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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour’s Best Drivers in the Sport, Part 2: Drivers #10-#6

I unwittingly picked a bad time to discuss who the best drivers in the sport are today. Between Kyle Busch’s guitar smashing, double-file restarts and the Jeremy Mayfield situation, there is plenty to discuss in NASCAR these days that gets a writer’s columns clicked on by subject matter alone. Maybe this column could have been titled “Oooohh But I Just Hate That Kyle Busch” just to get people’s attention, but it’s just not right to fake people out like that. (I’m exaggerating, but as you know, some writers really do that.)

Regardless, The Official Columnist of NASCAR promised you, the born of high taste Frontstretch readers, a three-part series ranking the best drivers in the sport today, as determined by a devoted commentator trying to be as objective as possible. If you missed drivers #15-#11, you can read it here, where I also give my criteria for what makes a great driver. And be sure to tune in next week to see who I believe the best is.

Meantime, let’s run through drivers numbered 10 through 6. (Hey, wasn’t that a Bad Company album?)

#10) Matt Kenseth

The Daytona 380 champion was the absolute model of consistency in his championship 2003 season. His routine was almost relentlessly habitual: qualify poorly, often poorly enough to burn a provisional (remember provisionals?), take care of the racecar and get it tuned up, then with 50 laps to go hit the switch and cut through the field to finish sixth. He did it so well that the title was won before the last race, causing NASCAR to wring their hands and shake their fist at the sky at the travesty.

Matt Kenseth is as smooth as any driver on the circuit and takes excellent care of his stuff. The only time I’ve ever seen Kenseth “beat himself” (man, that’s not a good phrase to use) was in the first Chase race at Dover, where he went into the pits too fast, spun and climbed up a stack of tires. That that is the only incident that comes to mind says something.

The No. 17 isn’t often in contention for wins at Martinsville, but he is usually in the top 10 at the end. He has dominated Bristol on more than one occasion and consistently runs well at Dover. In his last four races at Darlington: third, seventh, sixth, 10th. He hasn’t been a world-beater on road courses though… his best finish since 2006 was an eighth at Sonoma, and most of his runs when turning right aren’t close to being that good. It is a weakness that fortunately only affects his results twice a year.

And when former teammate Mark Martin was once asked who in the sport is underrated, Kenseth was the first name out of his mouth. That he is.

#9) Denny Hamlin

I agonized over ranking Denny Hamlin ahead of Kenseth, especially after the reaction to my stating he would be in the top 10. But when I looked at numbers I couldn’t deny Denny. He may only have four wins, but how many drivers with four or more wins have zero at intermediate or plate tracks? (Hint: Michael Waltrip isn’t one of them.) And there’s more to his record than just wins.

Imagine this was horse racing. Here is a list of tracks where Hamlin has at least showed (finished third or better): Richmond, Pocono, Martinsville, Phoenix, Homestead, Vegas, Darlington, Loudon, Watkins Glen, Talladega, Indianapolis, Bristol, California, Atlanta. In other words, Hamlin can race anywhere. He’s won at Martinsville and finished second at Bristol. In four races at Darlington, he has three top 10s and has never finished below 13th.

Remember that Hamlin was Joe Gibbs’s second choice to pilot the No. 11 car after Jason Leffler performed well enough to keep a Nationwide Series job. When Denny got into the car in 2005 it came to life, scoring three top 10s in his first seven races. In his first full season, he went undefeated at Pocono and finished third in the standings… and while he has since not done well in Chases, he has been there.

Anyone who has watched NASCAR in recent years knows that Denny has dominated quite a few races only to come up short, and sometimes very short. As my good buddy Danny Peters so eloquently detailed in his column this week, few drivers have been affected by Lady Luck like Hamlin. Question Hamlin’s place in this list if you want, but the numbers are there.

#8) Jeff Burton

Without having won a title, it’s easy to forget that Jeff Burton finished in the top five in points for four straight years for Roush Racing, and then inexplicably could not find a sponsor, driving a plain white car until finally moving over to RCR. Has anyone noticed that Burton every so often gets in the title hunt or grabs the points lead? There aren’t many drivers out there that don’t drive for Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs that achieve that particular feat.

