The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ 2012 season is quickly flying by. Now that we’re half-way to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, we take time to step back and identify some surprising trends so far.
1. Greg Biffle leads the points — and it’s no fluke.
Few picked Greg Biffle to be a championship contender. But “The Biff” is not only leading the points (with a one-point margin over teammate Matt Kenseth), he’s doing so with incredible consistency. He is tied with Kenseth for the most top fives of any driver (seven), and he has finished on the lead lap in every race with a worst finish of 18 place.
The turnaround is amazing; he finished 16th in points in 2011, and he already has more than twice the number of top fives from all last year. In some ways, his season is much like teammate Carl Edwards’ in 2011.
If he and crew chief Matt Puccia can close the deal, Biffle would be the first to win a championship in all three major series.
2. Carl Edwards not a consistent contender.
Tony Stewart may have won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in 2011, but Carl Edwards had the better season. Though he only had one win, he found the consistency he had lacked in previous seasons en route to the most top fives and top 10s of any driver.
Yet after losing the championship on a tie-breaker, Carl hasn’t been competitive at all this year. Though he sits 12th in points with eight top tens, Carl has never been a serious threat to win. This hangover is not unlike Denny Hamlin’s season in 2011, when he floundered after losing the championship in the last race of 2010.
3. Jeff Gordon’s epic struggles.
Surprising fact of the season: Jeff Gordon has been the worst-performing Hendrick driver so far. He is mired 21st in points with only one top five. To put that into perspective, Gordon has finished no worse than 11th in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points since his rookie season.
Of course, Gordon’s struggles haven’t all been performance-related. His luck is far and away the worst in the garage. If this team can get the monkey off of their back, look for Gordon to improve as the season progresses.
4. Martin Truex Jr.’s massive turnaround.
Like Biffle, Truex Jr. has completely reversed his fortunes from 2011. He’s leading Michael Waltrip Racing’s completely rejuvenated and newly competitive operation, sitting solidly sixth in points in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
He hasn’t yet been able to crack into Victory Lane, though he came mightily close at Kansas. Even so, Truex Jr. is in excellent shape to earn his first Chase bid since 2007.
5. A.J. Allmendinger fizzles in the “Double Deuce.”
Before the season, many tabbed “The Dinger” to have a breakout year. In 2011, he finished a career-best 15th in points driving for under-funded Richard Petty Motorsports, so expectations were high when he joined Penske Racing to take over for Kurt Busch.
Unfortunately, things haven’t gone according to plan. He has only one top ten in a car that won two races last year with Kurt Busch, albeit without the services of departed crew chief Steve Addington. To add insult to injury, both RPM cars are ahead of Allmendinger in the points. If performance doesn’t pick up, don’t be surprised to see a different driver behind the wheel in Daytona.
Honorably Mention: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In his second season with crew chief Steve Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is reaping the dividends. He sits solidly third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings, the highest of all Hendrick drivers. And, he has the most top 10s of any driver. He hasn’t visited Victory Lane, but if he keeps running like this, he will before the season is out.
Why is Dale Earnhardt Jr. an honorable mention? To some extent, his performance is no surprise. He finished seventh in points last year, and most expected him to improve with Letarte again on in the pit box in 2012.
Statistics from NASCAR.com.