2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Week 15 Edition
There is no better way to send a driver's stock soaring in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series than winning.
And no winner is sure to get the shares moving more than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who captured his second victory of the 2014 season at Pocono Raceway. In doing so, he won at a track where he often has struggled in the past and made speculation of a possible summer swoon fade into the Pocono Mountains early-morning mist.
But as much as it may seem so at times, NASCAR is not a one-man sport. Read on to see who else is on the rise, who deserves at least the courtesy of more time and another look and who is headed nowhere fast as the series heads to the slick, speedy track at Michigan International Speedway and then onto the tricky road course at Sonoma over the next two weeks.
Forget the early trepidation that his bosses at Chip Ganassi Racing had with Felix Sabates rushing Kyle Larson into the Sprint Cup Series too quickly.
The 21-year-old can drive. He wheeled his No. 42 Chevrolet to a fifth-place finish at Pocono, earning his third top-five finish of the season on a track where he had never before competed.
To put that in perspective, Larson now has the same number of top fives this season as Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart and one more than Greg Biffle. Larson also has six top-10 finishes—the same number as Kevin Harvick and more than Biffle, Stewart, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, among others.
Larson, who is up to 10th in the points standings, also led seven laps at Pocono. Whereas that might have seemed like a surprise earlier in the year, it now seems like a surprise that he hasn't led more often. The next step is to win a Cup race, and he's more than capable of doing it.
The controversy over his return to racing sprint cars (not to be confused with his real job of racing Sprint Cup cars) aside, it's difficult to drop the red flag on Tony Stewart as summer approaches.
Everyone knows that as the summer heats up, "Smoke" usually rises in the Sprint Cup standings. It certainly looked like he was going to have plenty to say to those who questioned why he would return to his dangerous racing hobby when he had his Sprint Cup car in position to win the race at Pocono.
Alas, after leading 24 laps and emerging from a pit stop first on Lap 118 of the 167-lap race, Stewart was penalized for speeding on pit road and had to restart in 28th. He was fortunate to be able to drive back up to 13th by the end of the race and acknowledged his mistake afterward.
"It was 100 percent driver error...So (a) great race, just the driver screwed it up this week," Stewart told reporters afterward, per Jay Pennell of Fox Sports.
Despite the screw-up and the fact that he has yet to win a race and sits a stunning 18th in points, now is not the time to completely give up on Stewart's season.
Kyle Busch doesn't seem to be talking all that much after Sprint Cup races lately, and that's never a good thing.
It usually means he stormed off to his motorcoach after the race without comment to the media because he was frustrated or angry about something, as was the case again at Pocono, according to Fox Sports.
And this was after he rallied for a 12th-place finish after a mid-race tangle with Kasey Kahne that left the cars of both Kahne and Carl Edwards so heavily damaged that they were relegated to finishes of 42nd and 41st, respectively.
Right now, Busch seems like he's on the edge, and his relationship with crew chief Dave Rogers appears frayed and a bit unstable. That's not to say they won't still get it together at some point before the season ends, but right now they seem to be struggling.
Sometimes you have to jump on a stock while it's down.
Or sometimes you buy it because you're so familiar with it that you can't fathom it won't bounce back. That appears to be the case with Roush Fenway Racing and driver Greg Biffle, who had been rumored to be possibly leaving the organization but now will stay and sign a contract extension, according to a report from The Charlotte Observer's Jim Utter (h/t ThatsRacin.com).
Biffle, 44, has only two top-five and four top-10 finishes in the first 14 races this season and sits 14th in points. He hasn't led a single lap in his last four races, during which his average finish is 22.75.
But now it seems his future is secure, and he's headed to Michigan International Speedway—the track that often cures all that ails him. He has four straight finishes of ninth or better at MIS, including back-to-back wins in the second race of 2012 and the first one of 2013 and a fourth in the other 2012 event there.
That's why we're going out on a limb and buying some Biff, too.
Just when it seemed time to sell off every bit of post-Indy 500 stock you had in two-timing Kurt Busch, he did something at Pocono that made everyone think twice about it.
Taking on two tires instead of four during a late pit stop to gain track position, he then held on to finish third in the latest NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
So he's still mired in 27th in the points standings, right smack where you don't want to be—in the middle of a sandwich with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 26th and Danica Patrick, Stenhouse's girlfriend, in 28th. But Busch does have a win earlier this season at Martinsville in his pocket, and he showed again at Pocono that at times his No. 41 Stewart-Haas team can put it all together.
