My, NASCAR, how you've changed
CONCORD, N.C. -- Some things never change, such as six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson winning the pole for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 for the third time.
Or it being hotter than Hades for the Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But apparently a lot has changed in NASCAR in the nine months I've been away covering the NFL. Here are seven things that stood out as I reacclimated myself to the smell of gasoline fumes and greasy campground food:
• Josh Wise apparently has surpassed Danica Patrick as the most popular driver outside of Dale Earnhardt Jr. How else do you explain that a driver few outside of family members know won the fan vote to participate in the Sprint All-Star Race?
So maybe the Reddit.com campaign that skewed the entire process had something to do with creating the biggest upset the sport has seen in more than 10 years. I had one of those "what the hell?" moments myself. Let's just hope NASCAR figures out a way to fix that before Wise surpasses Earnhardt for the most popular driver and creates the biggest fan uprising in the sport's history.
• Patrick apparently has become the second-best driver at Stewart-Haas Racing behind Kevin Harvick. How else do you explain that she is ahead of Kurt Busch in the point standings and at Kansas made passing boss Tony Stewart look easy?
Maybe it has something to do with having better cars. Maybe it has a lot to do with confidence and the advice Harvick has been giving her. She certainly sounded more sure of herself and her race team as she gulped down a bowl of strawberries before qualifying fourth for Sunday's race.
• Johnson, with 66 career Cup victories, has forgotten how to win. How else do you explain that he's 11 races into the season without a victory for the first time since 2003?
Maybe the new rules package that has the cars tighter than Patrick's hair when tied in a bun has something to do with it.
"Yes, I'm not the best driver of a tight race car," he said.
But before the NASCAR world gets excited that Johnson's dominance has ended, remember he has five finishes in the top six and has led at least one lap in eight races -- including a race-high 296 at Martinsville, where he should have won. This drought won't last long.
• Kurt Busch has become an Indy Car driver. And he apparently has become more respected. How else do you explain that he spent most of Thursday's media availability talking about his first attempt to run the Indianapolis 500, and others spent much of theirs talking about how they were pulling for the 2004 Cup champion?
It was almost surreal listening to Busch sound more like the ambassador Johnson than like NASCAR's bad boy. It was even more surreal hearing Earnhardt say that Busch is representing the entire garage and that he'll be pulling for him in the 500.
• Earnhardt has become the most entertaining driver on Twitter, a social media venue he wasn't a part of before winning the Daytona 500. How else do you explain his snappy response to one of my tweets Thursday?
In case you missed it, Earnhardt -- whose No. 88 car features a Superman theme this weekend -- was asked which superhuman power he would like to have. He responded with "superhuman strength" so he could "pick up stuff and throw across the yard." He later mentioned throwing cars.
I tweeted a picture of his paint scheme and jokingly suggested this might be one of the cars he'd like to throw. He responded with:
@DNewtonespn Id throw something that wasn't useful. Maybe your car instead? ��- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) May 22, 2014
Ouch! Nice comeback.
• Patrick has become a qualifying machine, and apparently a threat to win a race. How else do you explain that she has qualified in the top 10 for three consecutive points races and four this season, and is coming off a career-best seventh at Kansas?
Last season, even with her historic pole for the Daytona 500, her average starting position was 30.1 and her average finish 26.1. In 10 races the previous season, her average start was a whopping 36.1. Her start average this season is 22.4 -- 6.7 over the past three races. Her tally of four top-10 starts is one more than boss man Stewart.
OK, this one might be a stretch. Busch won eight races as a 23-year-old in 2008 to give him 12 for his brief career. Logano, who turns 24 on Saturday, has two wins this season for a career total of five. But Busch wasn't a serious threat to win the title in those early years, always falling short in the Chase. Logano feels like a contender this season with six top-5s in 11 races. He's already assured of a spot in the Chase. Busch missed the Chase at 24, finishing 13th in points.
Johnson never misses the Chase. That, too, won't change this season.
As much as things apparently have changed, the defending Cup champion is right in the thick of things despite his winless streak. He's seventh in points, second to Matt Kenseth among drivers who haven't won. As he reminded us Thursday, he fully expects to be in the Chase and a contender.
There's also a good chance he'll end his winless streak Sunday just as he did at CMS in 2003 when he got off to a slow start.
"We don't care what anyone else has to say about this race team; we know what we're capable of," Johnson said defiantly. "When we qualify well, we know we're going to race well, so I am really optimistic."
Some things never change.