Cory Mccartney
Thursday March 11th, 2010

1.The Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident has been so far-reaching that it's overshadowed the drivers who managed to cross the finish line in Atlanta and reduced Kurt Busch's victory to a footnote. If the winner has become an afterthought, then strong finishes by a trio of former open-wheel drivers will barely produce a blip on NASCAR Nation's collective radar screen.

On a day where the Hendrick and Childress teams looked nothing like the ones that dominated the first three weeks, there in the top 10 were Juan Pablo Montoya, who came in third and was a threat to win had he not spun his tires on the second restart, A.J. Allmendinger (sixth) and Scott Speed (10th), who rose to 12th in the points standings.

The transition from open-wheel racing to NASCAR isn't easy. For every A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Tony Stewart, there's a Jacques Villeneuve or Dario Franchitti, and while it will cease to be a mainstream topic of conversation until Danica Patrick returns to the Nationwide Series in June, it's time we grade the progress of the current drivers. To be fair, we'll only look at those who have run at least one full Cup season.

Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian had a breakthrough season last year, becoming the first non-American to make the Chase. He showed he can rein in his naturally aggressive style, using a conservative approach to make the 10-race playoff. Of course, once he got there, it was feast -- six times he came in eighth or better, including three third-place finishes -- or famine as he was 35th at Charlotte, 37th at Fort Worth and 38th at Homestead, where he drew a two-lap penalty for hard driving. Building on that Chase berth hasn't been easy. Montoya followed a 10th-place finish at Daytona with a blown engine at Fontana and a run-in with teammate Jamie McMurray in Las Vegas, but he did lead 29 laps at Auto Club Speedway before bowing out and was one of the better cars all race in Atlanta. It's clear that last season was no fluke and JPM could be the best driver to make the open-wheel-to-NASCAR transition since Stewart.

Grade: A-

Scott Speed. If you aren't following him on Twitter, you're missing out. If you haven't paid attention to what he's done on the track this season, you're missing out there, too. Speed has been one of the year's biggest surprises after finishing 35th in points last season. The ex-F1 wheelman is currently 12th, ahead of teammate Brian Vickers, who made the Chase last season. But what's made his run so impressive is that after finishing out of the top 35 in owner's points, he's had to qualify for each race and he's avoided the crashes that marred his rookie season. Whether Speed can maintain his early success remains to be seen, but so far he's shown a vast improvement in Year 2.

Grade: C+

Sam Hornish Jr. To say the three-time IRL Series champ and 2006 Indianapolis 500-winner has struggled since moving over to Roger Penske's NASCAR operation may be putting it lightly. His 2008 rookie season was a disaster, and while he had his moments in '09, each was followed by disappointment. Hornish cracked the top 10 seven times, and immediately placed 29th or lower after each one. His biggest problem: simply staying on the track. In 2008, he had four DNF's, all crashes, and last season he wrecked six times. He's completed 95.1 percent of the laps this season, but hasn't finished better than his 16th at Fontana and is 31st in the points. Unless he shows a marked improvement, it may be time to accept that Hornish will be better off following Franchitti back to the IndyCar Series.

Grade: C-

A.J. Allmendinger. The odds were stacked against him from the start as Red Bull Racing plucked him out of Champ Car and threw him into Sprint Cup racing as a rookie with limited experience. He struggled mightily, failing to qualify 19 times and out of the 17 races he did start, he was 31st or worse 13 times. But being dumped by Red Bull midway through his sophomore season brought him into Richard Petty's stable, where he's steadily improved. Last season, he had six top-10s, including a third-place finish in the Daytona 500. Last weekend, he delivered what could be a benchmark moment with the best non-restrictor plate finish of his career. But what's separating Allmendinger from being potentially great and a future title threat is consistency.

Grade: B-

2.You didn't think I'd get through this without diving into the flip that made NASCAR water cooler-worthy again, did you?

While Edwards' punishment, his intent and whether Keselowski's history of aggressive driving meant he had it coming are all being dissected ad nauseam, there's one point that hasn't really been addressed:

What more could Brad K. have done to avoid the incident that set Edwards off?

On Lap 39, the two made contact on the restart, sending Edwards into Joey Logano and the wall. But if you watch closely, you'll see Keselowski never changes his line and seems to be easing up to give Edwards room. What was he supposed to do? Stick a hand out the window and wave him in?

After watching the replay of the incident on FOX, Edwards took the blame for causing the contact and said Keselowski's actions weren't as bad as he thought. And ... that's what sets him off?

Look, if there's one thing Keselowski has succeeded at during his short career, it's rubbing people the wrong way and Edwards was near the top on that list before Atlanta. But for Edwards to sit around for almost an hour while repairs are being made and stew about something that he admitted was his fault? Retaliation is one thing, but I'm not sure on this day that Brad K. had it coming.

371: Laps that Hendrick cars combined to lead over the first three races

0: Laps they led at Atlanta

13: Hendrick's average finish over the first three weeks

19.5: Their average finish at Atlanta

We've gone all multimedia on you here at Racing Fan, with the debut of our video series Inside the Helmet, where we'll be giving you a unique look at some of today's top drivers. Speed stops by to discuss which celebrity he'd like to have on his car hood, the strangest thing he's ever been asked to autograph, and more.

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