NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Grading the Pack, Part I: 2010 NASCAR Awards for the Best Drivers, Ads & Races

We’re a third of the way through the 2010 Sprint Cup season (boy, time flies huh?) and just one race from the halfway point to the start of the Chase. So, with the All-Star madness this weekend at Charlotte, and the Coke 600 to follow on Memorial Day weekend, we’re going to take a look at who’s flying, who’s improving and who’s driving around with a thousand-pound anchor hanging off the back of the car.

First up in our four-part series are some basic awards. Whether it’s for skill on the track or some poor advertising off it, I’ve covered every aspect while enlisting the help of Managing Editor Tom Bowles to chime in on my opinions.

Best Driver: Kevin Harvick

The truth is at this stage of the season, I’m not sure any one driver especially stands out. Jimmie Johnson started out gangbusters, winning three of the first five races. Denny Hamlin did likewise, winning three of the next six after the return of the rear spoiler. But with the way the No. 48 wins titles, this is all prelude until the serious business begins at Loudon in September. So with 12 races in the books, I’m giving really rather tentative Best Driver honors to Kevin Harvick for his win, four top fives, nine top 10s and overall points lead. Given how Harvick struggled in 2009, not to mention all the associated contract and sponsor issues, his has been a fantastically consistent effort thus far.

Tom’s Take: Harvick’s been great, but what Hamlin’s done makes racing history in my book. Dead and buried by everyone (including me) with that ACL injury, he won a race two weeks after surgery and has combined with Johnson to win 11 of the last 19. If there’s a rival for Johnson in this day and age, the No. 11 team is it.

Best Driver (Honorable Mention): Jimmie Johnson

Things you thought you’d never see at Dover this past weekend: Johnson in shock and human error costing him the win.

It happened, as Johnson was caught speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit sequence in an attempt to beat Kyle Busch back on to the track. But mental mistakes aside, Johnson is still the driver to beat – even if he’s beating himself at the moment. Much has been made of the three DNFs, with all sorts of associated stats, but the simple fact is two of those came at the restrictor plate tracks and the third was a freak incident with AJ Allmendinger. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it until I’m Lowe’s blue in the face — the Sprint Cup title goes through Johnson.

Tom’s Take: Agree with this pick, although I’d like to give Matt Kenseth some love. Gutsy move to make a crew chief change one race into the season, and yet he’s been up there contending for wins until the last month with Todd Parrott. Possible wild card to go on a tear this summer if Ford’s FR9 engine bears fruit.

Biggest Threat Not Named JJ to Win the Title: Kyle Busch/Denny Hamlin

Since the demise of the much slandered wing and the return of the more traditional spoiler seven races ago, JGR has been all but unbeatable. Hamlin’s won three times, Busch twice – and he missed out on what should have been a third win at Phoenix. Both have surged up the standings. It’s far too early – like obscenely ridiculously early – to be crowning a presumptive champion, but if there are two drivers who look like they might have something for Double J come Chase time, the two Joe Gibbs racers are those wheelmen.

Tom’s Take: No doubt, Hamlin’s clearly the top choice. What a far cry from the emotional roller coaster of immaturity he was a few years ago.

Biggest Threat Not Named JJ to Win the Title (Honorable Mention): Jeff Gordon

The biggest knock on the original four-time is that he’s failed – time and again – to close the deal and drive all the way to victory lane in 2010. The good news for fans of the 19-year veteran is that he’s led laps (in some cases significant quantities) at nine of the 12 races so far this year and has five top-five finishes. That’s the sort of consistency that wins you titles – no question.

Tom’s Take: Jeff Gordon? Too much frustration in his camp makes me wonder whether he’ll even make the Chase. To me, Jeff Burton is a close second. He’s led eight of the last nine races, the first time that’s happened in a decade while finding new crew chief Todd Berrier a perfect match. A guy that doesn’t have many years left, at some point a sense of urgency will kick in as he knows this could be his last, best chance at the title trophy.

Most Improved: Jamie McMurray

What a start to the season for Jamie McMurray, after wandering almost aimlessly through four frustrating years at Roush Fenway Racing. “Back home” with Chip Ganassi at EGR, McMurray won the biggest race of them all, the Daytona 500, and cemented what was said to be a precarious relationship with Bass Pro Shops in the process. He’s accrued three top fives and four top 10s already. One of the garage’s good guys, it’s hard not to feel happy for McMurray’s turnaround in 2010.

