Monday, June 29, 2009

USA Soccer...improving?

Don't call me un-American for saying this, but Team USA's performance in the Confederations Cup, while brilliant, was not a sign of things to come. Team USA is not a major force in soccer in the world. Sure, they upended the world's top ranked team, Spain, but the proof was in the pudding against Brazil.

Teams that are top contenders to be among the best in the world do not surrender 2-0 leads after halftime.

Brazil was on their heels in the opening 45 minutes. The U.S. carried the play, passed well, obviously notched a pair of tallies, and looked like they belonged. Brazil came out in the 2nd half, and got on the board early--almost a tidal wave of offense pouring at the Americans. Team USA never had a chance.

Soccer may be the world's most popular game, but that doesn't ring true in America. The U.S. can become a world power, but right now, the game is a virtual punchline. Don't get me wrong, I love soccer. I sat and watched the Confed Final, and I used to watch games with my father back in Chicago. The broadcasts were in Spanish, and I couldn't understand what was being said, but watching soccer with my Dad was something I'll always cherish. Incidentally, none of those games I watched with Dad involved the U.S.

I don't profess to have a solution, as there are loads of quality youth soccer programs in not just this country, but right here in North Carolina. American soccer is far better off now, than it was, say 10 years ago. Still, it's not at the level of a Brazil, Spain, England, Germany, and so on.

Joey Logano picked up his first career Sprint Cup Series win on Sunday in New Hampshire, a race shortened by rain. Logano has long been considered the future of NASCAR, so picking a victory in his first season bodes well for him. Series flips the calendar, beginning their return visits to tracks, starting this weekend in Daytona.

Author Brett Friedlander on the program on Monday, and Winston-Salem Dash Manager Joe McEwing stops by on Wednesday. Check it out!

Mike Solarte

Friday, June 26, 2009

NBA Draft thoughts

Couple notes from Draft night.
  • Anyone banging on Stephen Curry for allegedly dropping his head in disappointment is a certified idiot. I've never seen a disappointed person, especially one who just became the 7th richest NBA rookie in the draft class, smiling in disappointment. Curry was hoping to go the New York Knicks, but Golden State snapped him one selection ahead of New York. Personally, I'm disappointed Curry is going out west. Having him in the east would have meant the ability to watch him blossom as a rookie. Now, it means staying up late in hopes of seeing that. Might be worth some shorter sleep nights during the season. Congrats to Steph, he'll do just fine.
  • Bobcats take Gerald Henderson with the 12th pick. It was a case of 1-a and 1-a. The Cats would have been fine with Henderson or Terrence Williams from Louisville, and when Williams went to New Jersey at 11, Henderson was the obvious pick. Was funny hearing MJ and Larry Brown talk about taking a Duke guy, considering their UNC backgrounds, but in the end, they feel Henderson will be a competent back up for Raja Bell, and given Bell's late season injuries, Henderson could be on the floor more than the average back-up.
  • Minnesota has to be thinking trade, considering they selected 4 guards in the first round. Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. 3 point guards. 2 Tar Heels. Weird, but the T-Wolves need all kinds of help, and now they have some young talent with which to maneuver.
  • A big thanks to my media brethren for putting up with me during the draft. News 14 Carolina had hourly updates from Bobcats HQ, and it, no doubt, was a distraction for the others. I appreciate their professionalism very much. Speaking of the other media folks, beat writer for the Charlotte Observer Rick Bonnell had the observation of the night....with so few big men available in the draft, no one wanted DeJuan Blair from Pittsburgh early. Blair eventually was selected in the 2nd round, 37th overall.

This will wrap up my week on the blog, have a great weekend, and we'll chat again on Monday!

Mike Solarte

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peppers signs

After much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that Julius Peppers is NOT a paycheck player.

Peppers camp made overtures about him playing for another team, saying he wanted to be a part of a 3-4 defense, and then allegedly listing 4 teams he wished to go to.

The Panthers didn't want to let their guy go for nothing, as is their right. They placed the franchise tag on him, basically saying, if you want to go, fine. We want something in return. Once that happened, Peppers wasn't going anywhere.

