1. Mention Paul Menard a few short months ago and his critics would all fire off the same response to the point you'd swear it was scripted. The only reason he's still in the Sprint Cup series is because of his sponsorship.
It was the blessing and the curse of being the son of home improvement magnate, John Menard, and having a primary backer that's a package deal. It didn't help that he had just one top-five finish and a top 10 in three full seasons and finished no better than 28th in the points standings. It also did him no favors that he was the only Yates Racing driver to survive the merger with Richard Petty Motorsports, which left former Cup champ Bobby Labonte unemployed.
But this season, Menard is showing he's much more than Ricky Stratton with a NASCAR license, sitting ninth in points as the series shifts to Martinsville.
Emerging as one of the most surprising storylines of the early season has helped to quiet those who questioned whether he belonged, but it only sparks another: is it a fluke?
Menard has a few things working in his favor. While he has a top five at Atlanta to his credit, his rise has been primarily about consistency. He has an average finish of 14.2, ninth-best in the series and better than eight drivers who made last year's Chase.
He also has a veteran guide behind him in crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe, who took Michael Waltrip to Victory Lane at Daytona and Talladega, made the Chase with Jeremy Mayfield and also worked with Dale Jarrett and Kenny Irwin Jr. Menard knew Labbe from their Dale Earnhardt Inc., days and when they were reunited in December, there was no working on trust or the communication.
"There wasn't quite as big of a learning curve. We kind of knew each other's personalities and clicked when I saw him a few years ago and it's just worked out," Menard said.
There's also a little matter of history on Menard's side. In the Chase era, those sitting above the cut-off line after five races have made the playoff 74.2 percent of the time (49 of 66).
Of course, we're entering a stretch of tracks (Martinsville, Phoenix, Texas and Talladega), where Menard averages no better than a 23rd-place finish. How he performs there with his new-found confidence should be a telling test of Menard's maturation and whether or not one of the early-season's most shocking stories has staying power.
2. Michael Jordan did it. So did The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt. Tiger Woods did it and more than likely, he'll do it again. They simply ripped out opponents' hearts so many times to the point that if they were within striking distance when it truly mattered, they had them; no matter who it was.
Tiger, M.J. and Dale Sr., were simply in their heads and that's exactly the edge Jimmie Johnson has on the rest of the Cup field. Just look at what Kurt Busch said after finishing third to J.J. at Bristol.
"To pour my heart and soul into this race to beat the 48 car, I was trying to hit my marks every lap," he said. "I feel exhausted, I feel disappointed."
That's coming from a guy who dominated at Thunder Valley, leading 278 laps and has five career wins on the track. Busch isn't the first competitor Johnson has left deflated this season, remember the two-tire/four-tire gamble Jeff Gordon's crew chief Steve Letarte made in Las Vegas with Johnson breathing down the No. 24's exhaust pipe?
"To see [Busch] get out and throw stuff at his car and punch his car, it's comical," Johnson told SI.com "I'm glad that we're doing this to these guys."
Five races into the season, Johnson has three wins, and he could well add a fourth at the Paper Clip (more on that later). Winning at that rate alone is enough to drain his competitors, but what the other contenders should really be worried about is the mind games J.J. is playing with them.
If we've reached the point where drivers are more concerned about where the No. 48 is than the race itself, the hardest part of Johnson's pursuit of a fifth straight title may already be over.
758: Laps Dale Earnhardt Jr. has led in his career at Martinsville
319: Laps Mark Martin has led at Martinsville
0: Junior's wins
2: Martin's wins
Johnson. Yes, he's the safe and easy pick, but he's the safe and easy pick for a reason. In the last seven Cup races at the Clip, Johnson has five wins. His nearest competitor, Denny Hamlin has claimed two of those races, but there's nothing about Hamlin's season (he's averaging a 21st-place finish), that leads you to believe he's going to truly present a challenge.
We continue our video series with the elder Busch, who discusses his favorite racing movie (hint: it stars Kenny Rogers), his penchant for blondes who can't seem to stay out of the tabloids and signing dogs. Yep, dogs. Also, you can check out the Inside the Helmet archive for more videos.