Report Card Grades for NASCAR's 15 Biggest Stars
Be it formally or informally, when you're a star in any sport, you're graded by your coaches, the media, fans and even members of opposing teams.
With that in mind, and now that we're closing in on the 15th race of the Sprint Cup season this Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, it's time to issue report cards for the sport's 15 biggest stars.
There may be some surprises, but we've evaluated the following drivers by their fan power, their on-track performance and their good or bad luck thus far—and even a few intangibles thrown in along the way—to come up with a grade.
Do you agree or disagree? Leave us your thoughts after you've read through this slideshow.
Granted, Danica Patrick is 28th in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday's race at Michigan.
After an outstanding debut as a full-time Cup driver in the season-opening Daytona 500, Patrick has faded from view for the most part.
Still, she's learning her craft—even it it's slower than some fans might like. For the most part, she has been stuck between 20th and 30th when it comes to the majority of her finishes this season.
But it could be worse: The majority of her finishes could be between 30th and 43rd. So, there's that.
Grade: D+ (but improving)
Missing nearly a month and a half of the season due to a fractured vertebrae has really hampered Denny Hamlin's bid to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
To his credit, he's climbed up to 25th place, but he still has a long way to go to get into the top 20 (he's currently 76 points behind 20th-ranked Ricky Stenhouse Jr.).
And even if he does get to the top 20, let's not forget that after Sunday's race at Michigan there are only 11 races remaining to make the 12-driver field for the Chase.
The only way Hamlin has a chance to make the Chase is if he wins at least two of those remaining pre-Chase events—which is going to be a lot easier said than done, even for a driver of Hamlin's talent.
On the flip side, since he's come back from his injury, Hamlin has one top-five and two other top-10s in five races.
Now it's time for him to make some big moves. If not, he'll miss the Chase. It's pretty simple what he has to do.
Grade: C- (but not solely his fault because of the wreck that injured him)
Earlier this year, Jeff Gordon went from a season-high rank of eighth to 21st in just two races.
Since then, he's been on a roller coaster of sorts: up to 12th, down to 18th, up to 12th again, down to 15th, and for the last two races, sitting in 11th.
Gordon is one of two drivers currently pegged as a Chase contender, but there's still 11 races after Michigan and anything can happen to his hopes.
One way to at least help his chances would be to win a race or two between now and the September Chase cut-off at Richmond.
Grade: C- (due to the up-and-down inconsistency and rankings he's had)
Tony Stewart got off to the worst start of his Sprint Cup career earlier this year.
While he briefly climbed up to 17th after Las Vegas, he then fell backward and got stuck like a broken record between 24th and 20th.
He finally broke through at Charlotte, finishing seventh, followed by a win at Dover and fourth place at Pocono.
Voila, Stewart has climbed from 22nd after Talladega to 13th in just five races. Even better, he's just 16 points out of the top 10 heading into Michigan.
Right now, Stewart has a slight edge for one of the two wild-card entries to make the Chase. But he would likely feel a lot more comfortable if he wins another race or two and climbs into the top 10 before Richmond, thus leaving little to chance for his Chase hopes.
Grade: C (primarily because of the poor start to the season)
Like a sleeping giant, Greg Biffle finally woke up last Sunday at Pocono, finishing second and jumping from 13th to 10th in the Sprint Cup standings.
But this isn't Biffle's first go-round with the top 10 this season. In fact, he ranked between third and ninth for the first nine races before taking a dive down to 13th in the four subsequent events.
One great race finish, however, doesn't guarantee that he'll remain in the top 10 now that he's climbed back into it.
What Biffle needs is a win or two, and there'd be no better place for him to do so than at Michigan—in the backyard of Ford Motor Company and Roush Racing.
Grade: C (only because he was ranked as high as third earlier this year before slipping to 13th)
This has been a bittersweet season thus far for the reigning Sprint Cup Series champ.
He's been as high as first in the standings, and was no lower than fourth in the first eight weeks.
But in the past six weeks, Brad Keselowski has plummeted from third to 10th, before climbing back to ninth after Pocono.
Even worse, the same driver who won five races last season hasn't reached Victory Lane once thus far in 2013.
On top of his sagging performance of late—finishes of 33rd, 15th, 32nd, 36th, fifth and 16th in the past six races—Keselowski stirred up quite the hornets nest with comments to USA Today earlier this week that the Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing organizations have been raiding Penske Racing and other Ford teams for personnel, secrets and technology.
Keselowski's comments even prompted team owner Rick Hendrick to issue a rare and tersely worded statement critical of the same driver who once raced for HMS earlier in his career (and before he moved to Penske Racing).
Keselowski's comments may be borne out of the frustration he has experienced the past six weeks. But the only way to change things is to let his actions do the speaking for him on the racetrack, not his words off it.
Now in his second season with Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne continues to flourish.
He already has a win (Bristol), three second-place finishes (Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte) and has been as high as second in the standings.
However, he's hit a rough patch of late, with finishes of 42nd (not surprisingly, at Talladega), 17th, 23rd and 36th in four of his past five starts.
Kahne needs to bounce back in a big way in the next few weeks and also grab another win, which would go a long way toward making him one of the higher seeds when the standings are reset after Richmond in September.
Kyle Busch got off to a terrible start this season (33rd in the standings after Phoenix).