It was basically a foregone conclusion Peppers would be back in Carolina colors in 2009, but the price is steep. $16.7 million (with an "m") for 1 year of football. The number has been planned for, according to GM Marty Hurney, so it's already in the budget, so to speak.

Is Peppers worth that money? Well, who is worth that money? For an entertainer, that kind of tag means top notch performance. When you break it down, Peppers will make $1 million and changer per game.

He will be worth that kind of money if he has a repeat of his 2008 season, where he was ripping through blockers, recording sacks, and being a force on defense. If he fades into the 2007 Houdini act, there will be a lot of unhappy folks in the stands, and in the front office. The Panthers seem top believe that Peppers will follow up his 2008 with a similar 2009. A lot of folks hope they are right.

NBA Draft coverage comes your way Thursday night from Time Warner Cable Arena, as the Charlotte Bobcats hold the 12th overall selection (at least they do as I write this). We'll keep our eyes on their status, along with Stephen Curry's move to the bigs. Should be a big night--hope you check it all out.

Mike Solarte

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lucas Glover takes Open

It finally felt like a US Open on Monday. Normally, Monday would be the day after the Open. Thanks to Mother Nature, Monday was the final day of an epic battle pitting the golfers against Bethpage Black, with the elements mixed in.

Seems like a month ago when the Open began, and when it finally wrapped up Monday afternoon, Lucas Glover was the winner. Unlikely winner? Perhaps. Glover has one other win in his career, and that came 5 years ago. He was a contender during the Quail Hollow championship, but was unable to close the deal. This time, he practiced what he had been preaching--patience. An even par back nine helped ease the pain of a 38 on his opening nine holes. The teeth of the Black course began to show as the rains finally stayed away. Couple that with the sudden arrival of that "major championship feel," and you had the world's best players hanging on for their lives. Glover stayed on task, made some nice swings coming home and won it.

There was quite a group chasing him down. Playing partner Ricky Barnes flamed out, but get past him and you had David Duval and Phil Mickelson in hot pursuit. Mickelson had it knotted at -4 after a wonderful eagle at number 13. Phil couldn't keep himself together down the stretch, making 2 bogeys in his final 4 holes. Tough finish for him. There will be those that slap him with the "choke" label again, but you won't find me in that group. Lefty dealt with a highly emotional week, and ended up with his 5th runner-up finish in a US Open. He also left with a greater perspective on what it means, considering his wife Amy begins treatment for breast cancer in exactly 10 days. 2nd place in the Open isn't the worst thing in the world.

Duval had a monster week, and had a shot to win the tournament standing on the 17th tee. It was shades of 1999, when Duval was a major factor in the golf world. He's back, having fun, and even smiling again. How long he stays relevant in golf is up to him and his ability, but seeing Duval, Mickelson, and even Tiger Woods (albeit 4 shots back), on the same leaderboard again was something that was ultimately good for golf.

Former Charlotte 49er Trevor Murphy ended up tied for 58th in the Open after a final round 80, while High Point's Drew Weaver ended up +9 for the tourney, one shot behind the low amateur of the championship, Nick Taylor.

Charlotte Bobcats continue their draft preparations, and we hope to have team GM Rod Higgins in studio on Wednesday to talk about it.

