The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is already a third of the way done and the trend of successful and struggling race teams is becoming more evident. Some teams are ahead of their expectations, while others are lackluster, try to find the right formula for success. Unfamiliar faces are emerging as chase candidates, while fan favorites are falling off the map.
Changes are starting to be made in organizations, and the always entertaining silly season has begun. Now, this headmaster of the NASCAR school of hardknocks will hand out his early season grades.
Progress Report Grade: B+
What did you actually expect an A? Sure 3 of Hendrick's 4 drivers are in the top 12 and looking to make the chase, but a certain prodigy (driver to the left)and his team are struggling to keep up. After a 40th place finish at Charlotte, many are saying that Tony Eury Jr. could be replaced as Dale Earnahardt Jr.'s crew chief. This is a move that should have been made last year. The team is in shambles and many fans are starting to worry.
On the other hand, the "Young Gun" Mark Martin is back to his old ways, by being consistent and competitive each race. After being lured out of semi-retirement, Martin is making Rick Hendrick look like a genius. After an early rough start, Martin has reeled off two wins, has three poles and three top 5's.
Jeff Gordon is leading the points, is loving being a dad and is looking as good as when he started winning championships. The only question facing Gordon now is, can he keep this going all the way to Homestead. He has been in this situation before in 2004, and lost the title to teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson is coming off the three-peat, joining Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win three in a row. Johnson is doing what he has always done in years past, stay near the front until the chase, then take over the last 10 races.
If Dale Jr. and company can turn things around, and the three amigos keep things going the way they were, expect Hendrick Motorsports to get an A next progress report.
Progress Report Grade: C
Richard Childress has been at the top of the mountain (see: Dale Earnhardt) and at the lowest of lows(see 2001 Daytona 500). Through it all Childress has managed to keep his organization running like a fine tuned engine. Right now that engine is sputtering a bit.
This time last year, Jeff Burton had a win and was 2nd in the points. Teammate Clint Bowyer was 5th in the points and also had a win. Fast foward to 2009, and Burton is 5th in the points and Bowyer is fighting to stay in contention for a top 12 spot back in 17th.
New teammate Casey Mears is falling behind and could use a shot of Jack to ease the pain. Mears is 22nd in the points and has only one top-10 to show for his efforts. Mears was thought to continue the success in the 07 car that Bowyer had the previous year, but has fallen short of expectations.
Kevin Harvick, who was once the face of Childress' organization, is 23rd in points, the lowest of all Childress drivers. While Harvick does have two top-5s and two top-10s this year, he also has six finishes of 30th or worse. Consistency counts in this sport.
One thing is for sure, if progess is not shown, changes WILL be made. We have seen it before with Childress and don't be surprised if you see it again before the year is done.
Progress Report Grade: C+
At 2009 Speedweeks, Michael Waltrip said that if he did not see results as a driver, this would probably be his last year as a racer. Waltrip is 31st in points and is starting his usual freefall. One thing he can fall back on is being a successful NASCAR owner.
Since starting his own race teams in 2007, Waltrip and his organization have seen nothing but progress. This past weekend in Charlotte, Waltrip added his name on the list of winning owners after David Reutimann won the rain shortened Coke 600. Rumors have started to swirl that Martin Truex Jr. could be Waltrip's replacement in the #55 Toyota, which will do nothing but boost the team.
Reutimann has been the ray of light that Waltrip needed to keep his organization from falling under. Since joining MWR in 2007, Reutimann's average finish has jumped from 30th place to 16th place. He is currently 13th in points, and is 6 points out of the coveted 12th place. With his win Monday, Reutimann can only go up from here.
Waltrip's newest addition to his organization, Marcos Ambrose, has impressed many in his first full season in NASCAR. Ambrose is 20th in points, and has one top 5. While his speedway program is improving, it is his road racing experience that could get the Australian his first win. Remember this, Ambrose's first Nationwide Series win came at Watkins Glen one year ago.
