NSCS: Mid-Season Report Card
After 19 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, we have gotten past the half-way mark in this exciting 2014 season. Thus far, there have been 11 different winners.
Yeah. 11. How crazy is that?
Well, now we have officially entered the latter half of a season that will entail a new championship format. No one really knows what to expect, yet it will truly be as exciting as possible. We have seen some crazy races this year, and each one has provided controversy in some way, shape or form. With that being said, here are our mid-season report card grades:
Hendrick Motorsports: A/A- The team has been exceptional this season with a pair of wins by Dale Earnhardt Jr., three by Jimmie Johnson and one with Jeff Gordon. However, Kasey Kahne has had his fair share of struggles, which is why they are on the border of receiving an A.
Joe Gibbs Racing: B+/B Gibbs does have a pair of victories in 2014, but they don’t seem to be on track to have the success that they had last year. Although Kyle Busch is eighth in points, he has just eight top-10s. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin has seven. Kenseth is still the highest-ranked driver in the top Toyota organization after finishing second to Johnson in 2013, but qualifying has become a problem for the entire team and has truly put them behind come race day. However, they always rebound rather nicely.
Team Penske: A Penske has rebounded nicely after missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Brad Keselowski last season. Winning two of the past three races, the team’s stock has sky rocketed. Keselowski currently sits third in points, but more importantly – he has led more laps half-way through 2014 than he has in any one season throughout his career (previous high was 735 in 2012). Joey Logano has also been hot this year as he is inside of the top-10 in points with a pair of victories. Like Keselowski, Logano has already lead more laps this year than any other season in his young career.
Roush Fenway Racing: C+ Besides a pair of victories from Carl Edwards, not much has gone right for this team. It is well known by now that they just haven’t adjusted to the new rules package very well, but they are slowly moving into the right direction. The intermediate tracks have plagued all three of their drivers this year, and the race at Michigan was probably the worst you will ever see out of this organization. As time moves forward, judgment day is coming on whether or not Edwards will stay at RFR. Once that is out of the clear, maybe, just maybe – the other two drivers in the camp will have more of a focus on contending for wins than ever before.
Richard Petty Motorsports: C+ RPM has had a roller coaster season. Rumors have swirled around the garage on whether or not Marcos Ambrose will return to the team next year. However, he might not considering he has struggled mightily this year. He has just four top-10s this year and sits 20th in points with an average finish worse than 18th. Meanwhile, with Aric Almirola’s Daytona win, the team does have some positives. Almirola has run strong on the intermediate tracks this year, and could be a contender for a top-10 spot in points.
Richard Childress Racing: B RCR has run well this year, but not well enough. They have been a model for consistency as they are seldom outside of the top-15. Ryan Newman has begun to run better with RCR, but hasn’t been in contention for race wins. Paul Menard has been the organization’s best driver with nine top-10s already this season, and is currently in position to make the Chase as he is 11th in points. Austin Dillon has had an up and down year, but he is still developing at NASCAR’s top level. This team has a great deal of potential after having a quiet, yet steady first half to the year.
Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates: B- Ganassi’s team has made incredibly large strides this year. The addition of Keith Rodden as Jamie McMurray’s crew chief was exactly what this Chevrolet team needed. McMurray is 21st in points, but his results don’t show how strong he has been in 2014. When he hasn’t been involved in an accident or had mechanical issues, there has not been a single race where the No. 1 car has finished worse than 17th. Kyle Larson is on pace to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for this team, but he will need to stay at his current pace after a third-place finish at Loudon. He showed weaknesses over the past few weeks, and he can’t have that as he sits 14th in points, right near Dillon.
Stewart Haas Racing: B+/B If this team wouldn’t have such bad luck, they would easily have an A. Kevin Harvick has been one of, if not the quickest car on a weekly basis. Although he has the speed to contend for wins, Harvick’s results don’t show that, along with his teammates. Kurt Busch currently sits 25th in points with a win. Fortunately for him, he hasn’t finished worse than 18th since Dover – enabling him to slowly work his way back up in points after struggling in his first two-three months with the team. Tony Stewart has been a model of inconsistency. He is 19th in points, but has shown moments of brilliance such as at Pocono in June. The entire team needs to become more consistent, and they have the pieces to do so.
Michael Waltrip Racing: B- MWR is lacking speed this season. Brian Vickers has adjusted nicely as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota, but the team just doesn’t have the speed to contend for wins. Vickers and Clint Bowyer have each run inside of the top-15 on a weekly basis, and they have more than five top-10s each, yet they just haven’t been able to seal the deal. The team isn’t horrific by any means necessary. However, after shrinking down from three to two full-time cars this year, MWR hasn’t done as well as they believed. If they can turn the corner just a drop, both of their vehicles should make the Chase.
