The Early Season Running Order
I missed my usual Tuesday column this week with the Easter Break, so before the engines fire back up, let's take a look at where the Sprint Cup Series drivers stand in the early going. Some have performed above expectations; some have picked up their success where they left off in 2012; some are starting to look a lap or two off the pace.
Here's a quick snapshot of the current running order in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Junior seems to get more consistent each season and has top-10s in all five starts in 2013. For once, I'll agree with Junior Nation when they tell me that the No. 88 is the best driver out there each week.
Brad Keselowski - The reigning champion was the driver I was referring to when I spoke of those that picked up where their 2012 success left off. Keselowski started the season with four conseutive top-fives before stumbling at Auto Club Speedway, that's likely just a minor speed bump.
In the Leader's Rearview Mirrors
Jimmie Johnson - The five-time champion knows it's not how you start, it's how you finish. He might have sent a message in winning the Daytona 500, but the experienced No. 48 team knows that's just the beginning. There's no reason to expect it won't be running up front week-in, week-out come Chase time.
Matt Kenseth - The No. 20 has registered two DNFs in the first five races, but it was running up front when both occurred and has recorded three top-10s in the other three races, including a win. Once the bad luck passes, Kenseth will be tough to beat.
On the Lead Lap
Kyle Busch - After two poor races to open the season, Busch has scored three consecutive top-fives, including a win in the Auto Club 400. More importantly, he seems to be showing the maturity and fortitude that it takes to win a championship.
Kasey Kahne - He won at Bristol a week after failing to reel in Kenseth in the final laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Had he done that, he would have had two race wins, but even so, he looks very at home in his second year with Hendrick Motorsports.
Headed a Lap Down
Michael Waltrip Racing - After last year's run to second with Clint Boywer and Martin Truex Jr.'s Chase appearance, I expected there would be some regression from the unforeseen success. However, the two drivers have just three top-10s in a combined 10 tries on the season. Bowyer sits in 15th and has some bad luck; Truex Jr. sits in 19th and simply hasn't been relevant.
Kevin Harvick - This was supposed to be a pressure-free season to chase the championship, as Harvick's already agreed to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. So far, the swan song has been noticeably out of tune as he has recorded just a single top-10.
Somewhere on Pit Road
Jeff Gordon - The former Wonder Kid isn't turning a lot of heads this season. A ninth-place finish at Phoenix has been the only top-10 he's ben able to muster. He snuck into the Chase after a difficult struggle last year, but it's not a path he should try to revisit in 2013.
Tony Stewart - The 2011 Sprint Cup champion can say whatever he wants about Joey Logano, but he had little impact on finishing 22nd at Auto Club Speedway. He's also finished 31st and 41st this season and has struggled with consistent finishes over the past few years, barring his phenomenal 2011 Chase.