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Sprint Cup Report Cards: Grading the NASCAR Pack 1/3 of the Way Through the 2008 Season

In the immortal words of one Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” The star of the 1980s silver screen was right: life does move fast – and so does NASCAR. With the checkered flag flying on the Coca-Cola 600, we’re exactly a third of the way through the 2008 season, just 14 races away from the start of the Chase. So it’s as good a time as any to take a look at the hits and misses of the season so far.

Who has driven it like they stole it? Who has run ho-hum, and who has flat out sucked? Find out the answers below, as I hand out awards for the first four months of the season to date:

Best Driver – Kyle Busch
Nine wins in 31 races (three Cup, four Nationwide, two Craftsman Truck Series) and eight top-five finishes in 12 Cup starts, while impressive, don’t even tell the whole story – Busch has been a factor in virtually every race he’s run. Plus, he’s positively reveling in the pantomime villain role.

The key will be whether Coach and JD Gibbs, along with crew chief Steve Addington, can reign in the 23-year-old’s worst excesses. The quest to win every race Busch can at the Nationwide and Truck series levels cannot obscure the overall goal of a Cup championship in the long run. Running every lap like you’re escaping the law is one thing; but sometimes, you need to save your stuff. That said, on the (very) early evidence, Busch looks like the driver to beat in 2008.

Honorable Mention – Carl Edwards
When Roush Fenway Racing’s CoT program was looking decidedly dodgy last year, it was Edwards who stepped up, testing the car the length and breadth of the country while logging countless thousands of miles. But all that testing is paying dividends now; Edwards has gotten off to a fast start, with three wins and eight top-10 finishes so far. Edwards is more than just a threat to win it all – he’s one of the frontrunners.

Best Race – Aaron’s 499, Talladega
This was a race that for once lived up to the hype. OK, we finished under caution (after a 10-car, white flag-lap wreck), but this was a dramatic, enthralling 200 mph slugfest from the drop of the green flag.

Honorable Mention – Dodge Charger 500, Darlington
When 41 of 43 cars beat the previous track record in qualifying, you just knew that despite the glassy smooth new pavement, Darlington’s unique configuration and 27-foot-wide track would generate good old-fashioned racing. And this year’s race at the grand ol’ Lady in Black did not disappoint; it’s only gonna to get better at Darlington moving forward.

Biggest Threat – Jimmie Johnson
We haven’t heard a lot from the back-to-back champ this year, but Jimmie J will no doubt be there at the business end of the season; and once again, he’ll be the man to beat. With just one victory – a fuel-mileage gamble that had his crew chief bizarrely imploring Johnson to slow down – to go along with three other top-five finishes, the Lowe’s Chevy wheelman has not shown the metronomic consistence of the past couple of years. But he’s solidly in the Chase field as of now, and to discount Johnson would be a mistake only the very foolish would make.

Honorable Mention – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
All the talk surrounding Junior is of the continuing long, winless streak; but all I can see is the sort of consistency that can win you a championship. Based on his performance so far this season, Dale Junior is a factor to win it all regardless of how many times he finishes in victory lane. A series-leading nine top 10s (tied with Busch) proves the main highlight from what’s easily been the best performing Hendrick car. Junior fans should now worry less about the wins and more about the bigger picture, as the No. 88 is looking like a legitimate title threat week in, week out.

Best Ad – UPS “Race the Truck”
Just brilliant. From the expressions of Elliott Sadler, Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty to the wistful look DJ gives his ride, to the on track Big Brown Truck action, this ad was my favorite of the season so far, no question – maybe even of all time.

Honorable Mention – The Michael Waltrip NAPA Ads
The “Michael, here’s your Bristol Car” spot was just the right amount of creepy and comedic, but the parrot spouting, “Michael, 55 is your number, not the speed limit!” might just be even funnier. It’s clear that Waltrip is the Curt Schilling of NASCAR; he doesn’t mind poking fun at his own mediocrity.

