Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sprint Cup 2010: Report Card -- The Stretch Run to the Chase

With the Brickyard 400 ahead this weekend, the Sprint Cup field begins a seven week stretch ending in Richmond when the candidates for the chase will be determined. For the rest of the season, fans will watch the race through ESPN’s goggles with a select few Saturday night races (Bristol, Richmond, Charlotte) on ABC. Like the All-Star break in baseball, just a little beyond halfway in the season, we can identify the pretenders and the contenders. Let’s look at the major teams and give them their report card for 2010 thus far.

Hendrick Motorsports (B+)
2010 has been a mixed bag for NASCAR’s flagship team. Looking dominant and unstoppable at times but looking surprisingly vulnerable at others, it’s a good bet that this year’s championship could come from their operation again, the best bet being Jimmie Johnson gaining his unprecedented 5th consecutive championship. Jeff Gordon leads him by 85 points but has no wins to show for his efforts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin are just sneezing distance out of the chase field in 13th and 14th place respectably. The #88 team looks better than last year, but it is horrible downturn for the #5 team.

Jeff Gordon – 2nd, 10 top 5’s, 11 top 10’s
Jimmie Johnson – 3rd, 5 wins 8 top 5’s, 11 top 10’s.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 13th, 2 top 5’s, 6 top 10’s.
Mark Martin – 14th, 5 top 5’s, 6 top 10’s.

Richard Childress Racing (A-)
Kevin Harvick leads the points standings through smart driving and consistency. While teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer would make the chase though Bowyer holds on by a thread in 12th. Whatever their shortcomings were in 2009 appear solved for 2010.

Kevin Harvick – 1st, 2 wins, 8 top 5’s, 13 top 10’s.
Jeff Burton – 7th, 4 top 5’s, 9 top 10’s.
Clint Bowyer – 12th, 2 top 5’s, 10 top 10’s.
Regan Smith (Affiliate, Furniture Row Racing) – 30th, no top 10’s.

Joe Gibbs Racing (B)
When their top two teams have been on their game, they’ve looked unstoppable and poised to unseat Jimmie Johnson. At other races, either mechanical glitches or wrecks have wrought disaster. With five wins, tied for Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin produced some of this season’s most dominant performances, but offsetting failures, the worst being 34th Infineon, 30th at Phoenix, 29th at Fontana, and 24th in the demolition derby at Daytona’s Coke Zero 400, his place in the standings has been seriously reduced. Come Richmond, however, those five victories, tied with Jimmie Johnson right now will reign supreme. Kyle Busch with his two victories looks like he has a lock on The Chase despite some horrible races and wrecks. Joey Legano continues to show growth but needs to find consistency. He’s probably a long shot at the promised land in 19th place, 183 points out of 12th.

Denny Hamlin – 4th, 5 wins, 7 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s
Kyle Busch – 6th, 2 wins, 5 top 5’s, 9 top 10’s.
Joey Logano – 19th, 2 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s.

Penske Racing (Busch: A-, remainder: C)
Few knew what to expect from Penske as the only Dodge operation in Sprint Cup with its three car team; however, the fine performance of Kurt Busch and impetuous temperament of Brad Keselowski has surely put their operation in the headlines. Meanwhile, former Indy racer, Sam Hornish Jr. has shown improvement knocking on moving up to a more competitive level on the track. Clearly, Kurt Busch has been one of this year’s most successful drivers whose 11 top tens speak for themselves. Were it not for dreadful performances out west, 35th in Vegas and Phoenix and 32nd at Infineon, his place in the standings would better represent his outstanding performance on the track. Brad Kesolowski leads the Nationwide Series standings but stands only 26th in Sprint Cup. He also perhaps leads the pack in terms of the team most competitors and fans would like to see smack the wall. His on going conflict with Carl Edwards made Edwards look the bad guy pushing him out of the way at Atlanta. His reckless driving style and total lack of respect and surly attitude has made him the boo-birds’ favorite. Yes, folks will point out that Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt ticked off many in their younger days – but no one would have accused them of being immature and childish. The kid has talent, but seeing his father’s explosion after the Nationwide race at Gateway, might show being a real arse runs in the family. He’s not the folksy, fan friendly driver NASCAR has worked so hard to cultivate in recent years.

Kurt Busch – 5th, 2 wins, 7 top 5’s, 11 top 10’s.
Brad Keselowski – 26th, no top 10’s.
Sam Hornish, Jr. – 29th, no top 10’s.

Michael Waltrip Racing (C)
Their organization continues to grow with Michael retired to part time status replaced by Martin Truex, Jr. David Reutimann continues to mature as a top flight driver. He is in competition for the elite field in 15th, 96 points out of The Chase.

