Stock Watch for Top Stars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Geoffrey Miller@@geoffreymillerContributor IJuly 23, 2013

Stock Watch for Top Stars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

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    We know a lot about the competition of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series after nearly five months of racing across the country. But with the Chase for the Sprint Cup looming, there's still plenty we don't know.

    Who is going to rise to the top? Who's going to fall backward? How is the biggest new story of the faring midway through the season?

    Jimmie Johnson has undoubtedly been the class of the field to this point, and it shows with his No. 1 ranking in the series point standings and four series wins. Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick seem to be the drivers most ready to defy and overtake Johnson's notion of dominance.

    Jeff Gordon, on the other hand, has been disappointing. Kurt Busch? Surprising. And don't forget about Brad Keselowski. Let's take stock of NASCAR's stars as the season barrels toward the championship fight.

Jimmie Johnson, Stock Up

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    Point standing: 1st

    Notable stats: 4 wins, 8 top-5s, 12 top-10s, 1,020 laps led

    It was easy to gloss over the meaning of Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 win to start 2013 as just a lucky break derived from NASCAR's restrictor plate racing.

    But looking back now, after more than half of a season where Johnson has routinely been on a level higher than everyone else, that win in NASCAR's biggest race was telling.

    Johnson, after losing out on two championships following his unfathomable streak of five-straight Sprint Cup titles, seems to be in retribution mode. He's looking to reassert dominance on a field he's so used to reigning over.

    Johnson has led the Sprint Cup point standings for 17 of the season's first 19 races. What's more, Johnson's missteps in 2013 have seemingly only been self-induced—either by over-aggressive restarts or questionable pit strategy. 

    Moving toward the Chase for the Sprint Cup, don't expect the field to keep getting those breaks. Johnson is just too good. Someone will have to rise up and match Johnson in 2013, because he's not going to come back to them.

Kurt Busch, Stock Up

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    Point standing: 14th

    Notable stats: 4 top-5s, 8 top-10s, 17.4 avg. finish

    From the depths that Kurt Busch reached both after the 2011 season and midway through the 2012 campaign when he was suspended for strangely threatening a reporter, there's really no way that the 2003 series champion could have seen his stock sink any further.

    But the eldest Busch has done more in 2013 than just hold serve and hope for a slight bump in the positive direction.

    Instead, Busch has showed both his incredible ability as a race car driver and a more refined mettle as he's taken the Furniture Row Racing team from an occasional good story to a competitive factor in every race.

    Yes, there have been hurdles along the way—Busch crashing with a great car at Michigan and New Hampshire—but they've been more speed bump-sized distractions than car-swallowing pot holes.

    Busch is definitely a contender to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and it'll rank as a surprise if he doesn't put the No. 78 in Victory Lane during the season's second half.

Danica Patrick, Stock Down

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    Point standing: 27th

    Notable stats: 1 Top-10, 1 pole, 3 DNFs, 25.6 avg. finish

    You may have heard that Danica Patrick is racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013. You may have heard that she won the pole for the Daytona 500.

    And thanks to her steady stream of critics—both fair and unfairyou may have heard that Patrick's full-time rookie debut has been bumpy and unfruitful along the way.

    The crazy thing is that between the extreme highs (Daytona) and mighty lows (her head-scratching, crash-inducing mistake at Loudon), Patrick's first full year in NASCAR's top-tier division has gone about as expected. 

    She's had doses of good fortune and finishes (namely a 12th-place, lead-lap finish at Martinsville Speedway) and plenty of days where 25th was the best possible result.

    All told, it's indicative of a driver with still-limited stock car experience being thrown to the proverbial wolves of America's premier racing series. 

Kevin Harvick, Stock Up

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    Point standing: 4th

    Notable stats: 2 wins, 5 top-5s, 11 top-10s, 11.8 avg. finish

    Should Kevin Harvick's stock have either held steady or dropped over the course of the 2013 season, no one would have been surprised. After all, Harvick has been tagged as the most noteworthy "lame duck" driver of the year thanks to his pending move away from Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

    Instead, Harvick is quietly turning in one of the best seasons of his career ahead of joining with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

    Harvick has already won twice at Richmond and Charlotte in the season's early months, and he was a favorite pick for the Daytona 500 until an early crash swept him from contention. He also has 11 top-10 finishes.

    Courtesy of a remarkable stretch of races after crashing out of the race at Talladega Superspeedway in May, Harvick is rocketing up the point standings. He's averaging a finish of 6.1 during the span and has even scored more points than Jimmie Johnson during that time.

    There's little doubt that Harvick has the looks of ending his tenure at RCR as a true contender for the title.

Jeff Gordon, Stock Down

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    Point standing: 11th

    Notable stats: 4 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 16.9 average finish

    Jeff Gordon fans have been down this road before. Now more than a decade past his latest Sprint Cup championship, fans of the No. 24 have watched as the four-time champion looked so close to winning multiple races and threatening for the series title—only to watch slips and gaffes take him from contention.

    Unfortunately, it's happening again this year.

    Whether it's been bad luck (a flat tire at Bristol or several instances of poorly-timed caution flags waving immediately after Gordon has completed a green flag pit stop) or poor strategy (the root cause of a crash at Charlotte came thanks to a pit strategy blunder), Gordon's 2013 performance isn't matching capability.

