NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Biggest Overachievers of the Season at the Break

Ben Montedonico@@NASCARBRBenContributor IIIApril 9, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Biggest Overachievers of the Season at the Break

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    Our first break of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is now behind us. And as we get ready for the circuit to head to Texas, it's time for us to take inventory of the season's first six races.

    So far, 2012 has been a season of the stars. After seeing five first-time winners a year ago, the big names of the sport have taken back Victory Lane in 2012.

    The defending champ, Tony Stewart, has already laid claim to the Winner's Circle twice, while another former champ, Matt Kenseth, took his second Daytona 500 win after two consecutive upset victors in the Great American Race.

    Meanwhile, several other drivers have outperformed their expectations so far in 2012. The top two drivers in the standings are guys nobody could have expected to be there, while one of our preseason sleepers has looked like a championship contender early on.

    It is these guys we will be focusing on today, as we take a look at the 10 biggest overachievers of this 2012 season through six races.

1. Greg Biffle

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    Nobody could have expected this.

    Greg Biffle did not win a race in 2011 and ended the season 16th in the standings after making the Chase in three consecutive seasons.

    It was his worst season since 2004 when Biffle ended the year 17th.

    But Biffle has been NASCAR's best driver in 2012. Literally. Biff leads the standings by six points over Dale Earnhardt Jr., and no driver has more Top 5s (three) or Top 10s (four) than Biffle through six races.

    If he can keep up the consistency, Biffle may be not only one of the biggest overachievers, but 2012's best driver come November.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    NASCAR's most loyal fanbase finally has reason to cheer in 2012.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been rock-solid through six races this season, posting the same number of Top 5s (three) and Top 10s (four) as points leader Greg Biffle.

    Unlike Biffle, however, Junior has shown he has the stuff to win a race in 2012.

    Earnhardt came just one position shy of winning the season opener at Daytona and two positions short of winning the sport's most recent races at Auto Club and Martinsville.

    Junior's intermediate program has been solid as well, and it would come as a surprise to nobody if Junior won his first race in nearly four years this weekend at the mile-and-a-half in Texas.

3. Tony Stewart

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    It may be difficult to call the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ an overachiever, regardless of where he sits in the standings.

    Unless, of course, that defending champ is Tony Stewart, the late bloomer.

    Smoke has already won two of the season's first six races in 2012, a feat he never accomplished in his first 13 seasons on the circuit.

    In fact, since 2002, the earliest Stewart had ever won his second race was in the 17th event of the season, coming in 2005 and 2006 at Daytona.

    And in his championship season a year ago, Stewart did not even earn his first win until the Chase began.

    If Stewart is off to this good of a start after winning the title in 2011, what will he do for an encore in 2012?

4. Martin Truex Jr.

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    No driver may be off to a more surprising start than Martin Truex Jr.

    The two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champ sits sixth in the standings after six races and best out of all the cars in the Toyota camp.

    Truex's four Top 10s are tied for best in the sport with just three other drivers, including the aforementioned Biffle and Earnhardt, as well as Jimmie Johnson.

    Truex's start to the 2012 season is the best of his career, with his prior best coming in 2008 when he sat 13th in the standings after six races.

    If Truex can turn his solid start into a solid season, the preseason sleeper may become a surprise championship contender come season's end.

5. Ryan Newman

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    Only three times in his career has Ryan Newman sat in the Top 10 in points after six races.

    And in all three of those years (2002, '05, '11) Newman had exactly zero wins at this point in the season.

    Maybe that's why it can be said that Newman is an overachiever in 2012. Rocketman is in uncharted territory. With a win and a Top 10 ranking after six races, Newman is off to the best start of his career.

    Sure, the win may have been a fluke. But the standing sure isn't. Newman already has three Top 10s in 2012 and could have a fourth had Carl Edwards not punted him late in the race at Phoenix.

    Newman also drives for a team considered one of NASCAR's best in 2012, indicating that the No. 39's good start may be just the beginning.

6. Clint Bowyer

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    It's no surprise that Clint Bowyer is ninth in the standings after six races.

    What is surprising is how solid Bowyer has been with his new team; he's the best driver with a new home so far in 2012.

    In his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing, Bowyer has three Top 10 finishes in spite of an array of problems, including fuel injection trouble at Daytona, blown tires at Phoenix and a late crash at Martinsville.

    The fact is Bowyer has been consistent, a trait Bowyer carries with him from a team he made the Chase with three times in six seasons.

    If Bowyer can put the bad luck behind him and find the Winner's Circle, the Kansas native could move up from his terrific ninth-place ranking.

7. Brad Keselowski

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    His 12th place standing may not reflect it, but Brad Keselowski has shown to be a legitimate title threat in 2012.

    The fifth-place finisher in 2011 already has a win this season (Bristol) along with three Top 10s, a number that could be higher if not for some tough luck.

    Keselowski had a crash late at Daytona, fuel injection problems at Las Vegas and a late pit road speeding penalty at Auto Club, all of which took away potential Top 10 runs.

    But when Keselowski hasn't been plagued by trouble, he has been tremendous as evidenced by his whopping 492 quality passes, or passes on cars running inside the Top 15.

    Like Bowyer, if Keselowski can shake off the bad luck, he will improve greatly on his 12th place standing.

8. Regan Smith

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    Is there any driver in NASCAR who has been more of an overachiever in his career than Regan Smith?

    Despite running underfunded equipment out of a shop based in Colorado, Smith continues to run competitively with the rest of the Sprint Cup field.

    His 18th place standing through six races actually ranks him ahead of some of NASCAR's best, including Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.

    The 2011 Southern 500 winner may not be competing for wins so far this season, but his consistent performance and ability to finish on the lead lap (99.5 percent of laps completed) has Smith as one of the season's overachievers.

9. Aric Almirola

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    Aric Almirola has not been incredible in 2012, but he's been pretty good.

    And that's better than what many expected the Cuban Missile to be in his first full Sprint Cup season.

    So far in 2012, Almirola has earned one Top 10 finish (Martinsville) and actually sits one point ahead of the man he replaced in the No. 43 car, AJ Allmendinger.

    Almirola is doing all of this driving for a team with no sound primary sponsorship and which has had its share of financial struggles over the past few seasons. While the money problems now seem to be behind them, it's clear Richard Petty Motorsports is not what it once was.

    Even still, Almirola seems to be making it happen, ranking ahead of some of NASCAR's best after six races.

10. Brian Vickers

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    Anybody who had Brian Vickers making it through two short-track races without incident, raise your hand.

    Now put your hand down, you liar.

    Vickers did nothing but make waves during the last few races of 2011. Waves that seemed destined to sink Vickers' NASCAR career for good.

    But along came Michael Waltrip, who decided to put Vickers in his No. 55 car for six races (which has since become eight) in 2012. Vickers did not disappoint, earning a fifth-place finish in his first race out at Bristol and finishing a respectable 18th at Martinsville.

    The very same Martinsville where Vickers' career seemed to reach its end just a few months ago.

    Not only has Vickers stayed out of trouble in his limited number of races. He has performed well enough to warrant consideration for a full-time Sprint Cup gig.

    And with the competition being what it is today, that's saying something.