Racing Fan has sifted through a first three months that's delivered more drama than seven seasons of Entourage, and has five questions as we move past the quarter pole.
1. Can Kevin Harvick contend for the entire season?
The early favorites to contend with Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup title were Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin and Edwards, in that order. But Kevin Harvick? The guy wasn't on anyone's radar, despite one telltale sign that he was about to blow up: He's in a contract year. Sure enough, just as in 2006 when his deal was set to expire, Harvick has been a force, ending his 115-race drought with a win at Talladega and knocking J.J. off the points standings throne.
Is it enough to designate Harvick as the challenger to J.J.'s dominance? His seven top-10s tie Johnson for the most in the series and he showed a killer instinct in winning a drag race with Jamie McMurray at Talladega. Plus, his return is clearly part of a large-scale revival for Richard Childress Racing, which also has Jeff Burton (ninth) and Clint Bowyer (12th) above the Chase line. But it's hard not to forget Fontana, where Harvick was closing in on eventual winner Johnson, but scraped the wall, ending his pursuit. How will he handle similar circumstances come Chase time?
Harvick certainly looks the part of a title contender so far, and his stock has definitely increased for when he enters free agency after this season. One piece of advice to whomever signs Happy: demand he only sign a one-year deal.
2. Which Joe Gibbs Racing driver's transformation will have a bigger pay off?
Driving with a torn ACL, Hamlin failed to finish higher than 17th over the first five weeks of the season. Realizing he couldn't put surgery off any longer, Hamlin announced that he'd be going under the knife, only to win at Martinsville two days before his surgery. But days after the procedure came the race that galvanized he and his team: a 30th-place finish at Phoenix. A week later he won at Fort Worth, and followed that with a fourth-place finish at Talladega and an 11th at Richmond. In three weeks, Hamlin went from a driver facing season-jeopardizing surgery to a revived force with the knowledge that he didn't bail on his team when the chips were down.
Kyle Busch has curbed his antics to become a more complete driver capable of winning the Cup. It's one part natural maturation and three parts new crew chief Dave Rogers, who has helped teach Busch that if a car starts to fail on him, he doesn't have to throw in the towel. He went from a 38th starting spot at Bristol to a ninth-place finish, and at Richmond he faded after dominating the field, but kept his cool and reached Victory Lane.
As gutsy as Hamlin has been in his return from surgery, he never faced the questions that always surrounded Busch, whose temper has kept him from taking that crucial next step. If Shrub has really risen above his past tendencies, he may finally be a driver capble of winning a title, which should strike fear in every other Cup garage.
3. What to make of Jeff Gordon's 'new' attitude?
He's rekindled a rivalry with Matt Kenseth, pushing the No. 17 out of the groove after a botched restart at Martinsville. He had two well-publicized run-ins with former protégé Johnson at Texas and Talladega and set off a crash at Fort Worth as he made contact with Tony Stewart.
You could call it frustration stemming from his winless drought (more on that later) and his former protégé's dominance, but I think what we've seen is a return of the Gordon of old. Back when he was winning four titles, Gordon's calling card was his ability to drive under control while seeming like he was on the brink of disaster.
Having a car that can rival his Hendrick teammate and coming to the realization that at 38 his chances of winning another championships are dwindling have Gordon pushing the envelope this season. He's recaptured his past style, resulting in four top-three finishes to sit sixth in the points.
It's a stark contrast from the vanilla Gordon we've come accustomed to, which may be why we've made so much of his treating J.J. no different than he treats any other driver on the track. It may be a PR nightmare, but Hendrick should take solace in knowing that Gordon is back.
4. What's happened to Smoke?
Someone needs to put Stewart on a milk carton, and I'm not talking about a primary sponsorship. Smoke had three top-10 finishes in the first five races, but since then he's finished 23rd or lower four times and has dropped 10 point positions to stand 15th.
So what's going on over at Stewart-Haas? The fact that Ryan Newman has been rising over that same period means it's not a team-wide problem. Alarmingly, Stewart says he and crew chief Darian Grubbs are as confused as the rest of us.
With 16 races left before the Chase field is set, Stewart says he's not worried, and while slow starts are nothing new to Smoke, it's worth noting that this is the lowest Stewart has ranked after 10 races in each of the five seasons he's made the playoff. The time to panic may not be here yet for Smoke and Grubbs, but it's coming.
5. Which veteran will be the next to end their drought?
Harvick has gotten off the snide, and so too has Newman and Busch. But a number of other veterans continue to ride long winless streaks; Clint Bowyer hasn't won in 72 races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 67, Greg Biffle in 54, Burton in 51, Edwards in 46, Kenseth in 44 and Gordon in 38.
While they all remain winless, Junior is the only driver in the group that is currently outside the top 12 in points (Earnhardt is 13th), meaning they're all close to ending their skids, but Gordon may be the closest.
A charter member of the Tough Luck Club, Gordon has finished second eight times since he last won on April 5, 2009 at Texas, and four times this year he's lost the lead late, including last week at Richmond. Gordon has been painstakingly close to a breakthrough and it could come as early as Saturday night at Darlington, where he has a series-best seven wins and 20 top 10s in 29 career starts. Of course, given Gordon's luck, or lack thereof, maybe Burton (three top 10s) or Biffle (top 10s in seven races) will get to Victory Lane first.
1950: Year of first NASCAR race at Darlington. Only Martinsville, which was on the first Cup schedule in 1949, has been a part of the series longer.
17: Cautions last year at the track, the most in its history.
1: Green-white-checkered finishes at Darlington, coming when Biffle won in 2005.
Martin Truex Jr. It would come as no surprise to see Gordon tame the Lady In Black for an eighth time, but Truex has been steadily improving since dropping to 24th after Atlanta and has five finishes of 12th or better since. He also has a strong history at Darlington, leading 61 laps in '09 in coming in sixth.