NASCAR broadcasts these days are, as many fans complain, not exactly equitable in how they dole out airtime to drivers. While one guy (you fill in the name) will be on TV throughout the broadcast no matter where he is running, another (fill in that guy, too) might be having a great run-and you hardly see him. At the end of the race, when they show the results, you look and think, ‘I had no idea.’
Sometimes it seems as though that scenario is a microcosm for NASCAR as a whole. Some guys make the news because they are running well-while others are exceeding expectations and you hardly hear a word about it. A few actually get more press for running bad than some of the frontrunners. There are a few drivers who have very quietly put together decent seasons without fanfare. They all might not make the Chase, but all things considered, are having much better seasons than the press (or lack thereof) suggest. Check out these five hidden gems, who are quietly putting together a better season than some who make the news (but shall remain nameless).
1. Kasey Kahne While it’s probably a bigger surprise that Juan Pablo Montoya is solidly in Chase contention with four races to go, Kahne’s name has rarely been mentioned this year since his surprise win at Infineon. Yet he’s eighth in points and, while not a Chase lock yet, is likely to make the cut. His numbers aren’t stellar; he has just four top five and nine top-10 finishes piled onto the Infineon win, but his numbers outshine former champion Matt Kenseth’s, and he’s higher in points than Mark Martin, despite Martin’s four wins. While he’s a far cry from winning a series leading six races like he did in 2006, Kahne has been consistent enough to make the top dozen so far with what is, in comparison to many of the top drivers in points, a bargain basement team. He is the only driver for what is now Richard Petty Motorsports to run consistently well for the past five seasons and one of only two Dodge drivers in the top 12. While Kahne isn’t going to contend for the title, he’s having a solid season. Too bad nobody has noticed.
2. Brian Vickers One of these days this guy is going to start winning. If it’s this week at Michigan, watch out, because he could well make the top dozen. Vickers’s No. 83 Red Bull team is looking like one of those team that, once over the initial speed bump of winning, will go right on winning at a steady clip. He’s got five poles this year, more than any other driver, so you know he’s fast. He has more top-10 finishes than a handful of drivers in the top 12. Should he win or have a few solid top-five runs in the next four weeks while Kenseth or Martin stumble, a Chase berth is not out of the question for Vickers, and he’s good enough at the Chase tracks to make a showing. Not a championship run, but a solid 10 races that could see him end the year solidly in the 4th-10th place range. Vickers could well have a handful of wins in the last two years if not for a loose wheel, a scoring error and other assorted bad luck. That’s not going to last forever. At just 25 years of age, Vickers is more mature than Kyle Busch, a factor that could push him past Busch when it counts. Just because you haven’t seen him coming doesn’t mean he’s not gaining on you.
3. David Reutimann The driver nicknamed “Beak” got a few days’ worth of press back in May, when he won a rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600, but really, his season has been pretty decent. He’s 16th in points with six top-10 finishes to his name-only one fewer than Kyle Busch has in the same category. He’s also got a pair of poles and an average finish of 17.4. He has not failed to finish a single race, and as the old saying goes, to finish first, first you must finish. Reutimann isn’t going to make the Chase or contend for the championship, but he’s had the kind of year that Michael Waltrip Racing needed him to have – quietly solid, the kind of year that lays the foundation for the team to build and improve. And right now, that’s as important to MWR as the first win was.
4. Marcos Ambrose Ambrose’s second-place finish at Watkins Glen was the exclamation point on what was already a great season. Ambrose’s JTG Daugherty Racing team is badly underfunded in comparison to teams like Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing, and yet Ambrose is having a better season than drivers from all three of these powerhouse teams. Ambrose may be great on a road course, but he’s good just about everywhere, with top-10 finishes at Daytona and Pocono in addition to Infineon and Watkins Glen. Ambrose, along with a few other solid top-20 drivers, shows that you don’t have to be brilliant to be good.
5. Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears McMurray and Mears are often maligned for being less than brilliant drivers in great equipment, but any way you slice it, both are having better seasons than a high-dollar teammate, and both are holding their ground in a highly competitive points year at 20th and 21st, respectively. McMurray, whose only moment in the spotlight this year came when it was announced that he will be released from his Roush Fenway Racing team, is a full 10 points positions ahead of teammate David Ragan, who, despite flashes of brilliance is struggling, and might have been the odd man out at RFR were it not for his sponsor’s insistence.
Mears is ahead of his teammate Kevin Harvick, who was a Chase favorite going into the season but has been snakebit since the green flag fell at Daytona. Mears’s future is also unclear, as sponsor Jack Daniel’s is considering leaving NASCAR in a poor economy. Should Harvick’s sponsor Shell-Pennzoil also leave, it leaves Richard Childress Racing with four teams and two sponsors, and that could leave Mears searching. Either driver would be a great pickup for a midpack owner, because both are decent enough drivers to get the job done and are both very fan-and sponsor-friendly. They might not be among the sport’s all-time greats, but they are capable of wheeling a racecar, and have been quietly solid at mid-pack all year long. In today’s NASCAR, that keeps a race team in business.
When you turn on the Michigan race this weekend, you might not see any of these guys during the broadcast. But then again, you just might. They’re lurking somewhere, waiting to pounce on an opportunity, and all are more than capable of doing that. In the words of Satchel Paige, don’t look back, something might be gaining on you. And when it’s coming at 200 mph, it’s going to make some noise.