The Sprint Cup schedule features 36 points races, two nonpoint races and only three open weekends that stretch from February to November. After only five point races and the non-point awarding The Sprint Unlimited, the series will be observing its first open date. Some teams need the time to regroup after not getting off to the kind of start that they wanted, while a few others would have been happy to continue with the early season success that they have experienced.
The Wood Brothers, with rookie driver Ryan Blaney, returned to the series for the first time this season on a full-time basis, but did not have the luxury of being one of NASCAR’s 36 Charter teams guaranteed a starting spot at each stop on the schedule. Blaney and the Wood Brothers have risen to the challenge as they have qualified for each race and are now 17th in the points with two top-10 finishes. Early season grade: B-.
Danica Patrick entered the season with a new sponsor and high hopes, but hope is fading fast after two DNF’s that has the Stewart-Haas Racing driver mired 29th in the standings. She is yet to be competitive enough to run up front and has been caught up in several wrecks. Early season grade: D.
Defending champion Kyle Busch has yet to make it to victory lane, but he has been a threat to do so at every race. He has sat on one pole and has finished in the top five in four of the first five races. That is good enough for fifth in the points, 25 points from the top spot. Early season grade: A-.
Kevin Harvick sits on top of the points with a win and a very impressive five top 10’s with three of those being top 5’s. He has also collected 10 bonus points, which is a good indicator that he has been in contention for more than just one win. Early season grade: A+.
Clint Bowyer is in a one-year contract with HScott Motorsports before he moves next season to Stewart-Haas Racing to take over the seat of the retiring Tony Stewart. It may be a good thing that he already has a seat for next season, as the results of this young season would not attract to many owners. He has yet to post a top 10 this season and has one DNF. Early season grade: D.
Matt Kenseth started the season leading the final lap of the Daytona 500, but a bad decision forced him to a 14th place finish. That has been the story of his season, as he has not posted the kind of finishes that reflect just how competitive he has been. He has only one top 10 with one DNF, but his four bonus points show that he has run up front. Early season grade: C.
NASCAR deserves a grade or two for the early start of the season.
Only one race has had a full field of 40 cars take the green flag to start the race. The sanctioning body reduced the size of the field from 43 to 40 this season and, with the Charter system guaranteeing 36 of those spots, few teams are left to try and survive with only four spots up for grabs each week. While it may not look good, the loss of the “start and park cars” has not taken away from the action on the track. All 36 of the Charter teams should continue to get stronger since they know they will be in the show and have a steady cash flow coming in, which in return should eventually make the racing better. Early season grade: A-.
NASCAR also announced before the beginning of the season that it would no longer list the winnings after a race. Every team knows what they will get under the Charter system, but fans like to know how much a driver gets for his finish. Of course, this is a business just like the NFL or the NBA and there are some things the fans will never be privy to, but after years of looking on Monday to see what a win was worth, why take that that away? Early season grade: D.
Event: STP 500.
Track: Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile oval, 12O of banking in the turns).
Date: April 3, 1 p.m.
Defending Champion: Denny Hamlin.