NASCAR Report Cards: Top 35 Edition

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NASCAR Report Cards: Top 35 Edition
Jason Smith/Getty Images

Yesterday, I gave report cards to the go-or-go-home teams. Today, I’m not going to delay and instead get right into grading the teams locked into the top-35 in owner’s points, and therefore locked into the race. Working from the bottom up…

Front Row Motorsports
35th: No. 37 David Gilliland
34th: No. 34 Travis Kvapil
32nd: No. 38 Kevin Conway
Grade: C-

Bill Jenkins, the owner of Front Row Motorsports, truly understands that the key to making a little money in NASCAR is to start with a lot of money.

Last year, Front Row was a bit of a haphazard team, and driver John Andretti just barely hung onto that 35th position at the end of the season.

This year, however, Jenkins has invested in a better shop, better cars, and secured backing from Ford. Now, five races into the season, FRM just barely has all three teams in the top-35.

Even rookie Kevin Conway, with not even a full Nationwide season under his belt, hung onto that 35th position before swapping rides with Gilliland to give himself more of a cushion.

However, their performance is still lacking. Their cars, though better than some, they admit are not the best. The whole season, they will be using the aging Ford engine, and that will hurt them in the long run.

At least one of their cars might face a serious challenge for that top-35 berth from the Tommy Baldwin-owned No. 36 or Robby Gordon’s self-owned No. 7.


Team Penske
33rd: No. 77 Sam Hornish
30th: No. 12 Brad Keselowski
6th: No. 2 Kurt Busch
Grade: A-

“Wait,” you say, “An A- with two teams below 30th?” Yes. Penske, as an organization, has been running extremely well this year.

“Sideways Sam” Hornish seems to finally feel comfortable in a stock car, and Brad Keselowski has had some good runs. Kurt Busch has won a race and sits sixth in points.

The reason for Hornish’s and Keselowski’s poor points showing is because of plain old bad luck (and, to an extent, Carl Edwards). As the season wears on, I expect all three cars to be contending on a regular basis.

Hornish still has some work to do, but he’s finally showing he’s a champion racecar driver. Keselowski still has to figure out how to qualify. But, all-in-all, not bad for Team Penske.


Michael Waltrip Racing

24th: No. 00, David Reutimann

20th: No. 56, Martin Truex Jr.

 

JTG-Dougherty Racing

31st: No 47, Marcos Ambrose
Grade: B+

This organization is not as good as I thought they would be this year. To be fair, they have also had more than their fair share of bad luck.

Martin Truex is their shining star who almost won the Daytona 500 and has since had really promising runs, only to end up on the caboose end of a wrecker.

Reutimann is normally fast in practice, but hasn’t been able to close the deal in the races. On Sunday, we normally see him running upper-middle pack. Truex has been a rocket ship, and Reutimann has been mostly sedentary.

Marcos Ambrose is clearly in a sophomore slump, not running to expectations at all. However, he was a contender at Bristol until the obviously bored bad-luck demon gobbled his engine.

It is hard to grade them, though. Their performance last year, with Reutimann on the cusp of the Chase, was exceptionally better than anyone expected at MWR.

They had hopes placed on them this season that were almost impossible to live up to, especially with the addition of Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson.

I do think they will contend to win many races this year, but just not every week.

TRG Motorsports
29th: No. 71, Bobby Labonte
Grade: C

Last year, this start-and-park team would have had a D. However, with the addition of Bobby Labonte and partial sponsor TaxSlayer.com, they’ve brought their team into solid mid-pack standing.

Sitting 29th in owner’s points, Bobby Labonte can put his past champion’s provisional back in storage for the foreseeable future.

This team has a small-team mentality. It’s working for them, but it’s not going to make them contenders week in and week out.

Plus, they still don’t have sponsorship for the full season. They don’t need as much sponsorship as other teams will to be competitive because of their small-team mentality…but they need something.

What they don’t have is Crew Chief “Slugger” Labbe. When Labonte decided to sign with TRG, he remarked on how much he liked “Slugger and the guys.”

Labbe is known as one of the best crew chiefs in the garage, and his loss was a big, unexpected blow to TRG, I’m sure.

But all is not lost. They’re still running well. TRG does have a racing background, just not in NASCAR until last year.

With more money and their seasoned, champion driver, this team can have just a few good runs and contend for a win or two at Bobby’s stronger tracks.



Furniture Row Racing
28th: No. 78, Regan Smith
Grade: C

They’re just average, and they’ll probably stay there. They don’t have a whole lot of resources other than an alignment with Richard Childress Racing. They’re not bad by any means, just average.



Roush-Fenway Racing
27th: No. 6, David Ragan
13th: No. 99, Carl Edwards
4th: No. 16, Greg Biffle
2nd: No. 17, Matt Kenseth
Grade: B+

Two A+’s, an A-, and a C average to a B+ in my book. I think Darrell Waltrip put it best at Daytona when he said, “This is the last year I’m going to wait for David Ragan to have a breakout year.”

He first came on the scene in 2007 to replace the retiring-or-so-we-thought Mark Martin, almost made the Chase in 2008 and was expected to have a breakout year in 2009.

It didn’t happen. To be fair, none of the RFR teams had a good year in 2009; but, in 2010, Ragan still appears to be the odd man out.

With Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle sitting second and fourth in points, respectively, it surprises me to see Edwards in 13th. He’s still searching for that first victory after winning nine times in 2008.

Those two, however, signal the beginnings of a turnaround at RFR from their dismal 2009 season. It just hasn’t been translated to all their teams yet, and they need to get at least Edwards back into Chase contention to get that A.



