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CUP: Several Stars Still Seeking Top Runs

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Ripley’s Believe It or Not! has nothing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season.

While all seemed right with the motorsports world when Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the points standings after finishing in the top 10 in the first five races, there are plenty of other storylines that simply border on the bizarre.

1. Where’s Stewart-Haas Racing?

Tony Stewart is known as a perennial slow starter but after six races did anyone expect the three-time champ to be mired 22nd in the points standings? In 15 seasons, Smoke has never been this far behind in April. His only top 10 this season was an eighth-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway. His only laps led (12) were at Fontana, but Smoke failed to convert his track position into a solid finish after tangling with Joey Logano and finished 22nd.

The Ryan Newman rollercoaster has produced one top five and three top 10s peppered with two DNFs before Sunday’s disappointing 31st-place run, which came after blowing out tires on two separate occasions.

The organization is showing signs of growing pains since it expanded to three teams, but Patrick has been a breath of fresh air. Yes, she’s struggled just like any other rookie, but there have been bright points as well. Starting on the pole, leading laps and finishing eighth in the Great American race was impressive, but coming from 43rd and two laps down to finish 12th at Martinsville was stellar. For the Danica doubters that can’t appreciate a rookie comeback, don’t forget that her crew chief Tony Gibson won that race last year. Gibson used the same setup on the No. 10 Chevy that he’s started with for the past five seasons.

2. A tale of two drivers.

After the upheaval at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing last year, there appeared to be plenty of internal optimism. This season, Jamie McMurray keeps trending upward while Juan Pablo Montoya remains 30th. Let’s mention a few of the drivers ahead of Montoya's No. 42 in the points standings – Dave Blaney, Bobby Labonte, J.J. Yeley and Patrick. Heck, after five races AJ Allmendinger, who had competed in just three events, was ahead of Montoya in drivers points.

Seriously Juan Pablo, if you’re going to mail it in why not just go down to the local post office and see if there’s an opening. You might have a better chance at delivering. Yes, McMurray is in a contract year but the effort is there. He’s posted two top 10s, including a season-high seventh at Martinsville that inevitably elevated him to 13th in the points standings. Could this be the first time in four years that EGR places a car in the Chase for the Sprint Cup? Only if McMurray continues to hustle.

3. Ready to rebound.

With three top-10 finishes, Paul Menard, who is ninth in the drivers standings, is leading the charge at Richard Childress Racing. But after six races, neither he nor teammates Kevin Harvick (14th) and Jeff Burton (24th) have posted a single top-10 finish. While Harvick hoped to maintain a consistent level as he had in the last three years, that’s a lot for a driver to ask when he’s exiting stage left for Stewart-Haas Racing with his sponsors. Menard’s and General Motors contracts are up as well. This is a critical season for RCR. One surefire way to overcome the mediocrity is with results.

4. Keep an eye on Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth is already enjoying a career-high qualifying average of 10.7 – an improvement over his former best of 13.3 last year. In 14 Cup seasons, Kenseth has posted just eight poles in 478 starts. He’s always been known as a competitor that could methodically fight his way through traffic to the front. But this season that hasn’t been necessary. In the 1,812 laps Kenseth has completed in 2013, he’s led 319 circuits. Last year, he led 480 for the entire season. Although Kenseth didn’t receive the final result (14th) he expected on Sunday after a late-race pit stop, it was the first time in his career that he led multiple times at Martinsville. His 96 laps at the point were more than his 27 starts combined (73) on the half-mile track. Kenseth is back in the top 10 in the points standings as the tour rolls on to Texas, where he has two wins and boasts the best average finish of 8.3 among Cup drivers.

5. Is the Generation-6 car NASCAR’s great equalizer?

Here are several stats that have been lost in the mix of Danicamania and the Joey Logano/Tony Stewart/Denny Hamlin triangle.

• Team owner James Finch enjoyed the first five races of the season in the top 10 in owners points. His Phoenix Racing team experienced a reversal of fortune when Menard knocked Regan Smith out of 19th for the position on the final lap at Martinsville. Smith’s 22nd-place finished knocked the No. 51 car out of the top 10 in owners points. Menard’s eighth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago enabled RCR to place one of its three cars in the top 10 in the owners point standings for the first time in 2013. The No. 27 car is currently 10th.

• Before Kurt Busch’s day went up in smoke – literally – the former Cup champion was 13th in the points standings with consecutive top-five finishes at Bristol and Fontana. Busch finished 37th and lost six positions in the standings. But consider this: he’s the only driver with Earnhardt Childress engines to score a top five this season – let alone two.

• Germain Racing is another single-car operation that rarely enjoys the spotlight. But in just its third full season with Casey Mears behind the wheel the No. 13 is 17th in the points standings. Mears jumped four positions in points with a 16th-place finish at Martinsville. In his five previous starts, he had three finishes of 15th or higher.