Race Weekend Central

Grading the 2010 NASCAR Pack, Part II: Drivers A-Kenseth

With the NASCAR season two-thirds of the way gone and the final off week now out of our way, we’re taking a brief moment of respite, grading all the drivers and teams once again on their performance so far in 2010. Yesterday, we covered an owner-by-owner breakdown of season results so far… all of which you can view here.

Today, we grade everyone from AJ Allmendinger to Matt Kenseth, the first half of an alphabet soup of top-40 drivers in the standings to date. Part III comes tomorrow, finishing off this last look at NASCAR before the homestretch begins and the real kids go after grades of their own – school does start just after Labor Day, ya know.

So let’s get started. 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!

AJ Allmendinger – 22nd in Points
Danny: When he’s not running his teammates into the grass at Pocono, Allmendinger has proved that he does have the speed — he just can’t finish races as well as he starts them. And until he learns that picking up a top 10 once every six races (he has four total on the year) the ‘Dinger (hot wife and all) will never be anything but an afterthought. Grade: C

Tom: Between flipping his teammate, nearly flipping at Daytona and all but flipping King Richard Petty the bird, there was a time this summer where it seemed the once-promising ‘Dinger was headed out the door at RPM. Instead, he signed on the dotted line of a contract extension in early August and the team (fourth at Watkins Glen) has appeared to be markedly improved ever since. Maybe they’ll get those Bud No. 9 cars a few months early? That would pad AJ’s top-10 total. Grade: C+

Marcos Ambrose – 26th in Points
Danny: Expected to challenge for a spot in the Chase, Ambrose has done anything but that and found an utterly unique way to throw away the race at Sonoma (stalling behind the pace car when leading with a handful of laps to go). Here’s hoping the amiable Aussie puts it all together next year in RPM colors. Grade: C+

See also
Marcos Ambrose Parting Ways With JTG

Tom: The key moment for Ambrose this year will forever be the second he turned off the engine and gave up the win back at Sonoma. But in a way, his fate with JTG was sealed long before it, a victim of both too many mechanical failures and uncharacteristic wrecks caused by pushing an ill-performing car too hard. RPM is a nice place for the likable Tasmanian to land, but to get there he’s got 12 lame-duck races to go as of yet. Expect a rather “lame” ending to the year to go along with it with zero road courses and a pending divorce dampening the mood. Grade: D

Greg Biffle – 11th in Points
Danny: The timely fillip of the victory at Pocono and 14 top 10s in 24 races will give the Biff the belief that come Chase time, he can be in the mix. Attempting to become the first man to win championships at the Truck, Nationwide and Cup level, Biffle has shown before that he knows how to get things done at crunch time. Expect some of that in the final 10 races from the No. 16 team. Grade: B+

Tom: Mr. Biffle wore the Chase Cinderella slipper two years ago, briefly flirting with a colossal title upset before Jimmie Johnson turned it into a bunch of broken glass. Since a shocking Pocono win, both car and driver have been a lock for the top 10 yet their long list of solid finishes have still kept them mired at 11th in points. Is that enough to leave them under the radar? I certainly think so. But can they realistically compete for a title? They’re certainly not as bad as 11th… I’ll give you that much. Grade: B+

Mike Bliss – 40th in Points
Danny: Finished ninth at Daytona, 10th at Talladega and pretty much nowhere in his other nine races. Grade: D

Tom: See Mike Bliss race. See Mike Bliss park. See Mike Bliss cash check. Don’t be jealous! Grade: D-

Clint Bowyer – 12th in Points
Danny: It’s going to be a nervous couple weeks for Bowyer as he tries to make his 100-point lead over 13th stand up. But given his form at each the next two tracks, he should make it into the final field relatively easily. Like teammate Jeff Burton, Bowyer has 12 top-10 runs on the year (one every other race, essentially) but when it comes to the big prizes, that just ain’t gettin’ it done. Grade: B

Tom: The only reason Bowyer’s sitting on the bubble is bad luck keeping him from cashing in on solid finishes. Considering he almost set the record for no DNFs (going over two seasons without them at one point), some of that led to the No. 33 team fighting the law of averages while almost being too conservative at times. We’ve seen that strategy work in the past for him, transitioning into a bit of a playoff boost should the timing be right. Grade: B

Jeff Burton – 8th in Points
Danny: One of the elder statesmen of NASCAR has benefited like his two teammates from the uptick in RCR fortunes this year, and this is reflected in his 379 laps led and 12 top 10s. He’s also, just for the record, completed 6,940 of the 6,951 total laps run this season at the Cup level, which is pretty impressive.

