_Down here, there’s just winners and losers,_
_And don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line…_
– B. Springsteen –
With the conclusion of the World 600 we are now 1/3rd of the way through Cup season and approximately halfway through the “regular season” that precedes the Chase. With that in mind it’s time to review who is off to a good start this season, who’s off to a poor start and who is living a horrific nightmare through the year’s first 12 races.
*Winner: Greg Biffle* Prior to the start of the season few people were even mentioning Biffle as a potential Cup champion. Long regarded as a driver who, while capable of the occasional win but not a full season run at a Cup title, Biffle and the No. 16 outfit have long appeared as a tertiary team at Roush Fenway Racing. That was especially true in the last season or so, a winless, Chaseless year leaving them at the bottom of the totem pole within the organization. Not anymore. In addition to having already won at Texas, Biffle has been leading the points since after Las Vegas, the third race of the season. In these first 12 races, Biffle has already scored seven top-5 finishes. He’s King of the Mountain right now and the ride to the title goes through the No. 16 team.
*Loser: Jeff Gordon* If the start to Biffle’s season has been a pleasant surprise, the start to Gordon’s has been a nasty shock and a bitter disappointment to his legions of fans. Short of being struck by lightning or audited by the IRS, Gordon’s season has been a horror story worthy of a Dean Koontz novel. Twelve races into the season, Gordon has managed just one top-5 finish and a total of three top 10s. That’s left him mired a disastrous 22nd in the points, easily a career worst at this point in the season. Unfortunately for the No. 24 bunch, there’s no clear area that needs improvement. It’s not that their cars lack horsepower, don’t handle well or that the driver isn’t up on the wheel. Those sort of problems you can work to correct. It’s simply been a season of bad luck worthy of Job for Gordon — and there’s no fixing luck.
*Winner: Matt Kenseth* If last year’s four Roush Fenway drivers were the Beatles, Kenseth would be George Harrison… the quiet one with immense talent but who rarely draws attention to himself. Well, the deal is when you win the Daytona 500, even in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning, people are going to stand up and take notice, sort of like when George used to do the guitar solo in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. (OK, so maybe that was actually Eric Clapton… you get my point.) Kenseth is currently second in the standings and has top-10 finishes in eight of this season’s 12 races. Wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic if Kenseth were to win the Chase with just one victory this year? After all, the whole Chase farce was an overreaction to Kenseth’s single win Championship back in 2003.
*Loser: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing* Both Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray have been struggling to date this season. They are currently shown 18th and 21st in the standings, and neither driver has scored a top-5 finish yet this season; between them they’ve led just eight laps. Montoya has his chance at redemption at this season’s two road course events but McMurray’s stock is dropping like Facebook. What surprises me is with all the difficulties they’ve endured, there are no rumors that EGR will shift to Dodge for next season. After all, would you rather be a big fish in a little pond (hell, the only fish in the pond) or a small fish in the great big Chevrolet sea? If you have to run into a jet dryer and cause it to explode to get any TV airtime, you’re doing something wrong.
*Winner: Michael Waltrip Racing* MWR had, since its inception been a bit of a joke no one found particularly humorous. (Just like the blowhard whose name adorns the front doors.) But this season to date, Truex is ranked sixth in the standings with seven top-10 results. Recent transplant Clint Bowyer is twelfth in the standings with five top 10s. Even part-timer Mark Martin has managed a pair of poles and four top-10 finishes in just nine starts. What’s going on here? My guess is that as Waltrip himself steps further and further away from day-to-day operations of his race team, pursuing his broadcast career he’s leaving people more competent than himself in his wake to pull the strings at MWR.
*Loser: Richard Childress Racing* Childress described his team’s performance in 2011 as “embarrassing.” 2012 isn’t off to a much better start. While Kevin Harvick’s season isn’t off to a terrible beginning, seventh in the standings with top-10 finishes in half of this season’s 12 points races, you can’t say the same about his teammates. Paul Menard (13th in the standings), and Jeff Burton (17th) have fallen off the radar, respectively while the fourth team was “sold off” by race six. RCR has also yet to score a single win this season. How come? Again, it’s only conjecture on my part, but it seems the Nationwide and Truck teams out of RCR are flying high. Is the proud grandpa of the Dillon brothers focusing too much of his attention and resources on getting his grandkids into the big leagues?
*Winner: Denny Hamlin* After narrowly missing a title in 2010, Hamlin fell into a self-acknowledged funk that saw him phoning in his performance last year. In 2012, he’s come out of the gate like a rodeo bull out of the chute. Hamlin has already won twice and has a total of seven top-10 finishes in this year’s first 12 races. He finds himself third in the standings and several tracks that have been good to Hamlin lay directly ahead on the schedule. So far, so good for new crew chief Darian Grubb…
*Loser: Joey Logano* Have you noticed nobody has referred to Logano as “Sliced Bread” lately? Logano is sixteenth in the standings, has led just two laps, and has yet to manage a top-5 finish this season. His average finish to date in 2012 is around 18th. Rumors are already circulating Logano will find himself demoted to the Nationwide Series next year if he’s to stay at JGR.