Furniture Row Racing: C Martin Truex Jr. has struggled in his first year with this team. They have had some really strong runs, and they are slowly leaning in the right direction. The biggest problem for the No. 78 team has been sealing the deal. Once they can do that, they will have more than just three top-10s in 19 races.
JTG Daugherty Racing: C+ Since the team has an alliance with RCR, their expectations have been raised. A.J. Allmendinger has done well for this team. However, they were on an eight race drought in which they couldn’t finish in side of the top-20. Sitting 25th in points with Ku. Busch, Allmendinger has some work to do. With Watkins Glen coming up, that could be the No. 47 team’s only shot to make the Chase.
HScott Motorsports: C-/D+ Since Harry Scott Jr. bought this team, there have been some growing pains. The short tracks have always been Justin Allgaier’s strong suit, but this year – that is about their only chance to run inside of the top-10. His best track in the Nationwide Series was Chicagoland, and he might have a top-10 finish there if the team can stay on the lead lap – something they have done just five times this season.
Front Row Motorsports: C- As expected, this team has struggled a lot with the new rules package. However, the pole at Daytona for David Gilliland marked the first in the team’s history – showing signs that they aren’t too far behind on the plate tracks. Moreover, the company just needs to finish races considering both drivers are outside of the top-30 in points.
Germain Racing: C Casey Mears has done a good job growing with this team. When they don’t have trouble, the No. 13 car is nearly always inside of the top-25. They are exactly where they were at this point last year, but they have more promise with the RCR alliance just like JTG.
Tommy Baldwin Racing: C- TBR has struggled this year. Reed Sorenson is running his first full season in the Cup Series since 2009, and he is 35th in points. He’s been plagued by mechanical issues all year, and when he hasn’t – the No. 36 car is running outside of the top-30. Meanwhile, Michael Annett is 30th in points. Annett has potential to run inside of the top-25 on a weekly basis, and he might be able to do just that in the second half of the year. However, with a few top-20 finishes, Annett is the only thing that has saved this team from getting a grade in the D range.
Phil Parsons Racing: C/C- Even though the team missed Phoenix, they have done a lot better than anyone would have thought coming into this year. Going from a team that primarily start and parks to running every week is extremely difficult, and they have done a good job at adjusting to the ups and downs of racing all the time. A lot of people took notice to Josh Wise at Bristol when he just refused to go a lap down, and ever since – the team’s popularity has sky rocketed with the Reddit/Dogecoin deal. However, they still need a lot of sponsorship if they want to be better than a team that barely enters the top-30 on a weekly basis.
BK Racing: C-/D+ Cole Whitt has been a leader for this team since he moved over from Swan Racing – finishing inside of the top-30 in nine of the last 11 events. However, Ryan Truex has missed three races, and his best finish this year is 30th. His results have been extremely rough, but there might be light at the end of the tunnel for him as the team looks to regroup with an off weekend. Alex Bowman, another rookie driver for the team, has done slightly better than Truex. He has made every race, and he has been able to run inside of the top-30 every now and then.
Go FAS Racing: D The team has done well at the plate tracks with Terry Labonte. However, everything else has been a struggle. Travis Kvapil is their primary driver, and he has run inside of the top-30 just once in a dozen races this year. They have a few chances to do decent, including Watkins Glen with Boris Said and Talladega in October with Labonte, but everything else depends on sponsorship dollars.
Circle Sport Racing/Hillman Racing: D+ Landon Cassill has done well for the team in the No. 40 car. They have had their struggles, but they have seven finishes inside of the top-30. However, since Kansas – their best finish was 31st at Daytona. The team’s second car, the No. 33, has been switching back and forth with different drivers. It has run a lot worse than the No. 40 car, and it shows.
During Sunday afternoon’s running of the Camping World RV Sales 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, only 43 cars were entered. The sport nearly had a short field for the second time over the course of three events, but BK Racing entered a fourth car with Mike Bliss behind the wheel. However, there were multiple small teams on track that put together last minute deals because funding had arisen.
Morgan Shepherd, 72, broke his own record for being the oldest driver to start his engine in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event when the green flag waved at Loudon. Shepherd was running his second contest in 2014 after starting and parking the Joe Nemechek owned No. 87 Toyota at Phoenix.
At Phoenix, he raced even while qualifying multiple seconds off the pace. Meanwhile, Landon Cassill and Josh Wise, two drivers scheduled to run the entire race, missed the event because Shepherd’s car had more owner points from the 2013 season. To this point, Shepherd’s start and park effort is one of a handful to do so throughout the 19 races this year.
Then, the real controversy erupted.
While racing more than a dozen laps down, considerably off the pace, Shepherd got into Joey Logano – who was racing in the second position at the time. Shepherd was already marked another lap down, and running times more than a second slower than the race leaders. However, he was racing above the minimum speed.
