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Driver Reports midway through the season

July 08, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

Driver Reports midway through the season
At halfway point, fan favorite Earnhardt Jr. back in top five

1. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Johnson leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with 658 points.
Last week: There was the usual at Daytona: wrecks, long runs and a complete shuffling of the standings. This time, though, positioning for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup got all jumbled, too. Amid that wreckage stood Jimmie Johnson, who won the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola to become the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep the Daytona races. Through all the changes after one of the wildest races of the season, Five-Time remains a constant. He led 94 of 161 laps and perhaps put to rest any questions of whether his restart misfires in the past were in his head -- Johnson was in the lead on the green-white-checkered restart and powered away from the field.
What he said: “I think that what we've done over the course of the year, leading the points like we have with a big margin I think probably sends the biggest message that we're buttoned up and ready and in a position to win a sixth championship. But there's a lot that can take place between now and Homestead.”
This week: In 22 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Johnson has three wins, eight top-fives and 15 top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Johnson ranks third out of 49 drivers with an average place of 9.7.
Last year: Johnson qualified seventh and ran in the top 10 through the first 230 laps (of 301) before taking his No. 48 Chevrolet into pit road for service for the final time during a green-flag run. At that exact moment, the day’s third caution flag came out for oil on the track, and Johnson was shuffled back to 18th place. He gained 11 spots in the final 60 laps and finished seventh.

2. Clint Bowyer (No. 15)

Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Bowyer is second in the standings with 609 points.
Last week: Over the past few weeks, Bowyer has stalked second-place Carl Edwards in the points standings. On Daytona, he passed him -- and, several other drivers on the track during the Coke Zero 400. Bowyer’s fourth-place finish ties his career-best mark at Daytona International Speedway. The driver now has at least one top-five at short tracks, superspeedways, 1.5-mile track and road courses in 2013. He’s logged three consecutive top-fives at three very different track types, and being in second place without a win this season speaks to his ability to record high finishes consistently.
What he said: “I mean I was pushing Michael (Waltrip) and I got an opportunity to get to the bottom of him and got him passed. And, I was looking in the mirror and all hell broke loose (on the final lap). Man, that’s Daytona.”
This week: In 14 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bowyer has two wins, four top-fives, six top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Bowyer ranks sixth out of 49 drivers with an average place of 11.9.
Last year: Bowyer qualified fifth at a venue that suits his short-track skills, but he slipped during the race. In 15th place nearing the final planned green-flag pit stop, Bowyer made enough of a move through the field to get good position and take two tires. He gained additional spots due to that strategy move and finished third. He would add another 2012 top-five at Loudon in the fall race.

3. Carl Edwards (No. 99)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Edwards is third in the standings with 587 points.
Last week: Edwards’ ever-shrinking lead over Clint Bowyer is totally gone after the No. 99 finished 29th -- 29th! -- Saturday at Daytona, where he’s been so strong over the past two years. To make matters worse, Edwards also inadvertently ran over the foot of one of his pit crew members while leaving pit road. Heading to New Hampshire, Edwards has two consecutive finishes outside the top 20 and has two top-10s in his past seven races. And don’t look now, but his points lead over fourth-place Kevin Harvick is just two.
This week: In 17 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Edwards has two top-fives and three top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Edwards ranks 14th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 14.5.
Last year: Edwards felt like he had a fast race car and a good strategy; so why the 18th-place finish? The setup. On the final pit stop, Edwards and team took two tires. It made sense and gained him several spots. The problem, though, was that his No. 99 Ford became almost unbearably loose. The team put on four tires all day, so the issue was unforeseen until it was too late.

4. Kevin Harvick (No. 29)

Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Harvick is fourth in the standings with 585 points.
Last week: Hey, at least Harvick got to finish this time around. The No. 29 Chevrolet may have been the class of the field in the season-opening Daytona 500, but a wrecked knocked him out of contention early … and the two points he earned put him in a major hole to start the season. Finishing third Saturday after qualifying 26th shows just how far Harvick and his team have come.
What he said: “I thought we were in a good spot. The whole thing on the restarts is just getting your line to form. Everybody on our Budweiser Chevrolet did a great job. We were able to hold Jimmie (Johnson) door to door until the exit of Turn 2, but both of those restarts the No. 14 and No. 15 and whoever was behind them just couldn’t get our line formed up.”
This week: In 24 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Harvick has one win, five top-fives, 12 top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Harvick ranks eighth out of 49 drivers with an average place of 12.7.
Last year: Harvick said he had a top-10 car going into the race, and that’s exactly how he performed. The driver gained four spots in the race, finishing eighth after starting 12th. It was Harvick’s third top-10 in the past five races at a track where he’s had some success (one win, five top-fives), but also some tribulations (six finishes outside the top 20).

