Midseason Report Card: Who's Head of The Class, Who's Struggling?
It's hard to believe that the 2010 season is halfway completed, as it wasn't long ago (so it seems) that fans were catching up with the drivers and teams during the Daytona 500 Media Day conferences back in early February.
Alas, two injured Boston Red Sox catchers later and a Kasey Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 moment after, the NASCAR Sprint Cup scene has a bit of a different complexion than in years past.
What's not changed is Chevrolet's domination on race day, winning nine of the first 18 races run thus far. With their roster of drivers relatively intact and among the lead pack on a weekly basis, it's no wonder why any non-GM or Toyota team has virtually been left in the dust.
Also not so surprising is that Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin lead the tour in wins, taking five checkered flags respectively. Johnson has been the proverbial bulls' eye in the sport since 2006, while Hamlin touted himself as the one to beat and dethrone the No. 48 team last November in Homestead.
However, what may come as a shock to some fans and observers is who's leading the series in points - and no folks, we're looking at the Sprint Cup standings, not the Nationwide one.
The potential Chase for the Sprint Cup field looks somewhat similar to last year's edition, save for Brian Vickers' absence from the tour with his health problems and the mediocre seasons of Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Who's been making the grade and who's been underachieving so far? Find out with the inaugural edition of The Podium Finish: Midseason Report Card for the Top 12 drivers.
Head of the Class
1) Kevin Harvick
Having been the subject of rumors, as far as speculation regarding his future in the sport for the past two seasons, Harvick has risen to the occasion this year as the man to beat in the points race since race no. 10 at Richmond. With two wins, eight top-fives and 13 top-10's, he's been the model for consistency, which is normally the way to succeed in this sport.
Regardless of how this season goes, it's truly been a year to remember for the 34-year-old Bakersfield, Calif. native, who's finally proving his worth in the Cup series to his critics who have felt that he hasn't done much since that memorable 2001 season.
Still, while he may not exactly be the top pick for the title in most people's eyes, with his confidence at an all-time high and his maturity raised to the next level, Harvick may surprise some people down the stretch, at least to September when the Chase starts.
However, his attitude is something to watch, especially if the No. 29 team struggles at some point between Chicagoland and Richmond. If he falls prey to his own anger and frustration, then he'll limp into the Chase and fight just to stay in the top-10 for a seat in the awards banquet in December.
2) Jeff Gordon
Years ago, he was the one receiving all the jeers and taunts from the fans simply because he was winning "too much." That apparently happens in auto racing, where domination isn't exactly praised as in other sports.
Nowadays, fans wonder when and where Gordon will win his next race. The last time he celebrated with confetti and Gatorade all around Victory Lane was last April in Texas, long before he was inundated with questions regarding his back problem.
Well, he's back near the top of the standings, despite the fact he's been winless and has climbed to second in the points race by virtue of consistency. Logging in nine top-fives and 10 top-10's, he's been knocking on the winner's circle's door more times than a Chicago Cubs fan has hoped for a World Series title.
Ultimately, wins are what will matter in the final races of the season. Sure, consistency's great, just as the old adage that "defense wins championships." However, a win here and there would definitely help out the "Rainbow Warriors" in their quest for a fifth title.
Their only obstacle is rhythm - yes, rhythm, in terms of momentum and communication. When Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte are clicking on all aspects of the game, they're as good as any other team. A slip up or poor decision by the headwrench with the car's setup and it's a long hot summer.
3) Jimmie Johnson
Say what you want, 90 percent of NASCAR nation, but was there a collective sigh of relief or cheer following the No. 48 team's fourth DNF of 2010?
OK, so Gordon fans, now you know how every other fan out there felt that cheered for Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace in the 1990s. For Team 48 enthusiasts, it's been like a month as a teenager: great weeks for the most part, except those few days in which a pimple ruins the complexion of your face, thus shattering your confidence and resorting you to a flurry of adolescent concerns.
Then again, when your season stats reads five wins, eight top-fives and 11 top-10's, is life really all that bad? Sure, Johnson has crumpled up his share of sheet metal more so than in years' past, but hey, the stock car scene has gotten more physical and the law of averages have caught up with the Lowe's group a few times this year.