But without a win heading into the Chase, Burton will reset to the foot of the Chase field. Back in 2006, Burton led the field by 45 points with five races to go, and then essentially blew it with a 42nd-place finish at Martinsville and a 38th-place run at Texas two weeks later. Can he win it all? Yes. Will he? No, not in my opinion. Grade: B+

Tom: Consistency? Check (12 top-10 finishes). Veteran knowledge? Check. Longshot to win this year’s title? Check. Grade: B

Kurt Busch – 10th in Points
Danny: Eight top-five finishes and two wins (Atlanta and Charlotte) suggest that the first champion under the Chase format is primed for a tilt at title number two. He’s also led 807 laps (at least one in 13 different races), so it’s clear he has the speed, especially on the cookie-cutter circuits. There’s no doubt in my mind, the elder Busch is a bona fide championship contender. Grade: B+

Tom: What is it about the Dog Days of summer causing the Miller Lite Dodge to collapse quicker than you can blink your eye. For the second straight year, the No. 2 is heading out of the summer with problems. But when the smoke cleared last November, keep in mind the Blue Deuce was sitting fourth in points – this one could go either way. Grade: B+

Kyle Busch – 3rd in Points
Danny: I’ve got this funny feeling about Kyle Busch this year. Yes, he still acts like a recalcitrant, petulant child at times, but with three wins, six top fives, 12 top 10s and 977 laps led in 24 races, Busch has demonstrated he’s a genuine title contender. Perhaps more importantly, though, Busch has shown this year that he can wrestle an ill-handling racecar to a better-than-expected finish where in the past that’s not something we’ve not seen. That alone could make the difference in the final 10 races. One thing’s for sure: Kyle will be one to watch over the next couple months. Grade: A-

Tom: Old Kyle. New Kyle. Red Kyle. Blue Kyle. Still the same irritating, holier-than-thou but occasionally backs up what he preaches. Grade: A-

Kevin Conway – 35th in Points
Danny: The man with the anchor hanging out of the back of his car has now left the building… and taken it to Robby Gordon‘s shop. Conway and his EztenZe sponsorship will campaign RGM machines for the remainder of what will be his Rookie of the Year-winning run. Although with zero top 10s and a 31.8-place average finish through 22 races, it’s tough to legitimately award him anything. Grade: F

Tom: Who knew a sexual enhancement pill was all it took to get you behind a wheel of a racecar? For shame. Grade: F

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 18th in Points
Danny: Wow. This was not the season Junior Nation was hoping for. NASCAR’s most famous son has been the very definition of mediocre this year, and given he’s now in his mid-30s and driving for arguably the best owner in the sport, it doesn’t augur well. No question, NASCAR needs Junior to win. The only problem is world peace looks more likely right now. Grade: C-

Tom: Danny said it all. Despite some statements to the contrary, I’d be shocked if I didn’t see some internal changes at Hendrick over the next few months. That should include Earnhardt’s “untouchable” crew chief, Lance McGrew. Grade: C-

Carl Edwards – 4th in Points
Danny: It hasn’t been an easy season for Cousin Carl, but he’s still very much in the Chase mix thanks to six top-five and 12 top-10 runs. The two big knocks on Edwards’s season are his lack of victories (his last came at Miami in the season finale to 2008) and secondly, just six laps led all year. But prior to his 12th-place run at Thunder Valley, Edwards had six straight finishes of seventh or better, so he’s coming into form at just the right time.

Not coincidentally, all four Roush Fenway racers have shown signs of life after a sluggish start to the season, so although it’s seemed unlikely Edwards might just be primed for a title tilt. Grade: B

Tom: Arguably the hottest guy among the 12 championship contenders, Edwards has produced a remarkable turnaround where he went from the outskirts of the Chase to solidly within. At this point, a true darkhorse for the series title, the winless streak set to end at any moment. Grade: B+

David Gilliland – 33rd in Points
Danny: I follow NASCAR very closely and I’ve got to be honest; I can’t remember even hearing his name mentioned this year other than in the pre-race lineup. Grade: D

Tom: David who? Really? He still races? Grade: D+

Jeff Gordon – 2nd in Points
Danny: Second only to Kevin Harvick with 10 top fives on the year, Gordon has shown speed and consistency but also a complete inability to grind out victories. As he found out to his detriment in the 2008 Chase, top fives are all well and good but if the other guy is winning race after race it makes no difference. All that said, after 10 years of trying for championship number five, Gordon will go into the Chase knowing that if the stars align for him, anything is possible. Grade: B+

