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Midseason Review: Gordon's Surprise Threat

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

1. Jeff Gordon - 1 win, 6 Top 5 and 13 Top 10 - This truly has been a surprise season for the Hendrick Motorsports star. For the first time in several years Gordon is a potent threat to win the championship. He's challenging for wins each week and is on pace to post his most Top 10s since his 2009 season. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson are on a mission to win Gordon's fifth championship. We wouldn't take them lightly in this endeavor.

2. Jimmie Johnson -
3 wins, 6 Top 5 and 12 Top 10 - Mr. Six-Time Champion is well on course to challenge for that history-making seventh championship in 2014. Johnson got off to a slow start but has quickly warmed up with the weather, grabbing three victories in the last six races leading up to Daytona weekend. As always, he's a monster when Chase time rolls around, so Johnson appears to be on his typical pace and schedule.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
2 wins, 9 Top 5 and 12 Top 10 - Mr. Consistency has rediscovered victory lane in 2014. With his Daytona and Pocono wins, this is the first season since 2004 that the NASCAR icon has made multiple trips to victory lane in a single season. Earnhardt is also showing the week-in and week-out consistency we've grown accustomed to seeing in recent years. He's as big a threat to win the championship as he ever has been.

4. Brad Keselowski -
2 wins, 8 Top 5 and 9 Top 10 - It hasn't come easy, but the Penske Racing star has battled through some consistency issues and comes to the mid-season mark one of the hottest drivers in the series. His dominant victory at Kentucky Speedway an exclamation point coming into the July Daytona race. The No. 2 Ford team is showing the same muscle that Keselowski used to win the championship in 2012. That should make all in the garage area a bit nervous.

5. Matt Kenseth -
0 wins, 6 Top 5 and 11 Top 10 - We knew it would be difficult for Kenseth to live up to the stellar marks he set in 2013 at Joe Gibbs Racing, but we wouldn't have believed he'd be winless through the first half of the season. But that is the case as we come to Daytona. Consistency has been returning to the No. 20 team slowly, but the laps led and speed is still missing. Kenseth is one hot streak away from moving back up into the Top 3 of this ranking, but it remains to be seen if he will.
6. Carl Edwards -
2 wins, 4 Top 5 and 8 Top 10 - While Edwards and the No. 99 team have been way more successful than we imagined in 2014, they still lack the consistency each week to post Top-10 finishes and challenge for the championship. Thanks to his two victories to this point, Edwards will easily be a participant in the Chase for the Cup, but unless he improves down the stretch, he won't likely be a major threat to win this year's championship. This could be his swan song with Roush Fenway Racing.

7. Joey Logano -
2 wins, 6 Top 5 and 9 Top 10 - The Penske Racing youngster has held onto the gains he made in 2013 and he's learned to win races this season. No one has been stronger on the intermediate ovals this season, and that's been a large part of Logano's success. He's been carving up the cookie cutter ovals. We look for him to continue to ride that niche and post another win or two in the second half of the season.

8. Ryan Newman -
0 wins, 1 Top 5 and 6 Top 10 - The new Richard Childress Racing driver hasn't made a big splash with his new team, but he's brought his trademark consistency at all types of tracks to what was a flagging No. 31 team prior to his arrival. We would like to see Newman in the Top 10 more in the second half of the season, but not sure he can pull that bump in performance. Instead he's likely to continue finishing in the Top 15 most weeks, which makes him a safe and predictable fantasy racing play.
9. Kevin Harvick -
2 wins, 5 Top 5 and 8 Top 10 - Bad luck, engine failures and other things conspired to slow Harvick's debut at Stewart Haas Racing. However, those problems are well in the rearview mirror. For the last two months he's been a weekly threat to win races and assert the No. 4 team's dominance. Harvick has finished runner-up in three of the last seven races leading up to Daytona weekend. That shows how painfully close he is to being a four or five race winner at this point. Harvick will be an irresistible force in the second half of the season.

10. Kyle Busch -
one win, four Top 5 and 7 Top 10 - He's averaged 3 victories per season over his nine-year career. Right now, Busch is in jeopardy of falling below this mark. It's uncharacteristic for the Joe Gibbs Racing star to be struggling this time of year, but that's exactly what's been going on in the No. 18 camp. Busch's runner-up finish at Kentucky snapped a four-race Top-10 drought, so there's immediate hope of a turnaround. Busch is a good by low candidate right now if your fantasy league recognizes trades.

