Sprint Cup Mid-Year Review
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on July 16, 2014 | 12:17 P.M. EST
Through the first half of 2014, Kevin Harvick has been consistently fast in his debut season at Stewart-Haas Racing with two wins and three poles. (Photo: Getty Images)
The NASCAR season is halfway done and here’s a look at some of the top story lines so far during the 2014 Sprint Cup Series.
Flexing Their Muscles
Several teams and drivers have been strong over the course of the opening 19 races this season with Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick all scoring multiple victories.
Keselowski and Team Penske teammate Logano have combined for five wins. After missing the Chase last year, Keselowski has returned to championship form. His last two wins, at Kentucky and New Hampshire, have come in dominating fashion. Logano has been a solid contender on a nearly weekly basis and with Keselowski, he helps form a very potent one-two punch for Roger Penske’s team.
Johnson has suffered from poor finishes the last two weeks but after a slow start to the year - by his standards - the six-time champion quickly became a repeat visitor to Victory Lane. Hendrick Motorsports running mate Earnhardt opened the year with a bang, winning the Daytona 500, and added a second win to his total at Pocono. Gordon, who leads the Sprint Cup standings heading into the final off-weekend of the year, scored a win at Kansas Speedway in May.
Harvick’s pair of wins could easily be doubled if not for bad luck, mechanical issues and some pit strategy not working out. The first-year Stewart-Haas Racing driver and new crew chief Rodney Childers have clicked, and Harvick has rarely shown up at a race weekend without one of the fastest cars in the field.
Edwards has been the bright spot for Roush Fenway Racing, which continues to lag behind its Ford counterpart at Penske. After posting a win at Bristol back in March, Edwards added his first career road-course triumph at Sonoma in June.
Thrill of Victory
The season’s other winners include an eclectic group of drivers from several different organizations.
Kurt Busch pulled off a thrilling Martinsville win for SHR before heading into a string of frustrating outings for the new No. 41 team. After competing in both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend, Busch and the team have made some steady improvement in recent weeks.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have put marks in the win column this year despite not running as consistently as expected. And the feel-good story of the summer so far has been the iconic No. 43 rolling into Victory lane at Daytona International Speedway two weeks ago when Aric Almirola scored his first career Sprint Cup win.
Maybe even a bigger story than the winners list are the names that have been shut out of Victory Lane so far this season. Matt Kenseth, who enjoyed seven wins last year, is still seeking his first checkered flag of 2014. Although the JGR driver sits fourth in the point standings and would make the Chase field of 16 at this juncture, Kenseth remains one of the surprising developments of the campaign.
Kasey Kahne is the only Hendrick driver without a win and has endured a frustrating season so far, with only a pair of top-five performances. Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer and teammate Brian Vickers - a winner last year - have yet to triumph this season. Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle are among other drivers accustomed to winning that have not yet this year.
The year started with a string of compelling races and different winners, kicked off by Earnhardt's thrilling Daytona 500 victory. For the next two months, each week featured entertaining and compelling races that saw a string of new faces in Victory Lane.
NASCAR’s new Chase format, which puts more emphasis on winning, was part of the formula. But so were other ingredients like tire wear, rough race tracks, caution flags and even impending weather conditions.
Things have leveled off in recent weeks thanks in no small part to dominating performances by the likes of Keselowski and Johnson, and with 11 winners after 19 races it’s a long shot at best for every one of the 16 available Chase spots to be filled by race winners. But with five more berths for the playoffs on the line, it will be an interesting seven weeks in the race to the Chase.