KYLE BUSCH, 23, is the best by miles. He has won six Cup races and another handful in the Craftsman Truck (two) and Nationwide (four) series. He has won on various types of tracks. The driver of the No. 18 M&M’s car has handled the intermediate tracks, the 1.5-mile ovals, the circuit’s biggest track (Talladega) and a road course. Busch has 11 top-fives, the most in Sprint Cup, and leads the standings by 182 points for Joe Gibbs Racing. “He’s going to think he can win anywhere,” said Jeff Gordon after Busch’s June 22 road-course win at Infineon. “And he might be able to.”
David Ragan. He has five top-10 finishes and is 102 points out of 12th after finishing 23rd last season.
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Ryan Newman. He won the Daytona 500 and has done nothing since, dropping out of the top 12.
Junior jumps. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is reaping the benefits of moving to Hendrick Motorsports. The sport’s most popular driver is second in points, earned his first win in more than two years and is in contention for his first Cup championship. Earnhardt was 12th after 17 races last year and finished outside the Chase.
Hendrick’s struggles. Last season, Hendrick Motorsports won 10 of the first 17 races. Jeff Gordon was leading the points, and teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch were also in the top 10. This season, Hendrick drivers have won two races (Johnson and Earnhardt); Busch has won six for his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing. Gordon is winless, and Mark Martin will replace Casey Mears in the No. 5 car next season.
Terrific Toyota. Toyota had trouble qualifying for races in 2007. With Joe Gibbs Racing and Busch leading the way this year, the manufacturer has two drivers in the top nine and a few others who are having better seasons. It didn’t take long for Toyota to figure things out.
MOST IMPROVED TEAM
Red Bull Racing. Brian Vickers is 16th in points a year after struggling to make races. A.J. Allmendinger has looked better in recent weeks, and developmental driver Scott Speed has won a truck race and an ARCA race.
BEST CREW CHIEF
Kenny Francis. He has figured something out with the Car of Tomorrow after a poor start and has Kasey Kahne up front nearly every week.
Tony Eury Jr. His decision not to have Dale Earnhardt Jr. pit late in the race at Michigan. Earnhardt won on fuel mileage.
TOUGHEST FIRST HALF
Open-wheel transfers. Several former open-wheel drivers have learned it’s not easy to make the transition to Cup. Dario Franchitti, last year’s Indy 500 winner, struggled, and his team was shut down last week because it lacked sponsors. Former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve did not qualify for the Daytona 500, and the team was disbanded. In his second season, Juan Pablo Montoya is 20th in points, and his lone highlight (or lowlight) was spinning out Kyle Busch under caution at New Hampshire. Sam Hornish Jr. (33rd and no top-10s this year) and Patrick Carpentier (38th) also have had difficult times.
BEST ONGOING INTRIGUE
Off the track hijinks
ONE LAWSUIT AND ONE DRUG SCANDAL: NASCAR has dealt with off-track troubles. Former truck series driver Aaron Fike admitted he had driven in races after injecting himself with heroin. And the sanctioning body is facing charges of racial discrimination and sexual harassment from a former Nationwide Series official.
THE CAR OF TOMORROW: The car is racing at 1.5-mile ovals for the first time but has not generated much excitement. With little passing up front, pit crews and crew chiefs are under more pressure to make the right calls on fuel strategy to gain track position.
ESCALATING PENALTIES: NASCAR handed out its biggest penalty ever, docking Haas CNC Racing drivers Scott Riggs and Johnny Sauter 150 points each for rear-wing issues. The crew chiefs and car chiefs were fined $100,000 each.
BEST PARLOR GAME
What will happen to Tony Stewart next? First the Joe Gibbs Racing driver puts his future services up for bid, but no one really knows what it will take to sign him to a contract. Of course, the uncertainty over which team he will wind up with next season provides a needed distraction from one of the weirdest strings of bad luck that any driver has endured in years, including an illness that forced him to give way to a relief driver Saturday in Daytona. Will either factor keep him from making the Chase?
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE ...
The Points Standings. Many of the same names that were in the top 12 of the standings at the halfway point last season are there again this year:
1. Kyle Busch 2,686 —
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,504 (182)
3. Jeff Burton 2,484 (202)
4. Carl Edwards 2,437 (249)
5. Jimmie Johnson 2,319 (367)
6. Jeff Gordon 2,249 (437)
7. Denny Hamlin 2,240 (446)
8. Kasey Kahne 2,177 (509)
9. Matt Kenseth 2,166 (520)
10. Clint Bowyer 2,159 (527)
11. Greg Biffle 2,153 (533)
12. Tony Stewart 2,145 (541)
13. Kevin Harvick 2,143 (543)
14. Martin Truex Jr. 2,057 (629)
15. David Ragan 2,043 (643)
16. Brian Vickers 2,033 (653)
17. Ryan Newman 1,960 (726)
18. Kurt Busch 1,954 (732)
19. Bobby Labonte 1,829 (857)
20. Travis Kvapil 1,801 (885)
CUP CHAMPION: Kyle Busch. No big shock.
TRUCK CHAMPION: Ron Hornaday. Only because Busch isn’t competing in enough races.
NATIONWIDE CHAMPION: Clint Bowyer. See above.
SURPRISE: Martin Truex Jr. rebounds from a tough start to make the Chase.
HEADLINE: More teams shut down. Dario Franchitti’s is just the first.