NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009 Driver Report Cards, Part I: Grading the Chase Contenders

We’re one race past the statistical halfway point of the 2009 season and as we gear up for the stretch run of 17 Sprint Cup races in 18 weeks, the much maligned (and in equal parts ballyhooed) “Chase for the Sprint Cup” is just seven races away. So before we get down to the serious business of the sharp end of the season, we’ve graded each of the top 40 drivers – based on the points standings as we run headed to the Brickyard. We’ve divided our review into two halves; today, we focus on the top-20 drivers while tomorrow we’ll look at the wheelmen running in positions 21 through 40. Some of these grades will seem just right to you, others a country mile off. But no matter what you think, let us know what you agree with, what you don’t, and why below….

Leading off, it’s “owner/driver” Tony Stewart, a moniker he’s taken well to, it seems.

Tony Stewart
Stats: 19 Races, 2 Wins, 11 Top Fives, 15 Top 10s, 0 DNFs, first in points
Best Finish: 1st – twice (Pocono, Daytona (July))

Smoke has, if you’ll pardon the phrase, smoked the competition these first 19 races. A series-leading 15 top 10s and two race wins – dump or not dump Kyle Busch at Daytona – plus the All-Star victory points to an incredible and unexpectedly brilliant first half of the season for the two-time champion. Can he make it three in 2009? On this form, sure; but will he get the same equipment from provider Hendrick Motorsports once the Chase begins? Grade: A+ – Danny Peters

Jeff Gordon
Stats: 19 Races, 1 Win, 10 Top Fives, 13 Top 10s, 0 DNFs, second in points
Best Finish: 1st – Texas

For the first three months of the season, Gordon looked unstoppable as the No. 24 threatened to turn this year’s regular season points race into a runaway. But after a marvelous comeback peaked with a Texas victory, the words “back,” “arthritis” and “injection” became weekly worries that seemed to take the wind right out of his sails. How much the back is bothering him is open to question; what’s not is the brilliant work of Steve Letarte, perhaps the crew chief MVP of this first half who’s pulled top-five finishes out of his hat time and time again with outstanding pit strategy. That’s left Gordon in decent shape heading into this year’s Chase; the issue now is whether that back will leave him with anything left once he gets there. Grade: A- – Tom Bowles

Jimmie Johnson
Stats: 19 Races, 2 Wins, 8 Top Fives, 13 Top 10s, 1 DNFs, third in points
Best Finish: 1st – twice (Martinsville, Dover)

Two race wins, six other top fives, five more top-10 finishes and a series-best 945 laps led (136 more than Kyle in second place). Not a bad start to the season, all things considered; but you just know that when the Chase begins, Jimmie J and NASCAR’s very own Dr. Evil Chad Knaus will drop the hammer once again and incinerate the competition. I’ve said it from my very first article this year that there’s nothing to show this team won’t be at the top of its game; and so far, I’ve been right. His corporate scruff (we can’t really call that a beard, can we?) and tiff with Kurt Busch have proved entertaining; but much more importantly, the championship still goes through the No. 48 team. Grade: A- – Danny Peters

Kurt Busch
Stats: 19 Races, 1 Win, 6 Top Fives, 10 Top 10s, 0 DNFs, fourth in points
Best Finish: 1st – Atlanta

Busch is another one who’s had a strong comeback season only to see it fade a bit in recent weeks. After a win at Atlanta left him with an average finish of 9.8 in the first four races of the year, Busch developed a Chase cushion he’s refused to relinquish. But with just four of his 10 top-10 performances coming in this last 10-race stretch, that’s hardly the type of playoff record to earn him some championship hardware. Overall, the three-car Penske camp has undergone tremendous improvement (after missing the Chase two out of the last three seasons), but it can’t be helping Busch his two teammates are clearly two or three notches below where the No. 2 car is at right now. His rivalry with Johnson has juiced up an otherwise dull year, but it’s going to take a lot more than a few choice words from this camp to stay ahead of the No. 48 come Chase time. Grade: B+ – Tom Bowles

