In the nine-month ultra-marathon that is the Sprint Cup season, the Fourth of July weekend race at Daytona International Speedway annually marks the midway point of the 36-race season. And what a grind it is: from February to November, the drivers will cover nearly 15,000 total miles on tracks across America.
Now that nearly half of those miles are in the rearview mirror, let's hand out our midseason grades to the top 10 teams in NASCAR. If you want to see if a particular team has improved or declined since the quarter mark, here are my first set of grades.
Furniture Row Racing: A+
The expectations for Furniture Row were decidedly low at the outset of the season. A single-car team based in Denver -- virtually every other organization, it should be remembered, is located within an hour of NASCAR's hub in Charlotte, NC -- Furniture Row before this year had only three top-five finishes in its 199 career starts. Since it started competing at the Cup level in 2005, it has been a back-back-back-of-the-pack race team. (There was one notable exception: Regan Smith piloted Furniture Row to its only victory in 2011, at Darlington Speedway.)
But this year, with driver Kurt Busch manning the No. 78 Chevy, Furniture Row is contending for victories and has an outside shot at qualifying for its first Chase. The 2004 Cup champion, Busch is currently 14th in the standings and he has four top-five finishes, which are as many as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle, all of whom drive for multi-car, deep-pocketed teams. An alliance with Richard Childress Racing has clearly given Furniture Row a boost, but the team's rise has been one of the most remarkable stories in NASCAR this season.
Hendrick Motorsports: A-
And the beat goes on for Hendrick, which has been NASCAR's most dominant organization of the 21st century. Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader and five-time champion, has clearly emerged as the championship favorite while Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sixth in the standings, should breeze into the Chase as well.
The only reason why Hendrick didn't earn an "A" is because of the recent struggles of Kasey Kahne (11th in points) and Jeff Gordon (12th). Most people in the garage expect both drivers to advance to the playoffs, which would mark the second straight season that all four Hendrick drivers made it into the Chase.
Roush-Fenway Racing: B+
Though the Fords have been at a slight horsepower disadvantage for most of the season, Roush-Fenway is still poised to deliver two drivers into the Chase. Carl Edwards, second in the standings, is virtually guaranteed a spot with nine races left in the regular season while Greg Biffle (ninth) looks like he'll power in as well.
The lone disappointment at RFR has been Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Though he's a virtual lock to win rookie of the year honors, he's struggled in his first full season on the Cup circuit. He has zero top-10 finishes and currently sits 20th in the standings. Yes, he's only in his first year, and almost every rookie endures growing pains, but owner Jack Roush once told me that Stenhouse would become one of the all-time greats in NASCAR. Well, he has many, many miles to go before he arrives at that destination.
Joe Gibbs Racing: B+
This is the one team that has consistently shown the speed to match the Hendrick organization. The addition of Matt Kenseth, who had spent the first 13 years of his Cup career at Roush, has turned out to be the move of the offseason. Kenseth, driving the No. 20 Toyota, leads the series with four victories and has led more total laps (960) than any other driver. Right now, he's the one who appears capable of beating Johnson for the championship.
Kyle Busch, who is seventh in points, remains a wild card because he has the potential to win or wreck every week. Denny Hamlin, the third Gibbs driver, should already be looking ahead to 2014. Hamlin missed four starts due to a broken vertebra he suffered in a crash in Fontana, Calif., in late March and has never been the same since he climbed back into the cockpit. He's 25th in the standings.
Michael Waltrip Racing: B+
MWR is on the cusp of becoming an elite team. If the Chase started today, both of its full time drivers, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., would advance to the playoffs.
Bowyer has yet to win or even finish in the top five, but he's currently third in the standings because he manages his equipment well and he rarely make mental mistakes. As a result, he usually finishes around tenth every week. Truex, who has one victory (at the Sonoma road course in late June), sits eighth in the standings.
Richard Childress Racing: B+
RCR is in awkward stage right now. Its flagship driver, Kevin Harvick, is leaving at season's end for Stewart-Haas Racing and two of Childress's grandsons -- Austin and Ty Dillon -- are on the fast track to ascending to seats on the Cup team. (Austin is currently fifth in the Nationwide standings; Ty is third in the Truck rankings.)
But even though big changes are looming, RCR has performed well this season. Harvick has won two races and is fourth in the points. He's a shoo-in to make the Chase. Paul Menard is 15th and needs to win one -- maybe two -- of the final nine races to advance to the playoffs.
Penske Racing: C+
Defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski is in danger of earning the unofficial title of most disappointing driver. Through 17 races, he's 13th in the standings and fading with alarming speed. He's yet to win and hasn't finished higher than 12th during the past month. Last Saturday at Kentucky, he came in 33rd and dropped four spots in the standings.
Yet, there is good news for Penske: The team's other driver, Joey Logano, has been a pleasant surprise. After spending his first four seasons at Gibbs, Logano moved to Penske during the offseason, and now the 23-year-old is on the brink of qualifying for his first Chase. He's currently tenth in points. If nothing else, Logano and Keselowski should give Penske a formidable one-two combination for years to come.
Richard Petty Motorsports: D+
RPM has been a mid-pack team all season. Between its two drivers -- Aric Almirola (16th in points) and Marcos Ambrose (22nd) -- it has zero top-five finishes in 34 total starts and only seven top 10s. Don't expect either driver to qualify for the playoffs.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing: D
Say this for the duo of Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya: They're not struggling as mightily as they did in 2012, when they combined for zero top-five finishes in 72 total starts.
This year, McMurray has one top five (last Sunday at Kentucky) and Montoya has two (at Richmond and Dover), but neither will motor into the Chase. McMurray is 19th in points and Montoya is 23rd. There's a strong feeling in the garage that wholesale changes at EGR could be coming at season's end.
Stewart-Haas Racing: D
This has been a shockingly poor season for a team that is only two years removed from Tony Stewart's championship. SHR has struggled with its aerodynamic package all season, and the team's trio of Stewart (17th in points), Ryan Newman (18th) and Danica Patrick (27th) basically has been chasing all of the top drivers since the drop of the green flag in the Daytona 500 in February.
Stewart has a victory (at Dover in June), so if he can reach Victory Lane one more time over the final nine regular season races, he should make it into the Chase as a wild card. Otherwise, there's a chance that this team will be shut out of the playoffs for the first time in its five-year existence.