AJ Allmendinger summed it up best for Sprint Cup drivers and teams that have gotten off to surprisingly strong starts this season.
“I vote we just start the Chase right now,” Allmendinger said at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he entered the race fourth in points after finishes of ninth and 11th in the first two races.
Though there have been only three races, two drivers who have never made the Chase For The Sprint Cup currently are in the top 10 in points along with two others whohave not made it in the past two or three years.
Allmendinger, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are in good position to challenge for a spot in the Chase if they can continue running the way they have started the 2011 season.
Two other surprises – Bobby Labonte and Marcos Ambrose – are within striking distance after scoring a top-five finish in one of the first three events.
Here’s a look at the six biggest surprises to start the season and their prospects of maintaining their fast start.
He’s got just one top-10 finish (ninth at Daytona), but finished 17th at Phoenix and 12th at Las Vegas to climb to sixth in points.
While not flashy or very aggressive, Menard is as steady as they come. He knows how to stay out of trouble and can race around the top 10.
And now that he’s driving for Richard Childress Racing, which put all three of its drivers in the Chase last year, staying in the top 10 and making the playoffs is not out of the question.
“We’ve had a good start to the season. [I’m] just proud of the way a brand new race team is coming together,” Menard said.
Martin Truex Jr.
Few drivers are happier with the way their season has started than Truex, who had a tough 2010.
Truex, who made the Chase in 2007, was expected to be a strong Chase contender in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing last year. Instead, he had horrible luck, scored just seven top-10 finishes and wound up 22nd in points.
He was a contender in the Daytona 500, leading 17 laps before getting shuffled to 19th at the end of the race. He was mediocre at Phoenix, finishing 14th, but strong at Las Vegas, finishing sixth to jump to seventh in points.
A confident Truex likes what he sees from his team in its second season together.
"This team has been on it this year,” Truex said. “We really hit on some things at the end of last season. The communication is going great … and we're building a lot better race cars. There's going to be a lot more of this this year."
Allmendinger has finishes of 11th at Daytona and ninth at Phoenix and is ninth in points after three races, but his greatest feat so far might be missing wrecks.
He barely missed getting taken out in the 14-car pileups at both Daytona and Phoenix.
“It is still really early, but I feel like between Daytona and Phoenix we have had a good race car,” the Richard Petty Motorsports driver said prior to the Vegas race. “We got through all the wrecks and have been a little bit lucky there.
“This is definitely a lot better start than where we were last year at this point, but it is only two races in. We have to stay calm about that and can’t get too excited. I am happy with where our race team has started and if we can stay focused … we will have something to really build on.”
Allmendinger was 27th in points after three races last year and never climbed higher than 19th, where he finished the season. But he showed flashes of potential late in the season, running with the leaders and scoring six top-12 finishes in the final 11 races.
His fast start is a good sign for an RPM organization that has new co-owners and cut from four to two teams during the offseason.
Allmendinger’s challenge is throttling his aggressiveness and staying patient and consistent.
“There is a certain level of aggressiveness that you have to have, but at the same point, something I have learned in the last year or so is when to be aggressive and when not to be,” he said.
“I think that right now we are in a good position … that we don’t have to press really hard. We are up there in points and can try to run every lap and be smart and have good finishes.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That Earnhardt Jr. is 10th in points is not a huge surprise – that’s where he should be. With 18 career victories and driving for Hendrick Motorsports, he has been expected to be in the top, challenging for wins and making the Chase.
But the past two years, it hasn’t happened. When he finished 10th at Phoenix and eighth at Las Vegas, it marked the first time he has had consecutive top-10 finishes since July of last year and for only the third time in the past three seasons.
Earnhardt Jr. appears to be clicking with new crew chief Steve Letarte and looks like he might challenge for a spot in the Chase.
“It’s obvious that it is working, when you really look at it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was sitting there in the middle of the race [at Las Vegas] saying, ‘You know, this really ain’t a fluke. This is how it’s supposed to go and how it should go – and how it went in the past when things were good.’”
Former Cup champion Bobby Labonte shocked everyone when he showed up in the top five at the end of the Daytona 500.
His fourth-place finish was just the spark that he and his JTG Daugherty team needed. Though Labonte has faded to 15th in points – with finishes of 21st and 24th – the past two weeks, he and his team have shown the potential to be a top-20 team, which is vast improvement for JTG and a far cry from where Labonte has been in recent years.
Labonte, 46, has 21 career wins but has not won since 2003 and has finished 30th and 31st in points the last two seasons with a variety of teams.
JTG finished 18th in points with driver Marcos Ambrose in its first full Cup season in 2008, but struggled so badly last year that Ambrose asked for his release.
Labonte has already helped the team improve and believes his experience could be a good match for the still-young team
“Watching the hard work that everyone puts into it and all the resources and everything that we have to work with, not leaving many stones unturned, there's a lot there to look at,” Labonte, the 2000 series champion, said.
“It gives me confidence when you get to the race track knowing that you should have all the stuff, it's just a matter of putting it all together when you get here."
Unlike Allmendinger, his teammate, Marcos Ambrose has not had great luck. He got caught up in the 14-car wreck at Daytona and finished 37th.
But unlike some of the sport’s top drivers, he has been able to bounce back in a big way. He finished 16th at Phoenix and then, at Las Vegas, qualified second and finished fourth, his eighth career top-five finish.
Last week’s performance was particularly significant since it came on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, where he has struggled in the past, and because it came in just his third race with RPM.
Ambrose agreed to join the team after getting his release from JTG Daugherty Racing.
“It was a great day. It was a great first top-five for RPM,” Ambrose said. “I have to thank Richard Petty for believing in me and giving me a shot. It is going to be a great year.”
Ambrose finished 18th in points in 2008 with JTG Daugherty Racing, but stumbled to 26th last year. The Australian star has been a threat to win on road courses but has been inconsistent so far in the Sprint Cup Series.
He says RPM took a gamble on hiring him to replace Kasey Kahne in the organization’s No. 9 Ford.
“They took a huge risk to put me on,” he said. “I had a chance to make it in the sport or get kicked out pretty quick with the change I made for 2011.
“For Richard Petty to give me the chance like he has and for us to deliver in our third race is great. I am really excited about it.”
Ambrose is also excited about what he sees from his improving team.
“There was a ton of good energy out here, just a ton of good energy,” he said. “[Crew chief] Todd Parrott, on the box, is doing an awesome job for us. We have had great pit stops, a good crew and a lot of positive energy going.”
Despite the wreck and horrible start at Daytona, Ambrose climbed to 17th in points with the top-five finish at Las Vegas. It has given Ambrose and the team confidence that they can continue to climb up the standings.
“I think I can keep my job a couple of weeks at least,” he said.