11. Paul Menard -
0 wins, 3 Top 5 and 9 Top 10 - Menard has wildly exceeded our expectations for the No. 27 RCR team in 2014. With the departure of Kevin Harvick from this three-car stable, Menard has taken the yoke and ran as the lead driver for this historic camp. He hasn't won any races, but every week he's finishing in or threatening the Top 10. That's the making of a career-best season for Menard. The veteran driver may not win in the second half of the season, but he's on pace to set career marks in every finishing statistical category and post a best standings finish in his 11-year career.

12. Kyle Larson -
0 wins, 3 Top 5 and 7 Top 10 - The surprising rookie driver has been shockingly good in the No. 42 Chevrolet. He flirted with victory lane at Fontana in just his fifth start of the season and collected a runner-up finish. Each week we've seen him redefine our expectations for this team. Larson has cooled a bit in the last couple races coming to the mid-season mark, but that should be of little concern. Just a soft patch in what will otherwise be a very successful rookie season.

13. Greg Biffle -
0 wins, 2 Top 5 and 5 Top 10 - We've been a bit underwhelmed with this veteran driver to this point in 2014. Biffle is usually a stud on the series' intermediate ovals, but that's not been the case. The No. 16 Ford has been wicked-fast on the restrictor-plate tracks and that's been about the only bright spot for this Roush Fenway racer. Biffle is normally an ace on the two-mile ovals of Fontana and Michigan, but that has not been the case either to this point. Hopefully the contract extension distractions are coming to an end for Biffle and he can improve his consistency on his better ovals down the stretch run.

14. Clint Bowyer -
0 wins, 2 Top 5 and 6 Top 10 - Bowyer is right about where we imagined he'd be preseason. The controversy of Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of last season will be hard to shake and move past. However, signs are pointing north the last couple weeks and it looks like the No. 15 Toyota team could be coming around. He's not been a major threat to win yet in 2014, but that should change in the second half. Bowyer is going to increase his Top 10 collection and press for a victory in a spot or two as we approach the Chase in September.

15. Kasey Kahne -
0 wins, 2 Top 5 and 7 Top 10 - The Hendrick Motorsports star has struggled more than we could have dreamed coming to the half-way point in the season. Bad luck and couple DNF's have put a cramp on his performance entering June. However, signs are that things are turning around in the No. 5 camp. Kahne is riding a three-race Top-10 streak coming to Daytona and hoping to sustain this momentum going into the second half of the season. The veteran driver's laps led has been sadly lacking to this point for any driver in the Hendrick Motorsports camp. This simply has to improve if he hopes to make the Chase.

16. Tony Stewart -
0 wins, 2 Top 5 and 5 Top 10 - A fast start to the season had us rethinking our fears for Stewart swooning this season, but a prolonged cold spell through the late spring has confirmed our fears. Smoke looks like the rusty driver we would have expected for such a long layoff due to injury. He's posted only one Top-10 finish in the nine events leading up to Daytona. While not horribly bad, he's been finishing in the middle teens to 20th each week. That's simply unacceptable for a star of this magnitude in NASCAR. Doubts remain about a turnaround anytime in the second half as we head toward the Chase.

17. Austin Dillon -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 1 Top 10 - It's been a mixed bag of results to this point for the return of the historic No. 3 team. Dillon has been hard-pressed to measure up to his pole win and Top-10 finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. However, the young driver has been a model of Top-20 consistency most weeks, only failing to crack the Top 20 in four of the season's first 17 races. Fans and fantasy racing players alike would like to see some improvement from Dillon in the second-half. With only 3 laps led and one Top-10 finish to this point, there's a lot to improve on.

18. Denny Hamlin -
1 win, 4 Top 5 and 5 Top 10 - The first half has seemed like a long season in itself to Hamlin. With only five Top-10 finishes to this point, he's resting on the fact that he has a win in pocket to get him into the Chase field come September. Outside of the restrictor-plate race tracks (win in the Sprint Unlimited, win in the Gatorade Duel, runner-up Daytona 500 and win at Talladega) it's been a train wreck. Some of his better tracks like Darlington, Martinsville, Richmond, and Pocono have yielded shockingly bad results. The jury is out on whether the No. 11 team can turn it around in the second half of 2014.

