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Race to the Chase midterm report cards

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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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Editor's note: At the halfway point of the Race to the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Larry McReynolds grades the top 15 drivers in the standings plus two other organizations.
Larry Mac's Race to the Chase Midterm Report Card
Points pos. Driver Grade
1. Jimmie Johnson A++
I've got to capitalize TEAM here and the adversity they fought through the first four races without crew chief Chad Knaus. They had two wins, a 2nd-place finish and led the points after all four of those races, including a Daytona 500 win. They've led the points all but two races this year, and the worst they've been is third in the standings. They've finished off of the lead lap only once at Bristol. It was the only blemish on their record this year, and it was attributed to a flat tire as the green flag was displayed. They've got three wins and a pole, and last Sunday's Dover race was a championship-caliber performance.
2. Matt Kenseth A+
The No. 17 team had a rough start to the season. They had a great car at Daytona, and they were very lucky to finish 15th, considering Kenseth's beating and banging with Tony Stewart. They've led a bunch of laps this season, and the only real strikes against them were Martinsville, where Kenseth got caught up in a wreck, and Richmond, where the rotor exploded and busted the oil tank. They've been pretty solid, and they're only 74 points out of the lead with two wins. I won't give them Johnson's grade, but they get a pretty darn good grade.
3. Mark Martin A
The No. 6 car has finished every race, and they are solid every week. Their only real problem was getting caught up in a wreck at Talladega, and they still got their car back out on the track. It was their only finish outside of the top 15 this year and first since Martinsville last October. They've got some pit-road issues. The missing lugnut at Dover wasn't the first time that's happened this season. They need to improve their pit stops, and they need to win a race. They've only won two point races in the last 2 1/2 years, at Dover two years ago and Kansas last year.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. B+
Going into this season, a big story was whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon would rebound and make the Chase. When 2005 ended, both drivers were in better shape, but I felt like the No. 24 team was a little more consistent and solid than the No. 8 team. The opposite has been true this year. According to NASCAR's new "In the Loop" stats, Earnhardt has only been off the lead lap 66 laps this year — the best among Nextel Cup drivers. Their one major problem was an engine failure at Talladega. They've obviously won a race, but they need to improve their qualifying just a little bit, which I'm sure nobody knows better than they do. He's been in the top 10 in points all year long except following Las Vegas when he fell back to 11th because he couldn't overcome a poor qualifying effort. If they can just keep finishing in the top 10, they don't have to win races. Over the last four races, they've had three top 10's, two top 5's and their worst finish was 11th. If they can just stay in that range and not fall back in the high teens and low 20s, they will make the Chase.
5. Tony Stewart A
The No. 20 team won at Martinsville, and he's tied with Greg Biffle for laps led this season. Biffle and Stewart looked unbeatable at California until they had engine failure. Stewart's other DNF was, of course, after his wreck at Charlotte. He finished 21st at Las Vegas, which was a little surprising, but other than that, he's got six top fives and seven top 10's.
  • TonyStewart.com
  • 6. Kasey Kahne A+
    How in the world can I give a race team that's won three races anything short of an A+? They've also got three poles, and he's been in the top 10 in points all year, except after Daytona when he finished 11th. They had a rough ride at Talladega, Richmond and Darlington when they went from 4th to 8th in points. Now they've moved back up to 6th. What a turnaround from last year when they were over 500 points out of the lead in 18th! Team director Kenny Francis was one of the best kept secrets until this season. Now he's one of the best pieces of artillery on pit road. Darrell Waltrip's description of Jamie McMurray's crew chief Bob Osborne rings true for Francis. You never know how they're feeling because they always sound the same, like a dial tone on the phone.
  • KaseyKahne.com
  • 7. Jeff Burton B+
    If I just looked at their last seven races, I would probably bump it up to an A or an A+ because they've only had one finish outside the top 10, a 15th at Richmond. But they need to improve their qualifying a little bit. They started off the season with four top-10 starts, including the pole for the Daytona 500, but they haven't had a top-10 start since qualifying 3rd at Atlanta. It's almost like their season has flip-flopped. They've got the racing down, not the qualifying. If you're going to have something down, racing is better than qualifying. They hit a little bit of a bump at Atlanta, Bristol and Martinsville, but they have picked it up now and a lot like the No. 9 team, they're probably one of the biggest turnaround stories of the year.
    8. Kevin Harvick B+
    Harvick's grade mirrors his teammate Burton's grade. They won a race at Phoenix, and they're just good and solid. This team worked through adversity for several weeks, not knowing if Harvick was going to re-sign or not. That uncertainty weighed on the race team until he announced he would be back. After leading 272 laps at Richmond, they gave away the win, but like Harvick told me, you know things are going well when your biggest complaint is finishing 3rd. If I gave Richard Childress Racing a grade, it would probably be an A to an A+. Rookie Clint Bowyer and the No. 07 team have had some great runs, and he's 16th in the point standings. The No. 9 team has been the turnaround team since the off-season, but the turnaround organization has been RCR. Last year at this time, they reminded me a lot of what we're seeing at Robert Yates Racing right now. RCR made a lot of improvements in a lot of little areas, which has paid off in the big picture.
    9. Jeff Gordon B-
    When we're giving out report cards, the box scores are the verdict. Nobody cares why it happened or how it happened, they just know where you are in the standings. The No. 24 team has two DNF's with an engine problem at Richmond and a broken wheel bearing at Charlotte. Who would have ever believed that we would be 13 races into 2006 and Gordon has no wins and no poles? He did sit on the outside of the front row at Daytona, but he only has four top-10 starts this year. And only one win in the last 40 races. When I look at the top 10, the No. 24 team is the one that can be replaced very easily if they don't get their act together. Help is on the way. Of the final 13 races before the start of the Chase, two of them are on road courses and one of them is a restrictor plate race, Daytona. He's always one of the favorites at those three race courses. But they've got to turn top 10's into top 5's and top 20's into top 10's if they want to stay in the thick of the Chase.
