Encore performance for Hendrick? Not if Roush can help it

JOLIET, Ill. -- Act II of the 2007 Nextel Cup season, the last under the Nextel banner, officially begins Sunday.

No one knows for sure how the script will play out, but look for the second half of this mystery drama to take some significant plot turns.

The USG Sheetrock 400 also is the race before the last break of the season. The Cup teams have next weekend off before starting a 17-week grind to the end.

Things change quickly on the racetrack, and everyone in the Cup garage knows it. Act I was all about Hendrick Motorsports domination, but no one dominates for long at this level.

These teams are too good. The hunted eventually gets caught by the hunters.

That trend already started to reveal itself as the first half was ending. Hendrick's boys went four consecutive races without a victory after winning 10 of the first 14 events.

Hendrick's foursome isn't going away. Jeff Gordon still is the favorite to win his fifth championship. Jimmie Johnson still could become the first back-to-back champion in nine years, since Gordon did it in 1997-98.

And Kyle Busch, the angry outcast, still can thumb his nose at -- and say "I told you so" to -- his soon-to-be ex-teammates by winning races down the stretch.

But don't expect an all-Hendrick show in the second half. Here are a few things to look for:

" Roush Fenway Racing resurgence -- The Cat in the Hat is back. After a miserable start this season, the racers for Jack Roush are coming on strong.

The five Roush drivers accounted for only one victory in the first 14 races, but the team had two wins in the last four events -- Carl Edwards at Michigan and Jamie McMurray last weekend at Daytona.

Roush admitted earlier this year that the team was behind with the Car of Tomorrow and planned to do additional testing. But recent COT races have showed a major improvement for the Roush drivers.

Edwards might have won the COT race at New Hampshire if not for a jack failure on pit road. Roush also had three drivers in the top six -- Edwards (third), Matt Kenseth (fifth) and Greg Biffle (sixth) -- in the COT event at Dover last month.

" Truex running up front -- Martin Truex Jr. had a disappointing rookie year in 2006, but he is turning into a sophomore sensation.

Truex was 20th in the standings after 10 races. Now he's 10th.

He has finished 13th or better in six of the past eight events. But he zoomed up the rankings by finishing third or better in four of the past six races, including a big day at Dover when he earned his first victory.

Truex is starting on the front row Sunday. His improvement couldn't have come at a better time for Dale Earnhardt Inc. It proved DEI has what it takes to compete when it moves to the post-Junior era next year.

Other drivers have noticed.

" Stewart calms down and wins -- Tony Stewart was winless in the first 18 races. Does anyone really believe he'll go winless in the last 18?

That didn't happen in the first eight years of his Cup career. It won't happen in the ninth, either.

" Race for the Chase not so hot -- Unless things change dramatically in the next few weeks, only a few guys will have a shot at getting into or falling out of the 12-driver Chase field when the playoff lineup is set at Richmond on Sept. 8.

As of now, it's a four-driver battle for the final Chase spot. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is clinging to the 12th position, 49 points ahead of McMurray and 61 ahead of Ryan Newman.

Kurt Busch is 15th and 121 points behind Junior, but that's still within the number of points a driver can make up in one race.

Beyond that, it would take a streak of top-5s, and probably a couple of victories, for anyone else to challenge for a Chase spot. Greg Biffle is 16th, 204 points outside the cutoff point with eight races to go.

One the other end of the Chase situation, Clint Bowyer is 102 points ahead of Earnhardt. Bowyer hasn't shown any signs of fading. He has ranked between eight and 11th for the past 11 races, and he has five top-10s in the past eight.

We can only hope the Chase itself is more exciting than the race to get in the Chase.

" Toyota will get better -- Why, you ask? Because it can't get worse.

No one at Toyota envisioned the disastrous first half to its inaugural Cup season. Not one Camry ranks in the top 35 in owners' points, meaning every Toyota driver has to qualify on speed at every race.

Toyota has seven full-time drivers among three teams. Only two drivers -- Brian Vickers (2) and Michael Waltrip (1) -- have posted a top-10 finish.

Toyota officials already are looking at other options for 2008, hoping to talk Joe Gibbs into making the switch from Chevrolet.

But for now, it's making do with what it's got. And what it's got isn't much.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak5.com.