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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Driver Report Cards: Part III

So you might remember a few weeks ago when I graded the Sprint Cup full-timers through Driver Report Cards… and promptly stopped at the letter K. No, I don’t have a weird idea of what the alphabet should be, nor am I protesting the use of the letters L through Z. The third part just never got posted, which means after a dull weekend at Dover it’s a great time to now finish them off. Add in that we’re halfway through NASCAR’s “regular” season and it’s a perfect time to stop, catch our breath and acknowledge who’s positioning themselves for title contention. I even went back and tweaked the first two columns so all 44 drivers are judged by the same criteria (13 races).

Disagree with a grade? Disagree with my reasoning? We’ll be happy to hear from you in the comments section below.

In case you missed it, click below to find your favorites’ stats and analysis — as well as some details as to how the grades get determined:

Part I

Part II

Brad Keselowski

Stats: 13 starts, 1 win, 3 top fives, 8 top 10s.

Points Position: 6th

Best Finish: First – Fontana

Analysis: While teammate Joey Logano has been fighting the good fight, one of the few that has broken through against the Hendrick engine and chassis brigade, there’s something about Keselowski’s season that just seems off. It could be because the No. 2 car, through a series of fortuitous circumstances at Fontana, minted itself a Chase bid by mid-March. Perhaps that means they’re testing earlier, allowing the driver to focus on some off-track excitement like the birth of his first child last month. But Kes, with just 192 laps led and a middling average finish of 13.2 has also suffered through uncharacteristic pit road mistakes – both in the car and on top of the box. He’s also, through a pared-down schedule in NASCAR’s Xfinity and Truck series, gone winless at the sport’s lower levels, removed from the confidence boost trips to Victory Lane provide. You can’t write him off as a Chase contender yet, but one listen to the radio and it’s clear anger — not awesome — is the mood in this camp. It feels like the No. 2 team is the No. 2 car at Team Penske right now, a reality that won’t put him inside the Final Four come Homestead. Grade: B.

Kyle Larson

Stats: 12 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 4 top 10s.

Points Position: 20th

Best Finish: Third – Dover

Analysis: Is there something to this “sophomore slump” theory? This year, when you examine Austin Dillon, Larson, Alex Bowman and others, the answer appears a resounding “yes.” Larson’s the most difficult to diagnose, wheeling Hendrick-supported equipment everyone else uses to batter their competition. Even his teammate, Jamie McMurray, who’s a notch below talent-wise, sits solidly inside the top 10 in points. Compare that to Larson, sitting 20th and earning just a single top-five finish in both NASCAR’s Cup and Xfinity series this season. That leaves him the sport’s big disappointment, an enigma instead of a race winner and potential postseason contender. In his defense, the driver’s health has been in question, missing a Martinsville race over a fainting spell. But crew chief chemistry with Chris Heroy has faded, especially on intermediates (once their strength) leading to rumors he’s on the hot seat going forward. Still 22, Larson is still learning, but with Hendrick’s Chase Elliott knocking on the door building to be NASCAR’s “next big sensation” the clock is ticking for him to have his time in the sun. Grade: C.

Joey Logano

Stats: 13 starts, 1 win, 6 top fives, 9 top 10s, 4 poles.

Points Position: Tied for 3rd

Best Finish: First – Daytona 500

Analysis: It’s hard to hold momentum over the course of NASCAR’s “new” regular season when you peak in the sport’s biggest race, earning your playoff bid exactly six-and-a-half months early. For Logano, the confidence held for the first month or so after, his No. 22 team remaining the best Ford combatant to Harvick, Johnson and the Chevy onslaught. Track position, in the form of a series-high four poles, hasn’t been an issue in a year when it’s impossible to pass; however, during a long green-flag run, he always finds a way to slide back. Logano’s still your best bet for a Final Four pick out of the Ford camp, chemistry running strong with crew chief Todd Gordon. But the summer needs to be a series of experiments to get a little extra “oomph” out of the car on long stretches. Grade: A-.

Michael McDowell

Stats: 7 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: 37th

Best Finish: 22nd – Bristol

Analysis: McDowell has made the most out of the “small team” experience for years. This team, running a limited schedule, is at a constant disadvantage compared to its peers but continues to build a foundation to grow from. 22nd at Bristol, McDowell and Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 group has produced an average finish of 29.6, better than any of the small teams except for the Wood Brothers and Front Row Motorsports. Watch out for this program at Daytona in July, a place where McDowell’s earned top 10s in the past. You can only grow so much as a one-car program in modern NASCAR but LFR is doing all it can. Grade: C.

