Five burning questions at the Sprint Cup quarterpole
Carl Edwards aside, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick among Jimmie Johnson's threats
If Denny Hamlin is going to bounce back this year, the next eight races are critical
The interest in two-car drafting is undeniable and may be here to stay in the sport
We're a quarter of the way through the Sprint Cup Series season after eight races that were book ended by a pair of thrilling finishes at Daytona and Talladega and which gave plenty of reason for Junior Nation to rise to its feet with signs of the No. 88's revival.
But consider these first two months simply an appetizer that has left us with no shortage of burning questions. Herewith, five queries the Racing Fan has been pondering in between viewings of the horrible faux facial hair that makes up the All-Star Race commercial.
1. Who, other than Carl Edwards, has emerged as Jimmie Johnson's biggest challenger?
The aforementioned Edwards has been the best driver in the circuit over the first eight stops on the schedule, racking up a win and six combined top-10s. But he's far from the only driver who's established himself as a legitimate threat to Johnson's five-year title run.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has revitalized his career by showing a level of consistency that's been missing since the first year after he moved to Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch has gained a new poise and maturity ... you could literally make an argument for every driver in the top-10, and a few outside the top-10; that's how balanced the series has been this season. But in these early goings, the driver who appears to be the biggest danger to Johnson outside of Edwards is Kevin Harvick.
Let's not forget last year when he and Johnson tangled at Fontana and a brush with the wall cost Harvick a chance at the victory. A season later he showed he's learned from that lesson as he nudged Johnson out of the way en route to one of his series-best two wins. While Denny Hamlin (more on him later) has disappeared after an oh-so-close title bout with Johnson last season, it seems to be pushing Harvick even harder.
2. Speaking of Hamlin, can everyone's preseason favorite regain his mojo?
As Hamlin tweeted after his 23rd-place effort at Talladega "I am now accepting all good luck charms." Given his 24.4 average finish the last five races, he could certainly use a change of fortune.
His season has been a series of misfortunes, ranging from his double-yellow line penalty in the Shootout to engine troubles, fuel-mileage issues and poor pit stops. But if Hamlin is going to get back into contention -- the wild-card Chase spots that go to drivers outside the top-10 who have the most wins are a nice fallback plan, but the priority remains getting into the playoff the old-fashioned way -- the next eight races should prove pivotal. They include four of his best tracks, including Pocono, where he has four wins and Richmond, next week's stop on the Cup schedule, where he's taken the checkers twice.
The good news is that despite his parade of problems, Hamlin is only 17th, seven spots behind the new cutoff line for a guaranteed Chase spot, so there's no immediate need to panic, plus in 2005 Matt Kenseth was 28th at this point and rallied to make the playoff. But if eight races from now we're still wondering whether Hamlin can recapture the magic, we could see a different mentality in the Joe Gibbs Racing driver as he tries to zero in on one of those wild-card spots.
3. Can Paul Menard actually keep this up?
Admit it, you had your doubts. How could we not? Before this season, Menard was largely a middle-of-the-pack driver at Richard Petty Motorsports who had seven top-10 finishes since 2003 and had a career-best points finish of 23rd. When he signed as the fourth car at Richard Childress Racing, the cynic in all of us said it was because of his built-in family sponsorship.
But -- excuse the hyperbole -- can you name a more meaningful free-agent signing in the last year outside of LeBron James' arrival in South Beach and Cliff Lee to the Phillies?
Menard sits 11th in the standings behind three top-10s and seven finishes inside the top-20 through eight races. His average start of 13.6 ties him with Kenseth for ninth-best in the series and he's shown he can produce on nearly any type of track, coming in ninth at Daytona and fifth at both Bristol and Texas.
But he'll have his critics until he either makes the Chase or fades as the season wears on. We could have our answer to whether he's ready to contend for a playoff spot soon. At five of the next eight tracks (Richmond, Darlington, Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma), Menard has averaged a 25th or worse. Show improvements on those tracks similar to what he's done in his first two months with RCR and it may be time to stop doubting Menard.
4. Are the changes to the points system really making that much of a difference?
So much was made of the decision to revamp the points system -- giving 43 base points to the race winner, down to one point for 43rd -- its emphasis on wins and how difficult it would make recovering from a bad finish. But you could argue the biggest impact of NASCAR's offseason rules changes has been on the Nationwide Series, where all seven races have been claimed by non-points eligible participants (i.e. Cup drivers) thanks to the edict that everyone must declare for points in one series.
As for the Nationwide's big brother series, life isn't really that different under the new system. Look at Harvick, who was 42nd in Daytona but has risen all the way to fourth in the standings; Greg Biffle finished 35th, 20th and 28th in the opening three weeks but is now sitting 16th after averaging a 10.2 in the last five races.
Preseason Chase favorites Jeff Burton (22nd with no top-10s to his credit) and Joey Logano (24th with one top-10) would seem to be in dire straits at this point in the season, but they would be struggling no matter the points system. As Harvick and Biffle have proved, consistency remains the biggest part of the equation, regardless of how points are awarded.
5. Is the two-car draft here to stay?
The style of racing that took over at Daytona and Talladega may be the most polarizing aspect of this Cup season. It has its detractors, with the old guard of racing fans and Junior among them, and Dale Jr. has gone so far as to say he hopes it's just a passing fad.
Of course it has its draw backs if you can't partner with the right driver, to which those three cars that were victimized by Kurt Busch's front end at Talladega can attest (we mean you, Dave Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Brian Vickers). But can anyone, Junior included, argue with the results? We've had two of the more memorable finishes in recent memory with Trevor Bayne's 500 win and Johnson's Earnhardt-induced push at 'Dega, because of the systematic chaos the tandem drafting has resulted in.
The finishes, and the fact that non-NASCAR fans were still talking about the restrictor-plate races days later, should be a strong indication that if the governing body has its way, this new tactic of plate racing isn't going anywhere. If you can't get behind it, as least you can take solace in the fact that you'll only have to see it three times a year.