Surprises and letdowns in the early season

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Charlotte, NC (Sports Network) - With eight races completed on the 2011 Sprint Cup Series schedule, some high-profile drivers are enjoying an early-season turnaround, while other notables are experiencing a reversal of fortune.

To the delight of many NASCAR fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears to be back on track, as he currently sits third in the point standings. Earnhardt Jr. has finished no worse than 12th since his 24th-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Give lots of credit to crew chief Steve Letarte for the rejuvenation of NASCAR's most popular star. Letarte took over crew chief duties for Earnhardt Jr.'s team after serving in the role at Jeff Gordon's team from 2005-10.

Earnhardt Jr. has missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship the past two seasons. That might not be the case this year.

"We're doing better than we did last year, but we've got a couple more gains to make on our finishing positions," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think across the board, we could do just a little bit better, performance-wise. We're working hard and trying to keep up our momentum and trying to improve. I think we've got all the pieces of the puzzle and getting them in the right place."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished no worse than 12th since his 24th-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr. has not won a race in NASCAR's top series since June 2008 at Michigan (101 races). Rest assured, Junior Nation, his lengthy winless streak will come to an end soon. It almost did earlier this month at Martinsville, where he finished second. Kevin Harvick stole the win from him with just four laps to go.

Paul Menard has been very impressive up to this point. Menard, in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, holds the 11th spot in points. His only major setback so far this season occurred at Martinsville, where he finished 38th after being caught up in a multi-car wreck midway through the race.

"We've had some bad situations, and we've had some good situations," Menard said. "This is by far the best opportunity that I've had, and I'm trying to do the best job I can and work as hard as I can and capitalize on it."

Having finished no better than 23rd in points since running a full Sprint Cup schedule in 2007, Menard is on the right direction towards his first Chase appearance.

He has already scored two top-five finishes this season (fifth place at Bristol and Texas). Prior to his arrival at RCR, Menard had scored only two top-fives in his Cup career.

"A successful year for me would be to do the best job that I can, and try to get the most out of my guys," he said. "If we can win a race, that's great, and if we can make the Chase, great."

Juan Pablo Montoya has also bounced back this year. Montoya made the Chase for the first time in 2009, but his bid for a second straight appearance in the playoffs ran off course early in the 2010 season.

"I think this year we came in with a really positive attitude," said Montoya, who now ranks ninth position in points. "Even if we get bad breaks in a race, we are like 'Don't worry about. We'll get through this...make it work.' And we always do. I think when things go wrong, you start doing things over, and it keeps getting worse, and you are making the hole bigger. I did that last year, at least personally."

While Earnhardt Jr., Menard and Montoya have their seasons in gear, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart have some catching up to do.

Hamlin's season right now has been one of discontentment. He's 17th in points, compared to ninth at this point of the season last year. There's still plenty of racing left before the Chase cutoff on September 10 at Richmond, but Hamlin could be on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in his six years of Cup competition.

"Finishing well is the part that we haven't done as well this year as what we've done in years past," Hamlin said. "For me, the panic level is not that high, but it's creeping there, because it's not the number of points you're behind 10th [in the standings] at this point, it's how many guys separate you from that."

Hamlin had his best season last year, finishing a career-best second in points and winning a series-high eight races.

He might have to rely on a "wild card" to get him into this year's Chase.

NASCAR made changes to its playoff format during the off-season. The top-10 drivers in points after the fall race at Richmond -- the 26th event of the season -- will qualify for the Chase. The 11th and 12th positions are wild card qualifiers that go to the non-top-10 ranked drivers with the most wins, as long as they are ranked in the top-20.

Burton is also in jeopardy of making the Chase. Sitting 22nd in points, he has yet to post a top-10 finish this season. Burton has competed in the championship battle in four of the previous five seasons. He did not qualify in '09.

"To come into this year and get the kind of start we have had this year, it's really frustrating," Burton said. "It's hard to put into words. I can tell you this, though. I'm extremely confident that we can dig ourselves out of the hole and get ourselves in the position we need to be in."

Stewart started off this season with a bang, finishing seventh at California and second at Las Vegas. But the two-time series champion has gone from sharing the points lead with Kurt Busch to 12th in the standings since Vegas.

"We've been running well, but we just haven't put a whole day together," Stewart said. "That is the disappointing part of it, but the good part is that we've had really good cars."

Jamie McMurray's season has been a disappointment as well. After a banner season last year, McMurray had high expectations in 2011, but his hopes of making the Chase for the first time are quickly sinking.

Despite winning the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis during the regular season, McMurray came up short of qualifying for the playoffs last year.

It's already looking as though he will miss the show again.

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