Season in review: NASCAR.com experts make picks
April 20, 2014, NASCAR.com
Eight races. In a small sample size of the season -- 22 percent to be exact -- we've had seven winners, breakout stars and some of the best side-by-side action since, well, last year.
The indelible moments began in the first race of the season, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbing out of his car under the Daytona International Speedway lights as confetti poured down onto his No. 88 Chevrolet.
There have been some brilliant race-altering strategy calls, some surprises -- and yes, some drivers who aren't quite where they want to be in the standings.
Our NASCAR.com experts pick some early-season superlatives, and leave you with something to look for when the season picks back up next week at Richmond.
Chime in on which expert you agree -- and disagree -- with the most in the comments section, and submit your own choices for the categories below.
Zack Albert: STP 500, Martinsville Speedway. As good as Daytona was, the epic back-and-forth between race winner Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson capped a record day with 33 lead changes, the most in the 67-year-old track's steeped 131-race history.
Kenny Bruce: Bojangles' Southern 500, Darlington Raceway. Hard to top the constant battle at this historic venue, on a rugged old track and a pair of G-W-C attempts to wrap it up.
Holly Cain: Auto Club 400, Auto Club Speedway. Best race, I don't know, but the finish was a thrilling conclusion to a wild afternoon at Auto Club in March with Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart dicing it up on a green-white-checkered sprint along with rookie Kyle Larson and the day's winner, Kyle Busch.
David Caraviello: Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway. Simply one of the more riveting races in recent memory, given the way the leaders were dicing it up at the front of the field, almost through the full duration of the event. There was no riding around. Whether it was the new rules package or the rush to beat the weather, it all produced a mesmerizing 500 miles in NASCAR's biggest event.
Alan Cavanna: Auto Club 400, Auto Club Speedway. A race of attrition, pit strategy and last-lap passes. Kyle Busch's happiness melded with Jeff Gordon's despair after seeing one get away. Great emotion, great race.
Brad Keselowski was on an off-cycle pit strategy, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was gambling with fuel. Both decisions resulted in the drivers running 1-2 at Las Vegas.
Zack Albert: Gambling in Las Vegas. Crew chief Paul Wolfe made the most of an off-cycle pit schedule at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, keeping Brad Keselowski in position to pounce for the win when Dale Earnhardt Jr. sputtered with an out-of-gas car in the final lap of the Kobalt 400.
Kenny Bruce: Four tires for Joey Logano at Texas. Crew chief Todd Gordon opted for four tires, leaving his driver third on the final green-white-checkered restart. Joey Logano promptly drove past second-place Brian Vickers and race leader Jeff Gordon (both of whom took two tires) to score his first win of season and all but guarantee the team a spot in the Chase.
Holly Cain: Four tires for Kyle Busch at Auto Club. Crew chief Dave Rogers called for four tires on a final pit stop that was the difference in helping Busch overtake the leader on a two-lap green-white-checkered finale at Fontana.
David Caraviello: Kevin Harvick taking four tires at Darlington. Darlington is an aging track that can cause real headaches for crew chiefs when it comes to tire strategy, but it was clear in the Bojangles' Southern 500 that four tires were better than two. No question Harvick was helped by cautions, but on a layout as challenging as Darlington, you almost have to plan for late yellows that will push the event beyond its scheduled distance.
Alan Cavanna: No. 88 team at Las Vegas. With a win in hand, the 88 team had nothing to lose by gambling on fuel. Dale Earnhardt Jr. came up a half-lap short, but the call embodied everything great about the new points system and provided a dramatic finish.
Jimmie Johnson is fifth in the points standings and has three top-fives and five top-10s, but his lack of a win surprises our experts.
Zack Albert: Team Penske. The hunch was the Penske camp would improve, but 2014 has brought a drastic uptick. Brad Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano each have led multiple laps in seven of eight races, most prolific among all Sprint Cup drivers.
Kenny Bruce: No wins for Six-Time. No, eight races isn't an eternity, but Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have often been the first to take advantage of major changes in sport. Not this time.