It's worth keeping an eye on him as the series swings through Michigan, where he has won twice in his career, and Sonoma, where he has won once.
No matter what brash Brad Keselowski does to stir up the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he's always willing to stand up and talk about it.
The latest newsworthy development involving Brash Brad occurred in the closing laps of the Pocono 400, when trash on the grille of his No. 2 Team Penske Ford suddenly became the only thing between him and a seemingly certain victory on a day when he led a race-high 95 of 167 laps.
With his car possibly overheating, he slowed down to try to nuzzle up to the car of Danica Patrick, with the hope that the move would result in an air flow that would send the trash packing. Instead, as Keselowski slowed and Patrick's car wobbled a bit, Dale Earnhardt Jr. soared by in his No. 88 Chevrolet and went on to win on a day when Keselowski's car clearly was better.
"I told somebody I felt like I was playing a game of blackjack and I was sitting on 15 and the dealer had a face card," Keselowski later told MRN.com. "If you play by the rules, you should take a card and you should hit, and we did, and we busted."
Maybe it was the wrong move, but he said he thought he had to try something, or his engine would have blown. Next time, don't bet against him.
If winning the previous two races at Charlotte and Dover, respectively, did not send a message to the rest of the Sprint Cup field that the No. 48 Chevrolet team of driver Jimmie Johnson is poised to contend for a record-tying seventh championship, then what transpired in the last race at Pocono certainly did.
No, Johnson did not win his third race in a row. But he did have a contending car, working his way from 20th at the start of the race into the top five when a pit-road incident involving the No. 9 Ford of Marcos Ambrose left Johnson's car damaged.
It also left him 27th in the running order. But with 94 laps still remaining in the race, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus did not panic. They kept working on the car and strategy until Johnson was able to milk a sixth-place finish out of the day.
Mixing a few wins in with races like that—when you turn a horrible day into a pretty good finish—is how you not only contend for championships but win them.
It seems the sooner Carl Edwards can figure out—and announce to the world—where he will be driving next season, the better off he's likely to be.
Or maybe, just maybe, if he's leaving Roush Fenway Racing, he doesn't want to risk letting everyone know now and possibly have his current No. 99 Ford team slip—because he would, in effect, become a lame-duck driver. At Pocono, he talked about how proud he was to drive for Ford, leading one to believe the rumors that he might be headed to drive for Team Penske next might be true.
But then the next day, according to a report on Chris Knight of Catchfence.com (h/t Lead-Lap.com), owner Roger Penske denied his organization had any interest in Edwards. That, coupled with another report from Bob Pockrass of Sporting News that Greg Biffle was about to re-sign with RFR, again fueled rumors that Edwards might be headed to Joe Gibbs Racing at season's end.
Meanwhile, his race day at Pocono was miserable. He got caught up in a dust-up between Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne that badly damaged his car, leading to a 41st-place finish that was by far his worst of the season.
If Edwards doesn't rally at Michigan, where he's won twice and has 15 top-10 finishes (including nine top fives) in 19 career starts, it might be time to sell.
Kasey Kahne's season seems to be going from bad to worse.
With only one top-five finish in the first 14 races, he's 22nd in points, after another run-in with Kyle Busch at Pocono left him saddled in 42nd for the day. Kahne was angry with Busch afterward, telling reporters via Fox Sports, "He ran me right into the wall."
While the end result was Kahne's worst finish of the season, it was the fourth time he's clocked in at 31st or worse in a race.
Some of it is just plain bad luck. But the rock-solid chemistry he once had with crew chief Kenny Francis seems to be faded at best and perhaps just plain gone, and enough is enough.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The U.S. stock market closed at an all-time high last Monday. It was, no doubt, because of the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race—something that usually happens once every four years or so and usually when he is racing at Michigan International Speedway.
That's what made his winning run at Pocono so surprising. It is a place where Earnhardt has struggled in the past, oftentimes kicking off a summer swoon that all but took him out of the talk of true championship contention even in the years when he did make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Now he's not only locked into the 2014 Chase but a proven winner. After also capturing the season-opening Daytona 500 in dramatic fashion, he has multiple wins in a season for the first time in seven years and looks as if he can do it again...and again.
Guess what else? The next Cup race is at Michigan, the only place Earnhardt had won in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy over the previous six seasons and in the last seven seasons overall prior to this year's hot streak.
Verdict: Buy, buy, buy!
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