|A season opening victory in the Daytona 500|
got Kenseth out in front of the pack. (Getty)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season still seems young. It's just 11 races into a 36-race slate. However, with the Chase accounting for the final 10 races of the season, it very much is the middle of what can loosely be referred to as a regular season.
Some drivers have stormed out of the gates and are looking great to make the Chase, while other expected contenders have faltered. This is an assessment of some of the more prominent drivers, in terms of storylines, when likened to a race flag. I'm limiting it to four per category, so in the the case of some drivers that are performing as expected, I've placed them somewhere in a relative running order.
Green Flags - These drivers are already having Chase merchandise printed!
Matt Kenseth - I always refer to him as "Mr. Consistency." His usually calm and reserved demeanor makes him one of the more likable drivers in the series, even though he's rarely considered fan favorite. However, he doesn't have to be a fan favorite to be a Chase favorite. Six top-fives in 11 races prove that he brings it every race, and he trails points leader Greg Biffle by just two points.
Tony Stewart - He might only be seventh in the standings right now, but his two wins more or less lock him into the Chase. Even if he slips outside the top-10, it's hard to imagine he'll skid far enough to a point that two wins won't get him a Wild Card spot. After last year's dominant Chase, it's scary to see him continuing to win races with regularity.
Greg Biffle - After a disappointing 2011 in which he missed the Chase, The Biff has gotten his mojo back in 2012 and then some. He entered the All Star Break as the series' points leader. While it's too early to start counting chickens, it looks like they're going to hatch into a Chase appearance.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - It's really only a matter of time before Junior finally snaps his winless streak. His eight top-10s ties Jimmie Johnson for a series high this season, so he shows up every week with a car capable of winning the race. He's sitting pretty in third place in the standings and feels like more of a contender than he has in a long time.
On the Lead Lap - Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
Yellow Flags - The optimism is there, but there's also reason for concern.
Martin Truex Jr. - Truex has been the story of the year so far. Few people expected him to ascend to near the top of the standings, but the entire Michael Waltrip Racing garage is improved, and the No. 56 is the biggest beneficiary. That said, he has just one career Cup win and is now in his seventh full season in the series. If he falls out of the top-10, he has no safety net without a race win.
Kevin Harvick - After two great regular seasons where he challenged for the points lead, Harvick seems to be a lap down this year. He's in eighth place, but he has just two top-fives and five top-10s (both tie for the lowest among the top-10 in the standings), so he's not turning out the consistent finishes for which he's recently been known.
Carl Edwards - This is another driver who's off the pace from last year. He was a top contender and finished tied for the 2011 points lead, thanks to the ability to always finish well. He posted 19 top-fives in 2011, which led the field by five races! This year, he has just two top-fives and that's reflected by a 10th place standing.
|Race wins could help Keselowski claim a Wild|
Card spot for the second straight year. (Getty)
Lap Downers - Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Paul Menard
Red Flags - It's too early to completely give up, but these cars need to start moving sooner than later.
Kasey Kahne - The good news is that Kahne has recovered after a string of some of the worst luck. The bad news is that while he's back in the thick of the Wild Card contenders in 16th, he doesn't have a win to validate a Wild Card. He's registered five straight top-10s after failing to get a single one in the first six races and has climbed from 31st to his current standing. However, it's a lot easier to make up ground on the bottom of the pack than the top. He might need a win or two to make the Chase.
AJ Allmendinger - Unlike Kahne, who's turned it around, The Dinger continues to struggle and sits 22nd. It's not for lack of a good car as he's qualified inside the top-four on four occasions. However, he has just one top-10 and needs to do a better job being there at the end. He's never won a race at the Cup level and will probably need to win at least two of the next 15, if he wants to take the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge back to the Chase (where, for comparison, Kurt Busch brought it last year).
Jeff Gordon - It's been a disaster of season for the No. 24 that coincidentally sits in 24th place. The one piece of good news is that he's someone that certainly knows how to win races. Yes, he'll probably need at least two wins to have a shot at the Chase, but this is someone that once won a double-digit number of races in three consecutive years! Those that thinks he's getting too old should probably read the birth certificate that says he's only 40.
Jeff Burton - If we're talking about someone that might be getting a little past his prime, it's the four-time NHMS winner. He gained momentum late in 2011 after an overall terrible year, but that faded quickly in 2012. His fifth place finish at Daytona was the best of the year and it's been all downhill since. He was a Chaser just two years ago, but it's possible that was his last shot at an elusive championship.
Headed to the Garage - Barring a driver that catches lightning in a bottle, most anyone who has yet to be named is probably not worth discussing further as a Cup contender.