Grading Sprint Cup Series Teams after the First Off-Weekend

I know, not being able to watch a race this past Sunday, coupled with the fact that the Spartans weren’t playing in the NCAA Tournament, was pretty rough. Let’s face it, it was brutal.

To get you through this tough time, I’ll be looking at each major organization in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and analyzing how each driver within the team has done thus far, five races into the 2016 season. It’s not a race recap, but it’ll have to do until Martinsville this weekend.

Joe Gibbs Racing:

Carl Edwards (7.4 average finish), Kyle Busch (7.8 avg finish), Denny Hamlin (8.4 avg finish) and Matt Kenseth (19.2 avg finish) make up the powerhouse that is JGR. Coming off the best second half of a season we have ever seen in 2015, capped off by a Kyle Busch championship, they picked up right where they left off, as Hamlin found victory lane in the Daytona 500 by 0.01 seconds to start JGR’s season with a bang. And after some struggles at Atlanta and Las Vegas, he found his groove in the remaining two races in the West Coast swing. Busch has finished in the top five in every race but the last one at Fontana (due to a tire issue). Edwards has constantly been in contention for wins, missing out on one at Phoenix by a nose. But Kenseth has been somewhat of an outlier thus far. With only one top ten finish, he hasn’t performed to his potential. But those stats can be somewhat misleading. If we think back to Daytona, he was leading with two turns to go, and ended up finishing 14th. At Atlanta, he was winning the race, but a miscommunication with his crew gave him a 19th place finish. I have no doubt Kenseth will win a race soon, and JGR will be 4-for-4 in their cars making the Chase.

Grade: A-

Hendrick Motorsports:

Jimmie Johnson (6.4 avg finish), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12.4 avg finish), Chase Elliott (19.4 avg finish) and Kasey Kahne (19.2 avg finish) make up the other powerhouse in the NASCAR garage that is HMS. Johnson has already punched his ticket to the Chase by virtue of his wins at Atlanta and Fontana. Junebug will find victory lane soon, as he has done the past two seasons in his No. 88 Chevrolet. Having the support of being the sport’s most popular driver for 15+ years running doesn’t hurt either. Rookie of the Year contender Chase Elliott has been dazzling veterans as well. We all knew he was going to be something special – just not this soon. He started his full-time Cup career by winning the pole for the Great American Race. Although he crashed early at Daytona, he followed that up with a top ten at Atlanta and a solid run at Las Vegas before another late-race wreck derailed his top ten run. I am on record saying Ryan Blaney would win the 2016 ROY award, and I’m sticking to that. But Elliott is sure running well, and he is on the cusp of entering victory lane for the first time in his NSCS career. But Kahne is the outcast at HMS so far. After the worst season in his career in 2015, 2016 hasn’t been any better. One DNF, zero top tens and drama on the track have been the story of the No. 5’s season. And with speculation of Rick Hendrick not re-signing Kahne, which would make him a free agent, as well as a possible crew chief change, it doesn’t seem like brighter pastures are ahead for Kasey Kahne’s season and career at Hendrick Motorsports.

Grade: B+

Stewart-Haas Racing:

A more proper name for this team would be “Harvick-Busch Racing”, as Kevin and Kurt have been carrying the banner for SHR for the better part of two seasons. Harvick has been nothing short of spectacular so far in 2016 (avg finish of 4.0), picking up where he, Rodney Childers and the No. 4 team left off in 2015. He hasn’t finished outside the top ten all season and has already finished in the top five three times (with one second place finish). His Chase ticket has also already been punched thanks to his dramatic finish and win at Phoenix International Raceway three weekends ago. Kurt Busch (avg finish of 11.8) has been solid as well, finishing in the top ten four times already. As for Danica Patrick, she has an average finish of 26.6, and hasn’t scored a top ten finish yet. She was recently fined $20,000 for walking onto the track after her crash at Auto Club Speedway, and that is the most noteworthy thing she has done this season. That goes to show you how poor her performance has been, and it shows no signs of improving. Tony Stewart has an average finish of 0.0. How is that possible? Oh yeah, because he’s yet to strap into the car this season due to his well-documented injury sustained in February. There is no timetable for his return, but he is getting better every day. Brian Vickers (avg finish of 25.0) and Ty Dillon have filled in for Smoke thus far, and it seems as if both drivers will substitute until further notice in the No. 14 car for SHR.

