Tom Bowles
Monday March 15th, 2010

The Sprint Cup Series took a backseat to college basketball this weekend, a rare off week for the NASCAR schedule that stretches nearly 10 months. But the NCAA tournament won't be the only place for Cinderellas this March. With two half-mile short tracks next on the agenda, great racing is virtually guaranteed for a sport looking for "feel good" stories heading into the meat of the regular season schedule.

So let's take this time to reflect and give NASCAR the benefit of the doubt. Putting potholes, faulty caution lights and Jimmie Johnson's dominance aside, here are five positive storylines before NASCAR's version of March Madness at Bristol:

It's still early, but there's cautious optimism in the No. 88 camp that things are headed back in the right direction. Four races in, Earnhardt is 13th in points and armed with just one finish outside the top 16 (32nd at California). It's clear a runner-up performance in the Daytona 500 injected the 35-year-old with much-needed confidence, and a pole at Atlanta shows the raw speed is back. But perhaps the biggest change is in the luck department, where bad breaks at both Las Vegas and Atlanta didn't hurt him all that badly (leading to 16th and 15th place finishes, respectively, when they could have been well outside the top 30).

Now, Earnhardt has a chance to shine with his short track specialties of Bristol and Martinsville up next. It's likely he'll head to Easter comfortably inside the top 10 in points ... but don't get too comfy just yet. Remember, the true slump for the No. 88 didn't start last year until early May, and he still has only four laps-led compared to the 367 of teammates Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Jimmie Johnson combined.

Show of hands: who thought Kevin Harvick would be the points leader four races into 2010? Zero it is. (Sorry, wife DeLana, you don't count.) Considering he's all but announced his departure from RCR for 2011, more people believed the veteran would be in the news for his future destination and not his 2010 on-track results.

Instead, Harvick's No. 29 has led a three-car resurgence that sees teammates Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton also solidly within the top 10 in points. Early indications are that dropping one team has allowed the organization to refocus, with a one-year expansion to four cars just too much for the cash-strapped operation to handle after GM's bankruptcy cost them upwards of $10 million. Things got so bad that not only did all four '09 drivers miss the Chase (after going 3-for-3 in 2008), it was discovered that a welder had bolted parts on an entire fleet of cars the wrong way. Ouch.

Now, the right people are in the right places, with a crew chief change of Todd Berrier from Harvick to Burton (with Gil Martin coming on board for Harvick) working wonders. Looking ahead, perhaps the only roadblock to a serious Chase bid is the new spoiler/handling package that begins in two weeks. RCR insiders remain nervous that they're still behind the curve; but with the team's short track strengths of Bristol and Martinsville ahead, chances are they'll build a cushion within the top 12 that won't easily be swallowed up by their Chase rivals down the stretch.

It's been a tough few years for rookies, with Joey Logano's fuel-mileage win the lone success story of a difficult 2009. But "Sliced Bread" is off to a strong start in his second year, with back-to-back top-6 finishes at California and Las Vegas leaving the teenager 14th in points. That leads a weakened Joe Gibbs Racing trio, with the second-year driver showcasing the maturity on and off the track that his two teammates sometimes lack.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is fellow sophomore Scott Speed, riding three top 20 finishes to 11th in the Cup standings. The eclectic F-1 convert is a breath of fresh air for NASCAR fans seeking new blood, as the man who paints his toenails is finally painting a picture of success in NASCAR after struggling to get up to "speed" last season. After falling outside the top 35 in owner points, Speed had as many DNQ's as top 15 finishes last season, but with his strong showing early, he should be "locked in" to the Sprint Cup field for the rest of 2010.

It's always fun to look at the standings this early and see surprise names bumping elbows with the stars. Perhaps the biggest shocker is Paul Menard, whose family-sponsored No. 98 is ninth in points on the strength of four top 20 finishes. Starting the year on the wrong foot -- his team was under the microscope for buying its way into a "AAA" Nationwide Series race after a DNQ based on the riches of Ford's Jack Roush -- the 29-year-old has been criticized for using his money to hold a ride someone else deserves. But to his credit, Menard's stepped up as the biggest beneficiary of the RPM/Yates merger, putting the right resources in place to help his program. Will it last? Eh, probably not, but he should hang around the top a few weeks longer.

And who could forget Jamie McMurray's Daytona 500 win? The team has faded since, but the No. 1 car's green-white-checkered push to victory was one of the best finishes ever for the Great American Race. With McMurray left for dead at Roush until picked up by Ganassi's small NASCAR outfit, the team didn't even have sponsorship for all 36 races until they pulled into Victory Lane. Considering the post-race criticism inspired by the pothole heard 'round the world, the sport couldn't have a better ambassador that week than a man so grateful for the trophy that he cried in Victory Lane.

Honorable mention goes to Regan Smith and former Most Popular Driver Bill Elliott, who are continuing to build long-term programs at underfunded, single-car teams that are struggling to stay afloat. Both were inside the top 20 at Atlanta and continue to impress every time they hit the track, posting the type of success that NASCAR needs to crow about for new owners to get involved with the sport at the right price.

So much has been discussed in the wake of the Carl Edwards--Brad Keselowski wreck. But NASCAR's push to let aggressive driving stand could mean trouble down the road for the No. 48.

I know what you're thinking ... what does Johnson have to do with those two? Just humor me for a minute. At tracks like Bristol and Martinsville, Johnson has escaped the dreaded "bump and run" maneuver that can cost a win or mean leaving without your car in one piece. But with aggressive rivals like Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya now well aware they won't be penalized for taking someone out, will they send the reigning champ a message by wrecking him en route to a much-needed win for either one?

Time will tell how much NASCAR's "slap on the wrist" ruling for Edwards opens the floodgates. But their extra push for bumping and banging happened at the right time, when drivers are sick of JJ's dominance and heading to two tracks where payback is the rule, not the exception. I've often heard from insiders the only way to beat Johnson at his best is to rough him up. Competition for the No. 48? It's a novel concept ... but the emergence of a rival by any means possible might be enough to keep the sport on the national radar through the tourney.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.