Just about halfway through the season and who is at the top of the standings? Not Jeff Gordon. Or Dale Earnhardt Jr. In fact, neither is even close. Elliott Sadler's pretty close, as is a young driver nobody thought would explode onto the scene so fast (Carl Edwards) and an aging vet many thought was hanging on too tightly to the past (Rusty Wallace).
With 16 races down, much has already happened to raise eyebrows across NASCAR Nation. And, of course, much has gone according to expectations. As the season heads back to Daytona, where it all began in February, here's a look at some of the most and least surprising events of 2005.
Were the 10-race playoff field set today, neither of NASCAR's two biggest stars would receive an invitation.
After an offseason crew swap, Junior stumbled out of the gates. The driver of the No. 8 Chevy was mired in the points standings, and the team lacked chemistry. Now working with his second crew chief of the season, Junior and his team are still scrambling to get things in order with just 10 races left for him to make up the 143 points or eight spots in the standings that lie between elimination and championship contention.
"We can't worry about the points or the Chase," Junior said. "We just need to concentrate on running well. That's the only way we're going to make any difference in the points. These guys work just as hard every week as when we're doing well, so it just makes me want to win that much more."
For Gordon, the season got off to a quick start with a victory in the Daytona 500, but recent finishes haven't been so sweet. In fact, the driver of the No. 24 Chevy is in the midst of the worst slump in his career. He has fallen from second in the points standings to 14th and he would be the first driver cut if the Chase for the Nextel Cup began today.
And though Gordon and Co. are known for their experience and eternal optimism, the urgency is evident in their voice.
"I haven't looked at the points," Gordon said after a transmission failure spoiled his race this past weekend in Sonoma, Calif. "I don't have a clue and don't care right now. I just want to get out of here and go to the next one and put this one behind us. It doesn't matter how big of a hole we put ourselves in, it only matters what we do at the next race and how we can learn from what has happened and move on."
It's not so much that seeing Greg Biffle atop the points standings is a complete shock someone following his success in the latter part of last season might have predicted that. It's how Biffle has shot to the top. It's how his team has made itself a constant threat in the minds of competitors. And it's how he has won five races almost one third of those run this year along the way.
"That's the product of a lot of hard work, and we started seeing the results of that last season," team owner Jack Roush said.
Biffle said he doesn't consider his points lead or five victories a surprise. What he admits is surprising is how confident he feels. The self-described worrier normally would be waiting for the bubble to burst. Not this time, though.
"We're racing hard, so I asked myself, 'Where is it gonna stop?'" Biffle said. "Why would we not be able to win at all these other venues? With what we know right now and the way we're going, I feel like we can keep winning."
What makes him so dangerous is not that he's riding a tidal wave of confidence. It's that the team recognizes what it has done right, and what it needs to improve upon.
"Believe it or not, we've had some lows this season," Biffle said. "We've had some highs. I mean, we've won five races, but also at the same time we had a radiator bar through the grille at Phoenix and then we lost the brakes. It felt like maybe we had an opportunity to win at Pocono. We were right up there in the top three, but I'm so thankful for where we're at and where our team is at to be able to win five races. I just hope that we can eliminate some of those mistakes that we've made."
If they do, there might be no stopping them.
Roush Racing's dominance is certainly no surprise. Everyone expected defending champ Kurt Busch to continue his success and retiring vet Mark Martin to be a force, as well. But the fact that the five-car team is strong from top to bottom is truly a feat in this sport, and it's in part the product of Biffle's success and, in part, a product of Edwards'.
The young driver who lost rookie eligibility after taking over for Jeff Burton last season has been on a tear and even collected two checkered flags this season (only three other drivers have managed to win multiple races).
Edwards, known for the backflip he does off his car after winning races, has tried to remain humble. He said it's easy to do that when he puts things into perspective: He's a talented racer, but much of his success is made possible by the strength of the team he races for.
"I'm just glad to be part of the Roush Racing team," he said. "These cars and the drivers and crew chiefs are unbelievable. The engines, Doug Yates is doing a great job. My pit crew is awesome, too, so for me, I feel lucky to be in this seat. It's like living a dream here."
