Dale Earnhardt Jr. among Cup surprises

8/27/2010 - NASCAR

What surprises of the 2010 NASCAR season stand out for you?

For me, it's three men in different places for much different reasons -- Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Two-thirds of the season is in the books. Two races remain before the Chase. Is this what you expected to see?

Did you expect Harvick, a man who missed the Chase last year, to lead the standings in late August? Did you expect Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon all to be winless?

Did you expect McMurray to have a dream comeback and win the two biggest races of the season? Did you expect Jack Roush to survive another plane crash?

Did you expect Earnhardt to endure another season where more things went wrong than right while reaching an emotional low point? Did you expect to see Kyle Busch finally win the "triple" with a three-race sweep at one track in the same week?

If you're honest, I assume most of you would answer "no" to most, if not all, of those questions.

The 2010 season has the surprise element covered. It's easy to look back now and say about a dozen times, "I didn't see that coming." No one did.

Some of the best experts, or psychics if you believe in that sort of thing, would have swung and missed trying to predict this stuff.

This weekend is the last chance for the Sprint Cup teams to catch their breath, the final off week before 12 consecutive races to the end of the 2010 championship battle.

Considering what we've seen already, one could safely assume more surprises are coming.

But I doubt any 2010 moments ahead can catch my attention more than Harvick, McMurray and Earnhardt already have. It's not so much because of the on-track results but because of where these three individuals have gone on their personal journey. Look closer:



• Harvick on top: At the end of 2009, "Happy" Harvick was not happy. He finished 19th in the standings for a Richard Childress Racing organization that failed to place a driver in the Chase.

Childress and Harvick weren't on good terms, and it seemed almost certain Harvick would leave RCR when his contract expired at the end of 2010.

But there were signs at the end of 2009 that things were turning around at RCR. Harvick had six top-10s in the last 11 races, including a third-place showing in the season finale at Homestead.

Even so, leading the standings in 2010 with three victories was a stretch for anyone to foresee. And now he has a new contract with RCR and a new sponsor next season with Budweiser. Life is good.

"We all know where we were a year ago at this point," Harvick said at Bristol this past weekend. "Obviously, we've run well, and we feel like we can contend for a championship. Contending and winning are two different things, but I think we've shown we can win races and run good."

• McMurray winning the big ones: Jamie was NASCAR's version of homeless at the end of 2009. But with Chip Ganassi's help, he proved you can go home again -- and make it better than ever.

McMurray was the odd man out at Roush Fenway Racing when the operation had to cut back to four cars. He had left Ganassi's team four years earlier hoping for bigger and better things with Jack Roush, but it never panned out.

McMurray was on the verge of being out of Cup racing entirely when Ganassi offered him a one-year deal for one last chance by joining Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

McMurray made the most of it and then some. He won the Daytona 500 to start the year, an emotional victory for a man who knew he was lucky to have a job. And he won the Brickyard 400 last month.

McMurray probably will miss the Chase by a spot or two, but he isn't complaining. No one this year has made a bigger jump in his career than Jamie has.

"I'd rather win a race in a year than make the Chase and not have won," McMurray said last week in Hampton, Va. "Even the guy who finishes second [in the Chase], people don't remember that. People remember guys who win races."

And they will remember McMurray this year.

• Earnhardt Jr. and another season in purgatory: OK, I know some of you will say you would have predicted this based on his dismal 2009 performance. But really? This bad again?

Earnhardt will end 2010 with improved stats over 2009, when he finished 25th with only five top-10s. He also has experienced one golden moment this year when he won the July Nationwide race at Daytona in a No. 3 Chevy.

But the bad has far outweighed the good. A few bright spots aren't enough for anyone to consider 2010 a success. He's 18th in the Cup standings with only six top-10s and hasn't won since June 2008.

Something is happening here beyond cars and crew chiefs. It's more than just not winning races. As stated above, a lot of good drivers aren't winning races. But Earnhardt is losing in anger and frustration and despair.

He has lost heart. He has stopped believing. He has lost his confidence and his composure.

Earnhardt has 18 Cup victories. That's more than Curtis Turner, LeeRoy Yarbrough and Sterling Marlin, to name a few respected drivers from the past.

No one wins 18 Cup races on luck. But it's a rare day now when Earnhardt has a chance of winning. And it's becoming increasingly obvious that he doesn't fit in with the corporate image and button-down approach at Hendrick Motorsports.

But Earnhardt has two years left on a contract that's worth about $25 million a season in sponsorship money. He's trapped, even if he wanted to leave, and he says he doesn't.

So Earnhardt has to try to find a way to work through it with crew chief Lance McGrew. And for the Junior Nation fans hoping for another crew chief change, get ready for a disappointment. People close to the No. 88 team say that isn't part of the plan for the rest of this season, and probably not for next season.

The only man who can save Earnhardt is Earnhardt. He has to climb out of the emotional abyss and become who he was before the gloom took over.

Maybe he will surprise us in a good way. It happens. Ask Harvick and McMurray.

Harvick on top, McMurray the big-events star and Junior still a falling star. In a season full of surprises, those three drivers have taken a path few people could have predicted. And good or bad, all three guys kept fans talking and wondering exactly how it happened.

Terry Blount is a senior writer 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 terry@blountspeak.com.