Dustin Long
Monday April 25th, 2011

Rarely has the essence of teamwork played such a significant role in a Sprint Cup race as it did at Talladega earlier this month. There, heading to the finish line, two pairs of Hendrick Motorsports teammates battled a pair of Richard Childress Racing teammates, as two Roush Fenway Racing cars charged on the outside.

The moment was significant beyond the final dash. Even in the topsy-turvy type of racing Talladega produces, the sport's top-three teams all raced for another win.

It's been that way since last Halloween at Talladega, where Clint Bowyer won, starting a 12-race stretch in which Hendrick, Childress and Roush combined to win nine times. Even with such dominance, the top 10 in points features drivers from seven teams.

Here's how those teams rank:

Both of Roush's wins this season have come at 1.5-mile tracks -- a key since half the 10 Chase races will be run on intermediates. Series leader Carl Edwards won at Las Vegas, and Matt Kenseth was victorious at Texas where Roush cars finished 1st, 3rd and 4th.

While Roush has not been as strong as Hendrick at flat tracks such as Phoenix and Martinsville, Roush gets the slight edge because of the performance at the 1.5-mile tracks.

How a team runs early in the season, though, doesn't guarantee how it will perform later in the year. Roush cars struggled early last season and corrected their problems to win three of the last eight races. So, with 18 races remaining until the Chase field is set, could a strong start prove too difficult to maintain for Roush?

"I don't think you can ever run too good,'' Kenseth said. "It's not like you start off strong and then you get tired or you wear out your good cars or any of that.''

Looking ahead, a few concerns emerge. With Edwards a free agent, the organization will need to ensure that contract talks don't become a distraction. Also, Roush must be stronger at the shorter flat tracks such as Martinsville, Phoenix and New Hampshire. Roush cars failed to score a top-10 finish in either New Hampshire race last year. If Hendrick Motorsports closes the gap at the bigger tracks, it will be the smaller tracks that could determine which team ultimately will be the sport's best.

Hendrick Motorsports has outperformed Roush's stable at the four tracks the circuit has already visited that will host a Chase race this season (Phoenix, Martinsville, Texas and Talladega).

Hendrick cars have won two of those races -- Jeff Gordon at Phoenix and Jimmie Johnson at Talladega. Also, Hendrick cars have scored seven top-5 finishes at those Chase tracks (Roush cars had three top-5s).

The key issue, though, is that Roush cars have performed better at the 1.5-mile tracks, an issue both Gordon and Johnson say their organization needs to improve. Hendrick's last win on such a track came in February 2010 at Las Vegas.

"Our 1.5-mile program is definitely not where it needs to be,'' Gordon said about his team. "We know that and we're working really hard on it. From a performance standpoint we're disappointed in those runs and know we have some work to do and nobody is working harder at it than us."

"We're looking more aero wise right now than we are looking tire construction, but once we get through the aero stuff we'll go on to the tire construction and see if that's the issue."

Even with such concerns, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s resurgence has lifted this organization. Now, if only Mark Martin, who is with Earnhardt's former crew chief and team, can run better.

Kevin Harvick again leads this organization with his two wins, putting him fourth in the points. Teammate Clint Bowyer, who lost to Johnson at Talladega by inches, ranks 10th in the points, with Paul Menard 11th.

When talking surprises this season, some note Menard and Jeff Burton. Menard's three top-10 finishes are only three shy of how many he had all of last year for Richard Petty Motorsports. Burton, who has made the Chase four of the past five seasons, is 22nd in the points and has not had a top-10 finish this season.

Harvick has shown that a driver doesn't need to dominate to win -- he led only seven laps combined in his wins at California and Martinsville. Still, having such speed to lead can help overcome other issues throughout a race. After a rough start, Bowyer has scored four consecutive top-10 finishes, including back-to-back runner-up results at Texas and Talladega.

This could be the organization to watch as the season progresses.

This team would have ranked higher had Tony Stewart finished races stronger. It's not unrealistic to think that Stewart could have as many as four wins and be leading the point standings instead of having no wins and sitting 12th in the points.

While Stewart has had late-race struggles, teammate Ryan Newman has three top-5 finishes to rank seventh in the points.

"We've been running well, we just haven't put a whole day together,'' Stewart said of his team. "That is the disappointing part of it. But the good part is that we've had really good cars. I feel like our mile-and-a-half and two-mile program is really good. I feel like we are struggling on the short track stuff. Feel like both cars in the organization are doing a really good job right now."

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season is what's happened to this organization. Engine woes have handicapped its drivers. While the reliability issue seems to have been resolved, performance has been down.

Denny Hamlin (pictured) was expected to be a title contender -- and still could be -- but has struggled this season and is 17th in the points. Joey Logano has been fast but also had all sorts of bad luck and is 24th in the points. Kyle Busch, who won at Bristol, is sixth in the points.

This weekend's race at Richmond will be key for the organization. Hamlin and Busch have combined to win the last four races there. A strong showing will help answer some questions about JGR, but if the team is off, more questions will be asked.

Kurt Busch leads the way for this two-car team, ranking fifth in the points with five top-10 finishes this season. Teammate Brad Keselowski has had his struggles and is 27th in the points.

After opening the season with four consecutive top-10 finishes, Busch has had only one top-15 finish in the last four races. He's talked about how they've struggled to make the car better during a race at times. If the team can't make the right adjustments, it will be difficult for him to climb higher in the points.

Juan Pablo Montoya has parlayed a new attitude into a ninth-place spot in the points. Misfortune has plagued Jamie McMurray, who is 23rd in the points.

Montoya said a new outlook has helped him. "I think I put myself, a lot of times, in bad positions and it didn't help, but we did have a lot of bad luck,'' Montoya said of last year. "I think this year, we came in with a really positive attitude and everybody on the team is really positive about everything we do. Even if we get bad breaks in a race, we are like 'Don't worry about, we'll go through this ... make it work.' And we always do.''

Seventeen of the top 20 spots in the points come from the seven teams mentioned. The top driver from a team outside that group is AJ Allmendinger, who is 15th for Richard Petty Motorsports. The team also has Marcos Ambrose, who is 21st in the points. With Ford backing, RPM should have the equipment to challenge to be one of the top seven teams in the sport. The other drivers in the top 20 not with the big seven teams are: Kasey Kahne (Red Bull Racing Team) in 18th and Martin Truex Jr. (Michael Waltrip Racing) in 19th.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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