April 6, 2012
By Rebecca Gladden
It’s an off-week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, six races into the 36-race season. Given a moment to catch our collective breath, let’s look at six surprising driver standings at this early-season benchmark:
Greg Biffle: Current rank: 1st / Last year after six races: 20th
Greg Biffle is often described as one of the sport’s true wheel men, but 2011 was not a good season for the Washington native. Biffle went winless last year and failed to make the Chase for the first time in four years, finishing the season 16th in points. Though he hasn’t won a race yet in 2012, the Biff came out of the chute strong, finishing 3rd in the first three races of the year with a cumulative average finish in six races of 6.8, placing him first in points. Biffle’s three top-five finishes in the first six races are equal to the sum total of his top-fives in all of 2011. It has long been Biffle’s stated goal to be the first driver to win championships in all three of NASCAR’s top series, having won the Truck title in 2000 and Nationwide (Busch) in 2002. He’s off to a great start, but will need to find a way to get the No. 16 Ford into victory lane sooner rather than later.
Kyle Busch: Current rank: 16th / Last year after six races: 1st
By this time last year, Kyle Busch had already won a race (Bristol), finished 2nd at Phoenix, and 3rd at both Fontana and Martinsville, giving him the early points lead. Though he made the Chase in 2011, he struggled through most of it, ending the season with four consecutive poor finishes and sitting out Texas due to a NASCAR suspension. That trend seems to have followed Busch into 2012, where he’s had just one top-five in six races (2nd at Fontana) and two finishes of 30th or worse. He’s also led just 132 laps this season, compared to 481 at this point last year. Currently 16th in points, Busch is the lowest-ranked Joe Gibbs Racing driver, with Denny Hamlin 7th and Joey Logano 13th. It’s still early in the season, however, and Busch is certainly a driver capable of hitting a hot streak.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Current rank: 2nd / Last year after six races: 8th
No current driver’s winless streak has been more ballyhooed than Earnhardt Jr.’s, now 130-plus Cup races in duration. But, so far, Earnhardt Jr. has been one of the pleasant surprises of 2012. Like Biffle, Jr. has been making his mark with consistency, finishing 15th or better in all six races, including a 2nd and two 3rd-places runs. Earnhardt Jr. led more laps in one race this year - 70 at Las Vegas - than his entire 52 laps-led total in 2011. He’s currently the highest-ranked Hendrick Motorsports driver and, given who his teammates are, that’s an achievement in and of itself. Will this be the year than Earnhardt Jr. finally breaks the winless streak? Could be.
Carl Edwards: Current rank: 11th / Last year after six races: 2nd
Edwards finished the 2011 season as close as a driver can get to winning a championship without actually doing so: in a tie for first in points with Tony Stewart. In this case, the tie went to the driver with the most wins (Stewart), leaving Edwards with a heartbreaking second-place ranking. When I spoke to Edwards before the start of the 2012 season, he was very optimistic about picking up where he’d left off, stating, “For the last year, our team has been spectacular and, if we can continue that, we're going to be good.” But Edwards has been inconsistent in the first six races, finishing no higher than 5th (Vegas and Fontana), and as low as 39th at Bristol, where he was caught up in an early crash. Following the Easter weekend, the Cup series heads to Texas - where Edwards leads all drivers with three wins - for what can only be considered a bellwether race for No. 99 team.
Jeff Gordon: Current rank: 21st / Last year after six races: 12th
Jeff Gordon has 85 wins in the Cup Series, placing him 3rd on the all-time career wins list, but only four of those wins have come in the last four seasons. After a winless 2010, he had a solid year in 2011, scoring three wins and closing out the season 8th in points. Still, Gordon has to be frustrated with the way his year has started in 2012. Following a blown engine in the Daytona 500, he’s managed only one top-10 finish in the subsequent five races, an 8th in Phoenix. The most crushing blow to date came last weekend at Martinsville where he dominated the day, leading 328 laps and battling teammate Jimmie Johnson for the win, before being caught up in a crash during a green-white-checkered finish and then running out of gas. “It can't go on like this forever,” said a hapless Gordon after the race. If he hopes to contend for the highly sought-after fifth championship, he will need to start climbing out of this right after the Easter break.
Kasey Kahne: Current rank: 31st / Last year after six races: 15th
Perhaps no other driver entered the 2012 season with higher expectations than Kasey Kahne. His Cup career hit a highpoint back in 2006, when he led all drivers with six wins on the year driving for Ray Evernham. But Kasey has had more than his share of struggles since then, including driving for three different teams in three years - Richard Petty Motorsports in 2010, Red Bull Racing in 2011, and, now, Hendrick Motorsports. As was the case when Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the move to HMS in 2008, fans and pundits alike predicted that Kahne would be good from the get-go at the organization that consistently produces winners and champions. Few could have forecast the dismal season he’s had so far: despite having enough speed in his cars to score two poles in six races, he has an average finish of 28.5 with two DNFs. The only good news for Kahne and his fans is, perhaps, taking comfort in the adage that there’s no place to go but up.
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