2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Week 9 Edition
It's a new era in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series where wins, and not points, rule for at least the first 26 races of the season.
The new rules for qualifying for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup that is the sport's postseason certainly have spiced up the season through its first eight races. The first seven events produced seven different winners before Kevin Harvick broke through at Darlington Raceway to become the first two-time winner of 2014.
With that in mind, whose stock is on the rise and whose is headed for the dumpster? And which drivers' stock is in hold mode as we wait to see which way the rest of their season is going to break?
Based on not only the pure race results of what has transpired thus far, but also the circumstances surrounding each driver in terms of chemistry with crew chiefs; ability of his or her team to make critical money pit stops without costly mistakes; the skill with which each driver's owning organization can consistently build fast race cars and stay on top of ever-changing conditions; and each driver's ability to handle adversity, here is the way we currently see the NASCAR stock market.
We can admit it when we make the rare mistake.
So it is that we quickly rescind the earlier order to dump stock in young Kyle Larson, the Cup rookie who drives the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson is the real deal and has proven it on multiple occasions since getting off to a rough start this season.
In fact, if the Chase were to start today—which, of course, it doesn't—Larson would be included. He hasn't won yet, but he's 14th in points, and the Chase field will be expanded to 16 drivers this year (to include all race winners plus whomever is next in points without a race win, should that scenario present itself).
Larson has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts, including a second at Fontana, fifth at Texas and eighth at demanding Darlington, which usually isn't very kind to rookies. He is making moves on the track that usually are reserved for veterans, and he's fearless. He doesn't care if he's racing against Jimmie Johnson or Reed Sorensen.
Hamlin started the year out hot in Daytona but cooled quickly and now has some folks wondering what kind of season he'll piece together.
The next race at Richmond International Raceway, one of Hamlin's favorite tracks, could go a long way toward helping everyone figure it out.
In 17 career starts at RIR, Hamlin has two wins, two poles, seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes. but the most telling statistic is the 1,390 laps he has led at the .75-mile short track. That's the most laps he's led at anywhere on the Sprint Cup circuit—even more than the 1,153 laps he's led at Martinsvile, another favorite venue of the Virginia native where he has won four times.
Don't give up on Hamlin yet, even though he's languishing a disappointing 15th in the points and has led more than four laps in only two of the seven races he's run (he missed the Fontana race because of a piece of metal that was stuck in his eye). Richmond could be very revealing for him.
As Bowyer gets set to revisit the site of his costly alleged crime last fall at Richmond, his 2014 season seems to have stalled.
First off, let's be clear that Bowyer has never come right out and admitted any wrongdoing in last fall's race at RIR, when he was accused of deliberately spinning to bring out a late caution that would have aided the Chase chances of then-teammate Martin Truex Jr. Nonetheless, there appeared to be a mountain of evidence against him, and NASCAR eventually ruled harshly against the driver and the Michael Waltrip Racing organization that fields Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota.
That's all old news now, anyway. But has Bowyer, his team and MWR ever really been able to put it behind them?
This year Bowyer has finished no higher than eighth, has only two top-10 finishes overall and has led a total of just 25 laps in eight races. More telling: It has been 49 races since he and crew chief Brian Pattie have visited Victory Lane together.
The Team Penske driver tandem of Joey Logano in his No. 22 Ford and Brad Keselowski in his No. 2 Ford has been stout this season, with the potential for more top-notch results.
First of all, these guys really do seem to be a team in more than name only. They share all the information they can, pick each other's brains and seem the perfect fit to feed off each other in a positive way that frequently eludes other NASCAR teammates.
Each has a win—Logano at Texas, Keselowski earlier at Las Vegas. That is significant because with both of them virtually guaranteed a spot in the expanded 16-driver Chase, now they can conspire to take chances at every track they go to.
It would be a surprise if both of these drivers didn't end up registering multiple wins before this season is over, and one or both may very well make a strong run at the championship.
It's hard to believe six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson doesn't have a win yet this season.
The last time it took Johnson this long into a season to score his first victory was, well, just two years ago in 2012 when it took 11 races before he won at Darlington. He didn't win a championship that year, but he did win five races and finish third in points.
So this is no time to panic.
The fact that Johnson finished second at Martinsville and third at Darlington in two of the last three races is strong evidence that the No. 48 team that includes crew chief Chad Knaus is very close indeed to possibly getting on a serious run that will put them squarely in yet another title battle.
One key statistic: Only two-time winner Kevin Harvick has led more laps this season than the 501 Johnson has led. So don't give up on him yet.
It's bad enough when you're the 2012 Nationwide Series champion and your girlfriend gets highlighted on the Jumbotron during the Final Four while you get completely ignored, even though you're sitting right next to her.
