NASCAR Pass or Fail: Handing Out Early-Season Grades to the Biggest Stars

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IApril 6, 2011

NASCAR Pass or Fail: Handing Out Early-Season Grades to the Biggest Stars

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    The 2011 NASCAR season is only six races old, but it is never too early to start critiquing the performances of the sport's biggest stars. Some drivers have overachieved from preseason expectations, while others have been greatly disappointing.

    We will take a quick look at the way the season has started for some of the more notable names in the Sprint Cup Series, and grade their performance after one-sixth of the season.

    The good news for any of the drivers receiving low marks is that there is still plenty of time to turn it around, while conversely, the drivers who are off to great starts have the pressure on to maintain for 30 more races.

    Did your favorite driver make the grade? Let's find out by getting class in session.

No. 00 David Reutimann

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Grade: D

    David Reutimann is a driver who has seen his expectations grow each year. For the past two seasons, Reutimann has scored a win each year, and had nearly identical results.

    He has managed to score roughly 10 top 10s, with a handful of top fives thrown in. So, it was no surprise that this year he was expected to repeat those numbers, and hopefully improve a little more as well.

    The 2011 season has started off quite the opposite for driver No. 00. He has failed to record a single top 10, and has led just one lap through six races. Three of his finishes have been 29th or worse, while his best finish this year is a 13th place at Las Vegas.

No. 1 Jamie McMurray

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    Grade: D+

    There is no doubt that Jamie McMurray was the surprise driver of 2010. He scored three wins last year, including both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, the two biggest races on the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

    It marked the first time in his career, that McMurray scored more than one win in a single season. Though he failed to qualify for the Chase, he was still considered one of the top three or four drivers of the year, based on the quality of his wins.

    Expectations were high for McMurray coming in to 2011, and thus far, he has struggled to live up to them. He scored both his first pole and first top 10 of the year, last weekend in Martinsville. Prior to his seventh-place run last weekend, the only top-20 finish he had scored this year was an 18th-place run at the season-opening Daytona 500. He currently sits just 23rd in the points.

No. 2 Brad Keselowski

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    Grade: C

    It is hard to give Brad Keselowski a grade less than something right in the middle. While his numbers certainly won't blow anyone away, we have to remember that he is still only in his second full-time year in the series.

    Thus far, the defending Nationwide Series champion has failed to record a top-10 finish, but he has three top-20 finishes, and the other three have been in the 20s.

    While those statistics are still probably below expectations, he is actually ahead of where he was at the same time last season. After six races in 2010, Keselowski only had two top-20 finishes, and sat 27th in the points standings. This year, through six races, he sits 24th in the standings. 

No. 4 Kasey Kahne

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    Grade: B-

    Kasey Kahne has done better at Red Bull Racing through six races than I would have expected. I thought that this year may just be a season in which Kahne coasted through it, just trying to get to Hendrick Motorsports as quickly as possible.

    Instead, he has put his car toward the front of the field in more races than not. Thus far, he has scored three top 10s, had another race where he finished 14th and was running in the top 15 at Martinsville, before being the victim of a Martin Truex Jr. stuck throttle.

    Kahne has only led one lap this season, but has been fairly consistent with his performance thus far. He currently sits 15th in the points, but again, he would be much higher if not for being in the wrong place at the wrong time this past weekend.

No. 5 Mark Martin

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    Grade: B-

    Mark Martin has seen all of the highs and the lows of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, in just the past two-plus seasons. It began in 2009. In his first season driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Martin quickly became the feel-good story of the year. He won five races, and ultimately finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson.

    Last season, Martin completely fell off the pace. He failed to record a win, and saw his top-10 and top-five totals each cut in half from the season before. He also failed to qualify for the Chase, ultimately finishing 13th in the points.

    This season, Martin has scored two top 10s, but has seen all six races result in finishes inside the top 20. If the Chase started today, Martin would be in it, but just barely. He is currently in 10th place in the points, but has yet to show any capabilities of being able to consistently run up front. He has failed to lead a single lap yet this year, but on the plus side, Martin is the only driver to finish on the lead lap in all six races.

    But, again, it is hard to knock him for his consistent runs through six weeks.

No. 6 David Ragan

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    Grade: B

    David Ragan had a breakthrough performance in 2008. He scored 14 top 10s and just missed out on qualifying for the Chase. He finished 13th in the points that season.

    Then, over the next two years, the wheels seemingly fell off for Ragan. He scored a total of five top-10 finishes over the last two seasons, led a total of 17 laps and his best points finish in those two seasons was 24th.

