I love studying the points standings at the beginning of the season. The first five or six races are intriguing in that unheralded drivers often float to the top of the rankings by running steady, not necessarily great, and avoiding early pitfalls that can start a team in the hole, if not derail their season completely.
After only two races in the 2007 Nextel Cup campaign, I find myself amused already.
Who would have thought Mark Martin, in a part-time role no less, would be leading the standings and having to wrestle, whether he’ll admit it or not, with the thought (once again) of doing an about face and seeing this season through? Come to think of it, who would have believed the No. 01 U.S. Army Chevy would have been the vehicle in which Martin would ride to consecutive top-five finishes to start the year?
At the opposite end of the age spectrum, we have 21-year-old David Ragan as the year’s early rookie surprise. This youngster was rushed through the system and thrown into Martin’s old No. 6 ride at Roush Fenway Racing. After hitting everything on the track in two events last season, the young man has amazed by keeping his nose clean en route to fifth- and 16th-place runs. By simply not screwing up, Ragan finds himself fifth in the points standings.
Other oddities? How about Joe Nemechek driving for a brand new team at Ginn Racing that, until a few weeks ago, did not even have sponsorship. Joe slid through the last-lap carnage at Daytona and stayed smooth at California and now finds himself seventh in the standings. JJ Yeley sits eighth at the moment by traveling the same road, putting him higher in points than both of his more famous Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. Can you imagine these two, along with Ragan, David Gilliland and David Stremme, who sit 10th and 11th in points, respectively, making the Chase while Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart sit mired in the teens, 20s and 30s?
While we all know this is not going to happen (admit it, Ragan, Stremme and Gilliland will slide), it makes for great water cooler talk. Better, it makes for more intense racing on Sundays. Busch is 19th in points; Stewart 21st; Carl Edwards 26th; Kahne 32nd; Earnhardt Jr. 40th. While it’s too early to panic, it’s never too early to light a fire under some backsides and rebound from a miserable start.
Recall how Stewart missed the Chase last season by the slimmest of margins. After running a solid fifth in the Daytona 500, he bombed at California and Vegas to the tune of 43rd- and 21st-place finishes. Think he wouldn’t have liked those two early-season stinkers back when Richmond rolled around?
Yes, it’s early. Yes, studying the points standings after Race No. 2 is an exercise in futility. No, we should not put too much stock in a driver and his team based on two events, especially when one was a plate race. But mark my words: At least one of the drivers mentioned, Busch, Stewart, Edwards, Kahne or Earnhardt Jr. will be on the bubble come Richmond. Think he won’t look back on the season’s first two races and cringe?