Midseason Stock Watch for 2014 Sprint Cup Teams
With 19 of the 36 Sprint Cup points races in the books and the series headed to Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a rare weekend off, it's time to check out which organizations are moving in the right direction, which may need just a little more time to come around—and which might as well start focusing on next season soon.
It has been pretty obvious that Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have been the class of the field so far, having combined to have their drivers and cars win a total of 11 races between them. And even though Team Penske has been formidable especially of late, Jay Pennell of FoxSports.com accurately summed it up recently by noting, "We are living in the age of Hendrick Motorsports."
They have the defending champion who is seeking a record-tying seventh title in Jimmie Johnson, a resurgent Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a four-time champ having a great season in Jeff Gordon. Everyone else is chasing them at the moment.
But which other organizations might just have a chance to perhaps steal the championship under the new Chase for the Sprint Cup elimination format that commences after the first 26 regular-season races? Who's on their game at the shop and in the pits, as well as having drivers who are getting it done behind the wheel?
Read on to find out who's hot, who's not and who's somewhere in between.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Aric Almirola scored a monumental win when he captured the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Not only was it the first win for a driver of the iconic No. 43 since 1999, but it almost certainly locked Almirola into the 16-driver Chase. That will mark the first time Richard Petty Motorsports, or any of the organizations that included Hall of Famer Richard Petty in some capacity prior to the formation of RPM, has gotten a car in the Chase since its inception in 2004.
And that's not all.
With the road-course race at Watkins Glen International coming up, RPM stands a very good chance of having Almirola's teammate, Marcos Ambrose, race his way into the Chase with a victory there. Ambrose's only two career Sprint Cup wins to date have come at Watkins Glen, where he has finished worse than third only once in six career starts.
JTG/Daugherty Racing is a single-car operation, but its No. 47 Chevrolet is powered by Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines, and it began a technical alliance this year with Richard Childress Racing.
Furthermore, driver AJ Allmendinger is another road-course ace who will have a shot to run up front and possibly win at Watkins Glen.
Allmendinger's 37th-place finish at the other road course in Sonoma, California, doesn't reflect how effective he was for most of the day there, when he led 35 laps after qualifying second.
A win at The Glen would put another underdog in the Chase, and that's as far as this group can expect to go. But at least until his next road-course run, the capable Allmendinger bears watching in the No. 47 Chevy. Just making the Chase would be huge for this team.
Verdict: Hold (at least until Watkins Glen)
Furniture Row Racing
Is it as simple as a major gulf in talent from Kurt Busch to Martin Truex Jr.?
Probably not quite that simple—but the fact is that after a breakthrough season in 2013 with Busch behind the wheel of the No. 78 Chevy, Furniture Row Racing is going nowhere this season with Truex Jr. in the driver's seat.
Busch didn't win a race last year, but he did register 11 top-fives and 16 top-10s for an organization that in its eight-year history prior to that had scored a total of three top-fives and 11 top-10s. That was good enough for Furniture Row to become the first single-car operation ever to make the Chase.
This year, Truex has yet to score a top-five and has only three top-10s. Worse yet, he hasn't led a single lap (Busch led a total of 448 last year in the same car).
Joe Gibbs Racing
The three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers—Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth—have combined for just two victories, one each by Busch and Hamlin.
Considering Kenseth won a career-high seven races last season when he finished runner-up to champion Jimmie Johnson and has yet to win a single race this season, there is ample cause for concern.
But Kenseth has been consistent enough that he has the most points of any driver who has not won a race, which means he's in pretty good shape to make the Chase anyway. That would give JGR three drivers in the Chase, something only Hendrick Motorsports is in better position to do.
The onus really seems to be more on Toyota Racing Development, which supplies JGR with its engines, to find more speed in the cars. This group is not far off otherwise.
Stewart-Haas Racing runs Hendrick engines and has a technical alliance with HMS. So what's the problem?
That's a good question.
SHR has won a total of three races, so maybe there isn't much of one. Kevin Harvick won in absolutely dominating fashion at both Phoenix and Darlington, and Kurt Busch visited Victory Lane at Martinsville. Plus Harvick was seemingly in position to win several other races when poor pit stops or the wrong pit strategy cost him.
