We are halfway through the 2009 Sprint Cup season, and while the cream is slowly rising to the top it has been quite an unpredictable journey so far. Which drivers have been pleasant surprises and which ones need to step it up in the remaining races this year? Larry McReynolds offers his midseason report cards for 15 top drivers.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports -- D
I don't see how I can give him a better grade, and this is a very generous one. Other than finishing second at Talladega and running somewhat up front in New Hampshire, the No. 88 team doesn't have many highlights this season.
Kasey Kahne, Richard Petty Motorsports -- C+
Richard Petty Motorsports also isn't the strongest organization, but Kahne has overcome that and won a race this year. He needs to get up front more though -- he only has one additional top five -- if he wants to make the Chase.
Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- C+
This is a very generous grade. Surprisingly for a driver this far up in the standings, Montoya doesn't have a top-five finish yet this year. But he's been solidly consistent that he's sitting in the top 12 in points right now. And let's face it, the Earnhardt Ganassi organization is not the strongest group in the garage -- it's only a two-car team, and teammate Martin Truex Jr. has had a dismal year.
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing -- C+
This outfit has five top fives and eight top 10s, but no wins. They have to fix that.
Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing -- B-
He hasn't reached Victory Lane yet, but a lot like his teammate Tony Stewart, Newman's working with a brand new race team and has had success. This year has been the tale of three tapes for Newman: They struggled in the beginning and had a lot of bad luck, then they got on a roll, but then they started dipping back down once June came. Newman and his team have to get their program back on the upswing.
Mark Martin, Hendrick Motorsports -- B-
He's sitting outside the crucial top 12 in points at the halfway point, but you don't win three races, claim three poles, and consistently beat guys half your age and not get a high mark. Let's face it, Martin has been the victim of a lot of bad luck this year. Just a little change in fate, and Martin is good enough where he could be in the top six in points.
Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing -- B-
You don't win the Daytona 500 and the following race a week later and not get a pretty high mark. But, he only has two other top fives and five other top 10s in the remaining 16 races, I'd say those two wins at the start of the year put him ahead of others who lead Kenseth in the points battle.
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing -- B
The strange thing about his season is that Busch has been the 'feast or famine' guy. He has three wins but only six top-10 finishes in 18 starts. Obviously, he had a top-five type of night at Daytona but he turned that into a 14th-place finish by trying to win the race instead of looking at the big picture. But that's Kyle Busch, and I respect his style.
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing -- B
Looks to be in solid shape to qualify for the title Chase, so now he and his team have to put it together for a win. They've been close a few times this year, but just like Edwards that's not enough.
Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing -- B
On the plus side, Edwards has already built up a one-race cushion for the Chase and he has finished on the lead lap in 16 of 18 races this year. But halfway through, the preseason favorite is still winless. As the team that won the most races in 2008, Edwards and the No. 99 crew have to find a way to get back to Victory Lane. As last year's Chase proved, consistency alone won't get you the title.
Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing -- A
Let's split Logano's year into semesters. The first semester he got a generous C- because he was slowly getting results despite his lack of experience, his young age and the amount of pressure he was under. Now in the second semester, which we'll say starts at Darlington when things seemed to start clicking for him, I'd have to give him an A+. Oh yeah, Logano's done something that none of the experienced Richard Childress Racing teams, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards or many other top stars has accomplished: He's won a race, regardless of the circumstances. He could very easily finish in the top 15 in points in his rookie year.
Kurt Busch, Penske Racing -- A
Has a win, has good finishes, just needs a little extra so he can compete with Stewart.
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports -- A
Like his teammate Gordon, Johnson also has double digit top-10s so far and he has built up more than a two-race advantage between himself and the first driver outside the top 12 - which will allow his team to play things differently if they choose to.
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports -- A
Any time you can be in double digits for top-10 finishes after just 18 races, you are on your game.
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing -- A++
When you look at all the statistics, Smoke leads the championship, top fives and top 10s categories and is tied for second for wins. Throw in his victory in the Sprint All-Star Race and you see why he is head and shoulders ahead of everybody in the class right now. Also, don't forget that he's had to drop to the rear of the field a few times this year and has come out of those races with impressive results too. All of that shows Stewart has the whole package right now.