Burton has only four wins with RCR, but in the last three seasons he hasn’t had fewer than 18 top-10 finishes. In other words, he makes do with what he’s got as well as anyone. Few drivers beat themselves less often than Burton. You don’t often see him flub a pit stop or spin a car overdriving it, and it isn’t often you’ll see him give up a lead late in the race. He may not be in title-worthy equipment, but he’s kept RCR in the race every year, making every Chase since 2006. What that means is that Burton is a patient driver who takes care of his stuff and gets the best possible finish with his car.

Two of his four RCR wins came at Dover and Bristol. He hasn’t finished lower than 12th at Darlington in four races. Burton’s finishes at Sears Point are better than at Watkins Glen, but he can race at road courses just fine. Burton is as good on concrete as anyone, nailing top fives left and right at Bristol, Dover and even the partially concrete surface at Martinsville. RCR’s weakness has often been intermediate tracks, but Burton does well at those when the car is right too.

Burton currently is 10th in the points standings with two top fives and five top 10s in a season that has clearly not been Childress’s finest hour. Like RCR, he is just this far away from contending for a title. Again.

#7) Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch ranks high on this list for a good reason: he is consistently and easily the top performer on whatever team he drives for. Jamie McMurray might be sparing Roush Fenway some headaches, but I’ll bet Jack wishes Jamie could put up the numbers Kurt did in the No. 97, which were better than any other driver on the team during his tenure there. Kurt won the first Chase-season title at Roush Racing. Since moving to Penske he has been the “franchise,” with five wins in three years to Ryan Newman’s one (whose win came in a plate race where he was pushed by Busch to victory) and everyone else’s big donut at Penske Racing.

Busch once owned Bristol like few drivers have, winning four consecutive races there while driving for Roush. He hasn’t lit the road courses on fire, but he has scored top-10 finishes at both tracks. Kurt is very, very good at Pocono and won at Martinsville in the 97. He may not have put up the numbers at Darlington that Hamlin has, but remember that Kurt was about a half inch away from winning the best race ever at Darlington.

Like Penske as a whole, Kurt struggled last year, but Penske seems revived in 2009 and no one is more evidence of that than Busch. Not many have noticed that he is ahead of his enigmatic brother in the standings, which may be a result of the elder Busch becoming a little better at avoiding costly mistakes than he was earlier in his career, like his threatening Jimmy Spencer. With a third at Phoenix and a fifth at Dover, Busch is showing his versatility again. And that could make him a threat to win it this year.

Not bad for a guy who won his first NASCAR ride in a Gong Show.

#6) Carl Edwards

From observation alone, Carl Edwards wasn’t going to be this high in the rankings. It seemed as though he benefited from Roush Fenway’s intermediate-track prowess more than anything. But while that did keep him out of the top five, a closer look put Edwards much closer than I expected.

Concrete Carl has won at Bristol and Dover among many other places. He had seven consecutive races of second, seventh, or ninth place finishes from Richmond to Sears Point last season. He also went on a 10-race tear last year from Indianapolis to Kansas that included one 13th, one ninth, one sixth, and nothing else below a third. His 2008 season included a win at Bristol and a third at Martinsville.

It isn’t something that can easily be quantified, but I expect that the tiring job of handling the lovely new NASCARmobile might come easier to drivers in as great of physical shape as Edwards. He doesn’t seem as fatigued as other drivers and he won three of the last four races in 2008, so it would seem that Carl is in a better position to turn it on at the end when it counts. Take away the Talladega error in the 2008 Chase and Carl would probably be the reigning champ.

And of late Edwards has been the best performer at Roush Fenway Racing, finishing second last season (first without the Chase), and currently just ahead of Greg Biffle. He might have a couple of wins this year but for those dastardly discount lugnuts Jack had been buying.

And that concludes part two of this solely observation-based determination of who the best wheelmen in the sport are. Probably not too many surprises here, but nor are the top five – and you can probably guess who they are at this point.

However, be my guest and tune in to Happy Hour next week anyway – I think you’ll be surprised by the order.

And no, Kyle gets no points for the guitar.