The 2009 Sprint Cup season may only be three races in, but there are trends appearing that are positive for some, expected for others, and a few that are head-scratchers.
Let’s take a look through the field after three events on the calendar, and see where people are, and where they should be.
Jeff Gordon leading the points
Yes, I’m a fan of the 24 car. But if you were to tell me, or anybody, that after three races this year Jeff would be doing this well, then I’d think you slept through last season.
After getting through the crap-shoot that is Daytona fairly unscathed, he was in a position to win at Fontana, and lost the race on pit road.
This past weekend at Vegas he had that same car, and as expected, it was fast. Once again a questionable call by crew chief Steve Letarte of having Jeff pit with the 48 car caused a problem, he overshot pit road, and blew out the left front tire. Mind you the car was so good that with minimal repairs he still finished sixth—oh, and also surpassed 20,000 laps led in his career.
Oh yeah—and he surpassed the $100,000,000 in career winnings mark. Cha-ching!
Clint Bowyer leading the RCR Brigade
With the signing of Casey Mears, Bowyer found himself bumped from his familiar digs of the 07 Jack Daniels machine to the newly-formed No. 33 car with Betty Crocker on board…I just don’t think the sponsors fit the personalities...(a la Kasey Kahne and Budweiser.)
Regardless, Clint has been steady and consistent in his new ride, and is running a solid second in points, with two top-fives to date.
What’s ironic about this deal? Bobby Ginn is listed as owner of the car. Recall that just two years ago he had a race team that was going to be something big and it folded—first merged into DEI and then RCR.
Now who’s smiling?
Michael Waltrip Racing
One word: Wow! I dare anyone out there to show me that you put money on a bet saying that Michael Waltrip would be in the top-12 after three races (which isn’t unfathomable, after all, Daytona is what Daytona is) and that David Reutimann would be fifth in points—I’d be calling you for some lottery numbers.
Aside from some brushes with the wall, Mikey has been showing that he can still compete. More importantly his cars are up to speed. Reuti shouldn’t have any problem with Aaron’s sponsoring that car for the rest of the season if he keeps this up.
Hall of Fame Racing/Bobby Labonte
Yes, HoF made the switch from Toyota to Ford and into the Yates Racing partnership in the off-season. This gave veteran Labonte the confidence to sign with the team—though I wonder what he’d be doing in a Richard Petty Motorsports car at this point, since they haven’t been slouches this year either.
Labonte is tenth in the points—unfamiliar territory for HoF, which struggled since it’s inception under owners Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. But the switch has done him good and the team as well, as they are out-performing the other Yates Racing machines. It’s good to see Bobby up front, and even contending for wins.
He’s technically part of the MWR squad, with the alliance between them and his team of JTG Daugherty Racing, but it says something when the “Tasmanian Devil” is running 20th in points, and a number of much more experienced drivers are in his rear-view mirror. I don’t know if he’ll maintain this position, but he’s a nice guy, and I hope he does well.
Regan Smith / Furniture Row Racing
For a team that’s running a “limited schedule” you sure wouldn’t know it from the performance to date. Last years’ Rookie Of the Year was left without a ride after the debacle at DEI, and now he’s in the top-35 in points, after running in only two of the three races!
This team sports Hendrick equipment, which is good and all, but he’s ahead of three guys running the full schedule (Scott Speed, Aric Almirola, and Paul Menard) and is breathing down the neck of some big names (Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano).
If I’m running the show at FRR, I don’t care what it costs, I’m getting this kid and the car to the track every week, because why would you cut back a schedule when you’re locked into the field? Two to go and we’ll see where they stand.
Two wins, by Matt Kenseth at least, weren’t expected, but having three of the five team cars in the top-10 in points shouldn’t turn anybody’s head. Kenseth’s rebound this year can be credited to new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. Greg Biffle is usually consistent and up front, and Carl Edwards is…Carl Edwards. What else would you expect?
Jamie McMurrary being in the mid-20s in points is no surprise. He’s got to get past bad luck and get up front with the rest of the team. His car obviously has the speed.
David Ragan, on the other hand, needs to get it together. Mind you he was a victim of engine failure that similarly ended Kenseth’s bid for three-in-a-row to start the year. But expectations are high on the young man who just missed the Chase last year.