Progress Report Grade: D-
What was once a dominant organization owned by Dale Earnhardt, has now become a mediocre race organization. Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. jumped ship in 2007 for Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has gone downhill. The #8 team has already shut down due to sponsorship woes, and many are wondering how much longer the other teams can last.
Martin Truex Jr. is wanting out bad. This became apparent last year, when Truex Jr. was looking for another ride during the 2008 season. After negotiations fell through with Stewart-Hass Racing and Penske, Truex reluctantly agreed to a one year deal. This year, talks have already begun that Truex is leaving for Michael Waltrip Motorsports.
While Truex is trying to flee the sinking ship known as EGR, Juan Pablo Montoya has turned into a life support system for the organization. Montoya is 14th in points (31 points out of 12th) with one pole and four top 10's. This is the best Montoya has looked in his young career, and he is hoping to make his first chase.
If Montoya can continue to breathe life into EGR, he may be able to save it. But the damage could already be done and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing could be on the endangered list by next year.
Progress Report Grade: A
What else can you say about Stewart-Hass Racing? Tony Stewart took over the mediocre race team and has turned it into a powerhouse organization in 12 races. Stewart has shown that whatever he touches turns into gold. he has the equipment and personnel to be successful.
Since joining his race team in February, Tony Stewart has been on a tear. He is second in the points standings (44 points out of first), won his first ever Sprint All-Star event two weeks ago, and has five top-5 finishes in the last seven races. This time last year, Stewart was in eighth place, 349 points out of first.
Teammate Ryan Newman has been given a second chance to prove his worth. The "Rocketman" has been refueled and has more top-5s (four) then he had all of last year (one). Factor in having fellow hoosier Tony Stewart as a teammate and an owner, Newman could not be in better position for a great rest of the season.
Progress Report Grade: B-
NASCAR's biggest organization is riding the fence this year compared to last year's success. While three of the five teams are in the top 12, two of the teams are well out of contention. With the 2010 cut off line for four race teams to an organization, the question looming is, which team will go?
Cousin Carl Edwards has not seen the same success as he did 12 races in last year. No backflips have been seen, and Edwards has not won since Homestead last year. This time last year Edwards had three wins and was considered a favorite for the Sprint Cup. The only thing going well for Carl Edwards this year is his Aflac commericals with the duck.
Matt Kenseth on the other hand has turned his career around full force. Kenseth started the season winning the first two races of the year snapping a 36-race losing streak. Even after a few shaky races, Kenseth is still in the top 12, battling for a spot in September.
Greg Biffle is being, well, typical Greg Biffle. After 12 races, Biffle has no wins and is 10th in the standings. Last year at this time, Biffle was 11th in the points standings, with, you guessed it, no wins. If this season mirrors last season, expect Biffle to be a contender at the end.
Jamie McMurray is fighting to keep his ride at Roush-Fenway. Since the change to number of teams per owner was announced, McMurray has been labeled as the driver to go. While McMurray is 21st is points, he is in front of fellow teammate David Ragan.
Ragan has struggled all year long. Ragan only has one top-10 (6th at Daytona), is 32nd in points, and is trying to find that setup that can make him competitive again. If Ragan doesn't get in gear, it could be the exit door that he sees at the end of the year.
Progress Report Grade: D
I don't think the King was expecting this when he merged with Evernham Motorsports. 12 Races into the 2009 season and there are no drivers from Petty's stable that are a threat to make the Chase. Kasey Kahne is the only driver in the top 15 in points (15th) while the other three drivers are 24th or worst in points.
AJ Allmendinger went from Red Bull Racing to the underfunded #44 team at the beginning of the year. After a 3rd place finish at Daytona, Allmendinger has found sponsorships until Richmond in September. After that, who knows what Allmendinger's future holds.
Elliott Sadler started his season by threatening a lawsuit if he was replaced in the #19 car. Sadler stayed and hasn't shown why he should still be in the ride. Sadler is 28th in points (three points in front of Allmendinger) and has one top-5 that happened at Daytona.
