Commentary

Topsy-turvy standings just temporary

Updated: March 1, 2009, 3:01 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Michael Waltrip, Elliott Sadler, David Reutimann, A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya and Reed Sorenson all rank in the top 15 in the Sprint Cup standings.

Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all rank 27th or worse. Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson are holding down the middle, ranked 18th and 19th, respectively.

Most people would list this as the dictionary version of a fluke. If you expect it to continue, we have an ocean-front condo to sell you in Nebraska.

Or is this topsy-turvy NASCAR world truly a vision of things to come?

Logic would tell us that some of the bottom dwellers will move up, and a few of the guys near the top will fall back in the coming weeks.

All you Earnhardt fans have some fears right now, no doubt, with Junior ranked 35th in the standings entering the Shelby 427 Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson, and Juan Pablo Montoya
AP Photo/John RaouxWho would have thought that Juan Pablo Montoya, right, would be leading Jimmie Johnson in the Cup standings after two races?

And the fans of Michael Waltrip Racing, along with the newly merged teams of Richard Petty Motorsports and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, must have hope that things finally are looking up.

So what are the chances the stars stay down and the little guys stay up?

Let's examine. Earnhardt's spot comes from a typical restrictor-plate track wreck (granted, of his own doing) and an engine failure at California when he probably was headed for a top-10 finish.

"We've had some great cars, but the results haven't reflected that," Earnhardt said. "I'm looking forward to these next couple of weeks and seeing how what we did over the offseason is paying off. I've had a lot of support from my teammates and all that stuff. Everybody has a job to do."

Odds are Earnhardt will move up quickly. The same is true for Martin, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate. He also had a rare Hendrick engine failure this past weekend thanks to a bad batch of parts.

Martin did a tire test in Las Vegas in December, which should help the No. 5 Chevy team in its preparations this weekend.

"We found different ideas we want to work on than what we used in the test," Martin said. "But it will give us a good starting point when we unload."

Burton's No. 31 Chevy team needs to unload and get to the front this weekend. He has been one of the most consistent drivers in Cup the past three seasons. That consistency should move him up the standings soon, but three of the four Richard Childress Racing cars have underperformed so far.

Ironically, only the new No. 33 RCR team of Clint Bowyer took over ranks in the top 15 after two events. LVMS isn't one of RCR's best tracks. It's one of only four speedways where the organization hasn't won a race.

Michael Waltrip Racing hasn't won anywhere, but it is one of the big surprises in Cup right now.

Waltrip is seventh in the standings, and Reutimann ranks 12th. In Reutimann's case, it isn't a huge shock because he was showing signs of improvement late last season, posting three top-10s in the last 12 races.

History tells us Waltrip's chances of continuing to hold down a top-10 spot aren't good. In his previous 23 seasons, Waltrip never has shown the ability to race consistently well anywhere besides the restrictor-plate events at Daytona and Talladega.

But Waltrip was 15th last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, a track where he couldn't crack the top 25 in two races last season.

"By Lap 10 I had passed more cars than I did total in 2007 and 2008 [at ACS]," Waltrip said. "I'm pretty proud of that."

We've had some great cars, but the results haven't reflected that. I'm looking forward to these next couple of weeks and seeing how what we did over the offseason is paying off.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Waltrip has a new ace in the hole who could account for MWR's improvement -- Steve Hallam. He left his spot as head of operations for the McLaren Formula One team to become director of operations at MWR this season.

Hallam doesn't know a lot about NASCAR, but few people are better at building a race team and developing a model for success.

That brings us to the Petty boys. Who would have thought going in that Kasey Kahne (ranked 23rd) would be the only one of the four to rank lower than 14th after two races?

Sadler, who had to hire an attorney to keep his job, ranks 11th in the standings in the No. 19 Dodge. Allmendinger, who was slated to replace Sadler, is 13th in the fourth Petty entry. And Sorenson is trying to bring respectability back to the famous No. 43, ranking 14th after two outings.

Sadler finished among the top 10 only once in 10 previous Cup seasons, but he has a renewed vigor to prove his worth after almost losing his job. He led late in the Daytona 500 before finishing fifth.

"To be honest, I wish we were a little bit further up in the standings," Sadler said. "It's nice to be in the top 12 after two races, but it would be a lot nicer to be first, second or third. We had a good night at Daytona, but we kind of let one slip away there that we should have been able to capture.

"California [a 25th-place showing] was a little more difficult. We attempted some things that we thought might give us a slight advantage, but it kind of backfired on us. Now we know that some of that stuff doesn't work as well as we were hoping, and we have to go back to what we know."

Allmendinger is trying to show enough in the first five races for a sponsor to come on board and allow him to run the full season. If he ranks in the top 10 after Martinsville, RPM has to find a way to keep the No. 44 car operating.

Sorenson didn't crack the top 20 in his first three Cup seasons while racing for Chip Ganassi, but he still is only 23 years old. Maybe things are starting to click. The same could be said for Montoya, who is thrilled to have a Chevy engine for the first time. He finished 11th at ACS and is outracing EGR teammate Martin Truex Jr.

"We're heading to Vegas with this momentum, which is great," Montoya said. "We're racing clean, and our pit stops were solid all day long [At ACS]."

And what about the championship contenders -- Johnson and Busch?

Well, Busch was only two spots away from a historic triple-win weekend at Cali, finishing third in the Cup race after winning the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events one day earlier. And he was the man to beat at Daytona before falling victim to the Earnhardt/Brian Vickers wreck.

As for Johnson, the man has won three consecutive championships. He's not going to finish 19th in the standings. He also won three consecutive times at Vegas from 2005 through 2007.

He'll be fine, and someone will have to give up his top-10 spot soon when he makes his move. Odds are Earnhardt, Martin and Burton will do the same.

Nevertheless, the first two races have given hope to the little guys. Hey, Tampa Bay made it to the World Series last year. Anything's possible.

But keep an eye out for a few of the big names in low places. They're coming for you.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ALSO SEE

MORE RACING HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM