The setting of the Chase field post-Richmond marks a clear delineation in the season between the haves and the have nots. And judging by the fevered TV coverage of the top-12 drivers, you’d have been forgiven if you wondered if the other 31 were even competing. But as a long list of DNFs and poor-handling performances show, not only are they around, they can’t wait for the season to end and jump out of the public spotlight to regroup. So, with two months and eight races still to go, here are 10 drivers who can’t wait to see the back of 2009 already no matter what happens from here:
Hands up those who predicted Junior’s season would be quite this bad? Not so many of you, huh? It’s true that anybody can have a bad season – heck, the Cubbies have had a hundred of them – but the futility felt by the denizens of Wrigley Field must compare, in part, to that felt by Junior Nation. To say this year has been horrible for Junior barely does justice to the hot mess his season has become. Just two top fives, three further top 10s, four DNFs and an average finish of 21.8 is not what was expected – not even by those who don’t rate NASCAR’s favorite driver. Tony Eury Jr. was reassigned back in June, and new crew chief Lance McGrew has failed to make magic as of yet. Like it or not, the simple truth is that the season can’t end soon enough for the wheelman of the No. 88 Chevy.
It’s hard to believe that Kenseth’s third-place finish at Dover this past weekend was his first top five since he won at Fontana. After two wins to open the season, including the emotional, rain-saddled victory in the Daytona 500, Kenseth’s season plummeted downhill, and in the end it was no real surprise he missed the Chase. Statistically speaking, 2009 will likely go down as his worst season since 2001. Still, the bright side is he’s won almost $5.5 million. Not bad for mediocrity, huh, dear readers?
I have to say I was shocked Kyle didn’t make the Chase. I really thought he would rally and grab the last spot, but kudos to Brian Vickers who got it done when it counted, denying Busch the last Chase berth on the last race at Richmond before the cutoff. All told, it’s been a strange season for the petulant six-year veteran. On the one hand, there are four wins to talk about, but in 18 of 28 races he’s finished outside the top 10 – including five efforts of 30th or worse – and with a points system that rewards consistency, that record just isn’t going to get it done. Still, as Denny Hamlin pointed out at Chase Media Day, the experience should make Kyle stronger in 2010 and beyond. If he can cobble together a more sensible schedule that doesn’t involve running so many races, fewer distractions should leave Busch back near the top (or atop) the points next year. There’s plenty more to come from Shrub, that’s for sure: just not this year.
The poster child for failed expectations in 2010, Ragan was expected to challenge for the Chase in 2009 and the majority of pundits picked the Unadilla, GA native to make the elite field. It started well enough at Daytona with a sixth-place run, but from there it went steadily and inexorably downhill. In fact, it’s been such a bad season that Ragan has not recorded a single top 10 since Daytona after managing 14 in 2008. Roush Fenway Racing, it’s fair to say, has had its issues this year and Ragan, with an average finish of 25.2, has suffered perhaps more than his other four teammates. The only positive note is that Ragan has recorded two Nationwide wins this season (at Bristol and Talladega), showing there’s still talent behind the wheel. Still only 23, as with Kyle Busch, there should be plenty more to come from Ragan and he is no doubt hoping 2009 can be chalked up as a blip in the road.
After making the Chase in each of the three previous years, 2009 was supposed to be the year that Harvick pushed on and staked a claim for a championship. Clearly, that was a pipe dream as Harvick has suffered and stumbled through an absolute nightmare of a season. Just five top 10s in 28 races tells its own story, and at times, his frustration has been plain to see. But then again, Harvick’s never been one to keep a tight rein on his emotions. With just 95 laps led all year, and a winless streak that dates back to the 2007 Daytona 500, the season can’t end soon enough for the nine-year veteran of some 314 Cup races.
Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing stablemate has also endured a tepid year. Burton flirted with making the Chase, but no top 10s in the last 12 races prior to the resetting of the points killed any faint vestige of hope. Losing crew chief Scott Miller in the RCR reshuffle couldn’t have helped, but the cold hard fact is that it wouldn’t have made any difference in 2009. Heck, Burton could have had the world’s greatest head wrench atop the war wagon and he still wouldn’t have made the Chase. At 42, in a sport that is becoming increasingly the preserve of drivers just out of diapers, you wonder how many good years Burton has left – making 2010 a critical season for his future, no doubt.
Swept up in the Joey Logano crash (wow, that rook sure knows how to grab the headlines), Truex Jr. experienced another frustrating weekend at Dover. With just three top 10s and a high finish of sixth at Darlington, 2009 has been nothing short of a disaster. The transition to MWR should be a smooth one, though, and having the experienced Pat Tryson as crew chief will be a boon. Expect Truex to rebound in 2010 and remind folks just why he made the Chase in 2007. One thing’s for sure; it can’t get any worse.
Let’s not forget that Bowyer finished third and fifth in the last two seasons, but as for teammates Kevin Harvick and Burton, it’s not been the best of years. Starting again with a new team, colors, and sponsor (to make space for Casey Mears) Bowyer has probably punched above his weight given the relative quality of his equipment this year. With 12 top 10s on the season, just two fewer than the combined total of the other three RCR wheelmen, Bowyer was even in contention for the Chase until he wrecked at Bristol (although it always felt like a long shot). He’ll be keen to salvage something from his season at his home track of Kansas this weekend; whether he has the horsepower to do so remains to be seen.
Blaney has an average finish of 41.3 this season – including eight last place finishes. This is to be expected since he’s been starting and parking for much of the year for Phil Parsons’s Prism Motorsports team, but even so check out the horror show that is his 2009 season statistics. Wow… Blaney has completed one race all year, a 28th-place run in the rain at the Coke 600, and at 46 years of age the clock is fast expiring on his Sprint Cup career. It’s an ignominious end for a driver who’s widely regarded as one of the good guys.
Yes, Kahne is still in the Chase but does anyone (even those related to him) seriously expect a rebound over the final eight races? It’s true just making the Chase and winning two races represents a fine effort for the soft-spoken Budweiser pitch man. But 189 points off the pace after two races is not the plan Kenny Francis and Co. drew up. It’s not, of course, helped by the shenanigans and uncertainty that surrounds Richard Petty Motorsports and the proposed merger with Yates Racing. Let’s hope Kahne finds some solidity next season, because if anything ever fell into place, he has the talent to become a Cup champion.