    This year, Ragan has shown to be somewhere in between his 2008 season and what he has been the last two years. He scored a top 10 last weekend, his first of the year, but five out of his six races have been finishes of 22nd or better.

    In fact, if not for a penalty on the second-to-last restart of the Daytona 500, Ragan could easily have been the winner of the season's biggest race.

No. 9 Marcos Ambrose

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    Grade: C-

    Marcos Ambrose has been OK so far this season, but he was expected to be a little bit better than just OK when he came over to Richard Petty Motorsports. The team scaled backed from four cars to just two in an effort to make the most out of its resources.

    Through six events, Ambrose has been up and down. He has a fourth-place finish, two runs in the middle teens and then three finishes of 28th or worse. He has been far from consistent, but has shown a few signs of being able to meet expectations.

    Ambrose's true strength is on the road courses. So we may still have to wait a couple more months to find out just how far Ambrose's progression has really come.

No. 11 Denny Hamlin

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    Grade: D

    This one was hard to imagine. Last season, Denny Hamlin was one race away from dethroning Jimmie Johnson, and winning his first career championship. Now, one season later, Hamlin has scored just a single top 10 through six races, and has been a factor in just one race.

    While teammate Kyle Busch sits atop the point standings, Hamlin—as well as third Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Joey Logano—are struggling to put together quality runs, all while losing engines in the process.

    It looked like things were going to turn around for Hamlin, at Martinsville, a track he has dominated recently. After being one of the strongest competitors for the first half of the race, Hamlin could only manage a 12th-place finish.

    It was hard to fathom that last year's points runner-up would only be 19th in the points, at the one-sixth point of the season, but that is exactly where Hamlin finds himself.

No. 14 Tony Stewart

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    Grade: C+

    Tony Stewart has been the points leader once this season, but the past three races have seen him drop from the top spot down to 11th place.

    Stewart has been decent this year, but certainly nothing spectacular. This past weekend he finished an abysmal 34th, but prior to that, all five of his finishes were inside the top 20. He had a runner-up finish in Las Vegas after dominating most of the race, but just one other finish in the top 10.

    The current owner/driver of Stewart Haas Racing saw his productivity significantly drop off last season, but he was still able to rattle off a couple of wins. This season, he has shown that he can still contend for wins, but it also appears that this year could be a near mirror image of a season ago.

    So, while Stewart is by no means a slouch out on the race track, he still hasn't been turning in the finishes that we would normally expect to see from him.

No. 16 Greg Biffle

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    Grade: D+

    Greg Biffle is yet another driver who has gotten off to an inexplicably slow start. Last season, Biffle started the year off with a top-10 finish in each of the first six races. This year, he has recorded just one, and that was an eighth-place finish in Bristol.

    Biffle has only finished on the lead lap twice this season, and has led a total of just 11 laps thus far, and all of those came in one race.

    Last season, Biffle scored two wins in the second half of the season, and ended the year by finishing sixth in the point standings. He currently finds himself in 20th in the points with the worst average finishing position that he has ever had in any season in which he has run the full schedule.

    Most people agreed that Biffle would once again be a Chase contender this year, but he has a long way to go to live up to those expectations.

No. 17 Matt Kenseth

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    Grade: B

    Matt Kenseth can really be defined by one word: consistency. Kenseth has never been the flashiest driver out there, and usually he quietly just goes about his business, and by the end of the day brings home a solid top-10 finish.

    He started the season off by being involved in one of the big Daytona 500 crashes. That resulted in a disappointing 34th-place finish. Since then, he has finished no worse than 12th in the last five races, including three-straight top 10s.

    Kenseth has led just a total of five laps on the young season, but he has either maintained or improved his points standing at the end of each race. He currently finds himself in one of the Chase spots, as he sits in ninth place.

    He has also seen his qualifying performances improve. His worst starting position this season has been a 24th place, and four out of six races, Kenseth has started 11th or better, including one pole position. When Kenseth is qualifying up near the front, you know things must be going at least OK.

No. 18 Kyle Busch

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    Grade: A

    It is pretty hard to give the points leader and the driver with the best all-around statistics anything less than an A. Busch has been extremely impressive in the early part of the season, and has looked strong yet again in the lower series as well.

    Busch has visited victory lane one time this season, and is the only driver with five top-10 finishes through the first six events. Four of those top-10 finishes have been inside the top five, and the one race where he finished poorly was due to an engine issue that has plagued Joe Gibbs Racing thus far this year.

