Editor’s Note: For Part I of our midseason driver report cards, click here.
Continuing on from yesterday’s review, it’s time for Professors Danny and Tom to grade those drivers sitting at the back of the class. Whether it’s some bad racing luck, poor chemistry with a crew chief or just plain awful driving, most of these guys from 21st on back have endured a season they’d like to forget. As the upcoming summer stretch heats up, those unlucky enough to be a part of this list won’t be fighting to make the Chase; instead, they’ll be working to save their jobs, explaining to unhappy sponsors and owners how things didn’t go as planned.
But in the midst of this group are a handful of diamonds in the rough, wheelmen overachieving with single-car teams overmatched from the start against the multi-car powerhouses. Just which of these underdogs stood out above the rest? Read below to find out as our two-part midseason report card series comes to a close.
We’ll start this one with NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, a man who’s currently having himself a most unpopular season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 3 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 21st in points
Best Finish: 2nd – Talladega
It would be an understatement of monumental proportions to say Earnhardt Jr. has had the worst kind of “sophomore” season for Hendrick Motorsports. Off track he’s the undisputed champion, easily the Most Popular Driver with a fanbase that probably eclipses the combined total of just about everyone else.
On track, however, he can’t get it right, and a change in crew chief hasn’t made any meaningful difference in his results. It may only be a few months into the new gig for Lance McGrew, but the honeymoon period is for sure over at this point. The good news is that it’s hard to see how much worse Junior can get. Probably shouldn’t have said that, huh? Grade: D- – Danny Peters
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 2 top 10s, 0 DNFs, 22nd in points
Best Finish: 9th – twice
Remember that old poem called Casey At The Bat? When poor Mears gets another pink slip (coming soon to a rumor mill near you), this is what Richard Childress should say:
Everyone in racing Mudville loves lil’ Casey Mears.
He’s kind and caring, always seems to get those stands to cheer
But every time poor Casey gets his shot behind the wheel
He just can’t seem to figure out that good ol’ “new car” feel
Two top 10s and three laps led, ’09’s a real disaster
Heart and soul just doesn’t help your car go any faster
So when this year is over, if you’re his fan don’t pout
He’s had far too many chances – mighty Casey has struck out.
Grade: C- –Tom Bowles
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 3 top 10s, 0 DNFs, 23rd in points
Best Finish: 5th – Daytona 500
Of all the NASCAR drivers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, one of the absolute best guys is Sadler. Yet for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I seem to take more cheap shots at him than any other. Well, to be strictly accurate my buddy Caryn thinks I’ve got it in for his teammate Kasey Kahne; but that’s just not accurate, fair or even true.
Anyways, it was all downhill for Sadler the moment Matt Kenseth assumed the lead in the waning laps of the rain-shortened Daytona 500. Tough to see what’s next for him, but I hope he gets one more chance to run competitively if RPM leaves him on the side of the road. After all, it’s hard to hate a man who keeps 80 dogs. Grade: D – Danny Peters
Martin Truex Jr.
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 3 top 10s, 1 pole, 2 DNFs, 24th in points
Best Finish: 6th – Darlington
Truex came into the offseason with high expectations, hoping DEI was on the verge of keeping promises to turn their organization around. Two months later, those promises were broken and the team’s best driver suddenly found himself with a new boss – Chip Ganassi – and losing his “top dawg” status to a certain Colombian with an Indy 500 win under his belt.
Things never seemed to correct themselves from there, and by the time the No. 1 car got the hang of a brand-new system they were way too far outside the Chase to be a contender. Now, Truex has chosen to bolt to Michael Waltrip Racing for 2010, leaving this team in lame-duck status and in question as to whether they’ll finish out the year. Grade: C- – Tom Bowles
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 2 top Fives, 2 top 10s, 1 DNF, 25th in points
Best Finish: 2nd – Daytona 500
It’s been an awful year for Harvick that has culminated in the Bakersfield, Calif. native asking out of the final year of his contract. And with the likes of Jamie McMurray, Earnhardt Jr., Sadler and Mears (not to mention Joey Logano) above him in the standings, you can understand Harvick’s frustration. With just two top 10s (second at the Daytona 500, fourth at Atlanta) and nine laps led all year amidst a string of racing incidents, Harvick has become the poster boy for RCR’s relative lack of competitiveness this year.