Still, is there any reason to doubt this four-time championship winning unit? Especially when it comes to winning an unprecedented fifth straight title?
Bearded or not, daughter on the way and spoiler change and all, when it comes to winning the big prize, distractions be damned, do not count out Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who may just be bluffing the competition, holding their best cards until it all matters in the Chase.
However, too much conservation or holding back, and it may be a surprised and bewildered No. 48 team in September.
4) Kurt Busch
Perhaps being in the Class of 2001's a cool thing or just the "in-thing" in 2010, for all your numbers people out there. Signs aside, it's been a great year of the elder Busch, who has really been flexing his muscles and strength as a driver with that Penske equipment.
A pair of wins, seven top-five results and 11 top-10's have translated into a halfway points seed at fourth, which is just about right for the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team. Crew chief Steve Addington has been reeling off some great setups for Busch's machine week-in and week-out, looking just about as solid as the Chevrolet teams, despite driving for the underdog Mopar efforts.
Again, like Harvick, temper can sometimes be Busch's worst enemy, particularly when things aren't going well on race day. While it's a factor for every competitor on the track, it's more so pronounced for the '04 champion, who's more apt to snap and relapse than to forget about what irked him at the track.
At best, this team stands a chance at dethroning the No. 48 team, but that's contingent on factors like the Nos. 11, 18, and 24 team struggling in the final races. Then again, even when those cars are running solidly in the top-10, there are times when the "Blue Deuce" has been able to beat them.
It'd be quite the storyline if Busch and team win the Sprint Cup title, as it'd make any team that defected from Dodge second guess themselves and wonder how they can get a piece of the action with Mopar power.
5) Denny Hamlin
Call him confident, prophetic, or quite courageous for touting himself as the title favorite after winning the 2009 season finale, just as the field, fans, and media were discussing in the revels and success of the No. 48 team for a fourth straight season.
Even when he had surgery for his torn ACL earlier in the season, there was no stopping the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team, in which Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford have pressed on and displayed that amazing Joe Gibbs Racing power that's been around since '92. Logging in five wins and seven top-10's (same no. of top-fives), it's just a matter of time when the pride of Chesterville, Virginia will truly becomes the "King of NASCAR."
Of course that dubious distinction belongs to Richard Petty, who'll always be the dynastic driver of the sport. That said, Hamlin has become the proverbial poster boy of a winner and champion wrapped into one. Embodying that Gibbs Racing mindset, there's nothing more gratifying than winning, as second place is the first loser.
About the only thing that plagues them is luck, and it's certainly something that even a stellar group like the No. 11 team cannot control. Just like in poker and even other sports, all the skills in the world cannot buy you luck. If they can get through the summer relatively intact and with additional victories, all the talk about what's an American car will spring up - all in vain because of denial that Toyota, Hamlin, and Gibbs were the ingredients of the 2010 titlists.
6) Kyle Busch
Much like his predecessors in Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, "Rowdy" was off to a sluggish start to his season. With finishes of 14th or worse in the first four races of 2010, some wondered if Busch's mediocre '09 season would press on this year.
Yea, it sure did, because he managed to win at Richmond and Dover, which are certainly the most "easiest tracks" to compete at in NASCAR. (And if you didn't sense sarcasm, then you're one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame committee members who hasn't voted in Hall and Oates into their rightful place.)
Lately, results haven't exactly been looking good for the No. 18 Toyota team, with finishes of 11th or worse in the past four races, including a 40th place/DNF last Saturday night at Daytona. All of a sudden, we're looking at a driver who's been as good as Icy Hot products.
Will Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers figure things out in the summer? Or are their recent struggles indicative of the kind of season that'll unfold for the rest of the year? Time will tell if this is true or not.
However, never count out a driver like Kyle Busch, who simply loves to race, no matter the track or series.
7) Matt Kenseth
As recently documented as a week ago on The Podium Finish, Ford Racing hasn't shown much in 2010. Whatever the reason, it's really hurt the Roush-Fenway Racing efforts, who are a lot better than the stats and numbers indicate.
Could it be a lack of horsepower, poor setups, or a personnel problems? All of those are speculative, but what's not is what's up with Matt Kenseth?
