Stock Watch for Top Drivers in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
These are volatile times for fans involved in the business of following many of NASCAR's biggest stars in the Sprint Cup Series.
Time is money, and when you shake out how much time AND money many of this sport's most passionate fans pour into following their heroes, it's obviously the time to preach caution and prudence. Don't go out just yet and buy a new leather jacket with your longtime favorite driver's current car number on it. He might not be driving that car next year.
Furthermore, there might be better investments out there. Like a good stockbroker, fans need to take a long, hard look at their portfolios from time to time. Loyalty is one thing—and admirable. But there comes a time when a hard-line position needs to be evaluated, and perhaps, adjusted.
Click ahead to find out which Sprint Cup drivers deserve to have stock in them bought, sold or held until further notice.
Here's the deal with Kasey Kahne. He's only now approaching the prime of his NASCAR Sprint Cup driving career. He's only 32 years old, yet he has vast experience and finally is in the best equipment he's ever been able to drive at Hendrick Motorsports.
Furthermore, Kahne has a long-term, fruitful relationship with his crew chief, Kenny Francis, that is akin to the relationship four-time champion Jeff Gordon once had with Ray Evernham and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson currently enjoys with Chad Knaus. Kahne and Francis seem to always know what the other is thinking.
There was a time earlier in Kahne's career when critics charged that he could not take an ill-handling car and tell his crew chiefs what adjustments to make during a race to make it better.
Along with experience, and thanks in no small part to the consistency of being with the same crew chief and now the same, reliable equipment for back-to-back seasons, Kahne has matured to where he can take what might have been a 10th-place car earlier in his career and contend for a win with it.
He can also take a 20th-place car and coax a 10th-place finish from it.
That's the stuff from which future champions are made.
It's refreshing to see, this career rejuvenation at the age of 41. It's quite possible, he will keep it up, too, and by no means should fans, new or old, who have invested years or just come on board with Kenseth since his switch from Roush Fenway Racing and Fords to JGR and Toyotas jump the ship.
But with three wins already this season and a bunch of summer tracks coming up where Kenseth hasn't always fared that well in the past approaching on the schedule, this would be a good time to take pause and wait and see if Kenseth's resurgence has the legs to take him all the way to a championship.
He's already a lock to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But let's see if he's still hot enough to be a title contender in the fall.
Jeff Gordon has won four championships. He drove his way into last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup in remarkable fashion with a late-race run at Richmond, in the final race before the Chase cutoff, that proved he can still get it done behind the wheel.
But he'll be 42 in August. Although he won a total of five races the last two seasons, he has yet to reach Victory Lane this year and again is struggling to manage consistently solid finishes, despite having a fast enough No. 24 Chevy to lead laps in five of the first 12 races per Racing-Reference.info.
It's always hard to say about a champion who has served with great class, but Gordon's best days clearly are behind him. He's going to have to fight to get into the Chase again this year, and he just hasn't been finishing races like he used to for the last couple of years.
When Denny Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower back in a last-lap accident at Auto Club Speedway in March, it appeared his season might be over.
Oh, sure, he was only going to miss six weeks or so. But he'd be so far behind in the points when he came back, and still likely hurting so badly, that it just didn't seem logical to think he might be able to race his way back into the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup and contention for a possible championship.
Well, somebody forgot to tell Hamlin about the old adage, "Wait 'til next year." He got back behind the wheel of his No. 11 Toyota after missing only three weeks total and quickly was running up front again.
If he keeps climbing in the points and wins a race or two, all of which seems likely based on his recent performances, he still can qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
There seems to be a sense of determination about him that is greater than ever, making it seem he might just be on the verge of doing something great.
Jimmie Johnson, the bluest of all NASCAR blue-chip stocks, can't keep contending for championships forever, can he? Or can he?
This year, he certainly has given no indication that he's slowing down or that the special relationship he has with crew chief Chad Knaus is showing any signs of cracking. In the end, that could be what keeps the two together: a dual burning desire to chase the greatest career prize of them all, or three more championships.
That would give Johnson eight for his career, surpassing current recordholders and Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most ever. But first, of course, "Five Time" must earn No. 6. He's spent much of this season atop the Sprint Cup point standings and is sure to remain in contention into the Chase and beyond.
But whereas it once seemed Johnson and Knaus were an unbeatable pair once the 10-race Chase began, others have chipped away at that invincible aura the last two years, making one wonder if Johnson really does have enough left in his No. 48 tank to pursue the greatest racing record of all.
Quick trivia question: When is the last time Ryan Newman won more than one race in a season?
The answer? Nearly a decade ago in 2004 when he still drove for Roger Penske. And that magical year when Newman seemed a Sprint Cup superstar in the making, when he won eight races in a single season? That was in 2003.