Team owner Richard Childress has made a strong statement that Harvick (and sponsor, Shell/Pennzoil) will be in place in 2010; but so far we’ve heard nothing back from the driver of the No. 29 car. This situation should be interesting to watch as Silly Season heats up. Grade: E (D?) – Danny Peters
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 3 DNFs, 26th in points
Best Finish: 5th – Las Vegas
The 2000 champ had little choice but to sign with Hall of Fame Racing following the closing of Petty Enterprises in January. Both sides seemed to gel together early, with a top five at Las Vegas in March raising expectations. But it’s been downhill ever since at the No. 96, and all signs point towards cleaning house and starting from scratch at Yates/HoF in 2010 (hopefully with the 2000 champ still in the driver’s seat).
No matter what happens from here, these last few years leave you wondering whether, at 45, Labonte’s ever going to have a chance at recapturing those glory days he had with Joe Gibbs Racing. Grade: D – Tom Bowles
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 3 top 10s, 0 DNFs, 27th in points
Best Finish: 3rd – Daytona 500
It’s almost as if we’ve had two different AJ’s this year; the “needing sponsorship” version and the “quiet as a church mouse” version once sponsorship was secured for his No. 44 car. After a hot streak to open the season that included a third-place run in the Daytona 500 and a high-water mark of 15th in points, AJ had six finishes of 34th or worse in the nine races exiting Martinsville. Talk about a momentum-killing run. But with all that said, AJ has shown he can wheel a competitive car the shortest route around the track with quite aplomb and crucially, he’s still got a ride. There’s plenty of drivers that can’t say that. Grade: B- – Danny Peters
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 0 DNFs, 28th in points
Best Finish: 9th – Daytona 500
I remember vividly when Sorenson chose to leave Chip Ganassi for then-Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Felix Sabates lashed out at the young driver, accusing him of missing sponsor appearances, being lazy and just not putting the effort into being a successful driver at NASCAR’s top level. Sorenson assured us things would be different and upon arriving this year was even awarded the vaunted No. 43 after a merger with Richard Petty Motorsports in January.
Instead, for the second straight season a solid finish in the Daytona 500 (ninth) has been followed by a whole lot of unfulfilled potential packaged with pure awful on-track performances and precious little sense of urgency from the driver’s seat. At this point, even though Allmendinger’s team only has sponsorship through September it would be a shock if he’s the one sent packing instead of Sorenson. Such a shame to be 23 years old and already on your way out of Sprint Cup. Perhaps a classic case of too much too soon? Grade: D – Tom Bowles
Sam Hornish Jr.
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 4 top 10s, 3 DNFs, 29th in points
Best Finish: 6th – Richmond
Otherwise known as the Danica Patrick cautionary tale, Hornish killed it in IndyCar, winning the Indy 500 as well as three championships. At 26, he had nothing left to prove and figured he’d try his hand at stock cars. Since coming to NASCAR, though, Hornish has flat-out struggled. We’ve seen some green shoots of optimism this season with four top 10s (highlighted by a sixth at Richmond), but it’s hard to argue against the notion that Hornish still has a very long climb to being any sort of competitive in Sprint Cup. Grade: C+ – Danny Peters
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 4 DNFs, 30th in points
Best Finish: 6th – Daytona 500.
If you’re in the marketing department over at UPS, you’ve got to be looking up every bad luck superstition in the book to figure out what the heck’s gone wrong. Was it the black cat that walked by the main office? Or maybe it was the face down penny some exec picked up shortly after signing a deal to back Dale Jarrett’s car in 2001? In nine years of being a primary sponsor in Sprint Cup, the company’s collected just eight wins while going 0-for-5 on Chase appearances since the new format began in 2004.
This year, the company thought it had a match in Ragan, the series’ most improved driver who finished a strong 13th in points last year. Instead, they’re living through yet another nightmare, as the once-promising Georgian has seen his career suddenly stall for no apparent reason. Just three laps led, a troubling four DNFs and just eight lead-lap finishes make you wonder if he’ll be the odd man out at Roush instead of perpetually underachieving McMurray heading into 2010. And as for UPS? They’re looking at former driver David Reutimann’s success and kicking themselves. Grade: D- – Tom Bowles
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 0 DNFs, 31st in points
Best Finish: 13th – California
Stremme’s car is in the Top 35 in owner points, but that’s not really saying a lot this season. Put simply, this guy is not quite good enough to succeed in Sprint Cup. Which is to say he’s an absolutely great driver – he’s just not quite brilliant enough for the top echelon of stock car racing. And the reason I write that is because it’s easy to forget that fact when dismissing the efforts of a driver in a couple of glib sentences. Tough year for Stremme, though, and I’d be shocked if he’s still in Cup next season. Grade: D – Danny Peters
Stats: 18 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 2 DNFs, 32nd in points
Best Finish: 7th – Daytona 500
Waltrip recently made the announcement he’ll scale back to a part-time schedule in 2010 – and with good reason. Struggling ever since a seventh-place finish at Daytona in February, the driver/owner of the No. 55 has watched his other two MWR-supported teams compete for spots in the Chase, running circles around the NAPA Toyota week in and week out. Despite the addition of underrated crew chief “Bootie” Barker, it’s clear the best days for Waltrip behind the wheel have passed him by… and you know what, that’s OK.
