It’s that time again. In the first of a three-part series this week, Danny Peters and Tom Bowles hand out their second set of grades – two-thirds of the way through the season – before we head into the stretch run and the NASCAR Chase. Today, the focus is on the teams. Wednesday (Sept. 1) and Thursday will be a comprehensive view of the top 40 drivers in the points standings.
Stewart-Haas Racing (Nos. 14, 39)
Danny: After a phenomenal freshman year for SHR, the second season has been a little trickier. You can’t really say SHR has had a sophomore slump – Smoke is in the Chase and Ryan Newman won his first race in about 20 years. But it’s clear performance hasn’t been quite as high as 2009, with only one of the two cars set to make the Chase. That said, don’t rule Smoke out in the final 10 races. Grade: B
Tom: Smoke stood up at Pocono after a third-place finish, spewing fire and claiming he’d make the highlight reels. Who knew he wouldn’t do it for his temper? The only thing missing from the No. 14’s resume at this point is a win, making them a darkhorse title contender. But the puzzling inability of the No. 39 team to put it all together, too, brings down their grade a bit. Grade: B
Roush Fenway Racing (Nos. 6, 16, 17, 99)
Danny: After a sluggish start, Roush Fenway Racing has shown distinct signs of life. The Biff ended the long company winless streak at Pocono and he, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have run well in the last couple of months. Will it be enough to net a third title for recovering Jack Roush? Probably not, but the three will be there or thereabouts. Apparently, there’s a fourth RFR driver called David Ragan, too. Who knew? Grade: B
Tom: Sometimes, it takes a near-death experience to bring out the best in life. Rallying around their owner’s near-tragedy, the sudden resurgence of the Blue Oval crowd has been heartwarming in the face of what seemed like an endless slump heading into early summer. Greg Biffle appears the most consistent, but don’t count out Edwards heading into the Chase; that No. 99 team looks like a powder keg waiting to go off. Just don’t tell UPS how well the rest of the cars are doing, OK? Grade: B+
Richard Petty Motorsports (Nos. 9, 19, 43, 98)
Danny: RPM has really not had a pleasant time of things in 2010. The star, Kasey Kahne, signed with HMS, Elliott Sadler continues to finish several laps down, while AJ Allmendinger is hit and miss like a toddler hopped up on sugar. As for Paul Menard, well, he’s had three top 10s and an average finish of 19.9. More than anything with RPM, the key question is what happens in 2011. Grade: D
Tom: Tag Sale! Tag Sale! This November, come buy RPM’s fleet at bargain basement prices as the team consolidates from four teams to two, hanging by a thread after spending the summer simply trying to line up enough creditors to keep surviving. The King takes a licking but keeps on ticking, although one wonders with this newest driver lineup just exactly how long he can roll with the punches.
Am I getting ahead of myself on 2011? Absolutely. But the fact three of the four drivers currently employed won’t be a part of it provides the perfect explanation for what’s been a largely disappointing 2010. One lone bright spot: Menard. Too bad for them Richard Childress and his checkbook were watching… Grade: C+
Richard Childress Racing (Nos. 29, 31, 33)
Danny: What a transformation it’s been for RCR in 2010. Out to lunch for much of 2009, the change in fortunes for all three RCR wheelmen, especially Kevin Harvick, has been stunning. Clint Bowyer’s Chase spot is not confirmed yet, but he’s in the catbird seat with two races to go. Regardless, this is a team that’s going places – with the snarly veteran Harvick leading the way. Grade: A
Tom: RCR started the summer as a longshot title contender. They ended it as perhaps the hottest team, top to bottom, inside the Sprint Cup garage. Between a win from Harvick, Jeff Burton scoring top-10 finishes like an automatic machine gun and Bowyer simply benefiting from Mark Martin‘s self-destruction… it’s hard to find fault here. Richard, this Bud’s for you. Grade: A
Red Bull Racing (Nos. 82, 83)
Danny: After the excitement of Brian Vickers snatching the final Chase spot in 2009, it’s been the very definition of a year to forget for RBR in 2010. The only good thing is Vickers is on the way back and Kahne will be in Red Bull equipment – albeit for a year only – in 2011. Grade: C-
Tom: All you need to know about Red Bull Racing is both drivers likely won’t even be involved with the program at the Cup level next year. They’re without their leader (Vickers), running behind on horsepower and are suffering from a total loss of focus. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At this point, why wouldn’t you mail it in? Grade: D+
Penske Racing (Nos. 2, 12, 77)
Danny: It’s been an up and down year for the Captain. Kurt Busch has run well, with two wins and 14 top 10s. Sam Hornish Jr. has been terrible (it’s surely time he went back to open wheel) and Brad Keselowski has caused fireworks, yet failed to pick up a single top 10 all year. Grade: B-
Tom: There seems to be a two-tier system within the Penske Racing Shop: Penske and Penske Pretend. The Real Team Penske (Busch, Keselowski’s Nationwide team) performs at the level everyone expects, challenging for the championship while becoming the flag-bearer for a Dodge emblem hanging by a thread within NASCAR’s top-three series.
