NASCAR Mid-Season Grades

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We break down the NASCAR season halfway to Chase

We break down the NASCAR season halfway to Chase

by Tom Bowles

It’s hard to believe that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is already halfway through its regular season, but as the circuit heads to the melting mountains of Pocono, Pa., (seriously … it’s pushing 100 degrees up in these parts) that’s exactly where we stand.

It’s 13 races down, 13 races to go until the Chase in a year that’s already seen all four manufacturers win, three green-white-checker finishes, two first-time winners (in marquee races, no less) and one AARP owner who we also learned still packs a punch. But in this “renaissance season” that 2011 has become, with television ratings finally ticking upwards in the midst of unprecedented parity, the important number to remember for the playoffs is zero. That’s right, zero new Chase participants — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return aside — would be eligible if the postseason started today, a number that showcases that, for all the Trevor Baynes and Regan Smiths of the world, they’ve yet to break back into the sport’s “most important” part of its season: the playoffs.

What drivers, facts and figures deserve mention at this point? Let’s review where we stand at the halfway point:

Biggest Surprise (Race): Without a doubt, Trevor Bayne in the season-opening Daytona 500. The rookie impressed throughout Speedweeks, pairing up with veteran Jeff Gordon in the Duel 150s, but I don’t think anyone expected the rookie to actually win. Bayne’s perfectly-timed moves left him out front when pseudo-teammate David Ragan jumped the gun on a restart; from there, it was smooth sailing to becoming the youngest winner in the history of the Great American Race.

Ever since? It’s been “one-hit wonder” time for Bayne, with zero top-15 finishes paired with a serious, month-long illness that kept him out of the car and critics chanting “overrated!” while writing “get well soon.” But considering his age (20) and big-money backer (Roush), I’d say it’s highly unlikely Bayne becomes the second coming of Derrike Cope. And the fact he’s more innocent than a Disney movie, preaching faith and “straight edge” in a sport that pitches itself as a family product? It’s an added bonus — the type that makes executives drool, considering NASCAR’s ratings were up for three straight weeks after Bayne pulled into Victory Lane down in Florida.

Runner-Ups: Who you’d expect: Regan Smith, winning the Southern 500 and Brad Keselowski winning at Kansas.

Biggest Surprise (Season): Dale Earnhardt Jr.  No, he hasn’t won, but check out the other statistics for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver turned … dare I say it … one of NASCAR’s most competitive drivers. Three top-5 finishes, matching his 2010 total, show crew chief Steve Letarte has turned this team around faster than anyone expected. And the consistency — long Earnhardt’s Achilles? heel — is what’s most impressive. A calm and collected driver and crew are now delivering the right adjustments on the final stop, not just the first, to ensure the highest possible result. But here’s what you’re not hearing about Junior: his 22.2-place average start in 2011, second-worst in his career, is paired with a 10.3-place average finish, his best. That’s right — better than the years he was actually contending for titles, back when Bud was on the hood and Jimmie Johnson was that guy who could never finish the job.

So is this the year Earnhardt makes his mark, contending for a title, at Hendrick? No, although making the Chase is a foregone conclusion. But considering the recent rash of “just misses,” you get the sense that when the No. 88 finally breaks through to Victory Lane, it’s going to be in bunches. After all, Earnhardt doesn’t issue a full-scale apology to his crew for nothing! (Or so his marketing machine says).

Runner-Up: Matt Kenseth (two wins, zero crew chief changes).

Biggest Disappointment No. 1: Joey Logano  With a run of seventh-, sixth-, fifth-, fourth- and third-place finishes during the 2010 Chase, most expected the third season to be the charm for NASCAR’s “next generation” leader.

