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Thursday, July 12, 2012
Updated: July 14, 5:19 PM ET
It's been a blast so far

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

With half the NASCAR season in the books, here are a few things I bet you didn't see coming.

• A Monday night jet dryer explosion during the Daytona 500.
An on-track tweet-up.
• Matt Kenseth moving on down the road.
• A seemingly squeaky-clean guy in A.J. Allmendinger failing a drug test.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. one spot from the top spot.

You never know. Here's a look at those things and a few others that stood out in the first half of 2012:

Craziest crash: Juan Pablo Montoya slamming into a jet dryer truck during a caution in the Daytona 500, causing a massive fireball on the backstretch and a long delay to the race while crews cleaned up the mess.

Surprising tweet-up: The drivers on the backstretch at Daytona after Montoya's fireworks display. Brad Keselowski became Twitter royalty after tweeting pictures of the fire.

Silly-season shocker: Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing, where he has raced his entire Sprint Cup career. And Jack Roush is taking it hard, saying Kenseth is going to "the dark side." It's Roush's dirty little term for Toyota.

Most disappointing moment: Learning last weekend that A.J. Allmendinger failed a drug test. Not this guy. How can it be? But I've seen this so many times over the years with athletes I never would have suspected, so it just doesn't shock me anymore.

Most improved driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was winless and eighth in the standings a year ago. He's second now and finally has that elusive win with his victory at Michigan. Junior has 13 top-10s, tying him with Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson for the most in Cup.

Biggest backslide: Carl Edwards, from one point short of winning the championship a year ago to 11th in the 2012 standings, winless and in serious danger of missing the Chase. The runner-up jinx continues.

Most controversial idea: Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith saying he wants mandatory cautions to spice things up. NASCAR president Mike Helton politely said it's not happening.

Best idea: NASCAR chairman Brian France saying they will consider making some races shorter. It's quality over quantity. The fact is young people aren't watching for three-plus hours.

Brian France
NASCAR CEO Brian France may be on to something when he talks about shortening some races.

Least surprising suspension: Kurt Busch. While already on probation, Busch let his temper get the best of him in verbally abusing a reporter, saying his probation kept him from beating the reporter up. Busch said it a little more harshly. Of course, his probation also meant he couldn't say those things, so NASCAR had him sit out a week.

Worst punt: Jacques Villeneuve giving Danica Patrick the old chrome horn on the last lap at Road America when Patrick was headed to a top-5 finish. Villeneuve pleaded innocence afterward, saying his car wheel-hopped and he couldn't stop. Horse hockey. The man is a former F1 champ. He knew what he was doing. Hopefully Patrick gets to repay the favor one day.

Most attention without performance: Everyone knows this one. Whether she is getting wrecked or causing one, it's Patrick. DP is the princess of NASCAR these days, but it hasn't been a stellar year so far. She has one top-10, although she was robbed at Road America and led some laps at Daytona last weekend. She's ninth in the Nationwide standings, which sounds good until you consider only 16 drivers have competed in all events. I'll give her a C+ for performance in a season of A+ attention.

Most improved organization: Michael Waltrip Racing. It has been a long and difficult road for Waltrip to get his team to respectability, but MWR is a group challenging for top-tier status now. Both Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer are in the top 10. Bowyer won at Sonoma. Part-time driver Mark Martin is a big asset for both of them, and Scott Miller is doing an exceptional job running the show.

Still pathetic: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Jamie McMurray is 20th in the standings, and Montoya is 21st. Neither man has a top-5 this year. Team owner Chip Ganassi called the team's 2011 performance pathetic. Well, 2012 doesn't look much better, but McMurray and Montoya say things are slowly improving.

Start-and-park madness: Joe Nemechek. He has started 16 Cup races this season. He finished one, the Daytona 500, which also was the only time he completed more than 20 percent of the laps. I'm not blaming Nemechek. I'm blaming a system that allows this to happen.

Danica Patrick
Joe Nemechek and Danica patrick haven't had headline-worthy seasons on the track, but they have proven to be interesting.

Best turnaround: Kentucky Speedway. A stellar effort by everyone involved to make up for the traffic horrors of the track's inaugural Cup race in 2011. Granted, the 2012 race had fewer people, but speedway officials still did a nice job of correcting many of the first-year mistakes.

Best trend: Nationwide Series regulars winning more Nationwide races. Non-Cup drivers have won 50 percent of the Nationwide races this season. It has been nine years since that happened. It's good for NASCAR's future if developmental drivers win races in their own series.

Oddest stat: Keselowski has three victories, five top-5s and eight top-10s this season. He ranks ninth in the standings. Kevin Harvick has no wins, three top-5s and the same number of top-10s, but Harvick is sixth in the standings. What does that tell you? There's too big a penalty for a poor finish and not enough reward for winning.

Best chase to the Chase: The wild-card battle. Four drivers outside the top 10 have a victory, which means two (Kyle Busch and Joey Logano) are in and two (Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne) are out, at the moment. But Newman is only a point behind Logano, and Kahne is two points behind Newman. And another win jumps any of the four to the top of the wild-card pole. Plus, non-winners such as Edwards (11th) and Jeff Gordon (17th) still might secure a spot if they win before the Chase. The wild-card rule is one of NASCAR's best decisions in years.

Best appeal: Hendrick Motorsports receiving a get out of jail free card on its final appeal of the illegal C-post penalty to the No. 48 Chevy team from Daytona. John Middlebrook, the chief appellate officer and the final word on NASCAR penalties, pulled a John Roberts-like surprise. He eliminated the six-week suspensions for crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec and eliminated Johnson's 25-point penalty. So stop calling NASCAR's appeals process a kangaroo court.

Back-to-back I-told-you-so moments: Denny Hamlin won in Week 2 with new crew chief Darian Grubb, showing Tony Stewart he was wrong to let Grubb leave. But Stewart won a week later in Las Vegas with new crew chief Steve Addington, showing his new guy can win, too.

Best name change: Otis to Keelan. Well, Kevin and DeLana Harvick's baby boy really never was Otis. That's what they called him before he was born on Sunday. Keelan has part of both their names -- "Ke" for Kevin and "elan" for DeLana. They went with a K name, but I assume Kyle and Kurt were not options.