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Menzer: Surprises, disappointments of NASCAR circuits so far

July 23, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Opening half of season full of surprises, disappointments on NASCAR circuits

Math can be tough -- and with three national touring series involved anyway, this is about as close to halfway through the NASCAR season for the collective group as one can get.

So, with that in mind, we present a closer look at the highs, lows and offer looks ahead for all three series as summer braces to fade into fall all too quickly.

SPRINT CUP SERIES

Pleasant surprises: There is none greater in this series than the long-awaited resurgence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sure, it's been more than two years in the making and last year he had a solid season that resulted in his seventh-place finish in the points. But this year his pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte is really paying dividends. Earnhardt snapped his 143-race winless streak with a dominant victory at Michigan and has consistently run up front just about everywhere else.

Heading into Sunday's race at famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a week off for the Cup Series, Earnhardt sits second in points behind leader Matt Kenseth. After 19 of 36 points races -- and with seven left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup commences -- Earnhardt is tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for most top-10 finishes in the series with 14. He's also tied with Johnson and Kenseth for most top-five finishes with nine.

Sprint Cup Series

Wild-card standings
RankDriverPointsWin
13. (WC2) Kyle Busch5451
14.R. Newman5361
16. Joey Logano5331
11. Carl Edwards 5670

Kenseth and Kasey Kahne rate as the other top two surprises -- Kenseth for winning the Daytona 500 and surging to the top of the regular-season points standings, and Kahne for turning around a season where everything seemed to be heading in the wrong direction very quickly with two wins since Memorial Day. And Kenseth dropped probably the biggest surprise of all on everybody when he announced that he would not be returning to Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season, although team co-owner Jack Roush hardly found that one to be pleasant.

Biggest disappointments: Jeff Gordon seemed poised to have a great year -- and he's had several fast cars -- but mostly poor luck has contributed to a miserable season of finishes. He's 17th in points and likely needs to win two of the last seven regular-season races to qualify for the Chase. That's a tall order in any season, but seems almost insurmountable during a year when he has yet to visit Victory Lane at all and has just two top-five and seven top-10 finishes. He's a whopping 89 points out of 10th in the standings.

Not far behind Gordon in the disappointment department is Carl Edwards, who came within an eyelash of winning the championship last season with crew chief Bob Osborne, but now finds himself heading to Indy with a new man calling the shots atop his pit box in Chad Norris. In one of the most difficult statistics to believe of this season, Edwards has led a grand total of one lap over the first 19 races. He has just two top-five and nine top-10 finishes and is 46 points out of 10th in the standings, meaning he has very little time to turn around his season with a new crew chief.

Looking ahead: It's likely that the drivers currently residing in the top 10 in points are going to remain that way over the final seven races before the Chase cutoff, meaning most attention is about to turn to the wild-card race. That's where Kahne, 12th in points because of a tough-luck start to his season, and Kyle Busch, 13th in points and owner of one win, currently lead a group of contenders that also includes one-time winners Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. A win by Gordon this weekend could thrust him into the wild-card scenario, and Indy is a place where he can be expected to contend.

NATIONWIDE SERIES

Pleasant surprises: Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all is that, except for interloper Logano, the Nationwide races are being won mostly by full-time Nationwide drivers these days -- further validating NASCAR's decision to have drivers limit themselves to running for one championship per season in 2011. It has brought the focus of the series back where it should be -- on the guys who are currently making their living running in it all the time, and not moonlighting while focusing mainly on their Cup rides.

Nationwide Series

Standings
Pos.DriverBehind
2.Austin Dillon -11
3.R. Stenhouse Jr. -19
4.S. Hornish Jr. -42
5.Justin Allgaier -78

Points leader Elliott Sadler and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. currently lead the series regulars with three wins apiece. The two are embroiled in an entertaining points battle that also includes Nationwide rookie and up-and-coming star Austin Dillon, who is currently second in points and just 11 behind Sadler (Stenhouse is third, 19 off the lead).

One other notable but often overlooked surprise in the series is Ryan Truex, who has run only seven races but already has earned a pole, four top-10s and one top-five finish.

Biggest disappointments: Maybe the expectations were set too high for Danica Patrick prior to the season, but then she set them herself. She said she wanted to win races and contend for the Nationwide championship and she started off by winning the pole for the season-opening race at Daytona. But through 18 of 33 races, she has only one top-10 finish and sits ninth in points, a long way off the pace being set by Sadler. Only five others who have made all 18 Nationwide starts trail her in the points.

If Patrick hadn't set the bar so high for herself, and had the media spotlight not been so intense, it wouldn't be considered such a horrible season for a rookie with so little experience driving stock cars. But it pretty much is what it is, leaving her and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to hang her helmet on much smaller and more realistic baby-step victories like staying on the lead lap most races.

Then there is X-games and extreme-sports superstar Travis Pastrana, who admitted over the weekend that this NASCAR deal is "kicking his butt" right now. He's made only six Nationwide starts and it's refreshing that he admits the truth and that he's got a long way to go, but so far he's shown little progress in his very limited appearances.

Looking ahead: It should be a fantastic points battle the rest of the way. It will likely be limited to the three currently at the top, but also possibly including Sam Hornish Jr., who is in fourth (42 points out) and has been solid if not spectacular all season.

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Pleasant surprises: Nothing tops rookie John King winning the season-opening race at Daytona. But now King is out of a full-time ride and the next greatest surprise might be how in the heck is James Buescher only fourth in points after winning his series-high third race of the season at Chicagoland Speedway last Saturday night.

Truck Series

Standings
Pos.DriverBehind
2.Ty Dillon-23
3.Justin Lofton-30
4.James Buescher-35
5.Parker Kligerman-49

Buescher, who also won the season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona in spectacular fashion, is proving that he's a star in the making if he can find a ride with the right folks and keep moving up the NASCAR ladder. Though still 35 points behind points Timothy Peters, keep in mind that Buescher still has plenty of time to catch the current leader. This is the only one of the three series that has yet to reach the halfway point of its 2012 schedule, having run just 10 of 22 races.

The trick for Buescher will be finding the type of amazing consistency displayed by the veteran Peters, who has finished inside the top 10 in nine of the 10 races so far -- with seven top-fives and one win.

Biggest disappointments: King losing his full-time ride at Red Horse Racing only a handful of races after the big win at Daytona has to rank up there. But Johnny Sauter is this series' Carl Edwards. After finishing second in points last year, he's mired in 13th this year after enduring some horrible luck that actually began when King inadvertently wrecked him when it appeared Sauter was poised to win the aforementioned first race of the season at Daytona.

Looking ahead: It's hard to believe that Todd Bodine and Ron Hornaday Jr., who have six series championships between them, are not closer to the top of the points standings. Hornaday, who has yet to win, is seventh; Bodine, with one win, is 12th. Look for the trio of Sauter, Hornaday and Bodine to make some noise and win some races as the season progresses. They are too good not to. And rookie Ty Dillon, currently second in points, likely will have something to say about who wins this championship as well -- as could Justin Lofton, currently third in the points.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.