Tom’s Take: McMurray’s better, but you had to expect that as Roush was like a train wreck of a marriage: anything else would have been better. What’s a big surprise to me was how quickly Martin Truex Jr. and Pat Tryson came up to speed with the NAPA Toyota. It’s easy to forget how junky that car was for the last four years with Michael Waltrip, yet all of a sudden this duo has it 12th and on the verge of the Chase. If they make it, that’s right up there with Brian Vickers and Team Red Bull sneaking in last year as the biggest Chase upset of all time.

Most Improved (Honorable Mention): Joey Logano

Logano sits in 18th spot, 102 points out of the Chase, but he’s been undeniably better in his second full season in the Cup series. Logano turns 20 on May 24 and he’s already picked up two top fives and five top 10s. Comparatively, he had three top fives and seven top 10s total in 2009, so he’s well on his way to beating those rookie stats. While he might not make the Chase, there’s no doubt Logano is starting to earn the respect of his competitors, and more importantly, starting to get the all-important high finishes. One for the future, no doubt; the kid is absolutely for real.

Tom’s Take: Logano started strong, but he hasn’t been riding this recent JGR wave of success. Scott Speed and Paul Menard also faded after hot starts, so I’ll have to go with McMurray. He’s pretty much the only choice left.

Biggest Disappointment: Dale Junior

Does anything really need to be said? Aside from the final laps of the Daytona 500, Little E has been all but irrelevant. And that ain’t good for the sport.

Tom’s Take: 16th in points, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s been a dud but he’s still slightly better than when he bottomed out in ’09. I know health got in the way, but Team Red Bull has really stumbled after entering the Chase last fall with such momentum. With leader Brian Vickers on the sidelines indefinitely, the only news item left is whether Scott Speed survives to 2011.

Biggest Disappointment (Honorable Mention): Marcos Ambrose

The amiable Aussie was expected to make a sustained push for a Chase berth this season. Clearly, it hasn’t happened. Marcos Ambrose has struggled mightily in 2010, with an average finish of 23.3 and just one solitary top 10 (ninth place at Richmond.) A whopping 366 points and 16 spots out of the Chase, it might just be time to start thinking about 2011 for the No. 47 team.

Tom’s Take: Danny has it nailed. Shocking to see a guy who kept his nose clean as a rookie spending this year slamming into everything but the kitchen sink.

Best Race: Martinsville

Dear Executives of NASCAR: This is why – repeat this is exactly, completely, and utterly why – Martinsville should never lose a second race date. A tremendous race and an exceptional finish from Hamlin who simply refused to lose. Great stuff.

Tom’s Take: Hard to argue with Martinsville’s Monday Matinee for the ages. Look back at this day if Gordon or Kenseth fails to make the Chase, as both took themselves out of potential victories.

Best Race (Honorable Mention): Talladega

Forget the ferocious deluge of post-race stats about lead changes and race leaders, this was a classic right down to the final centimeter of the 500-plus miles, with Harvick executing a picture-perfect last-lap pass to nail down the victory. After the processional nature of the Chase race in 2009 (due, in part, to NASCAR imposed bump-drafting restrictions) this race was a return to restrictor-plate racing at its best.

Tom’s Take: If not for that stupid pothole, this year’s Daytona 500 was one of my favorite races. Handling made a difference with the plates for once, and the finish gave us a shocking upset and a grateful winner in McMurray.

Worst Race: Dover

This really wasn’t much of a race, was it? Scoring just one out of six in the Matt McLaughlin race recap rating scale, that one was a generous award for a race that featured little to no thrills whatsoever, and a hugely reduced crowd. If it wasn’t for Jimmie’s “mental mistake,” it might even have been less exciting, and that’s really saying something.

Tom’s Take: I love, love, love Las Vegas. But after hosting one of the best races of 2009, this year’s edition was like losing $1,000 in blackjack, then backed into the corner of the casino and forced to stare at paint drying for three hours. Thanks a lot, Jimmie and Jeff, I was really entertained.

Biggest Surprise: Ford’s Lack of Success

No wins in any of the top-three series, 2010 is shaping up to be a bad year for the beleaguered automaker. Messrs. Carl Edwards, Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne et al will be looking to change this before the year is out, you can bet your bottom dollar.

