This is the last of a four-part series we’ve run this week handing out some grades and awards following the first third of the season. Today, we focus on the actual teams. For the first three editions, click here as we dish out awards and report cards for NASCAR’s top drivers, races, broadcasting moments, and more.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (Nos. 1, 42):
A mixed bag for EGR with McMurray vastly exceeding expectations (winning the Daytona 500, looking racy) and Montoya just now starting to show signs of his “2009 Chase” form after a sluggish start. Expect JPM to recover and make the Chase, and even the rejuvenated McMurray has an outside chance of making the big dance. Grade: B+.
Tom’s Take: A bit of a mixed bag here. McMurray may not be in the Chase, but with the way he’s performed after being invisible for years you have to give him credit. He’s done far more than just bring home that Daytona 500 trophy; now, the big question is how well can he and the volatile Juan Pablo keep working together? Too many DNFs have the No. 42 not where they need to be; it’s going to take a little help to get them firmly back in contention. Grade: B-.
Front Row Motorsports (No. 34, 37, 38):
How is it possible to have three teams I have so little to say about. Oh yeah, that’s because they finish each race several laps off the pace. Grade: D.
Tom’s Take: What’s going on with Kevin Conway is 99 percent marketing genius, 1 percent future racing potential. You just wonder how long FRM can milk the money out of that Cash Cow before Extenze and that rookie claim they’ve had enough of Cup racing. As for Kvapil and Gilliland, well … they’re two really good drivers trapped in a bad Ford Fusion body. Grade: D+.
Furniture Row Racing (No. 78)
Just two DNF’s for Regan Smith in 12 attempts, but an average finish of 26.4 isn’t much to get the fans fired up about. One of the sport’s good guys, hopefully Smith can get a ride that matches his definite talent. Grade: C+.
Deferring to my review from yesterday…
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+.
Germain Racing (No. 13)
Four DNFs, three DNQs, an average starting position of 34.4 and an average finishing position of 34.0 can’t, by anyone’s definition, be viewed as a “success,” but I for one hope Papis gets a few more chances to learn the craft of racing ovals. Clearly, his results at Watkins Glen and Sonoma will be crucial to his long-term opportunities. Grade: C-.
Tom’s Take: A second team for Germain would help them immensely in their battle to play with the sport’s big boys, helping Papis speed along his development as well. But I guess that’s too much to ask considering NASCAR’s current economic state. Grade: C-.
Hendrick Motorsports (Nos. 5, 24, 48, 88)
With three drivers safely ensconced in the top 12 and Junior not that far outside the all-important 12th place, it’s hard to argue it’s been a bad year for HMS so far. But, given their own very high standards, it’s not a stretch to make the case that more was expected. Yes, Double J has won three times and the original four-time has looked a threat each race but there just seems to be that little something missing this year. Expect the brain trust at HMS to have that rectified by Chase time. Grade: B.
Tom’s Take: Yes, no one’s won a race outside four-time champ Jimmie Johnson. But Jeff Gordon’s led more laps than anyone else, and the No. 24/48 shop seems to be sending out the fastest cars across the board more than any other. My worry surrounds Mark Martin and the No. 5 camp. Looks like in mixing them with the No. 88, we’ve learned one right + one wrong doesn’t make a right. Grade: A for the 24/48, C for the 5/88 … B overall.
Joe Gibbs Racing (Nos. 11, 18, 20)
It’s been a great year for Joe Gibbs Racing with both Denny and Kyle establishing themselves as genuine title threats in 2010. Logano started off great and has regressed some in the last couple months but all in all, things are looking for Toyota’s top team. Grade: A.
Tom’s Take: No question, Joe Gibbs Racing has made its mark on the circuit as of late, with cars that are even a year old. But when only two and not three of its big cogs win races, the inconsistency of Logano brings this mark down a bit. Grade: A-.
Latitude 43 Motorsports (No. 26)
Bought the owner points from the now defunct No. 26 car and started out with Boris Said behind the wheel. It’s David Stremme now for all the difference that has made. Grade: D.
Tom’s Take: How long can you survive without any cash flow? I think that’s the biggest question I have for a team that’s taken Roush equipment and shown how to finish at or near the back of the pack. Grade: D.
