Early Season Surprises

NASCAR

Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, winner of seven races in 2013, have yet to take a checkered flag in 2014. (Photo: Getty Images)

There have been a number of unexpected happenings – both good and bad – in the opening races of the NASCAR season.

Stewart-Haas Racing Making Noise
There weren’t many people that predicted Stewart-Haas Racing would get off to the fastest start of any Sprint Cup Series organization by winning three of the season’s first eight races. But after Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag in week two at Phoenix, Kurt Busch followed with a trip to Victory Lane later that month in Martinsville. Harvick’s triumph in the last race at Darlington Raceway made him the first repeat winner in the series and with Tony Stewart’s improvement of late things are certainly pointing in the right direction. There is the matter of Harvick’s four finishes of 36th or worst, Busch exiting the last two races with late problems and Danica Patrick’s so far mediocre sophomore season. But overall SHR has quieted a lot of doubters with solid performances.

Big Names Remain Winless
It’s hard to believe the two drivers that combined to win 13 races a year ago have so far been shutout in 2014. But defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and seven-race winner Matt Kenseth have yet to take a checkered flag. Kenseth is second in the point standings and Johnson does have five top-10 finishes. However, by this time last season the duo had already started to rack up the wins. Toss in the likes of Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon and some of NASCAR’s superstars are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to break through.

Earnhardt Jr. Riding High
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a great end of 2013 after blowing an engine in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. He didn’t skip a beat when the bell rang for 2014 by starting the season with a bang and a Daytona 500 win. Junior hasn’t slowed down since. He’s finished in the top two four times already and has six top-10 performances. While he’s experienced a couple of letdowns, including an early crash at Texas, Earnhardt Jr. has the look of a driver very much in the hunt for a first career Sprint Cup title.

Stumbling Starts
The Easter weekend break couldn’t come at a better time for several drivers that have surprisingly started the year on a bad note. Kasey Kahne has tumbled to 23rd in the point standings thanks to three finishes outside the top 30. Martin Truex Jr. began the year on a high note with an outside front row qualifying effort for the Daytona 500. But it’s been one frustrating week after another for the Furniture Row Racing team and Truex Jr. dropped to 28th in the standings without a single top 10 to his credit. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s sophomore season so far hasn’t been much better than last year’s rookie run and the Roush Fenway Racing driver finds himself 25th in the points.

Youth Being Served
There was no doubting the potential talent of young drivers Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. But the youthful duo have already become breakout stars of the sport. Elliott has captured the attention and imagination of NASCAR fans by putting together consecutive Nationwide Series victories at Texas Motor Speedway and Darlington. The second generation driver has beaten a host of Sprint Cup regulars at their own game in both trips to Victory Lane. Larson, who is doing double duty in both the majority of Nationwide races for Turner Scott Motorsports while campaigning a full schedule for Chip Ganassi’s Sprint Cup program, has been impressive in both divisions. Larson captured his first Nationwide win at Auto Club Speedway outdueling the likes of Kyle Busch, Harvick and Earnhardt Jr., and has also knocked down four top-10 finishes in the Cup Series Target Chevrolet. That’s already half the number Juan Pablo Montoya had in all of 2013.

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