Racingone Report Card

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During one of their few weekends off this season, I thought it might be fun to see which Winston Cup drivers are making the grade in 2001… and which drivers aren’t.

Grade: A+
Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
After what he’s been through this year - with the death of his legendary father – and how he’s handled that difficult situation, this one is a no-brainer. The young Earnhardt has shown a tremendous amount of strength just by showing up at the tracks, much less having the focus it takes to go racing. Dale Jr. hasn’t had the results he’s wanted, but after what’s taken place, he’s become a hero to just about everybody. When Earnhardt Jr. does go to victory lane this year, and he will, it’ll be one of the most emotional postrace interviews in history.

Grade: A
Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Johnny Benson, Sterling Marling and Steve Park –
The current top-five drivers in the Winston Cup championship race after almost two months of racing. For Jarrett and Gordon, this isn’t new territory (with four Winston Cup titles between them). If they keep things up, a fifth might be in the works by the end of the year. Both are coming off a disappointing 2000 season, but the duo is hell-bent on making it back to the top of their game. Jarrett already has three wins and the Winston Cup points lead by 123 points over Gordon, who also has an early victory.

Benson, Marlin and Park are somewhat of a surprise, though they probably would say they had the potential in them all along. Benson is still looking for his first Winston Cup victory, and many expect that win to come sooner rather than later. Marlin has been consistent all year long, threatening to win a couple of races in the new Dodge Intrepid. Park has also been one of the best stories of the year, especially when he took his Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevy to victory lane in the second race of the season at Rockingham. This trio - with a good bit of luck - may be worth watching as potential dark horses to remove Jarrett and Gordon from atop the standings.

Grade: A-
Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Hamilton, Elliott Sadler and Kevin Harvick –
Rusty has been trying since 1989 to win another Winston Cup championship, winning a ton of races and poles in between, but he’ll feel there’s still something missing from his career if the ol’ No. 2 doesn’t win title No. 2. As for Rudd, doesn’t this guy just deserve a victory? What else does he have to do to get back to victory lane? Last Sunday at Martinsville, it looked like the veteran driver was on his way to snapping his losing skid, and low and behold if his Robert Yates Racing teammate (Jarrett) didn’t take the lead away for good with only six laps remaining. The stars will line up one day, and probably a couple of days for Rudd this year, and he’ll return to the winner’s circle.

Anybody expect to see Hamilton running anywhere near the Top 10 in his first season in the Square D car? I'm not even sure he did, but he's now seventh in points and it's great to see.

For Harvick and Sadler, what else can you say about the two young drivers who have scored their first Winston Cup victories this season. Harvick would have to be the biggest surprise this year as he was moved into Winston Cup competition in a Childress car after Earnhardt’s death, winning in his third career start in a thrilling photo-finish at Atlanta with Gordon. Sadler has also been impressive, winning for the first time in his career (at Bristol) thanks to some keen pit strategy by his legendary Wood Brothers team.

Grade: B+
Michael Waltrip –
It was six gazillion tries before Mikey won his first Winston Cup race, and dang if he didn’t show up in victory lane after winning NASCAR’s greatest race, the Daytona 500. The emotions of his first win, sadly, would be largely overshadowed by the news of Earnhardt’s death. There will be brighter days, and yes, more wins to come for Waltrip. Hopefully he’ll get to enjoy the second victory of his long career a little more the next time.

Grade: B
Ward Burton, Bill Elliott, Ken Schrader and Matt Kenseth –
Burton and Elliott have a reason to be optimistic with the early performance of the new Dodge operation they made the switch to over the winter. Both have struggled on occasion, but watch out for both once they get all the bugs worked out of the Intrepid.

Schrader and Kenseth are having quiet seasons, but they’re hanging around and collecting solid finishes, which is what Winston Cup racing is all about. Kenseth is aiming for his second career Winston Cup victory, and Schrader his first since 1991 while driving for Hendrick Motorsports. One of these guys, possibly both, could make it to victory lane this year.

Grade: B-
Terry Labonte, Jerry Nadeau, Jimmy Spencer and Kevin Lepage –
For the Hendrick teammates of Labonte and Nadeau, it’s a battle for the position of the No. 2 spot on the roster at Hendrick Motorsports (behind Gordon). Nadeau did win his first Winston Cup race last year in the season-finale at Atlanta, but hasn’t started the new season off like he would have liked. Labonte went winless last year, and to be honest, hasn’t shown a great deal of promise. Knowing the two-time series champion, though, leads one to believe when his car gets dialed-in correctly, he’ll be quietly sneaking his way back into the picture and battling for more victories.

Spencer - angry for most of last season due to a perceived lack of horsepower - must have seen his complaints answered as the 2001 season has brought about a pretty good turnaround.

