The halfway point of the Sprint Cup season is in the rearview and the first 18 races have delivered the good (
But it's also given us a number of burning questions in need of answers. Here's what the Racing Fan is dying to find out as the season heads from summer to fall -- and as a refresher,
Still, he answered any doubts that he could win in the spoiler era with back-to-back victories at New Hampshire and Sonoma and if the Chase began today he would have the top seed in the playoff, taking a tiebreaker from Hamlin with his second-place finish at Texas.
Until Johnson's season ends with anything other than a fifth title you have to consider him the favorite; really he's done nothing to convince anyone otherwise. But there's been a strangeness about Johnson's season; the mystique that separated him from his nearest competitors over the last four years -- a mind game that J.J. told me he has reveled in -- has seemingly disappeared and you could almost argue it's the reason for the rise in aggressive driving (more on that later) as the likes of Gordon and
With two points wins -- to go along with his All-Star Race victory -- Busch has shown he can close the deal. But he sits fourth in the standings because of what makes him a true title threat: he's scary consistent. Over the last 15 races, the elder Busch has finished eighth or better a whopping 10 times -- the only drivers who have been better are Gordon and Harvick, who have each done it nine times -- and it was that same consistency that allowed him to win the inaugural Chase in 2004 as he came in sixth or better eight times.
A fourth-place finish in the season's second trip to Daytona -- a performance that Junior apologized to fans for because he didn't feel like he was competitive -- was his third top-10 finish in the last four races, pushing him up to 11th in the standings. But if there is one major problem surrounding Dale Jr.'s season, it's that he still hasn't made a serious charge at ending a winless drought that stretches back two years. He did deliver in the Nationwide race at Daytona, driving the No. 3 under the guidance of crew chief
The remaining races play well into Earnhardt's chances of making the Chase; he's won four times at the sites of the seven remaining regular-season events (Atlanta, Bristol, Chicagoland and Michigan) and has six top-10s at Pocono. Junior should be in the running for something more this season than another Most Popular Driver award.
Is it the fact that
Whether the blames lies with outside influences is anyone's guess, but it's clear that even if Martin does get into the Chase, he's not the driver -- or the contender -- that he was last season. Could a
But is it really that simple, especially since one of the drivers who has been among the most glaring examples of this type of driving is a four-time champ (Gordon)? And while some may enjoy the widespread mean streak, just what is the style of racing going to look like when the races really start to mean something?
The problem, unfortunately, lies with NASCAR itself and vice president of competition