Stock Up, Stock Down for NASCAR's 2014 Sprint Cup Teams
With just three regular-season races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff that will determine which 16 drivers will battle for the 2014 championship over the final 10 races, it's time to take a closer look at the organizations involved.
Two stand apart from all the others at the moment: Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske.
Everyone else is playing catchup, as the Chevrolets of Hendrick have combined thus far for nine wins this season, and the two-team Penske operation has combined for five. That means these two organizations have combined to capture 14 of the first 23 races this season.
But what other teams have a sunny outlook as the Chase beckons, and which are in trouble, based on momentum or lack thereof, team resources or lack thereof—and the levels of skill and resourcefulness of their drivers behind the wheel? Read on to find out.
Furniture Row Racing
Is Kurt Busch really that good and Martin Truex Jr. that bad?
It's probably not quite that simple, but it's hard to believe the difference from one year to the next for Furniture Row Racing. With the elder of the Busch brothers behind the wheel in the No. 78 Chevrolet for the team in 2013, it may not have won a race—but it did post 11 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes to earn an unlikely spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
To put that in perspective, over the company's previous eight seasons (some part-time) in business, it had in 199 Sprint Cup starts registered the grand total of one victory (Regan Smith at Darlington in 2011), three top-five and 11 top-10 finishes while never finishing higher than 26th in the points standings. Busch made the Chase and finished 10th.
This season, however, has been a struggle from the start for Busch's replacement, Truex Jr. While Busch led races 27 times in 2013 for a total of 448 laps, Truex has yet to lead a single lap this season and hasn't even had one top-five finish yet. His best finish is sixth at Dover, one of just three top-10 finishes he's mustered.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Everybody loves The King.
And now that he's been invited to the ball—known as the Chase for the Sprint Cup that decides the season's champion over the final 10 races—everyone wants to stick around and see how this turns out.
Sure, Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports was the beneficiary of a rain-shortened win in the July race at Daytona to qualify for the Chase. But it doesn't matter how he got in. The fact is that he's in, and he's the driver of the No. 43 car that his owner made famous by winning more races than any other racer in the history of the sport.
Not only that but Petty also narrowly missed getting a second car into the Chase when his other driver, Marcos Ambrose, finished second after a thrilling last-lap battle for the lead with eventual winner AJ Allmendinger on the road course at Watkins Glen.
Almirola will be the longest of long shots once the Chase commences. But who knows? With the new Chase elimination format, all he needs is a little more rain at just the right time and a little luck, mixed with some of that old Petty magic, and something crazy might happen.
JTG Daugherty Racing
Yes, we know there are no more road courses left. We know, sadly, that the 10-race Chase remains without one.
So why invest in JTG Daugherty Racing and driver AJ Allmendinger now?
Call it a feeling that maybe, just maybe, he might stick around a little longer in the Chase than most folks think possible. Allmendinger and the single-car team that could be in because of his thrilling win at Watkins Glen, when he displayed a level of determination and skill in the car over the final 15 laps that made him think all things are possible.
Are they? Probably not. But that's the beauty of the way the Chase is set up now—both in terms of who qualifies for it and then who is eliminated every three races thereafter under the new format.
Allmendinger obviously doesn't have the resources or equipment to hang in for long against the likes of powerhouse teams from Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and others. But he's proving to be just the kind of gritty, skilled competitor who bears watching and might defy all odds—at least for a little while longer.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Nothing has seemed to be the same for Michael Waltrip Racing since Clint Bowyer got busted for allegedly spinning on purpose to help then-teammate Martin Truex Jr. try to make the Chase in the final regular-season race at Richmond last fall.
Suddenly a three-team operation that appeared to be on the upswing was reduced to two full-time teams, lost millions of dollars in sponsorship money and went from being on the cusp of having two teams in the Chase to struggling to field one competitive team.
Heading into this Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Bristol, Bowyer is 10th in points but has yet to win a race and therefore remains in possible danger of failing to make the Chase. (With three regular-season races left, right now the top four drivers in points without a win would make it—and Bowyer is currently third of those and easily could get knocked out).
Truex is gone to a lesser team now and perhaps was the biggest victim of SpinGate. The other full-time driver now at MWR is Brian Vickers, who is 18th in points and also winless.
This is neither the time nor the place to discuss in detail what's happening with Tony Stewart, who will sit out his third consecutive race weekend at Bristol, per The Associated Press (via Fox Sports), after being involved in a fatal sprint-car incident in which Stewart's car struck and killed 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr. in upstate New York.
