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Sprint Cup has reached the quarter pole. Can you predict the finish from here?
Some things are obvious: Jimmie Johnson still reigns supreme, RCR is good again, and new rules are a hit.
But a few things are shockers: Kasey Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports, Denny Hamlin's knee surgery, and the growing tension between Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Usually by this time, with nine of 36 points races completed, trends emerge, and you get a good idea where things are headed.
Or do you?
Last year at this point, Kyle Busch was sixth in the standings and Mark Martin was 18th. Busch didn't make the Chase and Martin fell one spot short of the championship. Five drivers outside the top 12 after nine races last season surged in the summer months to make the playoffs.
Clearly, a lot can change after the first quarter of the season, but a few conclusions are clear. And a few others leave you saying, "I didn't see that coming."
First, three obvious conclusions:
1. Jimmie Johnson remains the man to beat: Johnson leads the standings and has a series-best three victories.
The No. 48 Chevy crew is as close to perfect as any NASCAR team in history. A fifth consecutive Cup title, something no one would have dreamed possible a decade ago, is a realistic possibility.
And catching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for seven Cup titles also is a reachable goal.
"I'm afraid to really think about those things," Johnson said two weeks ago at Texas. "I'm afraid that some karma thing will happen and it will dry up. I'm really just trying to keep it simple and stay focused on what I have done to get to this point in my career.
"I'm trying to not pay attention to it, but it's getting really hard to ignore what we have done."
2. RCR is back: Richard Childress Racing has emerged from its 2009 slump and returned to contender status. Glimpses of the resurgence were clear late last season.
But one big move this year made the turnaround complete. Addition by subtraction helped RCR. The organization used its best people in the right places by going from a four-car team last year to a three-car operation this year.
All three drivers rank in the top 12, and Kevin Harvick is only 26 points behind Johnson in the standings after Harvick's dramatic victory at Talladega on Sunday.
But the future is uncertain. Harvick is a free agent without a sponsor for the moment. Shell Pennzoil is leaving after this season to join Penske Racing. Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief, said he believes things will work out if they keep running up front.
"I hate that Shell Pennzoil is leaving," Martin said after the Talladega victory. "But the fact of the matter is we've got a top-notch team, so we're looking for somebody to come on board and start the next chapter at RCR with them."
Childress needs to capitalize on his the resurgence by quickly finding a new sponsor and re-signing Harvick. Easier said than done.
3. The new rules are working: NASCAR's 2010 policy of looser rule enforcement, along with the return of the rear spoiler and multiple green-white-checkered finishes, has improved the on-track product. The Talladega race Sunday was spectacular, setting a record for lead changes at 88.
The grade remains incomplete on the 1.5-mile ovals, but the Texas race two weeks ago (the first for the spoiler on an intermediate oval) showed promise. At the very least, it looks better than the wing.
Additional overtime (going to a maximum three GWCs, all of which were used at Talladega) has wrecked a lot of race cars, but it has also generated excitement and drama.
"I think it's cool," Juan Pablo Montoya said after finishing third at Talladega. "And I think the fans love it. It sucks when you wreck, but the show isn't going to get any better than this. It's pretty exciting, pretty crazy. NASCAR used the triple restart and it worked out here. It was awesome for the fans."
NASCAR also was right to let the driver "have at it" on the track, but it can go too far. Carl Edwards' premeditated decision to return to the track at Atlanta and deliberately wreck Brad Keselowski at 190 mph could have caused tragic consequences.
That move was over the line, but NASCAR officials felt compelled to show leniency because of the new policy and let Edwards off with probation.
Now for the things that caught most fans by surprise. Here are three that stand out:
1. Kasey Kahne signs with Hendrick Motorsports: Since the inn was full at Hendrick, few people saw this as Kahne's destination.
|Kasey Kahne will have a new ride next season, but where exactly that will be in the greater Hendrick Motorsports umbrella is still unknown.|
Everyone figured he was leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, but Kahne's complicated deal with Rick Hendrick leaves a lot of moving parts to work out. Kahne will drive the No. 5 Chevy and replace Martin in 2012, but his 2011 ride is still a mystery.
Martin could start his own team, Stewart Hass Racing could field a car for Kahne, or Dale Earnhardt Jr. could move his Nationwide team to Cup. Everyone is playing dumb for now, but Hendrick plans to have all the pieces in place for 2011 by the end of May.
2. Denny Hamlin's knee surgery saga: Hamlin entered the season with a bum left knee, tearing his ACL while playing basketball in January. Hamlin said he planned to race the entire season before undergoing surgery but changed his mind in March.
It looked like a gamble. ACL surgery is no picnic. His first race after the surgery was hard to watch as he grimaced in pain at Phoenix but stayed in the car until the end.
One week later he won at Texas, giving the No. 11 Toyota crew a huge emotional lift by showing he was tough enough to get it done on one good leg.
"It was a good statement by our race team," Hamlin said at Talladega. "We're really improving on the race tracks where it seemed like we had struggled to keep up with the Hendrick guys."
Rehabbing the knee back to normal remains a work in progress.
"It's not making big strides," Hamlin said. "I thought I would be able to walk with no limp by now. I'm still working on it. It's just a matter of time."
The team is behind him, knowing Hamlin will do whatever it takes to win. Come Chase time, Hamlin, with a healthy knee, could emerge as the man who knocks Johnson off his pedestal.
3. The Gordon-Johnson brouhaha: A cheap romance novel doesn't have as many syrupy sweet words in it than these two guys used about other over the last eight years.
Well, the cuddly kindness days are over, especially from Gordon's side. Gordon has publicly criticized Johnson for his on-track actions in the last two races.
"He's testing my patience," Gordon said about Johnson in a TV interview after the Talladega race. "I'm pissed right now."
Gordon also was upset at Texas when Johnson banged into Gordon's door panel. Gordon complained about Johnson on the radio during the race: "He expects to be treated differently than everybody else," Gordon said.
Johnson took the blame for darting in front of Gordon at Talladega, but Johnson wasn't too happy with Gordon, either, after the Texas race.
Apparently, two four-time champions' residing in the same race shop is starting to fester.
Johnson downplays it.
"We've dealt with this before, and we're going through it again," Johnson said before the Talladega race. "A lot of it is just because we're both very hungry and racing hard for each position."
A little bad blood between these two isn't a bad thing. At age 38, Gordon is showing a renewed aggressiveness, on and off the track. Wonder Boy is back. Gordon is tired of playing second fiddle to his protégé.
Maybe a little anger and a real rivalry is the added incentive Gordon needs to win that elusive fifth title and keep JJ from earning five in a row.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.