Commentary

Strange season could get stranger

Originally Published: May 30, 2013
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Hey, it could happen.

Based on what we've seen so far, those four words fit as a theme for the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

Just consider a few of the unusual things that already have come to pass:

• A woman on the pole for the Daytona 500.

• The horrific moment of car parts flying into the grandstands and injuring fans at Daytona.

• Gigantic penalties to major teams, which later won big reversals on appeal.

• TV cable lines falling from the sky.

You never know. So in light of that theme, here are 12 other unusual things that could happen this season. Most of them won't happen, but judging by the first 12 races this year, a few of them probably will.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesWill Denny Hamlin make the Chase after missing four races with a back fracture? Stay tuned.

1. Denny Hamlin could make the Chase after missing four races.

What a story this will be if Hamlin makes the playoff after sitting out four races with a broken back. He's 24th in the standings after 12 races, but he won't stay there.

Hamlin has shown what he can do since returning from the injury, finishing second at Darlington and fourth at Charlotte in what may be the two toughest races of the season. So his back injury isn't keeping him from racing well under difficult circumstances.

Hamlin will get back in the top 20, which he must do to qualify for a possible Chase spot. But he'll have to win some races to make the 12-driver playoff field. It probably will take two victories to get in, which Hamlin certainly is capable of doing over the next 14 events.

2. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart could both miss the Chase.

They have seven championships between them, but the two future Hall of Famers could be outside looking in come Chase time.

Both Gordon and Stewart have missed a Chase before (Gordon in 2005 and Stewart in 2006) when it had only 10 drivers. But this could become the first season they miss the Chase in the same season.

Well, misery loves company, but neither man is out of it. Gordon is 15th in the standings and winless. Stewart is 20th in what has been a difficult season at SHR.

3. Kevin Harvick could win the championship as a lame-duck driver.

I didn't believe all the syrupy sweet preseason talk from Harvick and team owner Richard Childress about how everything was fine and the team would make this a great year, despite Harvick moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Lame-duck status rarely works out that way. Hard feelings linger beneath the surface, and at some point, it affects performance. That hasn't been the case with the No. 29 Chevy team.

Harvick's win in the Coca-Cola 600 was his second of the season (almost guaranteeing him a Chase spot) and he ranks seventh in the standings.

My doubts about this team weren't just about the lame-duck situation. I wasn't sure Richard Childress Racing was up to par with the other top teams. But RCR has two drivers ranked in the top eight, including Paul Menard.

Harvick could win the title because he wins races. If he does, it would be the third consecutive year that some type of lame duck ended up a Cup champ. Dodge was on its way out when Brad Keselowski won the 2012 championship. Crew chief Darian Grubb left Stewart-Haas Racing after helping Tony Stewart win the 2011 title.

4. A woman could win a Cup race?

And you all know which woman I mean -- the only one in Cup: Danica Patrick.

Frankly, aside from the eighth-place showing at Daytona and a surprising 12th at Martinsville (the only races in which she finished on the lead lap), her rookie season in Cup has been awful.

She ranks 30th in the standings with an average finishing position of 26.5. Granted, things at SHR haven't been rosy this season, but she's way behind teammates Stewart and Ryan Newman.

However, because of what she has shown at Daytona and her ability in restrictor-plate races, a victory isn't out of the question. A win in July would make her Daytona Danica forever more.

Even if she goes winless, Patrick still could become the first woman to win Rookie of the Year honors in Cup.

Fellow rookie and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 13 spots ahead of her in the standings, but he's only three points ahead in the rookie standings (128-125) because of the goofy way NASCAR judges rookie contenders.

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesCarl Edwards didn't make the Chase in 2012, but he's second in the Cup standings with five top-5s and a victory at Phoenix.

5. Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards could become the first driver to win the title the year after failing to make the Chase.

It's the ultimate from zero to hero in one season. This type of turnaround is relatively common in other sports when a team goes from outside the playoffs one year to a championship in the next, but it hasn't happened yet in the Chase era of NASCAR.

Edwards is second in the Cup standings with five top-5s and a victory at Phoenix. Busch has two victories and six top-10s, but also has experienced more than his share of bad luck -- two engine failures, three DNFs and the attack of the cable lines at Charlotte while he was leading the race.

Either man is capable of getting hot in the playoff and winning his first championship. If Edwards does it, he will come full circle, from tying (in the points) for the 2011 crown, going winless last year and missing the playoff, then all the way back to the top.

