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 two-part analysis of the season to date. Yesterday’s installment gave out some superlative awards; today, Tom Bowles and I team up to grade each team on their overall performance through the first three months of ’09. Feel free to not only read, but comment below and let us know how you feel your favorite teams and drivers have done!
Hendrick Motorsports (Nos. 5, 24, 25, 48, 88)
Stats: 4 wins, 15 top fives, 22 top 10s in 47 starts
Best Driver: Jeff Gordon (1 win, 8 top 10s, points leader)
Danny: They only get the minus because of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for Rick Hendrick’s fantastic four. Grade: A-.
Tom: What they’ve done this season is so impressive, I think Junior doesn’t even matter at this point. Hendrick has formed the model of the satellite team (the way to get around a four-car limit) while drivers Jimmie Johnson and Gordon are the ones to beat for this year’s title. Oh, and there’s a 50-year-old named Mark Martin who’s on track to win six races. What more do you want? OK, OK I hear ya Junior Nation… but if the Tony Eury Jr. era is truly over, it’s just a matter of time before he picks it up. Grade: A.
Stewart-Haas Racing (Nos. 14, 39)
Stats: 0 wins, 8 top fives, 13 top 10s in 22 starts
Best Driver: Tony Stewart (8 top 10s, second in points, won 25th Annual All-Star Race)
Danny: Other than the ageless, peerless Martin’s pair of victories, the best story of the season has been the success of SHR. Kinda boring too, in one small way – where’s the irascible Tony of old? Grade: A.
Tom: While much of the focus has been on Stewart, don’t forget about his teammate in the No. 39. Ryan Newman’s charge from 32nd to eighth in points the last seven races reminded me of the man who once outshone Johnson when they were sophomores. And while Tony’s talent as a driver was unquestioned, who knew he had the patience and people skills to succeed as an owner? The question now isn’t whether SHR can make the Chase… but what they’ll do when they get there. Grade: A.
Joe Gibbs Racing (Nos. 11, 18, 20)
Stats: 3 wins, 6 top fives, 10 top 10s in 33 starts
Best Driver: Kyle Busch (3 wins and 616 laps led – leads all drivers)
Danny: Denny Hamlin might not have won, but he’s run well and Kyle is winning a ton at all three levels. Joey Logano’s showing signs of improvement, too, meaning the future is bright for JGR. Grade: B+.
Tom: When he’s on, Busch has been brilliant, but when he’s off… look out. This whole feast or famine thing for the No. 18 has to be corrected ASAP, otherwise we’re headed for a second straight Chase flameout. As for both Hamlin and Logano… they could both use a few lessons in confidence. Sliced Bread looks like he’s getting over the hump… but Hamlin? The monkey’s still there until he wins a race. Grade: B.
Penske Championship Racing (Nos. 2, 12, 77)
Stats: 1 win, 3 top fives, 8 top 10s in 33 starts
Best Driver: Kurt Busch (1 win, third in points, 10 lead-lap finishes in 11 starts)
Danny: From also-ran to viable contender, Busch’s resurgence takes care of this grade almost by itself. David Stremme’s 300 points ahead of P36, and even Sam Hornish Jr. is starting to look racy (at last). Grade: B.
Tom: Talk about a guy carrying a team. Busch is clearly the man over at Penske, succeeding in a class all his own while his teammates struggle to get up to speed. Hornish appears to have come around as of late, saving his job or a possible demotion back to the IRL. But Stremme’s sluggish start this spring (no top 10s in a car that won the Daytona 500 in 2008) will probably leave him staring at a pink slip by July. Grade: B-.
Michael Waltrip Racing (Nos. 00, 47, 55)
(Note: The No. 47 is prepared in the MWR shop but owned by JTG/Daugherty Racing)
Stats: 0 wins, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s in 33 starts
Best Driver: David Reutimann (1 pole, 1 top five, 15th in points)
Danny: Reutimann is much improved, and Marcos Ambrose is one of the great success stories of the season. But Mikey is still pretty poor; a transition to owner/broadcaster (he can still run the Dream Machine in Nationwide) can’t come soon enough. Grade: B.
Tom: It’s a shame Ambrose ran a few too many races in ‘08, because he’d be blowing away the rest of this year’s rookie class. If it wasn’t for a few untimely engine failures, the No. 47 would be challenging for a shot in the Chase. Reutimann’s already doing just that, although some ugly on-track incidents have clouded his season as of late. But the real problems here surround Michael Waltrip and the No. 55 team; with their Toyota struggling mightily, it’s only a matter of time before the owner brings the rest of his group down along with him. Grade: B-.
Roush Fenway Racing (Nos. 6, 16, 17, 26, 99)
Stats: 2 wins, 7 top fives, 18 top 10s in 55 starts
Best Driver: Matt Kenseth (2 wins – including 2009 Daytona 500, 1 pole)
Danny: Yes, they have three in the Chase and Kenseth won the 500, but overall, they’ve not been good, especially at the short tracks. Still, with Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards right in Chase contention, it’s hard to be too down on them. Grade: B-.
