2014 NASCAR Stock Watch for Drivers in Sprint Cup Series
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick won the first two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the 2014 season, but who else is hot—or not?
As this Sunday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway approaches, it's time for the first Stock Watch of the season. Which Sprint Cup drivers are on the way up, which are on the way down, and which are holding steady enough that it's time for fans to dig in and hold onto their belief in them?
Based on the results not only of the first two Cup races but also the circumstances surrounding each driver in terms of chemistry with crew chiefs, their organization's ability to build fast race cars and not only the driver's skill but his or her ability to react positively in the face of adversity, here is the way we currently see things.
Danica Patrick is in danger of seeing her 2014 season go up in smoke after only two races.
It's not all her fault. She was running well in the season-opening Daytona 500 when she got caught up in a wreck not of her doing on Lap 145 of the 200-lap event, relegating her to a 40th-place finish.
Hoping to rebound at her home track in Phoenix, she struggled most of the day until making contact with Cup rookie Justin Allgaier. They spun, and Patrick was subsequently hit from behind on the left side of her No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet.
She stayed in the race but limped home in 36th after later blowing a tire—and afterward displayed her frustration in confronting Allgaier about the earlier incident, according to Sporting News.
It can't get much worse, but then again, it's not likely to get a whole lot better anytime soon, either. That's the reality of her situation.
Don't worry about Jeff Gordon. He hasn't even run his best yet, but he's third in the point standings after two races because he's been remarkably solid—following up a fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500 with a fifth at Phoenix.
Sure, Gordon is no youngster at age 42 (he'll turn 43 this August). But he and crew chief Alan Gustafson seemed to resolve some chemistry issues late last season and build momentum that appears to be at least partly carrying over to this season.
It's still early, and Gordon has led a total of only four laps in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy (all at Phoenix). So it's sort of a wait-and-see approach that must be taken to see if he can recapture some of that old magic that seemed lost until last season's late surge.
Joey Logano did everything he could to try to beat Harvick for the win at Phoenix. In the end, his No. 22 Ford just wasn't quite fast enough.
But after starting that race on the front row with his Team Penske running mate Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, it is becoming clear that Logano and his team aren't far off.
Logano settled for fourth at Phoenix after several daring moves on late restarts didn't pay off. But he didn't apologize and offered a mindset for the season that other drivers should consider duplicating in light of NASCAR's new rules rewarding wins more when it comes to qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup that determines the season's championship.
Logano said as much after the Phoenix race, per Bob Pockrass of Sporting News: "On that last restart, the last two restarts, I figured I might as well go for it. With a win being so important you might as well go for it and I tried to stuff it in there three-wide and gave up a spot by doing that. But overall it is about the win."
A rookie season that began with much fanfare for Kyle Larson quickly is beginning to look like a whole lot of other rookie seasons for aspiring Cup drivers.
In other words, the learning curve might be a little steeper for Larson than he or his handlers at Chip Ganassi Racing anticipated. He had a disastrous Daytona 500 and battled gamely to finish 20th at Phoenix, but he stands 28th in points after two races, and reality is setting in.
He's very talented, but it appears Larson will need a year or two of Cup seasoning before he'll start contending consistently for top-10 finishes, let alone victories.
Ho-hum. That's the general reaction to the start of Jimmie Johnson's pursuit of a record-tying seventh Cup championship.
He's been neither horrible nor terrific in the first two races and stands a solid fifth in the points heading into Las Vegas. If you're a betting man—or woman—don't bet against him gearing up to strongly contend for a win very soon, and certainly don't start betting against him.
For the moment, it seems Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a leg up on Johnson and the rest of the Cup field. But you know who shares a shop with the No. 88 Chevrolet team of Earnhardt, right?
It's the No. 48 team of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. They'll be just fine in the long run.
The 2012 Cup champ was frustrated by last season's lame title defense, when he failed to even make the Chase for the Sprint Cup and basically was an afterthought by the season's final 10 races.
This year, he's striving to be more relevant. Through the first two races, he's doing a good job of it, finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 and following that up by winning the Phoenix pole and finishing third in the race there.