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Earnhardt Jr. is fifth in the standings with 548 points.
Last week: Junior moved back into the top five in the points standings and gained a bit of distance over the guys behind him with an eighth-place showing at the Coke Zero 400. That’s important, because Earnhardt still doesn’t have a win to fall back on. It was the third consecutive week in which Earnhardt not only ran well, but avoided incidents. And there were plenty of them at Daytona.
What he said: “Jimmie (Johnson) had great track position all night. We just didn’t really make our way to the front at all. I had fun; (it was a) pretty wild race there at the end. It was a good day. I’m happy for the National Guard and the entire team. (We are) just trying to get back on track and get some consistency going into next week.”
This week: In 27 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt has seven top-fives and 11 top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Earnhardt ranks fifth out of 49 drivers with an average place of 11.8.
Last year: Earnhardt Jr. and his team wanted a win. They had previously tested at Loudon and were thrilled with their results. So Junior was a bit miffed when his car, he said, was a tenth of a second off all weekend. It still resulted in a fourth-place showing, however, on a day where Earnhardt felt he had the 10th-best car on the track.

6. Matt Kenseth (No. 20)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Kenseth is sixth in the standings with 540 points.
Last week: Kenseth has had outstanding cars at Daytona the past two years -- and with two different teams. We’ll never know if Kenseth could have put himself into position to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the win Saturday, but the No. 20 did run as high as second and was nearing the top 10 when taken out during a six-car wreck 10 laps before the race was slated to end. Kenseth finished 33rd but is, of course, in no danger of missing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup due to his four victories this year.
What he said: “I saw the side of the 11 (Denny Hamlin) car get turned and I tried -- I was already around the top so I slowed down as much as I could and just got hit and was just kind of a ping pong ball. So, I’m not sure what started it, or really what hit me and got it. I just saw the wreck and tried to slow down and miss it. But there’s just not much I could do.”
This week: In 26 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kenseth has five top-fives and 12 top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Kenseth ranks 20th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 17.2.
Last year: Driving for Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth made the second-largest gain of the afternoon behind only Brad Keselowski, finishing 13th after starting 27th for a gain of 14 spots. Still, Loudon remained an annoyance for Kenseth, who left the track with just one top-10 in the past nine races there.

7. Kyle Busch (No. 18)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Busch is seventh in the standings with 533 points.
Last week: Busch isn’t a huge fan of restrictor-plate tracks, but he continues to be among the best drivers at Daytona. First, Busch won the Coors Light Pole. Then, after leading 29 laps, his No. 18 Toyota was eventually caught up in a four-car wreck on Lap 99. His team got his car back on the track in 36th place, and Busch powered his way to a 12th-place finish -- and was involved in the last-lap wreck, too.
What he said: “When Denny (Hamlin) and Martin (Truex Jr.) spun, we got a piece of it and it was pretty significant. But the guys did a nice job of patching it up and we were able to get back up there. We just didn’t have the track position there at the end and we didn’t have anywhere to go and got involved in the wreck there at the end.”
This week: In 16 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Busch has one win, four top-fives, six top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Busch ranks 16th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 15.0.
Last year: The 2012 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 wasn’t Busch’s best outing at Loudon. He won the Coors Light Pole, but then finished 16th. He’s finished in the top 10 at New Hampshire once in the past six races.

