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Track Smack: Surprises, disappointments, Chase hopes

July 03, 2014, Kenny Bruce, David Caraviello and Alan Cavanna, NASCAR.com

Track Smack: Surprises, disappointments, Chase hopes
NASCAR.com experts offer their reviews of the season so far

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Editor's Note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will showcase a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their analysis from the previous week, while also looking ahead.

1. NASCAR returns to Daytona this weekend, which marks the unofficial halfway point of the season. What's been the biggest surprise of the 2014 campaign to date?

Alan Cavanna:
The biggest surprise of 2014 to me is Dale Earnhardt Jr., if only because he's having his best season in a decade. He'd shown plenty of glimpses of championship form, but it was hard to know if it would actually happen for him again until this year.

David Caraviello: There have been two flat-out magical nights of the season so far -- Dale Jr. winning the Daytona 500 and Chase Elliott winning the Nationwide Series event at Darlington, and to me the latter driver has been the biggest surprise of the year to date. We all knew Chase had the potential to be really good, but -- multiple-race-wins good? Cup talk good? The kid's hit a few rough patches lately, but he's still been spectacular, and I don't know if anyone exactly foresaw that.

Kenny Bruce: Aside from the obvious (this guy's been good, this guy hasn't), I think the new qualifying format and how it has played out has been a pleasant surprise for all involved. It's added some unexpected strategy to all three series for something that often used to be, well, less than exciting.

Cavanna: There goes Kenny thinking outside the box again. Great call, Kenny. Qualifying has been pleasant surprise, and often a must-watch. We've all been pleasantly surprised by different things. Good year so far.

Bruce: Just looking at the big picture, Alan.

Caraviello: I'll agree, Kenny, that qualifying format has revolutionized the process and made it must-see TV. It's light-years better than it used to be, especially at big tracks like Pocono and Talladega. And I'm a little surprised it's turned out so well after a rough start, with all that coasting we saw the first few weeks. Kudos to NASCAR for listening to drivers and remedying that.

Bruce: Although watching 12 cars sit on pit road with the clock ticking at Kentucky last week was a bit unusual. Waiting for a cloud? Adjusting their lumbar supports? Who knows?

Caraviello: And I'll side with Alan on Dale Jr., to a point. As someone who covered his glory days at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and remembers what that time was like, he's always had this in him. It's just been finding the right combination to bring it out. Crew chief Steve Letarte has been a big part of that, and next year will bring a major transition with Letarte headed to TV. It will be interesting, to say the least.

Cavanna: And it's not just the wins, David. I think many figured he could get a win or two in Hendrick equipment. But when he's finishing third at Sonoma, and fifth at Kentucky after a terrible weekend it shows how far the team has come. And I've been quite surprised by that.

Bruce: If Dale Jr. continues to run as well as he has thus far, expect several crew chiefs to announce they'll be leaving the pit box for the broadcast booth next year.

Caraviello: Or several drivers to begin stashing wrecked race cars in their backyard. Does that comply with HOA regulations?

Bruce: OK, you guys want to talk surprises as far as drivers? I give you PM -- Paul Menard. Looking every bit like a contender for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Did anyone see that coming?

Cavanna: I'll believe it when I see it, Kenny. I'm not a Menard believer yet. But a 16-spot Chase field certainly helps his chances.

Caraviello: Man, those RCR guys are a riddle, Kenny. As I wrote this week, I wouldn't be surprised if they all made the Chase, and wouldn't be surprised if they all missed it. But Paul's beard is always in championship form.

Bruce: Are you saying he makes it by a whisker, DC?

Caraviello: Either way, Kenny, it will be a close shave.


2. In a sport where just one driver reaches Victory Lane each weekend, not everyone can be a winner. So what teams and drivers have been more disappointing than expected to this point?

Caraviello:
Let the piling on Roush Fenway Racing commence!

Bruce: In terms of having not won, you have to start with Matt Kenseth. The guy's been competitive, but after seven wins last year I think we all expected to see him in Victory Lane by now.

Cavanna: RFR has two wins, and Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in position to make the Chase. I don't know how much more I expected from that team.

Caraviello: OK, a few things on our friends over at RFR. Edwards is really not having a bad season at all. He's actually having a pretty good one, relatively speaking, given that he has two wins, stands sixth in points, and is certainly guaranteed a Chase berth. Usually drivers who are rumored to be looking around are in much worse shape -- take a look at Kevin Harvick in 2009, for instance. So for all the teeth-gnashing over Roush's overall performance, Carl actually has a pretty good season going.

