Halfway home and 10 more to the Chase

Published 2:27 pm Sunday, July 5, 2015

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup season (alas, it’s last with this title sponsor) is at the midway mark and it’s time to re-evaluate some of the observations I made earlier in the year when there was still frost on the brown grass and the smell of burning rubber was still fresh.

Jimmie Johnson has won four races; that’s probably the surprise, or maybe not, of the first four-and-a-half months.  With his Chad Knaus-led 48-team, ol’ JJ has strung together wins at Atlanta, Texas, Kansas, and Dover; all this for a team that entered 2015 with a lot of question marks.  He now is fourth in the standings and has 74 career wins (and I was surprised to learn that total is only two shy of the career wins record of the late, great Dale Earnhardt).

I predicted this would be a rebound year for Tony Stewart now that a lot of the distractions were in his rearview mirror.  More on that in a bit, first I want to hit some of the surprises:

Martin Truex, Jr. has supplanted ‘Smoke’ Stewart for “Comeback of the Year”.  The New Jersey native and Furniture Row racer has led the most laps is four of the last five Cup races, placing him third on the list so far this season and second in points.  Not bad for a driver some said last winter would be scrambling to find a ride by this time this season.  He grabbed a win a Pocono, and the only driver hotter is…….

….Kevin Harvick.  Yes, the defending champ is racing like one; what I term as “Earnhardt-esque” (not Junior, the ‘Big Guy’!).  Number-3 used to always say: run to win, but make sure you finish.  Harvick has certainly done that: finishing in the top-10 in all but two races this season so far (Bristol and Michigan).  That’s domination. He’s also the only driver who has led more laps than Truex (1,225). That’s domination.  Harvick’s Stewart-Haas team won Vegas and Phoenix back-to-back and has second-place finishes at Daytona, Atlanta, Fontana, Texas, Richmond, Kansas, Dover, and Pocono. That’s domination. With Rodney Childers as his crew chief (they both came to Stewart-Haas Racing together last year, they worked out their pit road problems from early spring and now look on track for a championship repeat.  He’s first in points and the      championship could come down to Harvick and Johnson, but we’ve still got a lot of racing left in the season with 10 to go until the Chase.

Speaking of the Chase, making that final grouping would certainly cement a comeback for Kyle Busch after his injury-plagued start; but I can’t talk about one Busch without the other. Kurt Busch (another Stewart-Haas driver) missed the first three races of the season with off-track problems that might have broken a weaker soul.  Instead, Kurt stayed focused, is second in laps led (665), took a checkered flag at Richmond, and finished in the top-15 in a dozen starts.  As for little brother, “Rowdy”, aka, Kyle, the Daytona Xfinity crash caused him to miss 11 races; he underwent surgery that sidelined him all the way to Charlotte.  But along the way he became a first-time father, and in May received a waiver that could get him into the chase if he wins a race and cracks the top 30 in the driver points’ standings. He accomplished the first part at Sonoma last Sunday (making history with brother, Kurt, as the first brothers racing duo to finish 1-2 – and I thought it was the Allisons!).  Now he has to knock the driver currently in 30th place out of that spot.

Which brings me back to Tony Stewart – not 30th, but close to it in 26th – as he tries to get his career back on track, so to speak.  A non-winner since Dover in 2013, he’s endured a broken leg, a death in a sprint-car race and changes in the shop.  Still, he may not make this a comeback year, but with a stable of Harvick, Busch, and Danica Patrick (my other prediction, which I’ll discuss at a later date!), Stewart’s in pretty good company.  I mean, he’s their boss.

Well, the second half starts Sunday.  Will we see a surprise winner like Almirola last year?  Don’t know, can’t wait.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer with Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.