Denny Hamlin
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 6 Top Fives, 8 Top 10s, 1 DNF, fifth in points
Best Finish: 2nd – Twice

Some 172 points on the right side of the Chase cutoff, Hamlin has had an interesting season with some great runs (Bristol, Martinsville) combined with some absolute shockers (Dover, Pocono). Without the win he so desperately craves, the Virginian should still lock up a Chase spot for a fourth straight year, despite what many of the pundits said to the contrary at the start of the season. But an average finish of 13.4 and no bonus points just isn’t going to get it done at the very highest level, especially when your teammate has 11 wins to your one since joining the team in ‘08. You sense that Hamlin is right on the borderline between top class and “average.” Can he push the needle the right way in the second half? Grade: B+ – Danny Peters

Carl Edwards
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 5 Top Fives, 9 Top 10s, 1 DNF, sixth in points
Best Finish: 2nd – Pocono

After catching fire the last few races of 2008, Edwards was the trendy media pick to unseat Johnson for this year’s title. But in a season where his biggest on-track highlight is flipping through the air, the No. 99 team has struggled to live up to their championship billing. A winless streak has been highlighted by a series of botched pit stops, the crew making far too many mistakes at the finish to cost their driver track position when it counts. And while Edwards continues to bread his butter on 1.5-mile ovals, he needs to become a more well-rounded driver everywhere else to take that next step (Example: His average finish this year is a hefty 22.3 on tracks less than a mile in length). But, all criticism aside, he’s held up the banner in what’s been a down year for the Roush Fenway camp in which he may be the only one of five drivers to qualify for the Chase. In a weird way, such a quirky result could make Edwards a favorite once again if that happens, as all the resources of the series’ biggest organization would suddenly shift squarely in his direction. Grade: B – Tom Bowles

Ryan Newman
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 5 Top Fives, 9 Top 10s, 1 Pole, 0 DNFs, seventh in points
Best Finish: 2nd – Charlotte

The other half of the dynamic duo that is Stewart-Haas Racing’s team, Newman has had a fantastic first half in which he hasn’t looked this racy in years. After a horrible first four races with a high finish of 22nd, he didn’t look so great, but a string of eight top 10s in nine races plus a pole at Charlotte put him right back into Chase contention. When Newman initially made the switch from Penske Racing, some were dumbfounded he was taking such a perceived risk. But he already has one more top 10 than he did all of last year, and the close relationship with teammate Stewart has already made a huge difference. With some solid runs in these next seven races, Newman should make the Chase for the first time since 2005. Grade: A-. – Danny Peters

Kasey Kahne
Stats: 19 Races, 1 Win, 3 Top Fives, 7 Top 10s, 0 Poles, 0 DNFs, eighth in points
Best Finish: 1st – Infineon

The streaky Kahne is at it again, currently riding the upswing of his typical roller-coaster season. Early on, the struggles at RPM seemed to leave him on the outside looking in at the Chase for the fifth time in the last six years. But just when Silly Season rumors heated up concerning a possible departure from the team in 2010, the powers that be at RPM decided to hand the No. 9 car the golden ticket to future success – Dodge’s new engine. Ever since, Kahne’s been on fire, scoring five of his top-10 finishes and his Infineon victory in just nine weeks with the extra horsepower. The big question is whether the momentum can hold serve during a tricky finish to the regular season in August – a month in which the team is rumored to make a sudden manufacturer switch to Toyota. Not only that, but the Bristol night race made Kahne an innocent victim and left him on the outside looking in on the Chase; could an ill-timed wreck in 2009 lead to history repeating itself all over again? Grade: B+ – Tom Bowles

Juan Pablo Montoya
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 0 Top Fives, 9 Top 10s, 1 Pole, 0 DNFs, ninth in points
Best Finish: 6th – twice