“I got taken out by the slowest car out there. You would think there would be some courtesy to the leaders. We were in second place. He gets out of the way on the straightaway and then goes into the corner and slides right up into the lane I was in,” Logano said after the wreck. “I can’t get too mad at ourselves over this. It is just dumb that it happened. I feel like that should be stuff that shouldn’t happen at this level of racing.”
Logano has two wins this year for Team Penske and even after the accident – he sits inside of the top-10 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. Meanwhile, Shepherd is not racing full-time, nor has he done so in NASCAR’s top-tier division since 1996.
Although Shepherd is a well-known driver, his age might be becoming a factor. Although the incident had nothing to do with talent, Shepherd could have run the higher groove and there would have been no harm to anyone. However, his slow No. 33 Chevrolet for Circle Sport Racing was leisurely crawling around the speedway on the low groove – a spot where cars get extremely loose. And Shepherd was defended by several drivers – including Kyle Busch.
“It seemed like he had a hard time holding the bottom of the racetrack a little bit, but that's sometimes to be expected. It's so flat down there. But there were other lap(ped) cars that were just rolling around on the top and not getting into anybody's way really,” Busch said.
Shepherd has not finished on the lead lap of a NASCAR-sanctioned race since running 26th at Homestead in 2010. If he had the equipment to run better, Shepherd might have been able to put up some competitive times, but that clearly wasn’t the case. He also attempted the Daytona 500 this year in conjunction with BK Racing, but was extremely off the pace during the Budweiser Duel qualifying event.
“It’s not like Joey hadn’t never had a problem and he’s a lot younger than me. It’s an accident. Those things happen. It could happen to anybody. It could happen with any competitor,” Shepherd said after the race.
But since he was running faster than the minimum speed, NASCAR officials did not penalize him. NASCAR Vice President of Competition, Robin Pemberton, stated that there was nothing physically or mentally preventing the 72-year-old from being approved to race. As long as a driver passes all of the pre-requisites, there is no reason why a driver shouldn’t be able to race, according to Pemberton.
There is no word if Shepherd will return to the seat for Circle Sport Racing, or any other organization this year. It is expected that he might run a limited amount of races for his own team in the Nationwide Series, but that depends on sponsorship.
Michael Waltrip Racing Looking to Get Back to Victory Lane
It has been a year since a Michael Waltrip Racing car has won a race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Of course, there was the entire “spingate” ordeal, which dismissed NAPA from one of the top Toyota teams in the sport. Howver, MWR has rebounded with two full-time cars this year, and a partnership with Identity Ventures Racing in a third vehicle.
Since Brian Vickers won at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway at this time last season, the organization hasn’t scored a victory. It is not due to a lack of effort, however, as MWR drivers, Clint Bowyer and Vickers, sit 12th and 16th in the standings, respectively. With the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format in play, it is go time for MWR, and they have started to do just that.
Vickers is coming off of a runner-up finish at Daytona after a stretch of horrific luck spanning from Pocono through Kentucky. Bowyer has been the opposite. Starting out the year rather slowly, the Kansas-native has four top-10s over the past six races – moving up from 17th in points since then.
Even with luck on their side, is MWR going to be contending for race wins? What about the Sprint Cup Series title?
Well, even while their drivers have combined to lead 74 laps this season, they haven’t been in play late in events. The team has had trouble adjusting to the new rules package – similar to Roush Fenway Racing, but not as severe.
If there is any track that MWR needs to return to, it is certainly New Hampshire. The organization will be fielding Jeff Burton in that third car this weekend. Burton, 47, is making his second start in the Cup Series this year, and it could be his last pending on sponsorship. Brett Moffitt made his first pair of Sprint Cup Series starts in the No. 66 Toyota this year, and impressed the MWR folks enough to sign a deal for next season. It appears Moffitt will run a handful of races later this season – possibly running a full year in 2015.
At New Hampshire, Bowyer has a pair of wins back when he was racing for Richard Childress Racing. Besides that, he has two top-four finishes with MWR at the 1-mile track, but struggled during both races at the speedway last season. Loudon is one of Burton’s best tracks. He has four victories in 38 starts at the track, and he nearly won both races there in 2013. Before joining MWR, Vickers wasn’t exceptionally great at New Hampshire – recording two top-fives in his first 13 starts at the speedway. Since then, he has three straight top-10 finishes.
During Friday’s first practice, Bowyer and Vickers were each inside of the top-10 as they look to seal the deal for MWR’s first win in 2014.
In a career that is coming to a close, Terry Labonte doesn’t have many chances to prove he’s still a great racecar driver. However, Labonte avoided all of the chaos at the Daytona International Speedway on Sunday to finish 11th while racing for Go FAS Racing.
