News & Media

Surprising trends abound in fledgling Cup season

March 28, 2011, Joe Menzer,

It's only five races in, but already in this 2011 Sprint Cup season there have been some eyebrow-raising developments worth noting.

And no, this is not a further discussion of Trevor Bayne's remarkable season-opening win in the Daytona 500. That's been dissected enough.

"Last year [Johnson] left Martinsville with the points lead -- and with another strong showing there this Sunday, that could very well again be the case."


And although Bayne's victory for Wood Brothers Racing rightly has earned likely a permanent spot as this season's most eye-opening, unexpected development, it has been far from the only surprise. Among the others:

1. Ryan Newman sits second in the points standings, only nine behind leader Carl Edwards. The way Edwards finished last season, winning the final two races, makes his fast start to this season no surprise at all. But Newman? He's coming off a season in which he finished a disappointing 15th in points after making the Chase in 2010, his first season driving the No. 39 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Folks may be surprised to know, upon examination of Newman's career record, that 2009 is the only season in the past five when he's finished in the top 10 in points (he was ninth in '09). But this year he seems to be finding the kind of consistency that has eluded him in recent seasons. Sunday's fifth-place finish in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., was Newman's third fifth-place finish of the season, matching his efforts at Phoenix and Las Vegas and following a respectable 10th-place finish at Bristol. Last year he had only four top-fives all season.

2. Not only has five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson failed to win a race yet, but he fell victim to a last-lap maneuver Sunday by winner Kevin Harvick that was the sort of thing Johnson usually does unto others, not has done unto him.

Nonetheless, Johnson sits a comfortable fifth in the points standings heading to one of his favorite tracks this week in Martinsville Speedway. So it's hardly time for him to panic, or for anyone to start cueing up "the defending champ is vulnerable" stories. Last year he left Martinsville with the points lead -- and with another strong showing there this Sunday, that could very well again be the case.

While Johnson owns six Martinsville victories and has an average finish there of 5.3 for his career, the other four drivers currently ahead of him in the standings frequently falter there. Only Kurt Busch has won at the .526-mile short track and he's struggled there much of the rest of his career with an average finish of 21.3. The other three in front of Johnson in the points -- Edwards (average finish of 16.8), Newman (average finish of 14.3) and Kyle Busch (average finish of 16.7) have traditionally struggled to keep pace with Mr. Martinsville at the venue.

3. Denny Hamlin, who was in position to knock Johnson from his throne heading into the final two races (and even the season finale at Homestead) last season before faltering, is off to a horrible start this season and sits 21st in points. Among those comfortably ahead of him in the standings heading into Martinsville -- where Hamlin figures to do well -- are Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger, Bobby Labonte and Marcos Ambrose.

But is any of that more surprising than the way two others who figured to make a jump in the standings this season are struggling? Jamie McMurray sits in 28th, 90 points behind Edwards; Joey Logano is 29th, 94 back of the leader in the clubhouse.

And what about 2011 Chaser Jeff Burton? You know it's been a rough ride for him when he finishes 15th last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway and jumps four spots in the standings, yet still sits in 25th, 84 points out of first.

4. On the flip side, who thought Menard would be so consistently competitive during his first season driving for Richard Childress Racing? He remains seventh heading to Martinsville.

And both Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are off to surprisingly fast starts, with Kahne 11th in points and Earnhardt 12th after last Sunday's race. Kahne is early in his one-and-done season driving the No. 4 Toyota for Red Bull Racing before moving into the No. 5 Chevrolet next season for Hendrick Motorsports, while Earnhardt is early in his relationship with yet another new crew chief in Steve Letarte. Most figured it would take some time for both of them to gel under the new circumstances -- and many figured Earnhardt, who hasn't won a race since June of 2008, might not come around at all after his well-documented struggles in recent years.

Keep this in mind, however: Finishing 11th and 12th in points this season without a victory likely won't get you in the Chase. Only the top 10 in points are assured spots, with the final two Chasers determined by who has the most wins. That means if the Chase were to commence now, Jeff Gordon, although he's 14th in points, would advance over Earnhardt because he won at Phoenix in the second race of the season.

Bayne, it is worth noting, isn't eligible for the Chase because he elected to run for the Nationwide Series championship instead of the Sprint Cup trophy.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.