Race Weekend Central

Grading the Pack, Part II: 2010 NASCAR Drivers AJ Allmendinger – Matt Kenseth

With the season a third of the way through already following this past Sunday’s 400-lapper at the Monster Mile, we’re taking a brief moment of respite, handing out awards while grading all the drivers and teams on their performance so far in 2010. Yesterday, we covered off the awards portion (Best Driver, Most Improved, Best Race… all of which you can view here).

Today, we grade the drivers from AJ Allmendinger to Brian Vickers, the top 40 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings to date. Tomorrow, we’ll hand out the overall team grades in our Frontstretch Newsletter to finish off this four-part series. 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!

Looking for Drivers Kes-Vickers? Click here to jump to the other section.

25. AJ Allmendinger (-566 behind Kevin Harvick): There’s something so hugely likable about the ‘Dinger (and I’m not talking about Mrs. Allmendinger here) but for some reason, he can’t quite get it done on-track despite early promise in a number of races this year. It would be great to see the No. 43 back in victory lane. Never. Gonna. Happen. Grade: C

Tom’s Take: ‘Dinger had an outside chance at this year’s Daytona 500 before a wreck had it all blow up in his face. That’s his NASCAR career in a nutshell; whether it’s the brakes at Darlington or a bad pit stop at Dover, every time he’s got it going on something random just goes wrong, either with himself or the supporting cast. Those growing pains are cool for the first two years of your career, but ‘Dinger’s in year four. One of the sport’s nice guys needs to start making nice on the track – now – in order to keep a ride for next year. Grade: C

28. Marcos Ambrose (-700): Roll on, 2011. And that’s about all I have to say about the Aussie. Grade: D

See also
Marcos Ambrose Driver Diary: Just Horsing Around

Tom’s Take: Remember when he was the trendy pick for the Chase? Now, he’s just a weekly wrecking ball with more DNFs for wrecks (two) than top-10 finishes (one). Ambrose would do well to dial back his aggression a la Juan Pablo Montoya in 2009; once he does, I expect this team to get back on a roll. It’s just too bad this 2010 sleeper fell asleep, because even if he wakes up now the Chase is already nothin’ but a pipe dream. Grade: F

7. Greg Biffle (-187): Eight top 10s in 12 attempts is good enough for the Chase. The question is, can Biffle find that elusive speed that will push him over the edge and make him the first man to win a Cup, Nationwide and Truck title? On the evidence so far, I’m guessing not, but he’ll be there… or thereabouts. Grade: B

Tom’s Take: Biffle is the third-best driver in a Ford, which isn’t saying much considering how they’ve been running. He’s making the best of a bad situation, but consistency gets you in the Chase; it doesn’t put you in position to win it. The FR9 engine might help him steal a win at Michigan, but other than that I don’t see a miraculous run to the top of the points anytime soon. The Biff is just kind of… bleh. Grade: B

37. Mike Bliss (-1,147): Finished 10th at Talladega, had a ridiculous paint scheme promoting the Kim Kardashian fragrance and that, well, is about that. Grade: D

Tom’s Take: Had a good ride with Tommy Baldwin Racing sunk by a handful of DNQs; that sent him back to his Cup bread and butter, the start and park. I see Bliss as one of those Nationwide guys that steps into a Cup ride and suddenly forgets how to drive. Isn’t it weird when that happens? Grade: D

15. Clint Bowyer (-376): With a top 10 every other race, Bowyer has, like his two other RCR teammates, run well this year. One quick note: he has two DNFs already – one more than he accrued over the last three full seasons. Grade: B

Tom’s Take: My worry with Bowyer is that his teammates have combined to lead 411 laps. He’s led just 46, encountering the type of bad luck along the way that was due to catch up with him. Without a top-five finish since the Daytona 500, RCR’s resurgence is neatly masking a competition problem at the No. 33, and with no short tracks coming, he’s a Chase bubble contender at best right now. Grade: B-

8. Jeff Burton (-199): The entire RCR organization has improved, markedly, this year and like Harvick, Burton’s form has trended up. After a pit-road miscue at Darlington — a race he should have won — the usually placid Burton vented about what sort of team the No. 31 wanted to be. How’d they respond? Second at Dover last Sunday. Clearly, they want a championship, and clearly Burton has the ability. The interesting question is: Can he get it done at last after 18 years and 559 races? Grade: B

Tom’s Take: The likable Burton has led laps in eight of the last nine races, the first time in a decade he’s done it. That was also the last year he seriously challenged for a title, and at 43 this year you’ve got to think he realizes there’s not many chances left. With Harvick still having contract and sponsor issues to work out, expect the No. 31 to come to the forefront as RCR’s lead car in the next 12-race set. Grade: A-