Tom: Clearly an A+ through the first two races; but since then, this team’s a massive disappointment, a victim of the Daytona 500 curse that’s infected an entire organization. Who would have thought preseason title favorite Edwards would be on the fringe of Chase contention – or even worse, that young hotshot David Ragan would be all but eliminated at this point? (Now Jamie McMurray, I can understand…) Biffle and Kenseth have been carrying this team, but even their consistency has been shoddy at best. And worst of all has been the laundry list of mistakes in the pits. For a team of this caliber, the constant Three Stooges routine down there is simply unacceptable. Grade: C+.
Danny: Vickers has run well enough and is in Chase contention, so that’s all good. But Speed has not lived up to his name and has struggled in his rookie season. Grade: B-.
Tom: Everyone questions Red Bull’s decision not to keep AJ Allmendinger… but what about not adding a third car? TRB could have used a little extra input, and they come across as a team that’s constantly fighting from behind. Vickers expected this year would be the one they make the Chase, but right now that’s 50/50 at best; and with Speed struggling to even qualify, you wonder if a personnel shakeup is imminent. Grade: C.
Robby Gordon Motorsports (No. 7)
Stats: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s in 11 starts
Best Driver: Robby Gordon (Best Finish: 15th)
Danny: Still in the Top 35 and looks like that will remain the case this year; but with all his extracurricular activities, how much longer can Gordon keep it up? Grade: C.
Tom: Something about this team just never seems right. Not enough money, too much disorganization, and too little stock car talent… seems like a combination of the three at this point. Only a dearth of competitive teams has kept Gordon within the Top 35… and it’s still in question as to whether they’ll stay there the rest of the year. Grade: D+.
Richard Childress Racing (Nos. 07, 29, 31, 33)
Stats: 0 wins, 7 top fives, 11 top 10s in 44 starts
Best Driver: Jeff Burton (5 top 10s, 0 DNFs, sixth in points)
Danny: This season has been disappointing so far for RCR, with only Burton in the top 12. But Clint Bowyer has done well with the new fourth car, lifting the overall team grade, and is currently just outside the Chase. Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears, meanwhile, have been statistically equal in their mediocrity. Grade: C-.
Tom: Looks like the growing pains of adding a fourth team have messed up RCR’s chemistry. Harvick’s inconsistent, Bowyer’s slumping, and Mears just looks like he plain doesn’t fit. Only Burton is carrying the torch at this point (and when is he ever not?). But the hole they’re digging has gotten so deep (just 15 laps led as a team since Las Vegas), I’m not so sure even his leadership can be enough to turn things around by midsummer. Grade: C-.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (Nos. 1, 8, 42)
Stats: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 6 top 10s in 29 starts
Best Driver: Juan Pablo Montoya (1 pole, 6 top 15s, 14th in points)
Danny: Montoya has looked good at times but, unless he goes on a really hot streak, does anyone think the No. 42 is a lock for the Chase? As for Martin Truex Jr., he’s dug himself out of holes before, but time is running out – fast. Grade: C-.
Tom: You know things aren’t going well when you keep losing cars midseason. The Aric Almirola fiasco appeared to be a distraction at best, and the two teams left appear to be running significantly better without it. But just when you thought things have settled down at EGR… it’s contract time for Truex! Let the media circus/wild frenzy begin; and that’s a real shame, too, because teammate Montoya’s running more consistent than he’s ever been in a stock car. Grade: C+.
Yates Racing (Nos. 28, 96, 98)
(Note: The No. 96 car is owned by Hall of Fame Racing but prepared out of the Yates Racing shop)
Stats: 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10 in 26 starts
Best Driver: Bobby Labonte (1 top five, 29th in points)
Danny: Labonte was expected to run better, and Paul Menard has only run good enough for a 33rd-place position in the points standings. Failing to secure sponsorship for the ever likable Travis Kvapil was another low point in a rough year. Grade: C-.
Tom: Roush’s JV team is really suffering along with the varsity. Picking up Labonte was supposed to revitalize this organization; instead, it tore apart the chemistry established by improving Kvapil. Now, Kvapil’s the one out of a ride while moneybags Menard is throwing away heaps of cash by stinking it up on the racetrack. You always look for a ray of hope in these situations, but right now things could get worse before they get better. Grade: D-.
Richard Petty Motorsports (No. 9, 19, 43, 44)
Stats: 0 wins, 3 top fives, 6 top 10s in 44 starts
Best Driver: Kasey Kahne (2 top 10s, 46 laps led, 16th in points)
Tom: While it’s nice to see the ‘Dinger finally find a home, it’s a place where everyone else might be about to skip town. Running the old engine has left this program behind the curve despite expanding to four cars in the offseason and starting off strong at Daytona (three top 10s). Kahne in particular has been as baffling as ever lately and appears to be looking elsewhere for work – while Sadler and Sorenson might soon be doing the same after a little visit to the firing squad. Only AJ has provided this group with a glimmer of hope every weekend, and while he believes a turnaround is imminent… that optimism can only go so far. Grade: C-.