The Juan Pablo Montoya of the Juicy Fruit and Big Red commercials (just wanted a chance to mention two great spots again) would never “stinking points race,” but that’s exactly what the Colombian is doing — or so he says. Nine top-10 runs, a pole at Talladega and a career-best no DNFs sees the driver of the No. 42 Target Chevy ensconced in a Chase spot as we head to a track he knows and loves: Indianapolis. The schedule to the crucial cutoff race also favors the open-wheel convert, with a trip to the Glen combined with Bristol, Atlanta and Michigan where he has also run well. Don’t expect Montoya to make too many waves if he gets to the Chase field, though. He’s gotten a lot better, but there’s still some way to go before he can rank himself alongside the likes of Stewart, Gordon and Johnson. While much improved, making the Chase would be a victory in itself. Grade: A- – Danny Peters

Kyle Busch
Stats: 19 Races, 3 Wins, 4 Top Fives, 6 Top 10s, 1 Pole, 2 DNFs, 10th in points
Best Finish: 1st – three times (Las Vegas, Bristol, Richmond)

Kyle may be dominating the Nationwide Series, but it’s been far from a cakewalk over on the Cup side of things. Inconsistency has dogged the 2008 regular season points champ, with more finishes outside the top 20 (eight) than inside the top 10 (six). When Busch is at his best, there’s few, if any, who could stop him, as evidenced by dominating performances like the one at Bristol early this year. But all too often, self-induced mistakes like that Daytona block leave him putting the pieces back together on a finish that leaves his Chase chances in jeopardy. When I look at Busch’s year, I think about another JGR driver – Stewart – who had a similar type of roller-coaster ride back in 2006. And we all know how that turned out, a history lesson that you’d think would teach Gibbs to pull the plug on Kyle bullying the competition over in AAA. What a shame that would be, indeed, if Busch’s title-winning year in Nationwide comes at the cost of a playoff berth in the series he’s really supposed to compete in. Grade: B – Tom Bowles

Mark Martin
Stats: 19 Races, 4 Wins, 5 Top Fives, 9 Top 10s, 3 Poles, 3 DNFs, 11th in points
Best Finish: 1st – four times (Phoenix, Darlington, Michigan, Chicagoland)

Here’s a stat on Martin: He’s won the same number of races (four) in 19 starts in the No. 5 car as he did in his previous nine seasons. You have to go all the way back to 1999 to find the last time he won two in a year and back to 1998 (seven wins, finished second in points) for the last time he had a higher number than four. Of course, with the way he’s been running, that career season-high might be in jeopardy for this year’s gray-haired success story. If Martin can maintain the same attitude that has propelled him to all the wins, he could do the unthinkable and win a championship at age 50. One factor he will have to look out for, however, is avoiding the dreaded DNF. Five finishes of 38th or worse see him on the cusp of the Chase race, where small mistakes get magnified very quickly this time of year. With seven races to go, though, I’m pretty sure Mark will get it done and secure a playoff berth. What happens after that? Who knows; but he’ll sure be fun to watch in the final 10 races no matter what. Grade: A – Danny Peters

Matt Kenseth
Stats: 19 Races, 2 Wins, 4 Top Fives, 7 Top 10s, 1 Pole, 1 DNF, 12th in points
Best Finish: 1st – twice (Daytona 500, California)

With the start Kenseth had (two wins in two starts), the last place you’d expect him to be is sitting squarely on this year’s Chase bubble. Yet that’s the sad but ugly truth for a No. 17 team that’s struggled to find its way ever since a blown engine in the opening laps of the race at Las Vegas. Yes, that was back in March, but the DeWalt car seems to be stuck in a different era as new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer has struggled to find a consistent handling package on the CoT. That’s left Kenseth sounding like Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh after races as his confidence has clearly taken a hit. Once the hallmark of consistency, the ’03 champ takes a lot of pride in being the only driver besides Johnson to make all five Chase for the Championships. But the way the rest of the competition around him is running, it’s going to take a miracle to extend that streak to six. It seems the Daytona 500 curse lives on: no one has been successful after winning the Great American Race since Johnson took his first title back in 2006. Grade: B – Tom Bowles

Greg Biffle
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 5 Top Fives, 8 Top 10s, 0 Poles, 2 DNFs, 13th in points
Best Finish: 3rd – twice