It's even worse when you're running poorly in the Sprint Cup Series and can't respond with something akin to, "Check the scoreboard."
Such is life for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. these days. Yes, he's ahead of girlfriend Danica Patrick in the Cup points standings, but barely.
After eight races, Stenhouse is 25th in points and Patrick is 29th. Both seem on the fast track to nowhere this season, at least in their race cars.
In this new win-or-else environment, it's easy to overlook the start to the season that Jeff Gordon has put together.
While it's true he has yet to win a race, Gordon is the current Cup points leader because no one has been more maddeningly consistent. That will serve him once he finally wins a race and locks himself into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, where consistency over the final 10 races next fall could win him a fifth championship.
With six top-10 finishes in the first eight races, including a second at Texas, he's running well enough that a victory seems inevitable. He has finished no worse than 13th in any race this season.
The key: improved communication and chemistry with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who seems to be gaining an improved understanding of what in-race adjustments to the car must be made to get it to where Gordon is most comfortable and therefore most efficient.
Although a respectable 11th in the points at the moment, Newman's season has been truly unremarkable in most ways and seems to be heading in the wrong direction.
After a pair of seventh-place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas in the second and third races of the season, respectively, Newman finished between 16th and 20th in each of the next four races and has led a total of just nine laps all season (and only three in the last six events combined).
While understandable because it is his first season with Richard Childress Racing, the hope was that by about now he would be trending upward. Despite a 10th-place finish at Darlington his last time out, that can't be said about Newman with any conviction.
His relationship with new crew chief Luke Lambert has a long way to go, for starters.
The countdown is on.
Busch and especially crew chief Dave Rogers entered this season under a fair amount of pressure to produce a championship-contending season that won't wilt as soon as the Chase for the Sprint Cup commences. While they are a long way from getting to that juncture of the season, the No. 18 Toyota team has shown all indications that it is on the verge of taking off into a higher stratosphere.
Busch seems more focused than ever, determined to prove that he has the championship mettle on the mental side as well as on the skills side. No one has ever questioned he has what it takes when it comes to talent, but where Rogers plays his greatest role is coaxing the driver to continue working for a sixth-place finish on a night when winning might be impossible.
Meanwhile, Busch continues to run up front and contend for wins. He won at Fontana to pretty much lock himself into the Chase and has led five or more laps in six of the eight races this season—including 10 or more five of those.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
If this was a true stock market, it would have crashed when Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening Daytona 500.
Assuming everyone purchased all the Junior stock that was available in the aftermath of that remarkable and dramatic victory, now is not the time to discard it. Not when Earnhardt has since gone on to record three second-place finishes, including at Darlington in the last race, and a third in the subsequent seven races.
The only aspects to his season that are bothersome are that he has not found a way to close the deal on at least one more of those races when he finished second; and the colossal mistake he made when he drove into the wet grass and wrecked just three green-flag laps into the race at Texas, relegating him to a last-place finish.
Those are the things that keep people wondering if this truly is the year Earnhardt will contend for a championship, or if too many missed opportunities or critical mistakes will prevent it from happening once again. It's really too soon to tell for sure, despite his remarkably hot start overall.
When the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl and self-proclaimed Seahawks fan Kasey Kahne won a bet with Kyle Busch as a result, the year was off to a great start for the driver of the No. 5 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports.
It's been mostly downhill since then.
After crashing out of the race at Darlington and finishing 37th, Kahne fell to 22nd in the points standings in a year when he and crew chief Kenny Francis were determined to avoid the kind of slow start to their season that has plagued them in the past.
Instead, Kahne has yet to finish higher than eighth and he's finished 22nd or worse in half of the first eight races—including 31st in the season-opening Daytona 500, 41st at Fontana when he battled a mechanical issue and then the Darlington debacle.
At this rate, Kyle Busch may want to go double or nothing on the next bet he makes with Kahne.
Points? Who cares about the points?
Certainly Kevin Harvick doesn't these days, not after winning at Darlington to become the first two-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series to help him and crew chief Rodney Childers forget the horrors of several races in between the triumphs.
Now that they definitely are locked in for the Chase, look for these two to continue to have some up-and-down results that could prove deceptive. They're playing with house money now and will use the 18 remaining regular-season races to experiment and make certain they're prepared for the 10-race sprint to the championship that will follow.
So don't be fooled if Harvick and Childers, perhaps the most underrated crew chief in the Cup garage, continue to sandwich race wins with results that seem terrible on the surface. They'll be filing away every piece of information they can to use to their advance when the Chase commences, and it will be a surprise if they aren't a title contender.