Holly Cain: Winless Johnson, Kenseth. Our expectations are so high now that we consider it a surprise when eight races into the schedule, last year's winningest drivers are winless -- six-time champ Jimmie Johnson and the guy who gave him a run for his title in 2013, Matt Kenseth.
David Caraviello: Kyle Larson. There were a lot of raised eyebrows when Chip Ganassi put Larson in his No. 42 car after all of one full year of experience at NASCAR's national level. There are no raised eyebrows anymore. Larson already appears to be an upgrade over Juan Pablo Montoya, and though it's a long season, you can't discount the idea of the guy winning a race.
Alan Cavanna: Chase Elliott. Everyone knew Elliott had the racing DNA and potential, but who could predict two wins already? Elliott's NASCAR Nationwide Series wins were earned using aggressive, late-race moves against some of the best Sprint Cup drivers on the circuit.
Zack Albert: Kasey Kahne. Driver No. 5 ranked second in Sprint Cup points with four top-fives after eight races last year. This season, Kahne is 23rd with a goose egg in the top-five column.
Kenny Bruce: Martin Truex Jr. He has only one top-15 thus far with a team that made the Chase a year ago.
Holly Cain: Martin Truex Jr. After winning a front-row starting spot for the Daytona 500, Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team haven't put together a top-10 finish yet.
David Caraviello: Kasey Kahne. In the Hendrick stable, Jeff Gordon leads the points, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the Daytona 500 champ, Jimmie Johnson is there every week and Kasey Kahne is 23rd in points. Something just isn't clicking with that No. 5 team, and although Kahne is no stranger to slow starts, his is a glaring contrast to the early successes of his teammates.
Alan Cavanna: Kasey Kahne. After eight races Kahne is 23rd in points with no wins and just two top-10s. His three Hendrick Motorsports teammates are first, fourth and fifth in the standings. One win will turn his season around, though.
Zack Albert: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Five top-three finishes in eight races and a spirited Daytona 500 victory move Junior to the head of the class.
Kenny Bruce: Kevin Harvick. Just ask his crew chief. "He's way better than I ever thought. Like way better. Seriously," says Rodney Childers.
Holly Cain: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior vowed to give his crew chief Steve Letarte a fitting farewell season, and he's done just that by answering an emotional Daytona 500 victory with three additional second-place finishes. If not for a slight mistake in the rain-delayed race at Texas, he'd be leading the standings by a hefty margin.
David Caraviello: Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's not just the Daytona 500 title -- it's the fact that Earnhardt has maintained the momentum he built over the latter third of last season, and shows every sign of being a legitimate contender for the duration. His five top-fives lead the series, his career-best second at Darlington spoke volumes and that No. 88 team has been as consistently strong as any other group in the sport.
Alan Cavanna: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Five top-three finishes in eight races is the only stat I need to name Dale Jr. as the early-season MVP. I won't let a mistake at Texas (for which he took the blame) knock him off that perch.
One to watch
Kyle Larson has four top-10s -- and one near-win -- in the first eight races. He appears poised to challenge for a victory before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set.
Zack Albert: Kyle Larson. The first rookie Sprint Cup winner in five years? The kid makes it look more reachable each week.
Kenny Bruce: Kyle Larson. The kid's scary fast and not easily intimidated. He'll make his share of mistakes, but continue to impress folks, too.
Holly Cain: Kyle Larson. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate has lived up to the hype accompanying his arrival in NASCAR's big time. The 21-year-old has already earned a pair of top-fives (including a runner-up at Auto Club Speedway) and four top-10s in a car that had only four top-fives all of 2013 with driver Juan Pablo Montoya.
David Caraviello: Matt Kenseth. After a spectacular debut season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth is back to doing that Matt Kenseth thing -- lurking. He doesn't yet have a race victory, and he's gone almost unnoticed as he's risen to second in points, but that No. 20 car remains strong and Kenseth remains one of the savviest drivers around. People will begin to notice him before long.
Alan Cavanna: Kyle Larson. Larson was my preseason pick for Sunoco Rookie of the Year, and he has exceeded expectations with four top-10s in eight races. Watch out when he goes back to tracks for a second time.