Michael Waltrip Racing (and JTG) (Nos. 00, 47, 56)
As with Penske, it’s been an up and down year for MWR. Martin Truex, Jr. has slipped seamlessly into the NAPA car and has run relatively well. The Reut has started slow but is showing signs of improvement; while everybody’s favorite Australian has flat out sucked. It’s hard not to feel, however, that MWR is an organization with a solid future. Grade: B-. (Ambrose picking up the minus all by himself.)
Tom’s Take: What Truex has down with the No. 56 is outright remarkable. What Waltrip has done with the No. 00 is downright terrible. And what Ambrose is hitting with the No. 47 makes him look like a Demolition Derby driver, not a Sprint Cup sophomore. Still, if the season right now the team has one car in the Chase for the first time in history, so that leaves things a bit of a head-scratcher. Grade: C+.
Penske Racing (Nos. 2, 12, 77)
Something of a mixed bag for the Captain so far this year. Kurt Busch has won a race (Vegas) and looks set to make the Chase, Keselowski’s been flipped upside down in a retaliatory move by Cousin Carl and hasn’t yet picked up a top ten, while
Sam Hornish Jr has, if you’ll forgive the Days of Thunder cliché, hit everything but the pace car. Grade: B-.
Tom’s Take: With Silly Season settled, expect both Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski to keep improving. Kes more than ever seems headed on the right track with the guidance of new crew chief Jay Guy. But the struggles of Hornish still leave this program a bit disjointed. Every multi-car team seems to have a straggler, but when you’re fixing wrecked race cars each week Hornish seems to hurt Penske more than most. Grade: C.
Red Bull Racing (Nos. 82, 83)
After Brian Vickers made the Chase in 2009 (okay, then sank without a trace in the final ten races), the signs were that the upward momentum from RBR was going to continue in 2010. That hasn’t really happened, and now with Vickers recovering from blood clot issues, chances are 2010 is going to be a quote unquote “down” year. Grade: C.
Tom’s Take: Scott Speed looked like he was shot out of a cannon to start this season. But his recent decline plus Vickers being out indefinitely for health reasons leave the future of this program up in the air. Can Casey Mears really lead this team back to glory days, spearheading Speed’s development in the process? That’s an awful lot to ask a guy who hasn’t produced, well, an awful lot in the Cup Series, period. Grade: C-.
Richard Childress Racing (Nos. 29, 31, 33)
Sometimes less really is more. Losing the fourth team and concentrating on his three established drivers, Richard Childress has righted what was a seriously leaky ship in 2009. Harvick’s leading the points, Burton’s driving like a man possessed and Bowyer is in touch for a Chase spot. But can one of the three take that crucial next step and finally win the team principal another Cup crown. Grade: A.
Tom’s Take: Bowyer has suffered from a bout of bad luck that’s hampered him a bit. But considering where all four teams were last year, cutting back to three may be the best decision Richard Childress ever made. Now, about those driver and sponsor extensions … can we get them done before it becomes a major distraction? Grade: A.
Richard Petty Motorsports (No. 9, 19, 43, 98)
When Kasey Kahne’s move to HMS in 2012 was announced, you couldn’t help but feel this could be the beginning of the end for this team. Sadler’s really not getting it done, Allmendinger’s flirting with success (without ever really attaining any) and Menard is, well, Paul Menard which, in the words of Forrest Gump, is “about all I have to say about that.” Grade: D.
Tom’s Take: I really do feel like A.J. Allmendinger can be somebody in this sport. But he and his team always seem to save their mistakes for the worst possible time. Running 20th? Let’s have a flawless pit stop. 2nd? OK, we’ll find a way to blow it. In his fourth year, he’ll be the one called on to save RPM if they even exist in 2011, so expect the resources to tilt his way moving forward. Sadler? Menard? They just fill up the grid … and Kahne? He’ll get even more invisible as the “lame duck” season finally sets in. Grade: D+.
