The NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season passed its midway point at Pocono last week. With 12 races remaining until the Chase for the Cup begins (Sept. 15th at Chicago), here’s a look at how the contenders for this year’s championship are looking as the circuit heads into the summer (in order of championship potential):
AT THE FRONT
JIMMIE JOHNSON (1st, 3 wins): After he blew the field away at Pocono, who can doubt that the points leader will stay near or at the top until the postseason begins, then make a strong charge for his sixth Cup championship?
MATT KENSETH (6th, 3): Perhaps the hottest driver of the first half has cooled lately, with a 15th at Charlotte, a 40th at Dover and a 25th at Pocono. But he loves where he is with his new team at Joe Gibbs Racing, and Kenseth certainly will be heard from again.
CARL EDWARDS (2nd, 1): Yes, he’s second in points, but Edwards recently agreed that he’s had a “quiet” season. His victory at Phoenix seems like a long time ago (it was — the second race of the season) and he admits that if the Chase started today, he wouldn’t like his chances.
DALE EARNHARDT JR. (4th, 0): Ran well at Pocono (finishing third), and the last track he’s won at is Michigan (in 2012), this week’s stop. He’s in a solid spot to make another Chase. Championship contender? Let’s see how these next 12 pan out.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
CLINT BOWYER (3rd, 0): Hasn’t won this season, but he’s been consistent (four top-five finishes). He seldom has the fastest car, leading 114 laps this season (and all but one of them at Richmond).
KYLE BUSCH (7th, 2): One of four drivers with multiple victories. Has yet to prove he can contend once the Chase begins, however.
KEVIN HARVICK (5th, 2): Victories at Richmond and Charlotte show how strong Harvick’s No. 29 Chevy team can be. However, he’s led 34 laps, so he’s not spending a lot time at the front.
BRAD KESELOWSKI (9th, 0): Last season’s champ has had 31 points deducted by penalties and would more safely be in the Chase in the sixth spot otherwise. He still hasn’t won a race.
KASEY KAHNE (eighth, 1): He’s slipped at Dover (23rd) and Pocono (36th) after finishing second at Charlotte.
ON THE BUBBLE
TONY STEWART (13th, 1): What has been a forgettable season got a boost with a victory at Dover and a fourth at Pocono. That’s moved Stewart to 13th and gives him a solid edge for the wildcard spot.
KURT BUSCH (15th, 0): Busch probably has a win in him this season — he’s shown sufficient speed several times to put him in Victory Lane. Whether his one-car Furniture Row Racing team has enough resources to keep him in contention is another matter.
GREG BIFFLE (10th, 0): Moved into the top 10 with his runner-up performance at Pocono (two points out of 11th), but remains in the danger zone until he can win.
JEFF GORDON (11th, 0): Would barely make the Chase as a wild card if it ended today, but he wouldn’t want it to be this close.
PAUL MENARD (12th, 0): Was in the top 10 as recently as last week, but dropped three spots after finishing 30th at Pocono.
DAVID RAGAN (29th, 1): Can the Talladega winner edge his way into the top 20 and become eligible for the wild card? He and Stewart are the only drivers outside the top 10 with a victory.