Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Driver Report Cards, Part II & Quick Hits

Did You Notice? It’s time to grade the drivers on their 2015 season? For the first part of Driver Report Cards, as well as the guidelines on how each driver’s being graded please check on yesterday’s article. Part III will be posted overnight tonight.

Jeb Burton

Stats: 9 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: 38th

Best Finish: 29th – Martinsville

Analysis: Jeb, who’s got a win in Camping World Truck Series competition appears in over his head – even with an underfunded team in BK Racing. He’s got four DNQs in 11 attempts, kicking out a teammate to start one race and has posted just two finishes inside the top 30. Compared to his peers, in particular fellow rookie teammate Matt DiBenedetto it looks like he jumped too high, too fast. When your claim to fame so far is Jeff Gordon running into you in Las Vegas, well, I’m thinking that’s a problem. Grade: F.

Kurt Busch

Stats: 10 starts, 1 win, 3 top fives, 5 top 10s, 2 poles.

Points Position: 15th

Best Finish: First – Richmond

Analysis: Say what you want about the issues surrounding Busch and domestic violence. The bottom line is NASCAR made its call, granting a Chase waiver after a three-race suspension and since then Busch has been a man on a mission. He’s already led more laps (659) than anyone not named Harvick, his teammate and probably should have won at least two more times. The average finish of 11.3, played out over a full 13-race schedule would leave him third in points; as it is, he’s comfortably in 14th and will wind up a Chaser, likely winning 4-5 races by Richmond. Crew chief Tony Gibson, “old school” is a far better fit and as long as Busch avoids off-track conflict NASCAR could have a November problem on its hands. Come Homestead, a sport that prides itself on “family values” could have a domestic problem as its poster boy, holding up that championship trophy a second time. Grade: A.

Kyle Busch

Stats: 2 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: 40th

Best Finish: 11th – Charlotte

Analysis: Busch, like his brother will enter the Cup Series giving 110% after NASCAR granted him a Chase waiver. Charlotte’s All-Star Race proved to everyone his leg injury is recovered enough to compete; Busch finished a solid sixth and will only get better with time. Considering the summer, when many top drivers have their Chase bid in hand and will be fine settling for seventh down the stretch Busch will blow by them and earn the extra points he needs for the top 30. Can he win a race? Not for awhile, but if we get to late August and we hit the short tracks of Bristol and Richmond, that’s where Joe Gibbs Racing has excelled. It’s a 60/40 shot of making the Chase and in this season of top-heavy candidates you’d have to think Busch will wind up in it. Grade: INC.

Landon Cassill

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: N/A

Best Finish: 21st – Martinsville

Analysis: It’s been a bit of a disappointing season for Cassill, a young driver who just missed out on better rides last season after overachieving with underfunded Hillman Racing. This year, they started out with more sponsorship but also blew two engines, becoming the first driver in decades to start out the year with two last-place finishes. One of those came at Daytona, the restrictor-plate races the team spends much of its money on and Talladega wasn’t much better. An average finish of 32.5 here shows how hard it is for organizations to jump a tier in the Cup Series these days – even when they enter the year with so much momentum. It’s too bad Cassill, in the long run could be better off heading elsewhere. Grade: D.

Matt DiBenedetto

Stats: 10 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: 35th

Best Finish: 18th – Talladega

Analysis: DiBenedetto, after an awkward start for BKR, has been a pleasant surprise as of late. After starting the year with two DNQs, the short track of Bristol proved a turning point; he stayed out of trouble, finished just three laps down in 21st and received a large boost of confidence. That step up in performance has appeared to stick, as he’s been the top-finishing rookie in multiple events the last month. Not bad for a guy who had limited experience, if that before moving up to the Cup level at age 23. If only the team actually signed him up for the Rookie of the Year award back in February, he’d be emerging as the favorite to win it. Grade: C-.

Austin Dillon

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 24th

Best Finish: 10th – Bristol

Analysis: It’s hard to believe this sophomore started off last season sitting on the pole for the 2014 Daytona 500. Who thought the No. 3 car would be third in line at Richard Childress Racing, an afterthought while teammates Ryan Newman and Paul Menard surge toward the Chase? The stat that matters here: Dillon hasn’t led a lap since Charlotte last October. His last top-five finish? Daytona last July. So much has been written about the disappointment of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. but honestly? Dillon, hidden behind the other Richard Childress Racing success stories and the Childress name hasn’t been that much further ahead. You have to wonder, even if it’s experience that’s the problem here whether Gil Martin will still be on the pit box come September. Grade: D+.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Stats: 13 starts, 1 win, 7 top fives, 8 top 10s.

