NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Surprises and Disappointments So Far in 2010
With the blink of an eye, the regular season is already halfway over in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Thirteen points races have come and gone, and now, the Race to the Chase is about to heat up. The contenders are slowly becoming more and more clear, while the pretenders are beginning to fade into the sunset.
Before the second chapter of this season begins, let's take a look at some of the drivers, teams, and moments that have been either surprising or disappointing, or both.
Surprise: Richard Childress Racing
Last year, RCR went winless. Last year, failed to put a driver in the Chase. Last year, Kevin Harvick wanted to leave.
Oh, how things can change in a year.
RCR has a win this season. RCR has two drivers solidly in the Chase with one just barely on the outskirts. And Harvick is "happy" again, having signed a multi-year deal to continue piloting the No. 29 Chevrolet.
All is good, especially now that they're competitive again
Jeff Burton has already led three times as many laps as he did all last season. Harvick is the current points leader, and has already matched his top 10 count from last year. Only Clint Bowyer is stuck about where he was last season.
With the momentum the team is rolling with, that could change very soon.
They are easily the most improved organization from last year. RCR will get a couple more wins before 2010 is said and done.
Disappointment: Richard Petty Motorsports
It's hard to talk bad about anything that has to do with "The King," Richard Petty, considering how infinitely great for the sport he has been, and still is. It's almost blasphemy.
But the truth of the matter is that, right now, the race teams that carry his name just aren't very good.
Kasey Kahne currently sits 21st in the points standings. That leads all teams at RPM. Paul Menard sits 22nd. A.J. Allmendinger is 23rd. Elliott Sadler brings up the rear in 28th.
RPM is currently cemented in mediocrity, and things look to get worse before they get better. Kahne will be leaving at the end of the year, heading to a currently unknown team before moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.
The contracts of Menard, who has greatly improved from last season and has been one of the few positive notes for RPM, and Allmendinger, are up at the end of this season. So is Sadler's, but retaining him is a huge question mark considering RPM tried to dump him last year.
RPM is a mess right now. It'll take some time to clean it up.
Surprise: The Busch Brothers.
With four wins, nine top-five finishes, and 15 top-10 finishes between them, Kurt and Kyle Busch have done quite the job of tearing it up, especially lately.
The two Busch's have won three of the last four points paying races, with Kurt winning the Sprint All-Star Race in between.
The craziest part is that both drivers are in their first full seasons with their current crew chiefs. Even crazier is that the elder Busch is doing his damage with his younger brother's former crew chief, Steve Addington.
That's not to say that Kyle isn't better off in his current situation. After taking some criticism earlier this year, Dave Rogers has helped turn the No. 18 Toyota piloted by the 25-year-old into the force it was for 26 races in 2008.
However, the driver's new-found ability to turn a bad day into a decent one, makes this season the first that Kyle Busch has a legitimate threat to win the title.
Along with brother Kurt, the highest ranking non-Hendrick driver in last year's standings, the Busch Brothers are looking to turn the Chase for the Sprint Cup into a family affair.
Both look poised to make a championship run.
Disappointment: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It looked like he was back.
He made that amazing move at Daytona. He helped Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson dominate Texas. He had moved up to seventh in points.
It seemed like he was a lock. Incredible to think that was five races ago.
The Month of May kicked Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s butt. No other way to put it. From Richmond to Charlotte, Junior finished 32nd, 18th, 30th, and 22nd. Not a great stretch. Suddenly, the whole world is wondering what is wrong.
All it took was four races to go from, "Hey, maybe the dude's still got it" to, "Uh oh, here we go again."
Coming up for Earnhardt is Pocono, where he has five top five finishes, Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008, and Infineon, where he's never finished better than 11th. That's where the comeback has to start, if it's going to happen at all this season.
He's only 54 points back from 12th place Ryan Newman. It feels so much worse, though, doesn't it?
Surprise: Denny Hamlin
ACL? He doesn't need no stinkin' ACL!
Seriously though, who would have thought that he'd be sitting fifth in points with three wins right now? Sure, he was the consensus pick among the media to dethrone Jimmie Johnson at the beginning of the year, but that was before he had only one good knee.
Then, after winning Martinsville, and having surgery to repair his knee, which he hurt in a pickup basketball game before the season, he looked like dog food at Phoenix.
After that, though, it's been all gravy for Hamlin. Since the debacle in Arizona, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota has won twice, and moved from 18th in the standings to his current position of fifth.
Hamlin has run pretty good at the tracks coming up, especially Pocono. Don't expect him to fade.
Disappointment: Brad Keselowski
Yeah, it is his first full year, but I think more was expected out of Brad Keselowski in his maiden voyage with Penske Racing. Sitting at 25th in points with zero finishes in the top 10 isn't exactly something to write home about.
Granted he did have a solid finish at Atlanta all but wrapped up before getting flipped on his lid, and he has finished 20th or better in eight of the last nine races.
Still, with teammate Kurt Busch having won twice this season, the No. 12 Dodge should be up near the front a little more often.
