The last time the NASCAR season was in Daytona, everybody was talking about Danica.
Not this time.
The Sprint Cup Series is back at the beach town on the east side of Florida, ready to close the first half of the season with its best driver (Jimmie Johnson) at the top; its defending champion (Brad Keselowski) winless; two former champions (Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart) in danger of not even making the Chase for the Sprint Cup; and a top contender (Denny Hamlin) limping along after that crash in California left him with a broken back.
Johnson kicked off the season at the Daytona 500 with his tenth-of-a-second victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing off a week where everybody was talking about Danica Patrick’s start from the pole, the first by a woman in Sprint Cup, and her eighth-place finish, the best by a woman at Daytona.
Since then, Patrick has had a quiet season. She’s 27th in points near the halfway mark of her rookie year, aiming to learn what she can.
It is the other names in the sport — Harvick, Edwards, Kenseth — who are in the conversation for a chance at the championship. And as they get their chance to strengthen their run for a spot in the Chase over the next nine races, starting Saturday night in Daytona Beach, we take a look at the season so far and what’s ahead in the second half:
First half storylines
The numbers so far
.129 Of a second, the closest winning margin this year, by Jimmie Johnson over Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the Daytona 500.
1 Top-10 by a rookie this season, the eighth-place finish by Danica Patrick at the Daytona 500.
4 Winners from the pole this season: Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville and Pocono, Kyle Busch at TMS and Matt Kenseth at Kansas.
7 Victories each for Chevrolet and Toyota this season.
9.4 Average finish for Jimmie Johnson this season, the best of his career.
10 Top-10 finishes for Clint Bowyer, the most of any driver this year without a win.
11 Worst driver points finish of his career for Tony Stewart, who sits 17th in points at the midpoint.
19.2 Average finish this year for Denny Hamlin, the lowest at this point in any season of his career.
30 Lead changes at Talladega in April, the most of any race this season.
228 Laps led at restrictor-plate Daytona and Talladega this season by Matt Kenseth, the most of any driver.