Mid-Season Grades for Sprint Cup Drivers

This past weekend, the Sprint Cup Series was off for Father’s Day. However, the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series were in action at Iowa Speedway. William Byron wheeled his way to victory lane for the third time in nine races this season in the Speediatrics 200, and Sam Hornish Jr. took the checkered flag in the American Ethanol E15 250 in his first race in over 200 days. Two amazing stories, two amazing races. They’ll be recapped in Victory Lane.

Since there is no Sprint Cup recap to write this weekend, I figured I’d go ahead and grade the drivers that make up the premier form of North American motorsport.

I will be going team by team, driver by driver. I’ll analyze their finishes, overall performance as well as circumstances surrounding their results, and give them a final grade. So without further or due, let’s get to it.

Kyle Busch – Joe Gibbs Racing, No. 18 Toyota, Crew Chief: Adam Stevens

  • Three wins, nine top-five finishes, one pole,four DNF’s
  • Coming off his first career championship in 2015, Busch came roaring into 2016 season. He finished in the top five in his first four races (after winning a Can-Am Duel), and then won back-to-back races at Martinsville and Texas.
  • After finishing runner-up in two consecutive races, Busch found victory lane for a series leading third time at Kansas, a track that has gotten the best of him in his career.
  • His best finish has been 30th (discounting the All-Star Race, where he finished 10th) due to various part failures, accidents and bad runs.
  • Despite the string of bad finishes, his luck is bound to turn around.ith JGR equipment under him, that will make him faster, stronger, and more confident.
  • Next weekend is Sonoma, where he began his improbable run last season. Coming off a 40th place finish at Michigan (blown engine), I have no doubt he’ll contend at Sonoma.

o   OVERALL GRADE: A-

Carl Edwards – Joe Gibbs Racing, No. 19 Toyota, Crew Chief: Dave Rogers

Two wins, five top-five finishes, two poles, two DNF’s.

  • Edwards has been the most consistent driver at JGR, in my opinion. Although he doesn’t have as many wins as his aforementioned teammate,he has run better over the course of the 2016 season, and it paid off in back-to-back races (Bristol and Richmond).
  • He’s contended for wins on short, intermediate, and superspeedway tracks. That’s why I think he’s one of the few championship favorites thus far in 2016.

o   OVERALL GRADE: A

Denny Hamlin – Joe Gibbs Racing, No. 11 Toyota, Crew Chief: Mike Wheeler

  • One win, four top-five finishes, zero poles, three DNF’s
  • Hamlin’s 2016 season has been a roller coaster. From the highest of highs in winning the Daytona 500 by a nose, to the lows of lows of failing to finish the race three times
  • Contrary to Edwards, Hamlin, in my opinion, has been the least consistent of the JGR brigade. However, he has a Chase berth, and is running well because of JGR.

o   OVERALL GRADE: B-

Matt Kenseth – Joe Gibbs Racing, No. 20 Toyota, Crew Chief: Jason Ratcliffe

  • One win, two top-five finishes, zero poles, two DNF’s.
  • Kenseth’s season up to this point can be described accurately in one word: misfortune.
  • From his team not communicating to him that he was black flagged, leading to a stop and go penalty at Atlanta while they were leading, to losing the Daytona 500 to his teammate. The 2003 champion has run well, but doesn’t have results to show for it
  • However, he did grab the win at Dover, putting him into the Chase picture, and has been on par with Edwards pretty much all season long

o   OVERALL GRADE: A

Jimmie Johnson – Hendrick Motorsports, No. 48 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Chad Knaus

  • Two wins, six top-five finishes, zero poles, one DNF.
  • Johnson has, once again, been the class of HMS. Winning twice thus far this season at Atlanta and Fontana. Johnson has been running consistently inside the top-ten week to week.

o   OVERALL GRADE: A-

Chase Elliott – Hendrick Motorsports, No. 24 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson

  • Zero wins, Six top-fives, two poles, one DNF.
  • Although six-time champion Johnson has been the class of the organization, this rookie of the year contender is right behind him as he has impressed everyone in 2016.
  • I for one, expected him to run in the top-20 and maybe grab some top-five’s here and there. He has surpassed my expectations by a mile, and has been knocking on the door of victory lane on more than one occasion.
  • Being the son of a hall of famer in Bill Elliott, Chase has the talent. He has delivered.

o   OVERALL GRADE: A

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Hendrick Motorsports, No. 88 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Greg Ives

  • Zero wins, five top-five finishes, zero poles, four DNF’s.
  • Junebug hasn’t been great in 2016 – yet.
  • Despite what he called a “rough” month in May, he’s finished in second place a handful of times, and had a shot at the win at Pocono, along with his teammate Elliott.
  • In HMS equipment and a name like Earnhardt, it’s only a matter of time before he finds victory lane. I have no doubt that he’ll make the Chase comfortably.

o   OVERALL GRADE: B-

Kasey Kahne – Hendrick Motorsports, No. 5 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Keith Rodden