Lepage checked into the Winston Cup Series a bit late this year, taking over the No. 4 car for Larry McClure after he and former driver Robby Gordon agreed to disagree and ended their relationship just over a month into the season. Lepage has done just fine, though, beating Gordon’s best finish in every race he’s competed in so far.

Grade: C+
Jeremy Mayfield, Ricky Craven and Stacy Compton –
If Mayfield could finish a race without having some mechanical problems drop his car from contention, the driver of the No. 12 could be going for multiple wins. That team just has to figure out that in order to win another race, it would help a great deal to be around for the final laps. Once they get that done, it could mean trouble for everybody else, because Mayfield will get back to victory lane, and probably several different times.

Craven and Compton are both good guys doing more with less than anybody else around, which is what Winston Cup racing is all about. It’s kind of like David versus Goliath. Look for the underdogs to continue to impress.

Grade: C
Mike Skinner –
Will Skinner ever win a points-paying Winston Cup race? Sure, he’s won at Japan in the NASCAR exhibition race and one of this year’s Twin 125 qualifying races at Daytona, but winning an official Winston Cup race has yet to come about. More than likely, Skinner will win a race this year, and others will likely follow. But haven’t we been saying that for the past three years?

Grade: C-
Tony Stewart, John Andretti and Dave Blaney –
After winning six races last year in his sophomore season on the Winston Cup circuit, many people were expecting Stewart to come out strong in 2001, but it hasn’t happened. Don’t expect the struggles of Stewart to continue for too much longer, you just get the sense one real solid race will give him the confidence he needs to be a contender each and every week once again.

Andretti is another of the drivers who is working with a new piece of equipment this year (a Dodge), and he’s been running strong on occasion. The consistency is coming around, albeit nowhere nearly as quick as Andretti would have liked it to.

Blaney showed promise late last year, but is still looking to find his groove in 2001 and give his Bill Davis Racing teammate Ward Burton a run for his money.

Grade: D+
Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Joe Nemechek and Kyle Petty –
This isn’t a repeated name or error, yes the defending Winston Cup champion and his team are struggling with their grades like a high school student trying to juggle both schoolwork and dating at the same time. One of those areas is hurting the other. Labonte finished no lower than 26th all of last season, but this year that would be considered a good day for him. Labonte just has to return to the form that made him a champion last year, doesn’t he?

I can’t believe I’m giving this grade to the guy I picked to win this year’s Winston Cup championship, but Burton has been struggling so badly through the first eight races that it’s almost painful to watch. If there’s a positive for Burton, who sits 29th in the standings, it’s that things just can’t get a whole lot worse than what they are right now. Look for the struggles to change, as the old saying goes, ‘You can’t keep a good man down.’

Nemechek had certainly hoped to get his season off on a good note, but he’s now outside the Top 30 in points with not a single top-10 finish to his credit. Another case of “it has got to get better.”

If there were one guy in the garage who many wish they could offer some help to, it would be Petty. Last season was a tragic one for Kyle - with the death of his son Adam in a practice crash at New Hampshire - but the time away from the Winston Cup tour to finish out the 2000 season in Adam’s Busch car has left the No. 45 team with a lot of work ahead. If you’ve been around racing long enough, you know Petty won’t quit trying. It’s just not the Petty family nature.

Grade: D
Mark Martin, Robert Pressley, Brett Bodine, Mike Wallace, Kenny Wallace, and Todd Bodine –
Martin is one of the most consistent drivers in the Winston Cup Series, but consistency doesn’t necessarily mean trips to victory lane, which is evident by his winless streak that dates back to last year’s spring race at Martinsville. Martin is not happy with the performance of his No. 6 team, and that disgust has probably filtered its way through the rest of his stable. Don’t expect to see Martin this low on his next report card.

The rest of these guys are with teams that don’t have the funding to go head-to-head against the well-funded multicar teams in the sport, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try just as hard as all the rest of their fellow competitors. You get the sense that if these guys had the money, they could be racing up towards the front of the field. Right now, it’s not happening for them.

Grade: D-
Kurt Busch, Ron Hornaday, Casey Atwood, Buckshot Jones and Jason Leffler -
All of these drivers, with the exception of Jones, are considered rookies in their first full season of Winston Cup competition. All have struggled, which has really come to be expected at this level of the sport. Again, it’s a good problem to have because the only direction for them to head is up.

Grade: F
Nobody -
With the reality of tape-delayed races being shown in major markets, the complete jumbled-up mess with the Earnhardt investigation and restrictor-plates keeping the fields so tight at the big tracks that not a sole enters or watches the races expecting to see an injury-free event, let’s just stay on the positive side and at least give the drivers a passing grade. The things that are failing the sport right now aren't the drivers' fault.

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