1/9 of the way through: Reviewing the Top-10
Photo by Ben Palmer/TheRacingExperts.com
Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano lead the field to the green in Phoenix. Both cars currently sit well inside the top-10 in points.
By Brandon Caldwell
March 21, 2014
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
1: Brad Keselowski - #2 Miller Lite/WURTH/Alliance Truck Parts Ford Team Penske
The 2012 Series champion is off to a hot start in 2014. He started the season competing for the win in the Daytona 500, and got shuffled out right before the final lap. He ended up 3rd.
After sitting on the pole in Phoenix he finished third, followed by his win in Las Vegas, and he was running up front at Bristol before getting in the back of Jamie McMurray and having to settle for a 14th place finish.
Brad has made himself an early contender for this championship. He’s proven he can run up front and win at the intermediates. Which is the most important, since that’s where most of the races are ran at.
After missing the chase in 2013, Brad Keselowski and Team Penske are showing that they’ve returned to form in 2014. This could very well be the best team in NASCAR right now. They’ve got the driver, the team, and they’re fast. Brad could easily win at California this week.
2.) Dale Earnhardt, Jr- #88 National Guard Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has put the naysayers to bed so far in 2014. A win in the season-opening Daytona 500 was the start of things to come. Back-to-back second place finishes have shown that Dale, Jr hasn’t been fazed by his crew chief Steve Latarte leaving at the end of the season- so far.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr has lived up to the hype in 2014, after mechanical problems at Bristol knocked him out of the lead in the point standings.
Jr needs to keep this up all season. There have been times in his career before, where he’s started strong and faded.
Last season, Jr also started strong, and faded as the year went on. Dale lost the points lead after Martinsville, and never regained it for the rest of the season.
Jr needs to keep this going into the summer months, and not let the long draining NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season take a toll on him. He also needs to keep his mind off of Latarte leaving at the end of the season.
It’s all between the ears for Junior. He’s got the equipment, the people and the opportunity. If he keeps the right frame of mind, he could win his first career championship at the age of 40.
3.) Carl Edwards- #99 Fastenal Ford Roush Fenway Racing
“Concrete” Carl proved to be just that at Bristol on Sunday. After struggling in the early part of the season, Edwards, and the rest of Ford Racing had a strong showing on Sunday at Bristol.
Carl went on to victory lane after a smart pit call by crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, to keep him out and take the lead. It enabled Carl to get the victory.
Even with a strong showing at Bristol, Edwards and Ford racing, other than the Penske cars, need to run better overall.
Their performance early in the season still needs to catch up to the others. If they do, Carl’s a sleeper for this championship, especially now that he’s locked into the Chase. If he can use the rest of the regular season and get one more win, he’ll be in good position once the chase starts.
However, not all is peachy at the 99 team. Carl is in the final year of his contract at Roush Fenway Racing. If negotiations don’t go well, and he is leaving the team after 2014, his focus on this season could be clouded, and that would end his championship hopes.
4.) Jeff Gordon- #24 AARP-Drive to End Hunger Chevy Hendrick Motorsports
The four-time series champion is red hot, but needs to also be better. Jeff has 4 straight top-10 finishes to start the season, and of course is fourth in points.
But that doesn’t mean what it used to. Consistency isn’t going to win a championship in 2014. If this were 2000, Jeff would be golden. But right now, he needs to win races.
Since losing Steve Latarte to Dale, Jr, he and Alan Gustafson have six wins.
Jeff still has the talent and the ability to win a Sprint Cup Series championship. He’s got the equipment as well.
But does Jeff have the drive? Does he still want to win? He’s going to turn 43 years old in August. Jeff’s replacement in the 24 is now in the Nationwide Series, and it seems like the end is in sight.
So is that affecting Jeff Gordon and his approach to these races? He’s older, but not too old to win. The schedule isn’t that grueling for Jeff. He’s been around a long time but he started young. But you have to wonder if the on-time big superstar is in the twilight of his career. It’s a nice start for Jeff. Let’s see if he can win more before we consider him a contender in 2014.
5.) Jimmie Johnson- #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Hendrick Motorsports
Jimmie is 5th in points, and many people think this team isn’t where it once was.
That just shows you how good it has been for this team over the last decade.
Jimmie has been a lot like Jeff this season. Very consistent, but not contending for wins… yet!
This team will find it. When they do, watch out. Jimmie and Chad always work the system the best, and they seem to always figure out these changes the best too. Once Richmond is over, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will prove they’re contenders in 2014. No question about it.
6.) Joey Logano #22
Shell/Pennzoil Ford Team Penske
The points’ leader’s teammate, Joey Logano is next. Since he started his career, we’ve been waiting for “sliced bread” to show the form that made him the replacement for Tony Stewart.
