Midseason grades: Foursome of deserved A's stand out, no F's to hand out

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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The middle of summer is upon us and somehow the NASCAR Sprint Cup season has reached its halfway point. It may seem like only yesterday when Jamie McMurray scored his surprising Daytona 500 victory but the fact is we are closer to bringing the season to a close than we are to when things kicked off at Daytona in February.

The series is enjoying an off-weekend, a much-needed respite for several teams, drivers, crews, officials and yes, even media members.

So as we dial it down for a couple of days before revving things up again at Indianapolis next weekend, it’s a perfect opportunity to hand out our annual mid-term grades to the Sprint Cup Series Class of 2010. And no, I don’t grade on a curve:

Grade: A

Although without a win in more than a year, Jeff Gordon gets an A to this point. (Getty Images)  
Although without a win in more than a year, Jeff Gordon gets an A to this point. (Getty Images)  
Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson top this list as well they should on the basis of both notching a series-leading five wins each in the first 19 races of the season. While Johnson started out strong and cooled off before his recent surge, Hamlin’s quintet of victories may be just a bit more impressive. After undergoing ACL surgery in March, Hamlin seemed to catch fire and reeled off five wins over the course of 13 races -- maybe not coincidentally when NASCAR replaced the Sprint Cup Car’s rear wing with a spoiler.

Kevin Harvick also deserves to be graded with an A for an amazing performance that is a complete turnaround from his dismal 2009 season. A year ago, Harvick was nearly 1,000 points off his current pace in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, which finds the Richard Childress Racing driver at the top of the heap.

Our last A student is Jeff Gordon. He may be in the midst of a more than one year winless streak, but has knocked down consistent finish after consistent finish and has rattled off five straight Top 5s. Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have come out swinging for Victory Lane every week since the start of the season, which hasn’t paid off in checkered flags yet but certainly in consistency.

Grade: B

It’s appropriate the Busch brothers head the B list as both Kurt and Kyle have turned in strong performances at the break. Crew chief Steve Addington has done a masterful job of providing near instant chemistry with the fiery Kurt at Penske Racing and during a stretch in May, the Miller Lite Dodge was the best car on the circuit. Kyle and his new chief Dave Rogers have also hit it off although it is still a challenge for anyone to reign in Busch’s emotions, which have again at times gotten the better of him.

Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle have also been better than average but that quartet needs to step things up over the course of the next seven races to ensure a Chase position. And add one of the biggest surprises of the campaign to date to the B list in Paul Menard, who has been one of the bright spots in the up and down year for Richard Petty Motorsports. McMurray is also a pleasant surprise in 2010 and has notched six top 10 finishes to go with his big win in "The Great American Race."

After his victory at Chicagoland, David Reutimann earned a mid-term B and with a move from 30th to 15th in the point standings over the last several weeks has positioned himself as a definite Chase contender.

Grade: C

The middle of the pack grade can be handed out to Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. who have all been mediocre but not terrible. Earnhardt Jr. continues to tease his fans with a week or two of solid finishes only to slip back to a night like last Saturday in Chicago when he was never inside the top twenty. Newman is having a tough time following up his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing although he does have a win to his credit. Reigning Rookie of the Year Logano looks ready to improve at times but struggles with a Sophomore Slump in other races.

I’d call what I’ve seen from Kasey Kahne, A.J. Allmendinger and Sam Hornish Jr. so far this year about average as well.

Grade: D

Two of last year’s Chase contenders top the D list with Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya suffering through a tough first 19 races of the year. After enjoying a storybook season in 2009 when he challenged for the title right down to the wire, Martin hasn’t been anywhere near as competitive in year two at Hendrick Motorsports. Some point to engineers and resources at the 5 team being redirected to Earnhardt Jr.’s effort as the reason, others believe the ageless Martin has finally lost a step or two on his game. Whatever the reasons it’s added up to Martin currently out of Chase contention and on a downward spiral of late.

Montoya turned a lot of heads last season when he used a calculated plan to qualify the Chase and then turned on the after jets once the playoffs started to make a run for the championship. But it’s been a completely different story in 2010 with the Target Chevrolet involved in numerous crashes and on-track skirmishes -- including one with Martin at Chicagoland last Saturday night -- that finds Montoya mired in 21st place in the standings.

Marcos Ambrose was expected to be the Montoya of 2010 and take the next step in his Sprint Cup career, but it’s been a challenging year for the popular Australian. He blew a chance at his first Cup win at Sonoma and mechanical issues as well as horsepower problems with the JTG Daugherty team have plagued Ambrose.

David Ragan, Brad Keselowski, Scott Speed, Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Robby Gordon have all performed at an unacceptable level. Only Keselowski at Penske Racing knows for sure where he’ll be racing in 2011 and beyond.

The Front Row Motorsports trio of David Gilliland, Travis Kvapil and Kevin Conway also earned mid-term Ds, but to be fair the underfunded team has the deck stacked against it.

As you can see, no one has failed completely in my mind so there were no Fs to hand out. But unless some drivers turn in a little extra credit, that could change when the final grades are distributed in late November.

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