With the season a third of the way through already following this past Sunday’s 400-lapper at the Monster Mile, we’re taking a brief moment of respite, handing out awards while grading all the drivers and teams on their performance so far in 2010. Yesterday, we covered off the awards portion (Best Driver, Most Improved, Best Race… all of which you can view here).
Today, we grade the drivers from AJ Allmendinger to Brian Vickers, the top 40 in the Sprint Cup standings to date. Tomorrow, we’ll hand out the overall team grades in our Frontstretch Newsletter to finish off this four-part series. As with yesterday, this remains a dual effort between myself and site editor Tom Bowles, giving me a second opinion on which drivers passed or failed. Let us know whether you agree and disagree in the comments section below!
Looking for drivers Allmendinger – Kenseth? Click here to jump to the other section. And please note: the number before each driver is their current rank in the Sprint Cup points standings.
24. Brad Keselowski (-558 behind Kevin Harvick): Other than the little incident with Carl Edwards at Atlanta and a few solid runs, Keselowski has settled into his first full season with Penske Racing without really impressing or ripping up too many trees. Still waiting on his first top 10 of the year, once Kes learns some patience he’ll have a long, likely fulfilling, Cup career. Grade: C+
Tom’s Take: Nearly one year after his Talladega flip-to-win, Keselowski endured a harrowing wreck of his own this spring that made national headlines. But other than that Edwards squabble, the one-of-a-kind personality seems a little tamer with the professional influence of Roger Penske. And ever so quietly, seven top 20s in the last eight races have him turning the focus back to the performance on the track instead of what comes out of his mouth. A jump inside the top 20 in points isn’t out of the question this summer, and competing for a Nationwide Series championship will only help his confidence. Grade: B-
32. Travis Kvapil (-783): Arguably one of the greatest names in the sport (imagine how many times he’s had to spell his last name out loud) the Kvap has just one DNF and a highest finishing position of 18th at Talladega. Let’s move on…. Grade: C+
Tom’s Take: Kvapil should be one of the sport’s rising stars; instead, he’s forced to make a habit of doing more with less. Things got off to a slow start with Front Row Motorsports, but he seems to be picking it up a bit as of late while adjusting back to the full-time demands of the series. It’s just with the type of equipment he’s driving, there’s only so far “up” you can go. Grade: C-
33. Bobby Labonte (-823): The 2000 Cup champion continues to make laps (and not much else). He has a high-water mark of 21st (at both Daytona and Bristol) and a string of 30-something efforts. It would be great to see Labonte in quality equipment again. That time, sadly, seems to have passed. Grade: C-
Tom’s Take: One of the saddest sights I have ever seen in this sport is seeing a distinguished former champ park his car due to lack of funds. It’s like a star quarterback ending his career on the bench or a baseball player reduced to nothing more than a once-a-month pinch hitter. But that’s what Labonte did at Dover, part of an awkward 12-race start where he has yet to score a single top 20. Whether or not it should be Labonte’s time to retire is a matter of much debate; but for me, the cold reality is he may soon have no other choice. Grade: D
18. Joey Logano (-436): The kid is improving with every race. Still a teenager until next Monday, and already with 51 races under his belt, you can’t help but feel this will be the year we look back on and say Logano finally began to live up to the hype. Grade: B+
Tom’s Take: Did Danny take LSD and miss the last two months? I’m all for Logano getting better, but the second Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch took off, they left their super sophomore behind. He’s got just two top 10s and nine laps led in the last half-dozen races, a bit of a head-scratcher considering his teammates have ended four of those sitting in victory lane. When the season started, I thought this kid could be the upset lock of the Chase; now, I’m wondering whether he’s on the verge of the classic sophomore slump instead. Grade: B-
11. Mark Martin (-293): Chugging along in 2010 with five top-10 runs. He doesn’t appear to have the magic elixir he supped for most of 2009, but this is Martin here, people. He’ll be involved when it comes to handing out the prizes. Grade: B-
Tom’s Take: To fix Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s ailing team, Rick Hendrick chose to mix the Nos. 5 and 88 together in the offseason. The goal? To make better chemistry; instead, he’s spawned a catfight as no one seems to be on the same page inside that two-car shop. Alan may claim Mark is his hero, but when paired with some of the zeroes on the No. 88 side it’s enough to bring anyone down. The whole “Are you really going to drive in 2011, or is Kasey Kahne going to hop in your car?” hasn’t helped Mark much either, and I don’t expect that to die down until Kahne finally has a place for next year. How do the problems all add up? To a major, major disappointment; let’s not forget this team already had two wins at this point last year. Right now, they have none, and making the Chase is becoming more of a 50/50 proposition. Grade: C+
17. Jamie McMurray (-422): It’s been a very solid start for McMurray in his second go-round with Chip Ganassi. Winning the Daytona 500 was the perfect start and since then, despite one or two snafus, he’s looked racier than ever following four years with Roush Fenway Racing. Grade: B+
Tom’s Take: Some say McMurray’s only a plate driver; well, then, how do you explain that runner-up finish at Darlington? I’m a firm believer sports is as much mental as physical, and after the bad marriage with Roush running back to an old girlfriend has to be like a sigh of relief for him. The Chase might be a bit of a stretch, but a second win? How about Daytona this July? Grade: B+
23. Paul Menard (-551): Started well, sat in a Chase spot for a few weeks, allegedly complained in private about having to make additional media appearances, then faded back into midpoints standing obscurity. That’s where he’ll remain unless something remarkable happens – which it won’t. Grade: B–
Tom’s Take: In the real Cinderella story, she had an absolute blast at the ball. For four hours, suddenly everyone recognized who she was; but all of a sudden, the clock struck 12, the coach turned into a pumpkin and her glass slipper shattered with the gut check of reality that it was all over.