Mike Solarte

Quick thoughts before bed

It's late Sunday, early Monday--I need sleep, but wanted to blurt a few things into the blog before bedtime.
  • The US Open hasn't felt like a major, and I think it's because the goofy weather has taken the normal buzz out of the National Championship. We have been talking about course conditions due to the wet, rather than the brutally fast greens, ankle deep rough, etc. Maybe that buzz will return when this puppy wraps up on Monday. Ricky Barnes is in trouble off the tee, and Lucas Glover is ready to pounce.
  • The weather has dominated the Open, but mad props to the grounds crew at Bethpage. How that course is remotely playable is miraculous, and they get the slap on the back for a job well done.
  • I want to see Phil Mickelson rally and win this thing. Mind you, I'm not rooting against anyone, but what a story it would be for Phil to bring the Open trophy to his wife Amy. She will begin her battle against breast cancer on July 1. Monday might be the last time we see Phil for a while. I wish them well.
  • Someone spun the clock back 10 years, because David Duval is a threat again. I was blown away when I saw his world ranking of 882. I'm 883. Rats. Seriously, though, nice to see him back in the hunt in a major. He's undergone major changes both on and off the course, and at long last, golf seems to be fun for him again.
  • Anyone else picking up on what seems to be sniping at Johnny Miller by his NBC counterparts? It's subtle, but I think it's there. Miller knows the game, but I'm not a fan of his on-air style. Nothing wrong with it, just not my cup of tea.
  • Former Charlotte 49er Trevor Murphy was on fire in his 2nd round finish. Birdies on 16, 17, and 18 got him into a tie for 16th with 2 rounds to play. He couldn't follow it up, a third round 77 drops him back in the field, but for a guy playing on the Gateway Tour in Arizona, this paycheck will come in handy. I'm hoping he can play his way into an exemption to the Open next year. 68 in his final round might be the number to do it.
  • Spent the latter part of my evening watching "Ocean's Eleven," on TBS. "Ted Nugent called. He wants his shirt back." Priceless.

Mike Solarte

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sammy "Say it Ain't" Sosa

OK, this being an opinion blog, let me remind you that the opinions expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of News 14 Carolina, Time Warner Cable, and anyone connected with the station--from staff to advertisers.

That out of the way, if you thought Sammy Sosa was clean, and not using performance enhancers, then you also believe the earth is flat, and that the moon is made of green cheese.

Now, I speak from a bit of personal history on this. I am a Chicago native, and saw Sosa play for the White Sox. At the time, he was built like a greyhound. Sleek, muscular, and had the propensity to swing at just about anything. Hitters mature over time, and Sosa was no different. He became a little more selective at the plate upon his return to Chicago, but as a Cub. His greatest success came as a Cub, but also his most embarrassing moment. You remember the one, where he claimed that he grabbed a batting practice bat for an in-game at bat, right? The bat in question the shattered and upon closer inspection, was found to have cork in the barrel. I'm no scientist, and won't even claim to know what that will do to a baseball. I do know that Major League Baseball frowns upon that sort of thing, so I can only assume it's not good and definitely not legal.

Oh yeah, and when Sosa was a Cub, he was built like a monster truck. Not speedy. Hulking. I admit, with training, athletes will put on bulk. Even if they are doing it with the help of things that are within the rules, such as protein shakes, and such, they can put on plenty of muscle. Sosa outgrew the norm in much the same way as Barry Bonds, and even to a degree, Mark McGwire.

Now comes the revelation that Sosa tested positive for performance enhancers in 2003, as part of an MLB test to determine a baseline for a potential steroid problem. MLB was sampling players, and not disciplining them for a positive test. That alone boggles the mind, but remember, at the time, there was no drug testing policy in place, so players basically could do what they wanted. Sosa is reportedly 1 of over 100 players that had a positive result, and MLB had told the players that the results would be kept private. This test was for MLB to determine if there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

Here's the rub: If baseball was trying to find the problem, why did they maintain the records? If they were going to keep these results private, then they should have destroyed the records. Period. Would it have suppressed evidence? Yes, but they are now guilty of violating the players trust, as the results are becoming public.

The fact that Sosa, and 100+ baseball players reportedly were dirty at the time is not the fault of the players. At the time, they faced no punishment for this. Now, they face stiff penalties (finally).

Sosa and McGwire are credited with saving baseball, thanks to their epic season record home run race they waged. Admit it, it was fun to watch. I can't stand the Cubs, and even I liked what baseball was getting as a result of this. I wasn't blind to the fact that these 2 were probably juicing--you had to be blind not to at least think it. Still, the game benefited from their on-field exploits. The game owes them both for that.

However, the cost to the game now is big. Baseball is sagging behind other sports in America in popularity, and also in the number of youngsters playing it. When I was a kid, there weren't programs to "foster interest in the game." Baseball WAS the game. It's what you did on a summer day after school let out. You grabbed your glove, met your buddies at the park, chose teams, and played until the sun went down. There was no talk of contracts, endorsements, ESPN, or anything. You played. The stakes are now too high for players to just play--so few roster spots are out there, and so many dollars are on the line. Guys finding a way to be just a little better stronger, or faster was the norm.