Points Position: 5th

Best Finish: First – Talladega

Analysis: Earnhardt has run a peg below teammate Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 shop, adjusting to new crew chief Greg Ives and a more reserved mindset. But there’s nothing a win at Talladega can’t cure, the sport’s Most Popular Driver revered at a place where the family name has him treated like a God. A Chase bid assured, the No. 88 team now must work to close the gap between them and the No. 48 on intermediate tracks. There’s only so many spots for Homestead, and right now three appear destined for Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Busch. It’s hard to believe Hendrick equipment will go four-for-four, which means the fight to move forward this postseason should come from within. I also think we’re yet to see the true impact of Steve Letarte’s departure; what happens when Earnhardt has a bad day in the playoff? Will Ives make it better, can he cheerlead and boost the driver’s confidence correctly? I’m not convinced yet. Grade: B+.

Carl Edwards

Stats: 13 starts, 1 win, 1 top five, 2 top 10s.

Points Position: 16th

Best Finish: First – Coca-Cola 600

Analysis: Matt Kenseth, Mr. Edwards is not. Expected to mirror his old teammate’s success at Joe Gibbs Racing, instead the driver of the new No. 19 team has struggled to remain relevant. Winning at Bristol would have changed the outlook, but a late-race desperation ploy went hard right into the outside wall. All looked lost and then… fuel mileage at Charlotte changed the game. It might bump up the lack of chemistry between Edwards and crew chief Darian Grubb, a rough start which was a bit surprising but I think that’s not the real issue. Last time around, JGR struggled with expansion (Jason Leffler and the No. 11 FedEx team were a mess in 2005) and it doesn’t help Toyota is a step behind Chevrolet. To weather the storm this long and come out 16th in points, I think for Edwards and Co. there’s nowhere but up from here. Grade: B-.

Brendan Gaughan

Stats: 6 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: N/A

Best Finish: 28th – Atlanta

Analysis: The equipment leaves much to be desired. The owner? His financial resources are limited. But Gaughan, who has as many DNQs as races run in this car looks like a Sprint Cup field filler at this point. Too bad; here’s a personality the sport sorely needs, paired awfully with the sore spot he hasn’t shown the talent to run in a top-tier Cup ride and be successful. Grade: F.

David Gilliland

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s.

Points Position: 26th

Best Finish: 11th – Daytona 500

Analysis: It may not seem like much, but an average finish of 25.5 is a step up for a Front Row Motorsports team focused on small gains. The strong Daytona 500 performance for Gilliland is part of that but the No. 38 Ford has been consistent at other places, too including a decent 18th at Bristol. Considering the struggles of Ford, a “revolving door” third teammate and limited sponsorship FRM is moving in the right direction with this car. Grade: C+.

Jeff Gordon

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 8 top 10s, 3 poles.

Points Position: 9th

Best Finish: Third – Bristol

Analysis: It all started awful for Gordon, his retirement tour resulting in wrecks in three of the first three races. But you knew Lady Luck, combined with Hendrick equipment in a final season wouldn’t keep this four-time champion down forever. I expect the win to come by the end of next month, at either Michigan or Sonoma and Gordon will clearly be a Chase contender. Where we go from there, I don’t know but at least the raw speed (in the form of three poles) is clearly there. It’s nice to see a champion capable of going out on top; it’s an ending you don’t see that much these days in sports. Grade: B.

Denny Hamlin

Stats: 13 starts, 1 win, 3 top fives, 5 top 10s, 1 pole.

Points Position: 14th

Best Finish: First – Martinsville

Analysis: Definitely one of those “better than the stats appear” cases in this weird world of the new Chase. Yes, Hamlin is 14th in points and has suffered through long periods of inconsistency. But he’s got a win at a postseason track, Martinsville, just won the All-Star Race and the No. 11 Toyota seems like one of the few teams capable of being in the same league with Hendrick equipment at 1.5-mile ovals. Add in some restrictor-plate success within the last season or two and you still have to consider him a threat to fill that fourth random spot at Homestead. New crew chief Dave Rogers has increased cohesion within the program; the only potential distraction comes with the future. What will Hamlin’s contract status with JGR look like going forward if Erik Jones shows he’s ready to move up? Grade: B.