On a positive note, he is currently leading the Nationwide Series points standings. I'm sure getting Roger Penske his first Nationwide title would take away the attention of Keselowski's rough start in Cup.
Surprise: Roush-Fenway Racing's Winless Streak Continues
It's amazing that these guys haven't broken into victory lane yet. None of the current drivers at RFR have won a Sprint Cup race since Matt Kenseth swept the first two races last year.
Sure, Jamie McMurray scored a win for them at Talladega last fall, but he's both money at restrictor plate races as a driver and, more importantly, he's gone.
Still, as bad as it seems, and as off as Ford's flagship team may supposedly be, three of the organization's four drivers are currently within the cutoff for the 12-man Chase for the Cup.
Kenseth sits third in the standings, while Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards sit ninth and 11th, respectively. If these guys did happen to start winning, they'd be pretty darn dangerous.
Now about that fourth driver.....
DIsappointment: David Ragan
After 2008, it looked like this kid was ready to break out. With a new sponsor and tons of momentum, he was looking like he could be a legitimate future star in the sport.
As we've learned, though, things can change in a hurry.
After scoring 14 top 10 finishes in 2008, David Ragan has earned only three in the 49 races since the 2009 season began. Suddenly, that star isn't so bright.
He's not an awful driver by any means. He won twice in the Nationwide Series last year where he was running a partial schedule. He just needs something to change.
Whether its a change of luck, a change of attitude, or a change of scenery remains to be seen.
Surprise: Jimmie Johnson's Hot Start
For a while there, NASCAR Nation was quaking in its boots.
Not really known for hot starts, four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson was winning everything in sight, and it looked like nothing could stop him.
After Texas, he had three wins and a 108-point lead in the standings. It looked like Johnson was invincible.
Bigger Surprise: Jimmie Johnson's Current Cold Streak
And then, the wheels came off. Sometimes literally.
Three wrecks in the last five races have resulted in finishes of 31st or worse. A pit road penalty took away a chance at a win in Dover. Now the No. 48 Chevrolet sits seventh in the standings, 204 markers back of first.
It's been quite the downward slide for Johnson and his team, but don't expect them to give up easily. The fact they were able to get that piece of scrap metal back on the track during Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 is proof enough that this team is still determined to win a fifth championship.
And remember, if the Chase started today, their three wins would have them tied at the top of the standings.
Disappointment: Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya has been running better than the results have shown, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn't look like the Columbian will back up last season when he made his first Chase
Four DNF's have been the story of 2010 for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet. That, and for every finish inside the top ten this season, Montoya is able to back that up with a finish in the thirties.
Montoya has some good tracks coming up for him this summer, but he has too much ground to make up and too many drivers to pass. It's not looking good.
Surprise: Jamie McMurray
McMurray got bumped from his gig at Roush-Fenway Racing and returned to Chip Ganassi to drive the No. 1 Chevrolet. And what does he do?
Nothing too special, just wins the Daytona 500 in his first race out with the new team.
Seriously though, it was one of the coolest moments of the year. It's been a while since someone was legitimately that glad and grateful to be in victory lane.
Although the season has been rocky at times, he has proven that the win in the 500 was no fluke. McMurray has three second-place finishes in the last five races.
If they cut down the poor finishes, this team could make a legitimate run at the Chase.
Disappointment: Tony Stewart
"It's summer, he's gonna heat up."
Well, if you say so. Look, he's exactly where he was at this point in 2003, 16th in the standings. He rebounded to finish seventh. It could happen again.
But he's lost a sponsor. He's been generic on the track. And he's running not only his race team, but Ryan Newman's as well, who currently sits on the edge of the Chase in 12th. If there's a year where Smoke doesn't pull a Smoke and tear the field a new one during June, July and August, this is it.
Surprise: In-Team Rivalries Heating Up.
Who would've known teammates could dislike each other so much?
It started at Las Vegas with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, teammates on Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. McMurray got lose on a restart and essentially took both cars out of the race. Montoya was none too pleased.
"I know he's trying to prove a point, to show everybody that he can drive a race car, but it really ruined our day."
That, however, was only a prelude to the fireworks that were to come. Two future Hall of Famers, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, were about to start going at it.
The scene was Texas. The two drivers each had strong cars. Both drivers were racing the other hard for the lead. Hard racing soon turned to beating and banging. The beating and banging would result in Johnson cutting a tire, which he later recovered from to finish second.
After the race, the two exchanged verbal blows about how "disappointed" they were with the way the other raced them.
It would carry over to Talladega where, after Johnson put a block on Gordon that eventually led to the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet getting caught up in a wreck, things caught fire. Gordon was, in his own words, "pissed."
Rick Hendrick couldn't put out the flames quick enough, doing his best to prevent the feud from going nuclear in his race shop. So far it's worked.
But then, the cherry on top, is the most recent teammate rivalry: Denny Hamlin versus Kyle Busch.