It's his second straight season in which the crew chief that started the season atop the No. 17 DeWalt Ford's pit box has been shunned from that position not even halfway in the year. Todd Parrott, a winner and champion in the series, just simply failed to mesh with the cool mannered Cambridge, Wisc. native, struggling to find a leader that could relate to him like former leader Robbie Reiser.
Rumors point to Reiser returning to his old role following the season, and if that's so, that's great news for No. 17 fans. However, will the damage be too great to overcome for "Mr. Cool?"
8) Jeff Burton
Years ago, I gave him the label as being "Mr. Nice Guy," as he was quoted during the 2005 and '06 seasons as saying he'd not knock a fellow competitor out of the way, even if it meant winning a race. It's sort of reminiscent of a Bill Pullman character, especially in movies like Sleepless in Seattle and A League of Their Own.
Well, maybe he should be called "Bad Luck Guy," as he's really not had much fortune or things going his way in 2010. It's remarkable because here he is, sitting eighth in points, with four top-fives and eight top-10 finishes.
He's a lot better than his numbers show and the Richard Childress Racing team has really stepped it up in 2010. While a title isn't exactly in the cards for the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet group, a win or two, plus a top-10 finish in the points is not out of the question.
9) Tony Stewart
Talk about grading on a curve. Being in the middle with any argument or problem is the worst thing possible, as it's supposedly showing weakness in one's part.
Well, here's an instance in which being in the middle isn't such a bad thing. How do you evaluate Stewart's season? Do you say, well, he's been terrible because he's not won yet, much less, given much reason for hope with the No. 14 team?
Or do you note the fact that, save for Daytona, in which he placed 25th, he's finished ninth, 15th, third, fifth, and ninth in the last five races?
That translates into momentum builder - question is, which way does the two-time champion go?
Traditionally, he has great summer performances, most especially at places like Watkins Glen and Atlanta. Right now, this group is not good enough to win a title. However, crazier things have happened, such as that 2002 title march in which a guy who placed shotgun in the field at Daytona managed to hoist a trophy at Homestead-Miami by year's end.
Guess who that guy was?
10) Greg Biffle
Has he fallen from the face of the Earth since his six straight top-10 finish early in the season?
Is it all that impossible for the No. 16 3M Ford team to overcome their struggle?
However, it's quite enigmatic to truly diagnose what's wrong with Ford and Roush-Fenway Racing. It's maddening considering the kind of driver Greg Biffle is, who's exceptionally talented and gives absolutely 100 percent in that machine in any race he competes in.
Again, this group, unless they figure out how to go faster and win some races, will not be good enough to even contend for the title this year.
11) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Have Mark Martin and "Little E" swapped cars and setups? Oh boy, the conspiracy theorists are out there...
OK, so there were some crickets chirping with that cheap shot. Really now, the No. 88 team has looked solid since Charlotte speedweeks. While the results aren't screaming total success, the fact that this team is starting to reel off solid performances and finishes lately is a sign that a change was a-comin' and it was a good thing.
Crew chief Lance McGrew has started to finally communicate and build some chemistry with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who seems more comfortable in his cars. He's able to relay information to his team and they're, for the most part, able to get that car working. Maybe not immediately, but they're able to get their Chevrolet handling decently when it all counts.
Can their good finishes continue? Perhaps, but as Junior noted following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, they need to win races in order to be a legit championship contender.
Talk about confidence and a man who's appearing to finally have fun in the car - what a long way since that horrific 2009 season.
12) Carl Edwards
Ford. Roush-Fenway Racing. Struggles.
The reasons repeat incessantly for any driver from this prolific racing team, who truly are a lot better than a team with no wins to show for. Not since 1996 has this team been beleaguered by their shutout from Victory Lane, and even that season had more optimism and hope than 2010.
As for Carl Edwards, he hasn't forgotten how to drive a racecar. He's still a capable contender for race wins, but as for titles, that may be in question. Could it be his recovery from an injury last year that's still bothering him?
Before they think about making the Chase, the No. 99 Aflac Ford team ought to consider winning races. Doing that will help their cause and prevent this bunch from worrying about the cutoff point every week.