Reed Sorenson has been the quietest driver from the RPM stable. Sorenson's car has become a sponsor merry-go-round (seven primary sponsors), while Sorenson is 24th in points with one top 10. Sorenson is needing to show what he is capable of doing. Otherwise a big overhaul could be in the works at RPM.
Progress Report Grade: C+
Roger Penske is one of the most respected owners in motorsports today. He has numerous Indy 500 championships and season championships, along with winning drivers. As far as NASCAR goes, Penske has the wins, but no championships to follow suit. Penske is wanting a championship soon.
Kurt Busch is Penske's only hope of winning a championship anytime soon. The ten-year veteran is third in points, with a win and six top 10's. Busch has already felt what it is like to be a champion as he won the 2004 Sprint Cup Title. As it stands, Busch is the wily old veteran in the Penske stable.
David Stremme is getting a second chance to race in the Sprint Cup Series. After being let go from Ganassi Racing in 2008. Stremme got Penske's attention from a successful Nationwide stint, but so far this season Stremme has not produced. Zero top-5s mixed with zero top-10s is a formula that will lead to disaster if Stremme does not pick it up.
Sam Hornish Jr. has been the feel good story since last year. After his first few races in 2008, many started to wonder if Hornish was ready for the big times. After overcoming a huge learning curve, Hornish is finally starting to show results. Hornish won the Sprint Showdown, and has gone from being close to out of the top-35, to 30th in points. Every race counts and Hornish needs all the seat time he can get.
Progress Report Grade: C-
Brian Vickers has been with Red Bull Racing since its beginnings. Since that time, Vickers has helped Red Bull Racing grow into a contender. As it stands Vickers is 14th in the points standings and has come close to winning races this year. Vickers is the lifeline of the organization and without him, there would be no Red Bull Racing.
Scott Speed is hitting the rookie wall, and hitting it hard. Speed is currently 35th in points and is fighting to stay in the top-35 in points. Earlier this year, Speed missed a race, which put him behind the learning curve. One thing that helps Speed is having Brian Vickers as a teammate. Right now though, Red Bull Racing is struggling and needs to get the ball rolling.
Progress Report Grade: A-
Other than Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing could very well have the best driver lineup in the sport. Kyle Busch has turned into the winning machine, Denny Hamlin is knocking on winner's circle's door, and Joey Logano is finnaly turning the corner.
When Kyle Busch came to Joe Gibbs Racing, no one thought he would win as many races as he has so far. This season, Busch is back to basics as he already has a quarter of the wins in the Sprint Cup (three). Busch is currently sixth in points and is going to win another five to ten races, you can quote me on that one.
Denny Hamlin has turned into Mark Martin when it comes to winning races. Even though Hamlin is fifth in points, he has come up short in winning a race. Hamlin's last win came at Martinsville in April last year. Even while Hamlin is hungry for a win, he is prime position to make the chase.
Joey Logano is started to live up to his name. After a horrific start to his 2009 season, Logano is finally starting to drive like everyone said he would drive like. Logano has gone from 34th in the points after Martinsville to 25th in a six race span. If Logano can keep gaining momentum each race, the 19 year old could very well collect his first career win before the season is over.
Progress Report Grade: F
Yates Motorsports and Hall of Fame Racing are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to progress. Yates shut down the #28 team after no sponsorship was found to field the team. That left Paul Menard, who is anything from successful. Menard has always been the driver that has taken three steps foward and five steps back in any series he has been in. Yates needs to find some help for Menard and quickly.
Bobby Labonte could very well be with his last Sprint Cup team. The aging Labonte was brought in to revive Hall of Fame Motorsports after J.J. Yeley left it in shambles. So far Labonte is 27th in points and has not done anything to help the organization grow. Both Hall of Fame Motorsports and Yates Motorsports could be in for a long season.