9. Kurt Busch (-237): With new crew chief Steve Addington bedded in, Busch has a win (Las Vegas) and that’s been just about it. We’ve not even seen any good in-car verbal tirades, and to the best of my knowledge, he’s not yet called Roger Penske “dude” again. Probably not a bad idea to keep it that way. Grade: B

Tom’s Take: With Silly Season out of the way, a new long-term deal with Penske should leave Busch free to focus on a title. But some early adrenaline from Addington joining the team has appeared to wear off. It wasn’t too long ago people were talking up the No. 2 as Jimmie Johnson’s title threat. Now, they’re just kind of… there. Not sure what to expect over the next two months. Grade: B+

2. Kyle Busch (-69): I don’t know if this is the new Kyle Busch, but he’s certainly different. Two wins, seven top 10s and an average finish of 10.7 suggest, like Happy Harvick, Kyle’s for real in 2010. The serious question with KB is what happens when he goes through a slump or encounters some serious bad luck. For now, though, the signs are good. Grade: B+

See also
Joe Gibbs Racing Tandem Makes a Statement at Dover

Tom’s Take: The two biggest things Kyle Busch needed to do already happened: scaling back his Nationwide schedule and working to resolve his Truck contractor issues. That $3 million distraction should go away in the next few weeks, leaving Busch free to focus on a Cup program that’s title-worthy. The biggest question is whether he can make it through June unscathed. The four-race stretch of Pocono-Michigan-Infineon-Loudon has typically killed momentum for the No. 18. Grade: A-

36. Kevin Conway (-1,025): This is the dude that starts three laps down at every race, right? The one with some cheap form of Viagra as a primary sponsor? He’s the 2010 Rookie of the Year by complete default and that’s a shame given some of the names who’ve won the award. Grade: D

Tom’s Take: Conway’s like the new kid with the doofy glasses in school that everyone talks about behind their back. People say all the right things in public, but on the radios each race day it’s like the moving roadblock people want to pummel out of the way. At some point, I think that’ll actually happen, and you wonder how the marketing genius-turned-driving failure is going to respond. One thing’s for sure: even a lead-lap finish is not in the cards looking ahead. Grade: D-

16. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-374): With just three top 10s on the season and now a full year under Lance McGrew’s guidance, it’s essentially more of the same from the sport’s Most Popular Driver — mediocrity. Yes, he’s a factor at restrictor-plate tracks — but then again, so was Michael WaltripGrade: C

Tom’s Take: I’ve made mention many times how Earnhardt just went through his best six-race stretch of tracks and failed to pick up a top-five result. Leaving over 100 points on the table, mistake after mistake has left his average finish with McGrew (21.7) worse than the 21.3 in the dozen races of 2009 that left Tony Eury Jr. with a pink slip. Historically, the next few races are awful for Earnhardt, so don’t be surprised if he’s outside the top 20 by late June – leaving this team in shambles for a second straight year. Grade: C-

10. Carl Edwards (-281): I bet his coach driver is glad he didn’t agree to grow a beard until Carl wins again (as he so ill-advisedly did in 2006, ending up looking like Tom Hanks in Cast Away). It’s been 48 races (Homestead-Miami, 2008) since Edwards took a checkered flag, and given the way his organization has run this year, it might be another 48. All told, though, Edwards should make the Chase. Grade: B –

Tom’s Take: It blows me away that Edwards has led just two laps this year; that’s one less than the number of drivers he flipped, an awkward moment in what’s been a tough start to 2010. Let’s not forget, this guy’s the same one that won nine races in 2008! Rumors have died down that Jack Roush might kick Bob Osborne to the curb, but something has just got to get jumpstarted somewhere ‘cause when Michael McDowell has led more laps than you (in a start-and-park ride, no less) someone needs to be held responsible. Ford’s top driver shouldn’t be struggling like this. Grade: A-

35. David Gilliland (-951): Average start: 34.8, average finish: 27.6. Best run of 19th at Martinsville. Nothing to see here people, let’s move on. Grade: D

Tom’s Take: He’s spent the year serving the role of b*tch boy for Front Row Motorsports, saving Conway every time he drops one of their cars outside the Top 35. Just another sign of how money talks nowadays, but oh how this driver could shine if he just had a little extra cash. That lone top 20 in older equipment showed a glimmer of hope for a program that should improve. Grade: C-

6. Jeff Gordon (-163): I wonder if Jeff practices his “first loser” speeches. He’s had plenty of opportunity this year, after all. All of which does, however, go to show just how hard it is to win a Cup race and… this coming from a driver who’s done it 82 times, good enough for sixth on the all-time list. That said, with five top-five runs and eight top 10s in 12 races, Gordon has shown he means business; the No. 24 will be a factor to win it all in 2010, no question. Grade: B