This could be the season for Logano, but we’ve been hearing that for the last three seasons.
It’s hard to believe that Joey Logano is only 23 years old, that’s still younger than a lot of the rookies in the field. To put it in perspective, Michael Annett is 27 years old.
The way Team Penske qualifies, and with how important track position is in NASCAR today, this is the best Penske’s team has been, and Joey Logano’s best chance to really make things happen in his career.
Joey Logano has never really proven he can be a championship contender yet in his career. If he in fact is “sliced bread” this will be the year we will find out.
Logano needs to also stop worrying about things outside his control, and focus on making the number 22 Ford go as fast as possible. That will go a long way for Joey Logano in 2014.
7.) Denny Hamlin #11 FedEx Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing
Denny Hamlin and the rest of Joe Gibbs Racing have not been as stellar as they were in 2013.
Other than his 2nd place finish in Daytona, Joe Gibbs Racing has failed to record a top-5 finish.
It’s important for this team to be good on the intermediates, for a lot of reasons.
Gibbs is trying to court a driver like Carl Edwards for 2015, and running well will help them.
They also hold the banner for Toyota. JGR is better than Michael Waltrip Racing at this point. The team is better, the drivers are better, and it shows in their performance. They’re Toyota’s best chance to win their championships in the Cup level.
Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling right now on the Cup side, and Denny Hamlin needs to make sure he keeps a clear head. He’s shown frustration in the past of the way Joe Gibbs Racing has ran and the mechanical failures that has haunted them since their switch to Toyota.
Gibbs’ best chance at a championship lies in the hands of Matt Kenseth. I’m not sure if Hamlin has the same confidence with Darian Grubb as he had with Mike Ford. But he’s healthy now, and could return to the form that nearly won him the 2010 season. We’ll see. Gibbs needs to run better on intermediates before any of them are contenders, and improve their performance. Maybe Joe Gibbs Racing needs to focus more on the Cup Series, and not as much on the Nationwide Series.
8.) Matt Kenseth Dollar General/Husky-Home Depot Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing
After a career year at the age of 41, Matt Kenseth and his JGR teammates have not returned to form in 2014. Kenseth has only recorded two top-10 finishes and 0 top-5s throughout the four races.
Not all of the water ahead is murky though for Kenseth. He comes from a Roush Fenway Racing background, and ahead are some intermediates for Matt to turn his season around. He also gets around Martinsville pretty good as well. Kenseth has the coolest head amongst the 3 JGR drivers. If there’s one that can brush off early struggles, and return to form, it’s Kenseth. He’s got the goods, and he’s extremely talented. Watch out for that 20 as the season rolls on.
9.) Ryan Newman #31 Caterpillar/Quicken Loans Chevy Richard Childress Racing
Newman to me has had a much better season than his point’s position shows. He had a very fast car in the Daytona 500, but sat in the back and tried to avoid the wrecks, which in turn caused him to get involved in a wreck, and ruin his chances at a top-5 finish.
Back to back 7th place finishes showed that Newman can be consistent and has a fast racecar.
A questionable pit call at Bristol again got him in the back of the pack, will a bunch of ill handling racecars. Newman once again got caught up in someone’s mess.
For the first time in his career, Ryan Newman is the veteran of the group. He’s also a leader, and also, he’s with a team that was established before he got there. This is a good situation for Ryan Newman, and there’s no doubt he’ll get a win or two before the chase.
If he does, then he’s a contender. He’s so consistent, that even without a win, he may be around at the end of it. But there are a lot of good racecars that I’m not sure RCR could beat even with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus working for one of their teams.
10.) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. #17 Nationwide Insurance Ford
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr has had a decent 2014. After a top-10 run in the Daytona 500, he failed to impress at the next two tracks.
So he and his Roush Fenway Racing team went to work, and put together a brand new chassis for Bristol.
It paid off. Stenhouse competed for the win at Bristol, only losing to his teammate, Carl Edwards.
Ricky’s strong showing turned a lot of heads, and made a lot of people change their opinions about Roush Fenway Racing.
This team still needs to prove that they can run up front for the majority of the schedule the rest of the way.
The intermediate tracks have been Roush’s cup of tea throughout the last 15 years. But lately, the team has struggled, and their Ford counterparts, Team Penske have been far and away better than the Roush boys at those tracks.
If the new chassis is what contributed to the good runs at Bristol, and they can run better on the intermediates, then the Roush cars have a chance. If they can’t then this will be another long season for Robby Reiser and company. And that doesn’t bode well for Stenhouse’s championship run.