8. Greg Biffle (No. 16)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Biffle is eighth in the standings with 516 points.
Last week: Biffle finished 17th in the Coke Zero 400, yet moved up one spot in the points standings. Such is life at Daytona, where some Chase contenders earned less than 10 points in a wild race. The No. 16 Ford was in position to challenge for another top-five at Daytona before getting stuck in the back after a caution flag came out while he was pitting. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: “Crazy. I tell you, it was wild out there. We had really good track position running up front and then that caution came out on that pit cycle and got us to the back and we were just stuck back there. But … we didn’t end up hitting the wall or anything like that, so we’re good.”
This week: In 21 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Biffle has one win, five top-fives and eight top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Biffle ranks 13th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 14.4.
Last year: Biffle was hard on himself after finishing ninth, but perhaps he should have lightened up. “I’m a terrible driver when it comes to taking care of the brakes,” he repeatedly told the assembled media. And while his brakes did go in the final 50 laps, the veteran was cagey enough to lose only four spots, falling from fifth place on Lap 255 to ninth at the checkered flag.

9. Kurt Busch (No. 78)

Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Busch is ninth in the standings with 501 points.
Last week: The climb into the top 10 is complete for Kurt Busch. Driving for the small, one-car Furniture Row Racing outfit, Busch is ninth in the points standings after staying out of trouble on the green-white-checkered restart to finish sixth Saturday night. Getting here was no easy task. Busch has recorded consecutive finishes of fourth, sixth and sixth since Sonoma. In the past seven races, he has two top-fives, five top-10s and six finishes in the top 12. That’s good. But does he have staying power? We might find out starting this week at Loudon, where Busch has finished outside the top 20 in three consecutive races.
What he said: “That’s awesome to have a good run like that and stay out of trouble and post a nice top-10. When we start putting it together, it’s now starting to bear the fruit and we’ve moved our way into the top 10 in points. So that’s pretty cool. We have a long way to go, and yet we still are getting better. I’m just real proud of these guys and the effort that we’ve put forth. We’re there, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do.”
This week: In 24 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Busch has three wins, seven top-fives and 11 top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Busch ranks 10th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 13.7.
Last year: Driving the No. 51 for Phoenix Racing, Busch finished 24th after qualifying 14th on the grid.

10. Tony Stewart (No. 14)

Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Stewart is 10th in the standings with 499 points.
Last week:. A dynamo at Daytona, Stewart fell short of winning the summer race for the fifth time in the past nine races. His consolation prize? A second-place finish to Jimmie Johnson, who became the first driver to sweep the Daytona races since Bobby Allison in 1982. Stewart’s 42-point night was enough to bump him up to 10th place, from 16th, with eight races to go before the postseason field is set. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: “I didn’t get as good a (final) restart as I wanted. I think it kind of worked to our favor there. It got Clint (Bowyer) a little bit ahead of me and it got Kevin (Harvick) a little bit ahead of Jimmie (Johnson). That let Jimmie and I both tuck down to those two guys and get going. Kurt Busch gave us a really good push from behind there and that got us back to getting Jimmie the shove he needed. It got us out there far enough ahead to where we could worry about racing him.”
This week: In 28 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart has three wins, 14 top-fives, 17 top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Stewart ranks second out of 49 drivers with an average place of 9.2.
Last year: Looking for his second consecutive win at Loudon, Stewart finished 12th in the summer race. Still, this is one of his better tracks on the schedule and gives the veteran an opportunity to more firmly entrench himself in the top 10 of the points standings.

11. Martin Truex Jr. (No. 56)

Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Truex Jr. is 11th in the standings with 493 points.
Last week: Boy, that win at Sonoma takes on an even bigger meaning after Truex Jr. earned just three points at Daytona for his 41st-place finish in the Coke Zero 400, knocking him out of the top 10. As it stands now, Truex Jr. has one of two Wild Card spots to the Chase thanks to that victory. The Daytona wreck wasn’t even Truex’s fault, but he was sent hard into the inside wall off of Turn 4 in the Lap 99 incident.
What he said: “I couldn’t really even tell if he (Denny Hamlin) hit us or not, or if it was just an error. It was strange. It felt like my left rear tire blew out -- it happened so fast. … We definitely needed the finish. This is going to hurt us pretty bad.”
This week: In 14 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Truex Jr. has three top-fives and five top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Truex Jr. ranks 12th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 14.2.
Last year: Truex Jr.’s success at New Hampshire came early in his career, especially during an impressive stretch from 2007-08. His 11th-place finish in last year’s summer race came after he qualified fourth. In the past eight races at the track, Truex has one top-10.