  • Zero wins, two top-five, zero poles, one DNF.
  • Will the driver of the No. 5 car please stand up? Please stand up? Please stand up?
  • What on earth has happened to Kasey Kahne? I bet he’s saying that to himself, too.
  • To be honest, the dude just doesn’t have it. When you’re being outrun on the race track by guys with a lesser budget and experience, something is wrong. Clearly, this is the case with Kahne.
  • It’s been this way for a couple seasons, and shows no signs of getting any better.

o   OVERALL GRADE: C-

Kevin Harvick – Stewart-Haas Racing, No. 4 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Rodney Childers

  • One win, Seven top-fives, zero poles, zero DNF’s.
  • Harvick (in my unbiased opinion, I swear on Kevin Harvick’s life) has been the best driver in NASCAR this season and is undoubtedly the championship favorite to this point.
  • His one win at Phoenix was thrilling, but he is also reverting back to shades of old. He’s already grabbed a handful of second place finishes, and his pit crew isn’t putting him in the best position to win – to say the least.
  • However, like I said, Harvick is Mr. Consistency and he’s bound to find victory lane at least a couple more times in the regular season.

o   OVERALL GRADE: A

Kurt Busch – Stewart-Haas Racing, No. 41 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Tony Gibson

  • One win, five top-five finishes, 2 poles, zero DNF’s.
  • Although he was in Baku, Azerbaijan for the European GP with team owner Gene Haas this weekend, Busch’s mind is on NASCAR, and it sure was when he won at Pocono.
  • That is his one win of the season. However, just like Harvick, Busch could have a couple more wins in his pocket. He’ll save them for the Chase, and take the top 10’s.

o   OVERALL GRADE: A-

Danica Patrick – Stewart-Haas Racing, No. 10 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Billy Scott

  • Zero wins, Zero top-five finishes, zero poles, 3 DNF’s.
  • I don’t think Patrick will ever win a NASCAR race. I don’t think she will ever come close. That’s not a knock to her. In fact, I would love to see her wind up in victory lane but just don’t see it happening. She is running in the same equipment as Harvick and Busch, yet is 20 spots behind them in the running order and is struggling to stay on the lead lap weekly.
  • This season hasn’t been any different than the past in her NASCAR career either. Her fans are some of the best in the sport, but her skillset just doesn’t match up.

o   OVERALL GRADE: D+

Tony Stewart – Stewart-Haas Racing, No. 14 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz

  • Zero wins, zero top- five finishes, zero poles, 1 DNF.
  • These numbers can be a bit misleading due to a couple factors:
    • 1). Smoke has only raced in half the events this season due to his recovery from his back injury suffered in the offseason.
    • 2). He is coming off his best result in over one year at Michigan after running in the top five all day and finishing just outside it in seventh,
  • The summer is when Smoke always heats up. And in his final season, I wouldn’t be the slightest surprised if he catches fire and sneaks in a win in his No. 14 car.

OVERALL GRADE: C+

Brad Keselowski – Team Penske, No. 2 Ford, Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe

  • Two wins, Six top five finishes, one pole, zero DNF’s.
  • Keselowski crossed the finish line first at Las Vegas and Talladega,this season to secure his playoff spot in the No. 2 Miller Lite Fusion for Team Penske.
  • He’s been on the same plateau as Harvick and Busch this season. Extremely consistent and a clear championship favorite. He’ll be a force to be reckoned with come November.
  • OVERALL GRADE: A

Joey Logano – Team Penske, No. 22 Ford, Crew Chief: Todd Gordon

  • One win, five top-five finishes, two poles, two DNF’s.
  • Before the season began, I predicted that the man once nicknamed “Sliced Bread” would win at least five races in the regular season. With less than 10 to go, and one win under his belt, that seems rather unlikely. However, Logano has been solid.
  • He has one points paying win at Michigan, as well as the All-Star Race victory.
  • He’s had the championship snatched from his grasp twice in two seasons: could 2016 be when Logano finally breaks through and wins his first career NSCS championship?
  • OVERALL GRADE: B

Kyle Larson – Chip Ganassi Racing, No. 42 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Chad Johnston

  • Zero wins, three top-five finishes, zero poles, two DNF’s.
  • If I had to pick one driver who has yet to win in the Cup Series that will the soonest, I’d pick Kyle Larson. He should’ve won at Dover and was oh so close in the All-Star Race
  • After a lackluster 2015, he’s come out of the gates in 2016 swinging and will win a race soon and be in the Chase. The question is: where and when will said win occur?
  • OVERALL GRADE: B+

Jamie McMurray – Chip Ganassi Racing, No. 1 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Matt McCall

  • Zero wins, One top-five finish, zero poles, zero DNF’s.
  • McMurray hasn’t made much noise lately. Besides his battle with Earnhardt Jr. at Dover a couple seasons back to advance to the second round of the Chase. McMurray has been quietly running in the top 15-20 week after week.
  • OVERALL GRADE: C-