    Busch is the only driver to average a top-10 starting position this year, as his worst qualifying effort has been a 12th-place start. He is also one of two drivers who have an average finish inside the top 10.

    The 481 laps that Busch has led this season are nearly double that of his next-closest competitor in that category (Jimmie Johnson has led 251). The only problem for Busch may come later in the season, as he always seems to run exceptionally well early but then bad luck rides with him all throughout the Chase.

No. 20 Joey Logano

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    Grade: F

    This one is very surprising. I am not a fan of having to give out Fs, especially when it's a driver that is still very young and developing. But so much was expected out of Logano this season, and outside of qualifying, he has given us absolutely nothing to get excited about.

    Not counting the Daytona 500, where the qualifying procedure is based on the Duel Races, which Logano was wrecked in, he has four top-10 starts and a worse starting spot of 18th. Unfortunately, his qualifying laps have been the highlights of the season for him.

    This past weekend, Logano finished 13th. Not only was that his best finish of the year, it was his only finish inside the top 20. He has led zero laps so far, and has just one finish on the lead lap. Like teammates Hamlin and Busch, Logano has had an engine issue force him out of one race, but in the other events Logano has just flat out struggled this season.

    Maybe everyone was just a little premature in proclaiming Logano was ready to contend for a Chase spot.

No. 21 Trevor Bayne

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    Grade: C

    Trevor Bayne is an extremely difficult one to grade. First off, he isn't even running for Sprint Cup Series points this season. Secondly, it's hard to ignore the fact the fact that he won the most important race of the season, but outside of that, the finishes have not been good.

    We will give him a C, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that winning the Daytona 500 carries a lot of weight with it. Other than that win, Bayne has just one other top-20 finish, while the other four finishes were all 30th or worse.

    When grading Bayne, it is also important to note that prior to his Daytona victory he had just one start in the Sprint Cup Series. He is also a very likeable young man, and that doesn't hurt anything either.

No. 22 Kurt Busch

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    Grade: B+

    Had this been done two weeks ago, Busch would have easily gotten an A. He had top 10s in each of the first four races and was sitting in the top spot in the standings. The last two races, however, have seen Busch be nothing more than average. His last two finishes are 17th and 16th respectively, and at no point in either of those events was he a contender.

    The season started off extremely well for the elder Busch brother. He won both the Bud Shootout and his Duel Race. He was also one of the two or three strongest cars throughout the entire Daytona 500, before ultimately finishing in fifth place.

    There is still nothing to be ashamed of with top-20 finishes in each of your first six races of the year, and that is what Busch has accomplished. He failed to complete just one lap so far, and currently sits fourth in the point standings.

No. 24 Jeff Gordon

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    Grade: C+

    Jeff Gordon ended a near two-year winless streak when he won the second race of the year at Phoenix, but outside of that, he has just one top 10 and, at times, has looked nothing more than average.

    The season started off with disappointment, as Gordon was involved in the lap 29 melee of the Daytona 500. While he would come back out and finish the race a number of laps down, the incident took him out of contention very early. The next week he scored his lone win of the year.

    Since then, it has been up and down for Gordon. He has finishes of 36th, 14th, 18th and fifth in the last four races. After his Phoenix win, Gordon moved up to fifth in the points, but that is the only time this year, he has cracked the top 10 in the standings. He currently sits 12th in the points, but his 178 laps led are the fourth most so far this year.

No. 27 Paul Menard

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    Grade: A-

    Some may scoff at this grade, but up until this past weekend's disappointing 38th-place finish, Menard had been the feel-good story of the young season. It is also important to remember that these grades are not based on comparisons between drivers, but rather on each individual driver's performances from years past, as well as the expectations set forth at the beginning of the season.

    Menard made the move over to Richard Childress Racing in the offseason and many believed that this year would be a career year for the young driver. So far, it has been.

    Menard currently sits 12th in the points, after spending each of the first five weeks in the top 10. He had scored top-20 finishes in each of the first five races, including a ninth and a fifth place. While all of that is impressive for a driver, who last year set a career high with six top-10 finishes, one statistic may have been more impressive than any.

    In each of the first five events, Menard set a new personal best in terms of finishing position for each of the tracks of the series. While some may think I over-graded Menard's performance, compared to what he has been in the past he is definitely deserving.

No. 29 Kevin Harvick

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    Grade: B+

    If not for a blown engine in Daytona that relegated him to a 42nd-place finish, Kevin Harvick would easily be in the "A" range. Harvick is the only driver to have multiple wins on the season, and has seen his points standing position improve after each race. He currently sits fifth in the points.

