In most sports, the All-Star event marks the midseason point of the year. While the 2011 race season still seems early, consider the Chase as the equivalent of a playoff.
There are 26 races leading up to the Chase, and we've already seen the checkered flag wave on 11 of them, so we are just about midseason in NASCAR.
At the start of the season (before I joined NHMS), I previewed the season using a series of race flags to symbolize the drivers. Here's a midseason visit to the flag stand.
Checkered Flags - Best of the Best
(99) Carl Edwards - Edwards has a win, three second-place finishes, and six top-fives. He leads the standings by 24 points and is finally turning into the driver everyone thought he'd be a few years ago.
(48) Jimmie Johnson - In recent years, Johnson has seemed to win enough races to place himself in strong contention when the Chase standings reset. However, he's tended to lack consistency before the Chase and only hit his stride come the postseason. This year, he's already running one of the best cars week-in and week-out; that's scary for those trying to unseat the five-time champion.
(18) Kyle Busch - Busch has two wins on the season, and while he's not the kind of guy to ever let you overlook him, it seems that people are leaving him out of the elite. Let me go on record as saying that if you lose track of Busch, he's going to blow right by you; he's elite.
Green Flags - Leading the Pack
(88) Dale Earnhardt Jr.- After several years of trying to get by just in name, Junior has finally gotten his groove back. I've never pretended to be a huge Junior fan, but his success promotes the sport, so I still pull for him to do well. Hopefully he'll break out of his winless slump soon!
(29) Kevin Harvick - After a disastrous 2009 and top contending 2010, the question was which Harvick would race in 2011. He's showing that '09 was merely a hiccup and he will again contend this season.
(17) Matt Kenseth - Go ahead and rag on the guy for just being an also-ran, but Mr. "Also-Ran" has won two of the season's 11 races and is more or less a lock for the Chase.
Yellow Flags - Cautiously Optimistic
(33) Clint Bowyer - Bowyer's had a roller coaster of a season. He has two second-place finishes and had a consensus top-three car in Dover last week (before finishing sixth). However, he has three finishes outside of the top-25 and didn't register a top-10 until the fifth race of the season. Since the slow start, he's finished in the top-10 in six of seven races since, but the inconsistency is still there. Simply put: this is still the same driver that opened the Chase in New Hampshire with a win last year and was promptly docked 150 points to get knocked out of contention; that's Bowyer!
(39) Ryan Newman - Newman has actually been doing better and raced more consistently than teammate (and team owner) Tony Stewart. Both drivers made the Chase in 2009, but Newman fell off last season and Stewart had to carry the flag for Stewart-Haas Racing. Only time will tell if the team can send both representatives this year.
(11) Denny Hamlin - You might be surprised to see me give him any sort of credit, but this is the section for drivers in which I'm optimistic. Hamlin has had a terrible start, but he's slowly climbing in the standings. The wild card format lends greatly to Hamlin's benefit: he's easily capable of taking a few checkered flags and being even-steven when the points reset in September.
(43) A.J. Allmendinger - Everything's a game of expectations, so while (unlike some Red Flags below) 'Dinger probably won't make the Chase, he's definitely exceeding expectations. He's on his way up and showing a lot of improvement; that's reason for optimism.
(6) David Ragan - Ragan was in a lot of trouble when Trevor Bayne won Daytona. Bayne already races for Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series and the perception is that he could soon take over Ragan's car, whose contract expires at the end of the season. Ragan has definitely shown some improvement, but probably has more to prove to hold off the shift to Bayne.
Red Flags - There's something to be worried about
(22) Kurt Busch - Busch hasn't seemed happy with his car at any point this season and doesn't have the look of a contender. Sure, he'll probably make the Chase, but it doesn't appear that he will put up a postseason fight once he gets there.
(14) Tony Stewart - Stewart is perched precariously in the 10th and final spot in the standings. We haven't heard much about him this season, and, as one of the series' more popular drivers, that's not a good thing.
(24) Jeff Gordon - An early season win is a huge saving grace for Gordon, who can use that to qualify as a wild card in one of the last two Chase positions. However, his car hasn't seemed to run well and his season has been a striking contrast to the usual workmanlike consistency of the 24 car.
(16) Greg Biffle - Is it just me or is Biffle one of the easiest contenders to forget? He seems like a good guy, but he could quickly become a complete after thought this season.
Black Flags - Disappointing, to say the least
(1) Jamie McMurray - Was he a real contender this season? In all fairness, no, probably not. However, as a guy that usually wins a race or two, he stood a chance at winning the wild card. Currently, he's 22nd in points.
(31) Jeff Burton - After sending zero drivers to the Chase in 2009, Richard Childress Racing had a resurgence in 2010 with Burton, Harvick and Bowyer all making the postseason. Harvick and Bowyer have replicated that success, but Burton has completely regressed.
(20) Joey Logano - He still doesn't turn 21 until next week, so he's got plenty of time. But, most of us expected him to take another few steps forward this year. Sitting tied for 27th in the standings, he 's definitely fallen back.
My Chase Standings Prediction
1. Carl Edwards
2. Kyle Busch
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
6. Clint Bowyer
7. Matt Kenseth
8. Denny Hamlin
9. Tony Stewart
10. Kurt Busch
WC1. Jeff Gordon
WC2. Juan Pablo Montoya