This weekend at Loudon officially kicks off the 2009 Race to the Chase. In other words, there are 10 races left until the points are reset and NASCAR's top 12 drivers battle it out for the 2009 Sprint Cup Championship.
Before looking forward at the next 10 races, I decided to do a special Surprising, Not Surprising and look back at the first 16 races of the 2009 season.
Surprising: David Reutimann visits Victory Lane | Competes for Chase spot
Three years ago, Michael Waltrip Racing was a struggling organization that appeared to be a team that would simply fill fields (or, in most cases, miss races).
This year, however, MWR has turned around (well, two of the teams) and collected its first win when Reutimann visited Victory Lane in the Coca-Cola 600.
Sure, he won by default when the skies opened and the rain fell, but long before he won the race at Charlotte, Reutimann and the No. 00 team were battling for a Chase spot.
Entering the 2009 Race to the Chase, Reutimann currently sits 14th in points, only 40 behind 12th-place Juan Pablo Montoya.
For the season, Reutimann has three top fives, four top 10s, and an average finish of 16.8.
Last year at this time, Reutimann was 28th in the points, with only one top 10—talk about a Surprising turnaround.
Not Surprising: Tony Stewart is successful as an owner/driver
While some doubted Smoke's abilities to handle both owner and driver duties at Stewart-Haas Racing, I knew he would be successful.
How could he not be?
This is a two-time Sprint Cup Champion, returning to the manufacturer he loved dearly, and driving Hendrick Motorsports equipment.
Stewart has collected one win in 2009 and currently sits 84 points ahead of second-place Jeff Gordon.
Last year, at this time, Stewart sat 11th in the point standings, clinging to a Chase spot.
Surprising: Carl Edwards has yet to win
Edwards entered the season as "the man to beat." Everybody deemed him the one who would dethrone three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
With nine wins last year, Edwards finished the season second in points, but he appeared to have all the momentum heading into the offseason.
Apparently that momentum was lost during the winter months, as 16 races into the 2009 season, Edwards has yet to find Victory Lane.
To compare statistics, Edwards (at this point last year) had three wins, six top fives, and 12 top 10 finishes.
In the same 16 races in 2009, Edwards has zero wins, four top fives, and eight top 10s.
That's not to say that Edwards can't get hot and crank off three or four wins before the Chase starts, but entering the Race to the Chase, Edwards is no longer "the man to beat."
Not Surprising: Johnson/Kenseth look for sixth Chase berth
Two drivers have partaken in each and every Chase field since its inception in 2004—Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
While Johnson appears to be a lock for his sixth Chase appearance, Kenseth is slowly fading to the bottom of the field.
Kenseth started the season off with a bang, winning the first two points-paying events of 2009, but has been anything but stellar since.
A solid finish (18th) at Sonoma this past weekend, coupled with a poor finish (35th) by Mark Martin, allowed Kenseth to quietly move back up to 10th place in the championship standings.
Johnson, on the other hand, sits comfortably inside the Chase field at third (293 ahead of 13th-place Kasey Kahne).
Surprising: Rick Hendrick's patience with the No. 88 team
We all knew a change was coming on the No. 88 team; we just didn't know when. After several weeks of poor performances by Dale Earnhardt Jr., team owner Rick Hendrick took Earnhardt's cousin Tony Eury Jr. off the pit box.
Eury wasn't fired, but instead reassigned to another position within the Hendrick organization.
Twelve races into the season, Earnhardt Jr. was 19th in points, with one top five and three top 10 finishes.
The crew chief change was made before the 13th race, and four races into the change, Earnhardt Jr. sits 20th in points, with the same number of top fives and top 10s.
While it will take time for Earnhardt Jr. and Lance McGrew to mesh, it appears a Chase berth in 2009 is out of the question now.
Not Surprising: Mark Martin will compete for championship
Many people (myself included) counted Martin out of the Chase after he struggled out of the gate in his first few races with HMS.
After race No. 4 (Atlanta), Martin and the No. 5 Chevy sat 34th in owner points, just barely guaranteed a starting spot.
Since then, however, Martin has collected three wins and moved himself into 11th place in the championship standings.
Martin "un-retired" from part-time competition to drive the No. 5 for a full season, hoping to capture a title that has eluded him throughout his tremendous career.
In fact, Martin has won and/or done just about anything a racer could want to do, except win the Cup championship.
With 10 races left until the Chase, Martin sits 11th in the standings, only 12 points ahead of 13th-place Kahne.
Could this be the year Martin wins the championship?
If the Chase started today, Martin would vault up to second in the points, tied with Kyle Busch at three wins apiece.
Here is a look at the 10 races leading up to the Chase cut-off.
June 28: New Hampshire Motor Speedway
July 4: Daytona International Speedway
July 11: Chicagoland Speedway
July 26: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Aug. 2: Pocono Raceway
Aug. 9: Watkins Glen International
Aug. 16: Michigan International Speedway
Aug. 22: Bristol Motor Speedway
Sept. 6: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sept. 12: Richmond International Raceway