Since turnabout is fair play, let’s take a look at the flip side of those who have started off 2011 on a disappointing note . Rather than being labeled as one of the season’s early underachievers, this group of drivers have come out of the gate strong and in some cases already exceeded expectations.
The trick now, of course, is to maintain this stellar pace for the next 18 races and find their way into the playoffs by grabbing a spot in the Chase field.
It won’t be easy and we’ve seen some terrific starts over the years go by the wayside when drivers melted down in the heat and pressure of the summer months in the race to the Chase cut-off race in Richmond.
But as the schedule rolls around to Saturday night’s first visit of the season to RIR, these five drivers are in the “so far, so good” category:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It’s becoming more obvious with each passing week that the resurrection of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Sprint Cup career is not just a passing fad but a real trend. These are not one-off solid finishes Junior is putting together in the early season rather a complete reversal of the problems that plagued him over the nearly last three years. The No. 88 team has become one of the most cohesive units in the Cup series and crew chief Steve Letarte deserves a great deal of credit for putting together such a united crew. Earnhardt’s confidence has never been higher and with the equipment at his disposal and the team behind him there’s every reason to believe his long winless drought will end very soon and a run for a title is in the cards.
It’s been more of a struggle in recent weeks than it was when he was so dominant during Speedweeks, but Busch has stayed competitive and finds himself inside the Top 5 in the standings after eight races. That’s not to say there hasn’t been some testy conversation between Busch and crew chief Steve Addington or that the Penske Racing Dodge has been perfect off the hauler every week. But as the lone Dodge team and with only teammate Brad Keselowski , who is off to a tough start, to lean on, Busch and company should be proud of what they’ve done in the early going. However their game needs to step up a notch or two over the next two months to maintain their spot.
After missing the Chase a year ago Newman has roared back in 2011 and has given Stewart-Haas Racing something to shout about. His boss and teammate Tony Stewart hasn’t lived up to his expectations but Newman has been consistently fast and found himself in the front of the field to the tune of three Top 5 and four Top 10 finishes. Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Newman has been his performances at a wide variety of track layouts. Whether it’s a superspeedway, short track or an intermediate-sized speedway, Newman’s been a factor in the No. 39 Chevrolet.
Juan Pablo Montoya
The Montoya of 2009 is back and them some this season. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver put on a clinic two years ago with a perfectly executed plan throughout the regular season to make the Chase. That same strategy is in full swing this year with crew chief Brian Pattie plotting Montoya’s journey through the first 26-race in hopes of securing a playoff spot and then taking the reigns off his driver for a title run. Montoya has not endured the wild swings in performance that plagued him last year and so far engine reliability – and power – has been nearly perfect. He’ll of course challenge for road course wins in Sonoma and Watkins Glen later this summer but don’t be surprised if Montoya’s first oval track victory comes in 2011 as well.
Those who keep waiting for the wheels to come off Menard’s impressive season might have a long wait ahead. There doesn’t appear to be any reason why Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe cannot continue generating the performances that have taken them to the 11th spot in the Sprint Cup Series standings heading into Richmond on Saturday night. There have been many outings where Menard was the best of the potent Richard Childress Racing bunch and adding a fourth team to the stable hasn’t seemed to deplete any of the resources from the organization’s overall effort as was feared by some. Put Menard’s name at the top of the list of potential first time winners this season and either through a Top 10 in the standings or a Wild Card, the No. 27 team has a very legitimate shot at making the Chase in its first year of operation.
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