Tony being strongly in the top-10 is no surprise to me. He’s running Hendrick engines and chassis, and these are some of the best on the track. It looks like he’s molding nicely into the ownership role, and enjoying racing a bowtie again. That in and of itself was a boost for the newly formed No.14 team. We’ll talk about his teammate later.
For all the weight on this kid’s shoulders, I have to believe that’s what’s slowed him down a little. But he’s improving week on week, and that’s all one could ask for. He still needs as much seat time he can get, and honestly could have used another year to prepare for the Cup series. Yet once he walked through the door of opportunity he cannot look back.
A strong 13th place finish at Vegas was a real confidence-booster for Joey, and if he can follow that up with a good run at Atlanta it will cool critics, and help move him farther from that precarious 30-35 points position.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Here’s the big “if only” of the bunch. “If only” the race at Daytona had ended a lap earlier, Elliott Sadler would have won. Mind you, three cars in the top 10 was one thing, but all three were leading the pack just a few laps earlier.
Realistically I don’t expect much more from Kasey Kahne and Sadler. At times they have looked good individually, and other times they look like guys who run in the second-10 in points. I don’t have much in the way of expectations from either A.J. Allmendinger (but he sure looked good at Daytona) and Reed Sorenson, who has yet to live up to anyone’s expectations in the Cup series.
I do hope Allmendinger gets funding for the full schedule and I would like to think one of the four will make the Chase, but there are bigger and better names still climbing the ladder after a bad start to the year.
David Gilliland / The Racers Group
Shout out to these guys. Gilliland, who was given release from Yates Racing to pursue other opportunities, finds himself flirting with the top-35 in points after running two of the three events so far. Another good run or two, and some bad luck for others and he will find himself locked into the field each week.
Houston, We Have a Problem:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin: I lump two of NASCAR’s favorite drivers into one bucket because they are in the same mess, and work out of the same shop. Junior hasn’t been able to get out of his own way so far this year, with a 26th at Daytona, 39th at Fontana, and finally rebounding from issues to finish 10th at Vegas.
Martin, on the other hand, has become consistent in a way nobody wants, or expected. After a strong 16th in the season opener, he’s finished 40th in the last two races due to engine failure. The issue at Auto Club was bad valves for both the 88 and the 5 team, but I think he may have tripped the car out of gear at Vegas.
One thing is for certain, these two better hope they leave their bad luck in Sin City and get climbing the ladder at Atlanta, or else.
After taking up residence at Richard Childress Racing and slotting into the warm No. 07 seat, I (and, raise your hand, because you do as well) expect way more out of this kid. Should he remain mired down in the lower-20s in points for long, serious doubts about his ability are going to start being more than a whisper.
He had a shot in good equipment at Ganassi, and didn’t do anything. He won one race at Hendrick (should we throw the fuel-mileage asterisk on that 2007 Coca-Cola 600?) and didn’t do anything else. Now he’s at RCR, and in a ride that’s consistently in the top 10.
No more excuses, Casey, it’s time to “‘Git ‘er done!”
Another rookie whose expectations are high, but tempered by the reality of coming into NASCAR from Formula 1. He has shown the ability to run fast, and even finish well. Now it’s a matter of time and patience. He needs to get himself locked into the top-35 in points this week at Atlanta. You can’t have guys running fewer races ahead of you on that list.
All that being said, Speed has been a victim of circumstance. He was caught up in the “Big One” at Daytona, and then lost engines at both Auto Club Speedway and Vegas. TRD has identified a flaw in the motor program, and Speed needs them to get it right, less he be out of contention for Rookie Of the Year and the top-35.
I have to wonder if he knows what good luck is. Newman has been subject to similar failures that the No. 5 and 88 cars have suffered, but otherwise just hasn’t been up to speed like his owner/teammate Stewart has. I would like to think the 39 U.S. Army car will recover and run better, but for as good as the equipment is, Newman just hasn’t been able to hustle it around the track.
That engineering degree from Purdue should be good for something, shouldn’t it? The “Rocketman” really needs a break and a couple of solid top-20 runs in the next two races to get him away from the precipice.
Who? Talk about hero to zero. The only upside to this merger was it got Ganassi drivers out of Dodges and into Chevys. Only Juan Pablo Montoya has been worth his paycheck so far this season, and could still contend for a Chase position. As for the others…Uh, who’s on this team?
Well, agree or disagree with my assessment, there have been a number of surprises so far to start 2009. We’ll see how things shake out after Atlanta. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.