10 points out of the Chase in 13th place, the Biff has had an up-and-down year. His five top fives (four of which came at Chase tracks: Fontana fourth, Texas third, Phoenix fifth, Dover third) and 355 laps led suggest last year’s Cinderella story can be a factor in the playoffs. The problem is going to be getting there: five finishes of 28th or worse and a highest finish of 18th in the last four races leave him the odd man out heading to Indy. With a winless year and a constant stream of mistakes in the pits, Biffle’s been left wondering what might have been at one too many races this year (Michigan, Texas come to mind). It’s going to be a dogfight for the final few Chase spots, but my money’s on the Biff making the field. Just barely…. Grade: B – Danny Peters

David Reutimann
Stats: 19 Races, 1 Win, 4 Top Fives, 5 Top 10s, 2 Poles, 0 DNFs, 14th in points
Best Finish: 1st – Coca-Cola 600

Michael Waltrip Racing’s lead driver is continuing his slow but steady improvement at the Sprint Cup level. Now in his third season, the Florida driver opened some eyes and surprised the world with an upset victory in the Coca-Cola 600 on pit strategy, fuel mileage and a little extra assist from Mother Nature. That left Reutimann with a bit of a bad wrap, but it takes a lot more than luck to be knocking on the door of the Chase at this time of year. Collecting two poles and fourteen top 20 starts, the No. 00’s strength has been qualifying, leaving them in perfect position to capitalize in a year where track position is key. But can the always-insecure Reutimann begin to believe his own abilities during the intimidating stretch run to the Chase in August? Of all the drivers vying for a spot in the field, Reutimann and MWR have the least experience, and you wonder if that could come back to bite them. Grade: B+ – Tom Bowles

Clint Bowyer
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 3 Top Fives, 7 Top 10s, 0 Poles, 1 DNF, 15th in points
Best Finish: 2nd – Las Vegas

It is, perhaps, a little overlooked that Bowyer has finished third and fifth in points the last two seasons. That’s rarified air for the amiable Kansas native; but you don’t finish that high up if you don’t run like you deserve it. Coming into this season, Clint was thrown a curveball by owner Richard Childress, vacating the No. 07 seat and sponsorship for the newly-formed No. 33 car and crew with new backer General Mills. Despite the upheaval, Bowyer got off to a solid start, as four finishes of sixth or better saw him leave Bristol second in the standings, just 89 points back from leader Gordon. However, a horrible six-race spell (22nd, 26th, 39th, 18th, 37th, 36th) knocked the momentum out of his season, and since that high point he’s sunk all the way to 15th, a full 126 points outside the Chase. At this stage, a third consecutive year in the playoffs is not out of the question, but he’ll need to run extremely well these next seven races to have a shot. And with the way RCR is running…. Grade: B – Danny Peters

Brian Vickers
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 2 Top Fives, 8 Top 10s, 5 Poles, 3 DNFs, 16th in points
Best Finish: 5th – twice

In some ways, Vickers continues to impress with Team Red Bull, collecting a season-high five poles to become one of the series’ strongest qualifiers. But as their Friday success takes a big step forward, TBR’s Sunday struggles continue to leave them one step back. Vickers has yet to turn any of those pole-winning runs into a top-five finish, and is on track to lead less than 170 laps all season – a full 25% less than last year. With that said, TBR continues to be a perfect fit for a 25-year-old focused on doing things his own way. With Vickers’s contract up for renewal, it would be ludicrous for the company not to sign him to an extension; but then again, stranger things have happened, and the organization seems to have stalled at the precipice of making the Chase. Can Vickers get them over the hump? Grade: B – Tom Bowles

Jeff Burton
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 2 Top Fives, 6 Top 10s, 0 Poles, 1 DNF, 17th in points
Best Finish: 3rd – twice

Burned by the double-file restarts more than any other, Senator Jeff clung onto a Chase spot until Infineon, race 16 of the season, when a 36th-place effort saw him drop out of the top 12 in points. His average finish of 18.1 seems about right for a team that hasn’t shown any of the clout that made them a championship contender in 2008, with poor racing luck dominating their wreck-filled escapades of the last six weeks. But armed with only six top 10s all year, Burton, like his entire team, is proving to be just not Chase material in a year where others have stepped up to the plate. Talk about an annus horribilis for the RCR quartet…. Grade: C+ – Danny Peters

