The end of the Coca-Cola 600 also marks the end of the first half of NASCAR’s race to the Chase.
With the checkered flag falling on the first 13 events, there has been some exciting racing, several exciting finishes, and even a few rivalries along the way.
There are many familiar faces inside the top 12 in points as well as several sitting outside the top 12 looking in.
It’s time to have a look at NASCAR’s midseason report card and find out who’s hot and who’s going to need a lot of help during summer school.
This photo shows Jimmie Johnson sliding through the grass at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Photo Credits: David L. Yeazell
All photos are copyright David L. Yeazell
In this picture, Jeff Gordon seems a bit confused. He could be confused about where Victory Lane is located.
Gordon has scheduled several trips to Victory Lane in the first 13 races, but has been denied entrance for one reason or the other.
Gordon is an almost lock to make the Chase every year. If he wants to have any advantage at all over rival Jimmie Johnson in the Chase, Gordon needs to step up and do everything possible in the next 13 races to get to Victory Lane.
Even with his knee surgery and Kyle Busch difficulties, Denny Hamlin has a lot to smile about.
Hamlin’s minor knee surgery might have been just what the doctor ordered to tweak his driving style and showcase just how talented he is.
Hamlin will certainly be one of the top candidates to knock Jimmie Johnson off his championship throne this year.
Hamlin has the same amount of Chase bonus points, 30, as Jimmie Johnson does and should add to those points by continuing his assault on Victory Lane.
Even though his Shell sponsorship is now unreachable, Kevin Harvick still pushes on.
Points leader Harvick has put the contract demons behind him and returned to being a top-rated driver.
Through the first 13 races, Harvick has one win and nine top 10s. If Harvick can continue this consistency through the second half of the season, or even improve on it, he will be another top candidate to stifle Johnson’s championship reign.
Kurt Busch offers a thumbs up to crew chief Steve Addington.
Busch showed last week that he can work hard, make changes and that a little patience, and trust in your crew, can pay off in a big way.
Busch has two wins nestled inside a very inconsistent series of finishes.
Still, Busch has managed to stay inside the top 12 in points and, barring a miserable second half of the season, he will make a run at his second Sprint Cup Championship.
JGR has at least two of the most talented drivers on the circuit. Both drivers, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, are very aggressive and have not been able to avoid on track controversies, including with each other.
Even with the distractions, JGR has enjoyed five wins in the first half, been able to maintain order and keep both of their drivers solidly inside the top 12 in points.
JGR needs a lot more of the same in the second season. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in the Chase could prove very lethal to the Hendrick powerhouse.
Tony Stewart resides outside the top 12 in 14th position.
Stewart has moved up the points ladder in the past few weeks, but has not found the success he had as a first-year driver/owner.
Last year, just after his win at the All Star race, Stewart turned up the heat and mounted an assault on Victory Lane and the points.
Three weeks before the Chase started, Stewart ran into a string of bad luck that continued throughout the Chase.
It’s time for Stewart to start that string of wins if he wants a shot at just making the Chase.
If the late season blues begin to plague Stewart again this year, then the sophomore jinx usually reserved for drivers will have attached itself to an owner also.
After working with Dale Jr. for almost a year, even Lance McGrew seems to be showing signs of losing his mental stability.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: What can be said about Dale Jr.’s lack of performance that hasn’t already been said.
Jr. started the season with a second-place finish at Daytona and immediately proceeded to slip in the points weekly.
Jr. Nation did have a resurrection of hope when Jr. put his car on the pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
That glimmer of hope, like Jr.’s car, quickly faded.
Jr. is still within striking distance of the top 12.
Unless Jr. pulls off a complete turnaround, this will be another year without him in the chase; because like last year, this is the time of the year where Jr. has already given up.
Sometimes attitude is everything.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Last year JPM made the chase without a win and by being the most consistent driver on the NASCAR circuit.
JPM started the Chase in 11th place and did manage to move up three positions before the season’s end.
This year he is not consistent. Montoya will post a good finish, or two, only to have them negated by a horrible finish, or two.
Floundering at 100 points out of the top 12, the next few races will define Montoya’s chances at making the chase.
He must return to last year’s consistency to even have a chance this year.
Jaime McMurray: Winning the Daytona 500 puts a driver in the points lead right away.
It is up to them to do whatever they can to protect that lead for the next 25 races.
Jaime McMurray won the Daytona 500 and followed it up the next week by winning the pole at California.
That’s about all McMurray has done since February. Sitting over 80 points out of the top 12, it only took McMurray two weeks to fall 14 positions in the points after securing the top spot.
McMurray did finish second in the Coca-Cola 600, which helped him improve his standing.
He needs to keep improving his standing over the next 13 weeks or be added to the growing number of drivers who have won the Daytona 500, and nothing else in the same year.
Kasey Kahne, the lame duck driver for Richard Petty Motorsports, started the year off with a win in the Gatorade Duel.
While things looked promising, nothing has gone right since for Kahne.
Last year, Kahne, amidst controversy and financial strife, returned Richard Petty Motorsports to Victory Lane and made the Chase.
His hopes of a championship faded quickly, and for all practical purposes, he was eliminated by the second race.
Kahne has signed with Hendrick Motorsports for next year and seems to have a bright future.
Even if Kahne turns things around in the second half and post a string of top 10s, even a win or two, there is still a chance to make the Chase this year, but it looks like the possibility of that happening is very slim.
Chad Knaus looks a bit worried atop the war wagon as he discusses strategy for Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet.
The four-time Sprint Cup Champion started the season off by winning three of the first six races.
Then two things happened in one week. Johnson decided to do an on-track tango with boss Jeff Gordon and NASCAR replaced the rear wing with a blade type spoiler.
Since that fateful day, Johnson has not won a race and now has three DNF’s (did not finish) to his credit.
Johnson has always enjoyed much success in the first 26 races and of course more success than anyone in the last 10 races.
This year has, so far, seen a changing of the guard. It is extremely doubtful that Johnson will continue this run of bad luck and downward slide in the points.
But, what ever is going on, what ever has changed to begin this avalanche of bad luck, Johnson and crew have 13 races to get a handle on it.
It is quite possible that thoughts of a fifth championship are now being replaced by concern about just making the Chase.
Last year, Kyle Busch had four wins and a long string of bad luck. He didn’t make the Chase.
Brian Vickers has been called a lot of names; race car driver, superstar, celebrity, and maybe a few unprintable names.
The name that sticks the most is human. Vickers showed last week that no matter what your fame or fortune is, we are all still human and life does not discriminate when it comes to health issues.
Vickers has shown he’s a strong human being and will do whatever it takes to, first and foremost, be healthy, and second, return to what he loves the most.
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to drive a race car. Vickers summoned all that courage when he stood in front of his peers and the national media to let them know what he was dealing with and how it was going to impact his career and life.
Even though there is no way Vickers will make the Chase, or win the championship, he's still a champion.
Good luck, Brian.