Go FAS Racing is an underfunded team which has used multiple drivers this season. Labonte, 57, has raced for Go FAS Racing since 2011 – primarily at the restrictor plate tracks. Since the team owned by Frank Stoddard, a former crew chief for Roush Fenway Racing and Bill Davis Racing, has an average finish worse than 30th since they opened their doors during the 2011 campaign, having Labonte behind the wheel gives them the confidence that they need.
Although he has never finished inside of the top-10 with the team, it is due to being highly conservative during the plate races. Labonte has seldom been seen racing in the midst of the ‘pack’ during the events he races for the organization because they simply can’t afford to get caught up in the ‘big one.’ Sunday’s result was his seventh top-20 finish for Go FAS Racing in 19 starts. It might not seem like a great result, but for a small team – finishing inside of the top-20 is like a victory.
However, next year, the team will need to find a new driver for the four restrictor plate races.
Well, after competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for what is now 37 consecutive seasons in some way, shape or form – Labonte is putting an end to his career. Making just four starts this year - Labonte has taken it easy ever since ending his full-time career in 2004. Since then, he has raced on a part-time basis for Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Petty Enterprises and a few smaller organizations for one-off starts.
“I’ve been dragging this retirement out for about seven years. I told him I really mean it this time,” Labonte said at Daytona to MRN.
Now, Labonte is set to make his final start at the Talladega Superspeedway in October. It is going to be an emotional one for the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, but if he can finish his career with a solid finish, the team’s credibility might just grow a drop entering 2015.
Labonte will take the green flag for the 890th and final time at the Talladega Superspeedway. There are only two drivers that have made more starts in NASCAR history – Richard Petty (1185 starts) and Ricky Rudd (906). Labonte has 22 wins, 182 top-fives, 361 top-10s along with 27 poles in his historic career.
The No. 43 is back in Victory Lane. It is the first time the legendary car number made famous by Richard Petty has won its first race since 1999 at the Martinsville Speedway, and it did so in an untraditional way.
Aric Almirola drove his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford to the front of the pack after the Coke Zero 400 was postponed to Sunday morning after being originally scheduled for Saturday evening. As the rain came, Almirola held off the competition in one of the wildest races of the year. The rain was on and off during Sunday’s event, but it did not hold off long enough as NASCAR opted to end the race after having multiple red flags.
This is Almirola’s first career victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 125 starts. RPM has won their first event since Marcos Ambrose scored the victory at Watkins Glen in 2012. The team has not had a driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup since 2009 with Kasey Kahne, and now it appears Almirola will be the first one since for RPM.
Brian Vickers came home in the runner-up position for Michael Waltrip Racing. Entering Daytona, his best finish of the year was fourth (Texas and Talladega). Austin Dillon scored his first career top-five finish as he ended the rainy day in the fifth position. Michael McDowell earned his best career finish as he ended the Coke Zero 400 in seventh. Terry Labonte finished 11th in his final race at the Daytona International Speedway. Alex Bowman earned a career-best finish of 13th while racing for BK Racing.
While approaching the competition caution on Lap 20, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the second car on the high line when he got loose at the exit of Turn 4. Jeff Gordon tried to avoid him, but in doing so – got into Tony Stewart, causing the big one. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, A.J. Allmendinger received the most damage in the wreck, but other drivers also had minor bruises to their vehicles. Johnson recorded his first DNF since blowing an engine at Michigan in August of 2013, and it is the first time he is out of a race for an accident for the first time since Atlanta in September of 2012.
“We had the outside lane working there and it seemed like some of the guys were struggling on the bottom and the middle and we got a little loose on the top. I save it and everything was good and then all of a sudden we got hit in the left rear. I am not real sure what happened,” Stenhouse Jr. said after the accident.
On Lap 97, Kasey Kahne got loose on the backstretch after Greg Biffle got into him – causing mayhem entering Turn 3. Kyle Busch flipped during the wreck, and landed on his roof. The red flag was displayed for approximately five minutes to clear up the wreck which included 26 cars.
“David Ragan gave me a big push and then Kasey (Kahne) got up and went to the middle and ran into the back of the 13 car and slowed way up and I hit the back of the 5. We weren’t lined up. He moved down for some reason when he hit the 13 or something. It was just a chain reaction,” Biffle said.
“I don’t know what happened. From where I was at all heck broke loose all at once and tore up a bunch of good race cars. I am proud of our guys. Our Love’s Travel Shop Ford was fast all day and sometimes that stuff just happens and this time we were in the middle of it,” pole sitter, Gilliland said after leading five laps on Sunday.
After leading 11 laps in the race, Jamie McMurray was also involved in the accident. McMurray said he saw what was happening in front of him, but there was just not enough time for him to react. His No. 1 Chevrolet went airborne after getting hit in the rear-end on the backstretch.