_12 down, 24 to go, and just ten races until the repeatedly slandered 2012 Chase for the Championship begins in earnest. With a good sample size, both in terms of races and also tracks visited now in the books the complexion of the season is taking shape. The probable and possible challengers for Tony Stewart’s crown are emerging; and as we start the summer swing (good news: just one more race on Fox, folks) we’ll start to see who is in it to win it with even sharper focus. So at the one-third mark of the season, it’s time I graded the pack for the first time in 2012._
*Best Driver: Greg Biffle*
When Greg Biffle first clawed his way to the top of the standings, there were certainly those who assumed it was little more than a solid dose of good early season form, when the points can fluctuate much more wildly. But the Biff hasn’t been shifted from atop the leaderboard, despite others closing the gap. There just seems to be an even more innate hunger and drive from the 11-year, 342-race veteran of the Cup Series. Could he become the first driver ever to win a championship at all three of NASCAR’s top echelon series? Quite possibly. Stay tuned.
*Most Improved: Martin Truex, Jr.*
After a couple tough weeks (25th – Richmond, 28th – Talladega) Truex righted the ship with a fifth-place run at Darlington and a respectable 12th-place finish at Charlotte on Sunday. Clearly, as you’ll see below, the much-maligned Michael Waltrip Racing team is a far more serious contender in 2012 and Truex has benefited the most from the transformation. It’s been a long time since he has won on the Cup level (179 races, to be precise – Dover, June 2007) but with the way he’s performed so far this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the streak broken sooner rather than later. I certainly think he’ll make the Chase.
*Biggest Threat: Jimmie Johnson*
Were it not for some uncharacteristic errors and miscues on pit road, Johnson would be atop the standings with multiple wins. Let’s not forget, either, that he’s led the most laps so far (502) and, in Sunday’s Coke 600 saw Double J run solidly in the top 5 all night, looking ominous in third, before he exited the pits with his gas man and gas can still attached. Come Chase time, those sort of mistakes will prove ludicrously costly, but assuming these snafus can be ironed out, there seems to be no reason not to expect a strong run at a sixth championship. Right now, I’d have to say he’s my favorite – problems notwithstanding.
*Honorable Mention: Kasey Kahne*
After a nightmarish start to his Hendrick Motorsports career, Kahne has shown over the past month that he’s ready to prove why it was Rick Hendrick who signed him (and waited so long) in the first place. Sunday’s win in the sport’s longest race, coupled with six straight great finishes (seventh, eighth, fifth, fourth, eighth and first) suggest that the early season wobbles are a thing of the past. Look for more wins from Kahne over the summer months and a strong playoff showing when the time comes. This team is about to really start ripping it up.
*Best Team: Roush Fenway Racing (for now)*
With Greg Biffle atop the standings and Matt Kenseth just 10 points behind, not to mention Carl Edwards in 10th place (81 points back), I’ll give the best team award to Roush Fenway at this stage. But with the way Hendrick Motorsports has been performing recently, this would have been a tie were it not for Jeff Gordon’s comically terrible year (22nd, -174 points, just three top 10s.) More than a few other teams and drivers will have a say come Chase time, but based on the evidence so far, it could well be a Roush-HMS duel for the title by the time we get to Homestead in November.
*Most Improved Team: MWR*
I talked above about the improvement in Martin Truex, Jr. this season, but it’s a trend mirrored by his entire team. With Mark Martin running like a man half his age (albeit on a part-time schedule), Clint Bowyer sitting in 12th — but needing a win to get a Chase berth as things stand — and team sub Brian Vickers impressing with two strong runs, the team that used to be something of a joke is becoming anything but that. Joe Gibbs Racing’s support (as a fellow user of TRD engines) has been a critical boost. After a rocky road to begin with, it’s good to see this team on the up and up throughout 2012 and beyond.
*Most Disappointing Driver: A.J. Allmendinger*
Some might consider this harsh, but the facts are that the ever-popular California native has disappointed so far in a quality ride. Still zero for XXX in the wins column, A.J. has a lot to prove this year and even more so now, especially with teammate Brad Keselowski showing he knows the way to both relevance and Victory Lane. At this rate, A.J. will be one and done at Penske with a points performance that isn’t even inside the top 20. Here’s hoping we see a revival from him, and a revival that begins sooner rather than later.
*Most Disappointing Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing*
On the preseason Sprint Cup Media Tour, team principal Chip Ganassi described his team’s 2011 season efforts as “embarrassing.” Well, it hasn’t got much better in 2012 with both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya struggling to author any sort of relevance – let alone good finishes (the pair have a combined for a measly 3 top 10s). Something is certainly amiss with the team this year, but the good news is there’s still time. Montoya, an expert on the road courses, and of course Indianapolis Motor Speedway can still claw his way to an unlikely Chase berth and given McMurray’s propensity to win big races, there’s still time for him too. The time to do it is all well and good; whether they can put up the finishes in the results column remains very much to be seen. A Ganassi car in the Chase is, then, a huge longshot; at least Chip has the Borg Warner trophy in the cabinet once again…
*Best Race: There’s been a good one?*
Can I just skip over this category? Or would that be too churlish? I actually had to think long and hard about this one but in the end, I’ll give it to *Martinsville.*
*Worst Race: Take your pick from a number of stinkers*
Look, I get every race can’t be an instant classic or a “race for the ages” but it seems to me we’ve had a fair few stinkers this year. Even Darlington failed to live up to its reputation and were it not for an unexpected wreckfest of a finish, Martinsville wasn’t as thrilling as it typically is. I’ll go, though, for the race at Kansas, which was poor at best. And to think we have to go back there in the Chase. What a shame.
*Most Bizarre Incident: Jet Dryer Montoya*
There is an element of racing that leads you to expect the unexpected, but even by that standard, the jet dryer incident at Daytona is one of the most bizarre (if not _the_ most bizarre) thing I’ve ever seen on a racetrack; so much so, it almost beggars belief. But happen it did and from the way Montoya has run in 2012, the strange wreck was a harbinger of what’s to come.
*Honorable Mention: Rick Hendrick goes for a ride.*
And speaking of stuff you don’t often see, Rick Hendrick hitching a ride to Victory Lane with Jimmie Johnson at the All-Star race goes down as one of those random Sprint Cup moments that can’t help but make you smile. When he finally went for the wave, I thought it was even odds he would be tumbling onto the track. Thankfully, Hendrick held on – as is right and proper for a man who has, despite his critics, brought so much excitement to Cup racing.
*Best Save: Kyle Busch in the Bud Shootout*
Say what you will about the younger Busch but one thing is for sure, he can drive the wheels off a racecar. That save at Daytona was the sort of move perhaps only one or two other drivers could pull off. “Take a look again.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHZFtzA0ObM Nice effort, Kyle, very nice.
*Best Ad: Diet Mountain Dew Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Ad*
For the most part, the NASCAR-themed ads have been a real disappointment. I don’t have the empirical data to back this up (math never being my strong suit) but I definitely feel we’ve seen far fewer companies develop NASCAR-related commercials in 2012. And those that have appeared have left much to be desired, like the Clint Bowyer 5-Hour energy spot which appears to play every single commercial break during races (thank you, once again, to the inventor of the DV-R.)
I’ll give Aaron’s some credit for at least trying to come up with new material: albeit typically corny, as you would expect from pitchman extraordinaire Michael Waltrip, but overall there has been limited creativity and even more limited options for the advertising-loving NASCAR fan. So without many options to choose from, I’ll plump for the Diet Mountain Dew ad. It’s not great, but it’s the best of a bad bunch.
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