Grade: B+

Team Penske:

The two-car brigade headed by “The Captain”, Roger Penske, is small organization by today’ NASCAR standards, but has two of the best drivers in the sport in Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Logano (avg finish of 8.4) and Keselowski (avg finish of 13.6) have totaled six top ten finishes and one win between them. The highlight of Team Penske’s season thus far came in Sin City, as the 2012 champion passed the 2015 champion, Kyle Busch, with seven laps remaining to win the Kobalt 400. There isn’t much else to say about this team, other than that they’ve been rock solid ever since the two got out the kinks of switching to Ford a few years back. I expect Logano to win many races before the Chase begins, and both drivers should go relatively far in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Grade: A

Roush Fenway Racing:

It’s no secret that that RFR has been lacking speed the past couple years across the board. With no cars qualifying for the playoffs the past two seasons, this organization has been behind by a large margin. Greg Biffle (avg finish of 25.0), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (avg finish of 17.2) and Trevor Bayne (avg finish of 22.0) have improved a slim margin so far in 2016, but they have yet to consistently run inside the top five and reach their ultimate goal, to compete for wins and championships. Until they do that, and until Stenhouse and Bayne live up to the potential and hype, they’ll be lacking across the board, as they have the past couple seasons.

Grade: C

Chip Ganassi Racing:

Waiting has been the theme of this team, as we have been waiting for Jamie McMurray to break through and win when it counts to advance in the Chase. More notably, we have been waiting for Kyle Larson to break through and find victory lane in the Cup series. McMurray has an average finish of 16.0 this season, and Larson has an average finish of 23.6. The latter of the two has been much more hyped, but also much more disappointing. After a couple crashes so far this season, it looks like Larson’s sophomore slump has carried over to his third season. Most young drivers start hitting their stride in season three – but Larson has yet to do so. Whether it’s the equipment he’s in or a mindset, Larson hasn’t been performing up to his potential so far in 2016. If he wants to make the Chase, that needs to change fast.

Grade: C-

Richard Childress Racing:

Speaking of hitting their stride in their third season, Austin Dillon would be a dictionary definition for that statement, as he is carrying the banner for RCR. Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, is averaging a finish of 11.6 with three top tens and one pole. His teammates Paul Menard (avg finish of 20.8) and Ryan Newman (avg finish of 20.2) have been behind the 8-ball just a tad, but have steadily improved their performances and finishes throughout 2016. Dillon is on track to qualify for the Chase, as he currently sits 10th in the point standings. However, his teammates are currently out. Newman, who was one point away from winning a championship in 2014, has fallen off the wagon in the big picture a little bit. As long as RCR keeps running up front, they’ll find victory lane sooner rather than later.

Grade: B-

Other Notables:

  • Martin Truex Jr., who races for Furniture Row Racing, a one-car organization, has been killing it this season, per usual. With an average finish of 13.2 (would have been better if Joey Logano didn’t nudge him into the wall at Fontana), the No. 78 has been on the cusp of victory lane – missing out on the Daytona 500 by a mere six inches.
  • Ryan Blaney has been a pleasant surprise as well (avg finish of 19.0), as he is currently tied with ROY contender Chase Elliott for 16th in the points standings (Elliott holds the tiebreaker) running for the Wood Brothers, who are running a full-time schedule for the first time since back in 2012.
  • Aric Almirola has an average finish of 17.0 for Richard Petty Motorsports and is in prime position to snag a Chase spot.
  • Also in position for a Chase spot is AJ Allmendinger for JTG Daugherty Racing (avg finish of 17.4). He came home in eighth place this past weekend in Fontana, the best finish for the No. 47 bunch in over half a season. The Dinger’s one NSCS win came on a road course back in 2014, and he could very well get another win on one this summer.
  • Clint Bowyer (avg finish of 27.8) is having a dismal lame-duck season with HScott Motorsports. 2017 and his ride in the No. 14 car at Stewart-Haas Racing cannot some soon enough for the Emporia, KS native.

Well, there you have it. Analysis and grades for all the major teams – and then some – five races into the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. The NASCAR circuit returns to the East Coast this upcoming weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Sunday’s STP 500 will begin at 1:30 p.m. and can be seen on Fox Sports 1.