April 06, 2012
Sprint Cup Quarter Pole Roundtable
Racing writers Lars Anderson, Bruce Martin, Cary Estes, Tim Tuttle, Cory McCartney and Dustin Long break down the first quarter of the Sprint Cup season and look ahead to the action still to come. (Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)
Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. back?
Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR
Lars Anderson
He's getting closer. In his second season with crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt (pictured) appears as comfortable and as engaged behind the wheel as he's been since 2004, when he won a career-best six races. He's off to a wonderful start -- he has three top-five finishes in six races and is currently second in the standings -- but he still struggles at times when he's stuck in traffic.

And don't forget: To win the championship, you simply must win races, as Tony Stewart proved last year when he won five of the 10 Chase events. And Earnhardt still has the albatross of that 135-race winless streak snugly around his neck.

Cary Estes
Junior is definitely better, but he won't truly be back until he returns to Victory Lane. Keep in mind, this is a driver who had a total of 15 victories over his first five Cup seasons. Posting consistent top-10 finishes is a step in the right direction, but it's still not good enough for somebody with his background, equipment and fan base.

Dustin Long
Get to Victory Lane or avoid a slump like he had last summer and we'll talk. Remember, he started the season strong last year, struggled some in the middle of the year and had to fight his way to get into the top 10 and make the Chase. He's off to a great start. Now he needs to continue that consistency and win.

Bruce Martin
The same question could have been asked last year when Earnhardt also got off to a fast start before fading by mid-summer. But so far this season he appears to be doing everything right except winning races. With three top-five and four top-10 finishes in his first six races this season, Earnhardt is showing he knows how to get to the front. He's also displaying a more serious attitude on the racetrack and that's served him well so far. But until he gets back into Victory Lane he won't really be the Dale Earnhardt Jr. of old.

Cory McCartney
Yes and no. He's certainly off to an impressive start, sitting second in the standings, which is the highest Junior has been at this point in the season since a four-week stay at No. 2 four years ago. Few have been more consistent, with Earnhardt tying for the series lead with four top-10s overall.

But there's still the matter of that winless skid, which has now reached 135 races. No driver has ever won the title without winning at least one race, and until he can return to Victory Lane, it's going to be hard to quantify Junior as truly back or truly a title contender.

Tim Tuttle
No. He's exactly where he was a year ago, running fast and putting together enough quality results to make the Chase, but he won't be back until he wins a race or two. It -- his losing streak -- is a big hump he needs to get over.
What's been the biggest surprise of the young season?
Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images for NASCAR
The performance of Martin Truex Jr. Last year, driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex (pictured) spent the season in the middle of the pack. He finished 18th in points and never really threatened to take a checkered flag.

This year has been different. He's already reeled off two top-five runs (he only had three top-fives in all of 2011) and is currently sixth in points. His ascendance is reflective of the growth of MWR, which didn't win its first race until 2009. I don't think this fast start by Truex is a fluke; look for him to advance to the Chase for only the second time in his career this season.

The performance of Michael Waltrip Racing. Martin Truex Jr. is sixth in the point standings and Clint Bowyer is ninth. For years the big boys in NASCAR have been Hendrick, Childress, Roush and Gibbs -- and lately Stewart-Haas -- with Penske close behind. Everybody else was basically an afterthought. Waltrip's team appears poised to break into that upper tier.

Kasey Kahne. While he might have been a victim of inflated expectations after his move to Hendrick Motorsports, the thought that he would be 31st in the points after six races boggles the mind. The one thing in his favor is that his cars are fast. If he can avoid some bad luck, it would not be a reach to see him win enough to make the Chase via a wild-card spot.

Greg Biffle, the quiet points leader. Does anybody really know that he is currently leading the standings? Part of that surprise is because Dale Earnhardt Jr. is just six points back and Tony Stewart has won two of the four races far this season. And don't forget the three weeks dominated by the Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus appeal. But until Biffle, who has three top-five and four top-10 finishes, wins a race he probably won't get the attention his fast start to the season deserves. After all, in a series that has a race nearly every weekend even the winners are forgotten in a hurry. Does anybody remember who won the second race of the season at Phoenix?

Greg Biffle's resurgence. A year after missing the Chase, Biffle has grabbed the points lead and has held it for four weeks and counting. It's his first run atop the standings since 2005, and that lasted for just one week.

His pairing with crew chief Matt Puccia showed some promise last summer, resulting in five top-10s and three poles in 18 races. But after an offseason of personnel changes they've taken it up a notch and have Biffle, 42, looking like a legit contender for the first time in four years.

Whether he can keep it up remains to be seen, but six races in Biffle has been the top Ford finisher twice, something he did just once all of last season.

NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook's decision to overturn the 25-point penalties against Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson and the six-race suspension for Chad Knaus and Ron Malec. It was a shocker.
Who has been the biggest disappointment?
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Before the season a lot of stories were written about how Kyle Busch had finally seen the light, how he was cutting back on his Nationwide and Truck Series commitments to focus on his Cup racing, how this was going to be the year he finally became a serious contender to win his first championship. Well, so far it isn't happening.

