NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Preview

The Daytona 500 means the Sprint Cup Series is starting for another long run. The NASCAR season runs from now until mid-November and TheSportsNotebook will be on the scene. Now as the editor, I’m going to admit I’m not remotely qualified to talk NASCAR (well, critics would say I’m not qualified to talk baseball, basketball, football or hockey either, but at least I can fake it there). But my brother Bill is, and he was gracious enough to spend some time with me this week going over the Top 20 drivers from last year’s Sprint Cup standings, offering insights, opinions and generally showing a lot of us that NASCAR drivers really need to do more than just turn left. Here’s a summation of the Top 20, with Bill’s insights mixed in.

Please note that stats in parentheses indicate (Races Won/Top 5 Finishes/Top 10 finishes) and are based on 36 races.

Tony Stewart (5/9/19): Stewart won the championship last year on the final race of the season, nipping out Carl Edwards. It was Stewart’s third title and it’s worth nothing that all five of his wins came in the “Sprint For The Cup”, which is the last 10 races where NASCAR tightens up the standings, seeds drivers and gives greater weight to the races (For baseball fans, think of it  as though the standings were re-set on Labor Day with whomever was in second place automatically being set to three games back. The purpose obviously to ensure an exciting finish even if someone was blowing the race away up to that point).

“He wasn’t expected to win,” Bill said regarding Stewart’s chances in last year’s Sprint. “His team was utterly pathetic all year. Even though the driver gets the glory, it’s a team effort—from the pit crew to the shop.” Stewart’s team was able to do a complete 180, win five of the final ten races and steal the Cup.

Carl Edwards (1/19/26): What strikes me is all those Top 10 finishes. NASCAR put in a new points system last year that gave greater weight to wins. But Edwards $8.5 million in winning was the best on the circuit. “He’s a popular driver, Bill told TheSportsNotebook. “When he wins he’s known for doing a backflip. I don’t like him though because he drives a Ford.” I have to dissent here, and say that I like Edwards, because he drives for Roush Fenway Racing, owned by the Red Sox ownership group.

Kevin Harvick (4/9/19): “He started off strong last year and faded,” Bill said. “He’s known as Happy Harvick,” and I’ve come to respect him. I think it was just more bad luck that got him.” Harvick is 36 years old and never won the Sprint Cup, though his four wins last year ranked second only to Stewart.

Matt Kenseth (3/12/20): I love this guy. He’s from the Madison, WI area, and is a Roush Fenway driver, and as a fan of Boston pro sports teams (save the Redskins) and Wisconsin college teams, Kenseth is as close as there will be to being another fellow of the Boston-Madison Corridor. He’s also sponsored by Crown Royal, and a friend in Florida still owes me a bottle from a bet in 1991. Even though I gave up drinking, he can still give the bottle to someone else. I realize I just made this entirely about myself and not about the driver, whom Bill praises for his consistency and gives a thumbs-up to the quality of his pit crew.

Brad Keselowski (3/10/14): At age 27 he’s the up-and-comer among the contenders, and Bill notes that he’s now the top driver on the Penske Racing team. I know who Roger Penske is, so this passes a basic prestige test—having a name familiar to average fans of the sport. He’s also someone Bill likes—“Anyone who drives a Dodge, I like.”

Jimmie Johnson (2/14/21): He’s the powerhouse of the circuit, winning the Cup every year from 2006-10, putting him on a par with the UCLA dynasty of 1967-73, or the New York Yankees of 1949-53. He slipped to sixth last year and he’s made some enemies along the way. “His crew chief was caught cheating”, Bill told TheSportsNotebook. From the description, it sounds like essentially JJ tried to drive a car on steroids.

Jeff Gordon (3/13/18): This was a name I’ve heard a lot, but a look at the record shows me behind the times, because while he’s won four titles, the last one came in 2001. The 40-year-old Gordon has only won sporadically over the last years, in Bill’s view, because the quality of driving on the circuit has caught up to him and he can no longer just overwhelm mediocre fields.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (0/14/12): Because of his late father he has a famous name, but last year was his first Top 10 finish since 2006, only his third overall and he’s never won the Cup. “He’s more of a Super Speedway driver,” Bill said, breaking down Earnhardt’s patterns. “Talladega and Daytona are his kind of tracks.” NASCAR’s decision to expand the closing 10-race push by two drivers was seen as “Junior B.S.” by a lot of racing fans, given Junior’s propensity to finish on the edge of the Top 10.