Kevin Harvick

Stats: 13 starts, 2 wins, 9 top fives, 12 top 10s, 1 pole.

Points Position: 1st

Best Finish: First – Las Vegas, Phoenix

Analysis: What more can you say that hasn’t already been said? Harvick’s got no finish lower than second on any intermediate track. He’s got over 1,000 laps led… and we’re only 13 races in. He’s led a lap in 12 straight events, has 12 top-10 finishes in 13 tries and has led the points since Las Vegas. Two years ago, we were questioning a move to leave RCR; now, you shudder to think what would have happened to Harvick had he stayed. What I’d like to see more of: the outspokenness he showed at Talladega re: the Cup Series schedule. As the reigning champion, Harvick has the ability to speak his mind somewhat and you’d think based on past history he’d further embrade the role. Grade: A+.

Sam Hornish Jr.

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10.

Points Position: 25th

Best Finish: Sixth – Talladega

Analysis: For Hornish, it’s been a difficult adjustment back to the Cup Series after taking the time to improve himself in the minors. However, a crew chief change to Kevin “Bono” Manion from Drew Blickensderfer, a head wrench I always thought was a bit overrated should help quite a bit. Manion is out to prove himself and has the experience of making the most out of underfunded equipment after two years taking a step back with Tommy Baldwin Racing. This car, more underfunded than you might think needs that type of strategy to be successful. Expect improvement here, just not a Chase bid in the second half. Grade: C-.

Jimmie Johnson

Stats: 13 starts, 4 wins, 8 top fives, 9 top 10s.

Points Position: 3rd

Best Finish: First – Atlanta, Texas, Kansas, Dover

Analysis: Clearly, mechanical mastermind Chad Knaus has gone back to the drawing board for the new Chase. His strategy, achieved with great success so far this season: win on the intermediates, in particular the ones they’ll see again in the final 10 races while just trying to survive everywhere else. Martinsville was the one blip on the radar, a weird test session it appears gone awry at a track where Johnson has been dominant. But everywhere else has been so good you have to consider this program the main rival to Harvick at this point. The swagger is back, pushing the gray area is back, the equipment is better than anyone else’s… you get the picture. Just one question: When does the contract extension, including for sponsor Lowe’s get announced? It’s getting late in the year to do it (both expire in 2015). Grade: A.

Kasey Kahne

Stats: 13 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s.

Points Position: 8th

Best Finish: Fourth – Phoenix & Dover

Analysis: It’s a much better start to the season for Kahne, bitten by bad luck these past few years. New crew chief Keith Rodden was the right call after a long-term relationship with Kenny Francis had gone stale. Now, the question is whether Kahne can lock in a win the next few weeks at tracks like Michigan, in his wheelhouse as an expert on intermediate ovals. If he can do it, it’s a huge sigh of relief for a No. 5 program that has had to be on the Chase bubble far too often in recent years. With the team far down the pecking order at Hendrick and even with Stewart-Haas Racing in the mix, they’ll need that extra testing time in order to be a factor when the races really count. Grade: B+.

Matt Kenseth

Stats: 13 starts, 1 win, 4 top fives, 7 top 10s, 2 poles.

Points Position: 11th

Best Finish: First – Bristol

Analysis: As usual, Mr. Consistency is making the most of it with a Joe Gibbs Racing program that has admittedly been a step behind their rivals. He’s seized a chance to score a victory (Bristol) and had finished all 12 races up until Sunday’s broken Dover suspension. As we saw with the Chase last year, where Kenseth nearly pointed his way to Homestead that type of consistency can still pay dividends down the road. I’d like to see a little more raw speed here but they’ve got time to work on it. He’s perhaps the best JGR Chase candidate, edging Hamlin to go deep in the postseason at this point. Grade: B+.

Did You Notice? Some VERY quick hits before we take off…

  • It was weird to see Harvick and Kurt Busch run so well at the All-Star Race while teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing ran 19th and 20th, respectively. The disconnect within the organization, wherever it is was never quite so visible.
  • Why not move the All-Star Race to a Wednesday night? It would be a great way to experiment and see whether anything held on a weekday would work for the sport’s top level.
  • Jones, in the midst of such promise has now had two wins ripped out of his fingers the last two weeks in the Truck Series along with a Cup sub ride (one start, one wreck at Kansas). As promising as his career has been, now is the time where we’ll see whether the 18-year-old is ready to handle the emotional ups and downs of the sport.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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