|Recent NASCAR action at the Talladega Superspeedway. ( Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR/AFP)
QMI's auto racing columnist Dean McNulty weighs in with his best and worst of the 2011 NASCAR season so far.
Top 5 surprises so far in NASCAR this season:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — While it has been almost three full seasons since he last sipped champagne in the NASCAR Sprint Cup winner’s circle, he has come tantalizingly close twice so far this season — a second at Martinsville and a fourth at Talladega. Under new crew chief Steve Latarte Earnhardt is showing real progress after the past three disappointing seasons and there is no reason not to believe this resurgence is for real.
2. Matt Kenseth — Since winning his lone championship back in 2003 Kenseth’s career has been hit and miss. And for the past two seasons it has been mostly miss. But so far this season the Wisconsin native appears to have taken a page from his beloved Green Bay Packers’ playbook in the wake of their Super Bowl victory. Kenseth already has a win and four Top 10 finishes, making him a contender to make the Chase of the Championship.
3. Paul Menard — Most everybody in the NASCAR garage has dismissed Menard at one time or another as the rich kid who only gets to race in the Sprint Cup division because of his daddy’s sponsorship money. But through nine races in the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Menard has a pair of Top 5 finishes and three Top 10s. No matter how much money he has behind him, you can’t buy results like that without talent to back it up.
4. A.J. Allmendinger — When he came to NASCAR from the Champ Car World Series Allmendinger was part of a wave of open wheel champions determined to make it in NASCAR following Juan Pablo Montoya’s defection from Formula One a year earlier. It was tough sledding but Allmendinger has stuck it out and this season is his best so far with solid finishes in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.
5. David Ragan — The 2011 season began with rumours that Ragan had all but driven his way out the Roush Fenway Racing garage with so-so results in the No. 6 Ford. His huge mistake at Daytona, where he tried to block eventual winner Trevor Bayne while leading on the second to last re-start, cost him the race and a lecture for team owner Jack Roush. Solid finishes since then, however, with three Top 10s and one Top 5, has made his job safe.
Top 5 biggest disappointments so far this season in NASCAR:
1: Denny Hamlin — The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team with Hamlin behind the wheel came within the final few laps of beating Jimmie Johnson for the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. But so far this season — except for his second-place finish at Richmond — Hamlin has languished in mid pack. That is just not good enough for a driver of Hamlin’s talents and with top JGR equipment.
2: Brad Keselowski — Coming off a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship and switching over to the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge was supposed to propel Keselowski into the top tier of Sprint Cup. But there he sits back in 28th place in the championship with only one Top 10 finish. What seems to be missing is the aggressiveness that got him in trouble with NASCAR officials but good finishes on the track.
3. Jamie McMurray — Last season McMurray was king of the big races. He put the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet into the winner’s circles in the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 500 and the Bank of America 500. So far this season all that luck seems to have gone up in smoke. McMurray has only one Top 10 result in nine races and his average finish after nine races is a sorry 21st.
4. Joey Logano — The 20-year-old Logano came into the Sprint Cup series with such promise, winning a race in his first season taking over from two-time champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 JGR Toyota. Even last year, without a win he showed feistiness that at least got him noticed. This season he joins Hamlin as poor starters out of the Gibbs garage. There has even been talk of a crew chief switch with Hamlin to get them both going.
5. Jeff Burton — The veteran Burton made the Chase of the Sprint Cup Championship last season and has been seen as a spark plug for the Richard Childress Racing team since he moved there from Roush Racing three seasons ago. But this year with all three of his teammates — Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Menard — having great seasons Burton finds himself in 20th place without a single Top 10 finish.
Race winners so far this season:
Date Event Driver Make
- February 20 Daytona Trevor Bayne Ford
- February 27 Phoenix Jeff Gordon Chevrolet
- March 6 Las Vegas Carl Edwards Ford
- March 20 Bristol Kyle Busch Toyota
- March 27 Fontana Kevin Harvick Chevrolet
- April 3 Martinsville Kevin Harvick Chevrolet
- April 9 Texas Matt Kenseth Ford
- April 17 Talladega Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet
- April 30 Richmond Kyle Busch Toyota
Top 10 Sprint Cup Championship points leaders
- Rank Driver Points Winnings
- 1 Carl Edwards 335 $2,683,780
- 2 Jimmie Johnson 326 $1,877,740
- 3 Kyle Busch 305 $1,843,330
- 4 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 301 $1,284,760
- 5 Kevin Harvick 300 $1,812,170
- 6 Kurt Busch 289 $1,865,700
- 7 Clint Bowyer 284 $1,799,830
- 8 Ryan Newman 277 $1,494,460
- 9 Matt Kenseth 276 $1,806,490
- 10 Tony Stewart 275 $1,601,930