2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Week 17 Edition
With the first of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season's two road courses in the rearview mirror following the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, the stock market is jumping.
Sonoma race winner Carl Edwards, who is rumored to be leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season, per Tom Jensen of Fox Sports, suddenly seems to have more stock options coming his way than ever before. But while Edwards' second win of 2014 clearly bumped his value on the open market, whose stock dropped or at least fell into a hold status while we figured out where their season is going?
Read on to find out—and remember, it's not based solely on wins or even great finishes, but also on how a driver and his team are running in recent weeks, which tracks loom just ahead on the schedule and which drivers and their crew chiefs (and pit crews) are clicking as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Kentucky Speedway and Daytona International Speedway for a couple of Saturday night races over the next two weeks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Any doubt that this is a special season in the making for Dale Earnhardt Jr. was erased on the 1.99-mile road course of Sonoma Raceway.
Earnhardt finished a stout third at the place that has always baffled him before; his best finish prior to this third was 11th. Coupled with his earlier win at Pocono, another track where he frequently has struggled in his career, this is a sure sign that this season is not like most others for Earnhardt.
Then again, maybe we should have figured that out when he opened the season by winning the Daytona 500.
Afterward, Earnhardt tweeted:
There might be several in his future before this season is over. His finish at Sonoma marked his fourth consecutive one of ninth or better, including the win at Pocono, and the eighth time in 11 races he has finished ninth or better.
So far, this just really hasn't been Matt Kenseth's season.
Yes, he has five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in the first 16 races, which has been consistent enough to have him in fourth in the points standings. But he hasn't won yet in a season in which winning could mean everything when it comes to getting into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Even if he can qualify for the Chase on points alone, at some point this season he will have to win some races to remain in contention for the championship.
At Sonoma, where he often has been horrible, he was running reasonably well when he got run over by Earnhardt, who must have been channeling his old man. Earnhardt took the blame afterward, but that didn't change the fact that Kenseth was left with a destroyed race car and a 42nd-place finish.
It's too soon to give up on Kenseth and his No. 20 Toyota team entirely. But we're really starting to wonder if this just isn't his season.
At one point late in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, it was rather stunning to see Greg Biffle's No. 16 Ford running near the front.
He not only has struggled much of this season, but also has traditionally struggled at Sonoma. So even though he faded a bit to ninth after running in the top four, it turned out to be his best finish since running second at Talladega back in early May—seven races earlier.
It also left Biffle at 15th in points in a season when he has led laps in only four of 16 races and more than eight laps only twice. He also hasn't led any laps at all since Talladega, so if it looks like he's going nowhere this season, he probably is.
The latest Silly Season rumor has him signing a contract extension to stay at Roush Fenway Racing, per Tom Jensen of Fox Sports. If that turns out to be true, it will only be because Biffle, 44, had no other better options, and neither did RFR.
It seems Old Man Gordon fooled us all.
Just weeks after Jeff Gordon himself broached the possibility of being forced into an early retirement in a group media interview at Dover, the 42-year-old driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports looks like he's turned the clock back on his career.
Even before he finished second at Sonoma for the third time in the last four years, he told Tom Jensen of Fox Sports that he has absolutely no plans to retire anytime soon as long as his back continues to feel better.
Let's hope Gordon's back continues to hold out. The way he's driving now is reminiscent of his glory days and should put him squarely in title contention as this summer fades into fall and the Chase for the Sprint Cup commences.
Kevin Harvick has been fast all season in the No. 4 Chevy he is driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, displaying an instant chemistry with crew chief Rodney Childers that seems destined to produce a championship sooner rather than later.
So why then is Harvick only ninth in the points standings? And why has he been getting increasingly frustrated on race days despite winning both at Phoenix and Darlington in dominating fashion earlier this season and finishing second in three other more recent races at Kansas, Charlotte and Michigan, respectively?
Well, mostly because his pit crew keeps screwing up and costing him track position—and possibly more race wins.
Harvick voiced his displeasure again last Sunday at Sonoma—first over the team radio and later to MRN.com—when a bad pit stop cost him dearly after he had been out front for 23 laps and looked like he might have the best car on the day. That caused him to restart farther back than he should have, and he and his team paid a terrible price when they got caught up in a wreck they shouldn't have been around—relegating him to a 20th-place finish.
Keep an eye on this guy. He's too good to dump, but that shaky chemistry with his pit crew needs to get better before we upgrade his stock back to "Buy" status.
Martin Truex Jr.
Sixteen races into the 2014 season, and Martin Truex Jr. has yet to register a single top-five finish.
Sonoma figured to be perhaps his last stand. He won there last year for what was, at the time, his fourth top-five and seventh top-10 finish of 2013. His career seemed to be on the rise, and he seemed to have found his niche as a driver for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Then his ride with MWR disappeared in the aftermath of the controversy that was SpinGate at Richmond last spring, and Truex simply has not adjusted well to his new ride at the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation.
That isn't likely to change anytime soon.
Yes, Marcos Ambrose is a road-course specialist, and Sonoma has come and gone, leaving Ambrose with a disappointing eighth-place finish in the No. 9 Ford he drives for Richard Petty Motorsports.
So why not dump him?
Well, hold on to him at least until after the Sprint Cup Series visits its second and final road course of the season at Watkins Glen on Aug. 10. Ambrose's only two career Sprint Cup wins were earned there, and it will be his final chance to possibly race his way into the Chase by getting to Victory Lane once again.
Unfortunately, there are five races at venues that aren't road courses in between Sonoma and Watkins Glen—and none are short tracks. The only two top-five finishes Ambrose has earned this season came at Bristol and Martinsville. He hasn't finished better than 14th anywhere else, which is why he's 21st in the points.
For AJ Allmendinger, see Ambrose.
But wait a minute. Didn't Allmendinger finish 37th at Sonoma?
He did, but it wasn't his fault, and he actually drove a great race early—leading 35 laps—before he got booted late in the race by Dale Earnhardt Jr.,(who, again, seemed to be channeling his father for a minute there, even though he thought he gave Allmendinger plenty of room).
Allmendinger will be a threat to contend at Watkins Glen and is a better driver than the record shows thus far this season (he's 23rd in points). Hang on to him until at least the next road course plays out.
Like Truex Jr. it seemed that Sonoma was Clint Bowyer's best chance to start turning around a season of promise that just hasn't gone anywhere. He won there in 2012 and has consistently run well on the road course.
Bowyer finished a respectable 10th and even led five laps, but truthfully he never really seemed a threat to win. That's been the case virtually every race this season, which explains why he has led a total of only 35 laps all season and has yet to sniff Victory Lane.
Is it fallout from his involvement in SpinGate at Richmond? Is Michael Waltrip Racing just having a down year? No one seems to know for certain.
By the time anyone gets it figured out, it appears the season already will be over. Maybe Bowyer's already is.
If Edwards does indeed bolt Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of this season, as has been widely rumored by Fox Sports and other media outlets, he will be able to look back proudly on this season.
That's because even though he apparently is approaching lame-duck status and rumors of him leaving his current team have swirled virtually all season, he continues to approach his job of driving the No. 99 Ford for RFR with the professionalism and dedication—and skill—that have made him a hot commodity on the NASCAR free-agent-to-be market.
Edwards, who is in the final year of his current contract with RFR, drove a superb race in winning a Sprint Cup road-course event for the first time in his career at Sonoma.
It was his second win of the season, and his stock is obviously soaring toward an all-time high. He's now locked into the Chase and seems to have the right mindset to contend for a title as long as RFR can give him cars that are fast enough to keep up with the competition.