Power trio looking too strong
A long six months remain until the 2011 Sprint Cup champion is crowned, but something will have to change to convince me anyone other than Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch is going to win this title.
Edwards is a clear favorite after 11 races, contending almost every week at every type of track. He has one victory and nine top-10s, but he easily could have won each of the past two weeks if not for pit strategy going against him at the end of the race.
Edwards and the No. 99 Ford team are better than everyone else at the moment. His 24-point advantage over Johnson is larger than it seems when you realize each point is worth one position on the track.
Johnson and Busch, who is 37 points behind Edwards, are the only racers within the number of points a driver can make up in one event.
But Johnson is close enough for Edwards to realize that the five-time champion isn't going to give up his crown easily. Edwards still will need to prove he can outrace Johnson in the Chase, something no one has done since Tony Stewart in 2005.
Obviously, a lot can change in the summer months, and things will change for a few drivers. But it seems like a foolish bet and a bit of a long shot to pick anyone other than the top three right now.
Edwards is the most consistent, thanks to Roush Fenway Racing finding its groove again and the new Ford engine outperforming the competition.
But Johnson's still the champ and the playoff master. The No. 48 Chevy team is running well enough to show that Johnson & Co. could make it six in a row.
And don't count out Busch. His talent alone makes him a contender as long as he has the equipment to run up front and the patience to stay away from sideshow confrontations, focusing on the job at hand.
The one thing that could derail Edwards or Busch is running almost every Nationwide race. Give it a rest, guys. Concentrate on the top priority of a Cup title.
That aside, these three guys know they can win the championship this season. Other drivers and teams believe they can, but I don't, not until they prove it to me.
So, who are the contenders who need to prove it? Here's my list:
Clint Bowyer: Maybe things would have turned out differently for Bowyer in the 2010 Chase had NASCAR not used an electron microscope (or something like that) to find a minuscule body alignment infraction after his win at New Hampshire.
It docked him 150 points, though, and his team never recovered, but he's racing now as if he has something to prove. Bowyer has finished in the top 10 in six of the past seven races, including runner-up showings at Texas and Talladega.
He got off to a terrible start this year, but no one has raced more consistently in the past seven events than Bowyer and crew chief Shane Wilson. The only hiccup was the late-race crash at Darlington when Bowyer got caught up in the on-track bumping between Busch and Kevin Harvick.
"We're really working well together," Bowyer said after his sixth-place finish at Dover. "We're getting a little bit of confidence. Shane is getting a little bit of confidence in himself. I'm getting some more confidence in myself. We're just making better decisions."
I still don't see him outrunning the big three for the title, but Bowyer has shown more potential to do it than anyone else.
Matt Kenseth: He has won twice, once when he dominated the race at Texas and once this past Sunday, when he admits he got lucky on a two-tire call at the end when Edwards and Johnson took four.
This is the most competitive we've been since this car was introduced. The whole organization has been building better, faster race cars.” -- Matt Kenseth
Kenseth's advantage is his consistency and his ability to get the most out of his equipment, turning a 10th-place car into a fifth-place finish.
"This is the most competitive we've been since this car was introduced [in 2007]," Kenseth said after winning at Dover. "The whole [Roush] organization has been building better, faster race cars.
"I feel pretty good about it now because, even some of the bad finishes we had, we still perform much better than we have in the past. We perform better at more places than we have. It really feels for sure like we're on the right track."
Kevin Harvick: He was the most consistent racer last season and has two victories this year, but Harvick needs to show that his team can run up front consistently on the 1.5-mile ovals in 2011.
Richard Childress Racing remains one the top teams, and Harvick wins the award for toughness on pit road. But is he tough enough when the Chase begins?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He has the most points outside the top three, but does anyone seriously believe Junior is a title contender?
He is the most improved driver this season by running near the front more often than he has in years, thanks to his growing relationship with new crew chief Steve Letarte and the No. 88 Chevy crew.
"We're keeping the communication going," Earnhardt said at Dover. "I have been spending a ton more time around the hauler. When somebody has an idea, I want to be a part of that discussion."
It's working, but Earnhardt isn't quite there yet. He has only two top-5s and hasn't shown that he can consistently challenge the best of the best.
Jeff Gordon: Things looked great when Gordon won at Phoenix in the second race of the season, but now he looks like one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
Gordon has one top-10 in the past five races and finished 14th or worse in six of the past nine races. Pairing Gordon with crew chief Alan Gustafson hasn't worked as well as I expected.
Gordon is 14th in the standings, but he would make the Chase at this point based on his one victory.
"I think we have a lot of work to do," Gordon said at Dover. "To me, if we get in [the Chase] right now because of one win, we're not going to be a contender in the Chase. We've got to step up."
Denny Hamlin: He went to the last race of 2010 on top of the standings, but Hamlin hasn't come close to that spot this year.
On the positive side, he has moved up seven spots in the standings (20th to 13th) in the past four races, but he finished 23rd and 16th in two of those events. Hamlin tends to run his best in the summer months, so we should find out soon whether he can return to his 2010 form.
Tony Stewart: He would be the first to tell you he's not racing at a championship level despite ranking 10th in the standings. Stewart and Kurt Busch are the only drivers in the top 10 with only one top-5 finish in the first 11 races.
Ryan Newman: He has outraced boss Stewart, but Newman is fading fast. He has finished 14th or worse in five of the past six races.
The contenders and pretenders will exchange places a few times as the season progresses, but Edwards, Johnson and Kyle Busch stand out for me as the guys with the talent, the team and the equipment to get it done.
For everyone not in the top three, prove it.
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.
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