HAMMOND: Which Drivers Are Surprising So Far?

So far this season, we’ve seen some surprises already with drivers up front that maybe we aren’t accustomed to seeing there. The first that comes to mind is Paul Menard.

Paul came into last Sunday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway 12th in points, had a good run and left Bristol jumping up three spots to ninth position.

The big knock on Paul, however, is that we’ve seen this before from him. He starts hot and then seems to fade. So I am not actually surprised to see him running well this early, but the key will be that middle set of races, say from race No. 11 and on to see if he and his Richard Childress Racing team are going to be real Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders.

Remaining consistent and competitive is going to be their goal. He’s got the experience, the resources and a veteran crew chief, so it’s time for Paul to make something happen because I see this as a make-or-break year for Paul Menard.

I know I really shouldn’t be surprised, since he is our defending champion, but I am surprised to see Brad Keselowski this strong, this early and leading our points race. I know Brad’s a very confident individual, but I don’t think even he could have imagined coming off a championship year with all the requirements that are asked of a champion representing our sport, to change manufacturers and already be leading the points. I don’t think it could be any better than it is right now in that No. 2 camp.

The Penske organization as a whole is very impressive. Look how strong teammate Joey Logano has been. He was having a great run on Sunday at Bristol before being taken out by Denny Hamlin. Car owner Roger Penske has to be thrilled to see how competitive the Penske Racing group is already, again having changed from Dodges to Fords in the offseason.

You just don’t see that in our sport when teams switch manufacturers, but there’s Brad talking the talk and walking the walk. He has that look in his eye and that attitude already that he wants to be a repeat champion and join a very elite group of multiple championship winners in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

There’s another guy that I know would love to get his own championship and join his father in that category. He goes by the name of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He seems driven this year to get a piece of his own legacy in our sport as a champion.

He’s had two top-five finishes already in only four starts. He moved up to the second spot in the points Sunday following the Bristol race. He had said he thought this new car was going to be to his liking and so far he is proving that out.

Now don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been easy or pretty to watch. What’s been impressive, however, is how he and his crew chief Steve Letarte have that chemistry between them.

With that communication and with the team's help, they have been able to make the car better during a race and get some great finishes. That’s why that No. 88 team finds itself second in the points going into California this weekend.