We’re still waiting. With one top 5, two top 10s and some ugly crew chief change rumors (denied) Logano’s sitting 25th in the standings, a whopping 82 points — nearly two race’s worth — behind 10th-place Ryan Newman. Barring a remarkable run of summer victories, he’ll miss the Chase for a third straight year in a ride, manned by Tony Stewart for a decade, that whiffed just once before his arrival. But perhaps most important of all, in a year where “young guns” are trying mightily to maintain some sort of relevance once again — think Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Cole Whitt — Logano has fallen into the background. On a team where Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin stand out, for different reasons, the man handpicked to lead his generation is simply a quiet face in the crowd.

That, of course, begs a major question for sponsor Home Depot, who’s watched Jimmie Johnson in a Lowe’s Chevy win championships for the last five years: How much more patience will Joe Gibbs Racing’s loyal backer have, particularly with free agents like Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer on the market? Could it wind up leaving the sport altogether, the latest sign of the sport’s economic times? It’s amazing to think at this point, with all the hype and seemingly unlimited potential, that Logano could be fighting for his career, but it’s hard to imagine 25th or lower in points being an acceptable way to end the season for the No. 20.

Biggest Disappointment No. 2: Jamie McMurray  With the way the No. 1 team tackled 2010 — winning three major races and pulling the “feast or famine” approach — the 2011 “wild card” Chase rule change would have been perfect for their playoff chances. In fact, most everyone expected that McMurray would not only win this season, but he’d make the playoffs on merit after five top-11 finishes in the final 10 weeks in 2010 showed marked consistency.

Well, come 2011 this Earnhardt-Ganassi outfit has been consistent, all right … consistently terrible. Owner Chip Ganassi looks preoccupied with IndyCar’s 2012 chassis, teammate Juan Pablo Montoya’s getting into fights with Ryan Newman and McMurray seems without the support, horsepower or handling needed to be successful. Other than a pole at Martinsville that looked impressive, he’s totaled as many DNFs (2) as top-10 finishes, sitting 27th in the standings so far back that even the wild card is a virtual impossibility. As the kicker, tornadoes destroyed the driver’s hometown of Joplin, Mo., last month in a cruel twist of fate that showcases how the world only leaves you sitting at the top for so long.

Breaking Down the Current Chase
Locks: Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth (two wins in case he falls out of the top 10) and·... Dale Earnhardt Jr.  That’s right — at third in the standings, just one man (Elliott Sadler, 2005) has been this high through 13 races and then failed to make the playoffs.

Probables: 1) Tony Stewart  Typically a guy who doesn’t get going until June, Stewart’s actually overachieving at this time of year at eighth in points. The only reason to have a shadow of a doubt: the recent firing of Bobby Hutchens, SHR’s Vice-President of Competition, which certainly raises some questions.

2) Kurt Busch  Until the last few weeks, people were afraid to light a match in front of this combustible Busch for fear the poor man might explode. It’s been an R-rated spring on his radio, with public tirades and private tongue-lashings from Busch leaving Penske Racing on its toes. But with two straight top-10 finishes, combined with 155 laps led and teammate Brad Keselowski’s Kansas win, it looks like new engineering has worked to the point where he’ll be safe.

3) Clint Bowyer  You never want to see someone’s car owner in the news for punching a driver out. But that $150,000 fine should hardly derail the efforts of Bowyer, who if not for an ugly start (zero top-10 finishes the first four weeks) would be right up there with teammate Kevin Harvick in the standings. The only worry is his pending free agency. What if Childress doesn’t offer a contract, he can’t find a sponsor or vice versa? As Mark Martin showed last season, those sort of circus-level distractions can disrupt your rhythm.

4) Denny Hamlin  Welcome to the Jimmie Johnson Hangover Club, Denny! It’s happened to the best of them (Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin to be precise). On a serious note, considering how badly this team began the year it’s a miracle Hamlin’s pulled it to 11th in points. They’re far from out of the woods, though — engine problems still reign over at Joe Gibbs Racing — and after the Pocono/Michigan swing some of Hamlin’s shakier tracks remain. And the relationship between driver and crew appears inconsistent. Hamlin probably needs to buckle down and win Pocono twice to feel safe.

