NASCAR Sprint Cup: Biggest Overachievers at Unofficial Halfway Point of Season

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IJuly 18, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Biggest Overachievers at Unofficial Halfway Point of Season

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    NASCAR is just like any other major professional sport in the fact that preseason expectations for the majority of its teams are usually way off the mark.

    Some outfits greatly underachieve, falling out of Chase for the Sprint Cup contention, but some greatly raise the bar thanks to a series of strong performances.

    We're here to talk about the latter group. There have been plenty of drivers in this year's Sprint Cup season who have put together seasons that nobody expected out of them or their teams, and have plenty of reasons to be smiling coming into this off weekend.

    We're going to count off the seven drivers who have taken the biggest step up. So without further ado:

Brian Vickers

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    Vickers has made the most of a limited ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Mark Martin at short tracks and road courses.

    He's scored two top five finishes in four starts, leading 125 laps at Bristol and posting an average finish of 10.5.

    That performance reportedly has Waltrip looking at Vickers for a full-time ride in the future.

Joey Logano

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    Logano snapped a nearly three-year winless streak at Pocono in June, after outracing Mark Martin to the checkered flag.

    He's now 16th in points with seven top 10s, a mark good enough to challenge Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman for one of the two wild card spots in the Chase. One more win in the next few races could put the No. 20 team back in the Chase for the first time since Tony Stewart left.

Paul Menard

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    More often than not, Menard starts strong and falls off as his season continues on, but this year, he's maintained a position in the top 15 in points from the very beginning.

    Menard took his maiden Sprint Cup win at Indianapolis last season and challenged for a Chase spot then, so there's no reason to expect anything too different in the next few races.

    One victory could give him a chance at making the first Chase of his career.

Clint Bowyer

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    In his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing, Bowyer has established the team's new third outfit as a major contender to make the Chase.

    Bowyer took a surprise win at Sonoma, one of 10 top 10s in 19 starts, and currently ranks ninth in points. He's scored a strong finish at almost every type of track, suggesting that he's part of one of the most well-rounded organizations in the sport this year.

Martin Truex Jr.

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    Frequently a mid-pack driver before this season, the two-time Nationwide Series champ has really hit his stride in his third season with Michael Waltrip Racing.

    Truex nearly took the victory at Kansas, scoring one of his nine top 10 finishes in that race. In fact, he hasn't been out of the top 10 in points since Daytona, partially thanks to an average finish of 11.9, nearly seven spots higher than his career average of 18.8.

Greg Biffle

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    After finishing 16th in last year's standings, Biffle came into this season with a vengeance, putting together his most consistent year since 2005's torrid pace.

    Biffle may have only one win, at Texas, but his strong pace enabled him to hold the points lead from Las Vegas through Dover.

    He ranks fourth in top 10s with 11, and with an average finish of 9.6, is one of only three drivers to crack single digits in that statistic.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Earnhardt Jr. went from the cursed fourth car at Hendrick Motorsports to the team's strongest performer this season, breaking a four-year winless drought in the process.

    Currently second in points, Earnhardt Jr. is tied with teammate Jimmie Johnson for most top 10s this year with 14 in 19 starts. His average finish of 8.3 is his best since 2004, while he has more top five finishes this year than he did in the past two combined. Talk about raising the bar.