Jamie McMurray

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s.

Points Position: 7th

Best Finish: 2nd – Phoenix

Analysis: McMurray is 0-for-11 on making the Chase throughout his career. Can 2015 finally be his breakthrough? The team benefits from its Hendrick alliance, engines providing raw speed that’s put him in position to stay consistent. New crew chief Matt McCall is the year’s quiet success story, a driver-turned-mechanic who’s turned around the program’s momentum. But the biggest difference in McMurray’s season? Keeping the car in one piece. This time last year, he had three wrecks and three finishes of 38th or worse. So far in 2015? He has one. That’ll build the cushion you need — currently at 58 points — to make the Chase even without a trip to Victory Lane. Grade: B+.

Casey Mears

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 22nd

Best Finish: Sixth – Daytona 500

Analysis: Mears, starting off strong this season with single-car Germain Racing, has faded as the season has worn on. The first six races produced three top-15 results; since then, the number’s zero. Mears appeared concerned about his future, and the team is currently negotiating a contract extension. Will wrapping that up turn things back around in the right direction? The program still suffers through a few too many mechanical miscues for a team of its caliber, like Dover’s splitter incident that wound up splitting Greg Biffle‘s front end. That makes the Chase impossible unless it’s right place, right time at Daytona (Mears was sixth in the 500). Grade: C-.

Paul Menard

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 3 top 10s.

Points Position: 12th

Best Finish: Third – Talladega

Analysis: Has Menard met the boy who cried wolf? Sunday marked the fourth straight year he ended the season’s halfway point inside the top 15 in Cup points. A strong starter, he has a history of keeping his nose clean and keeping the car in one piece — collecting the type of finishes that keep you in contention even when they’re of the 13th, 14th, 15th-place variety. The problem is in the season’s second half, Lady Luck always seems to catch up to Menard in the worst of ways. While he’s been the strongest entrant from Richard Childress Racing itself, the program hasn’t shown speed strong enough to win and Menard has only led one lap all season. Those aren’t numbers that suggest they’ll make the postseason through Victory Lane, and with drivers like Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart sitting outside the top 30, hungry for a win, why does it feel like Menard’s about to backslide all over again? Grade: B.

Brett Moffitt

Stats: 11 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 32nd

Best Finish: Eighth – Atlanta

Analysis: One year ago, 95% of all Sprint Cup fans thought Moffitt was the name of some rejected fairy-tale character. Now? They know him as a promising rookie, taking a Michael Waltrip Racing car to a top-10 finish at Atlanta (and better than any run Clint Bowyer or David Ragan has posted, I might add). The results slipped naturally from there, a driver competing in his first full season, so MWR eventually shipped him out for a name-brand in Ragan instead. His tenure with Front Row Motorsports has been a step down, posting no better finish than 28th, but this is still your overwhelming favorite to be the 2015 Rookie of the Year. Who would have thought that when he slipped into a junky No. 66 car for Jay Robinson just one year ago last weekend? Grade: B-.

Ryan Newman

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 4 top fives, 8 top 10s.

Points Position: 13th

Best Finish: Third – Phoenix & Las Vegas

Analysis: For Newman, the season has been defined by a deflating penalty surrounding playing around with the air in his Goodyear tires. Crew suspensions, fines, and a crucial 50-point deduction have left him on the Chase “bubble” instead of comfortably in front of the competition. For last year’s Chase runner-up, two early third-place finishes seem like the distant past after they’ve had to hold the No. 31 team together like superglue. 16 slots is a lot, meaning the postseason is still a strong possibility but don’t discount what happened to Keselowski a few years ago: bad penalty, never fully won an appeal, led to loss of team personnel, momentum, and ultimately a bid in the Chase. Common sense says Newman still makes the field as the best RCR has to offer. But you never know…. Grade: B-.

Danica Patrick

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 2 top 10s.

Points Position: 18th

Best Finish: Seventh – Martinsville

Analysis: In this year’s weak Silly Season, Patrick has become the biggest player. GoDaddy’s choice to go bye-bye has ratcheted up the effort at the No. 10 car with sponsorship needed for Patrick to continue with Stewart-Haas Racing. Surprisingly, an awkward beginning with crew chief Daniel Knost has turned relatively strong, the team benefiting from championship-style setups from teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. What’s promising here is the way they’re overcoming adversity, once a sticking point in this driver’s career. Dover, where a speeding penalty threatened to derail them, was the latest example; Patrick fought back to wind up 15th. Does that really mean she can make the Chase on points? No, no, no. But if Patrick stays close enough to the bubble to make it interesting, that might actually make the difference in whether she’s still employed within NASCAR come 2016. Grade: B-.