He bounced back to be ranked as high as second (after wins at Fontana and Texas), dropped back to 11th (after Charlotte) but has rebounded once again to seventh coming into Sunday's race at Michigan.
Busch has been rather streaky this season, which hasn't helped his cause. After finishing 34th in Daytona and 23rd at Phoenix, he went on a five-race run where he had two wins, a runner-up and finished no lower than fifth.
But no sooner after his win at Texas, he went on another streak—this one the kind he didn't need, with finishes of 38th, 24th, 37th, sixth and 38th in the next five races.
He's finished fourth and sixth in the past two.
Grade: B- (only because of the streakiness, otherwise he likely would have earned a B+)
Quick, pop quiz (and no peeking): Where is Kurt Busch ranked in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Michigan?
While some might say 25th or worse, hold on to your seats: The elder Busch brother is up to 15th place in the rankings heading into Sunday's race.
Busch has flown so far under the radar this season that few may have noticed the kinds of runs he's had lately. Starting with Richmond, he's finished ninth, 30th (Talladega), 14th (Darlington), third (Charlotte), 12th (Dover) and seventh (Pocono).
In that same stretch, he's climbed from 22nd to 15th for Furniture Row Racing. Not bad at all.
While he hasn't won a race yet, he has three top-fives thus far this season and is currently just 21 points out of the top 10.
This has been a great comeback season for Busch thus far, and something tells me he's not done by any stretch, with lots more forward progress likely.
How can a driver who is tied for the lead with the most wins (three, tied with Jimmie Johnson) find himself in sixth place heading into Michigan?
On the one hand, Matt Kenseth's move from his longtime home at Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Motorsports has been a great thing. Winning three races will do that for you.
But Kenseth has also had his shares of struggles this season. He went into the Daytona 500 as defending champ and finished a dismal 37th in his debut for JGR.
Since his third and most recent win at Darlington, Kenseth has really struggled (not to mention dropping from third to sixth in the standings). He finished 15th at Charlotte, 40th at Dover and 25th at Pocono.
He needs a big comeback and to get back to the same form that led him to Victory Lane three times already in 2013.
Grade: B (would have been as high as A- if it had not been for some of his disappointing finishes and drop downward in the standings)
Thus far, Kevin Harvick has made sure he'll go out of Richard Childress Racing at season's end with a bang.
Harvick, who will join Stewart-Haas Racing next season, has two wins thus far in 2013 and finds himself ranked fifth in the standings heading into Sunday's race at Michigan.
Since Daytona, where he left ranked 38th, Harvick has made a steady climb upward in the rankings, most notably in the past six races, when he's gone from 12th to fifth thanks to wins at Richmond and Charlotte, a fifth at Darlington, and eighth and ninth in the past two races (Dover and Pocono).
It would be ironic if Harvick would go on to win the Sprint Cup championship in his final season at RCR, following 13 years there.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Much like last season (well, at least until the fall debacle at Talladega that resulted in a concussion and missing the next two races), Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a great run thus far in 2013.
He's ranked no lower than sixth in the standings, and even was first for one week after finishing second at Fontana.
In 14 races, he has four top-five and five other top-10 finishes. His last win came a year ago this weekend at Michigan, which coincidentally was the place of his prior win, as well—albeit four years earlier.
Can lightning strike a third time and Junior leaves Michigan on Sunday with the checkered flag? Given the kind of start he's had thus far this season, it's a very real possibility.
Finishing second last season, Clint Bowyer has certainly picked up where he left off, ranking third coming into Sunday's race at Michigan.
To his credit, he's had just three finishes worse than 15th. And even though he hasn't won a race yet, he's managed to accumulate four top-five and three other top-10 finishes.
While we're not disparaging his previous time at Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer has really come into his own at Michael Waltrip Racing.
Now in his second season at MWR, Bowyer appears on-target to win a Cup championship, perhaps this season after finishing so close last season to Keselowski.
While several other Ford drivers have struggled this season, Edwards has been the pride of the blue oval organization.
With one win, five top-five and two other top-10 finishes thus far in 2013, Edwards is well on his way to surpassing last season's disappointing campaign, when he missed the Chase and ultimately finished 15th—one year after failing to win the championship by a one-point tiebreaker.
Edwards finally earned his first win in almost two years at Phoenix in February. But perhaps more important, he's been ranked second in the standings for the past six races.
While there have been some struggles performance-wise within the rest of the Ford camp, Edwards has nothing to complain about where he's been at.
Remember how Michael Jordan announced his return to the NBA after his brief stint in minor league baseball? Jordan's statement was all of two words: "I'm back."
That's kind of the best way to describe Jimmie Johnson's surge this season. After winning a record five championships in a row, he dropped to sixth in 2011 and was third in 2012.
But this season, Johnson seems like he has something to prove or is out for revenge. He's had a spectacular start, with three wins, seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes the first 14 races.
In addition, he has ranked No. 1 in the standings for 12 of the season's first 14 races, and no lower than third.
You can't get much more consistent or successful than that.
And what's even scarier is Johnson has looked so strong this season that he doesn't show any visible signs of slowing down or any perceived weaknesses.
Unless another driver gets really hot or Johnson suddenly struggles, there's a good possibility that he could remain in first place for the rest of the season—including winning a sixth title.