Hamlin put a block on Busch in the All-Star Race that left his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate fuming. Gibbs did his best to mediate a truce. Busch swears they're cool now. Some of Hamlin's comments before the Coca-Cola 600 weren't all that reassuring.
"All I'm going to say, and I'm going to be done with it, is that each year I think Kyle's going to grow and he just doesn't. Until he puts it all together, that's when he'll become a champion, and right now he just doesn't have himself all together."
Stay Tuned. Besides, this next rivalry sure has been a bust....
Disappointment: The Edwards/Keselowski Feud Cooling Down
It could have been so much more. The brash aggressive semi-rookie versus the sometimes nice, sometimes angry guy who does back-flips when he wins, which he hasn't done in almost two years.
OK, so maybe it wasn't NASCAR Nation's first choice of a rivalry, but it sure did look like it could get big.
Since Edwards decided to flip Keselowski at Atlanta, though, any ill feelings between the two have seemingly disappeared. It doesn't help that both drivers are struggling right now to even get any air time during a race.
I'd say that, for now, this "rivalry" is dead.
Surprise: The Finish of the Daytona 500
NASCAR's biggest race had one heck of an ending.
If for no other reason, it was notable for being the very first race with multiple Green-White-Checkered attempts, which got mixed reviews depending on how old school or new school you were.
After the madness provided by the restarts and a last lap crash in the middle of the pack, Jamie McMurray emerged the victor.
Most of the fans were screaming, though, because of what was going on behind him. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the final green flag in 10th place and, after wheeling and bullying his way through the field, he found himself on McMurray's bright-orange bumper as they crossed the finish line.
It was a second place effort, but it showed a glimpse of what could be done by Driver 88.
Now if he'd just get it done.
Disappointment: The Daytona Pothole
Sadly though, a lot of people didn't watch the finish.
The race was red flagged at lap 122 when a pothole appeared in turn two. The Daytona 500, NASCAR's marquee event, was delayed 102 minutes as the track crew attempted to repair it.
The cars were sent back on the track and racing continued, but on lap 161, the race was red flagged once again when the pothole resurfaced after the patch wore down.
Roughly 45 minutes later, track repairs were finished and the race concluded without the patch failing. Still, during that time, people tuned out, some fans left the track, and the hole became a punch line in the sports world.
Surprise: 88 Lead Changes at Talladega
The new spoiler and the COT seem to like each other at restrictor plate tracks.
This year's Aaron's 499 at Talladgea broke the record for most lead changes in a NASCAR race. The ability for two cars to hook up together and pass the field, only to inevitably be forced to fall back made for exciting racing.
Fittingly, the final lead change occurred coming to the checkered flag, where Kevin Harvick was able to pass Jamie McMurray and beat him to the line by .011 seconds. It was definitely fun to watch.
Disappointment: 12 Lead Changes at Richmond
Richmond is usually a place for excitement, for tempers, for fender banging.
This spring, the Heath Calhoun 400 was anything but exciting.
Two drivers, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon, dominated the event, leading a combined 370 of the 400 laps. Sure, a late race caution made the finish a little suspenseful, but all in all, it was a pretty lackluster race.
Surprise: Kasey Kahne Signs With Hendrick
One of the biggest shockers of the year was the news that Kasey Kahne was moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.
Wait, 2012? What about 2011?
While that is still being worked out, Kahne going to HMS is huge. For the first time, Kahne will be in superior equipment, far better than his current ride at Richard Petty Motorsports. What Kahne does in his time with HMS will be fun to watch.
Again, though, what is he doing in 2011? It's looking more and more like he could end up at Hendrick a year early. Which means...
Disappointment: Mark Martin Likely the Odd Man Out at Hendrick
Mark Martin is all class. Last year, it looked like he was the only one who could stop Jimmie Johnson.
Sadly though, it looks like he may be the odd man out at Hendrick after this season. Tony Stewart is strapped for sponsors with just two cars. It's doubtful he'll make room for Kahne in a third car.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't planning on moving up JR Motorsports anytime soon. Rick Hendrick isn't going to let Earnhardt go early considering all of the money he brings in via sponsorship dollars.
So despite strong performance and an always classy demeanor, Mark Martin is likely in his last year at Hendrick Motorsports. That indeed is a disappointment.
Biggest Surprise and Disappointment: Brian Vickers Out For The Year
The biggest news of all was the news that, due to blood clots in his lungs and left leg, Brian Vickers would be out for the remainder of the season.
While he has vowed that he will return in 2011, the severity of the situation makes it a possibility that he could miss more time than just this year.
It's disappointing that, after earning a spot in the Chase for the first time in both his career and the history of Red Bull Racing, he'll have to sit out this season.
For now, Casey Mears is filling in as driver of the No. 83 Toyota.
Here's to a safe and successful return to the driver's seat, Brian.
Now, What's Next?
Thirteen races remain between now and the beginning of the Chase.
Will Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr make a comeback? If so, who does that knock out? Will Jimmie Johnson continue his struggles? Can Kevin Harvick keep his points lead?
The answers to those questions, and more, lie just over the horizon.