The players did the game a disservice by using, The game did the fans a disservice by looking the other way. There is plenty of blame to go around, and sadly, there is likely more bad news to come. More names, more heroes, more tainted records.

Incidentally, there is one constant throughout the timeline.

Bud Selig was named Acting Commissioner of Baseball in 1992.

Mike Solarte

Monday, June 15, 2009

Phil Jackson the greatest of all time?

I mentioned this in the last blog post, and it's actually a topic I kicked around years ago during my radio show in Raleigh.

I am convinced, at long last, the Phil Jackson is, in fact, the best NBA coach of all time.

That also means, I have reversed my stance from more than 7 years ago.

The knock on Jackson has been that he has always had great talent, and who can't win with that kind of talent? The answer is simple. The guys that had the talent before he arrived. In Chicago, the Bulls had a young, budding star in Michael Jordan. They had made playoff appearances under Doug Collins, and Stan Albeck, but never broken through.

Enter Jackson. Winners

Del Harris had a talented Lakers team, but couldn't get them through that title barrier.

Exit Harris, enter Jackson. Winner.

In Chicago, the was Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Paxson. They would rotate parts, phasing out Paxson, bringing in Steve Kerr. Out with Will Perdue, in with Luc Longley. The coach, and his assistant Tex Winter had a system that worked. Even with Dennis Rodman.

Same holds true in LA. Kobe and Shaq when he arrived. Kobe, Trevor Ariza, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom in the fold now. He has talented players.

What Jackson does is blend all that talent, and all of those millionaire egos into a team that functions better than any other. His x's and o's are solid, his mind is incredible. I have said that anyone can win with that talent.

Turns out, very few can do it, and do it as routinely as Jackson.

Switching gears to hockey, congrats to the Pittsburgh Penguins for winning the Stanley Cup, and making one of my blog predictions come true. Can we lay off Sidney Crosby? Please? He's the youngest captain to lift the Stanley Cup, and you would think he was guilty of grand theft auto.

Detroit Red Wing players were miffed that Crosby didn't shake all of their hands, and made Niklas Lidstrom (the Detroit captain) wait at the front of that line, while he and his teammates celebrated.

Can we step back and look at this a little closer? Crosby is 21. He and his team had just overcome deficits of 2-0, and 3-2 in this series, and won hockey's Holy Grail. They had to beat the defending champions on the road in order to do it. Crosby was also injured in game 7, missing much of the 2nd period, and seeing limited ice time in the 3rd.

Forgive the young man for being a little overjoyed in the moment.

Crosby snubbed no one. Crosby was a joyous hockey player, that had just reached the dream he's had for his entire life. This kid has as much reverence for the game, and its traditions, than anyone.

Once the Wings stop being bitter, I'm sure they'll realize that their chirping after being the only team in the Finals to lose on home ice, sounded like nothing more than sour grapes.

Mike Solarte

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Pens prediction was tougher....

I would love to put the Orlando Magic in as winner of the NBA Finals, but it's just not happening. It's the classic case of the veteran Lakers being just slightly better in terms of personnel, but light years ahead in experience.

The Magic are on their way to being one of the elite NBA teams over the next 5-7 years. They have a tremendous centerpiece in Dwight Howard, and good parts surrounding him. Those parts will get better over time. The Lakers of today, however, are better at virtually every position, but their greatest strength lies in Phil Jackson. He is working Stan Van Gundy over in these Finals. Not by his use of substitutions or anything like that. It's simply in the preparation. The Lakers seem ready for virtually anything the Magic throw at them, and that's a credit to Jackson.

The argument that Jackson is a great coach only because he has worked with great players is still thrown into the discussion. It could be made here: Kobe Bryant along with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Trevor Ariza are all quality. Bryant's resume is sparkling, while the others are above average contributors. Jackson has won titles with the likes of Bryant, Shaw, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and a host of others that qualify is above average (or better) talent.

