Nearly one fourth of the way through the 26-race regular season, here are the five biggest surprises so far in the Sprint Cup series in 2009.
1. Kurt Busch: A year after finishing 18th in the standings, Busch has been among the most consistent drivers of 2009. He won in Atlanta on March 8, and has been particularly fast on the 1.5-mile tracks, which is the key to winning the championship. He's third in the points.
This offseason Busch's owner Roger Penske resisted the temptation to infuse the No. 2 team with fresh blood. Instead, he kept crew chief Pat Tryson on top of Busch's pit box, and he didn't make any significant changes in Busch's crew. Busch is also benefiting from a new engine package that has given him increased horsepower. As of now, he looks like a shoo-in to make the Chase and, come this fall, he'll be a threat to deliver Penske his first Cup championship.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior has surprised, but not in a good way. Through six races, his best finish is eighth (at Martinsville last Sunday) and his average finish is slightly worst than 18th. Earnhardt is 16th in the points and it's going to be a dogfight for him to qualify for the Chase.
So what's wrong with the No. 88 team? For starters -- and Junior will be the first to admit this -- Earnhardt has made as many mistakes on the track so far this season as any driver on the circuit. He's sped on pit road, overshot his pit box, forgotten to pit when his crew called him in, caused accidents -- basically, made all manner of gaffes. This isn't to say that Junior isn't talented; anyone who's watched him carefully knows that he can pull off moves on the track that few other drivers can. But this season Little E has displayed a propensity to lose his concentration if only for a second or two, and this has cost him dearly.
Still, all of the pieces are in place for this team to surge. Earnhardt's equipment is second to none, he's getting insightful feedback from his teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Mark Martin, and his owner Rick Hendrick feels personally responsible for making sure that Earnhardt succeeds. Don't be surprised when Little E makes the Chase -- barely.
3. Mark Martin: Like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt, Martin has struggled out of the gate. Two blown engines and a cut tire -- none of which, obviously, was Martin's fault -- have led to finishes of 40th (Fontana), 40th (Las Vegas), and 31st (Atlanta). With 20 races to go before the start of the Chase, the 50-year-old Martin is 27th.
But don't think Martin is out of it yet. If he can rip off five or six straight top-10 finishes -- and he certainly has the talent and the team to do just that -- then he'll be within eyeshot of the top 12 by the midway point of the regular season. Plus, this team already has won two poles, which is an indication of the car's quality and speed. Though he's got a lot of ground to make up, I nonetheless like Martin's chances to advance to NASCAR's postseason.
4. Dave Reutimann: If you were to pick out the name that's currently in the top 12 that looks most out of place, it would be Reutimann. Driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, Reutimann is 11th in the standings. Though he's never finished higher than 22nd in his two previous seasons in the Cup series, Reutimann has been doggedly consistent this year, finishing 14th or better in four of the six races.
Reutimann's fast start reflects the emergence of MWR as a serious player in the Cup racing. With the backing of Toyota, MWR made as many gains this offseason as any other team, improving its engines, its aero-package, even its pit stops. I still think Reutimann is a long shot to advance to the Chase, but so far in 2009, he's been one of the best stories in NASCAR.
5. Clint Bowyer: This offseason owner Richard Childress pulled Bowyer out of the No. 07 car to make way for Casey Mears. Childress then put Bowyer in the No. 33 Chevy. Because this is essentially a start-up team, conventional wisdom in the garage held that Bowyer would struggle in '09. Hasn't happened. He's second in the points and looks like a lock to the make the Chase.
How has he pulled it off? Well, Bowyer is perhaps the most underestimated driver in the garage. Even though he finished third in the final standings in '07 and fifth last year, Bowyer gets overlooked because he rarely reaches Victory Lane. In 115 career Cup starts, he has only two wins. And while it does take victories in the Chase to capture the championships -- Jimmie Johnson has proven this over the last three years -- it doesn't require wins to advance to the Chase. Go ahead and pencil Bowyer into the playoffs.