This Saturday night’s 400 miles of restrictor plate carnage under the bright lights of NASCAR’s first ever super track will mark the half-way point in a season that, to be kind, has lacked a certain something; or if you’ll forgive the Jean Girard Talladega Nights type reference a “je ne sais quoi”. I’m not going to say the season has flat out sucked (although too many times, it has) but it’s fair to say it’s not been the sort of season they write epic sports literature tomes about. Yes, there have been some notable highs, some comedic lows, (step forward Kurt Busch and Jet Drier Montoya) but for the most part it has not been a season that quickens the blood and fires up the synapses. Now, the good news is that there’s plenty of time for that to change and every reason to hope it might, as the pressure of making the Chase and running for the title nudges inexorably northward.
It’s not all been doom and gloom in 2012 as already we’ve seen a number of positive themes and trends emerge. First up, as is appropriate for the nine straight time Most Popular Sprint Cup driver, it’s *Dale Earnhardt Jr.*, who has shown a consistency and speed that suggests he’s a legitimate title contender. The long winless streak has also come to a merciful end (if only so people will stop talking about it for a bit) with a morale-boosting beat down of the field at newly repaved Michigan International Speedway on Father’s Day. Ironically, though, the win came in the one-off Dark Knight Rises paint scheme. I’m betting the Diet Mountain Dew marketing supremos had a collective conniption when that happened.
Ah well, these things happen. Such are the vagaries of sports sponsorship, which transitions me nicely to *Matt Kenseth* and his impending departure from Roush Fenway Racing. While some of his fellow wheelmen point to a change being a good thing for the 2012 Daytona 500 winner, the 2003 Cup champion and current points leader; I’d respectfully agree to disagree with those who know him personally. This is one hundred percent about sponsorship. Yes, Kenseth is a guy who shies away from the ten thousand watt glare of the media spotlight, but he wins and he consistently runs upfront. He might not get the media minute interviews, but he lets the hood of his car at the front of the pack do the talking. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. may very well be the future–and much cheaper–but right now Kenseth is the present. I only hope for his sake it doesn’t ruin a run for a second championship, but right now fear that it will.
And speaking of drivers in search of a championship there’s *Jeff Gordon* who is struggling through a hideous nightmare of a season. Sure he can still technically make the Chase; but it would, at this stage, take something remarkable in a season when the only thing remarkable thing about Jeff Gordon is his bad luck.
*Carl Edwards*, last season’s runner up, is also suffering through a difficult year as he bids for a first championship he came agonizingly close to in 2011. Edwards keeps asserting, often with some degree of vociferousness, that last year is a closed book. His form, certainly compared to Biffle and Kenseth, would suggest otherwise. Right now Edwards is on the outside of the Chase picture. He needs a strong run to Richmond to cement his spot.
On the flip side of those struggling, 2012 has witnessed the rise and rise of *Michael Waltrip Racing*. A few seasons back the team was derided, seen as something of a joke, but this year they’ve had the last laugh. The arrivals of Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin have helped galvanize the entire organization and success has followed. Bowyer, who won at Sonoma, sits seventh in the overall standings, a point ahead of teammate Truex. Then there’s Brian Vickers, who’s picked up two top 5s in three cameo appearances. In short, things look good for MWR and it’s great to see another team challenge the hegemony of the current big players.
Perhaps the major theme of this season is the *dreaded “aero” factor*, particularly at the cookie cutter tracks. Everyone has an opinion on how to solve the issue but I’m not sure at this stage there are too many viable fixes with a new car coming in 2013 and the schedule the way it is. We are where we are with this car this season and not much is going to change that. I just can’t see the governing body advocating huge changes midway through the year. It is to be hugely hoped some of these issues are addressed with the new wave of machines coming next season. What this unfortunately has meant for this season is a series of green flag passing free races: If that was what I wanted I’d watch Formula One. (Actually, while I’m on the subject of the pinnacle of motorsports, the 2012 F1 season has been as exciting as it has been unpredictable.) Point is on too many occasions, NASCAR has been really tough to watch this season. And that’s just a shame, no other way to put it.
And so we come full circle back to Daytona International Speedway this weekend. The 2012 Great American Race and traditional season curtain raiser was marred by the *Great Jet Dryer Fire* of Daytona and that truly bizarre incident seemed to set an odd tone for the season. In the last few weeks there have been signs of life. Joey Logano’s Pocono victory and the general success of that entire race; Junior’s aforementioned first win since the discovery of gravity and a gripping battle at Sonoma. Okay, *Kentucky kinda stunk* but on the bright side the reduced crowd (on last year) got home without a hitch.
This weekend it’s back to Daytona and a race that will go all the way to the very last meter on the final lap. Coming up before the Chase we have races at Atlanta, the “re-re” configured Bristol, Richmond and the always-unpredictable Watkins Glen course. Plus we go back to both Michigan — *another potential Junior win* — and a second crack at Pocono. And that’s all before we get going with the ten most important races since the Romans ruled the known world. (I kid, I kid.) More seriously, I’m looking forward to seeing this season explode into what we all hoped it would be on the back of the epic 2011 championship battle. After such a sluggish start, we might just get a finish to the year we never would have expected. Here’s hoping.
*One quick final point* before I go: I’m strongly hoping that the Five Hour Energy guys have a second ad lined up for the latter half of the season. I’ve seen that Clint Bowyer walking around through different vignettes ad some many times I almost need a slug of said product just to get me through the excruciating thirty seconds; that or poking my eyes out with a blunt spoon so I never have to see it again.
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