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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Be Sure, Talladega Race Lived Up To Its Billing

Clint Bowyer won for the first time this season in a typical, unpredictable Talladega race. The win was especially rewarding for Bowyer, whose six-season tenure with Richard Childress Racing comes to an end after this season. Bowyer presented Childress with his 100th victory as a team owner.

The Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the sixth race in the 10-event Chase, was characterized as the “wild card” event of the “playoffs.”

That’s because of the typical unpredictability of the race. With high speeds and two-car “dance partner” drafting that is a part of the 2.66-mile Talladega track and its sister, Daytona, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint what is going to happen – much less an outcome.

Championship contenders could have poor finishes, or fall by the wayside, for many reasons – all related to the complexities of restrictor-plate racing. A driver in the lead on the last lap could very well find himself outside the top 10 by the time he got to the finish line. An unheralded, even unknown, competitor could find the means to win – consider young Trevor Bayne, who took the victory in the Daytona 500.

The Good Sam Club 500 lived up to its billing. It was indeed a “wild card” race.

The winner was certainly not unheralded or unknown. But he was unexpected. It’s very likely few, in any, predicted he would triumph at Talladega.

But that’s exactly what Clint Bowyer did. He won for the first time this season – his last victory came in this race in 2010 – he became the first Chase non-qualifier to win in the “playoff.” He earned the distinction of providing the 100th Cup series victory for Richard Childress Racing.

Ironically, it came five races before Bowyer’s tenure with Childress comes to an end. Largely because of a lack of sponsorship, Bowyer will move over to Michael Waltrip Racing next season and RCR may well be reduced from four teams to three.

As for the Chase contenders, overall, they fared worse at Talladega than in any other race since the title hunt began at Chicagoland on Sept. 19.

Only three of them finished among the top 10. Two placed 11th-20th and a whopping seven were 25th or worse.

Replacing them at the head of the pack were such drivers as Jeff Burton (second), Dave Blaney (third, his best finish of the season), Brian Vickers (5th), Kasey Kahne (6th), Waltrip (9th) and Martin Truex Jr. (10th).

Really, now, who could have predicted that?

And who could have predicted that the Chase leaders, those drivers atop the standings when the Talladega event began, would experience mediocre to dismal results?

Carl Edwards, No. 1 in the standings, finished 11th, his first run outside the top 10 since the Chase began. Kevin Harvick, who was hot on Edwards’ heels prior to the race, experienced on-track misfortune and wound up 32nd. Matt Kenseth, third when the green flag fell, could do no better than 18th.

Resurgence for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch came to an end as they saw momentum die with finishes of 26th and 33rd, respectively.

For all of that, Edwards not only retains his lead in the point standings, he now has largest margin in the first six races of the Chase – largely because he finished ahead of all but two of his rivals.

Edwards now has a 14-point margin over the new runnerup, Kenseth. He’s 18 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth at Talladega, and 19 over Tony Stewart, who finished seventh and was a victory contender for a large portion of the race.

Harvick came into Talladega No. 2 in points, just five behind Edwards with steady Chase performances. But he was involved in a multicar accident after 107 of 188 laps and was forced to report to the garage area for repairs, including a broken oil line. He finished nine laps down and is now fifth in points, 26 in arrears.

Kyle Busch, 33rd at Talladega after his involvement in a multicar wreck, is presently sixth in points, 40 behind Edwards. Johnson’s bid to win a sixth consecutive title took a serious hit with his 26th-place finish, which puts him seventh in points and 50 out of the lead. Kurt Busch wound up 36th at Talladega, also the victim of a wreck, and he’s eighth in points, 52 down.

The remainder of the top 12 in points has, for the most part, been removed from championship consideration. They are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.

“I don’t know that I have ever been so excited about 11th place,” said a relieved Edwards. “This race was one that was nerve-racking for everyone but we came in here with a small points lead and so it was a huge day for us.

“I cannot believe how much Greg (Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing teammate) helped us today. I owe him a lot. Greg stuck with me all day. On the last lap he was driving my car from back there. It is good to get a good finish and even though it is not a win, it is a big battle in the war and a huge day for us.”

Edwards wisely added that although he’s boosted his points lead, competitively, he couldn’t let up.

“We’d have to have a 100-point lead to take a breath,” he said. “Anything can happen. I’m proud of our team, where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come in the last 18 months. We’re doing well.

“But I’m a little nervous about Matt, honestly, because I know how good he is and how good his team is. Having him in second doesn’t make me breathe easier, competitive-wise.”

Despite Edwards’ surge in the Chase, the most compelling Talladega tale was Bowyer’s victory.

The Emporia, Kan., native, who has spent all of his six full Sprint Cup seasons with Childress, finished among the top 10 in points in three of the last four seasons.

But he was 14th when the Chase began this year. And as the season wound down, it became clear that all attempts to secure a sponsorship package that would allow him to remain with Childress were going to fail.

Some lame duck drivers waddle toward the end of a season. Bowyer has clearly not done that.

To win at Talladega, Bowyer hooked up in the draft behind leader and teammate Burton when the race restarted from its ninth, and final, caution period with just two laps to go.

The two were well ahead of the pack when Bowyer made his move, pulling to the inside of Burton on the last lap. Burton retaliated, the two bumped, but Bowyer held on to win by a half-car length in yet another Talladega race decided by a last-lap pass.

“Trust me, I was prepared to push Jeff to the win no matter what the cost was if we would have had people breathing down or necks,” Bowyer said. “It just wasn’t meant to be for him. He’s been a great teammate and I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s already won a lot of races. I think he’s won like 20 or so. I’ve only won five.

“You owe it to your team and to your sponsors to go out and win the race.”

Bowyer quickly admitted he wanted to win to reward the efforts of his team and to indicate he wasn’t going to be the typical lame duck.

“It’s just so important to me to be able to cap off such a good relationship with Richard,” he said. “Everybody at RCR, it’s like family over there. It meant a lot for me to be able to win before we end this deal.

“The stars were lined up today with having the hundredth anniversary of Chevrolet on my race car. If I won the race, it was going to be Richard’s hundredth win.

“I’m excited that it was.”

 

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