- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Now there are four things I didn't see coming. And to be honest, neither did you.
With the first quarter of the NASCAR season in the books, here's my list of things I had to see to believe:
• Junior is the real deal again -- I've always said Earnhardt is better than what he had shown the past two seasons. I expected improvement this year. But third after eight races? No, I didn't expect that.
Pairing Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte was exactly what Earnhardt needed. The two have clicked and found that rare chemistry that makes two competitors better together than they would be with someone else.
This is no fluke. Junior is back, racing the way he did seven or eight years ago. He hasn't won yet, but he will soon. The one thing he needed more than anything else has returned -- his confidence.
• Pairs racing means anything can happen at Daytona and Talladega -- It was clear going into this season that drivers would pair up at times in the restrictor-plate events, but not two-by-two throughout the entire field for the entire race, something unheard of in NASCAR history.
Plate races always have been unpredictable, but they are downright unimaginable now. Some people like it and some hate it, but almost every driver in the field has a chance to win.
A 20-year-old All-American boy became a star at Daytona when Bayne won the big one for one of NASCAR's most storied teams in the Wood Brothers.
So pair up all you want, guys, as long as these are the results.
• Menard is better than just OK -- Paul has gotten a bad rap for being the rich guy's son. He's not a bad racer, but I didn't foresee him as a Chase contender eight races into the 2011 season.
Menard has finished 17th or better in seven of eight races and 12th or better in five of those events. Moving to Richard Childress Racing, and bringing crew chief Slugger Labbe with him, has given Menard the stability he needs to hang in there with the big boys.
He's 11th in the standings and would make the Chase if it started today.
• Burton is hurtin' -- Since 1996, Burton never has finished lower than 18th in the standings. He made the Chase four of the past five seasons. But he's struggling this year while his three RCR teammates all rank in the top 11.
Burton has finished 20th or worse in five of eight starts, but there is good news: He signed a new multiyear contract with Childress earlier this week, which included Caterpillar reupping as the sponsor on the No. 31 Chevy.
And he still has 18 races to move up before the Chase starts.
• McMurray needs his "Jamie Rule" -- If the new wild-card rule had been in place last year, McMurray would have made the Chase based on his wins in the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.
This year, the final two Chase spots are determined by victories instead of points. Some have labeled it the "Jamie Rule" since the man who won two of the biggest events in NASCAR last season didn't make the playoff.
McMurray's going to need that rule if he hopes to make the Chase this year. He's 23rd in the standings with only one top-10 finish and no victories. Two wins might be enough to get in, but he still has to finish the regular season ranked in the top 20.
Juan Pablo Montoya, McMurray's Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, may make the Chase without the wild-card help. Montoya ranks ninth with four top-10s.
• The new "pick a series" rule is a failure -- I thought the Cup stars would back off on the Nationwide bully act with NASCAR's new rule of declaring one series to race for the championship.
No such luck. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have entered all seven Nationwide races so far. Busch has won four of those and Edwards has won one. Mark Martin and Tony Stewart also have a Nationwide win, but at least they don't compete every week.
Busch and Edwards are entered in the stand-alone race this weekend at Nashville. So is Brad Keselowski, the other Cup regular who has run every Nationwide event. Six full-time Cup drivers are competing in the Nashville event.
Even an off week for Cup on Easter weekend can't keep them from trying to master the minors. It's like watching sharks in a tankful of bleeding minnows.
The Nationwide Series will have a Nationwide regular as its champ this year, but the Nationwide guys still have little chance of gaining recognition and attention with Kyle or Carl winning every week.
• Wallace snubbed by Hall of Fame voters -- The nominating committee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame didn't place Rusty Wallace among the new 25 nominees for the prestigious establishment, which means they don't rank him in the top 35 since 10 people already have been inducted.
Wallace won 55 Cup events and is one of only 12 drivers in NASCAR history to win more than 50 races at the sport's highest level. He also won the 1989 championship.
The nominees include 12 drivers with fewer Cup victories than Wallace and six who didn't win a Cup title.
I realize that Hall of Fame consideration isn't just about winning races, but Wallace also has been a great ambassador for the sport and should have made this list.
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 email@example.com.