with you, I’ve never once thought I’d really like to be a NASCAR driver (although I’d take the salary in a nanosecond). What I would love to do, though, is give the command to start engines at a Sprint Cup race. I would scream it as loud and long as I possibly could. In Phoenix, Strahan did pretty much that. A good effort from the Super Bowl winning ex-New York Giant.

Best NASCAR Show: Trackside Live
Still the best show on TV, NASCAR-wise, although ESPN’s NASCAR Now is much improved. I think the show would be exactly the same if the cameras were off and DW, Jeff, Steve, Larry and the driver du jour were just having a chat.

Best Frontstretch Column: Did You Notice? … Tragic NASCAR Death Reminder To Push For A Higher Standard
Tom Bowles’ tribute to David Poole was both heartfelt and supremely written. Poole was the doyen of the NASCAR media pack and he will be sorely missed. (Okay, okay, I admit I picked one of the managing editor’s columns here before someone chides me for that.)

Tomorrow, Tom Bowles and I will grade each of the teams, so check back then for part two of our Grading the Pack Series.

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Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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