    10. Kyle Busch Performance: B / Conduct D-
    I'm going to give Busch two grades. For a performance grade, he's defying the law of the sophomore jinx, just nice and solid every week. He did have an accident at Charlotte that wasn't of his making, but the No. 5 team is consistent every week. We have to pinch ourselves periodically and remember that he's only 21 years old. I love to see a driver's emotions, but throwing a HANS device at Casey Mears at Lowe's Motor Speedway was totally uncalled for. How much will his 25-point penalty be worth in the Race to the Chase? We will have to wait 13 races to find out. If he misses the Chase by less than 25 points, it's hard to put a dollar value on it. If he makes the Chase, it's a moot point. Don't get me wrong, $50,000 is a lot of money to anybody, but we'll just have to wait and see how valuable points are.
    11. Denny Hamlin A
    As a rookie less than 100 points out of the top 10, it looks like Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford just keep getting stronger and stronger, especially with solid qualifying efforts lately. They finished 2nd at Richmond and have had four top-11 finishes in a row. One fear for a rookie driver would be that two of the next 13 races are road courses, but the last time Hamlin ran a road course, he was pretty darn impressive in Mexico, winning the Busch race. They haven't won a Cup point race, but they did win the Budweiser Shootout right out of the box. Our rookie class has been a pleasant surprise. If I graded the rookies as a group, I would probably give them an A+. It's got to be the most solid crop of first-year drivers in years. A rookie can make the Chase for the Nextel Cup, and Hamlin is the top candidate. I wouldn't be surprised to see one or two of them win a race or two before the year is over. Kyle Busch won two races in the second half last year so these first-years might come to life the second time around at these tracks.
    12. Greg Biffle A+
    Five races ago, Biffle lost an engine at Talladega, and it looked like his title hopes were over. But he finished 4th at Richmond and backed it up with a win at Darlington, a 7th at Charlotte and an 8th at Dover. Unless Biffle falls back into the luck zone that he was in during the first part of the year, he could finish near the top of the top 10 before the Chase starts. His qualifying is phenomenal with only two starts outside of the top 10. Of course, he got the Bud Pole at Richmond. He'll run well this week at Pocono, and he runs well at tracks like Michigan. He needs to work on his road course performance, but if he can come out of Sonoma and Watkins Glen with top-15 finishes, he'll be OK.
    13. Casey Mears C
    At the start of the year, it looked like the No. 42 team was going to be a huge surprise of 2006, but they've gone downhill since leaving Las Vegas with a 9th-place finish. The highlight of the last 10 races has been qualifying 3rd at Richmond. They had a good car at Charlotte, but it just got loose. The only reason the team is getting a C is they have no DNFs. They're just hanging in there. If they can turn top 20's into top 10's, they still could be in the hunt. But they've got to start having solid finishes now. He runs well at road courses, and one of his best races was a fourth-place finish at the Glen two years ago. Plus, Daytona is coming, and he did finish 2nd in the Daytona 500.
    14. Carl Edwards C+
    Edwards went through a crew chief change that wasn't to his liking, but now he's starting to show some spark because of it. He's still trying to get to Victory Lane. It looked like his Chase hopes were over after a wreck at Texas left him 22nd in points. Now he sits 14th, and like his Roush Racing teammate Biffle, he will make the Chase if he doesn't have any more wrecks like he did at Texas and Daytona or engine oil pump belt failures like he did at Darlington. Of the drivers not in the top 10 right now, I feel pretty confident about Biffle and Edwards making the Chase. The question is who are they going to replace?
    15. Jamie McMurray C
    One of the biggest turnarounds from the start of the season until now, McMurray had the same problem oil pump belt problem at Darlington as Edwardsd. Three out of the last five finishes with new crew chief Bob Osborne have been top 10s, and two of those have been top fives. If they can just keep nipping away at the lead in big chunks, don't rule him out of the Chase either.
    18./19. Penske Racing C-
    Roger Penske has had a driver in the Chase the first two years, he actually had two in it last year. Even though Busch won at Bristol and both teams have a pole, it's looking less and less like they're going to have a team in the Chase. I could probably give them the same grade as Robert Yates Racing, but I'll give them a better grade because of the poles and the win. Time isn't going to fix everything there. Newman has shown a little bit of spark lately, but after sitting on the pole at Dover, he struggled to run in the top 15.
    17./20. Robert Yates Racing F
    My heart breaks and bleeds for Robert and Doug Yates and that whole organization, including drivers Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler. You won't meet a finer and nicer group of people. Sadler's crew chief, Tommy Baldwin, is one of my best friends, and I love Jarrett's crew chief, Slugger Labbe, to death. They're working through a lot of things like Jarrett leaving at the end of the year. They fired their general manager. Labbe is about to serve the last race of a four-week suspension. It rips apart Doug and Robert to know that they have the same engines as Roush Racing which put five cars in the top 10 at Charlotte and four cars in the top 10 at Dover. What's the answer to RYR's problems? I don't have it. I'm sure a ton of people out there would like to tell you they have the answer, but like Richard Childress Racing last year, it's not one thing. It's a combination of a lot of little things, and somebody really has to wrap their arms around those problems and make a major move.


    Speed Mail Larry McReynolds

    FOX race analyst Larry McReynolds has more than 25 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, crew chief and broadcaster. He and his fellow Crew Chief Club members take you behind the wall at www.crewchiefclub.com.

    "How to Become a Winning Crew Chief" is on bookstore shelves, or you may order your own autographed copy from www.DWStore.com.

    Tagged: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart, Casey Mears, Dale Jarrett

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