Tom’s Take: Eight second-place finishes tell it all for a driver that’s yet to win since Texas in April 2009. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times, and at this point Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have run out of toes. More laps led than any other driver means nothing without a trip to victory lane, and with so many points left sitting on the table, my worry is it may actually cost them the Chase. Grade: B

34. Robby Gordon (-869): Still gritting it out, with a best finish of 14th (Phoenix) on the season so far. You have to wonder how much longer Gordon (and his extra-curricular activities) can continue to hold back the tide of the big teams. Here’s hoping it’s a little while longer. Grade: D

Tom’s Take: It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever had to say, but Gordon’s time in Cup will come to an end this next stretch. It’s been one hell of a fight, but unless a primary sponsor steps up, I see missing races and putting the team up for sale in his future. Grade: D-

5. Denny Hamlin (-150): Talk about a tale of two seasons. Pre-spoiler and pre-ACL surgery announcement, everybody’s “trendy” preseason pick to dethrone Double J flat out sucked. Since then, he’s been nothing short of magical with three wins in seven races. More importantly for Hamlin, he was fourth at Dover, his worst track statistically speaking, which can only augur well come Chase time. Grade: A

Tom’s Take: Entering the year, I was one of Hamlin’s biggest critics. Now, I salute the man with respect after all he’s done surrounding what should have been a season-destroying ACL tear. That win at Martinsville seemed to energize the program, and having the surgery proved to be the best off-track decision of his career. Can he run down Johnson and the No. 48? He’s probably the best positioned of any of the challengers right now. Grade: A

1. Kevin Harvick (Leader): What a bounce back after a miserable old year in 2009. Harvick has nine top 10s in 12 races plus that elusive victory at Talladega, snapping a streak that dated all the way back to the 2007 Daytona 500. Looks like Harvick’s settling in for the long haul this year; expect him to be a factor come Chase time. Grade: A

Tom’s Take: Until he signs on the dotted line, I’m not sold on Harvick re-signing with Richard Childress for 2011. And who are these sponsors outside the sport that they speak of? Financial and contractual issues always get bigger as the year goes on, and it’s my lone fear it’ll derail what’s otherwise an outstanding effort. Grade: A

30. Sam Hornish Jr. (-755): Go back to the IRL mate, please, for your own sake. You’re a one-man wrecking crew in NASCAR. Grade: D

Tom’s Take: Hornish has talked a good game and given it his all in stock car racing. But as Dario Franchitti will be the first to tell him, there’s no shame in this grand experiment not working out. An underlying story this year has been the long-term health of IndyCar; but if the ratings shoot up enough to keep sponsors happy, I’d expect him back on the open-wheel side in 2011. Grade: D

4. Jimmie Johnson (-131): While all the Jimmie fans wail and gnash their teeth in despair about his bad luck and “unfair” speeding penalties, the rest of us are just enjoying the fact that for the first time since the mid ’00s, Jimmie looks vaguely fallible. Despite his bad form of late, Johnson still has 30 Chase bonus points, a crucial boost come September. Grade: B (would be B-, but he has three wins)

Tom’s Take: Three wins in five races have faded into a shutout since, with three DNFs putting some awkward red ink on the resume. But isn’t it funny how every year, the No. 48 goes through a stretch where people question whether they’re the ones to beat? I used to join those critics, but after four straight titles I’ve finally learned my lesson. Still the No. 1 Chase seed if the season ended today, don’t be fooled — this team is right where it wants to be. Grade: A

21. Kasey Kahne (-531): With the news that Kahne will make the switch to HMS in 2011 and uncertainty surrounding him for next year, you can’t help but wonder if 2010 will be the forgotten year once Kahne hangs up his driving gloves and helmet. He may pull out a win or two at some point, but given Ford’s poor overall form – maybe not. Grade: C

Tom’s Take: The second Kahne said he was leaving for Hendrick, half the NASCAR world gasped, and he became an immediate title contender for 2012. It’s just that now, he needs to deal with the short-term pain at RPM and wherever he ends up in 2011. Fifth at Texas days after the announcement, let’s look at his last four finishes: 21st, 21st, 20th, 20th. Hardly a Chase-worthy resume to me and I don’t expect much to change over the summer. Grade: C- (but A for his career-defining move)

3. Matt Kenseth (-126): Kenseth flew out of the gates with five straight top 10s. But after Gordon (or more specifically his front bumper) ensured Kenseth didn’t get a chance for the victory at Martinsville, things have slipped some. Troubles with Ford aside, Kenseth should make the Chase easily enough. Grade: B+

Tom’s Take: People forget how gutsy a move it was to can Drew Blickensderfer one race into the season — and after a top-10 finish at Daytona, no less! It’s the kind of move champions make when they’re looking to get on top of their game and ever since, the No. 17 has been the class of the Ford camp. First on my list to get a win for the Blue Ovals this season; my guess is the Coca-Cola 600. Grade: A-

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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