He’s a dedicated owner, bringing this team back from near-extinction during its nightmare debut with Toyota in 2007 and picked himself a solid replacement in Truex Jr. for 2010. Now, it’s time for Waltrip to give it his best shot over the final 17 races of his full-time career; but based on how it’s gone the last few years, I wouldn’t be expecting any last-minute miracles. Grade: D+ – Tom Bowles
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 4 DNFs, 33rd in points
Best Finish: 3rd – Coca-Cola 600
Despite blowing a shot at a great finish at Infineon when an ill-timed caution came out, Robby is holding firm in the Top 35, fighting the rising tide of superteams while relishing the role of “lone wolf.” But a 121-point lead is far from a safe advantage, so Robby will have to make sure he gets it done over the last 17 races to lock himself in for next year. With all his extracurricular activities, you wonder how long the man will continue in NASCAR, but for now, he shows no signs of slowing down. Looking forward to watching him at the Glen in a few weekends’ time. Grade: C+ – Danny Peters
Stats: 19 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 3 DNFs, 34th in points
Best Finish: 13th – twice
Menard had the best of intentions in moving from DEI over to Yates for the start of the 2009 season. After all, two years at DEI had brought nothing but inconsistency and just a lone top-five finish. But it’s clear the chemistry just isn’t working out over at Yates, as a team with more money to work with than it had last season has taken a clear step backwards with Menard behind the wheel.
A good driver during a stint in the former Busch Series, this guy is someone who once proved he’s more than just a kid with a rich dad. But with three years in Cup and no tangible results to show for it, maybe it’s time Menard got back to basics and started proving that all over again at a lower level. Grade: F – Tom Bowles
Stats: 17 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 1 DNF, 35th in points
Best Finish: 16th – New Hampshire
Qualified for the Indy 500 in the closing minutes and thus gave the King a chance for a great photo shoot; the 19th-place finish wasn’t too shabby, either. Andretti, for the record, missed two races during his Indianapolis exploits, with Tony Raines subbing in and doing a decent job. Yet despite the hoopla about Andretti’s Indy bid, it’s hard to get excited on the NASCAR side about an average start of 35.6 and an average finish of 29.6 (high of 16th at Loudon). Real, real hard. Grade: D – Danny Peters
Stats: 18 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 6 DNFs, 36th in points
Best Finish: 5th – Talladega
As I said in my Sports Illustrated column yesterday, Speed’s got the type of personality NASCAR needs. It just turns out the man’s not good enough to drive at the sport’s highest level quite yet. Impressive performances in both the Truck and ARCA series have fizzled this season in the face of wreck after wreck, leaving a bunch of torn-up equipment in Team Red Bull’s shop to go along with tattered confidence (even if he’ll never say it).
I really believe Speed’s got the talent to make it at this level, I do; but I also believe things would have been a whole lot better if he ran in Nationwide this season while the team kept a certain Mr. Allmendinger sitting in Speed’s current ride at the Cup level. Grade: D – Tom Bowles
Stats: 18 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 8 DNFs, 37th in points
Best Finish: 14th – Las Vegas
Driving for a No. 71 team that missed the 500 but has made every race since, Gilliland is at best a longshot to succeed. Eight DNFs just isn’t going to cut it, nor is a run of races starting with Talladega with finishes of 40th, 39th, 43rd, 27th, 43rd, 42nd, 32nd, 32nd, 40th, 40th and 42nd. Some of those results have been start-and-park efforts, true, but still it’s not exactly been a season Gilliland will be looking at when he’s compiling his DVD of career highlights. Grade: C- – Danny Peters
Stats: 10 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 0 DNFs, 38th in points
Best Finish: 12th – Daytona (July)
Some have called Smith the most underrated driver in the Cup garage; and with every start he makes in the No. 78, the more I agree with that line of thinking. Still without a DNF in 51 career starts in the series, Smith is an expert at getting the most out of his equipment while keeping the car in one piece. He reminds me of Terry Labonte in that sense; cool, calm, collected and always around and the finish.