19. Brian Vickers -
0 wins, 2 Top 5 and 5 Top 10 - The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran checks in about where we anticipated he would be the mid-season marker. 2014 is the return to full-time Sprint Cup action for this driver after two seasons of part-time racing and battling blood clots. Vickers had a good string of finishes through the mid-spring, but he's swooned hard since the beginning of summer and warm weather. He enters the Daytona race on a five-race Top-10 drought and looking to turn things around. We expect the No. 55 Toyota team to suffer the same streaks of inconsistency as we head down the stretch toward Homestead.

20. Marcos Ambrose -
0 wins, 2 Top 5 and 3 Top 10 - The RPM veteran hasn't broke through to win on an oval yet and we don't expect that fact to change in the balance of this season. In fact, things have been hard to come by for the driver of the No. 9 Ford and showed in his struggle to crack the Top 10 at Sonoma recently. The biggest positive for this driver and team has been Ambrose's great results and improvement on the series' short tracks. If he can find his groove on the intermediate ovals in the second-half, Ambrose could prove to be a handy fantasy racing driver for the remaining 19 events.

21. Jamie McMurray -
0 wins, 2 Top 5 and 5 Top 10 - The highlight of the first half of the season has to be McMurray's big win in the All-Star Race exhibition event at Charlotte. Unfortunately, that doesn't help him in making the Chase for the Cup or add to his points total. But it does show that the No. 1 team does have the stuff to challenge the best in the series and win when it's all on the line. McMurray may get off that zero wins mark in the second half. This is a driver and team that are on the verge of breaking through to big things.

22. A.J. Allmendinger -
0 wins, 1 Top 5 and 3 Top 10 - The new JTG Daugherty Racing driver is settling in just fine with his new team. Allmendinger's accomplishments and points standing thus far in 2014 are on pace to equal or better anything any prior driver for this team has accomplished. Still, there's a lot of work left to do for this journeyman driver. Allmendinger has had bouts of inconsistency through the first 17 races, and he's currently in the middle of a seven-race Top-10 drought. Indicators point to a long second half unless the Dinger gets the ship righted soon.

23. Aric Almirola -
0 wins, 1 Top 5 and 3 Top 10 - What started so hopeful for the driver of the No. 43 Ford has turned south in recent weeks. Almirola had fanned the flames of a possible No. 43 team renaissance with three Top-10s and eight Top-15s through the first 13 races. He had climbed as high as 19th in the driver standings at one point. But with beginning of June, the bloom began to fall off. The veteran driver comes to Daytona on a four-race Top-20 drought and limping from the recent DNF at Kentucky. Almirola has the skill to turn this slump around, but we don't expect any miracles down the stretch.

24. Casey Mears -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 1 Top 10 - The driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet has been a pleasant surprise through the first half of the season. Mears is finishing in the Top 20 most weeks and staying on the lead lap in competitive racing. That's a marked improvement over any of his four prior seasons at Germain Racing. This small team has come a long way from their start-and-park days five years ago. We don't expect to see any shocking wins from Mears in the near future, but we expect the veteran driver and team to continue racing on the lead lap and finishing in the Top 20 most weekends.

25. Martin Truex Jr. -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 3 Top 10 - We knew things would be difficult for the former Michael Waltrip Racing driver, but we had no idea it would be this tough. Truex came to this solid, small race team after his ouster at MWR. It's taken a dozen races for him to develop some chemistry with this team and begin to log some Top-10 finishes. Things have been looking up the last month for the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet, but that doesn't mean the growing and struggles are over. Truex has yet to lead a single lap this year, and Kurt Busch had led 160 laps with this same team to this same point in the season last year.

26. Kurt Busch -
1 win, 3 Top 5 and 3 Top 10 - New team jitters, inconsistency, lack of chemistry, and general frustrations have plagued Busch with his new No. 41 team. Although he did post a big surprise and upset win at Martinsville earlier this season, things have been a big struggle otherwise. Busch has rolled off three-straight Top-15 finishes entering Daytona weekend, so there is some hope that things are on the verge of turning around. As he showed at Furniture Row Racing last season, Busch is capable of many Top-10 finishes and making the Chase field. Continued improvement is expected as the season wears on.

27. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
0 wins, 1 Top 5 and 3 Top 10 - Things have not come easy for second-year driver Stenhouse. While it is generally improved to this point over his rookie campaign, the improvement has not been good enough to inspire good feelings for the direction of this driver and team. Two of Stenhouse's three Top-10 finishes have come on the restrictor-plate race tracks. These have been good ovals for the sophomore Roush Fenway Racing driver. Other than those, intermediate ovals and short tracks have been a pure struggle for the No. 17 team. We have to begin to wonder if a crew chief change is in order. Short of that, there's not much hope of a turnaround in the remainder of the season.