    There's little doubt that Gordon still has the talent and desire to compete at a championship level. But 2013 feels like more of the same for the No. 24 team—which means we shouldn't expect much as the leaves begin to change.

Carl Edwards, Stock Up

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    Point standing: 3rd

    Notable stats: 6 top-5s, 10 top-10s, 11.8 average finish 

    The bang that started Carl Edwards' 2013 season—he won the season's second race at Phoenix International Raceway—seems like it was from another time. Since that win snapped a 70-race winless drought for the Missouri driver, Edwards has fallen completely from NASCAR's limelight.

    Fortunately, the lack of focus on car No. 99 hasn't equaled a drastic loss of performance. Thanks to some supreme consistency—the only big blemishes on Edwards's 2013 campaign have come in wrecks at both Daytona races—Edwards sits third in the series point standings. 

    It's a quiet third because Edwards hasn't been a steady staple at the front. He's led more than 19 laps just once since his Phoenix win, and has otherwise turned in pedestrian results.

    In the 26-race slog of NASCAR's regular season, it's the lack of truly bad finishes (30th or worse) that can buoy drivers consistently in the top-15 to the top of the standings.

    Edwards doesn't seem to be a true championship contender at the moment, but he's raced well enough to be third in the point standings. A few gains here and there, and Edwards could suddenly be the hot commodity similar to the Edwards that battled Tony Stewart to a mathematical tie for the 2011 title.

Brad Keselowski, Stock Down

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    Point standing: 9th

    Notable stats: 6 top-5s, 9 top-10s, 15.1 average finish

    Brad Keselowski may have finally found the slump-busting performance he needed by scoring a fourth-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. But that's not enough to change the midseason grade of last year's first-time Sprint Cup champion.

    Keselowski started 2013 in much the same way as he finished 2012, recording top-10 runs in seven of the first eight races. But his season hit a snag with a crash at Richmond, and the No. 2 hasn't returned to the same level of competition since.

    There's no doubt that the issues at Texas Motor Speedway that produced a penalty thanks to NASCAR not approving of the rear suspension employed by Penske Racing has had an impact on the team's performance.

    But Keselowski has also shared in poor luck along the way—most notably being wiped out by Kurt Busch's poor move at Kentucky.

    Keeping Keselowski down for the series' second half seems unlikely, but he hasn't shown enough to yet be a guy on the upswing.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stock Down

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    Point standing: 5th

    Notable stats: 4 top-5s, 

    To start the season, there was a lot that pushed Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s stock up. Most notably, his affinity for NASCAR's new model Gen-6 car seemed to be substantially higher than the previous model. That was a good omen thanks to enduring struggles that NASCAR's favorite son seemed to have with the previous platform.

    Then, Earnhardt blitzed to a roaring start: the No. 88 finished seventh or better in the season's first five races to take over the series point lead. But race No. 6 at Martinsville didn't go as planned—he finished two laps down—and his performance hasn't been the same since.

    No, Earnhardt hasn't been bad in the ensuing months. He's fifth in the point standings for good reason, and looked to have a win in hand at Michigan until his engine blew while leading.

    But Earnhardt hasn't come close to being as good as the hot start. That's enough to warrant concern about his chances of battling for the season title—and to push his stock status down.

Matt Kenseth, Stock Up

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    Point standing: 6th

    Notable stats: 4 wins, 4 top-5s, 10 top-10s, 14.6 avg. finish

    Matt Kenseth tried his best to not seem apprehensive about making the biggest gamble of his racing career prior to the 2013 season: leaving longtime home Roush-Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing. But rest assured, it was a decision that had to leave the former champion fretting during the off months before this season.

    Those questions were swiftly dealt with when Kenseth won the season's third race at Las Vegas in the No. 20, holding off Kasey Kahne in a remarkable closing duel. The three wins he's scored since that initial 2013 visit to Victory Lane have put any lingering worries about the move.

    Kenseth has simply been magnificent at times during the 2013 season. His only blemishes have come when the engines in his JGR Toyotas have failed him. Without a doubt, those reliability concerns serve as the chief for Kenseth's looming battle for the title.

    But should those worries fail to bear fruit, Kenseth will serve as one of the best bets for the Chase.

Tony Stewart, Stock Up

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    Point standing: 13th

    Notable stats: 1 win, 4 top-5s, 6 top-10s, 17.1 avg. finish

    Yes, Tony Stewart is lower in the point standings than other "stock down" drivers. And yes, Tony Stewart has produced some disappointing results this season.

    But those poor runs and uncompetitive finishes look to be decidedly behind him, as long as he doesn't get by poor strategy calls like what happened at New Hampshire. There, a top-5 day was sent to ruins when Stewart's fuel tank ran dry in the final two laps. He finished 26th.

    That poor result served a big blow to Stewart's fight to get in the Chase after a miserable opening of the 2013 campaign. However, the series is heading to tracks just before the Chase where Stewart should sign—Indianapolis, Michigan, Pocono and Watkins Glen, just to name a few.

    A glimpse of Stewart's coming weeks came in his May to June run that yielded four consecutive finishes of seventh or better and one win.

    Those races indicated that Stewart-Haas Racing found a few new tools in the car setup process and race strategy calls that should serve well as the season progresses. With another win, he's a lock in the Chase.

    If 2011 is any predictor, Stewart's competition will need to take heed.