Tom’s Take: I’m going with Kahne getting signed by Hendrick. Unusual to have Silly Season start this early, and amazing that Ford let one of their best talents get away not once, but twice. Rick Hendrick has become like the New York Yankees of NASCAR with all the talent he’s swallowed up.

Best Ad: Sponsafy Campaign

I’ve said it before, I know, but any ad that has Busch wearing a pink fire suit with fluffy animals and talking about love just rocks in my book. A genuinely innovative campaign idea from the Japanese automaker.

Tom’s Take: Not going to argue. Who doesn’t love love? I love love.

Best Ad (Honorable Mention): Coke – We’d like to teach the world to sing

I didn’t comment on this ad in my Commercial Review following the Daytona 500, and realize now it was a mistake. This is a terrific spot.

Tom’s Take: I don’t have a runner-up (being at most of the races, I miss a lot of the commercials) but I will say if I hear NAPA Know How jingle one more time, I might need a new TV – ’cause this one will be out the window.

Best TV Show: Trackside Live

Trackside Live is still the standard, in my humble opinion, for non-race NASCAR broadcasting. The hosting crew – Hammond, Byrnes, DW and Larry Mac – know how to make this show work and week-in, week-out, that’s exactly what they do. If you don’t watch, you really should.

Tom’s Take: Staying out of the TV discussion, but I will say RaceDay is really clicking on all cylinders with Kyle Petty.

Best TV Show (Honorable Mention): Inside NASCAR

When Inside NASCAR was announced as the “replacement” for the long-running, now defunct This Week in NASCAR, I was a little peeved. But I’m now thoroughly convinced by the new show. I realize there are many of you that don’t have Showtime (nor, have intentions to get it) so if you’re not watching, trust me, you’d enjoy this show which gets better week to week.

Worst TV Show: Fast Track to Fame

I watched 10 minutes of the first show and nearly gouged my eyes out. If there is a worse-conceived, less entertaining, more excruciatingly painful hour of television on any of America’s million channels – well, I haven’t seen it yet, and I’ll admit to watching some tosh. Please, someone in power at SPEED; get rid of this excuse for a show. I’d rather watch an hour of paint drying.

Best Broadcast Moment: Not so much Digger

For the most part, I’ve quite enjoyed FOX’s coverage this year. Yes, it’s an acquired taste, and when matters get dire there’s always the “mute” button, but like I say, FOX has been OK this year. The best moment, though, has to be the relative invisibility of Digger. Ubiquitous last year, the FOX production team finally listened to the clamor of the fans and relegated Digger to a much reduced role. Not before time, chaps, not before time.

Worst Broadcast Moment: A Slice of Pizzi

Part of the NASCAR on FOX pre-show, which is in many cases only marginally worse than Fast Track to Fame, this segment is just embarrassing and the drivers seem to agree – talk about awkward body language. Thankfully, we only have one more “episode” of this nonsense before FOX exits stage left after Charlotte.

Most Dramatic Moment: The Edwards/Keselowski incident at Atlanta

Which for one minute looked like it was going to be horribly serious. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Tom’s Take: That was my top choice until I saw Dennis Setzer get launched into the wall like a flipper hitting a pinball at Talladega. By the time that car came to rest, it’s the first time in a long time I virtually assumed a driver was seriously hurt. How he came through it unscathed is miraculous.

Most Amusing Moment

This award is given with the full benefit of 20/20 hindsight to Edwards, who tried to sound not so very bothered as he inquired as to whether Brad Keselowski was out of his car and OK after the above incident. For all his “aw shucks” act, Edwards is a cold-blooded competitor when he needs to be.

Tom’s Take: Rick Hendrick saying Joe Gibbs Racing has “lapped” him last week. A true car salesman if I ever saw one.

Best Paint Scheme

It’s got to be the Mike Bliss piloted No. 36 car that was sponsored by the new “Kim Kardashian” fragrance. Not only was it a bizarre sponsorship, in and of itself, the car looked just ridiculous which I guess was half the point. Shame, really, then that Bliss stuffed the car into the wall well before the halfway point of the race.

Tom’s Take: Gotta go with the old school ’80s Kahne Bud scheme at Richmond. Too bad it ran like it was built in 1985.

That’s it for now! Come by Wednesday for Parts II and III, when Managing Editor Tom Bowles joins me as we give the top-40 drivers in the Cup Series their early report card.

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