Robby Gordon Motorsports (No. 7)
There is something so appropriately “old school” about Robby Gordon and his one-car operation. He’s a throwback, if you will, to the days before corporate driver drones and Jimmie-robots; the days before twenty million barely bought you a seat the Big Boy’s table. With just one top 15 finish to speak of (14th at Phoenix) 2010 will continue to be an uphill struggle for the maverick Gordon. Grade: C.
Tom’s Take: How can you give someone a C when they’re about to wind up off the grid because of no money? Gordon partnered with BAM Racing this year in a last-ditch effort to keep their car afloat, but that hasn’t left him any more competitive while the multi-car teams run him straight to the ground. You gotta feel for one of the sport’s last, great independents; but in a way, it’s a miracle he even lasted this long. Grade: F.
Roush Fenway Racing (Nos. 6, 16, 17, 99)
As the banner organization for the Blue Oval crowd, it’s fair to say 2010 has not been a huge success so far. Yes, the Biff, Cousin Carl and Matt Kenseth all hold Chase places, but the truth is none of them look like serious title threats. There’s time, still, to turn things around but other than picking up what has so far proved to be elusive — a win. Apparently there is a fourth RFR driver called David Ragan, but I can’t say I’ve noticed him this year. Grade: B-.
Tom’s Take: Ford going 0-for-29 for wins in NASCAR’s top three series just astounds me. Kenseth has clearly improved, but Biffle and Edwards have only shown glimpses of brilliance. With Ragan having an “old” Jamie McMurray-type year, you wonder if having to support, well, about 12 teams with chassis and engines have Roush Fenway dragging a bit behind the scenes. Can the new FR9 engine solve all the problems? Some, but you can’t do much with horsepower if the car doesn’t handle. Grade: C+.
Stewart-Haas Racing (Nos. 14, 39)
It’s been something of a sophomore slump for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2010, with both drivers currently just outside of the Chase transfer spots. Ryan Newman is 30 points pack (13th) while team owner Stewart is 37 markers out of the top twelve in 14th position. It was Smoke’s victory in the All-Star race in 2009 that really started the rise of SHR from fledgling organization to serious competitors in their inaugural season of competition; so it’s fair to say he will be hoping for a repeat performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway (sounds good to say that, huh?) this Saturday night. On a positive note Newman, albeit unexpectedly, picked up a victory at Phoenix – his first as an SHR driver and his first since his 2008 Daytona 500 victory. Clearly, there’s room for improvement but overall it could be a lot, lot worse. Grade: B.
Tom’s Take: Danny said it best; considering their ugly start, thinks could be a whole lot worse than 13th and 14th in points. Keep in mind Stewart is notoriously a slow starter throughout his career, with over 75% of his wins coming after Memorial Day Weekend. Something tells me with Hendrick engines and chassis, this duo’s going to end up just fine. Grade: B.
Tommy Baldwin Racing (No.36):
Five DNFs, three DNQs. Not much else to see here, people. Grade: F.
Tom’s Take: Last year, Baldwin made a valiant effort in the beginning of the season before choosing to park it. I think we’ve reached that time again. Grade: F.
TRG Motorsports (No. 71):
It’s sad to see former champ and borderline future Hall of Fame candidate Bobby Labonte struggle so mightily in the No. 71 car. It’s even sadder to have to give out such a low grade to a true gentleman. Grade: C-.
Tom’s Take: Since the start, I’ve applauded the way TRG has done business. They’re the best of the new teams to hit the sport since the start of the 2009 season; but the fact they’re starting-and-parking races speaks volumes to what that word “best” has become. Grade: C-.
Whitney Motorsports (No.46):
Highest finish in five races: 34th. Aw well, can’t get much worse. Grade: F.
Tom’s Take: Terry Cook leaving due to worries about the team’s future direction might have been the year’s most hilarious story. What did he think an unsponsored team was going to do after ten races? Go buy a Hendrick car? Grade: F.
The Start And Park Teams
NEMCO Motorsports (No. 87), Phoenix Racing (No. 09), Prism Motorsports (No. 55, 66),
Start. Drive a lap or two. Park. Repeat ad nauseum Grade: N/A.
Tom’s Take: I’d rather see a short field than a start-and-parker. ‘Nuff said. Grade: F.