Martin Truex Jr. – Furniture Row Racing, No. 78 Toyota, Crew Chief: Cole Pearn

  • One win, two top-five finishes, two poles, two DNF’s.
  • The Little Team That Could ain’t so little anymore. Affiliated with JGR, and with Truex Jr. already having a win, they’re for real.
  • However, the No. 78 team based out of Denver, is always against the odds. Yet they always defy said odds and have been an extremely tough team to beat in 2016.
  • OVERALL GRADE: A-

Ryan Blaney – Wood Brothers, No. 21 Ford, Crew Chief: Jeremy Bullins

  • Zero wins, one top-five finish, zero poles, one DNF.
  • Blaney was my pick to win Rookie of the Year honors at season’s beginning. He has run very well for a rookie, but just not as good as his counterpart Chase Elliott in the No. 24.
  • Driving for a Team Penske satellite team, Blaney’s No. 21 WBR team has consistently been running inside the top ten all season, and they show no signs of slowing down.
  • OVERALL GRADE: B

Austin Dillon – Richard Childress Racing, No. 3 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Slugger Labbe

  • Zero wins, three top-five finishes, one pole, one DNF.
  • Dillon has come out of his sophomore slump with a vengeance, as he looked as if he was going to win a race in the early West Coast swing in March. However, it was not meant to be there. However, Dillon’s No. 3 team, with Slugger Labbe as the leader, is close.
  • Dillon has had a couple “meltdowns” on the radio to his team, but was calmed down and re-focused by Labbe. RCR hasn’t been to victory lane since Kevin Harvick left at the end of 2014, but right now, Dillon has them as close as they’ve been since then.
  • OVERALL GRADE: B+

Ryan Newman – Richard Childress Racing, No. 31 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Luke Lambert

  • Zero wins, zero top-five finishes, zero poles, one DNF.
  • Newman’s career was highlighted by his runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick in the 2014 championship season, despite never winning a race. Since then, he hasn’t found victory lane, and hasn’t really been close to finding it. This season has been no different.
  • OVERALL GRADE: C-

Paul Menard – Richard Childress Racing, No. 27 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Justin Alexander

  • Zero wins, zero top fives, zero poles, three DNF’s.
  • Just like his teammate, Menard’s career has been punctuated and defined by one thing: his win in the Brickyard 400. He has shown glimpses of top 5 – and maybe even P1 – potential, but until they show some consistency, they won’t be anywhere close.
  • OVERALL GRADE: D+

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Roush Fenway Racing, No. 17 Ford, Crew Chief: Nick Sandler

  • Zero wins, one top-five finish, zero poles, one DNF.
  • The boyfriend of Danica Patrick has been steadily improving his progress in the NSCS since his Xfinity championship. However, he needs a little more.
  • OVERALL GRADE: C-

Greg Biffle – Roush Fenway Racing, No. 16 Ford, Crew Chief: Brian Pattie

  • Zero wins, Zero top-five finishes, zero poles, three DNF’s.
  • It’s no secret that Biffle’s best days are in the rearview mirror. However, he has shown promises of the old Greg Biffle at Roush. But not this season. It’s been dismal.
  • OVERALL GRADE: D-

Trevor Bayne – Roush Fenway Racing, No. 6 Ford, Crew Chief: Matt Puccia

  • Zero wins, one top-five finish, zero poles, zero DNF’s.
  • Sometimes it’s crazy to think that Trevor Bayne has won the Daytona 500, as he has been nothing but an unfortunate disappointment in his Sprint Cup career. Most recently, he has been running better, but making veterans mad along the way.
  • OVERALL GRADE: C-

Other Notable Drivers:

 

  • Clint Bowyer – HScott Motorsports, No. 15 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Steve Addington
  • Zero wins, zero top-five finishes, zero poles, one DNF.
  • Bowyer’s season was going to be a tough one, we all knew that. However, I don’t know if anybody knew how hard to watch it was going to be for Bowyer.
  • In all fairness, since running 35th weekly, the No. 15 has stepped up their game a little bit, getting two top 10’s this season. The equipment they have ain’t great.
  • OVERALL GRADE: D+

 

 

 

  • AJ Allmendinger – JTG Daugherty Racing, No. 47 Chevrolet, Crew Chief: Randall Burnett
  • Zero wins, one top-five finish, zero poles, one DNF.
  • Three top 10’s for the Dinger has been a good this season. However, if they want to make the Chase, they will more than likely need to win a race. They can do that at Sonoma this upcoming week, easily. But running top 15 weekly is definitely progress.
  • OVERALL GRADE: C-

 

 

  • Aric Almirola – Richard Petty Motorsports, No. 43 Ford, Crew Chief: Trent Owens
    • Zero wins, zero top-five finishes, zero poles, zero DNF’s.
    • Almirola’s team has been underachieving this season. Since their win at Daytona in the rain-shortened race in 2014, they haven’t made any noise. The RPM team as a whole hasn’t either. They’re a top 20 team for sure, but not a Chase capable team.
    • OVERALL GRADE: D-

Yes I know, that’s a lot of drivers. But you made to the finish line! Thanks for reading. Be on the lookout for this week’s episode of Victory Lane, and remember to rate, comment and subscribe on iTunes. I hope everybody enjoyed the off weekend, and see you in Sonoma!