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Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Steady as he was last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gunning regularly for wins now. He's already got the biggest one of all, the Daytona 500, and he'll get more -- not just on plate tracks but the intermediates, where he has emerged as a serious threat in the late laps. This is already looking like his best season since 2004, when he won six races and contended deep into the inaugural Chase.
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
Brant James, ESPN.com: Marcos Ambrose: He's qualifying better, he's finishing better and he's more than a road course specialist feeling his way around the ovals in his sixth full Sprint Cup season. With two top-5s in eight races, he's three away from his career high and the series hasn't contested Watkins Glen or Sonoma yet. The Australian, now 17th in points after finishing 22nd last year, now needs to take the next step.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Not counting the guys returning from injury, I like what Carl Edwards is very quietly doing. His numbers aren't that much different than they were this time last year, but this season just feels different. They have work to do on their mile-and-a-half program still, but by this point one year ago, even with a win, they were already feeling like a team that was treading water. This year they've figured out how to minimize the bad days, something they never mastered in 2013.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Brad Keselowski. Maybe he looks good this year just because most of his 2013 season was so bad, but Brad has been in contention just about everywhere, and he notched an all-important race win early in the campaign. The lack of drama has kept him calmer, and the Penske team as a whole seems to have kicked it up a notch this year, with Keselowski leading the charge.
Hinton: Kevin Harvick will be there, because he'll continue to be stout whenever his luck is halfway decent. Earnhardt really, really wants wins now, and getting them at the right time -- especially Talladega in the fall -- should get him to the final four. At Penske Racing there's a toss-up, with Joey Logano looking like a strong, seasoned veteran now, but I'll take his teammate, Keselowski, based on sheer experience down the stretch. And Jimmie Johnson will be there, because he's Jimmie Johnson. Period.
James: Jimmie Johnson: top five in points, though he hasn't won yet, hasn't performed to his full capacity yet. He's hanging around the leaders as his team figures out the new aero package, and when they do, it's on. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Both he and crew chief Steve Letarte appear to be having a lot of fun being very good. And that's a dangerous thing. He finally showed last year that he can perform in the Chase. Joey Logano: A winner with four top-5s in eight races, he's led laps each race but one, and more total laps (313) than any driver but two-time winner Harvick and Johnson. The eternal prodigy may have become a contender. Matt Kenseth: In a new points system incentivizing winning -- and with him winless -- the 2003 series champion and 2013 runner-up is lurking at second in points. He led the series with seven last year and it stands to reason his Joe Gibbs Racing team will get him back to Victory Lane at some point. His combination of trophy grabbing and points accumulating will make him a threat down the stretch.
McGee: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. I really want to find a place for Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon in there, but I need to see proof that they are in this for the long haul. From the 99 I need to see that they have indeed repaired that intermediate program and from the 24 I need to see wins. Where's Kevin Harvick? Yes, the two wins are awesome. But I have a hard time looking at a team with four finishes of 36th or worse in eight races and thinking, "That's a contender!"
Oreovicz: I'll take Keselowski as one of my choices. He and the Penske team have showed speed everywhere and I think Kes can step it up when it counts. Same goes for Jimmie Johnson, who enters as the default No. 1 seed just based on his record. I reckon Kyle Busch will represent the Toyota camp, which leaves the fourth slot up for grabs. Let's give it to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is showing signs of putting together his best season in a decade.
Hinton: Matt Kenseth is only a point behind Jeff Gordon now. And Kenseth's team is getting very close to hitting on the new rules package with lower ride height and taller spoilers. He hasn't won yet, but he will. And you know Kenseth is going to be steady. So I'll take him at the top, come July.
James: Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has a win and three runner-up finishes already and is putting himself in position each week, it seems. The forecast is for sun and warm feelings in Junior Nation this spring and early summer.
McGee: Jimmie Johnson. Do I need to explain that or do I just yell "scoreboard" and drop the mike?
Oreovicz: I'll nominate Matt Kenseth as the points leader. He's right there near the top now and he hasn't won a race yet, which I expect him to change soon. Kevin Harvick gets my vote for most wins at the July break -- I'm guessing four.
Hinton: Hard to bet against Kyle Busch at that place. He's won a race at Richmond in each of the past four years. That alone should make JGR the favorite team, but then you throw in homeboy Denny Hamlin, who's from the Richmond suburbs and puts big emphasis on this track. Then you've got Matt Kenseth, who's overdue to win this season. So yes, JGR is the favorite. But you know what? I sense a little déjà vu of Busch's crowd-rousing duels with Dale Earnhardt Jr. there in the past.
James: Not the way JGR has underperformed so far this season, in terms of victories. Kyle Busch is certainly going to be a threat, and Denny Hamlin would very much like to win at his home track, but Kevin Harvick claimed the spring race last season and has been much more proficient in reaching Victory Lane so far this year, assuming all the parts and pieces stay in the right place on the No. 4 Chevrolet.
McGee: Yes. If for no other reason because Mr. Hamlin is back at 100 percent (or at least as close to it as he's going to be). There's no way that team swings and misses like they did at Martinsville three races ago.
Oreovicz: JGR put together a nice hot streak at Richmond, winning six of seven races between spring 2009 and spring 2012, and Kyle Busch is the active leader with four RIR Cup race wins. But Hendrick Motorsports runs them close. With six poles, Jeff Gordon is always fast at Richmond, and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have three wins apiece. Then you look at Clint Bowyer as another Richmond specialist, and think about what the Kevin Harvick/Stewart Haas combination has shown it is capable of, and that definitely makes it too close to call JGR the outright favorite.