Five burning questions halfway through 2012 Sprint Cup season
The year has been defined by a battle between Greg Biffle, Hendrick Motorsports
Despite being fifth in the points, Jimmie Johnson still is the greatest title threat
Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman are most in jeopardy of not making this year's Chase
Parity ruled the first quarter of the Sprint Cup Series' regular season, as six different drivers won the opening seven races.
That's, like, so two months ago.
With the halfway point behind us, 2012 is now being ruled by a pair of defining forces in Greg Biffle, who continues to sit atop the points standings, and Hendrick Motorsports, winners of three straight points races and the All-Star Race. Though there's also a disruptive force stealing headlines as Kurt Busch just keeps supplying us with further reminders that he's a certifiable mess.
It's a stretch that has given us plenty of burning questions to ponder as the series hits the grind of the summer months, but none bigger than these five.
1. Who is the top contender for the title? It's been three months since someone other than Biffle had the points lead -- a span of 11 races -- and he's shown no signs of slowing down. He leads all drivers with an 8.1 average running position, has avoided consecutive subpar finishes and been on the lead lap on 93.2 percent of the laps run. His performance on Chase tracks (Phoenix, Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Talladega, Charlotte and Dover) strengthens his case as only Matt Kenseth can match his series-best 6.0 average finish.
It's everything you want a legit title threat to be doing at this point in the season.
So why isn't Biffle, Kenseth -- who sits just one point back and has finished outside the top 10 just once in eight races -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. or, for that matter, two-race winner Denny Hamlin the leading challenger? Because -- surprise, surprise -- five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been hotter than them all.
Johnson is still trailing Biffle by 33 points at fifth in the standings, but he boasts a series-best 109.0 driver rating, has already won two points races and when it comes to Chase tracks, the ones that truly matter in this series these days, he's the only driver with four finishes of fourth or better.
The No. 48 dominating is ho-hum territory for many fans, but until further notice a surging Johnson once again looks like the man to beat.
2. Could Junior win a championship without winning a race? Until Earnhardt ends the drought, which if it extends into next week will be four years old, we have to entertain the notion that any title bid might include a zero in the win column.
The reality is, since the series crowned its first champion with Red Byron in 1949, no one has won it without reaching Victory Lane at least once. In the Chase era, it's taken multiple wins, with Kurt Busch's three in '04 standing as the lowest of the last seven years.
Kevin Harvick, who was fourth in 2008, came the closest since the advent of the Chase to pulling off the zero-win title, but he was 276 points behind that year's champion, Johnson.
Still it's a possibility, especially if Junior can maintain the consistency that's been his trademark in '12 -- he's finished outside the top 10 just once in the last 11 races and three times he's come in second or third -- and take advantage of the one-point bonuses for a lap led and most laps led.
The chances of a winless champ are long, though it's no better with just one win. That hasn't happened since Kenseth in '03, the last year before the Chase, and it wasn't enough for Carl Edwards, despite his consistent performances in last year's playoff.
3. Which current Chase qualifier is in the most trouble? Stewart has struggled of late with two finishes of 25th and two of 24th in the last seven races. But with two wins to his credit, he's at least a lock for a wild-card berth, so there's no real concern with Smoke despite his slump.
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman could be the ones in real danger of falling out of the playoff picture over the coming weeks.
Bowyer, who is 10th in the points, is coming off a fifth-place finish at Dover, but it's his first since March 18 at Bristol and he's been hovering around the 10-12 place in the standings for seven weeks. At five of the next eight races Bowyer averages a 16.5 finish or worse and he hasn't posted a top-5 at Pocono, this Sunday's stop, in three years and has zero at the following week's track, Michigan.
While Newman is currently in line for a wild-card spot at 13th by virtue of his victory at Martinsville, he hasn't done himself any favors since. He hasn't performed better than 14th in eight races and has rising Kasey Kahne, another race winner, one spot behind him. Newman has won on five of the next six tracks (Pocono, Michigan, Kentucky, Daytona and Loudon) and desperately needs to find consistent strong finishes or another win to stay in the mix.
4. Will Kurt Busch make it through the end of the season? His story of redemption played well when he was talking about putting the fun back in racing at Phoenix Racing and he endeared himself to fans with the Ricky Bobby tribute at Talladega.
Now he's back to the old Kurt who lost his ride at Penske Racing after '11, earning a one-week suspension from NASCAR and an extension of his probation through Dec. 31 after he berated Sporting News' Bob Pockrass.
From the any-publicity-is-good-publicity school of thought, it's an attention-grabber for NASCAR and for James Finch's underfunded team. But the truth is Finch, who says his partnership with Busch is now on a race-by-race basis, can't afford to put a car on the track if Busch is scaring off potential sponsors with his actions. Plus, it's not as if Busch is gaining much slack with his performance, sitting 26th in the points with just one top-10, and Finch says Busch has already wrecked 14 cars, at least three that were destroyed beyond repair.
My guess is Busch makes his return to Phoenix Racing's No. 51 next week at Michigan and the next infraction will be his last with the team. Look for Busch to be driving home his rejuvenation story in 2013 with a different team.
5. Which dark horse could steal a playoff berth? Aric Almirola. Four weeks ago, he sat 23rd in the points, but since then has shown real signs of progress. He's started fourth at Talladega, first at Charlotte -- and had his second top-10 of the season with a sixth at Dover to move up to 17th. He's also run laps among the top 15 drivers 83 and 79 percent of the time in the last two races, respectively, and been in the top five at one point in six of the previous eight events.
The bad news? He's still 76 points behind Bowyer for the last of the 10 guaranteed Chase transfer spots. A wild-card bid seems an even more difficult goal given that he has yet to win in NASCAR's premier series, let alone win multiple races between now and Sept. 8 at Richmond. He also remains unproven at a number of upcoming tracks, having yet to run in Cup at Pocono, Michigan, Kentucky or Indianapolis.
Still, if you're looking for someone who could make a surprising run at the Chase, this first-year Richard Petty Motorsports driver does seem on the verge of a breakthrough. But his early troubles -- he averaged a 22.6 over the first five weeks -- may be too much to overcome.