12. Kasey Kahne (No. 5)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Kahne is 12th in the standings with 490 points.
Last week: Kahne was in position to challenge teammate Jimmie Johnson for the win in a No. 5 Chevrolet that was blazing-fast all night. Then it happened. Marcos Ambrose challenged Johnson for his lead spot as the final laps ticked off, and Johnson swerved down toward the middle. Kahne was running on the inside, and Ambrose was in the middle on the rear of both drivers. Though none of the three drivers saw the incident the same way, the result was that Ambrose came down on Kahne, sending him careening into the inside wall and bringing out the caution flag that necessitated the green-white-checkered restart. Running second at the time of the incident, Kahne finished 32nd.
What he said: “I felt really good with our Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet. Next thing I know I got slammed and shot left. It was the end of our night. It’s kind of how these races go. You don’t have a lot of control over some of the things that happen here.”
This week: In 18 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kahne has one win, three top-fives and eight top-10s. He is the defending race winner. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Kahne ranks 15th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 14.7.
Last year: Kahne officially put behind him a terrible start to the season and won his second race of the season, all but solidifying his place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Kahne assumed the lead on a restart after the third caution of the day and led the final 66 laps, holding off a charge from Denny Hamlin. It was a bit of a break for Kahne, as leader Kyle Busch had pitted just when the caution came out. It was a breakthrough showing for Kahne at Loudon; previously, he had finished outside the top 10 in eight of the past 10 races at the track.

Five in the rearview mirror …

Brad Keselowski (No. 2)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Keselowski is 13th in the standings with 488 points.
Last week: Maybe this isn’t just Keselowski’s year. His No. 2 Ford showed speed at Daytona and ran in the top five, then finished 21st. Keselowski is in the middle of a group of drivers totally bunched in the standings. A win soon would almost certainly vault Keselowski past 11th-place Martin Truex Jr. (five points ahead) or 12th-place Kasey Kahne (two points ahead) in the Wild Card pecking order. Then again, the defending Sprint Cup Series champion is a mere six points ahead of 16th-place Ryan Newman.
This week: In seven career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Keselowski has two top-fives, four top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Keselowski ranks 19th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 16.8.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Gordon is 14th in the standings with 487 points.
Last week: Gordon was among the drivers taken out on a wreck that brought out the caution on Lap 150. The 34th-place finish wasn’t exactly what Gordon needed, but he’s still in the thick of things. Consistency, though, has been missing from the No. 24 team this year. In the past four races, starting in Michigan, Gordon has finished 39th, second, eighth and 34th. He’s heading to Loudon, where he has among the best records on the circuit.
This week: In 36 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Gordon has three wins, 16 top-fives, 21 top-10s and four poles. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Gordon ranks first out of 49 drivers with an average place of 7.2.

Joey Logano (No. 22)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Logano is 15th in the standings with 483 points.
Last week: Logano’s streak of good finishes ended with a thud -- a resounding thud, actually, as a cut tire sent Logano hard into the outside wall midway through the race. The resulting 40th-place finish -- and four-point evening -- dropped Logano five places in the standings, and out of the top 10. At least he’s heading to New Hampshire, a track he likes given that it was the site of his first Sprint Cup Series victory. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
This week: In nine career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Logano has one win, two top-fives and four top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Logano ranks 21st out of 49 drivers with an average place of 20.6.

Ryan Newman (No. 39)

Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Newman is 16th in the standings with 482 points.
Last week: Newman was among the cars involved in a last-lap wreck, but it happened so close to the start/finish line that it didn’t drastically alter his standing. In fact, with Saturday’s 10th-place showing, Newman ensured he would have two top-10s in the two 2013 races at Daytona -- only Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. can match that feat. | Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
This week: In 22 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Newman has three wins, six top-fives, 15 top-10s and six poles. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, Newman ranks seventh out of 49 drivers with an average place of 12.5.

Jamie McMurray (No. 1)

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: McMurray is 17th in the standings with 475 points.
Last week: McMurray’s seventh-place showing in the Coke Zero 400 puts him within striking distance of a Wild Card for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Of course, the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet will still likely need a win over the final eight races before the postseason field is set. That’s not out of the question, either, given that McMurray finished second at Kentucky prior to his top-10 at Daytona.
This week: In 20 career starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, McMurray has two top-fives and four top-10s. In the past eight years at New Hampshire, McMurray ranks 27th out of 49 drivers with an average place of 23.1.