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2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2014

2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

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    Coming off a fascinating Coca-Cola 600, there are drivers on the way up, on the way down, and somewhere in between.
    Coming off a fascinating Coca-Cola 600, there are drivers on the way up, on the way down, and somewhere in between.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    It took 12 races for Jimmie Johnson to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in 2014, breaking a 13-race winless streak dating back to last season.

    It must be nice for a driver to discover that such a short winless streak is big news in the Sprint Cup garage, and Johnson did indeed find it amusing. Now his stock for the season is on the rise, and it's a pretty good bet that none of his fellow Cup competitors will find that funny at all.

    "There are more people fretting about things than myself," Johnson told FOX Sports. "I mean, (it was) what 12 (races)? Give me a break."

    As Johnson's stock clearly is on the rise, others are in a free-fall or a state of flux where it's too soon to see where their 2014 seasons are headed.

    It's not all based on wins, although that's always a hefty factor in the favor of those fortunate enough to visit Victory Lane. A few drivers who don't own a win yet, or appear to be floundering lately, may deserve a closer look as summer approachesand for others, too many variables seem to be working against them to make it wise to stand by them at the moment

    See who appears to be headed where as the Sprint Cup Series prepare to visit the tracks at Dover and Pocono the next two weeks.

Chip Ganassi Racing

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    Jamie McMurray (left) and Kyle Larson suddenly have made Chip Ganassi Racing relevant in NASCAR again.
    Jamie McMurray (left) and Kyle Larson suddenly have made Chip Ganassi Racing relevant in NASCAR again.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Suddenly, the season seems to be looking up for Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson, the two drivers for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

    Neither has won a points race yet, so doing so to almost certainly clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup remains the goal.

    But McMurray ran strong at Charlotte Motor Speedway the last two weekends, shocking the racing world by winning the Sprint All-Star Race and the cool $1 million that came with it—and then backing that up by finishing a strong fifth in the Coca-Cola 600. It was McMurray's first top-five finish of the season, and he's still mired at 23rd in the points standings, but at least he finally appears to be moving in the right direction.

    And Larson, a 21-year-old Cup rookie, won his second Nationwide Series race of 2014 at Charlotte against a field packed with veteran Cup drivers. It seems only a matter of time until he starts beating the same guys—and morein the Sprint Cup Series.

    Verdict: Buy

Brian Vickers

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    Brian Vickers' season is taking a turn that makes it worth a second look.
    Brian Vickers' season is taking a turn that makes it worth a second look.USA TODAY Sports

    When the season began, it seemed that Brian Vickers' No. 55 Toyota team would be almost an afterthought in the Michael Waltrip Racing stable.

    But, with all eyes on Clint Bowyer's No. 15 MWR team, which has struggled mightily, Vickers has quietly strung together a nice start to his season. He finished fourth at Texas, fourth again at Talladega and placed sixth in the Coca-Cola 600.

    Suddenly, Vickers is up to eighth in points. He still hasn't won yet and likely will need to do so to secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But, ultimately, it could be important to be among the top couple of drivers with the most points without a win—because if there are fewer than 16 different drivers inside the top 30 in points with at least one win, the winless ones with the most points will complete with the 16-driver Chase field.

    That's far down the road, but who would have figured that, after the first 12 races, Vickers' team would be in far better shape in that regard than Bowyer's? Let's hold on and see what happens next.

    Verdict: Hold

Josh Wise

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    Josh Wise has had a good run, but now it's time to get back to reality.
    Josh Wise has had a good run, but now it's time to get back to reality.USA TODAY Sports

    It was a nice little run for Josh Wise, thanks to the Reddit/Dogecoin digital currency community. But now it's back to reality.

    For those who don't understand exactly what Dogecoin is, well, you are not alone. According to CNN, Dogecoin is digital currency or "cryptocurrency" like Bitcoin—or basically cash for the Internet. A 16-year-old teenager named Denis Pavel noticed Wise performing well in his underfunded No. 98 Ford at a race earlier this season and decided to try and help raise enough Dogecoin to get Wise sponsored for the subsequent race at Talladega.

    According to CNN, Pavel reached out to the owner of Wise's car and asked what it would cost. Car owner Phil Parsons replied by telling Pavel that main sponsorship for the race would run about $50,000—or 67 million Dogecoin, as it turned out. Within a week, Pavel's Internet community raised that and more.

    Once that was accomplished, a grass-roots movement began that ended with Wise getting voted into the Sprint All-Star Race by all his new online buddies. Alas, now it's time for the driver of the No. 98 Dogecoin Ford to face the facts.

    Wise won nearly $200,000 (in real dollars, not Dogecoin) between his All-Star run and his 41st-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600, which will allow him to enter more races. But he's going to need lots more real cash to be able to have a car that can actually accomplish something more significant on the track.

    Verdict: Sell

Kevin Harvick (But Not His Pit Crew)

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    Kevin Harvick has been fast on the track, but his team has been slow in the pits.
    Kevin Harvick has been fast on the track, but his team has been slow in the pits.USA TODAY Sports

    There is no denying that Kevin Harvick has been driving the wheels off his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, as they say in the business.

    There also is no denying the fact that, when it has come time to change the tires on those wheels during his pit stops, his No. 4 team has been struggling badly. It certainly has come to the attention of Harvick, who publicly criticized his pit crew for the second time in as many weekends following the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    "We had a fast car all night (and) just kind of fumbled again on pit road," Harvick told The Sporting News. The driver went on to say that "all in all, they're doing a great job of putting cars up on the track, we just have to clean up on pit road."

    Harvick is right. The fact is his crew chief, Rodney Childers, is one of the best in the Sprint Cup garage and he'll see to it that it gets done. Then Harvick will really be off to the races in his No. 4 Chevy.