6. Keselowski could become the second driver to miss the Chase the year after winning the title.

He's in at the moment, but not by much. Keselowski is winless and ranks 10th, the last qualifying spot based on points. Six drivers behind him are within 20 points of 10th place.

Keselowski would be eighth if not for the 25-point penalty for the rear-end housing violations at Texas.

Things could start looking up with crew chief Paul Wolfe returning to the pit box this weekend at Dover. Keselowski struggled at Darlington and Charlotte (dropping four spots in the standings) while Wolfe served a suspension.

It could have been much worse, but the suspension was reduced from six points races to two in the appeals process. Look for Keselowski to step up with Wolfe back calling the shots.

Stewart failed to make the Chase in 2006 after winning his second championship in 2005.

7. Jimmie Johnson could win a sixth championship.

Because he already has won five, it's a bit of a stretch to call this unusual, but Johnson would become only the third to reach that plateau, joining Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

And JJ would be only one title away from tying the two legends for a record seventh championship. Johnson is well on his way to a possible sixth crown this season, leading the standings by 32 points over Edwards.

Johnson also has two victories, placing him in the hunt to start the Chase on top. Right now that would be Matt Kenseth with three victories.

Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team are a machine. Johnson has the most top-5s (six), the most top-10s (eight) and the best average finish this season at 8.0.

Now he heads to one of his best tracks. Johnson has seven Cup victories on the Monster Mile and can set a track record if he wins Sunday.

8. Kurt Busch could make the Chase for a single-car team.

No single-car team has ever made the Chase, but Busch has a chance to do it in the No. 78 Chevy for Furniture Row Racing.

He's 18th in the standings, so it's unlikely he can climb into the top 10, but Busch has run near the front enough to show he could win a couple of races.

Busch finished in the top five at Bristol, Fontana and Charlotte. He might have won the Coca-Cola 600 if not for a battery problem late in the race.

9. Stenhouse could finish in the top 20 in the standings without posting a top-10 finish.

This hasn't happened since 1986 when Michael Waltrip was 19th and Buddy Arrington 20th without posting any top-10 finishes.

Stenhouse is 17th in the standings without a top-10 in the first 12 races. Even Patrick has one top-10. He's the only driver in the top 25 without a top-10 result.

Stenhouse has four finishes in the top 15 (including 11th at Kansas) so this shouldn't be an issue much longer.

But this shows how moving from the Nationwide Series (where Stenhouse was a back-to-back champ) to Cup is a big jump, even in good equipment (Roush Fenway Racing).

10. Menard and Aric Almirola could make the Chase without posting a top-5 finish.

This is another little quirk that never has happened, but Menard ranks eighth in the Cup standings without a top-5. And Almirola is 12th without one, but would make the Chase if it started today.

Menard has four top-10s and a season-best finish of eighth at Fontana. Almirola had four consecutive top-10s earlier this year, posting a season-best seventh at Texas.

Menard and the No. 27 Chevy team have shown amazing consistency. He has completed more laps (3,944) than any other driver -- two more than Jimmie Johnson. And Almirola has 10 finishes in the top 20.

But steady racing won't be enough in the long run. This situation is likely to change one way of the other for both drivers. Menard and Almirola will post a top-5 somewhere, or both of them fall out of playoff contention.

11. Travis Kvapil could race in every event this season without finishing on the lead lap in any of them.

Unlikely, but Kvapil has managed to do it the first 12 races. In fact, he's the only driver ranked in the top 40 who hasn't finished on the lead lap at least once.

Kvapil came close at Daytona, finishing one lap down in 25th. His best finish came at Texas when he ended up 22nd, two laps down. But to his credit, Kvapil was racing at the end in eight events this year.

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. could win the championship.

Now you really didn't think I would get to the end without throwing this one in there, did you?

Earnhardt is sixth in the standings with seven top-10s, only one fewer than Johnson and one more than another Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kasey Kahne in fifth.

Barring a major drop-off in performance, Earnhardt is going to make the Chase, something he has done five other times in his career.

The one thing that keeps Earnhardt from being viewed as a serious contender is his inability to win races. However, he finished second this year at Daytona and Fontana.

Earnhardt has led only 48 laps overall, but Harvick has led only 33 laps and he has two victories.

Like the majority of these scenarios, it's unlikely Earnhardt will win the title.

But considering how this year has gone, hey, it could happen.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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