This is 2013, folks. And while Newman seemed to show a spark of resurgence when he first joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, the fact is, he's won the grand total of five races over the last nine seasons per Racing-Reference.info.
Furthermore, he failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season and is in danger of doing so again this season, with no signs of an imminent change in his fortunes.
He's rarely in contention for wins these days, and it's even rarer when he is, and he finishes the job.
The year was 2008. Aric Almirola was splitting time with Mark Martin in a solid ride for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and his immediate future as a Sprint Cup driver seemed bright and secure.
But after running the first seven races the next season for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, funding ran out, and Almirola's career spiraled into limbo. To his credit, he never complained and kept working hard until he got another chance to run Sprint Cup full time for Richard Petty Motorsports beginning in 2012.
After struggling at times last season, Almirola seems to have hit his stride this season. He's been in the top 12 in points virtually all season, and it genuinely seems for the first time in a very long time as if there is a legitimate shot for the legendary No. 43 car getting back to Victory Lane—this time with Almirola behind the wheel.
After that, who knows? The Chase for the Sprint Cup seems a real possibility, and once again, Almirola's future seems promising.
Brad Keselowski, the defending Sprint Cup champion, has endured a stretch of tough luck in 2013.
There was the wreck in the Coca-Cola 600, for which Keselowski took the blame that led to his first DNF (Did Not Finish) black mark since the season-opening 2012 Daytona 500.
But there also was a broken driveshaft that ended his Sprint All-Star Race almost as soon as it started, there was the night he felt a vibration in his car and fell a lap down at Darlington because of it, and there was a cut tire and lost engine cylinder at Richmond that led to a 33rd-place finish.
It would be silly to suggest or think that Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe and the No. 2 team can't get this season straightened out.
But at the same time, it would be prudent to wait and see if, perhaps, the adjustment from winning a championship with Dodge as manufacturer to successfully switching over to Fords isn't going to be a little more difficult than everyone at Penske Racing realized at first glance.
Keselowski can drive and is no flash in the oil pan. But it might be a stretch to assume his team and Penske Racing as an organization will get everything else worked out in time for him to mount a successful defense of his 2012 Cup title.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Sure, the June Michigan race is coming up and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been known to win it.
But what else has he done for his legions of fans lately? Earnhardt is a super-nice guy—probably too nice on the track at times, in fact. He's a class act.
That's all fine and dandy. But the facts are the facts. He's in year six of driving the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, which fields the best Sprint Cup equipment owner Rick Hendrick's money can buy. And still, Earnhardt can't win races consistently—or even very often at all.
In fact, the only Cup races he's won in his five-plus seasons with Hendrick are a pair of June Michigan events, set five years apart. Earnhardt is more famous for being famous now than he is famous for being a winning racecar driver.
Martin Truex Jr.
It's true that Martin Truex Jr. has won only one Sprint Cup race in his career, and it came quite some time ago.
But in the last two seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex has shown steady improvement while finishing fourth or better a total of six times per Racing-Reference.info. He's bound to start winning some of these races soon.
Meanwile, Truex has made the most of the improved equipment MWR has fielded in the last couple of years. He's finishing well more consistently and has been solidly inside the top 10 in points virtually all season, setting himself up for a possible run in the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
There may be no better time than now to jump on the Truex bandwagon, which is moving more swiftly and with a better sense of purpose these days for possibly the first time since he won at Dover in 2007 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Carl Edwards seems to be taking on more of the quiet, under-the-radar personality of his new crew chief, the wily veteran Jimmy Fennig, this season.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Edwards has won races in bunches before—a series-high total of nine in 2008. And he's contended for a championship the other way—winning only one race, but running consistently well enough to lose out on a championship to Tony Stewart merely by a tiebreaker on the final day of the 2011 season.
This season, even he seems a little unsure of just how good his No. 99 team can be with Fennig calling the shots atop his pit box. But so far, they've been consistent enough to win one race and run second in the points behind Jimmie Johnson for most of the season.
Let's wait to see what happens next.
She's pretty, and she's more than pretty fair at marketing herself. Perhaps, Danica Patrick would have been a decent Nationwide Series driver if she'd given it more time, too.
But the fact is, she wasn't ready to compete at a high level in the Sprint Cup Series this season, and it shows. Anyone who bought into the foolishness that she would not struggle—not because she is a woman, but because of her lack of experience—is, well, a complete fool.
It's going to take lots of time, a lot more money from her sponsors and mountains of patience before Patrick begins paying dividends as a driver on the considerable investments others have poured into her career for years. That's the simple reality of it.
Anyone looking for a quicker return needs to look elsewhere.