For those worried about Busch’s latest slump, don’t be. We saw this last year and he ended the season a healthy fourth in points. As for Keselowski-Cup and Mr. Hornish? It’s like Penske makes cars out of scrap metal, puts their logo on it and decides to go see what happens. Or, if that doesn’t work, Hornish does a good job at turning other teams’ equipment straight into scrap metal for them. Grade: C+
Michael Waltrip Racing (and JTG) (Nos. 00, 47, 56)
Danny: It’s been a relatively solid year for MWR. Martin Truex Jr. has settled into the NAPA car, the Reut won a race, but Marcos Ambrose has disappointed (especially at Sonoma) and will move on next season with Bobby Labonte slated for the ride in 2011. All told, though, not bad. Grade: B-
Tom: A little good, a little bad and pretty much everything in between. The Good: David Reutimann winning Chicagoland and driving Kyle Busch crazy before earning runner-up at Bristol while reclaiming his place as No. 1 shoe within the three-pair MWR camp. Mr. Truex? Somewhere in between. His Chase chances got lost within an ugly incident that set a quiet guy afire, just like the colors of one DuPont Chevrolet’s front bumper.
And Mr. Ambrose? Lost within an ugly web of terrible wrecks, poor engines and bad gas – a nightmare that ends with a trip to the land of Richard Petty come 2011. When you have three teams going in three separate directions… that’s not exactly the definition of the word chemistry. Grade: C
Joe Gibbs Racing (Nos. 11, 18, 20)
Danny: Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch will head into the Chase knowing they can win the title, while Joey Logano has learned massive amounts and shown he has some nuts. These three are always entertaining, no question and between Denny (five wins) and Kyle (three wins) JGR has won a third of the races run this year, which is no mean feat in a series as competitive as the Sprint Cup. Grade: B+
Tom: Didn’t JGR learn their lesson about peaking too soon? Through the middle of June, there was no one better with Hamlin and Busch collecting trophies like they were kiddie awards at the dollar store. But Infineon came with a troubling inability to execute both left and right turns, and after that tough weekend on the road course nothing has been quite right ever since.
Sure, Kyle Busch swept Bristol and Logano discovered girls and their firesuits, but is that really enough to make anyone championship material? And what’s to make of Hamlin, who’s made more news for what he tweets than what’s he’s doing on the racetrack as of late? Joe Gibbs’s Redskins are ill-positioned to start the season with Donovan McNabb. I’m worried we’re about to witness a similar letdown here. Grade: B
Hendrick Motorsports (Nos. 5, 24, 48, 88)
Danny: The real grading of HMS will come at the end of the season (when the big prizes are handed out) but compared to last year, they’ve slipped slightly by their own very lofty standards. Junior has flat out disappointed; Martin hasn’t shown anything like the form he had last year; Jeff G couldn’t win a race if he was the only participant and Double J has been uncharacteristically error prone. Still, with the Nos. 24/48 it’s all about the Chase. Grade: B
Tom: A Tale of Two Cities… err, two race shops. The No. 24 and the No. 48? They’re spending their time playing with house money, fooling the public by getting aggressive and pulling a win-it-or-screw-it philosophy that hides their hand. But their teammates at the Nos. 5 and 88 are like those guys at the blackjack table that have already reached into the ATM machine five times, but just can’t stop gambling and can’t catch a card to save their life. You know their night is going to end ugly… you just don’t know how it happens quite yet. Grade: B
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (Nos. 1, 42)
Danny: Juan Pablo Montoya certainly won’t make the Chase and Jamie McMurray has an outside chance at best, but the simple fact is this team has looked so, so, so much better than last year. A rejuvenated McMurray won the 500 and the Brickyard whilst Montoya picked up a second Cup victory at Watkins Glen. Both teams have had the speed necessary, they’ve just both suffered with some bad racing luck. All in all, though, the signs are bright for EGR. Grade: B
Tom: How can you argue with a season where your team wins the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and a road-course race? “They’re not in the Chase,” says Brian France. So? McMurray sure ain’t worrying about it, so why should we be sitting here sweating? The sport’s biggest wild card that could easily play spoiler, winning two, maybe three races come Chase time. Grade: B+