How would Jackson do coaching, say, the Charlotte Bobcats roster? We'll never find that out, of course, but it could be said he would fare no better than Larry Brown did last season. It's not that the Bobcats of today aren't talented--they aren't NBA Finals talented yet. That will come over time, I believe.

Statistically speaking, it is as likely for me to walk on the moon as it is for the Magic to win this series. NASA doesn't have my number, so the Lakers are going to take the title, probably in game 5, but if not, it's game 6.

On an unrelated basketball note, congrats to Butler High's Cierra Burdick. She was named to the USA Basketball U16 national team that will compete in Mexico City in August. A top 3 showing there will get Team USA into a tournament in July of 2010 to be played in France. She's a great player, and a solid student. A wonderful representative of Matthews, Mecklenburg County, Charlotte, and now the USA. WELL DONE!

* General Motors said Friday they are cutting NASCAR support in the near future, and that the cuts will be felt NASCAR wide. While sad for the teams, and the racing overall, the problem is bigger than the series affected. the American auto industry is in big time trouble, and this was one spot that money needed to saved, or in this case, not spent on racing.. The racing will go on, the teams will find a way to continue.

Enjoy your weekend, game 5 of the NBA Finals, and the Tar Heels in Omaha on Sunday.

Mike Solarte

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Penguins will get it done

Yep. The Pittsburgh Penguins will win the Stanley Cup in game 7 on Friday night. This is not an opinion based on my personal dislike for the Detroit Red Wings. It is not a desire to see "someone else" win the Cup. It comes down to a couple of factors.

1-The home team has won every game in the Finals. This is a trend that is fairly unusual in the NHL these days. Gone are the home ice advantage rinks like the now gone Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium or the Aud in Buffalo. All 3 of those buildings had ice surfaces that were shorter than NHL regulation of 200 feet. That meant those teams could build their roster around their home surroundings, making it very tough on the visitors. The fact that home ice has held firm through the first 6 games is remarkable.

2-The Red Wings are the ones facing the pressure. The defending champs weren't supposed to let the series get this far. After racing out to the 2-0 lead, this was supposed to be a cake walk. The Penguins were supposed to take the sweep, get out of the way of the Red Wing zamboni, and like it. That was a memo that never made it to Dan Bylsma's dressing room. Pittsburgh, the underdog all the way, is playing with house money. They have nothing to lose, because nothing was expected of them. If they come out loose and relaxed in game 7, the Cup is theirs for the taking.

3-These are the 4th Finals for the Penguins in their history, and they have never been able to celebrate a championship on their home ice. They were eliminated in game 6 in last year's Finals. On Tuesday, they faced elimination, and fought back. Now that they will be on the road for game 7, history is on their side.

This series has been much closer than people want to admit. Save for the blowout in game 5, the hockey has been tough, and exciting. I am hoping for a close game, but I already know the end result.

The Penguins win win the first road game of the series, and thus, win the Stanley Cup.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tiger v. Roger

Who is more dominant?

It's a country club question for sure, but it is something to think about. Let's do that now...

Tiger's Case:

Woods has to:
Beat fields of over 150 players (unless it's the match play championship).
Compete on different courses and sites throughout the year.
Be on top of his game, physically and mentally when he tees it up.
Be the leading man in his sport.
Face intense media scrutiny when he fails to win.
Continue to be the Pied Piper of golf.

Federer's Case:

Federer has to:
Defeat 7 opponents to win a tournament (majors).
Play on 3 different surfaces (hard court, clay, grass).
Play in many different countries, time zones, etc.
Be the leading man in his game.

Tiger wins out, and here's why.

Golf draws more viewership than tennis, and it's because of Tiger. TV doesn't rule the roost--Tiger does. If Woods is in the hunt on Sunday, TV ratings climb. If he isn't in the field, something else is on your TV set.

Sad thing is, Federer is one of the greatest players of all time. His win at the French Open on Sunday completed his career Grand Slam. Problem with that is, he didn't defeat Rafael Nadal to do it. Federer lost 4 straight French finals to Nadal. Nadal's perfection on the red clay ended, and that opened the door for Federer. It's not his fault, but there will be those that say the win wasn't legit (an argument I don't buy).