David Reutimann – 15th, 1 win, 4 top 5’s, 4 top 10’s.
Martin Truex, Jr. – 20th, 1 top 5, 4 top 10’s
Marcos Ambrose (Affiliate, JTG Daugherty Racing*) – 28th, 2 top 10’s.

Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing (C)
Add another Daytona 500 trophy to the Earnhardt legacy with a driver who started his serious competition with Ganassi’s operation. Jaime McMurray, who floundered at Roush, but having one of Roush’s three victories in 2009, looks strong in 2010. Five finishes 30th or lower and a 29th have ruined his season. Meanwhile, Juan Pablo Montoya who looked so strong entering the fall racing season last year has had a miserable 2010 as if Murphy’s Law has taken hold. Mired in 21st place, too many points and positions away from the top 12, the best solution for the #42 team for the balance of the season is to find some wins.

Jaime McMurray – 18th, 1 win, 5 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s.
Juan Pablo Montoya – 21st, 4 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s.

Roush/Fenway Racing (C-) (D- … living up to expectations)
The 2010 season has been a disaster for Ford’s flagship team shutout without a single victory. While Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle are all in the top 12, Edwards and Biffle in 10th and 11th are holding on for dear life. David Ragan, inheritor of the historic #6 car knocked on the door of being in The Chase in 2008, but his growth as a driver has seriously slipped stuck in 25th place with only one top ten. The team will be depending on the new Ford FR9 engine for the rest of the year; however, the issues appear deeper. There’s too much talent to be performing this badly.

Matt Kenseth – 8th, 4 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s.
Carl Edwards – 11th, 2 top 5’s, 8 top 10’s.
Greg Biffle – 12th, 2 top 5’s, 10 top 10’s.

Stewart/Haas Racing (C+)
After a brilliant first season, 2010 has been a sophomore slump for Tony Stewart’s operation. Stewart is in the top 10, but Ryan Newman has the team’s only victory hanging on to contention in 16th. More than anything, perhaps in part for not qualifying as well, cars being in the wrong place at the wrong time and lots of crunched metal spells their fall off.

Tony Stewart – 9th, 4 top 5’s, 9 top 10’s.
Ryan Newman – 16th, 1 win, 2 top 5’s, 6 top 10’s.

Richard Petty Racing (merged with Yates) (C-)
The 2010 season has been a mixed bag for Richard Petty Racing. The move to Ford seems to be resulting in overall better performance but their top driver, Kasey Kahne, has been horribly snake-bitten yet to win a single race despite having the hot ride for stretches in several races. Hurt by three DNF’s, five finishes 30th or lower and five more finishes in the 20’s, it’s been living hell for the driver who will be joining the mighty Hendrick operation in 2011. Meanwhile, A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard, and Elliot Sadler struggle to find some measure of consistency and respectable finishes.

Kasey Kahne – 17th, 5 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s.
A.J. Allmendinger – 22nd, 3 top 10’s.
Paul Menard – 23rd, 1 top 5, 3 top 10’s.
Elliott Sadler – 27th, no top 10’s.

Red Bull Racing (incomplete)
Brian Vickers made The Chase in 2010, a much anticipated triumph for a team the joined the sport with Toyota’s entry. Sadly, a blood clot condition has sidelined Vickers for the rest of the season. Their other driver, Scott Speed, has no shot at The Chase but is growing as driver 2ith two top 10’s this year.

All top thirty teams come from the teams or affiliates reported above. Front Row Motorsports owned by Bob Jenkins with engine support from Roush/Yates fields the #38 ExtenZe ride for driver Kevin Conway, #37, Taco Bell for David Gilliland, and #34, Long John Silvers for Travis Kvapil. Bill Jenkins #26 Ford currently driven by David Stremme, a team formed necessitated by NASCAR cutting Roush/Fenway to four teams, is another team racing to finish each week. Robby Gordon’s #7 operation teeters on being able to compete in full races having failed to qualify for one race. Bobby Labonte’s future is uncertain after TRG without sponsorship would have forced him to start and park, a proposition Labonte refused to accept. He will compete in four races after the Brickyard with TRG sponsored by Tax Slayer. Aside from the limited entries for Bill Elliot in the “legendary” Wood Brothers’ #21 Ford, the rest of the field consists of park and ride competitors we will not dignify by mentioning their names in this posting.
If one were to pick favorites to win the championship -- given they've overcome difficulties again and again and are tied for the lead in wins, the #48 car is hard to bet against. If not the #48, perhaps the #29 could do the job. Tied with #48 in wins, the #11 car could strike gold, but is anyone forgetting about #24? The #2 and #18 are longer shots but certainly in the picture. The next seven races will tell the tale of who gets the chance. In the lower reaches of the top 12, there will continue to be much juggling until the last lap at Richmond on that fateful Saturday night, September 11th. It's late July and THE HEAT IS ON!!!

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