It is also not of importance, really, that the No. 14 Chevrolet Stewart had been driving almost certainly will not qualify for the Chase now.
While Stewart-Haas Racing continues to reel from the tragedy, the fact remains that two of its teams will compete in the upcoming Chase—the No. 4 Chevy team led by driver Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers and the No. 41 Chevy driven by Kurt Busch.
Of the two, SHR's hopes clearly ride mostly on Harvick's team. Harvick won two races in dominating fashion early in the season and at times has been one of the fastest cars on the track. Busch is in the Chase by virtue of a win at Martinsville, but he sits 23rd in points and has had more poor finishes than good ones.
The two-car tandem of Joey Logano in his No. 22 Ford and Brad Keselowski in his No. 2 Ford has paid huge dividends for Team Penske.
Heading toward the Chase, no other organization seems more poised to battle toe-to-toe with the four teams at Hendrick Motorsports.
Keselowski is the only non-Hendrick driver with three victories this season, and Logano is one of only two non-Hendrick drivers with at least two. Furthermore, in a year when qualifying seems more important than ever, these two have been very successful in consistently qualifying their cars up front.
If they can continue that trend in the Chase, one or both of them might just survive all the way to the Final Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where, in one race for it all, anything can and probably will happen.
Richard Childress Racing
At one point this season, it looked as if Richard Childress Racing might get all three of its teams into the Chase. Now, with just three races left before the Chase cutoff, RCR is in danger of not having any of its drivers qualify.
Ryan Newman remains inside the cutoff for now. He's ninth overall in points and second behind only Matt Kenseth among the group of four drivers currently without a win who could get in. But if one or more first-time 2014 winners pop up over the next three races or Newman struggles badly in one of those events, he could easily fall out.
Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon, currently 13th in points but outside the cutoff when race winners outside the top 16 are figured into the mix, has lots of work to do and hasn't shown the speed to get to Victory Lane yet. He's led a total of just four laps all season.
Paul Menard drives the other RCR car and is 17th in the points. At this point, with a total of eight winless drivers ahead of him in the standings, he will have to win one of the final three races to get in—and he has only one career win in 278 Cup starts.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Is there still time for Joe Gibbs Racing to rally from what has been a pretty disappointing season all the way around?
It's looking doubtful, but there always is at least a chance that one of its drivers—Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and last year's championship runner-up, Matt Kenseth—could suddenly get on a roll in the 10-race Chase. Whether one of them does or not could have a whole lot more to do with what Toyota Racing Development is able to provide with its engines that it has failed to do over the first 23 races.
"We're trying to make the best we can do, down 50 horsepower. We can't just accelerate down the straightaway like (the Hendrick cars)," Hamlin told Fox Sports, per Tom Jensen. Upon hearing this, David Wilson, president and general manager of TRD, U.S.A., Toyota's racing division told Fox Sports that engine help is on the way.
JGR needs it. Kenseth, who won a career-high seven races last year, has yet to win one this year but will get into the Chase on points. Busch and Hamlin have won just one race each and are lagging in the points, with Busch currently 15th and Hamlin 20th.
Roush Fenway Racing
The recent defection of top driver Carl Edwards to Joe Gibbs Racing now is official. And although it won't take effect until next season, it spells doom for Edwards' championship hopes in this one.
Edwards is the only Roush Fenway Racing driver to win a race this season, and he's won two—on the short track at Bristol and on the road course at Sonoma. Just about everywhere else, he's been in the same leaky boat as his current two teammates, Greg Biffle and the underachieving Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
That is to say they just don't seem to have the speed to hold up to the Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske cars at the all-important tracks that measure 1.5 miles or longer. That has been the case all season long and isn't likely to change over the last three regular-season races or the 10-race Chase that will follow it.
The fact that RFR's best driver is now running for a lame-duck team won't help matters, either.
If Rick Hendrick doesn't land at least two of his four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the Final Four at Homestead, it will be an upset.
At varying times this season, the Hendrick cars driven by Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson have all been the best in Sprint Cup. Each has three wins, which ties them with Team Penske's Brad Keselowski for the current series lead.
The only odd duck out of the possible championship picture right now is Kasey Kahne, who is without a win but could still get into the Chase by winning one of the final three regular-season races. Does anyone think Hendrick won't be throwing all of its resources toward getting that accomplished over the next three weeks?
The bottom line: Don't bet against the Hendrick Motorsports behemoth in this upcoming Chase. To do so would be foolish.
Verdict: Buy all you can
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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