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NASCAR Midseason Report: Championship Picks, Jeff Gordon's Chase Hopes, And More

The NASCAR season is flying by. Last week's Daytona race marked the halfway point of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series schedule – there are 18 races down and 18 to go – and there are only eight races left until the Chase field is set. With that in mind, SB Nation motorsports editor Jeff Gluck and contributing writer Jordan Bianchi answered some questions about the season so far:

What's been the biggest storyline of the first half?

Gluck: The lack of storylines. Long, green-flag runs in many races have reshaped the sport this year. Fewer cautions means fewer controversies, which means fewer stories. The whole "Boys, have at it" thing seems nonexistent; aside from Kurt Busch vs. the media, where are the rivalries? Sure, there have been some Silly Season moves and a failed drug test, but where are the on-track stories?

Bianchi: Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing. I never saw this coming, as I figured there was no way Jack Roush would let his beloved driver get away. Accompany that with the fact Kenseth is going to Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota – which is Roush's biggest nemesis – and it only adds to the narrative. It's easily the biggest surprise of the first half.

What has been the best race so far?

Bianchi: Daytona 500. If we're being honest, there haven't been a ton of great races this season. And while it may not have been technically the "best race," the most memorable was the Daytona 500. There was a good battle for the lead in the closing laps featuring the sport's most popular driver – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – and of course, there was Juan Pablo Montoya's infamous run-in with a jet dryer. Add everything up and at the end of the year, this will be the race everyone is still talking about.

Gluck: Martinsville. I can't even remember what happened in like half the races this year, but I remember the finish of the Martinsville race. Just when it looked like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were going to have an epic battle, David Reutimann stopped on the track, Clint Bowyer wrecked the leaders on the restart and Ryan Newman ended up winning the damn thing.

Right now, who is your favorite to win the championship?

Gluck: Jimmie Johnson. No one knows how to win the Chase better than the No. 48 team, and Johnson is quietly having an outstanding season. The dynasty will continue when he makes it six out of seven in November.

Bianchi: Jimmie Johnson. Others have won more races, but because of his week-to-week consistency, Jimmie Johnson is hands-down the man to beat come the Chase. The only reason he's not atop the point standings right now is due to his three DNFs on the restrictor-plate tracks, as he has a sizzling average finish of 5.4 in the other 15 non-plate events.

What or who has been the biggest surprise?

Bianchi: Michael Waltrip Racing. The consensus was MWR would be much improved this season, but I don't think anyone foresaw the giant leap the organization has made in 2012. All three MWR cars have regularly contended for wins and, as of now, both Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. are solidly in the Chase.

Gluck: Michael Waltrip Racing. Not to be boring by agreeing with you, but MWR has been truly outstanding this year. Bowyer and Truex are in the top 10 and the No. 55 car has been fantastic with Mark Martin and Brian Vickers. Quite a step up for the whole organization.

What or who has been the biggest disappointment?

Gluck: Hendrick's No. 5/24 shop. Rick Hendrick said before the season that if all four cars didn't make the Chase, he'd be "real disappointed." Amazingly, two of his drivers – Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne – are currently out of Chase position despite having good cars all year. Much of it has been bad luck, but it's still a shocker.

Bianchi: Carl Edwards. This is the easiest choice to make as Edwards has failed to win a race, is 11th in points and currently out of the Chase. And while Edwards has slugged his way through the first half, his two Roush teammates are first and third in the standings, have each been victorious and look like bona fide title contenders – something Edwards is not.

Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. a legitimate title contender?

Gluck: No. And I think he'd tell you that, too. While the No. 88 team is running well, championship teams have to consistently run up front. Earnhardt Jr. is having his most consistent season ever in terms of top-10s, but unless his team finds a little more speed, it won't win a title.

Bianchi: No. He's close, but Earnhardt Jr. still has work to do if he is to be viewed as a "legitimate contender." He has to lead more laps and secure the bonus points that go with that, has to finish in the top five more frequently and most important, has to win at least once – preferably twice – in the Chase. You can't be considered a challenger for the title unless you can do all these things.

What's something to watch for in the second half?

Bianchi: Silly Season. Among those still looking are Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray – all proven winners who each come with their own pros and cons. But the way it looks now, someone is going to be left standing when the game of musical driver seats is over with and I have no idea who that will be.

Gluck: Kurt Busch's future. Busch is a polarizing figure and it'll be interesting to see who is willing to take a chance on him. I think some team owner will give him a shot because he's so extraordinarily talented that a "racer" would overlook all his warts in the name of winning races.

Will Matt Kenseth's impending move to JGR be a distraction?

Gluck: Yes. How could it not be? Even if Kenseth is in title contention, all the questions in the Chase will be about leaving his team after the season. Tony Stewart and Darian Grubb won a championship as a pair about to break up, but they kept it relatively quiet.

Bianchi: No. For any other driver and team I would say yes, but Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig are both consummate pros and should be able to fend off any outside distractions. And the fact Kenseth made his announcement early should make this a non-issue by the time the Chase rolls around.

Is Danica Patrick ready for a full-time Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2013?

Bianchi: No. She still has a long way to go before she is even remotely close to becoming a competent and competitive Sprint Cup driver. Stewart-Haas Racing shouldn't even think about bringing her up to Cup next year, as she desperately needs another full season in Nationwide.

Gluck: No. She's not ready or even close to ready. Danica is coming full-time to Cup next year – like it or not – but she would be best served to spend at least another year in Nationwide if she wants to do it right.

Will Jeff Gordon make the Chase?

Gluck: No. And I hate to say that, because his team is running well enough to be in the Chase. But he's not going to make the top 10 at this point, and he probably needs at least two wins in the next eight races to get a wild card spot. It's possible, but time is running out.

Bianchi: No. For the longest time, I thought Gordon would still recover from his dreadful start and race his way into NASCAR's version of the playoffs. However, winless and with just eight races left in the regular season, it appears Gordon is going to need not just one victory, but two to qualify for the Chase. I just don't think that is going to happen.