Taking a team with limited funding to new heights, it’s refreshing to see an underdog get rewarded for its on-track performance for a change; since Smith has left the race shop with little or no repairs, team manager Joe Garone says Furniture Row could add several more races to a once very-limited schedule in the second half. This sophomore is someone who’s earned a full-time opportunity to return in 2010, be it at FRR or elsewhere. Grade: B – Tom Bowles
Stats: 7 races, 1 win, 1 top five, 3 top 10s, 0 DNFs, 39th in points
Best Finish: 1st – Talladega
After Cousin Carl’s car slammed into the catchfence at ‘Dega and DW stopped crying “oh no, oh no, oh no” like he was a jilted lover there was stunned silence (and that’s a first in the FOX booth) before Larry Mac incredulously intoned: “And Brad Ke-se-low-ski has won this race….” I couldn’t tell if he was trying to communicate the fact or persuade himself that James Finch, the maverick owner, had his first win in 18 years and 115 races.
For Keselowski, the milestone was even more significant, winning a Sprint Cup race in just his fifth try at the big-boy level. Oh and that checkered-flag lap was his first lap led, too. The celebrations in victory lane were really fun to watch as Braddy K struggled to reign in his emotions. Perhaps more significant, however, was his seventh-place run at Darlington; that’s not an effort you luck into. Working hard to secure a full-time Cup ride in 2010, Keselowski’s certainly going to be a factor this Silly Season. Grade: B+ (for the win) – Danny Peters
Stats: 15 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 13 DNFs, 40th in points
Best Finish: 14th – Talladega
Nemechek’s one of those struggling to simply stay afloat in tough economic times. Without primary sponsorship, his team starts-and-parks nearly every week, the ugly cycle of collecting a check that NASCAR will be likely forced to address in the season’s second half. The real shame is that Nemechek, when sponsored, has had a car capable of running with the best of ‘em. Taking his self-owned No. 87 to the top 15 at Talladega was truly a miraculous feat, his old Toyota running side-by-side with cars that have millions more in funding and support.
Nemechek’s no stranger to the driver/owner role, building a team with modest success during the mid-1990s. With the right company supporting him, he could definitely do more with less than most any other team in the Cup garage; the problem is, at 45, those interested are few and far between when it comes to him in the driver’s seat. Grade: D- – Tom Bowles
Bowles’s Take On Danny’s Grades: Those of you who read the site on a regular basis know that Danny’s a transplant from overseas. Now, I’m well aware they do things in England differently than the U.S., but a grade of “E?” Seriously? The last time I got such a thing was in third grade for being a good boy at recess or something. Hopefully, he understands uttering that letter in America means a whole different type of thing altogether; the last thing we need in the midst of the Jeremy Mayfield saga is another driver sitting here with a “false positive” from some crack reporter.
Haha on a serious note, I certainly agree with everything Danny’s said with a few minor exceptions. He’s a little too easy on Allmendinger (B-), who’s had a promising start but faded badly into obscurity since. And as for Stremme, taking Roger Penske equipment and not even scoring a top-10 finish is plenty good enough for a failing grade in my book. Last but not least, Mr. Keselowski is having an “A” caliber season, good enough to fight Logano for Rookie of the Year if only the poor guy had applied to run for the award. Who would have thought he’d be the biggest free agent on the market this summer?
Danny’s Take On Bowles’s Grades: You just know Tom loved grading today’s section much more than yesterday. Handing out those low Cs and Ds would have made his tough grading heart so glad. More amusingly, I hadn’t realized E was so bad in the States, and as someone who is kinda tired of reading yet another Mayfield article I really should have been more careful. I guess my more serious point is that of all the drivers in Sprint Cup Harvick is probably the driver that has had the worst season compared to what “was expected” going into 2009.
I don’t really disagree with any of Tom’s grades, although Menard’s F seems a touch harsh. Yeah he’s got a rich dad, but Bobby Labonte is hardly tearing it up in Yates equipment himself. Other than that, like yesterday in Part I, much to my chagrin I essentially agree.
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