The Single-Car Teams
Front Row Motorsports (No. 34 – John Andretti, Tony Raines): It seemed like some technical support from Earnhardt Ganassi was keeping this team afloat for a while… but now, they’re slip-sliding back towards total mediocrity. Holding onto a Top-35 slot will be key for them to have a chance at improving. Grade: D. – Tom
TRG Motorsports (No. 71 – David Gilliland): Rebounding from a Daytona DNQ to a spot in the Top 35 was simply amazing for this group. But then, the bottom fell out, and less money combined with little luck have left the No. 71 all but lost. With money in the bank on empty, it’d be a total shame for this Cinderella story to peter out… but they need to turn things around fairly quickly. Grade: C. – Tom
Phoenix Racing (No. 09 – Brad Keselowski/Mike Bliss/Sterling Marlin): What do you say about a team that pulls the upset win of the decade with Keselowski at Talladega… then start and parks with Marlin two weeks later? Phoenix is part of NASCAR’s biggest feel-good and god-awful stories all rolled into one. But when all is said and done, you can’t help but crack a smile for an owner (James Finch) who won for the first time in nearly two decades of competition. Grade: B-. – Tom
NEMCO Motorsports (No. 87 – Joe Nemechek): “So is it Front Row Joe or Upside Down Joe?” asked Nicole Manske, on the Monday edition of NASCAR Now, after Nemechek’s bizarre roll at the Nationwide Nashville race back in April. For that Days of Thunder moment and then wanting to get back in the race, he should get an A just for that. But in eight Sprint Cup starts, he’s finished just one (Talladega – good enough for 14th). Grade: B. – Danny
Prism Motorsports (No. 66 – Dave Blaney): Hard to grade Blaney, really, when all the team does is start and park. Grade: INC.
Mayfield Motorsports (No. 41 – Jeremy Mayfield): When Mayfield made the Daytona 500, it was a truly great NASCAR story about beating the odds. Those odds caught up with him, though, as Mayfield recorded six DNFs in his next 10 attempts before that infamous drug test. With Mayfield now under suspension, JJ Yeley will take over driving duties. Grade: INC. – Danny
Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 36 – Scott Riggs): A promising start at the Daytona 500 quickly turned sour for this hardscrabble team. I’ll tell you one thing, though: you gotta give credit to a group who refuses to start and park. It’s just a shame Baldwin and Riggs may have fallen too far behind the curve to wind up surviving. Grade: D-. – Tom
Furniture Row Motorsports (No. 78 – Regan Smith): By far, this car is the underreported success story of the year. Left for dead by DEI, Smith has found a home with this Colorado-based underdog, taking advantage of a limited schedule to throw his best punch every time out. Already, the team has more top-20 finishes in a whole season of competition than all of last year. A possible contender for a top 10 or two in the long summer stretch. Grade: B. – Tom
Wood Brothers Racing (No. 21 – Bill Elliott): Looked racy in Speedweeks, but since then Elliott has raced just three times so far this year. What’s much more interesting, to me, is his quest to break his own qualifying record at Talladega in an E85-powered Ford Mustang. Awesome Bill, indeed. Grade: B. – Danny
Germain Racing (No. 13 – Max Papis): Qualified on all four attempts and completed 91.5% of his laps with a best finish of 18th at Talladega. The man from Como, Italy is a welcome addition to NASCAR and I, for one, look forward to seeing some more from Mad Max. Grade: B. – Danny
Grading a team is much harder than it looks, especially with the multi-car operations, but this was a fun exercise to conduct. In terms of how we matched up: Tom is definitely harsher than I am. I have to admit, I lowered a couple of my initial grades (Penske, MWR) after seeing his version. Overall, though, we agreed… perhaps more than I expected. I hope the next time we do this it’s more controversial.
As we head into the longest race of the season and a crucial stretch of races ahead of the Chase cutoff at Richmond, it will be fascinating to see who gets better and who slips backward. At this stage, it’s hard to bet against the Hendrick A and B (SHR) teams, but don’t be surprised to see better results from the Roush camp. I’m most worried for RPM, who needs serious improvement – especially from their cash cow, Kahne – in order to retain their personnel. But with all that said, there is still time to turn things ’round – and with six drivers less than 100 points out of 12th place, anything can and probably will still happen. – Danny
I think there’s no question that at this point, Hendrick has established themselves as the team to beat. What’s more is that their biggest competition may come from the program they helped grow, as both Stewart and Newman look poised to win multiple races heading into the long summer stretch. But keep in mind that at this time last year, it was Gibbs who looked unbeatable… and where did they wind up in the Chase? There’s still a long, long way to go….
Things to watch up ahead, some of which I mentioned yesterday in my weekly column which of the single-car underdogs drop out, whether RPM still has four cars come August, and seeing if Roush can somehow dig itself out of the doldrums. I think watching how Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth try and drag the team up by their bootstraps over the next 11 races will be some pretty interesting stuff. – Tom