Tiger's 4th Memorial win on Sunday was classic Tiger. Birdie 17 and 18, rip the hearts of your opponents out, and show it to them as the room goes dark. That's what he does. He's an assassin in Dri Fit. He smiles at you as he's beating your brains in, and he does it with the grace and class of a Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, or a Gene Sarazen.

Tiger played at Bethpage Black on Monday, a day after winning at Muirfield. Rather than go back home, he went to have a look-see at the US Open course.

Oh yeah, he won last time the Open was played there.

Tiger has that smile again. Watch out.

Mike Solarte

Thursday, June 4, 2009

NBA thoughts

Quick hits on the NBA:

I am bucking the trend, and picking the Orlando Magic to win the NBA title. I know, the Lakers are heavily favored. Truth is, I think Orlando might be better than people realize. Dwight Howard is quickly becoming one of the most dominant players in the league (and stop pining for him Bobcats fans, he was off the board before Charlotte could take him), and is a very down to earth person. He's a guy you want to see succeed, just not against your team.

Kobe is nasty. He will get his points. Orlando has to find a way to keep him in check, and by in check, I mean limit him to under 30 points. If the Magic can get contributions from Jameer Nelson (coming off injury), they could take this thing, but in no fewer than 5 games. To me, this one goes 7, with the Magic winning a thriller in Kobe's house. Either that, or it will be a Lakers sweep.

Went to the Bobcats pre-draft workout on Thursday, and what a collection of talent. Stephen Curry (Davidson), Gerald Henderson (Duke), Danny Green (UNC), Toney Douglas (FSU), KC Rivers (Charlotte native from Clemson), and Garrett Temple (LSU). For a non-basketball player like myself, the tempo looked quick, but the players all said it was fairly relaxed with more teaching from Larry Brown and his staff. Still, it's a neat deal to see these young men taking the next step in their lives. They will start their new jobs in offices that will hold no fewer than 18,000 people. Their collegiate studies have prepared them for their futures. They're work on and off the floor has given them this chance. It's awesome.

More than that, we will watch them all grow and mature (hopefully), right in front of our eyes. It's the beauty of sport, for me anyway. It has been a pleasure covering these fine athletes, and now it will be neat to see them as pros. The Bobcats have 6 more players coming in for workouts on Friday. NC State's Courtney Fells and JC Smith's Ryan Scott are on the list. We'll have comments from them, and the rest of the day in sports on the Feel Good edition of Sports Night on Friday at 10.

One other note, the Stanley Cup Finals got good when Pittsburgh took game 3...I look for them to do the same in game 4, and go back to the Motor City tied 2-2. You know I'll be watching that!

Mike Solarte

Monday, June 1, 2009

NASCAR Sprint Cup at Mid Point

It seems fitting that this Wednesday will be the running of one of racing's new premier events, the Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. Tony Stewart's season to date has been a dream, and he is the host of this race (and owner of Eldora). Loads of Sprint Cup Series talent will be on hand for the event, before heading off to race at Pocono this weekend.

The first of the Pocono trips marks the official mid-point of the "regular" season, or the first 13 of the 26 non-Chase races. 13 more events before the cutoff is made after Richmond on September 12th. What better time to evaluate the drivers, than at the halfway mark of the season? Glad you agree.

1-Tony Stewart. Grade: A+
What a year he is having. All those that said the dual role of driver/owner wouldn't play well with Smoke were dead wrong. The guy seems rejuvenated, in spite of his work load basically doubling. He wears both hats now, and they fit quite nicely./ He has become the first owner/driver to lead the points since 1992, when Alan Kulwicki accomplished the task.

2-Jeff Gordon. Grade: A
The 4-time Cup champ has rounded back into contender shape once again. There's no doubting his ability, as Gordon is one of the best drivers NASCAR has ever seen. There was some doubt in his crew and crew chief, but those doubts have vanished. Gordon is competitive week in and week out, and now that his back is feeling better (after a procedure a couple weeks ago), his health is less of a concern. Confidence is high with the 24 team--they will be dangerous in the Chase.

