Friday May 15th, 2009

Saturday night's All-Star race marks the unofficial midway point of the Sprint Cup's regular season. Herewith, our Halfway to the Chase awards:

Even though he's been battling back pain for most of the season, Gordon has been the most consistent driver on the circuit. The points leader through 11 races, Gordon has more top-five finishes (6) than any other driver, and he's tied with Tony Stewart for most top-10s (eight). The '09 season is shaping up a lot like '07 for Gordon. That year he had a career-high 30 top-10s, but struggled in the final month, narrowly losing the championship to Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Gordon is already a lock to make the Chase. Ultimately, his season will be defined by how he performs over the final two months of the season. Until proven otherwise, Jimmie Johnson, the three-time defending champ, is still the driver to beat. And if Gordon's back issues become worse as the season drags on -- a real possibility -- it's hard to imagine a less-than-100-percent Gordon could beat a completely healthy Johnson.

Before the season started, most NASCAR writers -- including yours truly -- boldly predicted that Tony Stewart would be lucky to finish in the top 15 in points in his first season as owner/driver of Stewart Haas Racing. Well, we were wrong. Stewart is second in the standings and is the biggest surprise of the 2009 season.

Much of the credit goes to Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief. Though this is the first fulltime crew chief gig for the 33-year-old Grubb, he does have experience atop the pit box. He guided Jimmie Johnson to victory in the 2006 Daytona 500 while subbing for a suspended Chad Knaus. He also won with Johnson at Las Vegas in 2006 (Knaus was again suspended), and he led Casey Mears to his only career victory in the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

I think Grubb is one of the smartest guys in the Cup garage. He holds a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech and spent eight years working at Hendrick Motorsports, learning from the likes of Knaus. And Grubb has meshed well with Stewart. He has a laid-back, calm personality, which is exactly what the fiery Stewart needs from a crew chief. Even though there are still six months of racing left in the season, there's little doubt that this team will be a factor in the championship come October and November.

The season didn't start well for Logano, who replaced Stewart in the No. 20 car this season. He crashed early in the Daytona 500 and finished dead-last, 43rd. But over the last month, Logano has started to live up to the considerable hype that followed him to the Cup series. In the last three weeks he's ripped off the first two top-10 runs of his Cup career, silencing the garage chatter that it was too much, too soon for the 18-year-old rookie.

Logano, currently 30th in the points, won't make the Chase this season, but that was never the goal. Rather, owner Joe Gibbs simply wants Logano to complete races, bring the car home intact, and show steady improvement. So far, that is exactly what Logano has done.

While all three of his teammates at Hendrick Motorsports have won at least one race this season, Earnhardt has floundered. Currently 18th in the standings, Little E only has one top-five finish and zero wins. Worse, he's made more on-track mistakes than any other driver. He triggered the Big One at Daytona; he's been busted for speeding on pit road several times; and, most embarrassing for him, he's driven by his pit stall on numerous occasions -- a mistake you don't even see ARCA drivers make very often.

There's still time for Earnhardt to turn his season around, but so far, this has been a nightmare start to 2009.

Here's something to chew on: if not for two blown engines and a cut tire early this season, the 50-year-old Martin would be the points leader right now. As it stands, Martin is 11th, but no one has been hotter over the past month, as he's won two of the last four races.

Can Martin keep it up? Well, it would be unprecedented if he does. No 50-year-old has ever won the Cup title. (Think about it: He's 32 years older than Logano.) But Martin is showing that, even though he spent two years in semi-retirement, he's still one of the top stock car drivers on the planet. I'm guessing he'll win at least five races this season, and be a contender for the title in the fall.

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