How did she feel the day after? You know, we really should ask Menard. Those two really could learn a thing or two from each other, you see…. Grade: C+
19. Juan Pablo Montoya (-446): Montoya is another driver who has vastly improved results since the return of the rear spoiler which may, or may not be, a coincidence. After such a fine effort in the Chase in 2009, much success was predicted for the Colombian in 2010. He’s still got a way to go to live up to those high expectations, that’s for sure. Grade: B-
Tom’s Take: Danny failed to mention the awful start of two 37th-place finishes in the first three races, peaking in a wreck with McMurray that left the Montoya clan so pissed off, his wife Tweeted in Spanish the No. 1 car was being driven by a clown. Since then, the two have kissed and made up, pairing together to form a powerful force as the Colombian marches up the points ladder. Four top-six finishes over the last six weeks have him suddenly knocking back on the door of the top 12; there’s too much bad luck and too many mistakes to put him there. Some drivers enter the summer stretch with a bit of a margin for error; know this year’s trendy sleeper pick for the title is left with none. Grade: C
40. Joe Nemechek (-1,305): 11 starts, 11 DNFs. ‘Nuff said. Grade: F
Tom’s Take: See Joe start. See Joe park. Wash, rinse, repeat. Grade: F
13. Ryan Newman (-364): For the second straight year Newman started out slow, but since the return of the rear spoiler he has four top-10 runs, including a win at Phoenix, which snapped a 77-race winless streak. He’s positioned nicely to make a sustained bid for a Chase berth. Grade: B
Tom’s Take: Tony Stewart’s right-hand man has been a rock during his driver/owner’s shocking sophomore slump. That ugly start got replaced by a burst of momentum that’s all too familiar to NASCAR fans; the No. 39 rode a similar surge all the way inside the Chase last year. Doesn’t history always have a way of repeating itself? Grade: B
38. Max Papis (-1,259): I love the mad Italian with the broad smile and fantastic attitude. Shame his season-high finish is 22nd, but all things considered, Papis is holding his own. Grade: C
Tom’s Take: If it were another driver in another ride, Papis would have been fired long ago. But both team and sponsor realize his limited oval experience, which is why they’re willing to put up with more DNQs (two) than lead-lap finishes (zero). If I were in his shoes, though, I’d put together a few top-five finishes at Infineon and Watkins Glen to be on the safe side. Grade: C-
22. David Ragan (-541): It’s been more of the same pedestrian form in 2010 that we saw from Ragan in ’09. With the way McMurray is running, Jack Roush might be regretting his decision to stick with the kid. About the only good thing you can say is that his UPS ads have been fantastic. Yeah, scraping the barrel, I know. Grade: D
Tom’s Take: No top 10s at unrestricted tracks? That’s just not cutting the mustard, as the say. About the only good thing going for Ragan is everyone who’s aiming to replace him in the No. 6 car is falling flat on their face. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Going steady with the outside wall. Colin Braun? All but holding a pink slip in his hands. Kahne? Gave Roush the middle finger on his way out to Hendrick Motorsports. That leaves… who, exactly, to take his place behind the wheel? It’s amazing that after McMurray’s ugly four-year stint, RFR would follow up with a sequel so quickly. Grade: D
20. David Reutimann (-506): The Reut has not had the best of luck in 2010, but a morale boosting fifth-place finish at Dover was his best since a fifth-place effort in the Daytona 500. A threat to make the Chase for much of the first half of 2009, Reutimann has regressed this year. Grade: C
Tom’s Take: The second Martin Truex Jr. came on board, Reutimann was knocked back to No. 2 on the totem pole at Michael Waltrip Racing… and it shows. Four straight top 15s have things headed back in the right direction, but three DNFs before that may make it too little, too late for this one-time Chase contender. Grade: C-
29. Elliott Sadler (-718): He’s still racing Cup? Really? Wow, I hadn’t noticed. The white shades are almost as embarrassing as his lack of form. Grade: D