Tom: It’s been sweet irony the sport’s winningest active driver has found every which way to lose over the past six months. But through it all, he remains second in the standings, one of the more consistent drivers in a year where every title contender seems to bob up and down like your local rollercoaster. New baby in tow, the passion is there to execute a Drive For Five… but as long as the No. 48 is in the same shop, that’s still a major roadblock. Grade: A-

Robby Gordon – 34th in Points
Danny: Is this the last hurrah for Robby Gordon in full time Cup racing? Quite possibly. And if it is indeed the case then it’s also a real shame, because NASCAR needs characters like Robby, that’s for sure. Grade: D

Tom: And this is how it ends for Robby Gordon: Extenze, in the auction room, no money left. Grade: D-

Denny Hamlin – 5th in Points
Danny: After a slow start, Hamlin exploded with five wins in 10 races following the return of the rear spoiler, but he’s slowed down some of late with just three top-10 efforts in the last nine. Consistency, usually a hallmark of the No. 11 team has been the missing factor this year and Hamlin knows all too well he cannot afford to have terrible finishes in the Chase. Despite his relative lack of recent thunder, expect Hamlin to be a huge factor in the final 10. Grade: A-

Tom: With all that Hamlin’s been through, just the fact he’s in position to win the title is a minor miracle. But major question marks loom for Joe Gibbs Racing after falling off the face of the earth mid-June. With no wins since a dominant performance at Michigan, Hamlin is still tied for the number one seed but doesn’t have the bailout rags-to-riches history Johnson does when it comes to Sprint Cup titles. Honestly, how he does at Atlanta and Richmond to prep may make or break these title chances. Grade: A-

Kevin Harvick – 1st in Points
Danny: What a difference a year makes. This time in 2009 all the talk was of Harvick wanting out from the only team he’s known at the Cup level. Now, he sits atop the points standings with a lofty 279-point lead over second place Jeff Gordon, albeit an advantage that will be eliminated prior to the green flag at Loudon in a few weeks.

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Voice of Vito: What a Difference a Year Makes for Budweiser... & Kevin Harvick, Too

But with the recent win at Michigan, Harvick has shown he can take the checkers on non-restrictor plate tracks (his first since Phoenix in the penultimate race of the 2006 Chase) and that factor, combined with his unerring consistency throughout 2010, suggest Harvick is primed for his most serious assault on the championship yet. Grade: A+

Tom: From rags to riches, literally, this long-term partnership is one of the most surprising to develop this season. I feel like no one considers this man a title contender… but come November, he might just walk away from it all. Grade: A

Sam Hornish Jr. – 28th in Points
Danny: Do I really have to write about Sam? I always slate him and I really want to lay off just this once – he doesn’t need me to tell him his NASCAR career pretty much sucks. Grade: D

Tom: Sam has had a rough time of it in Sprint Cup this year. And last year. And the year before that. When does this trial period finally end again? Grade: D

Jimmie Johnson – 9th in Points
Danny: It’s been a tale of two Jimmies in 2010. On the one hand, he’s won five races and has eight top 10s — not to mention a series high 1,068 laps led — but on the other hand he’s had six finishes of 31st or worse. This, though, is the four-time champ we’re talking about, and until anyone proves otherwise, the title goes through the No. 48 team. Grade: B

Tom: Still the title favorite until somebody knocks him off. Yeah, he’s had a rough summer… but we’ve seen this movie before, right? Grade: B+

Kasey Kahne – 16th in Points
Danny: Roll on 2012 and the panacea that is Hendrick Motorsports. It’s not been an easy year for Kahne, yet he’s still likely to finish in the top 15 – albeit without a Chase berth. No doubt Kahne is a hot shoe, but he’s not getting any younger (despite looking too young to buy cigarettes). By the time he arrives (finally) at HMS, he’ll have a lot to prove. Grade: C

Tom: Now that 2011 is secure for Kahne, he can focus on finishing out the season strong with RPM. There’s just one problem: he needs strong equipment to do it. Considering his April announcement that made him effectively a lame duck, I’m not surprised at how his season has gone. Grade: B-

Matt Kenseth – 8th in Points
Danny: Six of Kenseth’s 10 top-10 runs came in the first seven races of the season, but he’s shown life of late with a fifth-place finish at Michigan and a 10th-place run at Thunder Valley. But with the problems Roush has had for much of 2010 (despite the recent improvement) and with just 35 laps led all year, you can’t help but feel the 2003 Cup champion will just be there to make up the numbers in the final 10 races. Grade: B-

Tom: A virtual lock to finish 12th in points, in my opinion. The 2003 champ has fired more crew chiefs (two) then contended for wins (one) so far this season, and that Martinsville knock by Jeff Gordon in March still serves as a haunting change in momentum the No. 17 Ford hasn’t recovered from. Grade: B-

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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