12 Drivers to Watch: Quarterly Review

After nine weeks of racing, NASCAR now starts the month of May with a series of southern races.

Last weekend the boys put on a wild, controversial show in Richmond, where Kyle Busch took the checkered flag, Tony Stewart finished third and Carl Edwards fell to 10th. Edwards was faced with drama when there was confusion about his restart position and restarting too early. Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew made an error that sent Johnson to the back of the field for a last place restart, and he still managed to finish in the sixth spot.

Now, onward to Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte. Let’s take a look at some drivers for a quarterly review of 2012 Drivers to Watch.

The first four drivers are at Hendrick Motorsports. Last spring, the dynamic foursome started the Aaron's 499 at Talladega in the top four spots. Now, with Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 Chevrolet, can they repeat a top-four start? Team HMS is the most talked about team in the media right now because we are all awaiting that elusive 200th win, and some are tired of holding their breath. Should it be fair to lay our eyes on Dale Earnhardt Jr. to capture that checkered flag? I don’t need to remind you that it has been 138 races since he took home a trophy. A win would mean a lot to him, Team 88 and JR Nation; it also means he’d score a spot in the All-Star Race and fans would have to vote in another driver. Earnhardt hasn’t won a pole since the 2011 Daytona 500, either. Winning a pole this year locks a driver into the 2013 Shootout at Daytona, once known as the Bud Shootout. Regardless, the bottom line is Earnhardt Jr. is the strongest finisher at Hendrick Motorsports. He finished second in Richmond, which bumped him to second in the standings, trailing Greg Biffle by five points. At ‘Dega, Earnhardt Jr. has a record of five wins, nine top five and 12 top 10s. A sixth victory would tie him with Jeff Gordon.     

Gordon is surprisingly 17th in points. That could very well change this weekend. This season, he is celebrating his 20-year anniversary with Hendrick Motorsports and DuPont. He is the driver that scored Rick Hendrick the 100th win. I've heard some say it would be nice to see him be the 200th winner, for the time he has spent at HMS. This season hasn’t been Gordon’s best to date; he’s crashed more times than not, and has finished lower then 10th seven times. Most crashes were not his fault, though. He was about to have a strong battle for first place with Jimmie Johnson in Martinsville when the No. 15 car spun him and the No. 48 car out of line.

Johnson is sixth in points. After all the drama that surrounded him at the beginning of the season - penalties for illegal equipment on the car and for crashing after a lap in the Daytona 500 - he was able to climb out of the hole and earn his way into the top 10 in the points standings. Solid starts in the front, consistent top finishes, and a win will be what Johnson needs to continue to work his way ahead. Johnson is focused and driven, and he won’t stop driving hard. Saturday night in Richmond proved his talent. He moved ahead from the 27th position to the lead, and after a pit stop penalty, he had to restart in the back, but he was able to pass drivers until he reached the sixth position. He does have two victories in ‘Dega, and last year, he closed the Aaron's 499 in a dramatic finish with Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushing him to the lead just in time to win the race. On Twitter, Johnson ends his Tweets using the hashtag #sixpack. With that said, as long as Johnson keeps his head on straight for the rest of the season, he could very well find his #sixpack. 

Kasey Kahne was a hot topic at the beginning of the season. I was not going to add him to my list of guys to watch. His first five starts were nothing to brag about because he crashed and had one DNF. In Fontana, he finished 14th, then in Texas he finished seventh. He had another strong run in Kansas. On Saturday night at Richmond, he finished in fifth, bumping him to 23rd in points. It’s old news to talk about the struggles Kahne faced - it's time to move on. Will Kahne be the guy to give his boss the 200th win? At ‘Dega, he has started in the top 10 three times, has finished second twice and in the top 10 three times. He has the talent and the equipment for multiple first-place finishes, so what’s the real excuse for such a bad beginning? I realize it's all bad luck to get caught up in wrecks and have to deal with failing engines. I also believe a lot of drivers have a meek start when they are new to a team, but all seems to be falling into place now, and Kahne could continue to ride his way up the ladder to a successful end. There are a lot of races ahead; it’s quite foolish to predict what could happen, but can we ask if he’ll turn it all around and finish in the top-10 this November? How about we stop talking about it? Let Kahne focus on one race at a time.