Bruce: I certainly didn't expect them to get spanked on nearly a weekly basis by the guys from Team Penske. Edwards has two wins, but the entire organization appears to be out to lunch more often than not. Two wins will get Edwards in the Chase, but their inconsistency will earn him a quick ticket to the sidelines if things don't change.

Caraviello: Now Alan, I think you could argue that Biffle should be better, and that the Nationwide program should be a little more robust, and that they're on more of an even footing with their Ford stablemates at Penske. So they have some issues, clearly. But are they as hopeless as some make them out to be? I don't know.

Bruce: It sounds odd bashing a guy who's won twice, but as they say down in Daytona Beach, it is what it is.

Cavanna: The bigger disappointments to me are Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. Kenseth had seven wins last season, and so far nothing. But at least he's consistent and knocking on the door. I don't see that with Kahne. He needs to be doing better in Hendrick equipment.

Caraviello: Kahne to me is the head-scratcher. Your three teammates are 1-2-3 in points and have six wins combined, and you're sitting 15th in the standings with a goose egg in the victory column. And to be honest, the 5 team really hasn't been in contention that often. They've shown signs of life here and there, but again, how good can we expect that team to be if they get into the Chase?

Bruce: It sounds as if all the Hendrick teams are leaning on each other when having issues. But for some reason, all but Kahne's group have been able to apply that info and turn a struggling ride into something competitive. The No. 5 team has been hit or miss. And dare we ignore a winless Tony Stewart, a so-so Michael Waltrip Racing, or a struggling Furniture Row Racing outfit? I think most folks expected more out of those three by now.

Caraviello: Yeah, Kenny, when it comes to disappointments, the No. 78 team has to top the list. The Furniture Row guys have had atrocious luck, to be certain, but there's a long fall between a Chase berth with Kurt Busch to where they are now. You feel for Martin Truex Jr., given the situation he's been put in since last fall, and you know this group is better than that. But for whatever reason, it's just not happening, and it's painful to watch.

Cavanna: Bad luck and different driver make a huge difference, David. I think that situation says a lot about the abilities of Kurt Busch.

Caraviello: You'd never know that Truex was actually one spot better than Kurt in the standings. That one victory makes such a difference in this format.


3. Ten drivers have won races to earn likely berths into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. With nine races left until the playoff field is finalized, who are your favorites to round out the field?

Caraviello:
Josh Wise is going to shock the world -- for a second time! OK, maybe not. But someone unexpected from down in the standings is going to make it in, either via Daytona this weekend or Watkins Glen next month. You still have to think Marcos Ambrose at WGI tops the list.

Cavanna: I picked Matt Kenseth to win in this week's NASCAR.com Preview Show. I'll also add Kyle Larson and Marcos Ambrose to the list of winners.

Bruce: Hate to go back to the well, but Kenseth and Stewart top the list. Given that we still have a plate race (this weekend) and a road course (The Glen), we might see a surprise. But as a Wise man once said … I'm certainly not counting on it.

Cavanna: At some point the non-winners will start thinking about points again. I'm thinking drivers like Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer get in nicely.

Bruce: Ambrose might have been a given in previous years, but the way some of these drivers and teams have elevated their road-racing game, I think Ambrose suddenly has a lot of company at the front of the pack.

Caraviello: Unfortunately, it seems our Road to 16 Winners movement has stalled out given all the repeat trips to Victory Lane as of late, which likely opens the door for more guys to get in on points. So you have to think Kenseth, regardless of whether he can pick up a W between now and Richmond. Newman has been steady all year. I'd take Larson. And Bowyer and that team are better than they've shown, so I'd pick Clint as well.

Cavanna: We're running low on spots. So -- Tony Stewart, yes or no?

Caraviello: That still leaves room for other guys like Kahne, Biffle, Menard and yes, Stewart. For those drivers, it's all going to come down to how many winners we have, and how many spots are allotted on points. Right now Tony is clearly in the danger zone, to be certain. Of course, he could also win this weekend at Daytona and put all those worries to rest.

Bruce: That's the thing, DC. As we get closer to the cutoff, and it becomes apparent that points will secure some of the 16 spots, I think we'll see teams focus more on not losing positions rather than picking up the W. I think that's called points racing, if I remember correctly.

Caraviello: Bite your tongue, Kenny Bruce!

Bruce: Consider it bitten.

Cavanna: I'm excited for this run to the Chase. The "win and in" scenario is really going to make things crazy.

Caraviello: That's what we all want, Alan. Although I also remember the first few years of the Chase, when teams got very conservative down to the stretch to protect their positions. Those guys in the garage are smart. They figure a way around things regardless.

Bruce: As long as they give 100 percent, DC, it'll be fine.