NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Other Top Surprises in the Sprint Cup Standings

Luke KrmpotichContributor IIApril 21, 2011

In 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is once again running up front.
In 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is once again running up front.John Harrelson/Getty Images

Junior Nation has to be excited. NASCAR's most popular driver has climbed all the way to third in the standings, and it's looking like he'll make the Chase for the first time since 2008.

After ranking 25th and 21st the last two seasons, this is a stunning turnaround.

Sure, Junior hasn't broken that winless streak, which stretched to 101 races after a fourth-place run at Talladega.

However, Junior already has five top-10s in 2011 after a total of only eight during the entire 2010 season. The only time he finished worse than 12th was the season-opening Daytona 500, a race in which he had one of the strongest cars.

The sustained signs of improvement shown by Dale Jr. and his team are perhaps better than a solitary win for creating momentum.

With new crew chief Steve Letarte, Junior is showing the consistency he hasn't had since the first half of 2008. Confidence is infectious, and right now the No. 88 team is looking like it'll be a force all year long.

Junior isn't the only surprise near the top of the points so far in the 2011 season.

Paul Menard is a strong 11th in the points. He has just one finish worse than 17th and has scored career-best finishes at six of the first eight stops on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Menard has shown strength at the beginning of the season before, but now that he's with RCR, he has the necessary resources at his disposal to keep his momentum going week in and week out.

On the other end of the spectrum, several top drivers are struggling. Denny Hamlin (17th), Kasey Kahne (18th), Jeff Burton (22nd), Jamie McMurray (23rd) and Joey Logano (24th) each have a lot of ground to make up if they're going to make the Chase.

But perhaps more surprising than these drivers' low positions in the points is how they've gotten there, and specifically their low numbers of top-5s and top-10s.

Who would have thought that eight races into the 2011 season, David Gilliland would have more top-5s (one) and top-10s (two) than Denny Hamlin (no top-5s, one top-10)?

Yes, you read that right. At this point last season, Gilliland had no top-10s (in fact, he didn't get a single top-10 in 2010). Hamlin had three top-5s, including two wins, after the Talladega race last April.

This season, the roles seem to have been reversed. Gilliland nearly won the Daytona 500 before finishing third, while Hamlin hasn't so much as sniffed a win all year.

But let's not just pick on Hamlin. He has company.

Like Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger have one top-10 and no top-5s in 2011. Jeff Burton, David Reutimann and Brad Keselowski have yet to score a top-10.

At least Paul Menard has more top-5s (two) and top-10s (three) than Gilliland.

Admittedly, Gilliland is just 29th in the standings, lower than any of these other drivers. Even still, the fact that Gilliland has more top-5s and top-10s than drivers with much better equipment and more talent serves to illustrate how lackluster of seasons these drivers have been having.

No doubt they'll eventually pick up the pace. Their talent as drivers and the strength of their teams is undeniable.

But if they're going to make any noise this season, they'll need to string together some strong runs in a hurry. Time is beginning to run out for them to have hopes of making the Chase.