Vulnerable: 1) Ryan Newman  Tenth in the point standings, he’s already on shaky ground, although the promotion of former crew chief Matt Borland helps (he’ll replace Hutchens at Stewart-Haas). Not a guy who wins all that often — just twice in the last three-plus years — and considering the quality of drivers behind him in the standings, that has to change.

2) Jeff Gordon  Who knew the pairing of Alan Gustafson would work out to be the borderline worst of Hendrick’s three crew chief changes? Since a Phoenix win, the No. 24 car has been on a roller coaster ride until Kansas last weekend. Bad luck hasn’t helped (doesn’t it seem he hits the wall without a SAFER Barrier every time?), but that’s no excuse for several races where this team was plain out to lunch. At 13th in the standings, he sits poised in the “wild card” spot with that win for now, but he’ll need a second (and probably third) to feel secure.

Who Can Sneak In: 1) Greg Biffle  Like Bowyer, Biffle suffered through an ugly start until a fuel-filling debacle at Las Vegas lit a fire under him. Twelfth in points and armed with Ford’s high-horsepower, low-cooling engine — and with a list of strong tracks ahead — this perpetual Chaser should knock someone out.

2) A true “Wild Card”  Other than the Biff, well that’s pretty much it for a points Chase that has 13 drivers (two of which are the current “wild cards”) battling for those 10 spots. But, as we saw with Keselowski’s victory, this new system does open the door for a big surprise. Among those drivers capable of scoring two victories, which is what I almost guarantee you’ll need to make it through: Juan Pablo Montoya (15th in points, two road courses coming up), Kasey Kahne (18th in points, can win most anywhere), Marcos Ambrose (19th in points, again, the two road courses) and Brad Keselowski (tied for 21st, could add a second win at Daytona).

Stat That Should Shock You: Kevin Harvick has led the circuit with three wins this season but only led a total of 108 laps. That, more than anything, represents the way things have gone, with the first 85 percent of the races having little to do with dramatic twists in the end — as pit strategy, circumstances and pure sandbagging have handed victories to seemingly unlikely suitors.

Stat That Should Not Shock You: Jimmie Johnson, despite only one victory, is right on pace for consecutive title No. 6. He’s projected to have about the same number of top-10 finishes as last year (22 in ?11 vs. 23) along with the same number of laps led (1,307 vs. 1,315). And his average finish, at 10.6 through 13 races, is his best since 2008.

Six Questions To Ask Heading Into the Second Half of the Regular Season:
1. Did Roush Fenway Racing and Carl Edwards peak too soon? We’ve seen in years past that there’s a danger (Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart) to being far out in front of the standings before “go” time.

2. What will certain sponsors (UPS, Home Depot) do with drivers that have potential rather than real stats to back up their multi-million dollar contracts?

3. Is the glass half-full for this sport or half-empty? There are a record number of start-and-parkers each week … but TV ratings have inched upward. Attendance is down at places like Bristol, but up at others, like Charlotte, where a master marketing plan was enacted. Development drivers can’t find rides … but others, like Cole Whitt, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are finally moving their way towards Sprint Cup, leaving hope there might actually be a 2012 rookie class.

4. Where will the line at “Have At It, Boys” be, and does it involve someone being actually, physically hurt to draw a suspension? I’m not judging on the penalty here, but being totally serious. By not suspending Childress, NASCAR set a precedent that punching someone in the garage after the race is fair game. Is that a good or a bad thing over the long-term?

5. Will we end the year with the “New” Kyle Busch (mild-mannered, “everybody says he’s changed” version) or “Old” Kyle Busch? (the speeding ticket, Kevin Harvick-wrecking, Childress-tantalizing one that’s appeared over the last month.)

Three Questions We're Tired Of Hearing:
1. Will she or won't she come to NASCAR? (Take a guess).
2. Will Mark Martin finally retire?
3. Will Jimmie Johnson win that sixth straight championship?

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles reflects on the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season as it hits the halfway point of the regular season.</p>

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