Team owner Richard Childress, front, and driver Austin Dillon watch practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., on May 16. (AP Photo)
A little more than a week ago, the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway was all atwitter (and tweeting) over the fact that Jimmie Johnson was heading into the Coca-Cola 600 without a win.
After winning in Charlotte and backing it up with a dominant victory in Dover, however, a seventh Sprint Cup championship seems almost inevitable. Johnson made the 600-lap torture test in Charlotte seem almost routine before dominating the tricky concrete surface in Dover on Sunday, and since both tracks will host a Chase race, Johnson is the odds-on favorite to win twice in the final 10 events.
For anyone who has followed NASCAR for any length of time, it seems unfathomable for anyone not named Jeff Gordon to be on the verge of joining Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as a seven-time champion. But Johnson is knocking on the door, and those knocks are a lot louder now than they were two weeks ago.
While Johnson being in the title hunt isn't a big surprise at the midway point of the regular season, there have been plenty of unexpected developments so far in 2014.
When the year started, plenty of attention was focused on the return of the No. 3 to Sprint Cup competition. But 13 races in, Austin Dillon's Chevrolet has become an afterthought. Dillon has just one top-10 finish to his credit and is cruising quietly along in 15th in the points standings during his rookie season.
Dillon's performance isn't all that disappointing when you look at how his teammates at Richard Childress Racing are faring. Veterans Ryan Newman and Paul Menard have been consistent, but neither has had enough speed to contend for wins so far. Newman is 11th in points while Menard is 14th.
RCR isn't the only name-brand race team struggling to keep up with the competition. Roush Fenway Racing may have put Carl Edwards in Victory Lane already this season, but the future of the multicar team is cloudy to say the least.
Both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards are rumored to be headed out the door at the end of 2014, leaving RFR with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne as the only two confirmed members of the driver lineup for next season. Nothing against those two youngsters, but when you consider the fact that Jack Roush had a five-car team featuring Edwards, Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch in 2005 that accounted for half of the 10-car Chase field, you can see how far RFR has fallen in the past decade.
You can easily argue that Penske Racing has become the flagship of Ford racing in NASCAR. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have contended for poles all season long, and both drivers have scored victories that all but guarantee they'll be in the Chase.
Entering the season, all eyes were on Stewart-Haas Racing and its star-studded, four-driver stable. The only question was whether the combination of Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick would be a Dream Team or a living nightmare. Midway through the regular season, it's been a little bit of both.
Busch and Harvick have both won, but both have also blown some engines along the way. Harvick has been consistently fast when he has managed to avoid equipment failure, which has been an issue for an organization that scrambled in the final months of the 2013 season to expand from three to four cars to accommodate the last-minute addition of Busch.
In theory, Busch is locked into the Chase by virtue of his victory at Martinsville, but a win only gets you into the playoffs if you're in the top 30 in points. Seeing as Busch is 27th in points after blowing two engines and crashing out of three races, he'll have to do some defensive driving this summer.
Stewart is a perennial title contender, but so far in 2014, the effects of a broken leg suffered in a sprint car race last year have kept him from consistently running up front. The three-time champion is currently 21st in the standings with just two top-five finishes to his credit.
So is it time to hit the panic button? Yeah, right. People were saying the same thing about Johnson two weeks ago.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings during the 9 o'clock hour on "Good Morning Tri-Cities" with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.comments powered by Disqus