But Busch hasn't been very good in most of the races, Tony Stewart still hasn't come close to winning, Danica Patrick continues to struggle—and even Harvick hasn't been as good of late. So let's just wait and see what happens with this organization over the upcoming stretch of races.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Michael Waltrip Racing seemed on its way to continuing to build on its breakthrough season of 2012 last fall when driver Clint Bowyer initiated the SpinGate controversy at Richmond International Raceway that changed everything in an instant.
As a result, MWR went from being a three-car team to a two-car team overnight, lost a major sponsor, and all the momentum they had spent in 2012 and most of the 2013 season building suddenly not only was lost but seemed to start flowing in the opposite direction.
Neither Bowyer nor Brian Vickers has visited Victory Lane in 2014, and they haven't really even been that close. The 36 laps Bowyer led in the last race at New Hampshire doubled his total of laps led for the season, and Vickers has led only 38 all year—with 30 of those coming in one race.
With victories by Brad Keselowski in two of the last three races—and a combined five wins on the season between Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano—Team Penske seems poised to battle with Hendrick Motorsports for supremacy in the Sprint Cup Series this season.
Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion who failed to even make the Chase last season, talked about contending for this year's title after winning at New Hampshire his last time out.
"I want to win another championship," Keselowski told USA Today. "I don't want to be a guy that contends for a championship every three or four years. I want to do it each and every year and I know that opportunity is here, it's present and I want to make the most of it."
Logano might just go along for the championship-contending ride, too, even though he's cooled off considerably since winning two of three races earlier in the season.
Richard Childress Racing
It's late in the season for the entire Richard Childress Racing stable of drivers to be without a single victory between them.
But hold on.
Two of the three drivers are new, with Ryan Newman coming over to RCR after getting cut loose by Stewart-Haas Racing and Austin Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, getting promoted from the Nationwide Series after last season. The only Cup driver returning from last year is Paul Menard.
All three drivers have been at least getting reasonably solid finishes most times out, with Newman and Menard currently inside the Chase cutoff for winless drivers (the only nonwinner higher in points than Newman is Matt Kenseth) and Dillon just outside of it.
Roush Fenway Racing
When the Roush Fenway Racing drivers look at Team Penske, the other major organization that fields Fords, they've got to wonder why the guys in their shop can't find more speed in their cars.
It's certainly a legitimate question.
Yes, Carl Edwards has won two races—on the short track at Bristol and on the road course at Sonoma. But Edwards' teammates, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., have a total of three top-five finishes between them for the season (two for Biffle and one for Stenhouse).
The RFR gang has had nowhere near the ability to drive their cars deep into corners at the big tracks like most of the cars from other top organizations. That's not on the drivers (although Stenhouse, admittedly, has been pretty terrible). That's mostly on the engineers at the shop.
It's also not easily fixed in the middle of a season.
Defending champ Jimmie Johnson is tied with Team Penske's Keselowski for most wins thus far this season with three, while Johnson's Hendrick teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. (two wins, including the Daytona 500) and Jeff Gordon (one win) also seem to have what it takes to challenge for this year's title.
The only driver seemingly not on the top of his game at HMS right now is Kasey Kahne, but don't rule out the possibility of Kahne and veteran crew chief Kenny Francis pulling it together and making some noise in the second half of the season. Remember, they only need to win one race to get into the Chase—and then, if they can get on a roll, who knows?
The bottom line is that no organization is better right now. Team Penske is no doubt in position to put up a great fight and it will be interesting, but that's a two-car operation compared to the four-team behemoth that is Hendrick Motorsports (and more if you start counting the teams from places like Stewart-Haas Racing that have an alliance with Hendrick).
The fact is that Johnson will be tough to beat under the new Chase elimination format. And it wouldn't be shocking if two or three of the drivers to make the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway are teammates of his.
Verdict: Buy, buy, buy
Unless otherwise noted, information for all slides was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it for Bleacher Report and FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.