Up, down and all around at halfway mark
The time is right to point out a few things, good and bad.
Sprint Cup is halfway to the end for 2009, so my midseason awards and zingers have arrived. And there are worthy candidates in both areas.
Interesting stuff, but too much of the news this season has come off the track. Bankrupt auto manufacturers cutting back, forcing teams to lay off employees. And the ongoing Jeremy Mayfield saga: Did he or didn't he use an illegal drug?
Here are some people, places, things and races that stand out after 18 of 36 events:.
Best driver: Tony Stewart.
I could list Stewart a lot of ways: Best New Team Owner, Biggest Surprise, Most Changed Person. But more than anything else, Stewart is one incredibly gifted race car driver.
He leads the standings for an organization that couldn't get out of its own way a year ago. He has Hendrick motors and chassis, but the old Haas Racing had that last year, also.
Worst season: Earnhardt.
A disaster, plain and simple. Endless pit-road mistakes, nine finishes of 25th or worse, a crew-chief change and a season ranking of 21st.
Best attorney: Bill Diehl.
He freed Jeremy Mayfield from his suspension for the moment. Any man who can beat NASCAR in court, even if it's just a temporary injunction, is one hell of a lawyer.
Best new rule: Double-file restarts for lead-lap cars.
The move was a brilliant in-season change by NASCAR to spice things up and improve racing action. Lapped cars now restart behind the leaders, something that should have happened long ago.
Most dangerous finish: The final lap of the Aaron's 499 at Talladega.
Edwards' car became a missile, flying into the catch fence and scattering debris that injured several fans.
Best Ricky Bobby impression: Edwards at Talladega.
He got out of his mangled car and sprinted to the finish line as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Most telling quote: Edwards at Talladega.
"We'll race like this until we kill somebody, then they'll change it."
Most disappointing team: Richard Childress Racing.
If the Chase started today, RCR wouldn't have a driver in the playoff. The organization is winless and Kevin Harvick is suffering through the worst season of his career, ranking 26th with only two top-10 finishes.
Most improved team: Stewart-Haas Racing.
Tony isn't the only one racing well. Teammate Ryan Newman ranks seventh in the standings, so both SHR drivers should make the Chase.
Stewart made all the right moves when taking over the operation, hiring quality crew chiefs in Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson, along with bringing in Bobby Hutchens to run the show.
AARP award: Mark Martin.
Looks like 50 is the new 30 in NASCAR. Martin is racing better than ever after returning to Cup full-time with Hendrick Motorsports.
Most surprising victory drought: Edwards.
He had a series-best nine victories last season, but a big fat zero in the win column so far this year.
Most improved driver: Juan Pablo Montoya.
JPM could make the Chase for the first time in his career. The move to Chevy engines has helped him, but he also is racing better on ovals than he ever has in the past. Montoya is 11th in the standings with eight top-10 finishes.
Worst points flaw: Montoya ranked ahead of Martin.
While JPM deserves praise for his efforts this year, there's something wrong with a system in which he ranks ahead of Martin. Montoya doesn't have a top-5 finish this year. Martin has three victories but is 86 points behind Montoya. The points format still needs more emphasis on winning.
All three are first-time Cup winners. Reutimann and Logano won on fuel strategy in rain-shortened events. Keselowski took a part-time team to Victory Lane by staying in the gas and refusing to allow Edwards to block his path.
Most surprising driver: Marcos Ambrose.
Finally got his chance to race full-time in Cup, and he's making the most of it. Ambrose ranks 18th in the standings with five top-10s. The personable Tasmanian is an accomplished road racer, but he's proving he can get it done on ovals as well.
Worst sideshow: The entire Mayfield mess.
Did NASCAR wrong an innocent man? Is Mayfield getting a free pass after using methamphetamine? No one knows, but NASCAR's new random drug testing policy has been called into question and has some obvious flaws that need to be corrected.
Biggest rumor: Danica Patrick coming to NASCAR.
Will she or won't she? Patrick isn't saying, but the hype machine is rolling full speed and everyone wants to know.
Worst trend: Auto manufacturers pulling back.
Bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler led to reduced financial support for its Cup teams. And business isn't exactly booming for Toyota and Ford. Every Cup team will have to adjust and learn to get by with less from the car companies.
Worst downslide: David Ragan.
He almost made the Chase last year. Now he's 30th in the standings with only one top-10 this season.
Best move: Las Vegas gets the Sprint Cup awards banquet.
New York is out and Sin City is in. Vegas officials will do it up right, embracing the NASCAR crowd better than Manhattan ever did.
Toughest penalty: Carl Long.
NASCAR threw the book at the little guy when Long's engine was .17 of a cubic inch too big. Long got a $200,000 fine and a 12-week suspension that was reduced to eight weeks on an appeal.
Worst celebration: Guitar hero Kyle Busch.
Kyle, you ain't no rock star, so bashing a priceless Gibson guitar in Victory Lane after another bully win in the Nationwide Series is no way to show your gratitude.
Saddest moment: The loss of David Poole.
One of the best and most respected NASCAR journalists passed away at age 50. David was one of a kind and we all miss him.
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. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
MORE RACING HEADLINES
- Victory lap: Gordon to slow down after '15
- Vickers to sit just 2 races after heart surgery
- Mark Martin among Motorsports HOF inductees
- Daytona extends deal with Rolex as sponsor