3-Jimmie Johnson. Grade: A-
The reigning 3-time champ gets an A- due to a sluggish start. His grade has picked up over the past few weeks, as he is getting to be that dominant force once again. He led 298 of the 400 laps in Dover on Sunday (as I said, dominant), and ran the wheels off his Chevy in passing Stewart with 3 to go to get the win. Scary to think this team is on the rise, and 3rd in the points.

4-Kurt Busch. Grade: B
The blue deuce has had moments of brilliance, and then moments of...well, non-brilliance. He has been consistent, however, when he's had a good piece to work with. Pat Tryson continues to do mad work for Busch, giving him good stuff, but this team needs to be a little better with the little things. They will add up.

5-Ryan Newman. Grade: A
Another testimony to the work being done at Stewart-Haas Racing. Two first year teams (the 14 and 39) in the top 5 in points for this first-year outfit. Newman is looking his old self, qualifying well, and running well. Can't say enough god things about SHR in 2009.

6-Kyle Busch. Grade: B+
Yes, Kyle has won in everything except lawn mowers (and that's only because he hasn't run one yet). I'm not knocking him for any bad attitude, or failing to talk to reporters. Meh. The Fox (or SPEED, I forget) commentators asked the question, "how can a guy that leads so many laps not lead the most important one?" It's a legit question. Sometimes the fault lies with the pit crew, sometimes the crew chief, and sometimes the driver. When it has been on the driver, the only blame that can be placed on Kyle is that he wants to win. I'll take that in any driver. Stop knocking the guy, people. he hates to lose, and when he does, he shows it. I prefer that over the emotionless robots we've seen in recent years.

7-Denny Hamlin. Grade: B
Hamlin has been the victim of more bad luck than I can remember in 2009, and still, he's 7th in the points. He's having a good season when bad times stay away. Dover was a prime example. Running well, 2nd place, slowly reeling in the leader, but content to stay where he is....BAM! Right front tire down, hit the fence, day over. Hamlin's good, and could be a threat if they find the right kind of voodoo doll to put in their car to ward of evil spirits.

8-Matt Kenseth. Grade: B
The 2009 Daytona 500 winner has had a season of inconsistencies, and it shows in the 228 point deficit he faces. Kenseth isn't the only guy that has been off the mark, mind you. It's just not easy to maintain that good feeling of a Daytona win, and sustain it. They are still running well, and a break or two could put the #17 team closer to the top.

9. Greg Biffle. Grade: B-
Would like to see the #16 team find the mark a little more. They have speed, but they don't have it often enough. Somewhat of an indictment of Ford at this stage of the game--the highest standing Ford after 13 races is 8th place.

10. Jeff Burton. Grade: B
Props to Burton to this point. He's the top running car at RCR at this point, and has remained a Chase contender while Clint Bowyer's fast start has cooled considerably (he's 16th in points). Burton can still win races, and he'll need to win a couple to boost his chances in the Chase, provided he can stay in the top 12.

11. Carl Edwards. Grade: C
Hate to dump on Carl, but he's not the same Carl on the track. Off the track, and dealing with the media, he's the same. It makes me think there is something amiss with the Ford teams. Edwards is a better driver than his season indicates. Same for Kenseth and Biffle.

12. Mark Martin. Grade: B+
The ageless wonder just rolls on. The repainted his name on the driver-side door a couple weeks ago in Charlotte, adding the words "The Kid" in between the "Mark" and "Martin." He's driving with that same youthful exuberance he had when he first came to the series. The equipment at Hendrick might be the best stuff he's been in since his days with Roush Racing.

Notable seasons to date outside the top 12:

David Reutimann. Great work so far, sitting 13th in the points. Picked up his first career Cup win at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and has given Michael Waltrip Racing a huge lift.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Tough sledding through 12 races. Race 13, he looked like himself. Hate it for Tony Eury, Jr., but sometimes, a shake up is just what the doctor ordered. There is plenty of blame to go around, and Dale Jr. is not exempt. This was a big wake up call for all parties.

Joey Logano. Leads the rookie standings, but has not been as good as advertised (so far). He has shown flashes, and with more experience will come more flashes. He could be a threat to win races once the schedule turns over at Daytona in July.

Mike Solarte