Worst Ad – The Kasey Kahne Dance Fiasco
Oh Kasey, Kasey, Kasey… in the immortal words of one of my excellent old bosses: “What the hell were you thinking? Were you even thinking?” Yes, I realize there is a certain demographic that will adore this spot, but c’mon Kasey, there’s a line – and there’s stepping so far over said line it’s unforgivable. Please don’t do a follow up. No amount of money is worth it.

Most Dramatic Moment – The Michael McDowell Crash
Just six days after provoking the ire of the otherwise placid Jeff Burton, McDowell had the sort of crash Hollywood script writers would shy away from – the drama and ferocity of his Texas wreck could never be matched in a movie. That McDowell was able to walk away with a few bumps and bruises is little short of remarkable; whatever you have to say about the racing qualities of the new car, that crash showed all you need to know about how safe the big old boxy car really is.

Biggest Disappointment – Jamie McMurray
I like McMurray, I really do – but man, has he been disappointing this year. The guy just can’t seem to catch a break, and not even the pressure of having to qualify at Martinsville propelled him in much more than a vague upward direction in the point standings. He’s so many points (328) and positions (nine) out of the Chase that he’s not even a consideration (again).

Honorable Mention – Casey Mears
It’s another disappointing start to the season for Mears. This time last year, he was winning his first race to try and turn his year around. But on Sunday, he finished 30th, three laps down, and stands 28th overall in the standings – far closer to 35th than to 12th. The fact that everyone loves him at HMS will only matter for so long; for in a results-driven business, Mears – despite his best intentions – just isn’t delivering.

Hard Luck Moment – Denny Hamlin at Richmond
Yes, it is about who leads the last lap; but I cannot believe there have been many other races where one driver has been so utterly and completely dominant for 381 of the 400 laps, only to lose it all on a cut tire right at the end.

Honorable Mention – Dario Franchitti
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Franchitti running in the Nationwide Series race at Talladega, the broken ankle he sustained in a fierce early crash halted any momentum he was starting to build in stock cars. Out of the Cup Series for four races now (and likely a couple more), the reigning IRL champ has a long uphill road ahead of him.

Feel Good Story – David Ragan
From dart without feathers to Chase contender, Ragan is just 56 points out of a Chase spot, easily outstripping fellow Roush Fenway racer McMurray. The phrase “what a difference a year makes” could have been invented for Ragan this season.

Honorable Mention – Robby Gordon Gets His Points Back
Gordon appealing and winning back his 100 points was one of the best stories of this nascent season, with the “lone maverick” fighting off the forces of evil (in this case, NASCAR).

Worst Race – The 24 hours of California
It hurts my fingers to type another sentence on this race, so I’ll leave it at this: weepers, absurd rain delays and stultifying boredom. Let’s just say any residual “feel good” NASCAR glow following the 50th Daytona 500 disappeared right about the time they postponed the finish of the race at 2 a.m ET until the “following” – er, technically the same day after an interminable five hours worth of delays.

Most Amusing Moment – Jacques Villeneuve’s NASCAR career
Forgive the second baseball reference, but Villeneuve’s NASCAR career was the quintessential “cup of coffee in the majors.” JV crashed in the second qualifying race at Daytona and that, ladies and gentlemen, was that. As my Formula 1-mad friend said at the start of the season, “He won’t last, Danny. He doesn’t have the fire for racing anymore.” Nice prediction, Mr. Hollis.

Honorable Mentions – Biff will drive for trophy…
During a rain delay in the California Nationwide Series race, a mock-miserable Greg Biffle interrupted an interview with McMurray by appearing with a bottle of Coke and a homemade, handwritten cardboard sign hanging round his neck. Moving in front of the camera, fans at home could read it: “Driver for Hire. Will Drive for Trophies.” Good stuff.

Most Annoying Broadcast Moment – DW’s laryngitis
Ridiculous. I get that Waltrip wants to be a part of it, but this was just silly. If they really wanted him on the air, he could have typed his responses and we could have read his subtitles. Anything would have been better than the three-time champ croaking his way through the broadcast – quite frankly, it was embarrassing, and the powers that be at FOX should have known better.

Finally, I have to finish this column with a shout out to my magnificent father, who turned 64 this past Friday. Happy birthday, old boy – and here’s to many more.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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