After Kasey Kahne had such a strong rookie debut, popular belief was that he would be a contender in 2005. But despite getting the monkey off his back by finally winning a race, Kahne has struggled more to keep up this season than last. After threatening to make the playoffs last season, Kahne is mired in 21st and getting dizzy from all of the ups and downs.
"For the second half of the season, we just want to get consistent," he said. "If we can be consistent, we can get in the Chase. That's been our problem consistency. We're up and down with our performance. We just haven't found that balance week in and week out."
Cleaning off the Rust
Martin has been solid of late narrowly losing the 2002 title to Tony Stewart and following that up with two more successful bids. So it's no surprise that this retiring vet is among the top 10 this season. What is surprising is that Wallace has made a return to contention, and in such an emphatic way.
Wallace, who finished 16th and 14th the past two years, is sixth in the points standings and is getting things done with consistency. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has yet to win a race, but he has eight top-10 finishes and only one outside the top 30.
"It's so much fun right now," he said. "I feel like I can finally get things done out there again, and it's just so much nicer when you're racing and your contending."
Kahne breaks through
Although Kahne has struggled overall this year, he has managed to do the inevitable win a race. The sophomore racer was a perennial runner-up in his rookie year, showing a knack for finding the front at the end of a race. At Richmond International Raceway, in Richmond, Va., with mentor and former champ Stewart in pursuit, Kahne finally finished up front.
"We waited longer than I would have thought to win," he said. "We started out last year good and had a lot of seconds and thirds and ran up front. We thought we could win races, but we weren't able to do it. We had to wait a long time, but at least we finally won one, and hopefully we'll get more now."
Qualifying results are only surprising when Ryan Newman is not at the top of them. The so-called Rocket Man has five pole positions this year, bringing his total to 32 in three-and-a-half years of racing.
Newman has caught some flak for being more familiar with starting races up front than with finishing them there, but he said it's only a matter of time before the team gets it right on both ends. Until then, he's still gunning for those poles.
"We're never going to try to stop winning poles," he said. "We definitely enjoy it as a team. It's a lot of fun and a great way to start the weekend. Basically, as I've always said, any time there's a trophy to win, we're out there to win it."
Jimmie Johnson is second in the points standings, and the only thing surprising about that is that he's not in first. The Gordon understudy caught on fast and has spent almost his entire Cup career running among the top 10 in the points. The fact that he's there now is same ol', same ol'.
"I like that," Johnson said of his reputation for consistently being among the top 10. "Obviously, that's the goal of this team. We want to win a championship, and before you do that, you got to make the Chase."
Even as Gordon has fallen off a bit, Johnson has continued to prosper suffering only one real setback, when he, too, experienced a transmission failure at Sonoma.
Contending once more
Owner Robert Yates was happy to see Sadler make the Chase for last season's title, but couldn't figure out why he couldn't get both teams moving in the right direction at the same time.
Looks as though that puzzle's just about solved.
Sadler is once more in contention, riding a string of top-10 finishes to third place in the points standings. He has yet to win a race, but the way things are going, he's convinced it's only a matter of time.
"I'm proud of my guys as far as the way the car is handling and the way the pit stops are going," he said. "I'm with a great, great race team. Have we peaked yet? No. Are we getting there? I think so."
Teammate Dale Jarrett isn't too far behind. He's 12th in the points standings, two spots out of the coveted top 10. However, under NASCAR rules, any driver outside the top 10 who is within 400 points of the leader also is invited into the playoff field and Jarrett is within that range, trailing Biffle by 380 points.
Jarrett said he knows it's unlikely for anyone outside the top 10 to be within 400 points of the leader by the time race No. 26 comes around, but being within striking distance is still encouraging, as the team is only now starting to hit a groove.
"It feels like we got some things figured out, and now we're hoping that'll show on the racetrack," he said.
NASCAR has struggled with its growth spurt and ascension into the mainstream of American sports, and one skeleton it has tried to shove into the closet was the raw, old-fashioned fights the sport has seen through the years. Drivers get emotional on the track, and it's inevitable that tempers boil over.
Although the sanctioning body has taken steps to cut back on the feuding, as long as the drivers are on the track together, work on their cars in the same garage area together and live in the same motorcoach lot together there's no stopping the feuding.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.