5 burning questions as NASCAR reaches its halfway point
Saturday's race in Kentucky stands as halfway point of NASCAR's 36-race slate
Which driver could miss the Chase? Who will claim the two wild-card spots?
Who's a driver to watch? How about Joey Logano, who's peaking at right time
It will be a moment for the Sprint Cup history books Saturday night at Kentucky Motor Speedway as the series hits the track for the first time. (History aficionados know it's not the first time that NASCAR's top circuit has run in the Bluegrass State -- that distinction belongs to a 21-driver event on Corbin Speedway's dirt track in 1954). It's also a key date on the Cup schedule, as it stands as the halfway point of the 36-race slate, and leaves us less than 10 races from the end of the regular season.
There's no shortage of burning questions as the schedule reaches its midpoint. Here are five that the Racing Fan is knocking around while making sure not to get in Tony Stewart's way.
Joey Logano. Joe Gibbs' wunderkind has struggled to find his footing in what was expected to be his breakout season, but over the last 10 races, Logano has shown he could be a factor in the chase to make the Chase.
Logano was as low as 29th in the points standings after posting six finishes of 23rd or worse over the opening six weeks. But he's been surging since the April 17 stop at Talladega, registering four top-10s and averaging a 14.7 finish to move up to 20th.
It would seem a daunting climb to make the playoff but of the four remaining regular-season tracks, three are venues where he's been consistently strong (Indianapolis, Michigan and Richmond) and the fourth is the location of his lone Cup win (New Hampshire). Plus, it can't be understated that despite his current points rank, Logano has shown tremendous growth in Year 3, with only five drivers besting his 1,101 quality passes (a pass of a car running in the top 15 under green-flag conditions), putting him on pace to obliterate his 2010 mark by 608 passes.
He has plenty of ground to make up, but Logano may be putting it all together at just the right time.
At the season's quarter mark, Edwards was the class of the field and looked like he was poised to build on last season's impressive finish by challenging Jimmie Johnson for the crown. While he remains a viable threat with a series-best 12 top-10s, the consistency that was his early trademark hasn't been there lately. Sure, he's posted three top fives over the last five races, but he's finished 37th in the other two races and lost his points lead to Kevin Harvick with Kyle Busch looming just five points behind him in third. You have to wonder if the growing speculation of his future and that of his sponsors at Roush Fenway Racing is wearing on Edwards.
This could simply be the lull in Edwards' season, though there is a nagging thought that we've been down this road with him before.
Back in 2008, Edwards closed with three wins in the final four races to finish runner-up to J.J. A year later, he was a favorite to win the title and a fixture in the top five in the points standings, but he hit a bad spot and faded, finishing 11th. Now, we're again following a season in which he closed strong, and Edwards has hit another erratic patch. How will he respond? The answer may well be indicative of whether he's really ready to take the next step in his career.
It would seem seven of the 12 playoff spots decided by points (the other two go to the winningest drivers among the top 20) are all but sewn up by multi-race winners (Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth) and those comfortably within the top six (Kurt Busch, Edwards and Jimmie Johnson). Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman are hanging within the top 10, but none of them are secure and each has their issues; Junior dropped from third to seventh in the points in two weeks, and Bowyer has averaged a 22.3 finish over the last five races.
But it's Newman, whose postseason chances appear to be in trouble. He was once second in points, but has been hovering around the Chase cutoff line as he's had four finishes of 21st or worse in the last seven starts. He's currently 10th, three points from falling out of the automatic qualifying spots. He has won on four of the nine stops before the end of the regular season (Michigan, New Hampshire, Pocono and Richmond), but Newman appears headed in the wrong direction.
I'll admit, I was skeptical of the newest wrinkle in playoff qualifying, but this season has been the perfect introductory year. So far, four drivers from outside the top 10 have at least one win -- with the optimum phrase being "so far" amid a season where 11 different drivers have reached Victory Lane -- and watching Denny Hamlin, David Ragan, Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith jockey for position will deliver major intrigue.
But which one-time winners will make the playoff?
It appears Hamlin, who has five top-10s in the last nine events, and has moved up to 11th in the points, is making a strong case for one wild-card bid. Where it could get interesting is the battle for that second spot, which, given 28th-ranked Smith's slide since registering career win No. 1 (he's been 24th or worse four times), makes it a duel between Ragan (17th) and Keselowski (22nd). Given the way the two have run of late, with Ragan averaging a 13.6 over the last six weeks and Brad K. with a 14.8 over the previous five, they could be facing off until Richmond for the spot. Though that's only if we don't have another single-race winner come out of the woodwork, which bring us to ...
It's been a recurring them of the first half of '11 that was book ended by both stops at Daytona as Trevor Bayne, Ragan and Smith all hit Victory Lane for the first time in their careers. They could see their group grow, considering the way A.J. Allmendinger and Paul Menard have been running. Allmendinger has faded a bit since his surprising start, but he's been putting himself in position to challenge for wins with a top-10 starting spot for five weeks running, resulting in two top-10s. Plus, his five best tracks (Homestead, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, Atlanta and Indy) lie ahead. Likewise, Menard has been posting strong starting spots (five top-10 starts) and he looks to be regaining his early mojo with a fourth- and eighth-place finish in the past four weeks. Don't be surprised if either, if not both, break through over the season's second half.
Logano. Since most of the Cup drivers have raced on the venue, I'm siding with the guy who has had the best success in Sparta, Ky., in the Nationwide Series. Logano has three victories and three poles in three starts there, and he has led 33 percent of the laps in those races. Considering his recent streak on the Cup side (see above), this may be the perfect track and the perfect time.