Between Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne, the underdogs have stolen the spotlight this season and for good reason. From Bayne’s spiritually driven post-race media tour after becoming the youngest winner in the Daytona 500, to Smith’s emotional victory lane interview at Darlington last weekend the day before Mother’s Day, the unexpected has become the norm in the Sprint Cup Series.
But with every feel-good underdog story there are 100 more drivers that have either fallen by the wayside or failed to live up to expectations. Whether from a suspension, parting ways with a team, lack of good equipment or just a flat-out lack of talent, the hype surrounding a driver can subside pretty quickly if they don’t perform (unless you’re Danica Patrick of course).
Then, there are those drivers that just don’t make sense. They are in the best equipment, have shown some talent in the past, but yet seem incapable of performing at any level other than mid-pack. Oh sure they’ll occasionally have flashes of brilliance where they’ll have a streak of top-10 finishes or they’ll win the occasional restrictor plate/rained out/fuel mileage race but overall they are mediocre drivers at best and usually finish somewhere around 15th to 20th in points. Sometimes worse.
NASCAR is a results-driven (and money-driven, but that’s another story entirely) industry, where losing your ride could be the difference between a contract extension and a pink slip. Even sponsors that have funded a team for years will back out if the team and drivers don’t live up to expectations.
With that said, here are a few drivers that need to kick it into high gear or get out.
High Point: Winning the rain-shortened 2009 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for his first career victory.
Low Point: Flipping multiple times in a crash at Dover the very same year.
You can throw all the excuses you want his way, but they are starting to become irrelevant. How long exactly is it supposed to take for a driver once labeled the “next best thing,” or more often “Sliced Bread,” to start to live up to that moniker?
Typically, developmental drivers are usually given three years before anyone starts expecting them to really contend for wins or championships. It may not be in their contract, but the typically agreed upon amount of time to before passing judgment is three seasons. Logano is currently in his third full Sprint Cup Series season, 25th in points with only one top-10 finish this season.
But why is that leeway offered to drivers? “Oh he’s still learning. He’ll be competitive eventually.”
Take a look at some of the rookie seasons of some of our championship contending drivers, starting with Mr. Five-Time himself, Jimmie Johnson. In Johnson’s first three seasons, he won a total of 14 races, with three wins in his rookie season alone. He finished fifth in points in his freshman year, and second the next two.
Tony Stewart’s results (the last champion before Johnson began his reign) are just as impressive. Stewart also won three races in his rookie campaign, finished fourth in points and completed the season with an average finish of 10th. He had a total of 12 wins in his first three full-time Sprint Cup outings.
Even Logano’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were strong right off the bat. In fact, Hamlin and Busch’s first three years were virtually carbon copies of each other. They both had two wins in their rookie years and one win apiece the next two. Hamlin finished third in points his first year and Busch was 20th.
One argument used to defend Logano’s lack of impressive performance since he began is the fact that he was moved up to the Cup Series much faster than originally planned with the exit of Stewart from Joe Gibbs Racing. That’s a fair assessment, considering that of the four drivers mentioned above, the fewest amount of Nationwide Series starts that had been run before their rookie season was 36 (Hamlin and Stewart). Logano didn’t even get a full season under his belt before he was thrown to the wolves.
I do feel for Logano that he was expected to perform so quickly and the amount of pressure placed upon him when he entered NASCAR was unfair. However, he is in some of the best equipment in the sport and has shown he is capable of winning races in the past. I’m not convinced Logano will ever be a true championship contender year in and year out, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win a few more races in the coming years either.
The alternative? Darrell Wallace Jr.
JGR development driver and Revolution Racing’s Drive for Diversity competitor has been making some serious noise in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East the last couple of seasons, winning two races and finishing third in points in 2010. In three races this season, the 17-year-old Wallace already has one victory and is leading the standings with seven races remaining. On March 27, 2010, Wallace became the first African-American winner in the series when he took home the checkered flag in the Kevin Whitaker Chevrolet 150 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.
High Point: Winning the 2009 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Low Point: Flying into the catchfence in the 2010 Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway after retaliatory contact from Carl Edwards.
Brad Keselowski is essentially the tale of two series. Keselowski has been tearing it up the past three years in the Nationwide Series, remaining competitive as a series regular while the Sprint Cup Series double-duty drivers continued to dominate. He finished third in points for two consecutive seasons — 2008 and 2009 — before giving Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship in 2010.
However, in the Sprint Cup Series, he’s been anything but competitive. Since joining the series full-time in 2010, Keselowski has only earned three career top 10s. Compare that to the 15 (of 36 total) races he competed in during the 2009 season where he snatched the win at Talladega and had four top 10s while splitting time between Phoenix Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.
Keselowski was originally supposed to replace Mark Martin when Martin was slated to retire, but when that didn’t happen Keselowski had to decide between staying in the Nationwide Series before Martin decided it was time to leave or settling for a Sprint Cup Series ride in lesser equipment. Now Kasey Kahne is going to get Martin’s ride, while Keselowski is struggling to remain competitive.
The alternative? Justin Allgaier
Former Penske Racing turned Turner Motorsports driver Allgaier is also able to hold his own against Sprint Cup Series regulars in the Nationwide Series and is the only series regular to win a race in 2010. Through 10 races in 2011, Allgaier has three top fives, six top 10s and is leading the standings.
High Point: Well there was this one time he uh… one time he finished…. Oh hell, I don’t know!
Low Point: Dart without feathers, anyone?
I’ll give props to Ragan for showing some improvement this year, returning back to his 2008 ways where he had a total of 14 top-10 runs and finished 13th in points. That’s not exactly Chase caliber, but it’s better than the torrential downpour we’ve seen over Ragan’s head since then.
Ragan only has eight top-10 finishes since then and didn’t earn another top five until the race at Richmond just under two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Ragan’s Roush Fenway Racing teammates Edwards and Matt Kenseth have one win apiece and Greg Biffle is sitting just outside the Chase cutoff in 12th.
Ragan’s sponsor UPS has a contract that expires at the end of the season, so if he wants them to stick around he should probably kick it up a notch.
The alternative? Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
I’d go with Trevor Bayne if Stenhouse hadn’t improved by leaps and bounds this year and Bayne hadn’t ended up in the hospital for a condition yet to be named. Stenhouse has proven this year that he can run with the best of them and is currently fifth in points in the Nationwide Series.
High Point: See David Ragan.
Low Point: Pretty much his entire career.
I’m disappointed to even be including Menard in this, considering the fact that he showed so much promise at the beginning of this season. In 10 races this season, he already has enough top-five results to tie all of his previous Sprint Cup Series seasons combined. He’s fallen off the past couple of races though, finishing 37th at Richmond and 22nd at Darlington.
Menard has competed with a variety of team, jumping from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Yates Racing to Richard Petty Motorsports to Richard Childress Racing, all with his father’s company Menards providing funding along the way. He’s never really been competitive other than a few strong showings here and there.
The way he was looking the first few events of 2011, I thought he might have been in the running for “Most Improved Driver,” but now I’m not so sure. Time will only tell.
The alternative? Austin Dillon
The talented grandson of Childress is slowly but surely working his way up the ranks and will more than likely be full time in the Nationwide Series in 2011. Dillon won two races in his rookie season in the Camping World Truck Series last year and is sixth in points through five races in 2011. And he’s done pretty well in his limited Nationwide Series starts too – two top-10 finishes in eight starts since 2008. With a four-team cap in the Sprint Cup Series, someone may end up out of a ride at RCR once Dillon is ready to move up.
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