Some Real Surprises Already In This NASCAR Season, So What Happens Next?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has surprised many with his highly competitive start to the 2012 season. As of now, second in points, he's on the path to win a race and be a championship contender. But will it last?

The first break in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is over – I think the next one is sometime in July – and the competition resumes this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

At Texas we will get some small indication that if most of what we’ve seen so far becomes a pattern or, in fact, it’s been an anomaly.

In other words, are the guys and teams that have surprised us to date going to continue to overachieve, or are they going to take a competitive tumble?

At the moment I don’t know – and neither do you nor anyone else.

But after six races we all know who has accomplished far more than we might have anticipated.

Believe me, some of them have come out of nowhere. They were on no one’s radar when the season began.

Take Michael Waltrip Racing, for example.

Not to besmirch the team or its owner at all, but when it made its full-time debut in 2002, not everyone took it seriously.

Some conjectured that the effusive Waltrip was simply taking up an expensive hobby.

And there was a time when it appeared he’d have to give it up. As it was for many other NASCAR teams, expenses and a poor economy were burdens for MWR.

But Waltrip acquired financial support through a partner, Robert Kauffman, and kept chugging along.

Even with many driver and personnel changes, “chugging” is about all MWR did for several seasons.

David Reutimann earned the only two victories for the team in 2009 and 2010.

Last season Martin Truex Jr. was the team’s highest finisher in the point standings – 18th.

I think it’s fair to say MWR wasn’t pegged for greatness in 2012.

It may be a little early to suggest that’s where it’s headed, but enough time has passed for us to know MWR isn’t “chugging” any more. It’s zipping along on the fast track.

What ignited this was MWR’s impressive run at Bristol. It put three drivers in the top 10, led by Truex Jr. in third, Clint Bowyer in fourth and Brian Vickers fifth in his first of eight races for the team this season.

MWR has had one or more of its drivers score a top-10 finish in each of six races this year. Truex Jr. leads the way with four, Bowyer has three. Part-timers Mark Martin has two and Vickers one.

Given that Martin and Vickers are on limited schedules, that means MWR has only two drivers who can contend for the championship, Truex Jr. and Bowyer.

Presently Truex Jr. is sixth in points and Bowyer ranks ninth. Yes, it is very early in the season, but indeed, as of now they are championship contenders.

If MWR had been nothing more than the proverbial “flash in the pan” with its Bristol performance it would be quickly ignored.

But it has been surprisingly competitive, week after week. The challenge will be to maintain that for the remainder of the season.


***** OK, I realize fully you have heard, read or seen this before. After all, to many in NASCAR, all Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to do to get some headlines is sneeze.

But Earnhardt Jr., to date, is getting notice because he’s doing exactly what many of us thought he would when he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Well, not everything we thought. He hasn’t been winning races.

Not yet, anyway.

After six races this season Earnhardt Jr. has earned four finishes among the top 10, which include three among the top five. Those three have been a runnerup and two in third place.

He is presently second in points, only six behind Greg Biffle.

He has expressed renewed, great confidence and an eagerness to get back on the track because he knows his team’s competitive level is at an all-time high.

I am certain not many thought Earnhardt Jr., who has been little more than mediocre for so many years, would be in such a lofty position this early in the year.

Yes, in the past he has gone on some performance streaks that have matched his potential and encouraged his fans.

But they have been brief. And most of them have come when Earnhardt Jr. struggled to make the Chase or stay among the eligible top 12.

Now, however, good performance has come with the first green flag of the season. Instead of scrapping for a Chase position Earnhardt Jr. is entrenched in one.

He has the remainder of the season to do well enough to stay there – and, most important, win a race.

Newcomer Clint Bowyer's performances in 2012 are one reason why Michael Waltrip Racing has ascended to a prominence few expected of it this year.


***** Speaking of Biffle, the current points leader has, like Earnhardt Jr., four top 10 finishes with three among the top five.

He’s presently the top dog at Roush Fenway Racing and that is a decidedly different situation than last year.

In 2011, Biffle did not win a race, finished among the top 10 only 10 times and wound up 16th in points, the only Roush driver not to make the Chase. He was the runt of the litter.

Biffle has, on more than one occasion, praised his team, and particularly crew chief Matt Puccia, for the reversal of fortune.

How long this reversal of fortune lasts is a matter that will be determined as the season moves along.

Nevertheless, count Biffle as one who has surprised all of us thus far.


***** There are other pleasant surprises:

Tony Stewart has already won twice this year and usually it takes him more than a half-season to hit his stride.

His teammate, Ryan Newman, has also won which means Stewart Haas Racing has been a formidable force so far this season.

Brad Keselowski has settled in nicely to his new role as senior driver at Penske Racing. He’s won a race, at Bristol, and barring some unfortunate situations, he’d be much higher than 12th in points.

He wrecked at Daytona, had fuel issues at Las Vegas and got nabbed for speeding on pit road at Fontana.

As for the not-so-pleasant surprises we can certainly mention Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.

Their luck hasn’t been bad. It’s been rotten.

But that can change.

So can everything else.

Or, perhaps in some cases, things will remain the same – for which those involved would be grateful.

Time will tell. And plenty of that remains.










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