Marcos Ambrose
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 2 Top Fives, 5 Top 10s, 0 Poles, 2 DNFs, 18th in points
Best Finish: 3rd – Infineon

The likable Tasmanian has become one of the year’s biggest surprises, using chassis and shop support from Michael Waltrip Racing to ease his transition to the Sprint Cup level. If not for the two DNFs he had early on in the year due to engine failure, Ambrose would be on the cusp of Chase contention with a car that’s shown surprising clout for its first full season on tour. After up-and-down results at the Nationwide level, Ambrose has shown an affinity for the Car of Tomorrow, especially on the road courses – his greatest strength – where he’s snagged two third-place finishes in just three career starts. It’s a real shame he started a few too many Cup races last year to be eligible for Rookie of the Year; otherwise, this Joey Logano kid would really be getting a run for his money. Grade: B+ – Tom Bowles

Jamie McMurray
Stats: 19 Races, 0 Wins, 0 Top Fives, 3 Top 10s, 0 Poles, 1 DNF, 19th in points
Best Finish: 7th – Richmond

It’s a weird sort of season for McMurray, who’s threatened to break through at times but never really grasped the opportunity. The odd man out at Roush has just three top 10s (with three 11th-place runs) along with but a solitary lap led. David Ragan’s done nothing, either, (in fact, you can fairly argue he’s been much worse) but this was not the season McMurray needed with his ride on the line. It was always a long shot to stay at Roush as it was, but things don’t look promising now with the four-team rule looming in 2010. An eight-year veteran, Jamie has two wins and just 29 top fives in 241 races; once a highly-touted prospect, he has promised much but never truly delivered. Even if McMurray shifts over to Yates, that next move is a step further away from the big time – and that’s the wrong direction. Grade: C- – Danny Peters

Joey Logano
Stats: 19 Races, 1 Win, 1 Top Five, 4 Top 10s, 0 Poles, 2 DNFs, 20th in points
Best Finish: 1st – New Hampshire

What a long, strange trip it’s been for the driver touted as the next Sprint Cup superstar, who was far from legendary in starting his year dead last at Daytona. Two months’ worth of struggles led to rumors Logano would be the next Casey Atwood, the victim of an organization who chose to bring him up to the Cup level a year too soon. But suddenly, at the end of April it all came together and now the freshman is enjoying a fine season behind the wheel. His win at New Hampshire may have come due to saving gas rather than pure speed, but it’s clear at this point there will be plenty more trips to victory lane in his future. As for whether they’ll happen this year? Probably not; but expect the consistency to continue to develop now that crew chief Greg Zipadelli has his driver’s own notes to base setups off of instead of Stewart’s. Grade: B – Tom Bowles

Bowles’s Take On Danny’s Grades: This section is usually the easy part, as the top-20 Cup contenders have usually all performed above average. If there’s anyone Danny went easy on, it’s the RCR camp, whose season has been so disappointing sponsor departures are threatening to cut their cars in half for 2010. To not have even Bowyer or Burton make the Chase is a massive disappointment, and a shutout just one year after the team went 3-for-3 indicates grades of C or worse across the board for me. The only other grade I’d really tweak is Johnson; although the No. 48 has just two wins, the team’s clearly been on top of their game and given no reason whatsoever to believe they’re anything less than the favorites heading into the Chase. To the victor goes the spoils… and you don’t drop the A+ until there’s reason to lose it.

Danny’s Take On Bowles’s Grades: I’ve always been a bit of a bleeding-heart liberal, as my friends of a Republican persuasion like to remind me. So when Tom first sent me his grades, I expected to scoff at his draconian grading. Believe me, it’s my experience that if there’s one job you don’t want our eminently capable editor to do, that’s mark your important exam paper or grade your life-altering essay. But looking at what Tom’s come up with, I find it hard to disagree too much, which in a funny sort of way is actually quite annoying.

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