Grading teams at the 2013 Sprint Cup season quarter mark
Six races into the 2013 NASCAR season, the sport is experiencing a renaissance. TV ratings have been up from last year for five of the six Sprint Cup events and attendance at the tracks has been surging as well. Now that we're basically one quarter of the way into the 26-race regular season, let's dole out some grades for the major teams.
If the Chase started right now, all four Hendrick drivers -- Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon -- would qualify. So far, Hendrick has won half of the events (Johnson has two wins; Kahne one) and its four drivers have compiled 10 top-five finishes. So, in other words, every other organization is chasing Hendrick now.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. The last time a new car was introduced, in 2007, the Hendrick duo of Johnson and Gordon finished first and second, respectively, in the final standings. Hendrick clearly adapts to major changes in the sport faster than any other organization, and that's been the case with the new Gen-Six car this year.
Can Hendrick maintain its dominance in 2013? In a word: yes. Johnson, the current points leader, remains my pick to win the title.
A year after winning the Cup title, Brad Keselowski hasn't been slowed by a championship hangover. Though he's yet to reach Victory Lane, he has as many top-five finishes (four) as any other driver in the series and is quickly proving that he's no one-hit wonder. This fall, he'll most certainly be a threat to repeat.
Keselowski's new teammate, Joey Logano, who had been at Joe Gibbs Racing during the previous four years, has been the most polarizing figure of the young 2013 season. He's angered both Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart with his aggressive driving, but he's also shown -- for the first time in his career -- that he's capable of consistently running in the lead pack. Currently 11th in the standings, Logano is a solid bet to qualify for his first Chase as long as he can avoid more dust-ups with Hamlin and Stewart.
The good news for Gibbs: Kyle Busch, who has long been considered by the masses in the garage as possessing the most natural driving ability of anyone in the series, is off to a fast start. Along with Keselowski, Busch (fourth in points) has four top-five finishes this season and appears as calm and calculating behind the wheel as ever. At 27, he finally has the look of a driver who is capable of winning it all.
The bad news for Gibbs: Denny Hamlin, the team's most tenured driver, will be out for at least a few more weeks as he recuperates after fracturing his spine at Fontana on March 24 when he was wrecked by Joey Logano. At this point, Hamlin is a long shot to make the Chase. He'll likely need to win multiple races late in the regular season to advance as one of the two wild cards.
The third driver for Gibbs, Matt Kenseth, has been quietly solid, which has been the M.O. for his career. He's 10th in the standings and has led more total laps (319) than any driver other than Jimmie Johnson.
If you love underdogs, then this is your team. An underfunded single-car operation based in Denver, Furniture Row has been relevant this season for one reason: Kurt Busch. Though he's only 19th in the standings, he has two top-five finishes and has been consistently fast. He probably won't make the Chase, but you have to appreciate what this team, which before this year had only three top-fives in 199 Cup series starts, has already accomplished in 2013.
Roush Fenway has been fairly quiet thus far. Carl Edwards (seventh in points) won at Phoenix on March 3, but he's also been 15th or worse in the three of the six Cup races. Greg Biffle (sixth in points) has three top-10 finishes, but has only led laps in one race and appears to be just a tick slower than the elite cars.
But I have a hunch this team will have a breakthrough on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile track where both Edwards and Biffle have flourished in the past. Also look for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (15th in points) to challenge for his first checkered flag this weekend.
Before the season-opening Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick joked about how he was a lame duck driver and that, well, he just didn't have a chance this season. Harvick, who will move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, still has time to rebound, but he's off to an uncharacteristically slow start. He's 14th in the standings and has only one top-10 finish.
Paul Menard is eighth in the standings and has three top-10s, but he's only led a grand total of two laps in 2013, which shows that his car just isn't capable of winning races right now. Jeff Burton, the elder statesman at RCR, is 24th in points.
Near the end of the last season, as Clint Bowyer was in the process of finishing second in the final standings, there was a sense in the garage that MWR was on the cusp of joining the ruling class of the sport, right alongside Hendrick, Gibbs, Penske and Roush. That hasn't happened. Bowyer is ninth in the standings and Martin Truex Jr. is 25th.
SHR has been the biggest disappointment of 2013, and even the team's owner, Tony Stewart, would tell you that. None of its three drivers -- Stewart, Ryan Newman or Danica Patrick -- are in the top 20 in points. There's still time for Stewart (22nd) and Newman (23rd) to make a charge and qualify for the Chase, but they need to get going soon.
So far, this has been a nightmare season for Juan Pablo Montoya. The former Indy 500 winner and driver who took the checkered flag in Formula One's marquee race at Monaco in 2003, Montoya is 30th in the standings. At this point, you have to wonder how much longer he'll stay in NASCAR.
Jamie McMurray has had two top-10 finishes in his last three starts and is 13th in the standings. As the season has progressed, he's appeared to gain more speed. So he's on an upward trajectory, which is a good thing for this team, because McMurray is EGR's only hope of having a presence in the playoffs.