Monday, July 13, 2009

The success, surprises and the struggles 19 races into the 2009 Cup Series Season.

In watching the now NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for over 17 years now and blogging on among others subject NASCAR for over four years, you tend not to be too surprised with some things that go down in the season, however when it comes to the 2009 season, I would call it a season of “surprises”.

Last season (2008) was a year “survival”, drivers, teams and owners had to just survive races in order to finish anywhere in the top 10, let alone the top 5 or even god for bit win a race, but 2009 is a year surprises, and just to keep things in the same area of surprises, I originally thought that I would pick 3 drivers out for each category and talk about them, however that was so last year, for this round, I am going to highlight a few teams that has caught my eye in general.

In the success stories, it’s hard to ignore the success of Hendrick Motorsports, one of the best teams in NASCAR that has had their highs and lows so far in 2009 all across the board. Jimmie Johnson despite a few bad runs this season is my pick to capture his fourth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Championships in 2009, he is 3rd in the points and has two victories so far including one coming at Martinsville and the second coming at Dover after an amazing duel between him and Tony Stewart in the late stages of the race.

Not to be outdone, Jeff Gordon is in the top 5 in points and one victory with several good runs including a second place at Chicagoland, but don’t forget about Mark “the kid” Martin, despite a bad start, Martin has not only rebounded, but done a complete 180 and now is 11th in points and has four great victories one the season so far including Phoenix, Darlington, Michigan and most recently at Chicagoland Speedway.

However when it comes to Dale Earnhardt Jr., even after a crew chief change, while he continues to improve, he still runs mid-pack, somewhere around top 15 in each race. My advice is simple, Dale Jr. needs to get away from NASCAR for a weekend, if he had a weekend off and just go race in some late-model race and enjoy it, I went and watched a good modified series race last (2008) Father’s Day and it was a blast, no weird calls, just racing and that’s what it is all about.

Joe Gibbs Racing, the rookie Joey Logano is coming along and even though he has a lot of learning to do, he is doing great so far including having one victory in the rain-shortened Lenox Tools 301 at New Hampshire, but even without the victory, he is doing better than so veterans in the field. Denny Hamlin, the leader at JGR is contending weekly and fifth in points, of course then you have NASCAR’s bad boy Kyle Busch who has had a up and down 19 races with three victories on the season, but not where he was one year ago.

The surprise story has to do more with one of the best teams in NASCAR and one of the newest teams in NASCAR, yes Stewart-Haas Racing. Ironically enough Stewart-Haas Racing is a huge surprise on the season as well, it was only one year ago at this very weekend that Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing where Tony Stewart not only announced that was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 years and two NASCAR Cup Series Championships, but that he was developing Stewart-Haas Racing, but even I didn’t think he was going to have this type of success so early.

Tony Stewart is one of my favorite drivers, he is very outspoken, but the difference between him and several others drivers that are outspoken is, he can back it up on the racetrack and for 2009 Jimmie Johnson better watch out, there a new contender for the Cup Championship this year, Stewart is first in the points, have three wins in 2009, one coming in the NASCAR All-Star race at Charlotte in amazing fashion, his first career victory as an owner/driver at Pocono after going to a backup car and a victory two weeks ago in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, of course that was after an incident on the last lap with Kyle Busch, which Stewart did nothing wrong in, not to mention a lot of top 5 finishes as well.

Not to be out down, the other half of Stewart-Haas Racing Ryan Newman started out with troubles, but has rebounded nicely where he finds himself 7th in points with several good runs and a contender week in and week out for victories.

Unfortunately you have the teams that is some ways are struggles and point blank has to be Richard Childress Racing and most of that has to be due to just plain bad luck. It would be better if they had no luck at all then this. Jeff Burton runs well in most races, but several times this season has just gotten caught up in someone else’s mess and has ended up with a wrecked racecar. And despite a crew swap, both Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears continue to experience trouble. However not all is lost on RCR, they not only continue to improve, but Clint Bowyer has been there in several races this season and sits just outside the top 12 in points and still has time to get into the chase.

Roush-Fenway Racing, this is not where I expected them to be at all for this five team operation. One year ago, Carl Edwards had three victories on the season so far and higher in points. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle both find themselves as well not where they were last season, but Kenseth does have two victories so far in 2009, the Daytona 500 and the California race the next weekend, but all three drivers are in the top 12 right now. However Jamie McMurray and David Ragan both are struggling, half the time I don’t even see them on television, unless it’s a through the field rundown.

For a raceteam that needs to loss a team at the end of the season, it will be either Ragan or McMurray, partly due contracts ending.

Finally Red Bull Racing, poles are great to have, starting position means a lot, but you have to back it up on the racetrack and for Brian Vickers, you have to back it up with results and there is none. The same can be said for Scott Speed, he has failed to qualify a few times, of course he has driven Joe Nemechek in a few of those races, but just struggles during some races, but improves at the same time.

What a list, but I have to highlight a few surprises after 19 races that didn’t show up above, first David Reutimann and his teammate Marcos Ambrose. Both drivers continue to impress on the track, Reutimann picked up his first victory in a rain-shortened Monday running of the Coca-Cola 600 and is 14th in points. Ambrose is right there every week, especially with a third place finish at Sonoma, 7-top 11 finish in 2009, that’s improving in only his first full-time season in the Cup Series.

When I look at the first 19 races of 2009, I see a lot of contenders and surprises. Double file restarts are amazing to watch, the racing is good at most tracks, drivers are driving their guts out every time they strap in, however there is one misconception, I have to say that while victories are the thing that everyone wants, we should be not only noticing, but measuring driver success by not only top 5, and top 10 finishes but also those drivers who each week races and finishing in the top 20.

A top 20 finish in the Cup Series is hard to get and drivers should be recognized for it.