Keselowski is second in the point standings heading to Las Vegas and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. His strong run at Phoenix came despite the fact that his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, missed the race to witness the birth of his first child. Just imagine what they can do together over the coming weeks when Wolfe is back on the pit box and probably even more focused than he possibly could have been before his huge life event.
Martin Truex Jr.
This season isn't off to the kind of start Martin Truex Jr. envisioned after being forced to make the switch from Michael Waltrip Racing to Furniture Row Racing in the offseason.
You can't blame Truex for seeming a little shell-shocked. He thought his long-term future was bright with MWR—until the smooth asphalt was yanked up from underneath him and his career was tossed into turmoil in the wake of the Spingate controversy at Richmond last fall.
The end result of it all was that Truex was forced to find a new home, one that he doesn't seem all that comfortable with after a sour engine forced him to finish last in the Daytona 500 and a lack of grip on the race track at Phoenix led him to an indifferent 22nd-place finish.
After two races, he's 35th in points and looking like it will take him a while to get acclimated to his new surroundings.
It could be argued that Kyle Busch started his season in reverse after he drove across the finish line at Daytona going backward in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
But that would be ignoring some important facts, such as how he earlier led 19 laps in the Great American Race and was still in contention for a top-five finish when he got involved in a last-lap wreck that also proved costly to Harvick, Carl Edwards and others.
Busch was scored in 19th when he crossed the Daytona start-finish line going the wrong way, and then he went to Phoenix and started to get his season going in the right direction with a solid ninth-place finish. It will be interesting to see if he can continue the turnaround at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he's won once and has two poles to go along with four top-five and five top-10 finishes in 10 career starts.
Kevin Harvick bounced back from Daytona, where he arguably caused two wrecks, to thoroughly dominate the field by leading 224 of 312 laps en route to his win at Phoenix.
It was rare for Harvick to have that kind of dominant speed driving his Cup car. But then, this is his first year of driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. In the 13 years he drove previously for Richard Childress Racing, Harvick built a reputation for stealing races at the very end after leading only a handful of laps.
Harvick told reporters afterward that the win validated his decision to leave RCR, adding, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com): "I'm just the lucky guy who gets to drive around the race track when they have it dialed in like they did today. We were able to put it altogether."
It appears that more good times are right around the next left-hand turn for Harvick and his No. 4 Chevy team.
Despite driver-owner Tony Stewart's insistence that you can never have too much star power under one shop's roof, there is a growing sense that one or more of his current crop of four at Stewart-Haas Racing will ultimately feel left out.
The early odds-on favorite to be that guy—and not handle it very well—is Kurt Busch. He's 30th in points after spinning late at Daytona and finishing 21st and then having the engine blow in his No. 41 Chevy with 16 laps remaining in the race at Phoenix, relegating him to a 38th-place finish.
We can't wait to see the look on Stewart's face the first time Busch inevitably loses it and yells at his new owner. Stewart's reaction might be epic.
Denny Hamlin owned Speedweeks at Daytona until Earnhardt Jr. edged him for the victory in the Daytona 500.
But then he struggled at Phoenix, finishing a lackluster 19th after a totally forgettable day. That leaves folks guessing a little about what will happen with the No. 11 Toyota team on the 1.5-mile track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which isn't like either of the first two tracks visited by the Sprint Cup Series.
Hamlin is more likely than not to get it together quickly, especially considering the many successes crew chief Darian Grubb has enjoyed in recent years on 1.5-mile venues. Hamlin is healthy after battling a back injury last season and eager to win a race that likely would put him back in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that he missed out on for the first time in his career a year ago.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
All hail Junior!
What else can you say about the magical start to the 2014 season that is being thoroughly enjoyed by Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
After winning the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career in dramatic fashion, Earnhardt nearly followed that up with another victory at Phoenix.
Although he ultimately finished second to Kevin Harvick at the one-mile track, Earnhardt served notice that his final season with crew chief Steve Letarte could be very special. He's leading the point standings by six over Brad Keselowski and blessed with a relaxed approach that should serve him well in the coming weeks.
That feeling comes with the knowledge that he's playing with house money, realizing that his 500 victory virtually assured him of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup under NASCAR's new playoff format. "We can gamble with a better conscience," Earnhardt stated, per Bob Pockrass of Sporting News.