Denny Hamlin (1/15/14): He’s a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, meaning this is another driver that I’m predisposed to liking. “He’s more of a short-to-intermediate course driver,” Bill opined. Consistency is a bugaboo for Hamlin, who won circuit-leading eight races in 2010, but still finished second in the overall standings. While the rule changes of the following year would have likely put him over the top, it still shows the importance of piling up those Top 5 and Top 10 finishes along with the wins.

Ryan Newman (1/9/17): He’s changed from Penske Racing to work with Stewart-Haas Racing, the team owned by Tony Stewart. “He struggled with Penske, Bill said. “He was their second-tier driver. The 34-year-old is also known for a lot of spectacular wrecks, particularly on the superspeedway courses. Bill attributes it to some bad luck, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to dissent, but is this a sign he’s not creating enough space for himself on the turns?

Kurt Busch (2/8/16): This is a driver Bill considers an X-factor as we start a new season/ “Last year he drove for Penske. Now he’s with a team not as well-funded, but his past record (he won the Cup in 2004 and has won a lot of individual races) will make him eligible in the provisional spots. He could struggle, he could do really well.” Bill also said Kurt is noted for his temper and getting a little overly aggressive on the track with the other drivers.

Kyle Bush (4/14/18): Seven years younger than brother Kurt, the 26-year-old Kyle is panned by Bill for a “crappy attitude.” Bill went on to describe Kyle in language not suited for a family  web site. “But he can drive on any course and he’s good enough to be a modern-day Jeff Gordon. But he lacks the respect from the fans that Gordon had because of his attitude.”

Clint Bowyer (1/4/16): Bowyer’s sponsors are Cheerios and Hamburger Helper, which I find inspiring. He finished in the Top 5 in 2007-08, but hasn’t seriously contended since. “He finished the 2010 Daytona on the roof of his car,” Bill said, in recounting a spin that left Bowyer in a less than ideal position. He wins high points for grit, but Bill considers him a driver “good, but not great.”

Kasey Kahne (1/8/15): A drive who’s one of Bill’s favorites, Kahne is an “every other year kind of driver. He gets hot one year and he’s off the next.” Kahne wasn’t hot last year, so perhaps this is someone else we need to keep our eye on. He’s had two Top 10 finishes in his career, 2006 and 2009.

A.J. Allmendinger (0/1/10): Allmendinger started on the circuit in 2007 and the 30-year-old has steadily improved each year, finishing 43rd as a rookie and moving slowly up the ladder to #15. Could this be the year he makes the Top 10? “He’s more of a road-course driver,” Bill analyzed, referring to a track that’s structured so drivers have to turn both left and right, making it more like an actual…well, road-course. Races at Watkins Glen, NY and Sonoma, CA are the key spots for Allmendinger. Cash could hurt A.J.’s push for the Top 10 as funding still seems uncertain.

Greg Biffle (0/3/10): The 42-year-old vet is another Roush Fenway driver and a slow start last season doomed his chances. “It was just an off-year, Bill advised. “He should do good this time around.” Biffle has four Top 10 finishes in the last seven years, including coming in second to Stewart in 2005.

Paul Menard (1/4/8): “He gets his sponsorship and his life from his family,” Bill said bluntly, referring to the Menard background in the hardware business, the place where you “save big money.” Menard won his first race last year and has “never been a real factor,” according to Bill.

Martin Truex Jr (0/3/12): His team of Michael Waltrip Racing seemed to draw more of Bill’s attention than the driver himself, which leads me to believe that Truex will not be a factor. “He’s a decent driver, Bill offered. “But he’s not on a good team.”

Marco Ambrose (1/5/12): The Australian is a good road-course racer , along with Allmendinger of whom he is a teammate. “He had no luck last year,” Bill lamented. “But he should do decent this year.”

Jeff Burton (0/2/5): At 44 years old, he was the oldest driver in the 2011 Top 20, and has eight Top 10 finishes in a career that started in 1993. But “he’s on the downside of his career”, Bill said. Looks like Burton is the Boston Celtics of the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Bill also suggested looking just beyond the Top 20 for potential surprises, and some of the familiar names were Juan Montoya, David Ragan and Mark Martin. The latter is the oldest driver on the circuit and his intentions for the season are still somewhat hazy (insert Brett Favre joke here). Bill likes Montoya to move up the ladder. “He had engine blowups last year,” Bill said. “He should be in the Top 20 this year.”