Last week in this column, I discussed the seasons of five drivers who were having a rather unpublicized good year. But there are also drivers who, while well inside the Top-35 cutoff in points, are having a season that is fraught with disappointment – the kind of year in which everyone from media to fans to your own grandmother wonders what the heck happened. The kind of season in which the silver lining is that it’s not worse than someone worse than you. Here are five drivers whose seasons have been a far cry from where their hopes stood in February.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2009 has stirred far more questions for Junior than it has provided answers. Earnhardt will not make the Chase, and while that’s happened before, this time he’s 21st in points – and that’s after a four-spot gain following his third place at Michigan on Sunday. That race was just his second top-five finish of the year, the lone other a second-place at Talladega, a track where Junior was once a perpetual favorite to win. A 10th-place finish at Las Vegas and an eighth at Martinsville are his only other top-10 finishes this year. And this all coming in what is probably the best equipment in the sport from his Hendrick Motorsports stable. HMS provides chassis and engines for its own four teams as well as the Stewart-Haas team of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. Only Earnhardt is outside the top 12, so it’s not the equipment. While a crew chief change has improved things a little, it certainly didn’t perform a miracle for the driver of the No. 88. Earnhardt isn’t a bad driver – certainly not as bad as the numbers look. So what gives? You have an above average driver in the best equipment anywhere with a top-flight team around him, and he’s mired below 20th in points with no end in sight. Let the head-scratching continue….
2. Carl Edwards Sure, he’s fourth in points, a shoo-in for the Chase, but the goose egg in the win column is a mystery. Through the first 23 races in 2008, Edwards had five wins en route to a nine-win season, second best this decade. Many media and fans pegged him as the championship favorite – and while he’s still a threat, he falls behind Stewart and Jimmie Johnson as title favorites now. He’s capable of reeling off four or five wins over the rest of the season, but he’d better start soon if he wants to make some noise.
3. Kyle Busch This is one of the most talented drivers in the sport and was also a title favorite back in Daytona, but his Sprint Cup season has taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks, even as his Nationwide Series title run became a runaway. Is his schedule too much? Maybe – Busch says he won’t do it next year – but it’s not unheard of for a driver to run as many races and have better Cup results. Busch’s season is the opposite of Edwards’s. He has three wins and a pole but only seven top-10 finishes overall – and that kind of inconsistency makes a Chase berth an iffy proposition at best. Busch’s attitude doesn’t help. His volatile temper makes it hard for him to keep a cool head when it’s needed most, and the griping has to take its toll on his team as well. Maturity is a factor in racing, and while Busch has talent in spades, the dearth of maturity takes a toll on his success. He was a title favorite going in, but Busch’s championship hopes are dwindling.
4. Kevin Harvick A fierce competitor, Harvick has to be frustrated with his 2009 campaign, a combination of bad luck and mystery problems that has him 23rd in points, the biggest points drop of any 2008 Chase driver at this point. A year ago Harvick’s was the best of three Richard Childress Racing teams who all made the Chase and any one of them could have snatched the title. Now Harvick is the lowest-ranked among four RCR teams with only teammate Clint Bowyer poised to make a last-ditch effort to make the top 12 by Richmond. Two top fives and three top 10s are the highlights of his score sheet for 2009, and with another drop in points at Michigan to 23rd, Harvick is probably wishing he was having the success as a driver that he’s having as a car owner in the Camping World Truck Series, where his Ron Hornaday-driven team is running away with the points lead with six wins.
5. David Ragan This is the same driver who nearly made the Chase last year as a sophomore? 2009 has been a disaster for Ragan, who has only a single top 10 to brag on – and that came in the Daytona 500. Since then Ragan’s performance has been abysmal, and his 30th-place points standing a far cry from a year ago. He dodged a bullet this year as Roush Fenway had to cut to the NASCAR-mandated limit of four teams; because sponsor UPS will remain with him, but he got lucky – the teammate cut, Jamie McMurray, is eight spots higher in the points standings. Ragan was a wreck magnet as a rookie, and his improvement in 2008 was marked, but he was a pinball at Michigan, and has failed to finish twice for wrecks, more often than he has cracked the top 10 this year. He got lucky this time, but how long will UPS put up with it?
Note: Holding A Pretty Wheel will appear on Tuesday next week as part of a two-part feature story on NASCAR Camping World East Series driver Jarit Johnson. It will return to its usual Friday spot on September 4.