Front Row Motorsports (Nos. 34, 37, 38)
Danny: The No. 34 car is toast – you know, the one with the cheap Viagra sponsorship that lapped the track like it was a milk float. The No. 37 car of David Gilliland has 20 starts and an average finish of 28.8, while Travis Kvapil has run 23 races for an average finish of 27.7. Let’s move on, shall we? Grade: D
Tom: Sometime this month, the middle-aged Front Row Motorsports team thought they could get by without their Extenze pill. I understand why they did it, but their bank account certainly doesn’t – and that could be a story to watch going forward. Clearly, nothing on the racetrack has been worth noting for about the last five or six weeks. Grade: D
Furniture Row Racing (No. 78)
Danny: FRR recently announced a contract extension for Regan Smith through 2012 (running the full season in both years). It’s good news for the Cato, N.Y. native – one of the sport’s good guys. Still, with a top finish of 14th at Atlanta, there’s still a long way to go. One final thing: I loved that Farm American paint scheme he ran earlier this year. That was quality. Grade: C+
Tom: Regan and Furniture Row are made for each other, an underrated single-car team paired with what’s a vastly underrated driver. But considering they’re running A-level RCR equipment, that zero in the top-10 column has to be rated at least a minor disappointment. Grade: C-
Robby Gordon Motorsports (No. 7)
Danny: You have to feel it must be a little like trying to dam the Amazon with a couple of house bricks for the irascible Robby Gordon as he struggles to keep his head above water. The second-place run at Sonoma certainly helped, but the long-term prognosis for Gordon isn’t pretty. Grade: D
Tom: Oh, Robby. Using a sex pill to keep your team alive? Really? You’re better than that. Grade: F
Whitney Motorsports (No. 46)
Tom: You knew when Yeley started DNQ’ing for oh, about a month, that wasn’t going to end well. Can McDowell be the one to salvage this program? Umm… those aren’t exactly fightin’ words around these parts. Grade: F
TRG Motorsports (No. 71)
Danny: The primary driver for the No. 71 in 2010, Bobby Labonte, will move to Marcos Ambrose’s seat in the No. 47 car next year and you have to say it’s a good thing for the 2000 Cup champ to be back in competitive equipment in 2011. Other than that, there’s not a lot to say about this team. Grade: D
Tom: The team that did everything right and still doesn’t have the money to show for it. Come study their story in How NASCAR is Broken 101 this fall; we’re not sure if there’s going to be a class spring semester. Grade: D
Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 36)
Danny: It’s been quite the potpourri of drivers behind the wheel of the No. 36 car this year: Bliss (5 races), Casey Mears (4 races), Johnny Sauter (3 races), Ron Fellows (1 race), Geoff Bodine (1 race) and Steve Park (1 race.) And speaking of Park, his fantastic 13th-place run at Daytona was easily the best finish for this team in 2010 and the lone bright spot, all told. Grade: F
Tom: Tommy Baldwin’s another good guy who’s determined to start a team even if he does die trying. Man, am I worried about his health. Grade: D-
Germain Racing (No. 13)
Danny: I have to say I’m a little sad Mad Max is no longer in the No. 13 GEICO car. He’s a real character with a true racer’s heart and a genuine love for stock car racing. His replacement is Mears, who will run at least seven more races in 2010 before sliding into the seat in 2011 as well. In short, though, not really a lot to see or talk about here. Grade: D
Tom: From Mad Max to Casey at the Bat? We all know what happened in that poem. Is GEICO even paying attention to this team anymore? Because, if they did, they’d realize even Loren Wallace might be a better option at this point. Grade: F
Latitude 43 Motorsports (No. 26)
Danny: Another team with an uncertain future, David Stremme recently quit the ride after 11 races behind the wheel alleging that team principal, Bill Jenkins, had failed to meet “financial obligations.” Patrick Carpentier is being lined up for Atlanta and possibly beyond, but the simple fact is this team is just doing all it can to stay alive. Grade: D
Tom: Now THIS is a team running on house money. Seriously, the cops will be outside any minute now. Grade: F
The Start-and-Park Teams
Danny: Honestly, I have nothing to say about the start-and-park teams. They’re not truly competing so, simply put, they don’t deserve a grade when compared to those that do actually try and run the full complement of laps. Grade: N/A
Tom: Business-wise? Grade: A+. Otherwise, I think the appropriate grade here is Z.
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