After an explosive opening race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season we've seen the action ebb and flow, but the excitement has gradually been creeping back each week. We find ourselves near midseason, and the picture of who can deliver and who is faking is becoming clear.
So far this season we've seen the first weeknight primetime Daytona 500, complete with a raging jet fuel fire, as well as two long-running winless streaks broken. We've seen some sterile races, and some that have tipped competitors' tempers. Tony Stewart started the season strong, while the Roush Fenway Racing teammates have dominated the point standings. Jimmie Johnson has been ever present, and Joey Logano finally scored another win.
Now we're at the midpoint. Who will continue to impress? Who needs to turn things around quickly?
Carl Edwards - The Roush teammates have only won two of the first 16 races this season but have held station in the top points positions since the Daytona 500 and lead the series in average running position. The team has consistency and reliability on its side. All that is except for Carl Edwards. Edwards hasn't done what his teammates have this season, which is a surprise for the driver who finished second in the 2011 Chase to Tony Stewart. Greg Biffle led the early season points and picked up a win in the Samsung Mobile 500, while Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 and leads the points. Compare that with Edwards, who sits 11th with no wins. Edwards is the season's leading closer with 1.5 positions gained and is expected get his game turned around in the second half of the season. Hopefully it doesn't come too late.
Tony Stewart ≠ Proverbial late-tarter Stewart has completely turned the tables on his normal trajectory this season. He started his title defense with two wins and eight top-10 finishes in the first 16 races. Stewart has never been a slouch in the first half of any season, but his high gear really comes good as the summer months roll on. A strong start to the year and three consecutive top-5s beginning at Pocono Raceway implies that as the series returns to tracks where Stewart has already been strong we should expect more success. Fantasy owners will need to ration their starts of "Smoke," but the second half of the year should produce even more points for rosters than the first half. Competitors will be measuring themselves against the No. 14 for the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt finally broke his epic winless streak at Michigan International Speedway with a commanding performance. He steadily progressed throughout 2011 but did not break through. When this season got under way it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before he finally found Victory Lane again. The hard work paid off, and the special day finally came. With Hendrick Motorsports' performances this season, it isn't inconceivable that Earnhardt could find Victory Lane again. The only Hendrick driver not to win this season is Jeff Gordon. That particular victory isn't lacking for speed or effort, though. Gordon has endured some of the worst luck on the circuit. Hendrick will be a contender in the second half of the year and could put all four drivers into the Chase.
Jeff Gordon - Speaking of Gordon ... he should have multiple victories by now. Ninth on the mile-leader table, the veteran driver has arguably been the driver most thwarted by bad luck this season (next to Kyle Busch maybe). After leading 421 laps in the first 16 races, he still has no check marks in the wins column. That tally, remarkably, includes a dominating 329-lap total out front in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 where he ended up classified in 14th position. In fact, Gordon has only failed to lead a lap in six of the first 16 races this season. He is due for a win this season, and only needs the cards to fall in the right places. This team has been strong on many tracks through the first half of the year and will return to each believing it should win. And we think it will.
Michael Waltrip Racing - After leaving Richard Childress Racing in 2011 for Michael Waltrip Racing few expected Bowyer would have a win under his belt already this season. He sits inside the top 10 in points and has been consistently finishing inside the top 10. The MWR organization is moving from just another team on the grid to a weekly competitor that everyone will have to measure up against. The team has made significant strides since appearing on the scene, and this season it could be poised for a major breakthrough. The team ran well at many tracks with drivers Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin. Expect all three to continue the forward momentum, and don't be surprised if Bowyer wins another, and the team scores a third win this season with another car.
Carl Edwards - The two-time championship runner-up has virtually nothing to speak of so far in 2012. He pushed Stewart all the way to the end last season, but has gotten off to a rocky start this year. Teammates Kenseth and Biffle have been consistent, have won races and continue to pile on the top-5s and top-10s while Edwards has struggled to find his way forward. Eight top-10s in the first 15 races have been enough to get him within striking distance of the top 10 in points, yet his teammates have held station in the top five since the season began. Edwards has had respectable runs, but hasn't had the outright speed over a race distance that we expect, and his downs have been lower than his stable mates. Until the team finds more consistent finishes, fantasy owners are better off looking elsewhere at Roush.
Kyle Busch - Busch's first half of the season was bookended with terrible finishes. It wasn't until April that Busch started clicking off consecutive top-5s and top-10s. Then, as the season reached the halfway mark, engine issues and other troubles forced four straight finishes outside of the top 15. After Busch's Richmond win, it looked like he could go on dominating the rest of the season. Instead, gremlins have taken over and forced two DNFs in quick succession. The team has split engines between Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin at times, but when Busch's appeared to have some flaws, it quickly switched the No. 18's path. Unfortunately, the team still hasn't turned the bad luck around. Busch and Dave Rogers will figure things out, and fantasy owners should save their starts until those results start coming.
Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing - It has been a season and a half since EGR driver Jamie McMurray completed a sweep of the biggest races of the season. Both he and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya notched wins that season, and were close to capturing places in the Chase. In 2011, the pair's results dipped and neither driver finished in the top 20 in points. Halfway through 2012, it's a similar story for the well-funded drivers. Neither Montoya nor McMurray have made the highlight reel this season (Montoya's Daytona explosion aside). The team has no top-5s, and the tandem has only scored five top-10s collectively. EGR looks like an also-ran team this year with neither driver seemingly competitive at any track so far. Fantasy owners are used to being able to pick either one as a reserve driver, and potentially score some points, but not now. More of the same is expected in the second half of 2012 since EGR has a bigger performance gap to close than most teams.
Matt Kenseth - Despite Jack Roush calling Kenseth the cornerstone of the organization, and committing to run the driver despite the team's struggles to find sponsorship, Kenseth will exit RFR at season's end. The news comes as an about-face from the team, though both will still be committed to living up to their traditional high standards. Tony Stewart won the Championship last season after announcing that Darian Grubb was leaving the organization, so it can be done, but how much of a dip in performance should fantasy owners expect? Don't expect much change. Kenseth and RFR are on top of the world, and neither knows how to back off. Kenseth will be auditioning his talents for a spot on the grid next season, and Roush has every reason to win a championship with any of his drivers.
Kevin Harvick - Richard Childress Racing has been unusually quiet so far this season. The banner carrier for the team so far has been Kevin Harvick. The No. 29 has quietly posted top finishes but hasn't made the splash of a win. Harvick actually has fewer top-5s and top-10s than the other drivers in the top 10 in points but also hasn't suffered the detrimental bad luck others have. If this trend continues, Harvick and team could peak at the perfect moment, just as the Chase gets under way. It is likely that fans will wonder where Harvick came from by season's end, but everyone also expects him to be there. No. 29's methodical approach puts Harvick in contention for a win just about every week, and as the team hones in on its sweet spot, expect the points tally to rise.