28. Danica Patrick -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 1 Top 10 - Just when you think the light switch is about to flip on for Patrick and she has everything figured out, an improbable and shocking performance occurs. That's been the story of Patrick's 2014 thus far. The Top-20s at Fontana and Michigan's two-mile ovals were predictable, but her Top-10 finish at Kansas was extraordinary, and yet a head fake in what was perceived to be a crossroads for the No. 10 SHR team. It appears we're on the slow track to improvement and progress with this driver. We expect Patrick to have another surprise finish or two in the second half of the season, but don't expect any mid-season breakouts to occur.

29. Justin Allgaier -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 0 Top 10 - The HScott Motorsports rookie has had some ups and downs, but he's generally been racing well and staying competitive. Outside of Allgaier's two DNF's, he's finished on the lead lap in five of his 17 starts to-date. That's turned out only two Top-20 finishes. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for this fledgling driver and team. Allgaier has more to offer than this level of performance, and we would expect the No. 51 Chevrolet team to grab a few more Top-20 finishes in the remaining half of the season.

30. Michael Annett -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 0 Top 10 - Of this huge rookie class, it could be Annett that turns the corner the fastest (aside from Kyle Larson of course). His three Top-20 finishes to this point were punctuated with a respectable 18th-place effort this past week at Kentucky Speedway. If the Tommy Baldwin Racing driver can find the ingredients to recreate this level of performance on the intermediate ovals, there could be many good times ahead for the No. 7 team. Annett feels like a driver that's underestimated and capable of much more.

31. David Gilliland -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 0 Top 10 - By most measures it's been a bad season for the No. 38 FRM team and Gilliland. The usually dependable super speedway events have even turned sour for this veteran driver. Not much has gone right for Gilliland, but at least he's doing somewhat better than his teammate David Ragan. Gilliland's 20th-place Richmond finish and his 21st-place Sonoma finish have been the high water marks in a season riddled with finishes outside the Top 30. Improvement will be hard to achieve in this Sprint Cup field full of talented and younger drivers.

32. Cole Whitt -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 0 Top 10 - Of the lower tier drivers, Whitt has been a big surprise. The new BK Racing driver has done well more than expected. Whitt has qualified for all 17 events to this point and stands a respectable 32nd in the driver standings, now with provisional starts to fall back on. The slate shows only one DNF, which came in the season-opening Daytona 500, and he's been running at the end of the rest of these races. Whitt has generally been a 25th- to 30th-place finisher most weekends, so improvement is due. The 23-year-old has been working his tail-end off for this team and it's been showing in the results.

33. Reed Sorenson -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 0 Top 10 - Another surprise driver that was without a ride until the season virtually started, but has done well given the circumstances. Sorenson signed to drive the second entry for Tommy Baldwin Racing, the No. 36 Chevrolet. He replaced J.J. Yeley in the ride and has performed admirably. Despite 4 DNF's in the middle of the spring, Sorenson has maintained his Top-35 points status. The journeyman driver has picked up three Top-25 finishes and has generally stayed within a couple laps of the lead lap at the end of races. We expect this team and driver to hold the course going toward the fall.

34. David Ragan -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 0 Top 10 - Ragan has been a major disappointment in 2014. Even the usual restrictor-plate track magic has not been with the No. 34 Ford team to this point. He's even been outdone on a weekly basis by his teammate David Gilliland. Ragan is supposed to be the star and lead driver of this stable, but we're simply not seeing it. His lone Top-25 finish through the first 17 races lacks a lot to be desired. Based on his recent poor performances at Michigan, Sonoma and Kentucky, more is wrong with this team than just the driver.

35. Alex Bowman -
0 wins, 0 Top 5 and 0 Top 10 - For the rookie BK Racing driver things have been as good as could be expected. Bowman has qualified for the full 17-race schedule to this point. That feat alone is worth some praise and has given him the precious Top-35 ranking in the standings to provide provisional starts. The four DNF's were to be expected with an inexperienced rookie driver, but the lack of Top-20 finishes is disturbing. All-in-all, Bowman has a lot to work on in the second half of 2014. If his recent finishes at Michigan, Sonoma and Kentucky are any indication, it will be an uphill battle all the way.