    Harvick has won each of the past two races, and done so in dramatic fashion. At Fontana, two weeks ago, Harvick led just a single lap, but it was the most important one of them all. This past weekend in Martinsville, Harvick didn't lead that many more en route to his win. He led just six laps there, giving him a total of seven laps led over the course of two wins.

    Not counting Daytona, where his engine let go very early in the event, Harvick has completed every lap, and has failed to lead a lap in just one race this season. Surprisingly, that one race was not Daytona either.

    While some people thought Harvick may struggle after the amazing season he had a year ago, he has almost seemingly picked up right where he left off, and he once again finds himself right in the middle of the points battle. With the new rules changes to the Chase, the two wins he has earned this season also almost guarantee that he will surely be in the Chase regardless of what he does over the next 20 races.

No. 31 Jeff Burton

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    Grade: F

    This one hurts. I am a fan of Jeff Burton, and have nothing but the utmost respect for him, but this season has been a total disappointment. Last season he found himself in the Chase for the championship, and multiple times throughout the course of the year he put himself in contention to win races.

    This year he has hardly even sniffed the front of the field, and has no top 10s and a best finish of 15th. Only twice in six tries has Burton finished the race on the lead lap.

    Much like his teammate, Kevin Harvick, Burton suffered an engine issue in the season-opening Daytona 500. Unlike Harvick, however, Burton has failed to rebound from it. He has hardly seen his spot in the points standings change. He was 32nd after Daytona, and now, five weeks later, he has only made up four positions, up to 28th.

No. 33 Clint Bowyer

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Grade: C

    The season started off slow for Clint Bowyer, but he has begun to turn it around over the last couple of weeks. He started out with a best finish of 15th through the first four races of the year, but has since scored back-to-back top-10 finishes, and has moved up to 16th in the standings.

    For the first time in his career, Bowyer scored multiple victories in a season last year. Thus far this year he has twice shown that he can contend for wins. Bowyer was very strong during the Daytona 500, where he led 31 laps, which was second most.

    Then again, this past weekend at Martinsville, Bowyer was out front for a good stretch, as he led 91 laps right around the midway point of the event.

    Not a terrible start to the year, but nothing too overly special either, lands Bowyer nothing more than just an average grade through six weeks.

No. 39 Ryan Newman

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    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Grade: A-

    Ryan Newman has been surprisingly strong all season long. While he has one finish of 22nd, and one of 20th, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt with an A-minus because he was running very well in both of those races before something happened that cost him from having strong finishes.

    It started at Daytona, where he finished 22nd. Newman actually led 39 laps of the race, which were the most that day and he was running in the top 10 when he was the victim in one of the late-race cautions during the green-white-checkered finish.

    Then, this past weekend, he was again running in the top 10 when the engine started to go south on him, relegating him to a 20th-place finish. Other than that, Newman has four top-10 finishes, with three of them resulting in fifth-place finishes.

    He has led laps in all but one event this year, and currently sits sixth in points, after being in second going into last weekend's race.

No. 42 Juan Montoya

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Grade: B

    Juan Montoya has very quietly been having a good start to the season. He currently sits seventh in the points, and has four top-10 finishes, and just one finish worse than 20th.

    Montoya sat on the pole for the race in Fontana a couple weeks ago, but he has had just one other race in which he started inside the top 20. So, while his qualifying efforts have not been up to par, he and his No. 42 team have more than made up for it during the race.

    Montoya has been in the top 10 in points after every race this season, and has been able to get out front and lead a handful of laps in three out of the six races. While everyone likes to continuously point out that Montoya has still yet to win a race on an oval, he constantly shows improvement and already two or three times this year has been right there at the end.

    There is no doubt that this is the year he finally gets that elusive first oval-track win.

No. 43 AJ Allmendinger

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Grade: B-

    In his first season as lead driver for Richard Petty Motorsports, AJ Allmendinger has done an admirable job. There really hasn't been anything special, but other than a 31st-place finish at Bristol, he has been consistently right around the top 10.

    Allmendinger currently sits in 14th place in the standings, and has one top 10, but five finishes inside the top 20. When teamed with the right people he was fairly strong in the season-opening Daytona 500, and since then has shown to be a consistent driver.

    Allmendinger is one of just 11 drivers that have been running at the finish of each of the first six races, and he has failed to complete just eight laps, which is sixth best in the series.

