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NASCAR report card: Grading the top race teams for 2017

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Evaluating how each of the top teams in the NASCAR Cup Series performed over the course of the 2017 season.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship Ford EcoBoost 400
Crew chief Cole Pearn (left) and driver Martin Truex Jr. (right) celebrating winning the 2017 Monster Energy Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19, 2017.
Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

It is that time of the year when the red marker comes out and NASCAR’s top teams are issued grades based on how each performed during the 2017 Monster Energy Cup Series season. Only the top 25 in the owner point standings were evaluated, with a reminder that while every organization was graded fairly, not all were graded equally based on factors like talent, expectations, and resources at their disposal.

Furniture Row Racing

Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, which included leading the series in wins, top fives, top 10s, laps led, and average finish, makes this an easy grade to divvy out. That the superiority extended from the beginning of the season to the end without any performance dips underscores just how overpowering the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 team consisting of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn was en route to their first championship.

But Truex wasn’t FRR’s lone team in 2017, as the Colorado-based organization expanded and fielded a second Toyota for rookie Erik Jones. And although he crashed out of eight races and often overdrove beyond his capabilities, the 21-year-old still turned in a fine freshman season that saw him nearly win a couple of races, qualify for the playoffs, and rank 10th in laps led.

Bookending Truex’s championship, Jones earned Rookie of the Year honors.

Grade: A+

Joe Gibbs Racing

Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth won a combined eight races, with Busch narrowly missing on delivering Joe Gibbs Racing its second series title in three years. And had Hamlin not cut a tire in the semifinal round elimination race, he in all likelihood would’ve joined Busch in the championship bracket.

Busch’s season was especially superb, as his five wins and 2,023 laps led were second to Truex in both categories. Only misfortune and a lack of execution during the early months kept Busch from amassing even higher numbers.

Daniel Suarez didn’t match the production of the guy he replaced, Carl Edwards, though that was to be expected. Nonetheless, the rookie posted 12 top-10 finishes and made noticeable strides in the second half of the season. He’s poised for a breakout second year in 2018, with a career-first win a realistic possibility.

The lone blight for JGR in 2017 was how Kenseth’s tenure with the team ended. A decision brought about by a lack of sponsorship that forced JGR’s hand in jettisoning the veteran Kenseth, who not only wanted to remain as driver of the No. 20 car but demonstrated he still had the skills worthy of being with an upper-echelon team. It wasn’t a popular decision, however in the long-term the move made sense.

Grade: A

Chip Ganassi Racing

Once known for not maximizing its potential, Chip Ganassi Racing has emphatically shed that reputation. Not only did both its drivers earn playoff berths for the second consecutive year, but Kyle Larson also emerged as the only consistent challenger to Truex and Kyle Busch on a weekly basis.

Unquestionably CGR’s No. 1 driver, Larson won a career-high four races and, were it not for an engine failure, would’ve likely vied for the championship. For the fourth year in a row, Jamie McMurray failed to win a points race and never really came close to doing so on a non-restrictor-plate track. But the veteran rarely made mistakes and his average finish was only one spot below Larson’s.

Grade: B+

Wood Brothers Racing

A strong technical alliance with Penske, including the loaning of young talent Ryan Blaney, elevated Wood Brothers Racing back into the victory lane for the first time since 2011 and produced the team’s best season in two decades. Blaney scored his first-career win in June at Pocono Raceway, and put together a surprise playoff run where he made it to the semifinals before being eliminated.

The only knocks against the team were the too frequent mechanical failures — a byproduct of being Penske’s de facto R&D team — along with some weeks where it inexplicably struggled.

Still, the positives far outweigh any negatives.

Grade: B

Stewart-Haas Racing

As has become customary, the team co-owned by Tony Stewart and Gene Haas again struggled to generate consistency across all four of its cars.

Whereas Kevin Harvick won twice, was second in average finish, and led the fourth-most laps, Kurt Busch had a roller-coaster year where after winning the season-opening Daytona 500 he went 13 races until recording another top-five. Then there was Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick, who each went winless and failed to earn a playoff berth.

One factor that skews Stewart-Haas Racing’s grade in its favor is the offseason manufacturer switch from Chevrolet to Ford, which included the team also constructing its own chassis. That change contributed heavily to the unevenness — especially through the early months.

Grade: B-

Team Penske

How divergent were the results between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano? Keselowski won three times and advanced to the championship finale, while Logano had just a single victory and missed the playoffs altogether.

Logano’s futility was striking, considering he made the championship finale in 2014 and 2016 and entered this year as a title favorite. But after NASCAR penalized the No. 22 team for a nonconforming rear suspension after its win at Richmond Raceway in May, Logano’s results fell off a cliff through the summer. He had only three top 10s in the 16 subsequent races, and with his win classified as encumbered he ended below the cutoff to earn postseason eligibility.

The common hurdle the Penske Fords faced in 2017 was finding winning speed on mile-and-a-half tracks. And with those sized speedways making up the bulk of the schedule combined with Toyota’s dominance, it often made for a trying season leaving Keselowski and Logano at a disadvantage.

Grade: C+

Germain Racing

Ty Dillon’s respectable rookie season saw him rank 24th in points with a 20.7 average finish. He also showed the occasional flash that he may be able to lift midsize Germain Racing to greater heights, putting together especially strong efforts at Dover International Speedway in June and at Phoenix Raceway in November.

Grade: C

Richard Childress Racing

The good news is Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon each made a trip to the winner’s circle, snapping Richard Childress Racing’s winless drought that dated to November 2013. Yet the wins for Newman and Dillon were by virtue of pit strategy and fuel mileage, not by overall exceptional performance.

More so, RCR continued to be average to good most weeks in 2017. Much like it has been for the past few years where circumstances needed to fall favorable for the team to have a reasonable shot at winning.

Grade: C

Roush Fenway Racing

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s pair of wins provided Roush Fenway Racing some needed positivity after a lengthy rebuilding stretch, which included the team downsizing from three full-time cars to two last season. That optimism is muted, however, by the fact that both of Stenhouse’s victories occurred on restrictor-plate tracks and he wasn’t competitive much elsewhere. Meanwhile teammate Trevor Bayne virtually mirrored what he did the season before — only two top-five finishes, eight laps led, and 22nd in points.

Grade: C

Hendrick Motorsports

Expectations are always high for Hendrick Motorsports. This will happen when you’ve won a NASCAR-record 11 championships and possess a wealth of resources.

Yet despite Jimmie Johnson winning three races, Kasey Kahne taking the Brickyard 400, and Chase Elliott posting five runner-up finishes, most everyone associated with Hendrick concedes the team had a subpar 2017. That its Chevrolets frequently lacked competitive speed factored significantly in Johnson having career lows in nearly every major statistical category, Kahne being an afterthought for much of the year, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season being remembered more for what happened off the track than on it.

Grade: C-

Richard Petty Motorsports

Scaling down to a single car was supposed to allow Richard Petty Motorsports to maximize its resources where Aric Almirola’s No. 43 team would be the central focus. But the results were largely the same with little tangible performance gains, aside from Darrell Wallace Jr.’s four-race stint for the injured Almirola that injected some needed enthusiasm.

Ultimately, RPM’s 2017 may be most remembered for what happened off the track. In the wake of primary sponsor Smithfield Foods announcing it would leave for the greener pastures SHR offered, the team and company each fired public salvos at the other that cast neither side in a positive light. The demise of the relationship places RPM in a precarious situation where it enters the offseason needing to fill a sizable sponsorship gap.

Grade: C-