- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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After that, though, you can find more than a few surprises in the top 10. Well, to be fair, a few of them are only "surprises" if you base expectations on how things unfolded in 2005.
The thing is, the surprise was last year, when both drivers missed the Chase. According to many, it was going to be the end of NASCAR as we know it, but the sport seems to have endured just fine, and the two drivers hit the ground this season as if '05 had never happened.
No points are on the line this weekend when drivers compete in the Nextel All-Star Challenge. Most see it as a fun break, but Junior wouldn't refuse another points-paying race at this point.
"We're kind of on a roll right now. We've gone from eighth to fifth in the point standings just in the past two weeks," he said. "Obviously, the All-Star race is a nonpoints race, but it will have a lot of bearing on how we approach the 600-mile race next week. I know [crew chief] Tony [Eury] Jr. really likes the car we're running in the All-Star race. We may run it in the 600 if all goes well. And with the limited time we've had on this new tire, I wouldn't be surprised if you see teams using All-Star practice more to gear up for the 600."
The past few weeks have Earnhardt feeling good about things, much better than he felt this time a year ago, that's for sure.
"I'm real happy to see us put a couple good runs there together like we just did. It pads our points on some of the guys behind us," he said. "I really don't worry about who's in front or whether we're catching them or not. I just kind of watch the guys behind us and whether they're coming. It's sort of been my style. Maybe we can keep it up and make the Chase. I think we have a great team right now."
Although happy with his team, Gordon knows there's still room for improvement with his Hendrick Motorsports operation. As exceptional as Darlington is, Gordon knows success this past Saturday doesn't necessarily translate to a strong setup at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"[We know] that we haven't quite perfected or figured out some of the setups on some of these other tracks that [Kasey Kahne and Stewart] and some of those guys have figured out. So we knew coming into this track that we were going to take that old approach and hope that it paid off. It did," Gordon said of his Darlington setup. "And now we go into Charlotte. We had a good test at Charlotte. We've got a rock-hard tire there and a brand-new surface. The setup that we had in the car there in testing I thought worked really well. We'll find out during the All-Star race and hopefully take some momentum from that into the 600."
It's after Gordon that the top 10 takes on a surprising look, although there are good cases for the final four drivers currently eligible for the Chase.
Kyle Busch sits seventh, and when he's not being criticized by fans or fellow competitors, he's fairly steady on the track, notching three top-five and six top-10 finishes thus far. Busch finished strong last season, and that has carried over.
And although teammate Brian Vickers sits 21st in points, Johnson, Gordon and Busch still give Hendrick Motorsports three cars in the top 10.
Kahne can be considered a surprise in eighth based on his mediocre effort last year -- but his rookie campaign in 2004 showed this potential was there. Now, though, he's on the way to realizing it on a consistent basis.
The final two drivers are surprises not on their ability level but because questions remained about Richard Childress Racing entering the season. After struggling the past few years, Childress and his drivers were optimistic entering the season.
Still, optimism abounds everywhere in January and early February and, for many teams, it's but a faded memory come mid-May. But RCR is clearly on the rebound, which has enabled Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton to claim the ninth and 10th spots.
Casey Mears, in 11th, offered early hope that Chip Ganassi Racing had turned a corner, but recent inconsistency has tempered those thoughts to some extent. Still, his overall performance has been a bit of a surprise only because there was a thought that having two rookie teammates would hold the team back.
And not all the rookies are struggling, as evidenced by Denny Hamlin's 13th-place effort in points thus far. But anyone who paid close attention shouldn't be too surprised. After all, he does have Joe Gibbs Racing equipment at his disposal.
Those struggles also have hit Kurt Busch, who left the team McMurray now drives for. It has been a disappointing year for both Penske Racing South teams as Busch is 18th in points and Ryan Newman sits 19th.
A bigger surprise will be if those two drivers remain buried deep in points for long. Although both will have their work cut out for them to make the Chase at this point, don't look for them to stay down for long.
Then again, if drivers such as Kyle Busch, Kahne, Harvick and Burton remain in the top 10, drivers who have made it in the past can climb only so high.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart running 1-2 isn't a big surprise for 2006, but there are plenty behind them, writes Mark Ashenfelter.