David Ragan

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 23rd

Best Finish: Fifth – Martinsville

Analysis: Ragan, paying his dues with a smaller program after getting shipped out of Roush Fenway Racing years ago, finally has his shot at a second chance. A fill-in role for the injured Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing was serviceable, good enough for MWR to take note and hire him to replace an ailing Brian Vickers. So far, three starts have produced a crash, an engine failure and a rollercoaster 13th-place finish, not enough to base the future on. But it’s also left him 23rd in Cup points, meaning the Chase bid once expected from his sub role at JGR seems more out of reach since he’s switched. Hard to see him making it when he never has in the past…. Grade: C.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 27th

Best Finish: Fourth – Bristol

Analysis: True story: if you take away Talladega and Bristol, tracks where Stenhouse has enjoyed an uncharacteristic amount of success the driver has zero top-5 finishes in nearly 100 starts in the Cup Series. Take away Bristol this year and the best finish for the No. 17 Ford has been 12th. When the biggest story you produce is whether you’re proposing to Danica Patrick, that should set off alarm bells as to your future career prospects. If I were him, I’d buy the ring now before the pink slip comes. It’s gotta be soon, right? Grade: D-.

Tony Stewart

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top 5s, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 28th

Best Finish: Sixth – Bristol

Analysis: There is no more hotly-debated theory in this weak season of on-track competition than what the heck has happened to Stewart. People run the gambit from physical problems with his leg, to mental roadblock from the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy to crew chief Chad Johnston being the worst mechanic known to man. My take? It’s got to be mental. How can Stewart produce a championship car like Harvick’s alongside him yet struggle to run 30th every week? There’s got to be something there only a psychologist can deduce. Don’t discount the leg, though, as Stewart still has the noticeable limp Kyle Busch has gotten rid of after three months. Age has a way of creeping up on you and Smoke, who turned 44 this year, was born three months earlier than the retiring Jeff Gordon. But one win can turn it all around, and you’d think in the “new Chase” opportunities abound for him to get one. I could see it going “boom” or “bust” here. Grade: F.

Martin Truex Jr.

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 3 top fives, 12 top 10s.

Points Position: 2nd

Best Finish: Second – Las Vegas

Analysis: Truex entered the year on the hot seat with Furniture Row Racing. He’s marking it by being the best driver in the series who hasn’t won in 2015. In 13 starts, he’s already led more laps than all but two seasons in his Cup career (389). He’s on track for a record-setting 33 top-10 finishes, sitting second in points as the only true foil to Harvick. Compare that to a year ago, when this team led just a single lap, struggled to 24th in points and was a complete non-factor. Promoting Cole Pearn has to be the best mechanical offseason move any Sprint Cup team has made, right? He’s still learning the strategy calls, costing the team a win or two thus far, but experience will remedy that. If you’re looking for a true championship underdog, Truex is this year’s AJ Allmendinger – with staying power. Grade: A+.

Cole Whitt

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: 29th

Best Finish: 13th – Talladega

Analysis: Whitt’s second season has come with a small-team promotion to FRM. Sponsorship, like last year has been difficult to come by but he’s been consistent, sitting inside the top 30 in points ahead of well-funded Trevor Bayne and nipping on the heels of Stewart. Finished 12 of 13 races, the only DNF was through engine failure at Atlanta. Can you really ask for anything more in this situation from a new full-time team and a young driver? Grade: B-.

Josh Wise

Stats: 12 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 36th

Best Finish: 10th – Talladega

Analysis: Wise has been dealt a difficult hand, a midseason potential merger with Premium Motorsports unsettling a team that’s sponsorship challenged. Through it all, he ran 10th at Talladega and continues to be the poor man’s Landon Cassill, the best driver with an underfunded program no one’s talking about. Who knows what the move to Robinson will produce; the owner never start-and-parks yet his equipment seems to run seconds behind the rest of the field. Can Wise be the one to salvage decency here or will he slip down another notch by association? Grade: C-.

JJ Yeley

Stats: 12 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: N/A

Best Finish: 14th – Talladega

Analysis: Yeley knows the hand he’s been dealt by BK Racing, choosing to not even run for Sprint Cup points. That said, he’s made the most of the opportunity and even slipped in a top-15 run at Talladega. With two rookies bookending him within the BK camp he’s become the veteran hand this team needs to stay stable. Just don’t expect much more than what you’ve seen so far in 2015. Grade: C-.

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