Brant James
Thursday July 14th, 2011

Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 fairy tale turned about to be just the beginning. The fresh-faced kid from Knoxville, Tenn., with a part-time ride in the fabled No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford became the youngest, at 20 years and a day, to win NASCAR's greatest race, doing so in his first try and setting off a wave of nostalgia for the legendary, but recently struggling Woods, and euphoria over the emergence of a possible new star.

While Bayne's personal tale took on more ominous tones -- he missed nearly a month of his full-time Nationwide schedule with what was later treated as Lyme disease -- his unlikely victory at Daytona was the first chapter in a developing narrative for the Sprint Cup series. Regan Smith (Darlington) and David Ragan (Daytona summer race) joined him as first time-winners, adding immediate intrigue to a new Sprint Cup points system in which the two drivers with the most victories qualify for the Chase for the Championship as wild cards, provided they are in the top 20 in points. The top 10 drivers in the standings qualify regardless of wins.

It appears parity has come to NASCAR -- at least in the regular season.

"Parity is really the first thing that comes to mind," said five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, assessing the first half of the season. "There have been some guys that have flexed muscle at times, but no one consistently has just schooled everybody. It's been very, very equal this year and unpredictable, if you will. A lot of first-time winners, which is great to have, and no runaways right now so it's been an exciting time for the fans, I believe. And then also, we've been acting like fools out there at times so that's always spicing things up."

Parity and foolishness. All major parts of the Sprint Cup midseason review:

Biggest pleasant surprise: Jeff Gordon. The four-time series champion, long dwarfed by a protégé/friend/employee turned five-time series champion, has undergone a renaissance in his 20th Sprint Cup season. Gordon, who was winless last season and in 2008, has already won multiple races (two) for the first time since 2007, when he finished second in points. Wins at Phoenix and Pocono -- which tied him for third on the all-time wins list with 84 -- have Gordon just seventh in points, but his ability to once again reach Victory Lane -- after 12 runners-up from 2008 to 2010 -- have underscored the power of his new relationship with crew chief Alan Gustafson.

Biggest disappointment: Denny Hamlin. Jeff Burton has tumbled into obscurity. Joey Logano predicted in preseason that he had finally made the No. 20 Toyota his, three seasons after replacing two-time series champion Tony Stewart, and expected to qualify for his first Chase for the Championship. Logano is 20th in points with just four top-10 finishes. Still, Logano's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate has underperformed most this season given the very high standard he set in finishing second to Johnson last season in the Cup.

Hamlin's downward spiral began with one race left in the 2010 season, when a fuel mileage issue at Phoenix cost him a likely second-place finish and a potential hammerlock on his first title. He appeared disconsolate, but vowed to recover. He didn't, losing the final 15 points of his margin after being run down by Johnson at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This year, problems continue.

After 18 races last year Hamlin had accrued five of his eight wins and was fifth in points. This season he is tenth in driver points and has one win.

Kentucky debacle: Too many cars, not enough lanes of highway and not enough parking spaces. Kentucky Speedway's first Sprint Cup race did not go well.

So many winners: Bayne, Smith and Ragan each won their first Sprint Cup races and 12 different drivers had won the first 18 races, the most through that many events since 2003. There were seven different winners by this point last season.

Feuds: Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and a cast of several. Whether it is ever-tightening competition, another season under the "have at it" doctrine or the pressure to secure one of two new wild-card spots, animosity was at a premium in the first half of the season.

Kimi Raikkonen: The former Formula 1 titlist and World Rally Championship driver was a fascination for media and fans and ultimately a quick study when he made a brief but successful NASCAR foray in May. Driving for Kyle Busch's truck series team he finished 15th at Charlotte, then finished 27th in a Joe Nemechek Nationwide car. Then he vanished. The Finn has been quoted as recommitting to rally but is a rumored replacement for any Formula 1 driver supposedly in career peril.

Carl Edwards is backing it up this time: He was dubbed the top challenger to Jimmie Johnson after finishing second in points in 2008. Then he flopped, finishing 11th in 2009. Edwards was anointed again this preseason after finishing fourth in 2010 and has so far been stronger for the task. Edwards has a win and 10 top-10s in 18 starts and led the standings for 12 weeks.

Twitter shall save them: NASCAR's exhaustive study of its current and potential fan base revealed, in essence, that every person in the whole wide world could be made into a NASCAR fan if properly enticed through video games, entertainment and social media. That sounds overly optimistic and somewhat naive, given the purported scope of the study, but the series is trying.

Bull run: Red Bull Racing officials acknowledged that the owner/sponsor is seeking new investors to continue its Sprint Cup operation beyond this season, leaving driver Brian Vickers, who has been with the team since 2007, in limbo. Temporary teammate Kasey Kahne is scheduled to join Hendrick Motorsports -- the team Vickers left to become his own man at Red Bull -- beginning next season.

Meanwhile, former driver Scott Speed has obtained a lien on the team's assets as they resolve a $6.5 million wrongful termination lawsuit. If Red Bull is unable to obtain the monies needed to sustain it, perhaps Kahne -- who is 17th in points -- gets a head start on his dream job if he fails to qualify for the Chase. And maybe Speed gets a building full of equipment. Who needs a way bar, cheap!?

Carl Edwards's decision: Sprint Cup's most coveted unsigned driver could return to Roush Fenway Racing, which gave him the resources to become a star, or shop himself on the open market. That market isn't as open as it used to be, due to a lack of sponsor dollars, but JGR has long wanted to add a fourth program, and speculation has arisen that the team could slide the underperforming Logano into a new car and place Edwards in the highly visible, used-to-successful Home Depot program.

Edwards figures to be manipulating the situation perfectly. The closer he comes to a championship, the more valuable he becomes. Edwards' departure could create a full-time Cup job for Bayne, who is contractually obligated to Roush despite being parceled to the Wood Brothers part-time.

Can Dale Jr. hold on: NASCAR's most popular driver has been more consistent this year, but he clings to a Chase berth with eight races left until the playoffs. He's finished second twice and has been victimized by peculiar racing luck or incidents not of his doing on multiple occasions. But he also has an average finish of 28th in the last four races and has fallen from third to eighth in points in that span. Winless in his last 111 races, he is in real peril of missing the Chase if he loses the sanctuary of the top 10.

Can Jimmie Johnson win six straight: Certainly. At fifth in points and with one win, Johnson is meandering through the regular season, awaiting the Chase, when the season really begins. Johnson's record fifth straight title was undoubtedly his most difficult and most artful by both he and crew chief Chad Knaus. Margins have become slim, but Johnson remains the master of them.

Danica Patrick's decision: The open-wheel star remains coy about whether she will return to the Izod IndyCar Series for an eighth season next year or make a full-time move to NASCAR, where she has competed in Nationwide the last two seasons. Patrick is clearly improving as a stock car driver and made history at Las Vegas with her fourth-place finish, which was the highest ever by a female in a top-three NASCAR series. She clearly enjoys stock car racing, but insists her decision will depend on the best overall opportunity -- business-wise, competitively -- eventually presented to her by her squadron of advisers.

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