    Verdict: Buy

Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon's back issues could become problematic as the season wears on.
    Jeff Gordon's back issues could become problematic as the season wears on.Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Just when it looked as if Jeff Gordon's season was on a real roll, it backed up for a minute.

    Now everything seems to possibly be on hold, even though he's first in the points standings and posted his first win of the season at Kansas earlier this month. That's because an old back injury flared up, causing him to sit out the final practice for the Coca-Cola 600 and have a relief driver on standby for NASCAR's longest race.

    That Gordon gutted it out and finished a respectable seventh in a race that lasted more than four hours was encouraging, even inspiring. Or at least that's how team owner Rick Hendrick saw it.

    "That team respects him so much. I know he was in a lot of pain. I was worried (about) if he would get in the car," Hendrick told FOX Sports after the race. "But (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the team talked about it and he looks like Jeff Gordon of 20 years ago. He's fired up.

    True enough. But the reality is that Gordon isn't 20 anymore. He's not even 40. He's 42 years old and will be 43 in August. Back pain is no small deal for guys his age who are attempting to drive race cars 200 miles per hour week in and week out. Let's wait a week or two and see how this plays out.

    Verdict: Hold

Austin Dillon

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    Austin Dillon drives one of the coolest-looking cars in Sprint Cup, but the results haven't been great.
    Austin Dillon drives one of the coolest-looking cars in Sprint Cup, but the results haven't been great.USA TODAY Sports

    He's still driving perhaps the coolest-looking car in Sprint Cup. But Austin Dillon is still a Cup rookie, too, and, honestly, he has been driving like one.

    With only one finish inside the top 10 in the season's first 12 races—a ninth in the season-opening Daytona 500 after winning the pole (and arguably causing two wrecks in the race itself)—Dillon is experiencing the kinds of growing pains most rookies have to endure.

    He hasn't been horrible, finishing as high as 11th three times since Daytona. But he has led only one lap all season: the very first one he ran. Since then, nothing—not a single lap led over the final 199 laps run in the Daytona 500 and in any of the 11 races after that.

    So, forget for a moment that he's brought the iconic No. 3 back into NASCAR's premier series and give the kid a break. He needs time in the seat before anyone should expect him to be consistently competitive.

    In other words, check back in on him later in the yearor even next year.

    Verdict: Sell

Matt Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth has been eyeing a win for some time now, and seems to be closing in on it.
    Matt Kenseth has been eyeing a win for some time now, and seems to be closing in on it.Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth is inching ever closer to Victory Lane.

    He has finished in the top 10 in seven of the last eight races—the only exception being Talladega, when he finished 37th. That includes fourth-place runs at Fontana and Darlington, as well as third in the Coca-Cola 600 after leading 33 laps.

    Four times this season he has led 19 or more laps in a race, and he's led at least one lap in each of the last five races and in nine of the last 10. That's called closing in on it.

    It's only a matter of time until Kenseth follows the lead of the last two race winners, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, right into a Victory Lane celebration of his own.

    Verdict: Buy

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Superman, a.k.a. Dale Earnhardt Jr., needs to avoid a summer swoon like it's kryptonite.
    Superman, a.k.a. Dale Earnhardt Jr., needs to avoid a summer swoon like it's kryptonite.Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    You want to talk cool cars? Well, what about Superman?

    Superman adorned the hood of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Coca-Cola 600—and, at one point during the race, the Superman car even flew into the lead. But he eventually faded to a decidedly un-Super 19th.

    Earnhardt's six top-five finishes in the first 12 races leave him tied with Joey Logano for the most such finishes in Sprint Cup. He also put his superpowers on full display while winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

    But now comes the hard part.

    In recent seasons, the summer months oftentimes have been to Earnhardt like Kryptonite is to Superman. They seem to sap him of his power and he fades from the front of too many races. If he really wants this season to turn out differently than all the rest, where he at least contends for a championship down the stretch, he will have to avoid the summer swoon.

    Verdict: Hold

Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch's attempt to make history with a Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double went up in smoke in the 600.
    Kurt Busch's attempt to make history with a Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double went up in smoke in the 600.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    It was fun while it lasted, and Kurt Busch deserves nothing but the highest accolades for his sixth-place finish as a rookie in the Indianapolis 500. 

    But, last time we checked, he cashes his day-job paychecks in NASCAR. And, as much as Busch deserves credit for the strong run at Indy and his attempt at completing the rare double, where the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 are run by the same driver in the same day, the fact is that his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy blew an engine 271 laps into the Coke 600 and he finished 40th out of 43 cars.

    That wasn't Busch's fault. He couldn't do anything about a faulty engine.

    "We've just had a monkey on our back down here in NASCAR this year, and that kind of motor failure symbolizes the struggles we've had," Busch told FOX Sports.

    That's just it. As great as he was in the Indy 500, his NASCAR season seems snake-bitten.

    Verdict: Sell

Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson finally had reason to celebrate after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
    Jimmie Johnson finally had reason to celebrate after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.USA TODAY Sports

    All the signs seemed to be there that driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus just weren't clicking like they used to—or were they?

    Johnson certainly never bought into any of it.

    "I guess we've created this environment for ourselves," Johnson told USA Today after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. "I honestly wasn't stressing. The fact that (going 13) races (without a win, dating back to last season) created that much buzz just means we've done a lot of great things over the years, so I'll turn it into a compliment."

    Now that Johnson finally has won his first race of the season, the full-court press could be on for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team to push for that seventh Sprint Cup championship that would tie Johnson for the most all time with Hall of Fame legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. That's not likely good news for the rest of the Cup garage.

    Verdict: Buy

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