Busch has only one top-five finish and is 16th in points. He certainly has time to turn his season around and win multiple races over the summer -- which is exactly what I think he'll do -- but his slow start has to be alarming his car owner, Joe Gibbs.

The easy answer would be Jeff Gordon, but my vote goes to Kasey Kahne (pictured). He was supposed to be an instant Chase contender after moving to Hendrick Motorsports, especially since crew chief Kenny Francis came along with him. Instead he is mired in 31st place, behind the likes of David Gilliland, Dave Blaney and Casey Mears. Bowyer's performance this season is proof that changing teams doesn't mean you automatically will struggle early. Kahne should be better.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya is 17th in the points and teammate Jamie McMurray is 24th. Combined, they have three top-10 finishes. This after an offseason of change at EGR. Certainly not the start this team had hoped to have.

Kasey Kahne. He and Hendrick Motorsports appeared to have the talent and resources to become one of the top combinations in Cup in 2012. But so far they are struggling.

Kyle Busch's, Carl Edwards' and Jeff Gordon's starts have all been alarming, and Kurt Busch's first run with Phoenix Racing has been a disaster, but the most disappointing has to be Kasey Kahne.

Expected to be an instant contender in Year 1 at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has finished inside the top 20 just once this season and ranks 31st in the standings. Meanwhile, the driver he replaced in the No. 5, Mark Martin, has two more top-10s than Kahne despite making just four starts.

He has time to turn it around, and considering that he's tied for the series lead with a 7.8 average start, including two poles, the speed is there to mount a rally. But he hasn't done himself any favors.

Kahne's move to Hendrick Motorsports was supposed to give him the chance to excel and become a Sprint Cup contender. Instead he's 31st in points and without a top-10.
How would you grade the new EFI engines?
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Grade: C. Elliott Sadler, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski -- to name a few drivers -- have all had fuel-flow problems with their EFI engines this season. Anytime a new technology is introduced into NASCAR there are always glitches; still, most in the garage didn't foresee EFI being this big of an issue. I'm guessing all the problems will be resolved by the start of the Chase, but my grade for now is a C.

Grade: B-. There have been a few issues, most notably Tony Stewart's inability to restart his car at Phoenix, which cost him a shot at the victory. But that is to be expected anytime a significant change is made to the car. Some teams will have more problems than others until everything is figured out.

Grade: N/A. Nobody has talked about them for the last few weeks, so unless something bizarre happens, they're not as big an issue.

Grade: N/A. So far, so good, except Tony Stewart will point out he could probably be leading the standings at the break if not for the new engines. Stewart shut off his engine at Phoenix -- an old trick drivers use to conserve fuel -- but the engine wouldn't restart, forcing Stewart to replace it. The misfire put him several laps down. Other than that the engines have largely not been an issue. And when it comes to new technology if nobody is talking about it, then it must be working.

Grade: C. Glitches are to be expected with any new technology. But we've seen the likes of Stewart and Logano get burned as the cars have had trouble restarting after they've been turned off. We've saw Brad Keselowski lose a top-10 finish at Las Vegas as his car sputtered, and it's clear crew chiefs are still trying to figure out the exact moment the cars run out of fuel. It remains a work in progress, but it's hard to imagine they won't have it figured out by the time we hit the Chase.

Grade: A. They've performed well despite some minor problems for a few teams that hadn't figured out the new electronics completely. It's a serious step forward for the series, which can learn to use modern technology to control speeds going forward.
With a fast start under his belt, is the title Tony Stewart's to lose?
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
It's way too early to tell. Stewart (pictured) has been impressive -- he's already won two races -- but I still like Jimmie Johnson to be your 2012 Cup champion. Johnson has only had one bad Chase performance in his career (last year); I don't see that happening again this season.

Stewart is proving once again that he is the best overall driver in NASCAR, a fact that was lost on everybody during Johnson's five-year title run. The problem is, despite winning two of the first six races, he is in third place in the standings -- behind two winless drivers -- and is only one point away from being in seventh. Last year Stewart had five victories to just one for Carl Edwards, yet he barely won the championship. NASCAR still doesn't place enough emphasis on actually winning races.

No. Remember last year when Stewart didn't have a win before the Chase cutoff and even said a few weeks before how the team didn't deserve to be in it? Same group won. It's not anybody's title to lose until the series gets into the Chase.

True, Stewart is off to the best start in his Cup career with two victories in March -- something unheard of for a driver who normally doesn't start to warm up until the summer. But Stewart proved last year that the best regular-season driver doesn't always excel in the Chase. But of course, winning throughout the season only breeds more confidence and if Stewart can continue his fast start, he will set the mark for the rest of the competitors this season.

No, but Smoke has certainly got off to a stunning start. His surge doesn't usually start until the late summer -- just six of Stewart's 46 career Cup wins have come in the first four months of the season -- but this year he's already hit Victory Lane twice, giving himself, at the least, an inside track for a wild-card spot. But I'm sticking with my preseason pick of Jimmie Johnson, who looks poised to show 2011 was an aberration.

Yes. During the Chase last year he found something he liked in the feel of the car and he has been able to carry that into this season even with the transition from crew chief Darian Grubb to Steve Addington. The rest of the Cup teams are scrambling to catch the No. 14.

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