*Some Indeterminate Shade of Gray: Kyle Busch* It’s hard to say that Busch’s season is off to a terrible start. He is, after all, eighth in the standings, has seven top-10 finishes, and won at Richmond. Ironically enough, in the season’s other two short track races he finished 32nd at Bristol and 36th at Martinsville. The thing is, this portion of the season is the one where we’ll all used to seeing Busch win multiple times in all three of NASCAR’s top three touring series, and to date he’s been pretty much an afterthought. I remember my normally playful and energetic Golden Retriever laid near motionless in the stone foyer for a week after he was “neutered.” Busch didn’t lose his balls after his outrageous conduct at Texas last fall. He just had to hand them to Joe Gibbs, who keeps them tucked away in a safe until after the season ends.
*A Slightly Darker Shade of Gray: Carl Edwards* In 2011, Edwards lost the championship by a single finishing position to Tony Stewart. This year, he’s become the sport’s invisible man. Edwards currently finds himself with no wins and just two top-5 finishes but with a total of eight top 10s. He’s a scant four points inside that “safe” top-10 points position so even one bad afternoon could force him to start battling for wins just to make the Chase. Maybe if Gordon, Keselowski, Newman and Edwards have to spend the summer battling over those two playoff berths fighting for victories, fans will get to see some real racing again. We all know all four drivers are capable of pulling off multiple race-winning streaks. “We shall see,” the cat said, licking his lips hungrily, waiting for the robin to land in the front yard.
*Winner: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* Let’s be truthful. Over the last three years, Earnhardt, Jr. has become sort of the Kim Kardashian of NASCAR. He’s famous simply because he is, popular for no discernible reason related to any sort of talent or results, and seen most often in commercials during a race, though not in the top 10 afterwards. Well this year, Earnhardt is actually giving his myriads of fans something to cheer about other than his having won five bucks in a scratch-off lottery game. While he still hasn’t won a points race since the last Bush administration, Earnhardt did in fact win the preliminary event to the All-Star Race. He’s currently fourth in the standings and has four top-5 finishes and nine top 10s. Those four top-5 results match how many of the same sort of finish Earnhardt had all of last year, and that was the most top 5s he’s managed in the last three years. In a season that fans have found boring to date, Junior actually contending for a title even if the races remain placid is going to have millions of fans and media members dancing about like Holy-Rollers seeing the first bag of rattlesnakes entering the room.
*Still Whitish But Fading to Black: Tony Stewart* Yep, he’s won two races this season; Stewart, Keselowski and Hamlin are the only three drivers to win more than a single race this year. But Stewart only has two other top-5 finishes in addition to those victories. Some weekends, Stewart and his equipment are simply out to lunch and he’s just out there turning laps and trying to stay out of the way, as has his teammate Ryan Newman as of late. It’s odd that Stewart throughout his lengthy Cup career has typically started the season slowly then gotten white hot late in the year. Is 2012 a case of premature congratulation?
*Clouds Giving Way to Bright Sunshine: Kasey Kahne* Early in the season, it appeared Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon were carpooling to work and the same black cat was crossing their path in the parking lot each day. But while Gordon is still struggling, Kahne is putting his floundering start to the 2012 season in his rear-view mirror. He’s had six straight top-10 finishes, culminating with his victory in the World 600 on Sunday. But here’s a word of advice: Objects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear. Lady Luck is fickle, and she tends to be a bit of a b*tch from time to time.
*Winner: Brad Keselowski* Keselowski’s season got off to a slow start, with 32nd-place finishes at Daytona and Las Vegas, but he’s since rebounded nicely by scoring wins at Bristol and Talladega. Eleventh in points, Penske’s top driver has those two wins up his sleeve to play with if needed to fight for a Wild Card berth.
*Loser: AJ Allmendinger* The season started off with great promise for Allmendinger, who managed to land a ride in one of Penske’s Dodges after Kurt Busch’s meltdown at Homestead. But despite running in what is arguably the best equipment of his career, Allmendinger just isn’t putting the numbers on the board. True, he did finish second at Martinsville, but that’s the lone highlight in a season leaving him 24th in points. Ironically, that’s five positions behind Aric Almirola, who took over the seat in the No. 43 car Allmendinger had vacated. While he’s run better than his numbers indicate and, like Gordon, he’s just suffering through a string of incredibly bad luck, Allmendinger only has a one-year contract with Penske in a “What have you done for me lately?” type of business.
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