Denny Hamlin is back with a vengeance. He finished 2011 ninth in points, so one could say he was in a dark place last year for having one win in the season. That’s a bit odd, considering he won eight times in 2010. Now, with a new crew chief, Darian Grubb, he seems to have pulled out of the dark zone. He’s at two wins in nine starts, and is now third in points, nine points behind the leader. Hamlin is talented enough to stay in Chase contention until November. He has made it in every year since 2006. He will have a chance to race in next year’s 2013 Shootout at Daytona for the pole he won at Phoenix. Hamlin finished in fourth at Richmond, and is confident he can win more races. He hasn’t won in 'Dega yet; he only has five top 10s, three of which are in the top five. But there are no worries, with Darlington one race away, a track where he has a record of five top fives in six starts, the 11 No. FedEx Toyota Camry team could win for a third time this season. 

Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career. He’s awaiting his first victory at Talladega. He’s finished in the top 10 five times this season … and is still fourth in points. It’s safe to count on Kenseth - he’ll finish in the Chase. I’d like to believe he’ll finish in the top five, and possibly contend for the championship. 

Clint Bowyer’s bold move to Michael Waltrip Racing seemed to be a bit surprising, but he’s taken the 5-hour ENERGY No. 15 Toyota to a high place this season. He does have a lot of talent, but with five career wins in Cup, he can still be considered an underdog. He’s won twice at Talladega, finished in the top five four times, and in the top 10 six times. Bowyer is on an upward climb, and if he keeps this up, he’ll be in the Chase come fall.

This is Martin Truex Jr.’s best season to date. He was very close to winning at Kansas, but Hamlin had more power and Truex had to settle for second. He only has one career win; the second is soon to come, and it’s safe to assume it’ll be this season. At 'Dega, he’s finished in the top five once. With the equipment he’s had recently, he could very well win this weekend.

Brad Keselowski finished fifth in points in 2011 with three trips to victory lane. This season, he’s won one race and has four top 10s. He’s 13th in points right now, but I wouldn’t count him out of the chase just yet - he’s proven to be successful in the summer. He won at Talladega before, and he can win there again.  

Tony Stewart has two wins this 2012 season. That’s pretty good for the defending Cup champion. He’s eighth in points thus far, but what do points at this time really mean? If he messes up now, it could ruin it for him later. Finishing in third in Richmond last Saturday was heartbreaking for Smoke; he was leading before the last caution which was thrown for debris. It was either a beer can or a water bottle, but it really doesn’t matter because whatever it was, it could’ve gone unnoticed and Smoke would’ve won the race. Winner Kyle Busch even admitted that had the caution not been thrown, he wouldn’t have caught up. Losing a race when you should’ve won it is frustrating, but it’s behind him now, and it's off to ‘Dega he goes, where he has 13 top 10s. Nine of them are top fives and one of them is a win.

Greg Biffle has been the points leader for seven weeks now. Is this a position he'll stay at for awhile? Will he even stay in the top points for the remainder of this season? His luck could be credited to his new crew chief, Matt Puccia, and pit crew. The No. 16 team's chemistry has been strong out of the gate. Races are not won alone; it's a team effort. Any error on pit road could be costly to a driver. 

Kevin Harvick -  I had to mention Harvick because I chose him to be this season’s champion. However, he hasn’t won a race and has only finished in the top five twice, with five top-10 finishes. Sure, he’s seventh in points, but he’s under the radar. There isn’t much to brag about thus far, but there’s more to come. He’s known to be "the Closer," and he’s known to jump out of nowhere to win a race. He did not expect to win last year's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte; he just doesn’t really like racing there. At Talladega, he’s has 10 top 10 finishes, six top fives and a win.  

In conclusion, errors could be costly to any driver, and winning is beneficial to all drivers. We're starting week 10 and there are 26 more races to go. A lot of drama could unfold, and a lot of surprises are sure to be had.

Genevieve is a writer with a day job in child care. All photos in this post are her own; photography is one of her new favorite hobbies. She lives on Lake Norman, not far from all the race shops. When not writing about NASCAR, she writes about other personal topics including fictions stories; she also loves to exercise, spend time with her niece, friends and family, and she especially loves spending a lot of time outside during the summer season! You can follow her on Twitter at @C_Genevieve.
12 Drivers to Watch: Quarterly Review 12 Drivers to Watch: Quarterly Review Reviewed by Unknown on Saturday, May 05, 2012 Rating: 5