5 Questions Before ... Pocono/Texas

I just love surprises! Those moments in life where the unexpected yet exciting things happen are some of the most memorable times—memories that will last a lifetime. Whether it’s a young lady receiving an unexpected marriage proposal from her beau, a surprise party from all of your friends and family on your birthday, or an A on that test you just knew you had failed, surprises are some of life’s little joys.

And this year, NASCAR has been chock-full of surprises. Beginning with Trevor Bayne’s historical Daytona 500 victory, to the fuel mileage victories of first-time winner Regan Smith and second-time Brad Keselowski, and two Nationwide Series regulars already snagging a victory of their own through 14 races this year (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier), there have been more than enough surprise winners this year and the season is only halfway through!

Not to mention some of the exciting finishes this in 2011 such as Jimmie Johnson’s miniscule margin of victory over Clint Bowyer at Talladega Superspeedway or Kevin Harvick’s thrilling come-from-behind victories in Fontana and Martinsville. It goes without saying, but NASCAR competition has certainly been full of surprises this year.

Which leads into my first question…

Who will be the next surprise winner? … The fact that there are so many winners from last season that have yet to reach Victory Lane this year (Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle, for instance) leaves the room for opportunity very small for those looking to break a long winless streak or perhaps experience the thrill of victory for the first time in their career. However, that doesn’t seem to have stopped all of the other first-time winners we’ve seen this year.

One of the most notable drivers that is facing a long winless streak is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt, who hit 100 races without a win earlier this season at Talladega Superspeedway, has come oh-so-close to victory the past two weeks but was snookered due to fuel mileage gambles that have become the norm rather than the exception in 2011. A team can only come that close to winning so many times before they finally seal the deal.

As far as first time winners are concerned, drivers such as Marcos Ambrose or Paul Menard are possible candidates. Though Menard has fallen off dramatically in recent weeks, a strong start to the season showed a surprising bit of promise for a driver that endures a great deal of criticism for leeching off his father’s company in order to continue racing. Ambrose, a former V8 Supercars Australian driver known more for his road course abilities, has come close to victory on several occasions too. Not to mention that the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series are chock full of up-and-coming talent who are also searching for their first victories, we may indeed see several more fresh faces in Victory Lane before all three series come to a close in November.

Where has Denny Hamlin been this year? … Speaking of drivers who need to kick it into high gear, what about Hamlin? Last year’s runner-up to Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup Series is facing a rather twisted trend that several drivers have dealt with after they too were Johnson’s toughest competition the past five seasons. Typically, they end up winless, uncompetitive, and flying way under the radar in the season after.

And Hamlin has definitely been in that category this year. Through 13 races in 2010, Hamlin had already won three races and was fifth in points. This year, Hamlin has yet to reach Victory Lane (his best finish was a 2nd in Richmond) and is outside of the top 10 in points in 11th. Currently, Hamlin would have to rely on a wild card position to make the Chase, since NASCAR is only locking in the top 10 following the 26th race of the year in Richmond in September. The two wild card spots will go to the two drivers with the most wins outside of the top 10 and inside of the top 20. Hamlin would be in since Jeff Gordon is the only driver between 10th and 20th in points with a victory.

Pocono Raceway, the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup Series race, is one of Hamlin’s best racetracks and it wouldn’t really be all that surprising if Hamlin was a contender for the victory. It’s the races in the weeks after that will determine whether Hamlin can be a true championship contender for two consecutive seasons.

What will the next half of the season bring? … The cross-flags are flying on NASCAR’s regular season, and … wait a minute? Already?! Why is it that every season seems to go by faster and faster?

Regardless, as I said at the beginning of this column, this season of NASCAR has had plenty of memorable moments that will be played over and over again in post-season highlight reels. Heck, even some of the most talked about moments of the year weren’t even caught on camera such as Ryan Newman’s alleged swing at Juan Pablo Montoya in the NASCAR hauler or, more recently, Richard Childress’s butt-kicking he issued to Kyle Busch in the Kansas Speedway garage area.

Hopefully, the season continues on in the same way that it began—lots of excitement, memorable moments, and hopefully some rivalries thrown in for good measure.

Which wild card driver has the best chance of making the Chase? … If the Chase started tomorrow, the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup lineup would look like this:

1.       Kevin Harvick
2.       Kyle Busch
3.       Matt Kenseth
4.       Carl Edwards
5.       Jimmie Johnson
6.       Dale Earnhardt Jr.
7.       Kurt Busch
8.       Tony Stewart
9.       Clint Bowyer
10.   Ryan Newman
11.   Jeff Gordon
12.   Denny Hamlin

Of course the Chase doesn’t start tomorrow, but those are the 12 drivers in current position to make the Chase, with Gordon and Hamlin receiving the final two wild card spots. Greg Biffle is sandwiched between the two in the standings and needs to pick up the pace if he also wants a spot in the Chase.

Performance-wise, none of the three are running Chase material, but neither are some of the drivers from about 8th-10th and the battle between those six spots is pretty tight. 8th-place Tony Stewart is only ahead of 13th-place Gordon by 29 points out of a possible 47 points you can gain on one driver in one race.

Two other drivers who might be able to make the Chase if they can get inside the top 20 are Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith. Both have one win apiece this year, but Smith is 29th in points, 49 points out of the top 20. Keselowski has a much better shot, and is 21st in points, and is only 7 points behind 20th.

However, there are still 13 more races to be run before the official start of the Chase, and it only takes one costly mistake in one race to doom your chances of vying for the championship among some of the best drivers in the world. After Pocono, these numbers could be very different, and my guess is probably will be.

Which Truck Series rookie has shown the most potential? … The Camping World Truck Series is chock-full of raw talent this season, with Cole Whitt currently leading the rookie standings by 34 points over Joey Coulter. Whitt has most certainly been one of the more impressive new stars to date, becoming the first rookie driver to ever lead the series standings following Charlotte race just a couple of weeks ago. Whitt lost the lead in Kansas Speedway, and is currently second in points, 12 points out from leader Johnny Sauter.

However, one driver who is making waves after Kansas, is Joey Coulter—and probably for reasons he didn’t originally intend to. While battling Kyle Busch for fifth in the closing laps of the event, Coulter slid up into Busch while attempting to make the pass and took the position. Busch tapped Coulter’s truck in the cool-down lap, and debate has sprung up about whether it was congratulatory or in anger. Coulter’s team owner Richard Childress apparently thought it was the latter, confronting him following the Truck Series race, where Childress reportedly threw a few swings Busch’s way. So, Coulter’s name has obviously been floating around the NASCAR news outlet for the past week, but eventually people will start talking more about Coulter and less about the antics of his truck owner.  

Bonus questions: What will be the next headline regarding Kyle Busch’s off-track … ahem … “incidents”? … Will Richard Childress auction off the jewelry he reportedly took off before fighting with Kyle Busch in order to pay the $150,000 fine NASCAR hit him with? … If Pocono comes down to fuel mileage for the third week in a row, will Dale Jr. begin advocating for hybrids?
5 Questions Before ... Pocono/Texas 5 Questions Before ... Pocono/Texas Reviewed by Summer Dreyer on Thursday, June 09, 2011 Rating: 5