Tom’s Take: For the last 16 months, Sadler’s been in bed with a wife that tried to give him divorce papers, only to get suckered back in when he complained about hurting the kids. You just get the feeling that when this sucker breaks apart – and it will soon – it’s not the type of ending that’s going to be all squeaky clean. Paging Mark Geragos…. Grade: D-
31. Regan Smith (-758): He has led three laps on the season so that’s something, I guess. An average finish of 26.4 for the fledgling outfit probably isn’t too bad, all told. Grade: C+
Tom’s Take: For a driver who made a habit of keeping his nose clean, Smith has sure gotten into his fair share of ugly wrecks this season. The No. 78 car has run much better than where they’ve finished, and a new fleet of Richard Childress Racing chassis will only help them during the months ahead. Grade: C+
26. Scott Speed (-583): Started well, futzed with his hair and it’s all been relatively downhill since. Speed’s a great character – the sport needs those, no doubt – but he’s still not really giving you the sense he’s about to put it all together. Grade: C+
Tom’s Take: He’s really come into his own this year off the track, showcasing his quirkiness with a Twitter page that’s quickly become a fan favorite. But as Casey Mears showed, personality can only keep you in the sport for so long. At some point, this ugly slump that he’s in needs to be snapped, or Speed will be taking his variety show on the road for 2011. Grade: C-
14. Tony Stewart (-371): Like his teammate Newman, Smoke has had a so-so year with just one top five and four total top 10s. His win in the All-Star Race in 2009 really kickstarted things for the owner-driver, so he’ll be hoping for a repeat performance under the lights at Charlotte this Saturday evening. Grade: C+
Tom’s Take: One thing to keep in mind about Smoke: he traditionally gets himself off to a slow start. But only one pole and one lone podium finish (second – Bristol) is certainly a little slower than most years, isn’t it? The fact he’s been taking some PMS out on the media this season hasn’t really helped matters much, either. It’s his first real crisis as an owner, and how Smoke handles it will speak volumes as to how competent he’ll be running this team for the long-term. Grade: C
39. David Stremme (-1,294): An average finish of 28.0 in six races – not even the loquacious Tom Bowles will be able to write anything about this dude. Grade: E
Tom’s Take: Danny, what the heck is this “E” business? What goes on over on the other side of the Atlantic? Here in America, “E” means excellent… and Stremme is far from it. Driving for a team that purportedly has more checks bouncing than one could count, simply surviving to the end of the next stretch would have to be considered a moral victory. Just don’t expect any actual results, OK? Grade: D
12. Martin Truex Jr. (-334): It’s been a pretty solid first 12 races in the NAPA car with his new organization for Truex. He’s a threat to make the Chase, for sure, but if I was a betting man, I’d guess he’ll fall a little short. Grade: B
Tom’s Take: Easily one of the pleasant surprises of the new season. Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson have really built a solid chemistry around each other, turning around a team that languished for years under driver/owner Michael Waltrip. He may not know how to sing karaoke, but four top-10s combined with Tryson’s experience have them building a foundation for a deep run towards the Chase. Grade: B+
27. Brian Vickers (-610): It’s not been a banner year for the man who made his first Chase in 2009. With just three top-10 runs in 11 races, and now with the blood clot situation, it looks like his Chase hopes for 2010 look well and truly scuppered. Get well soon, Mr. Vickers. Grade: C+
Tom’s Take: Everything changes with a health scare that could change Vickers’s life forever. Best wishes to one of the sport’s quality drivers, and a little bit of advice: stay out of the car! Better to let this one heal a few weeks than risk it when your future and perhaps your life is at stake on Coumadin. That’s my biggest fear; not that the team can’t turn it around, but that its driver marches back too soon, wrecks and encounters a serious physical problem that could turn things into an even bigger mess. Grade: C
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