No. 47 Bobby Labonte

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Grade: C

    Bobby Labonte was one of the good stories that came out of Daytona. The 2000 Sprint Cup Series champion finished fourth in the race, which was his best finish since October of 2006. Since then, there have been some OK runs, and some finishes to forget.

    When Labonte moved over to drive the No. 47 for JTG Daugherty Racing, some thought he could be a surprise driver this season. It puts him in the best car he has had in a few years, and so far he has done a fairly nice job.

    Labonte was running well this past weekend before he was sent hard into the wall in an incident where he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    A strong run in Daytona certainly helps balance out one or two of the not-so-good finishes, and everything else has been just average, which is why through six races, Labonte gets an average grade.

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson

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    Grade: B-

    Jimmie Johnson has had a few moments this season where he has looked like a five-time champion, but he has also had a few moments where you might start to think that this is the year his streak will come to an end.

    Johnson was involved in the lap 29 accident in the Daytona 500, and subsequently finished that event in 27th place—his lowest finish so far this year. Since then, he has scored three top 10s, all of which have been inside the top five.

    He was well on his way to another top-10 finish this past weekend when a late pit-road penalty relegated him to an 11th-place finish. His other finish was a 16th-place run in Las Vegas, and in that race there was never a point in which he looked like he could be a contender.

    The most surprising thing about the season so far for Johnson has got to be the fact that he has yet to find victory lane. It is only the second time in eight seasons that Johnson has not scored at least one win in the first six weeks of the season.

No. 56 Martin Truex Jr.

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Grade: C-

    Martin Truex Jr. currently sits 17th in the standings. He has one top-10 finish, and four of his six finishes have been inside the top 20.

    Unfortunately for Truex, both of his finishes of worse than 20th have come in the last two races. One of those, last weekend in Martinsville, was a violent crash that involved Kasey Kahne, after the throttle stuck on Truex's No. 56 NAPA Toyota that sent both him and Kahne hard into the outside wall.

    So far, this season has seemingly been a question of "what ifs" for Truex. In both Bristol and Fontana, Truex found his way to the front of the field early in the events, but as the races wore on he faded back to the middle of the pack and could never recover.

    After the third race of the season, Truex sat seventh in the standings, but has dropped at least three spots each week since. That is a trend that needs to get reversed.

No. 83 Brian Vickers

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Grade: C-

    Brian Vickers is making his return this season, from blood clots that could have potentially ended his career. His comeback has seen him score two top 10s, but also three finishes of 30th or worse.

    The troubles for Vickers have been in just about every aspect. Typically a great qualifier, Vickers' best qualifying effort so far is just a 13th-place finish. Once the green flag waves, things don't get a whole lot better.

    He has yet to lead a lap this season, and has only finished on the lead lap twice. He currently sits 24th in the points standings, which is the highest he has made it at any point this year.

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Grade: B+

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on pace to have his best season since 2008. Through six races he has already scored three top 10s, and was four laps away from winning his first race in his last 98 tries this past weekend in Martinsville.

    Earnhardt Jr. won the pole position for the Daytona 500. He was however forced to start at the rear of the field due to a practice crash. He quickly made his way to the front and had one of the better cars throughout the race. He was involved in one of the late-race cautions and had to settle for a 24th-place finish.

    Since then, in five races Earnhardt Jr. has finished no worse than 12th, and has moved up to eighth place in the point standings.

    Not counting his Daytona pole, Earnhardt Jr.'s best qualifying effort has been 22nd, so the fact that he has had to make up so much ground throughout the course of the races makes it all the more impressive.

No. 99 Carl Edwards

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    Grade: A-

    Overall, Carl Edwards has had just one mediocre race this season, and that came this past weekend at Martinsville. He finished 18th, one lap down, and was never really a factor. Sure, he had a worse finish—a 28th place in Phoenix—but that was a result of an accident with Kyle Busch, while running up at the front of the field.

    Edwards has won two pole positions in six races. He has scored a win already, coming off the heels of winning the final two races of 2010. He has also rattled off two runner-up finishes, as well as a sixth place.

    Edwards has been a contender, and at the front of the field in five out of six races, and his positioning in the points have reflected it. He was in 12th place after the Phoenix race. Other than that, he has been in the top three in the points after each race.

    He finished the 2010 season in fourth place in the points, and ended the year as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. He came into 2011 as the odds-on favorite to dethrone Jimmie Johnson as the champion. Through six weeks he has shown that all of the preseason hype was well deserved.