Stewart-Haas Racing
26th: No. 39, Ryan Newman
5th: No. 14, Tony Stewart
Grade: B

Stewart is solidly in Chase contention. Much has been made of how he’s not running as well this year, but hey…he’s fifth in points.

A far cry from his teammate Ryan Newman, who sits 26th. I don’t know the X factor that this team is missing, but the No. 39 has never had as much of it as the No. 14 has.

Part of the reason they’re perceived as not running so well this year is because of how well they ran last year; unexpectedly, at that, after Tony Stewart bought this also-ran team and suddenly turned it into a contender.

These cars, also, are essentially Hendrick cars, being built in the Hendrick shop then shipped to be serviced in the SHR shop. The Hendrick cars are running great…just not all the SHR cars are.



Richard Petty Motorsports
25th: No. 19, Elliott Sadler
23rd: No. 9, Kasey Kahne
21st: No. 43, A.J. Allmendinger
9th: No. 98, Paul Menard
Grade: A-

Paul Menard gets my vote as the most improved driver in NASCAR. For years, he took his Menard’s sponsorship from team to team, looking for that performance that some wondered if he would ever get.

Last season, I almost wrote an article I would have called, “Who shouldn’t be here and who should be here instead.” Paul Menard would have been one of the ones that shouldn’t have been here.

First, I wanted to see how silly the season played out. I guess I found out.

He and the entire Petty gang have been running exceptionally well. Always fast in practice, qualifying, and the race. Unfortunately, they too have been bitten by the bad luck bug. Their performance gets them their A-, their results just don’t show it.

Some say, “I would rather have bad luck than no luck at all.” I think the Richard Petty Motorsports team would just rather not have bad luck.

 

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
22nd: No. 42, Juan-Pablo Montoya
15th: No. 1, Jamie McMurray
Grade: B+

This team was placed with impossible expectations when Jamie McMurray, in his first race with the team, won a race totally unlike any other race, the Daytona 500.

Once again, bad luck. But, here’s the thing with bad luck: there is no room in the Chase for teams with a lot of it.

To get back in championship form, they have to have a whole lot of good luck, and run at peak level…something I don’t think EGR is able to make both of their cars do the entire season yet.

They’re a top team, don’t get me wrong, but there are a lot of top teams this year. I think McMurray might win once more or so and Montoya will finally get his first oval win, but they’ll probably both be shut out of the Chase.

Did anyone else find it funny at Las Vegas when McMurray’s McDonald’s car had the McDonald’s Golden Arches as the “M” in “McMurray” above the doors?

Joe Gibbs Racing
19th: No. 11, Denny Hamlin
17th: No. 20, Joey Logano
10th: No. 18, Kyle Busch
Grade: B

I don’t know what it is about this team, but they’re just off. In the off-season, Denny Hamlin was billed as the best threat to unseat Jimmie Johnson.

Right now, he’s 19th in points and, in late breaking news Friday night, will have knee surgery on Monday to repair a torn ACL.

Other than that, there’s just not much I can say. JGR, though dominant in the Nationwide Series, has just been unimpressive in the Sprint Cup Series.

They could be stuck in the same boat Roush-Fenway was in last year, where they improved, but everyone else improved more.



Hendrick Motorsports
16th: No. 5, Mark Martin
11th: No. 24, Jeff Gordon
8th: No. 88, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
3rd: No. 48, Jimmie Johnson
Grade: A+

This team is on its game! They have set the mark that all other teams are shooting for. Watch any TV this week? Read anything online? The entire sport is talking about the head game Jimmie Johnson’s team is playing.

Every crew chief on pit road is judging his decisions based on what Chad Knaus is going to do, or at least what they think he might do.

Even Dale Jr., after his awful 2009, is 8th in points. What this driver needs, simply, is confidence. He needs to go win himself a race somewhere (as Darrell Waltrip says, in the Camping World Truck Series, perhaps) and he will start finally contending for wins again.

Mark Martin has simply been bitten by bad luck. He’s often the top Hendrick car the entire weekend.

It seems really weird to say this, but Jeff Gordon appears to be the weak link. He’s getting better though; he’s had a sort of nonchalant attitude about his not winning the first few years, and he’s really begun to work out more and get in better shape to start winning races again.

But no one, not even anyone at Hendrick Motorsports, has what Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have. They’re just about unbeatable, and would be leading the points of not for that broken axle at Daytona.

Last year, reminiscent of Babe Ruth pointing to the right field fence before hitting his home run, Johnson said over the radio to, “Start preparing the champagne bottle now.” Maybe, just maybe, they’re becoming alcoholics…



Team Red Bull

18th: No. 82, Scott Speed
14th: No. 83, Brian Vickers
Grade: B

Team Red Bull is in the same spot they were last year, just about. Yes, Scott Speed is running exponentially better than last year, but both he and Vickers are running in about the same place Vickers was running in 2009: mid-pack, with a few good runs.

Chase material? We’ll see. The entire Chase field is going to be much tighter than it was last year, and only the best get in.



Richard Childress Racing

12th: No. 33, Clint Bowyer
7th: No. 31, Jeff Burton
1st: No. 29, Kevin Harvick
Grade: A+

This year, after a lackluster 2009, RCR has emerged as the top all-around rival to Hendrick. All three teams are running up front, the drivers are getting along marvelously, and their engines are absolutely hauling!

Whatever went wrong last year appears to be fixed this year.

The true indicator of how things are going internally at RCR is Kevin Harvick. Last year, he was very publicly at odds with Richard Childress, and he is a free agent at the end of this season.

In the middle of last year, he appeared to want to close the book on his career with Richard Childress and move on.

Being first in points will go a long way towards getting him to sign back with RCR. Now, he just needs to win himself a points race. I think all of the RCR cars will do that this year, and maybe just win the Championship.

-David Dubczak

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